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Monday 29 June 2009

Screenwriting Sense

Talks on writing can be useful and fun. Usually if they're fun, they're useful - at the heart of all entertainment is a sense of play, and the art of the Art is learning to play to a purpose.

On the positive side, I attended a MediaXchange event in London in 2002 in which a bunch of American showrunners, producers and staffers dissected their system for a UK audience. I'm convinced that it was the start of the path that has brought me to here. I don't think I was working on anything at the time, which means I wasn't earning, but it was still the best use of 250 quid I could have made.

The downside is that there are a lot of books, courses and how-to's out there that ain't worth a bucket of warm spit. Some of them even have diagrams. They're the worst. The best, cited by just about anyone who knows anything, is still William Goldman's memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade. And it doesn't purport to teach anything at all - it's a mix of autobiography and personal war stories. What it teaches, by a kind of osmosis, is professional attitude.

Which leads me to a simple conclusion; when somebody's telling you stuff about writing, check out what they've written.

Which in turn leads me to William Akers, who's dropped me a line about his forthcoming talk at the Met Film School, and who I'm happy to report is The Real Deal. His screen experience goes back to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which was the first feature directed by my old friend Stuart Orme.

Described as An intensive and informative workshop with William M. Akers, author of "Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great", the talk runs from 6.30 until 8.30pm on Thursday 2nd July 9 at the Met Film School, Ealing Studios, Ealing Green, London W5 5EP.

Tickets are a mere £15. You can pay on the door or email beka@metfilm.co.uk to book.

Friday 26 June 2009

On the Lot

Well, now it's official. According to my 0-1 visa I'm an Alien of Extraordinary Talent and Ability. Yeah, I know, I know. Even my bank manager thought it was hilarious.

Apparently there's also a category of Alien Crew Member in Transit. Sometimes they go on the run and we aliens of extraordinary ability have to be sent to hunt them down.

I've got my office in the Warner Village section of the Burbank lot and a parking space with my name stencilled on the asphalt, like something permanent. I mean, nothing is, especially in this business, but wow. As a kid in the 'sixties I used to watch the Batmobile draw up outside the Gotham City Police HQ steps, week after week. Adam West and Burt Ward would leap out and run inside. Usually it was the same recycled clip.

The frontage is still here on the lot, still in use. I can go and stand on the steps of Gotham City Police HQ for inspiration. Yonks ago, after a Chimera meeting with the Image Animation people, I took my dog for a walk around the Pinewood backlot and stepped through a doorway to find myself on Anton Furst's Gotham main street for the Tim Burton Batman. Yesterday I took a walk around the standing sets here and, apart from the occasional tour trolley, I had the streets entirely to myself. I'm the oldest member of our writing team and easily the most starstruck.

Here's a weird thing. On the plane coming over, I checked out the in-flight entertainment. When I called up the TV Drama menu I found that it consisted of the first five episodes of Eleventh Hour.

I finally worked it out. I'm living The Truman Show.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Family Ties

If you happen to be in West London this weekend, you can go and hear my kid sing at the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire.

Or you could take the easy way out and go to ellengallagher.co.uk with your speakers on.

Now, don't get ahead of me, but a few years back I wrote a short story called Little Dead Girl Singing that got me a World Fantasy Award nomination. That kept me going nicely until I actually won something. It was originally published in Weird Tales magazine, and can be found in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 14 as well as my own collection Out of His Mind.

And no, Ellen isn't the little dead girl of the title. But she's in there. The story's all about schlepping around those strange little festivals and small-town singing competitions that are a part of every young musician's education.

It was an education for me, as well. We all think that our offspring's efforts are wonderful, that's part of the programming of being a parent. But over time it gradually dawned on me that it didn't matter what I thought - the kid was the real deal. Rock, metal, Big Band - she's got a range like a WMD.

Now she's just completed the Master Performance course at London's Tech Music Schools, and is co-writing and recording her own material with Dave Browning.

Give her a listen, and see what I mean.

And if you're looking for a voice for hire, bear in mind that I'm counting on being supported in my old age.

Let's All Recycle

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/na├»ve/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?

Sunday 14 June 2009

Sisyphus Lives

I just spent an afternoon stripping all the elements of a stereo out of one room in the house, only to replace them with the corresponding parts of a stereo from another room in the house.

Why? You might well ask.

What I've reinstalled is one of those setups with separate components and an incredible patchwork of leads connecting them around the back like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard. Separate amp, separate CD player, separate cassette deck. It had been a feat to get it all put together when I'd first installed it, and I knew it would be just as much of a feat to break it down and reassemble it now - with any complex job of that kind, I invariably forget what I did to make it all work the moment it's started working.

But Mrs G is masterminding a revamp of the living room and I finally had to concede that we don't need two pieces of kit that achieve exactly the same thing in the one house. Especially when one of them never, ever gets used. One of them had to go.

The problem was that the high-end system was in the low-use room. The one getting all the use was a Sony music centre I inherited when my dad died. I was an only child, and my dad was my last surviving parent, and I had to be pretty ruthless when clearing his house because... well, to be honest, he was already storing all the overspill junk from my place. His loft was full of all my old crap. In the end I kept his late-life paintings and old family pictures and one wonky, charming wooden chair from the corner of the kitchen, but everything else - gone.

(Apart from his dog. I've still got his dog.)

And the stereo. It wasn't the greatest piece of kit - from the front it looked like a flashy component system but that was just the deceptive way the case was moulded to look like something more expensive. Nor was the sound anything exceptional. But I'd bought it for him as a present out of my Valley of Lights money, the sale that really kicked off my career after a couple of false starts, and that meant it carried a certain sentimental charge.

I'd installed it in the dining room because that was the only place I could find for it, and blow me if the acoustics in there didn't turn out to be the best in the house. So when the time came for the downsizing of the hi-fi capability, the music centre had to go and the five-star stuff had to be dismantled and reassembled in its place. Where the Sony speakers once stood, now stand the Kef Codas that I waited nearly six months to have delivered way back when I put the whole system together. I'm no hi-fi geek and I'm no expert, but I did take advice.

Once I'd done cursing and grumbling and had everything wired back together, I had to test it all. CDs sounded exactly like CDs should. Old tapes sounded as crappy as old tapes always do, Dolby or no Dolby. The last thing of all was to check the turntable.

So that it wouldn't feel such a futile exercise, I wanted to dig out an album that I didn't have in CD or MP3 form. I hadn't played any vinyl in years but I went straight to John Barry's soundtrack score for High Road to China.

A great Barry score and an overlooked movie, in my opinion. I'm convinced in my own mind that Barry got so pissed-off at the film's lack of notice that he made a few small changes and recycled the same musical ideas into Out of Africa, where they drew more attention. High Road was seen by some as Tom Selleck's consolation prize for being prevented from taking on the Indiana Jones role by his commitment to Magnum, PI. But while it was definitely of the post-Raiders genre, I thought it stood up well on its own... great production values, wonderful tone and texture, solid direction by Brian "Where Eagles Dare" Hutton.

On it went... and the sound was fantastic. I'd only once heard vinyl giving the kind of quality that blows CD away, and that was in Andrew Cartmel's house when he sat me down in the middle of the living room and put on a rare copy of the Herb Alpert Casino Royale score. But then, his speakers were the size of armchairs and had their own individual amplifiers with glowing valves, like something built to alien instructions in This Island Earth. And I think the album may have been a Japanese pressing, which apparently means a lot to the people it means anything to.

But here was the difference, and in my own house. Will I be a retro-vinyl convert from now on? I don't think so. MP3s are just so damned handy. But I'll never again smirk and twirl a finger by my temple when people speak of vinyl's 'warmth' and 'presence', or its latent superiority to the CD.

So we're now a one hi-fi household again.

But I've still got his dog.

Friday 5 June 2009

Okay, Venus?

Can't resist passing this on from those cunning wallet-draining fiends at Network DVD:
To celebrate the definitive release of Gerry Anderson's Fireball XL5, Network have arranged a special event on Saturday 27 June at the Odeon Covent Garden.

To open there will be a 35mm screening of 'The Day The Earth Froze', newly struck from the original negative.

In complete contrast, the first ever public screening of the newly colorized and restored episode 'A Day In The Life Of A Space General' will follow in high definition.

A 10 minute extract from our brand new documentary 'A Wonderland Of Stardust' will conclude the screenings.

Special guest Gerry Anderson will then take part in a Q and A moderated by Richard Hollis. Other special guests are to be confirmed.

The box set is released on Monday 29 June but a limited number will be available to purchase on the day at the special price of £35. Gerry Anderson will be signing copies on the day.

Tickets and special deals on the box set are available exclusively from this website - more details soon!
So now you know.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Killer Robots On The Bubble

Thanks to Piers Beckley for a heads-up to the fact that Josh Friedman, showrunner on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, has returned to blogging with this post on what it was like to be working on the Warners lot and waiting for word on his show's fate.

I watched all the episodes of Sarah Connor. Didn't necessarily love them all, sometimes didn't even know what the hell was going on, but always found myself drawn back. Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker surely made the dourest mother-son pairing since Christmas at the Oedipus house, but the casting of Summer Glau as the protector-robot was a stroke of genius.

The prospect of another big-budget Terminator feature doesn't thrill me too much. It's like they're obliged to be massively apocalyptic, and we've had that story. Whereas the long march from here to there seemed more suited to episodic television.

Life, though... Life's the cancelled show I think I'll miss most. Apart from the obvious, of course.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

The UK Writer in US TV (2)

They don't get rid of me that easily. I've now joined ABC's The Forgotten as co-executive producer, working as part of the team to bring creator Mark Friedman's vision to the screen in the fall schedule.
"The Forgotten Network" is a group of amateur detectives united in their quest to give names to unnamed victims, and to bring their murderers to justice. Led by Alex, a former detective haunted and driven by the disappearance of his own young daughter, these regular people gather in coffee shops or living rooms to discuss leads and clues and tips, each bringing their own motivations and skills to the table... working against the clock to give each victim a name, and to solve their cases. The Forgotten is produced by Bonanza Productions Inc in association with Jerry Bruckheimer Television and Warner Bros Television.
Alongside my duties on the show I've a deal to develop new material for JBTV, and I'm happy to be continuing the relationship with all the good people there, and at Warners, that began with Eleventh Hour.

And, hey... first NBC, then CBS, now ABC... it's like I'm working my way all around the room.

A bit like swine 'flu.