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Tuesday 28 September 2010

My Own First Film...

...was on Standard 8mm and held together with sticky tape. As a logistical exercise it had a certain magnificence, for which I can take no credit at all. As a piece of filmmaking it's barely watchable, which is entirely down to me.

But as a formative experience... priceless.

It was August 1974. Three of us set out with backpacks and a camera to get documentary footage on the history of theatre-building in Europe. Pat Monks was, like me, a second-year student at Hull University. We were on the Joint Honours, Drama and English course. Norm Randall was Sociology, but he'd taken a drama option in his first year and and it was there that we'd hatched our plan.

Hull's drama department wasn't some soft option where performer wannabees paint scenery and learn to juggle. There was a certain amount of fannying around in tights but at the heart of it was a solid academic study of theatre's social, anthropological and practical history. We started with Aeschylus and, over the three years, took it all the way to the (then) present day with the 'poor theatre' that was taking place in basements and back-rooms behind the Iron Curtain. Along the way we put on shows, learned the basics of lighting and stage management... the only one of us I recall painting scenery was Tim Reed, but that was his thing, and he went on to make an international career of it.


Norm and I got the ball rolling early in '73 and recruited Pat somewhere along the way. Our aim was to get to film as many of the key European sites as we could, covering the centuries from the Greek theatre at Epidaurus to the Bayreuth Opera House. We produced a prospectus, got the patronage of Lord Clark and Sir Alec Guinness (don't ask me how), and raised about eight hundred quid. It was enough to cover film, ferries, Interrail tickets, hostels and food. At 24, Norm was the grownup of the party. Given some of the giggles we had, I hesitate to say mature - Pat was younger but she was almost certainly the mature one. I was 19 and didn't have much of a clue about anything.

The camera was a Russian wind-up Quarz 5 that I found for fifteen quid in a second-hand shop on Anlaby Road. It was a thing of robust beauty and it weighed as much as a small car. I think the Soviets must have engineered their cameras out of White Dwarf Star metal. Ours ran wonderfully in all tests and broke down as soon as we hit France. The clutch on the take-up spool failed, which meant that exposed film would wodge up inside the camera body until it jammed. Wherever we went, I had to find a light-tight wardrobe that I could climb inside as a makeshift darkroom, to fix it without ruining what we had. Norm or Pat would have to hold the door closed in case I elbowed it open.

We started in the South of France with the magnificent Roman arenas in Nimes and Arles, where the brutal Van Gogh sunshine gave us guys an excuse to buy cowboy hats. It was at the awesome Roman theatre of Orange that I got my first taste of what was to become a major feature of my chosen life, which is the opportunity to cross barriers and mooch around behind the scenes. In Vicenza's Teatro Olympico I got to stand on its famous forced-perspective stage; in the Teatro Farnese the only visitors were the three of us and the Duke of Parma, down at the far end checking out his real estate.

It was in Delphi that we rolled in late, found the Youth Hostel full, and ended up sleeping on its roof. I woke to a magnificent sunrise and the realisation that I was about six inches away from a three-storey drop into the alley. Leaving Delphi was even trickier than getting in; it was in August '74 that Turkey landed an invasion force on Cyprus and the Greek army was mobilised overnight. We camped on the station platform for two days watching the troop transports going through, and finally hitched a ride in a cattle car with half a dozen civilian conscripts on their way to their mustering point at Thessaloniki, who insisted on sharing their food with us. At Thessaloniki we got the last, overcrowded train out to Vienna; two and a half days on the move spent dossing in the corridor as we crossed what was then Yugoslavia.

My main memory of Yugoslavia is of the kids who lined up along the embankments to wave, and then when we waved back they stoned the train. We reached Vienna tired and filthy, with nowhere to stay. Our contact there was Paul Stefanek of the Institut fur Theaterwissenschaft, based in the Hofburg Palace at the other end from the Spanish Riding School. Friendly, diffident, and an absolute hero, Paul gave us the gigantic palace key and we slept that night on the Institut floor, after inadvertently dining in a nearby brothel. The palace rooms were magnificent but the facilities were few; we took turns getting clean at a tiny kitchen sink with an Ascot water heater. To demonstrate my new-found maturity I put my anorak hood on my head and ran through the Hofburg in my underpants, as Batman. The final week of the journey, taking us through Salzburg, Munich and Bayreuth, was uneventful by comparison.

And the film? Ah, the film was a shambles. I shot as much as I could and I used everything I shot. But it looked great on my CV and since no prospective employer could be arsed to go to the trouble it would have taken to arrange a viewing, I was never found out.

Wednesday 22 September 2010


I've been waiting for a hook on which to hang a mention of Danny Stack's slick, thoughtful and entertaining short-film debut, and it now arises in the form of screenings at Jersey's Branchage Film Festival on September 26th and at London's Raindance Festival on October 7th.

Danny's Scriptwriting in the UK blog has been a resource and point of entry for many a new screenwriter trying to get some orientation on the business. Now he's collected together the best of the blog posts, along with downloadable material, on the newly-created Scriptwriting in the UK website.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

'Cause People Say We Monkee Around

In the Comments section, Piers Beckley wrote of his old electronic typewriter: "I loved it, because it meant I didn't have to tippex or retype when I miskeyed... Finally got rid of it a couple of years ago after I realised I hadn't plugged it in for more than a decade and was never going to again."

Ah, Tippex... in my day I must have bought enough of it to pay for Mike Nesmith's swimming pool. I used to get it wholesale, by the box.

When I finally decided let go of my massive office-sized Adler, someone in the Crime Writers' Association was gathering unwanted typewriters for remote regions where they could still be put to good use. I drove it over to Robert Barnard's house in Yorkshire and took my daughter along for the ride. She'd be about six, I guess.

It was a summer Saturday and on the way back we stopped for some lunch in Ilkley and took a rowboat on the river. When it came time to hand it back I somehow managed to tip it and put us both in the water. Kid came home in a whole new outfit.

Happy days.

Friday 10 September 2010

The Way the Future Is

I still like a book. I haven't been won over to e-reading yet but I've no doubt the day will come when I will, just as I retired my typewriter, my super 8 movie camera, and my Olympus stills camera when it became self-evident that I was sticking with them for the wrong reasons.

Stay with me, there's a lesson here.

My Olympus was a replacement for a super-slim 35mm pocket Ricoh that was stolen from my jacket on a location in the 90s. The Ricoh was a thing of beauty, aesthetically the nicest camera I've ever owned. The insurance company wouldn't reimburse me the value, but insisted that I go to a local camera store and get the manager to give me a written estimate for its current equivalent. They'd pay the store and I'd get a new camera.

Which is how I came to be stuck with Kodak's crappy 'APS system', which did more than anything else to push me forward into digital picture-making. APS was a desperate attempt to dress an old technology in new clothes. That it was doomed from the start was obvious to everyone except Kodak.

Actually, I'm pretty sure that Kodak must have known it too, but were forced by their heavy investment in film to go through the motions. APS required a new design of camera to take a new design of film cassette, which required specialised processing. Every stage of the system was expensive, it was laden with unnecessary bells and whistles, and with a negative area that was only 56% of a 35mm frame it gave inferior picture quality.

It seems to me that this kind of undignified tarting-up happens with every good but soon-to-be-outmoded technology. Anyone remember Polaroid's Polavision, the self-processing Super 8 cassette? The 'electronic typewriter', where you typed onto paper but it remembered your keystrokes and corrections and then typed it all out again? Super-VHS?

Now there's the Espresso Book Machine (link courtesy of the Writers' Guild blog). It's that long-anticipated device, a machine in a bookstore that prints your selection on the spot. I wish them well in their business but I can't help feeling that a familiar pattern is being played out all over again.

It's a seductive idea; old-fashioned books produced with the newest of new technology. There was a time when I saw print-on-demand as the way forward in preserving and making available every author's backlist, but I'm growing away from it. I love books as physical objects but a generic chunk of paper print does nothing for me at all. If a POD book has no more character than an e-book, then the e-book wins.

Outmoded technologies don't lose all value just because they no longer command the mass market. People still shoot Super 8 but for its specific aesthetic, not because it's their only option. Photographer and portraitist Lisa Bowerman uses film stock and natural light to luminous effect, then handles the images digitally. There's still a part of my heart that lusts after a classic 35mm Leica even though I know I'd get very little use from it... though it would still be way more relevant than my Olympus APS camera, which is basically hi-tech landfill.

There'll still be books, I reckon, but only those that give you something to care about. Otherwise it'll be a universe of reading material at your fingertips.

I'm not saying I like it... I just think that's the way it's going to be.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Jacob Hood - the Firefox Theme

Whenever my Firefox browser auto-updates, it always kicks off by inviting me to choose a 'persona', which is basically a fancy Bergmanesque name for a toolbar graphic.

There's thousands of the buggers, apparently, nearly all user-generated, and usually I skip on by. But someone's just added a Jacob Hood Firefox Persona.

And before you ask... yeah, of course I downloaded it.

It would be rude of me not to.

UPDATE: This option seems to have been removed. Don't know why.

Monday 6 September 2010

Noir and Back Again

I just heard that two of my favourite publishers will be combining forces to put out a double volume of early Lawrence Block novels sometime early next year. I suppose that Subterranean Press and Hard Case Crime can both fairly be described as 'niche' publishers, but not in any pejorative sense; in an era when general publishing is like a great beast struggling to adapt in a changing landscape, they survive by reflecting editorial taste rather than a marketing department's analysis.

Subterranean's Bill Schafer and Hard Case's Charles Ardai set out to publish the kind of stuff they like. If it's the kind of stuff you like too, then you seek them out. Subterranean's list is primarily SF and Fantasy, built around a core of Joe Lansdale material, while Hard Case specialises in reprints of of high-craft but forgotten noir mixed in with modern writing in the same hardboiled vein.

In each case the books' physical form is an element in the reading experience, though the two have very different approaches. While Subterranean specialises in quality limited runs, Hard Case celebrates vintage era paperback design with artwork from the likes of Robert McGinnis and Glen Orbik, whose painting for Wade Davis' Branded Woman is a particular favourite of mine. Where every other crime novel seems to feature a blurry generic library photo with whatever font the Art Director's chosen from the Photoshop menu, they really stand out.

(I should declare an interest - Subterranean published two of my novels and a story collection. Each was a great experience and the editions all sold out.)

Hard Case books are inexpensive mass-market paperbacks, printed and distributed (until now) by 'mass market romance publisher' Dorchester Publishing. Last month, Dorchester announced that they were getting out of the print business and switching to an E-book model, which many have read as the last optimistic thumbs-up gesture of the about-to-drown.

This should be interesting. I'm crossing my fingers for Hard Case, and optimistic for the survival of the line; just as a freelance has a more precarious existence than an employee but more options for surviving market changes, I'm willing to bet that Hard Case will reconfigure its relationships and prevail. I believe that this collaboration of independents predates Dorchester's announcement, but I reckon it's a sign. A sufficiently good idea has a life that's independent from any one business model.

Here's Chris Moore's cover art from the Subterranean edition of The Spirit Box.

The Subterranean logo and back-of-jacket copy were added later.

UPDATE: Hard Case titles are now to be distributed by Titan.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Process and Procedure

Which ought to be the title of Jane Austen's unpublished crime novel...

It's the network pitching season in LA, and I just got back after an intense week with results that I should be able to tell you about sometime soon. After nine hours plus of breathing buggy plane air on the way home, I succumbed to a virus that's laid me out for the past three days. Emerging from the mental fog I find Good Dog back online with his personal list of movies that stand repeated viewing.

(In a separate post he also reports on the BFI South Bank Chimera screening.)

Reading these lists, compiled by various people as the meme hops from blog to blog, I'm struck by the sense of a common factor. The titles are diverse but none of the the films are stupid, and few are what you'd call chin-strokers either; and however they may differ, it's like there's something in their DNA that suggests a relatedness, however slight. Regardless of their genre, ninety per cent of the rewatchables can best be described as high entertainment executed with wit and intelligence. Call it the showbiz gene.

I'm not sure when entertainment became a dirty word, but somewhere in the second half of the last century it seems to have been redefined as the enemy of art. As far as the UK's concerned I suspect that, in a kind of back-door Orwellian move, the creation of the BBC's 'light entertainment' department helped to formalise the schism, defining an entire category of amusement without substance and separating it from more educated, more adult concerns.

In British TV drama, that seems to have led us into a commissioning culture where the showbiz gene's been bred out. The current crop of Drama execs make a buzzword out of 'passion', but approach scripts as texts rather than as blueprints for spectacle. With most new series, the kindest thing you can say is that you can see what they were trying for.

Much fuss has been made of the BBC's Sherlock, and for good reason; Sherlock has the gene, cropping up like a cheerful ginger in a clan of swarthy depressives. For me it's reminiscent of the first season of Jonathan Creek, a favourite of mine before the drawbacks of the one-to-write-them-all approach began to show. The giddiness with which Sherlock has been greeted reflects the parched landscape into which it fell.

In The Observer, former Guardian editor Peter Preston duly observed:
How would the primetime lords of American TV feel if they'd happened to make a series called Sherlock, about a modern Holmes, and won tremendous audiences and critical praise in the process?

Modest triumphalism? Not if the "series" in question was a mere three episodes, shown in the depths of summer, with nothing poised to come in the writing, let alone in the can. A pilot without a runway.
Which I think is where I came in. Here's how those 'primetime lords of American TV' go about it:

Now is the time of year when networks are hearing pitches from writer/producer teams. Many of those teams were formed when producers started taking meetings with writers in the Spring. At the networks, drama and comedy pitch separately. You get a half-hour slot to present your show and answer their questions.

Say you get lucky. What happens after that is kind of like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The stakes increase as you ascend the ladder, and so do the chances of getting kicked off it. A successful pitch leads to a pilot script, which leads to a pilot. You have a matter of weeks to write before the pilot script goes into production; my producer friend Jeff Hayes completed shooting on the Rizzoli and Isles pilot in December of last year.

With the holidays out of the way, the networks begin to view and test the pilots and make final decisions on which of them to send to series. They have to juggle those decisions against which of their existing shows to recommission or cancel. By now we're into April and May. Once those decisions are made, it's staffing season. The successful teams start hiring writing staff and booking crews and directors, while the networks present the new shows to advertisers at the 'upfronts' around the beginning of June.

(Almost all drama is written by heavily collaborative writing staffs. The chances of standing outside the system and freelancing a script for an LA-based series are very small. I know I freelanced two Eleventh Hours but my position there was unique. Whoever I ask, on your behalf, about the way for a British writer to get any traction in Hollywood, the answer is always the same; relocate.)

The writers get a bit of a head start before cameras start rolling sometime around August. It's quiet on the lot, and you don't have to stand in line for lunch. You start by discussing the shape of the season and all the different ways it can be taken, before individual stories start to coalesce and get assigned.

Your first episode most likely goes out in the fall and your target is to make thirteen hours by the end of the year, at which point the network looks at the ratings and decides whether to commit to the 'back nine' to make up a full season of twenty-two episodes. If that happens, everyone (or sometimes a reduced writing staff) comes back to work in January for two or three months. Meanwhile, producers out there are meeting with writers to hear the next round of ideas...

It's relentless. But it gets it done. There's no dithering, there are no hesitant toe-in-the-water strategies. Our own system may not have the critical mass to match that kind of performance, but I think most UK writers will agree that our biggest frustration comes from commissioners' slowness in reaching decisions; they sit on scripts and keep their options open at our expense. Technically I'm still waiting for a straight 'no' on Oktober from the BBC, a decision I gave up waiting for when I took the show to ITV and made it over twelve years ago.

Last year I got an email from a director I'd once worked with, bemoaning the lack of available work at home and wondering if there might be any openings in LA. I told him that the timing was perfect, and the opportunities were certainly there; Terry McDonough had shot two Eleventh Hours and Bill Eagles was working on The Forgotten.

By the time his agent got around to following up, all the jobs were gone.