Friday, July 31, 2009

Yarn Podcast 2

Here is the second installment of the documentary 'Yarn'.

(I'll be without Internet for a few days, so things may be a little more quiet than usual in the coming week.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Yarn Podcast 1

Being a dyslexic novelist, I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with books. I love stories but accessing them through text has always been a challenge. Perhaps that is why I set out on a journey to try to understand why some people love reading so much that they join book clubs or reading groups.

Below is the opening of the documentary I made to record my journey. In the coming days and weeks I will be podcasting the whole film in 6 episodes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Ages ago I promised to post the comedy short, Pixacillus. After a couple of failed attempts at up-loading it I gave up. Today I tried again and discovered my mistake had been trying to render it in HD, when the original DVD was SD. Today I cracked the problem, have uploaded it and... by virtue of our friends at YouTube, here it is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Being Dyslexic and Empathy is, as the name implies, a forum for people to discuss issues relating to their dyslexia. I have been a daily visitor to the website since I came across it some months ago. It has been refreshing to learn about the experiences of dyslexics directly from dyslexics instead of from reading the conclusions of research projects. Why? Because the issues raised are the ones that concern the dyslexics themselves.

Instead of fixating on reading and writing, the discussions range from talking about time management to empathy, from creativity to relationships. From this dyslexic-centred discussion several surprises emerge.

I have for some years wondered if there could be a connection between dyslexia and the degree of ability to recall emotions and to sense the emotions of others. My suspicions emerged from a chance remark by a dyslexic actor who said she relied on her strong “emotional memory” to help her get into role. This chimed with my own experience. As a writer I use the ability to recall and relive emotions when I am creating characters and working out what they must be feeling and how they will act as a result.

But when I asked dyslexic professionals I was told that there was no such relationship. I searched the internet and found no references to research on the subject. If such a connection did exist it would be a dyslexic strength. It would be something that dyslexics could use to give them an advantage.

Then someone posted a question on the ‘Being Dyslexic” forum. If you had a superpower connected to your dyslexia, the questioner asked, what would it be?

A stream of answers came through over the following days saying that the superpower they already had was the ability to read other people’s emotions – to know what they were thinking or feeling. It was such a strong effect for some of these people that it felt uncannily like ESP.

There is no doubt that in a predominantly non-dyslexic world, dyslexia presents itself as a disability. But in my opinion, the anomalous strengths of dyslexics are systematically under researched and under reported.

Which brings me to one of the other surprises from the being dyslexic forums – the spread of attitudes people have to their own dyslexia. Some hate it and wish it would go away, feeling it is blighting their lives. Others see it as a source of strength and part of who they are. The variation is huge. Now THAT is an area which could do with some research. It might not help anyone spell better, so educationalists might not regard it as a priority. But I’d rather be happy than get my spelling right every time.

Perhaps my priorities are skewed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What are film treatments for?

I have spent the last two days working on two versions of the Memorabilia treatment (formally known as the OTHER treatment!) The process has made me focus on the fundamental purpose of treatments.

Just so we all understand each other, by 'treatment' I am talking about a document which conveys the movie in prose. It typically reads rather like a short story and is usually written in the present tense. There is significant variation in what different people expect from a treatment, but this is my simplistic take on it.

Having said the above - what is a treatment actually for? I don't know about other people, but for me treatments fall into two distinct classes.

The first kind of treatment is a document written as a precursor to writing the screenplay itself. It is a form convenient to work with, readable, comparatively short and easy to navigate. Writing a screenplay from this kind of document would be a comparatively simple task. In the extreme case, it would only require reformatting.

The second kind of treatment is a document designed to get other people interested in the project. It could be produced before the screenplay is written or after it. Either way, it is short, simple and readable enough to tempt a busy person. Its job is to generate an emotional response in the reader.

We have been working on the first kind of treatment for Memorabilia for several months. Each reworking has improved the document. And we stand almost ready to launch into screenplay writing.

Only today have I started to produce the second kind of treatment for Memorabilia.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Project Memorabilia

We had an excellent script development meeting last night at The Art Organisation in Leicester. The guys liked my re-working of the OTHER treatment. A couple of problems were pointed out, talked through and solutions devised.

Since 8.30 this morning I've been working on making those changes. All are now in place and I am presently in the middle of a final edit through. (Well, as you can see, I am in fact taking a few minutes break from doing the above!)

In the meeting I complained that I was having to call it the OTHER treatment on here, as we didn't have a working title. So we agreed on calling it MEMORABILIA.

There is another title, which is our preferred option. But we are not ready to reveal that as yet. So Memorabilia it is - for now.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Collaborative writing and investing characters with a soul

The treatment I've been working on over the last couple of days - which I still can't put a name to - is the latest in a line of collaborative writing projects. Each collaboration has had its own distinct personality. Perhaps that's why I have enjoyed the process so much.

With the present - nameless - treatment, I am working with two other writers. The process has been as follows:

1) Meeting to agree on the objective. In this case, to write a screenplay that could be filmed on a tight budget.

2) Producing as many story ideas or partial ideas as possible. We didn't worry about practicality at this stage. Any idea, however crazy, was thrown into the collective pot. This stage lasted 2 weeks and was carried out with the aid of Google Groups but without physically meeting.

3) Meeting to plough through the 40 or 50 ideas, selecting the five most promising. And from that shortlist, choosing one to work on.

4) The chosen idea was given to one of us to work into a very brief story outline, in which the main plot points were identified and arranged in a three act structure. The outline was then circulated via Google Groups.

5) Meeting to discuss problems and missed opportunities in the outline.

6) The outline was then given to a different team member to take away and rework in the light of the last discussion.

Stages 5 and 6 were then repeated. At some stage the outline became a treatment. We have gone through three such repeats so far. Each time the number of problems reduced. But so far I've not noticed any reduction in the number of new ideas being introduced each time. Thus the quality of the product seems to me to be increasing steadily.

How long will we go on with this before deciding that it is time to start writing the screenplay itself? I guess that will come very soon. Whilst we could no doubt continue to refine the plot there is a limit to how far one can progress without putting words into the mouths of the characters.

In my experience giving characters voices deepens your understanding of their personalities. They had bodies before but dialogue gives them souls. And when they have souls you start to understand what the story is really about.

We meet again on Monday. I'll update you on progress after that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009)

The release of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was an eagerly awaited event among the members of my family. Yesterday was the day, so we trotted down to Vue Cinema in Braunstone, Leicester and enjoyed a couple of hours of easy escapism in the company of wizards and witches conjured from J.K.Rowling's immense imagination.

The Half Blood Prince was the book that got me reading the series. Until then, I'd been alone in the family in resisting Potter mania. But bored one day, and with that book the only reading matter available, I caved in. And yes, the story was good. From there I read the final episode - the Deathly Hallows, then worked my way backwards through the series to the beginning. (In a kind of Harry Potter meets Memento style reading experience.)

I don't wade through that many words easily. Dyslexia keeps me back from many of the longer classics. So I have to say that, however ropey the prose may be in parts, the Harry Potter series is a triumph of sustained story telling.

What about this film? As with the others in the series, it contained some very fine acting performances. Alan Rickman is never less than scintillating. Jim Broadbent's quality shines through. And the once child actors have grown into their roles beautifully. The visual effects were fine. The production values everything one would expect. It was, in short, a very successful depiction of an episode in this long saga.

But that is also it's limitation. It felt like an episode rather than having the shape of a feature film. I enjoyed it all the way through, but ultimately didn't feel as if I had been taken on a journey. Perhaps that was just the nature of the book - which leaves readers waiting for the final instalment. Or perhaps opportunities were missed in the way the the book was interpreted for the screen.

Once the final films have been made, I will doubtless go back to this one and watch it as a prelude to those. In that, I suspect it will have reached its highest point. But as a stand-alone it will always be limited. The only film in the series that stands alone as a great movie in its own right is the Prisoner of Azkaban. But that won't stop me and vast hoards of Harry Potter fans enjoying the Half Blood Prince and looking forward to the next one.

Now, how long do we have to wait?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Of spiderwebs and story arcs

Outside my window a small spider is trying to construct a web, a task made considerably harder by the buffeting wind. Watching it, I am struck by the thought that it can't see the pattern of the web that we are all used to. We look in form the outside on the finished item. It sits in the middle, so close that it can't see the whole thing.

How is it doing it and what has all this got to do with the construction of long fiction?

The parallel is clear enough. When you are working on a novel, you are too close to see the whole thing. Perhaps if I understood how the spider is doing it, I could figure out how to plot a novel!

All the spider needs to do is know the relative angles and spacings of threads. So long as those things are kept regular, the web will form its familiar pattern. Might it be possible to plot a novel using the same approach - simply seeing the detail of the chapter you are on at the time, using that to find out what must happen in the next chapter?

I think the answer is yes. In part. I have certainly met novelists who say they are very bad at plotting and follow the narrative drive of each scene to discover where the story should go. Raymond Chandler famously said that when he got stuck with a story he would have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.

What is the starting state in the chapter? What is the ending state? Where and how does the change come about. What is a story but an account of a series of moments of change of escalating magnitude?

Having said all the above, the spider seems to have given up. Or perhaps he is resting. Or perhaps he's imagining how the whole web will look from a distance once it's finished.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Film Project II

I've spent the last few hours looking through the latest extended treatment for a movie I've been working on. I have mentioned this project a couple of times in passing but not given away any of the plot.

I'm still unable to tell you much other than the fact that it is a comedy drama set in the East Midlands and that it follows four very ordinary people on an extra-ordinary quest.

Tonight I'm heading down to The Art Organization on Humberstone Gate in Leicester to talk to my collaborators. We are in the process of working up three things:

An extended treatment that we can all agree on and from which we can write the script.

A short, snappy treatment which we can show to other people.

A title. Yes, we still lack this most vital element. The concept behind the story is, in my opinion, very sharp and instantly attractive. If you hear the pitch you want to see the movie. But we still lack a similarly drop-dead brilliant title.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Thinking Differently in the Digital Age

Some people think differently from the rest of the crowd. The different thinkers don't do so well in times when the mainstream crowd has life all figured out. At such times the different thinkers are easy to spot. They're the ones doing crazy stuff, heading for disaster. Or ridicule.

But in times of rapid change, when the mainstream crowd are hanging on to modes of thought and behaviour that no longer work - that is when we need our different thinkers. In my opinion, that is why dyslexics and other kinds of people who tend to think differently are so valuable to society.

Take the example of the movie industry today. Digital production and digital distribution have arrived but the industry has not yet adapted. Or look at the the business of book publication. Or music. There is a tendency for people rooted in the way things were to see the new technology as a way of making slight modifications to the status quo. This is when the different thinkers shine.

I came across the following video on Chris Jone's blog. It is the work of two film makers Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, creators of Four Eyed Monsters. I this completely inspirational. If you are interested in the collision of old media and the new digital age, this is well worth the half hour it takes to watch.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Hadfield Library again

One month on and I'm heading up to Hadfield again.

A class on crime writing awaits. I have two and a half hours to get a group of people to go through the stages of sketching out a crime novel/screenplay story arc. In the process they will hopefully get a deeper understanding of how stories work.

Posessing that understanding has the unexpected side-effect of enabling people to reverse engineer the elements of a movie plot, and thus have a fairly shrewd idea of where the story is going to end up, having only seen the first 20 minutes.

Such knowledge can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing when you make a prediction and it proves correct and you get that smug feeling. A curse if it happens to be your partner who does the prediction and thus ruins your movie experience.

I'm well used to my long-suffering wife saying: "Stop! Don't tell me who did it!" I really must learn to hold my tongue.

When, just occasionally, a movie serves up something completely unexpected, it gives a special buzz of pleasure.

I say 'movie' rather than 'novel' because movies tend to be more tightly plot constrained. In story terms they are more condensed than novels. Being condensed, it is harder for the people who crafted the story to hide the tell-tale construction lines that, when projected, show where the story is heading.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Terminator Salvation (2009) Review

Reviewing Terminator Salvation is never going to be easy for me. Seeing Terminator 2 was one of my stand-out movie experiences. It was a rare beast in that it managed to combine a strong storyline with a huge special effects budget (instead of the more usual studio policy of replacing a strong storyline with a huge special effects budget.)

What about Terminator Salvation? It must have handed over more cash to the effects guys to make it look as if things were being blown up than most armies spend on the real thing.
Industrial Light and Magic certainly earned a prominent place in the credit roll, delivering exactly the seat-juddering spectacle we have come to expect.

But how about the story?

Well, there was one, despite what I heard reviewer Mark Kermode saying on the Radio 5 Live this afternoon. But thinking back now, 24 hours after I walked out of the screening, I am finding it somewhat hard to remember all the ins and outs.

There's this guy, John Connor (Christain Bale), who looks grim and shouts a lot at this other guy in a submarine who also shouts and looks grim. But then, the year is 20-something in the future and the machines are doing the usual Skynet thing of trying to take over the world. So looking grim and shouting is probably an appropriate response. Though it did make it harder to engage with him as a character.

Most of the movie takes place in the future, but before the time travel of the earlier movies(Before? Uh, hold on a moment. Couldn't they...? Best not ask.) Can a man who has done evil things find salvation, the movie asks? To reveal the answer would be to give away the ending, so I'll leave you to guess what Hollywood is going to pronounce on that one.

I did find the dénouement cheesy. And the ending speech could easily have been replaced with someone winking at the camera and saying: "Enjoyed the explosions? Just wait till you see the sequel." But Terminator Salvation isn't a bad summer blockbuster for all that. It is easy entertainment that sits comfortably on the big screen.

It is always going to stand in the shadow of the original movie - which was better storytelling on a far lower budget. And both stand in the shadow of T2. But hey, that's not such a bad place to be. Most action movies do.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Cinema de Lux - Highcross

Cinema de Lux in Highcross was my destination yesterday morning as I headed into Leicester. Yes, I was fleeing the sweltering heat that has gripped the city for the last few days (If you live outside the UK, read 'sweltering heat' to mean 'mild summer weather') I was also looking for a way to chill my brain after the feverish unreality of seven days of non-stop screenplay writing and editing.

Why did I choose Cinema de Lux out of Leicester's clutch of multi-screens? The seats in the Odeon are frankly uncomfortable. Vue cinema - my usual destination - doesn't start screening until later in the day. And the others are somewhat off my radar. (I must explore more. Feel free to send me tickets and I'll review your cinema for you.)

So I took my first exploratory steps into Leicester's newest cinema. It was 11.25am and I was heading in to see Blood: the Last Vampire, reviewed in yesterday's posting.

First impressions were somewhat marred by the fact that the £1 voucher clutched in my sweaty hand was refused at the front desk. "You can't use that, I'm afraid. That's only valid after 6pm. The tickets are more expensive then, you see." I coughed up the cash and took my ticket. But as I was walking away I heard the same line being delivered to the couple in the queue just behind me. "You can't use that, I'm afraid..." I read the small print afterwards and was still none the wiser. It seems a petty policy and leaves a bad taste. However, I was so relived to be standing in the air conditioned lobby that this didn't feel like too much of a hit.

Going to the cinema during the day is one of the perks of being a self-employed writer. It is a way to avoid the crowds and all the distraction of slurpings and crunchings from the seat in front. I've been to showings when there were only four of us in a large theatre. But never before yesterday have I been the only viewer. I asked afterwards and was told they would still have shown it if no one was there.

With the luxury of solitude I tried a variety of different seats, in search of the optimum position. I turned my mobile off then turned it on again, realising that it really didn't matter because I wasn't going to disturb anyone. Then turned it off again realising that I didn't want to be disturbed either.

I watched the movie in eerie isolation, enjoying the chance to lounge around but realising that the feeling one is sharing a film with others does curiously add something to the viewing experience.

I should report also that the seats were more comfortable than those in the Odeon, though I still prefer Vue in that respect.

On leaving the lady usher asked if I'd enjoyed the film. I had. She loved it too, she said. Had seen it three times. Liked the way the plot unfolded, and that it was a vampire story - which she particularly enjoys.

She was genuinely interested, genuinely engaged and genuinely likes the cinema she works for. And that was great to see. If the place motivates its staff to feel so positive, perhaps I can forgive them the voucher scam after all.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Blood: the last vampire 2009

Blood: the Last Vampire (2009) is a live action remake of the year 2000 anime movie of the same name.

In plot terms, this is a standard revenge tragedy with a few scenes from Star Wars spliced in. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing. Most hero epics follow the same pattern: Orphan sets off to do battle with his nemesis, the quintessence of evil. Along the way he fights and spectacularly defeats improbable numbers of evil and increasingly powerful henchmen. But on coming face to face with the biggest, baddest baddie of them all, he finds a mirror of his own self and becomes aware of his own dark side.

Switch ‘he’ for ‘she’, and ‘a galaxy far away’ for 1970’s Japan and you have this movie in a nutshell. And it is none the worse for following a tried and tested formula.

You don’t go to a ballet, a rock concert or a fireworks display for the plot. And let’s face it, you don’t go to an oriental vampire and demon martial arts flick, for that reason either. A movie like Blood: the Last Vampire is going to stand or fall on the quality of the fight choreography and the precise genre-styling.

On that basis, the film delivers more-or less what you’d expect. Our hero is a samurai sword wielding immortal with a need for regular blood refills, who just happens to look and dress like a Japanese high school student. The demons she fights cleverly disguise themselves as human for most of the time, transforming when needed into a range of fanged beasts. The first set are little more than martial art-enabled zombies, but the medium range change into heavily muscled, winged and fanged creatures. The big baddie is of course perfectly human-looking, and would not look out of place on the catwalks of Paris or London, if she could stop decapitating people for long enough.

Does the styling work? In part. There are good fights, lots of brooding silences and more wire work choreography than you could shake a stick at. But the intermediate beast creatures were distinctly dodgy. More like 1970s Plasticine Godzillas than 21st Century digi-tech creations.

Hero and side-kick battle their way entertainingly through to the climactic scene – which was so Star Wars-like that I was sure they’d mention ‘the dark side of the force’ at any moment. (Alas, they didn’t.) And in the end, naturally enough, room was left for a sequel.

If you like creatures with fangs doing battle with sword-wielding Japanese schoolgirls (and if you are 18 or over) this might well be a movie for you. But you’ll have to overlook the dodgy monsters.