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Monday 22 August 2016

Jurassic Park, Unearthed

This is weird.

While sorting through some old files I came across this film review from the year of Jurassic Park's release. I don't remember writing it, or for whom it was written. But dated references to video (ie, VHS), to the then-unbuilt Universal Studios ride, and to competing movies... they all have the feel of another era, whereas the movie still seems to me like pretty fresh goods.

I rewatched it recently, and its age was never an issue. And what I wrote back then is still a fair reflection of what I think of the movie now. Durability beats novelty any day.

So here it is, from '93:
Over in the US, at least, the commercial shape of this summer's movie season appears already to have been set. CLIFFHANGER as the well-timed warm-up act, not quite a contender but perfectly fine to keep us going until the blockbusters come along. SLIVER straight down the tubes, gathering critical disdain and playing to empty houses. THE LAST ACTION HERO a major embarrassment; a ton of money, a mess of a film, and limping along in the wake of the one movie that was obviously a clear winner by the end of the day that it opened. They're still counting, but JURASSIC PARK has taken over one hundred million dollars within the first two weeks of its release. It managed this by opening everywhere, a massive investment in print costs alone; and in some locations this was maximised by chaining the print through a succession of projectors to play two or three auditoria at once. They were filling them, too.

Is it worth it? I think it probably is. As a suspense movie, it's about half as good as JAWS. But the realisation of the dinosaurs is technically perfect and there are some set-pieces (most memorably a Tyrannosaurus attack on a jeep and a stalking through an empty visitor centre) that are worth the price of admission alone. JURASSIC PARK may be a so-so story, but it's a magnificent ride. It'll make a great feature on the Universal Studios tour (are they planning one? Are you kidding?) and it'll clean up on video. The merchandising is, perhaps, another matter; there's no protectable copyright on the dinosaurs themselves and all they really have to sell is the logo, which resembles something out of the Ahlbergs' FUNNYBONES. Anyone can cash in on the fever, and everyone seems to be doing it.

Spielberg has added a few typical personal touches to the narrative of Michael Crichton's spare and one-dimensional novel, most noticeably in the Sam Neill character's reluctant conversion to the role of protective father-figure. There's a hug-a-stegosaurus scene which is pure Spielberg (seeing this and thinking back to ET, pets must have filled a big void in the director's early life) and he's dealt with the book's least appealing aspect, the whining and stereotypical characterisation of Hammond's young grand-daughter, by giving her a piece of the action instead of simply making her a drag on the Guy Stuff. Richard Attenborough's John Hammond character is rather wasted - he comes over as well-meaning and dim, a Walt Disney without the buried dark streak - and there's a general lack of any point to be made. The novel's point, that there are penalties to be paid for hubristic science, is buried somewhat. Not much surprise there; it's a hard line to sell in the context of the fun we've been having.

This kind of cinema is the modern equivalent of the sensational theatre spectaculars of the Victorian era where one could see Ben Hur's chariot race live on stage with full teams of horses running flat-out on rollers. Great fun, low art. And if it leaves nothing lasting beyond a sense of awe at the occasion. . . well, pardon me for saying so, but what a strange life it must be in which that counts for nothing.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Three

You have written a considerable number of short stories, some of which have been published as collections (‘Out of His Mind’, ‘Plots and Misadventures’). What are your thoughts about the differences between writing short stories and novels? Have any of your short stories been developed further (in any media)?

Short stories are tricky, and when you get one just right it’s very satisfying. In my distant youth, enthused by the BBC adaptations, I read John Galsworthy’s sequence of Forsyte novels and I vividly remember a passage in which Young Jolyon talked about the difference between painting in oils and watercolours. The gist was that in oils you build up from the canvas, and along the way you can try things out and make revisions and cover your mistakes. Whereas with a watercolour you lay your brush on the paper, and if the stroke isn’t right, then the whole thing’s ruined. That’s how I see short stories – they work or they don’t; there’s no margin for error.

I’ve adapted some of my short stories for radio – By the River, Fontainbleau, The Horn and Life Line. They were all for the Fear on Four slot and they keep showing up on BBC4 Extra. A lot of my radio stuff got wiped, one of the producers told me. Off-air copies get traded between collectors but the broadcast masters are gone.

The notion of a TV anthology show seems to raise its head every two or three years. Producers love the idea of them, but commissioners and schedulers are much cooler. You can more or less guarantee that when an anthology show does get commissioned, it’ll be first in line to be pre-empted for a sports fixture or a special event. The viewing figures get driven down, and then the figures are used as proof that anthology shows aren’t popular.

I’ve seen you at a couple of conferences recently and you also talk to writers’ groups. What do you personally get out of this, and what do you think aspiring writers might gain from your input?

Well, it’s a great opportunity to talk about how hard it all is and to scare off the competition! But seriously, if anyone can get something useful out of anything I’ve got to say, that’s great. It’s not like I’m making it easier for anyone.

There’s a vanity element to it as well. I spend most of my days sitting in a room at a keyboard. Tell me there’s a place with a bar and a willing audience and a bunch of friends to catch up with afterwards, and you’re pretty much describing the main social pleasure that this job has to offer.

What are your feelings about the indies and what purpose do you think they serve, bearing in mind that their circulation is often quite small?

Independent publishing has always played an enormous role in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. In early science fiction there was the Gnome Press; in fantasy and horror there was Arkham House. They were mould-breakers in their way, and they were an important bridge between the pulps and the mainstream book market. Some of today’s indies continue that tradition. Then you’ve got all the small-circulation magazines and anthologies that offer new writers a place to get their voices heard and to sharpen up their craft. If they didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Two

Getting back to your novels, and thinking about your early work, where did the inspiration come from for books such as ‘Chimera’, ‘Oktober’, ‘Rain’ and ‘The Boat House’?

I can answer for definite with Chimera because that came from a passage in Vance Packard’s book The People Shapers, where he quoted a Rand Corporation study predicting the routine production of laboratory sub-humans by the year 2025. I didn’t take that as a solid prediction, but I did foresee a process by which it could come about. It doesn’t matter how responsible the scientific establishment is, there’s always someone with a dodgy degree out there, looking for a chance to make his name by pushing the envelope.

For the rest of them, I’ve no doubt that if you dig through the file boxes with all my original notes and papers, somewhere you’ll find a little scrap of notebook paper with an illegible scrawl from the moment where light first dawned. It is actually like that. You know you’ve got a goer when it’s like you can see the entire book folded up inside a seed. It’s only the start of a fairly enormous process, of course, but when it happens you can sit back happy, because you know you’re in the game and you’re going somewhere.

You famously wrote the screenplays for some of the classic Doctor Who episodes (under the pen-name: John Lydecker). How did this opportunity arise? Considering this and other screenplays you’ve written for television series, how do you go about writing stories involving established characters?

TV characters are designed to be written by many hands. They’re not like fully-formed characters, but more like stripped-down racing versions of the same. So once you’ve got your head around their regular function in the weekly structure, you’ve a good idea of where you can and can’t go with them.

You can’t change them or teach them too much, unless you’ve been given some significant change to work in as part of the production plan. When that happens, it becomes a narrative point that you can factor into your story in a way that you hope will make it stand out. In my two Doctor Whos I got to write out two assistants and one robot dog. Which was great, because in character terms it meant I’d been given something I could write towards.

I got the job because I was working on a science fiction radio play called An Alternative to Suicide, and my radio producer sent the script over to the Doctor Who office. I got a call to drop in for a chat, and everything grew from there.

To what extent do you feel that the real world should feature in your work? By this I mean politics, wars, developing technology and topical issues. What control do you have over these areas when work is commissioned for television or film?

I’m kind of ambivalent on this. I did talk before about the importance of location and sense of place, so that’s me speaking up for realistic texture. But when it comes to politics or technology you’re really talking about something that right now feels like the only reality there is, but which is going to change faster than you can nail it down. Blair’s Britain? That’s yesterday already.

So I think my attitude is to let the timeless stuff seep in, but steer away from the notion that your reason for being here is to tell it like it is. You can’t write just to explain background. If you want to make a political point that doesn’t date, put it in a solid story. Solid stories are imperishable. Why has some of Brecht’s stuff worn so well? Because his narratives are compelling regardless of whether you care about the politics. It’s because the stories work that he leaves you more politically aware than you were going in.

Technology’s tricky in a different way. Think about how the mobile phone affected plotting. I put some computer stuff in Oktober that dates it terribly now.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part One

You have been in the writing business for some time now. What would you say were your best and worst experiences?

Fortunately the best way outnumber the worst, and they’ve mostly come out of the experience of researching the novels. I do try to achieve an authentic sense of place in the writing and that’s always involved a lot of travel, meeting new people, and getting into situations that I’d never otherwise encounter.

Back in the early days, when I’d just gone freelance and I was dead broke, this would mostly involve backpacking around Europe or America. For The Boat House I went all over Western Karelia and into what was then Soviet Russia. These trips generated some very rare and vivid moments of epiphany, a fair number of them on railway station platforms at 3 o’clock in the morning.

When you’re out on your own like that, travelling with a purpose but full of uncertainties, it’s like you lose a few layers of skin and become very sharp and sensitised. That feeds back into the writing. I’d often find that the thoughts that I recorded or jotted down at those times would not only influence the entire tone of the book, but would often make it into the text almost verbatim.

Worst moments – I’d say they’ve been whenever I’ve been pushed off a project that I’d started from nothing and brought to within sight of completion. That’s happened to me about four times. You just feel sick and helpless when it happens. Only one of those projects went on to get made.

Would you say that your writing style has changed as you have become more experienced? In what ways?

I’m not entirely sure that it has. I can look at prose that I wrote at the beginning of my career and as far as the writing style is concerned, give or take a few infelicities, I’d be happy to have turned that stuff out last week. The actual voice doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

I suppose that what changes is the quality of what you have to say, as opposed to the way you say it. That’s where things have definitely matured and evolved, I hope. I mean, I was first published in my mid-twenties, and I knew nothing about anything. Now I know nothing about a much greater range of subjects.

Apart from writing novels and short stories, you’ve had a lot of success in other areas – film, television and radio. What would you say are the pitfalls when moving into these areas? Can you give me some examples from your own experience? What frustrates you as a writer when dealing with these media?

The prose writer and the screenwriter live in two universes that move at very different speeds. The screenwriter who doesn’t understand that will turn out books that read like novelisations. The novelist who doesn’t get it will write a script that can’t be shot.

You need to be aware of the need for a change in pace, not just in what you write, but in the way you work. Okay, so a story’s a story. But you spend a novel looking inside out from inside the characters, while in a screenplay everything’s determined by what you see them say and do.

You couldn’t have a more radical difference between the two forms. When prose is described as cinematic, it’s often anything but.

I suppose the most obvious difference is that for a novel you go up the mountain, brood for a long time, and come down with something that’s finished and complete. Whereas on a screen project you don’t get the final say on anything. What you get is everyone else’s notes, pretty much from day one. After a while it starts to feel like everyone including the office manager (it’s happened) gets the opportunity to have a say over what you do.

The writer, of course, never gets to change anyone else’s work.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow.