My first toe-in-the-blogosphere was this guest post for Danny Stack's Scriptwriting in the UK. Here it is again: I am nothing if not frugal.
Danny has kindly invited me to contribute a guest post, but has concluded his invitation with that most generous of terms, “anything on any subject that you care to discuss”.
If there was ever a provision more guaranteed to clear a chap’s mind and leave him incapable of choosing a direction, it’s the thought of such a menu of infinite possibilities. Choice isn’t always such a great thing. Sometimes it can just paralyse the will.
There’s a restaurant on Marylebone Lane in London that offers no bill of fare whatsoever; the waitresses merely ask you how you’d like your steak done, and then disappear, later to return with salad, bowls of ribbon fries, and perfectly-sliced chateaubriand. No choice at all, and the place is always crowded out. Which is fine if you’re okay with steak. If you’re a vegetarian, then I suppose at least you get to do most of the talking.
It’s good for meetings because there’s never any of that ordering-related stress you have when you’re trying to make an impression (don’t want to look greedy/naïve/picky/sit here with my chin dripping spaghetti). Towards the end of my work on a long-running show in the ‘90s (BUGS, if coyness irritates you) I was taken to somewhere very like it by the show’s producer.
He had a proposal for me. It was, I have to say, the kind of thing that every writer dreams of hearing. He wanted me to write him a thriller, a feature film. Nothing specified, no restrictions, just the invitation to come up with a subject and a story of my choice. He’d commission it, and we’d take it from there.
Well, I have my small portfolio of ideas and proposals, the kind of thing I’ve always got cooking and am looking for any opportunity to advance. But he didn’t want one of those. He was looking for something that had no form, no previous development... maybe it would make a franchise, maybe it would be a one-off. But once again, it could be anything, anything at all.
You’d think I’d leap on such an opportunity like a Lord Mayor at a finger buffet. I’d have thought so, too.
But it would be another four years before I could go to him and say, “Brian, I think I’ve got something.” Four years! To capitalise on a dream invitation!
It was a nice idea when it finally came, a little three-hander of a thriller – man, woman and child. A massive injustice to drive the plot, and oodles of psychological damage to be overcome. A hint of contemporary issues, just enough to crank up the excitement and not enough to make everything worthy. Romance, intrigue, mystery and scenes of physical peril.
And it came, not from any struggle to respond to the opportunity, but from a five-line story in a newspaper.
He liked it, and we were rolling. Next up – where to set it? Brian’s initial exploration had revealed the usual temerity one gets from UK investors, especially when the project in question is ambitious, expensive UK product. Everybody was interested in a small piece of something that already had enough investment attracted to be viable, but nobody was prepared to go to the casino and bet their house.
This time I wasn’t going to take four years to come up with an answer, because now I had place to start.
I’ve heard writers trying to emphasise the universality of their story by saying “This could be taking place anywhere at any time and happening to anyone”. What this ought to mean is, “its values are timeless, its conflicts familiar to all.” But it usually translates as “Everything’s negotiable if you’ll only give me the money to make something”.
I’d kind of been thinking Sunderland. But I was going to have to research this.
So I said San Francisco.
I wrote a rough first draft, and the next thing I knew, I was on a Virgin Atlantic plane with an appointment at the San Francisco film commission and a list of research issues that I needed to explore. Once there I hooked up with Eric Neldner, fresh from a stint as location manager on Nash Bridges and with a detailed knowledge of the city from every angle. We drove all over, hit some nice restaurants, and blagged our way through the high perimeter security of the government facility on Coastguard Island, just off Almeda.
(Not as impressive as it sounds. They were having an Open Day).
To date the film remains unmade. It’s a neat tale, but it never quite benefited from that combination of chance, preparation and the right combination of the right people’s whims that are needed to make any project take off. Or maybe it just wasn’t as great as we thought it was. But I got paid for the script, and I got a trip to California, and I’m still friends with everyone involved, so I count this as one of my happy stories. Would that all my failures went so well.
But I digress. The reason I launched off into that story was to demonstrate that total freedom’s all very well, but to get creativity started you need to throw some grit into the oyster, give your ideas something to fasten onto and grow around, give yourself something to react to instead of just sitting there wondering what kind of action to take.
I often find myself thinking of a story told about the choreographer George Balanchine. He saw one of his assistants sitting in the auditorium stuck for ideas while the dancers waited around onstage for instructions.
“At least do something,” Balanchine said to him. “Then we’ll have something we can change”.
In my case, the grit in the oyster was the newspaper cutting that sparked my imagination. Four years of nothing and then suddenly I had something that I could start to change. I’ve heard it suggested that the best way to do something original is to steal an idea, develop it, and then throw out the part you stole. That may not be great for your ego, but if you do a decent job of it and end up with something good, who’s going to care how you got there?
We none of us create from nothing. We all take what has affected us and reassemble it into new forms that we hope will affect others in a similar way. Bad artists simply reassemble the art they’ve seen. Reach that little further into your own life and perceptions, and what you add will give the ring of truth that makes work startling and memorable.
So to throw some grit into this particular oyster, to act as the dead donkey around which this particular sand dune might start to form, I suggested to Danny that he could maybe ask me three questions to get me going. Which he kindly did.
Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have left any room to answer them now. Maybe next time, Danny?