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Wednesday 28 November 2007

WGA Strike: International Day of Solidarity

The strike called by The Writers Guild of America to secure a structure for future revenues from digital media continues.

Today sees demonstrations of support in London, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, Dublin, Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth.

My favourite story so far is of the homeless person on Hollywood Boulevard holding a handmade sign that read, Bums Support Writers.

Despite attempts to engineer a myth that all those involved in the action are pampered and wealthy, most non-industry people seem to appreciate the principle that the writing generates the money.

And on the wealth thing... the writer's economy is a mosiac of paid work, past work, and speculative endeavour that tends to horrify most people used to the relative security of steady employment. I once saw an American TV scribe chill an entire room when he was asked what happened to those who didn't ascend the ever-narrowing ladder to showrunner heights.

"You fall off the face of the earth," he said simply.


Read James Moran's first-hand account with pics, and the report from The Writers Guild of Great Britain.

Sunday 18 November 2007

Memories of Water

One of the bonuses of BAFTA membership is that you get sent copies of trade publications during the runup to the awards season. Oscar (R) follows BAFTA, which means that the studios can cover both sets of voters with the same ad campaigns.

Imagine the upward direction of my eyebrows when I opened The Hollywood Reporter and read this article, headed, "Boathouse in dry dock: Harried Peace Arch puts pic on hold."

But no; it isn't the adaptation of my novel The Boat House, currently under development with Dimension Films for director Iain Softley, but an Ontario-shot psychological thriller "set at an idyllic summer cottage where a young woman confronts the truth about her role in the disappearance of her mentor."

Peace Arch's Boathouse was set to begin production next week, but has been stalled by the arrest of company CEO Gary Howsam on "bank fraud charges involving some $7 million". The charges relate to Howsam's time with another company, so the arrest's likely impact on the production slate is uncertain (Peace Arch also backs Showtime's The Tudors, now filming its second season).

Title clash aside, I hope those people get to make their movie. I know exactly how it feels to take a project all the way up to the starting gate only to see it stalled or sabotaged by factors you can't control. Getting the money for a production is like getting a celebrity to show up for your party; all your timing needs to be just right, because if things ain't ready then neither will hang around.

As to my Boat House... I can't tell you a lot about it, as it's been a while since I was in the loop. Iain Softley first optioned the book in the late 90s - although to be more precise it was his wife, producer Sarah Curtis, who first took the option, and Iain wasn't part of the picture. Sarah and I went along to pitch the project to the Film Council (or whatever the main UK development fund was called before it was the Film Council), which is how we secured the finance for the screenplay.

After the first draft we started making a wish list of directors. Top of mine, as I recall, was Peter Weir, whose imperfect-but-superior The Last Wave had stayed in my mind as an example of the kind of charged reality I was reaching for; a fantasy film whose content you can't dismiss as fantasy. I also remember that Sarah was particularly enthusiastic about George Romero, and suggested Tilda Swinton to play the ethereal Russian emigre at the heart of the story. I'm pretty sure that Iain was added to the directors' list at my suggestion. Sarah was concerned not to see their careers merge for the wrong reasons.

After three drafts and a polish, I was no longer on the team. Was that painful? Are you kidding? But that screenplay made a showpiece that's landed me at least three jobs since. Ace production designer John Beard went scouting for Lake District locations and the brilliant Eduardo Serra was lined up as DP. Milla Jovovich was to play Alina, and I believe they were after Jude Law for boatyard hand/viewpoint character Peter McCarthy. Law wasn't a big star then; he was just breaking out, and this was the first time I'd really heard of him.

The movie was supposed to shoot in 1998 for a 1999 release, but it fell through for reasons that I'm not party to. Can't even speculate, aside from the inevitable fevered fantasy that none of their subsequent scripts was a patch on the one I'd left them with. As a lesson in why you should never entirely trust the internet for information, a number of sites feature The Boat House as a completed movie on Milla Jovovich's CV, complete with a dodgy plot synopsis.

The rights came back to me after that, albeit with a hefty turnaround charge attached to my script that would put it out of the range of most UK producers. I had a couple of interested approaches, but they were from people looking simply to rip out the central idea and Americanise it. So when Iain came back a couple of years ago with the backing of Bob Weinstein's Dimension Films, I was minded to let him take another crack at it.

And that's pretty much everything I can tell you... right now I know nothing more than what's contained in this Variety piece, in which it's apparently now "Loucka's Boathouse" in reference to David Loucka, the latest of the writers to be attached. Hollywood.com still lists me as first credited screenwriter, but I wouldn't go betting any money on that.

And listen, people. It's The Boat House. The Boat House. Three words. Not "The Boathouse".

"The Boathouse" is a completely different movie. It's the one that's having all those problems right now.

The Boat House

Here's the publisher's original flap copy for the novel: a longer piece on the story is coming right up.

When Alina first appears in Three Oaks Bay it's clear that her frail, luminous beauty is going to cause some ripples on the quiet surface of the peaceful resort town.

For Pete McCarthy, the local boat-repairer who first takes her in, it is more than striking looks and a strange affinity with his beloved lake that draws him to her; more, even, than the enigma of the Russian past she has barely escaped and cannot talk about. There is an anguished power behind those doll-like eyes that his previous experiences with women have not prepared him for, and which seems curiously out of place amongst the everyday dramas of small-town life.

That familiar world is shattered when two teenage lovers are found drowned in the lake, and soon the close-knit community is being wrenched apart by a bizarre outbreak of lakeside deaths - more than accident or coincidence can explain. Struggling against his own disbelief, Pete begins to suspect that the answer lies in Alina's past, among the shadows of a Russian prison hospital and the echoes of an old folktale. But to confront that past is to embrace a nightmare.

A dark love story, a disturbing tale of a divided soul, The Boat House is a novel of astonishing and terrifying power.

So there.

Friday 16 November 2007

Two Make a Pair

Ira Levin died on November 12th. His obituary in The Times refers to Polanski's film of Rosemary's Baby and suggests that "the atmosphere of evil that pervaded the screen had its origins in Levin's fictional skills."

Indeed - one of the most seamless book-to-film transitions around, and an adaptation that honours its source material to great effect. In my opinion it stands alongside Ted Tally's screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs as an example of best practice in adaptation.

But although Rosemary's Baby is the work that gets most of the attention, A Kiss Before Dying is the Levin novel that I'll cherish most. It's pretty well unfilmable, for reasons you can only understand by reading it - Levin's cool-headed manipulation of viewpoint and reader perception have no cinematic parallel. Gerd Oswald and Lawrence Roman tried adapting it in 1956, and James Dearden in 1991; both versions rendered the story as a routine psycho-stalker tale, which it's anything but.

And Levin, the bastard, was twenty-three when he wrote it.

This year also saw the passing of novelist and screenwriter Marc Behm, on July 12th. Behm's novel The Eye of the Beholder is right up there with the Levin for me - one of those books you finish and close with awe, and, if you're in the game yourself, not a little envy.

It was Maxim Jakubowsky, anthology editor and proprietor of the Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road, who put me onto this transcendent Private Eye novel. It's a mythic search tale with an unforgettably obsessive tone and, perhaps because it began in Behm's mind as a screenplay idea, it fared well when filmed by Claude Miller as Mortelle Randonnee in 1983. The movie starred Michel Serrault and Isabelle Adjani. A later English-language remake with Ewan McGregor fared less well.

I saw a TV screening of Mortelle Randonnee under the title of Deadly Run, and spent years trying to track it down on tape or DVD. Alas, when I finally located it, I found Fox Lorber's subtitled release to be a shortened and much less effective version which even lacks the crucial final shot.

Saturday 10 November 2007

The WGA Strike and the UK Writer

Thursday's Variety carries this article suggesting that American producers have been scouting the UK media scene with a view to using the services of British screenwriters to supply them with material during the WGA strike.

Some people have interpreted this as a unique opportunity for a British writer to 'break in'.

Others - like, people with half a brain and a sense of history - have noted what a CV-killer this could turn out to be.

You think it could be your entree to the US TV industry? Think again. The showrunners and staffers are all out there on the picket lines. Once the A-listers move back in you'd be the Gollum of the business, pelted with stones and driven off shrieking from any place where the work's being done.

One British agent is quoted as saying, "I don't know that any writer would want to be seen as a scab."

To be honest, I'm not sure how substantial these rumours are. On a sheer practical level, no British writer could step in cold on an American project and immediately start delivering to specification. The writing of American drama is a highly structured and goal-oriented team procedure. It's like A E Van Vogt's spaceship factory - a complex facility that can spit out a completed starship every ninety seconds.

Thursday 8 November 2007

The Nature of the Beast

Given that I'm a zillion miles from the action and not even an American writer, this isn't the place to come for front-line news on the WGA strike.

But what's going on out there is an important and necessary step in evolution that's going to affect us all, and we'll be feeling its effects sooner rather than later. Evolution is usually a long and slow process. But occasionally you get a vital adaptation being jump-started by some one-off event.

I reckon this strike is one such event. What's on the table is a necessary reconstruction of our industry's business model. Not the usual selling and distribution issues but the behind-the-scenes, vital-essence, imaginative gruntwork sector on which the entire citadel of entertainment endeavour is raised.

We're in a business that absorbs, develops and exploits new technologies with astonishing speed. But when it comes to the rightful channeling of income from new technologies, caution, delay, and outright avoidance are suddenly the orders of the day.

I'm not going to add my voice to those who portray the AMPTP as an organisation of mendacious, avaricious, unprincipled limbs of Satan (although I'll make an exception for anyone driving through the picket lines with obscene gestures at those whose inner lives provide the entire foundation for their own livelihoods.)

I'm not rushing to criticise because there's no point in despising the entrepreneurial class for simply doing what they do. It's the function of an entrepreneur to pay as little for a creator's work as they can possibly get away with, and to sell it to a customer for as much as they can possibly charge. And then to hold on to as much of the difference as their long arms can carry. That's the nature of the beast, and most of the time it suits us for them to be active and out there.

They'll give writers a fair deal on emergent technologies when they have to. Otherwise, they won't. Any more than you or I would feed unnecessary coins into a parking meter or pay more than the cover price for our daily newspaper.

Many's the producer for whom I've written and rewritten a proposal with no payment, my only recompense being the shrug he gives when the broadcaster turns it down. The system works that way because it can. He knows that if he tries the same thing with his electricity supplier, the lights will go out. His landlord will evict him. His broadband supplier will cut him off. So them, he pays in full without a second thought.

With that mindset, why address the shift in the revenue stream from traditional media to newer technology-driven systems if you don't have to?

The writers' strike presents the entrepreneurial sector with the necessary You Have To.

For that reason alone, the AMPTP should be grateful to the WGA. Downloading is going to be the dominant delivery system of the future, no question about it. But the AMPTP's entrepreneurial hardwiring is preventing it from coping with the change. By requiring them to cope, the WGA are enabling them to move forward.

The alternative would be a slow, steady, spreading rot of disaffection and inefficiency. When you let that happen in any field, something different arises and leaves you behind.

I'm not in the WGA, but I'm a former Northern Chair of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain and we're affiliated. Here in the UK we already have a basis for participation in download revenues, but it's in everyone's interests to see the principle made universal. No WGGB member will provide material for American production, and no non-member should be thinking of it either - try it, and when the dispute ends you'll be shut out of the US market for life.

I've been involved in three strikes in my time, and none was entered into lightly. One I can't really count; it was a building workers' strike and I was a student on a vacation job, so I wasn't putting my livelihood on the line the way that the real workers were. But I was also an ACTT member involved in the long ITV strike of 1979, and when I launched off as a freelance writer and joined the Guild in 1980 - partly as a result of the taste of the life that the ITV strike had given me - I was asked to withhold novelisation rights to my Doctor Who scripts as part of a campaign that led to UK publishing's first Minimum Terms Agreement.

OK, so it wasn't exactly the Gdansk shipyards. But it did bring a change for the better.

Friday 2 November 2007

Good Things Happen While We Sleep

Woke up this morning to an email from Ellen Datlow telling me that, at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs last night, The Box won the IHG Award ("Outstanding Achievement in the field of Horror and Dark Fantasy") for Best Short Story.

How about that?

Ellen was kind enough to step up and accept it on my behalf, and to read out the miserable three lines of speech I'd provided her with. Lucky for everyone present that my sanity-preserving strategy always entails being convinced that I'm never going to win anything. Otherwise it would have been a hour-long monologue with a song and an encore, probably via satellite link.

The Box appeared in the Retro Pulp Tales anthology from Subterranean Press. The story's set in the 1950s. The 'box' of the title is a helicopter crash simulator, and the narrative centres on the experiences of WWII veterans retraining for civilian life.

It was a good night all round for Bill Schafer's indie imprint - Lords of the Razor and Subterranean magazine both scored awards, for anthology and periodical respectively. And I get to suck up a little more shared karma juice because I've a novella in one (The Butterfly Garden) and a story (The Plot) in issue 5 of the mag.

Gonna go back to sleep now and see if the gods will cough me up a speedboat.