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Tuesday 27 May 2008

Johnny Hollywood Explains It All

Last year I gave an e-mail interview to a journalist preparing an article for a US magazine. Turned out to be one of those pieces where a dozen of you oblige and the writer cherrypicks a quote or two from each.

I never saw the piece so I've no idea of what may have been used and what discarded. But here's some cherrypicking of my own.

On Adapting for the Screen

I'm slightly unusual in that I've had parallel careers in screenwriting and prose fiction, and the two have been scrambled together sometimes when I've adapted my own work. And I started in radio, which is a good grounding for both. When I've adapted other people's stuff, I've tried to treat it as the screen story that author would have written if they'd made that choice of medium right at the beginning. With my own material I feel I can be less respectful. That may not always be a good thing.

Novels vs Screenplays

You develop a novel on your own, unsupervised, and you go whatever distance it takes. It's like your own private R&D lab where you can feel your way through this massively complex enterprise without any distractions, and come out at the end of it with something unique and new.

In screen work you start from a pitch and then right away you get notes. From everyone. At every stage. And ignoring them is never an option. You can still do good work if you're hooked up with people who understand the material and don't mistake micro-management for collaboration. But here's the thing about writing for the screen. All kinds of people can make changes to your work, but you don't get to change what anyone else does.

The money can be good and the work can be exciting, but it can also beat you down. You can only stand that for so long. You need to have somewhere you can go to reconnect with your own vision.

More on Adaptation

I've changed my attitude over the years. I used to assume that the step from book to movie meant bigger, better, somehow more important. I don't think that any more. I think there can be good books, good movies, and good movies-from-books. But good movie from good book is by no means a given. Most adaptations tend to plunder their sources for ideas, rather than set about finding their essence.

You don't have to be slavish or faithful to capture essence. Every kid in a schoolyard does it when they hold their friends spellbound with a blow-by-blow retelling of some forbidden movie that they've managed to see. The trick is to bring it to life with the resources that you have.

I once had to field a query from someone who wanted to know the best way to scan the text of a novel into his screenwriting software, in order to save himself all that typing. I couldn't even find a place to begin explaining.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Neill, Bean, Crusoe

Today's Guardian has some accurate catch-up info on Crusoe casting:

"Sam Neill and Sean Bean are to feature in a big-budget production of the Robinson Crusoe story being made by a UK independent producer for US network NBC.

Crusoe is to be played by Philip Winchester, who featured in the 2004 movie remake of Thunderbirds, while the role of Friday, his companion on the desert island, is yet to be cast.

Flashbacks of Crusoe's life are interwoven with the action, with Bean playing his father James, Neill playing family friend Jeremiah Blackthorn, and Anna Walton playing his love interest Susannah. Joss Ackland will appear in one episode in the role of Judge Jeffreys.

The series, written by Stephen Gallagher and directed by Duane Clark, follows the swashbuckling adventures of the two island dwellers as they contend with marauding militias, hungry cannibals, wild cats, starvation and lightning storms."

One technical inaccuracy in there - I'm not "writing the series". We've got a bunch of good people on the episodes and I'll name them here in due course. I'm the series developer and lead writer, which in this case has involved developing the concept pitch of Executive Producer Justin Bodle for the screen, writing the bible and the two-part opener, setting the arcs and running subplots, creating backstory and writing certain continuity scenes that'll be woven throughout the thirteen hours, and then writing the episodes that will gather up the ends and close the series.

It's a tall order but it's not a singlehanded effort, and the show will be all the better for that.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Last ITV Viewer Located

Read the story here.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

CBS Fall Schedule

It's just been confirmed that Eleventh Hour will air in the post-CSI slot on Thursdays at 10pm in CBS's Fall schedule. In the words of one of the people who passed me the info, "This is huge". It had already been tagged as "the biggest television deal ever made during development season" - which, if I'm honest, probably says more about Bruckheimer's industry muscle than it does about anything else.

But with Crusoe on NBC at 8pm Fridays, it means that one way or another I get my grubby fingerprints onto twenty-six hours' worth of US primetime this year.

No, I'm not sure how that came about, either. But I'll tell you what I'm struck by, and that's the speed of movement when Americans make TV. Because of my exclusivity clause I can't be directly involved in production on Eleventh Hour, but I'm having a great time on Crusoe. The pace can seem ruthless but it's also exhilarating. For a screenwriter it's the nearest thing you can get to live performance.

Monday 12 May 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

It's been announced in Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood Daily and elsewhere that, following a screening of the pilot for Les Moonves and other executives last week, CBS has now placed a series order for Eleventh Hour.

Which I had an inkling of when certain of our prospective Crusoe directors weren't available because they were booked for Eleventh Hour... and I've been told that the reverse is also true.

How 'bout that?

Sunday 11 May 2008

Wendigo, Night Tide

A week or two back, Stephen Volk asked me if I'd seen "the peculiar, eerie Wendigo".

And the answer was, yes, I have. Stephen Laws had discovered it and was determined that he was going to get me to see it.

On the face of it, Larry Fessenden's modestly-budgeted indie horror reads like a standard spam-in-a-cabin scenario. House in the woods, Deliverance-style hostile locals, something lurking Out There. All of which does it a massive disservice.

I found it cheap in the local Blockbuster's ex-rental bin and after a viewing reckoned it to be thoughtful, grown-up and resonant. I love the kind of stuff that plays all the notes of weirdness without ever being unbelievable. I suppose the archetype of that kind of screen story would be Cat People - strange shit happens while you're looking the other way, and you never quite catch it happening.

Wendigo has a non-Hollywood, independent-movie feel that seriously enhances its credibility. The core family are played by indie queen Patricia Clarkson, that bloke from Medium, and the kid from Malcolm in the Middle.

(This is my Sunday. Look 'em up yourselves.)

And while we're on the subject, did you ever see Curtis Harrington's first feature, Night Tide? I'd wanted to see it for ages and finally managed to catch up with it last year.

It has a similar setup to Cat People - it features a very young Dennis Hopper as a sailor on leave in an off-season seaside resort, who falls for a woman who plays a mermaid in a sideshow. But she always holds something of herself back, and there's a sense of something more to her past. It could be a setup for a creature feature. But like Cat People, it's a naturalistic movie that presses the Creature Feature buttons.

I suppose the subtle stuff like that can't exist without the unsubtle stuff to be subtler than. If that makes any sense.

Sunday 4 May 2008


Last year we made one of our US road trips. It's by far our preferred kind of holiday; pick a part of the country we've never seen, book a flight, rent a car, and then launch. We've never been disappointed, and I've always come home with notebooks loaded with ideas and material. A couple of such visits to Arizona laid the groundwork for Valley of Lights. A road trip around North Carolina and a follow-up research visit gave me The Spirit Box.

This time our starting point was South Dakota. We flew into Rapid City and headed first for the Devil's Tower, and then on into Wyoming with a sidestep into Montana to see Little Big Horn. Over the next couple of weeks we had buffalo steaks in Buffalo, visited the amazing Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, saw dinosaur bones in Thermopolis, and petroglyphs in Hot Springs County.

All along the way were those classic American coffee shops, Mom and Pop motels, and little one-room museums that are part of a road trip's unique appeal. We walked in snow and sunshine to see a mountaintop Medicine Wheel, and saw a waterfall deep in a mine. We ended the trip with a visit to the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, and a stay in Deadwood.

If you ever go there, I can recommend Deadwood Dick's as a place to stay... the unlikeliest looking accommodation ever, just a few strides from the main street, on the upper floors of an old grocery warehouse reached by a rickety old elevator, with three floors of junk counters - sorry, an antiques mall - below. The route to our suite involved ascending to the top floor and then crossing part of the roof. But the suite was huge and glorious, and the stay unreservedly memorable.

Some whiny people on sites like Tripadvisor have objected to the eccentricity of it all. Ignore 'em.

Modern Deadwood is a strange town - revived by gambling, and spoiled a little by the innate seediness of same. But it's hard to criticise it for that, when you consider what gave the place its original character.


Click here for a long page of brilliant Deadwood quotes from the Television Without Pity forum.