Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Script Development

The last week has been full of script writing. Mostly this has been for 'Interviews With a Serial Killer' - the film Chris Jones invited me to work on. But today I headed off to The Art Organisation in Leicester and had a day of script development for the 'Memorabilia' movie, working alongside director Rhys Davies.

Memorabilia has been bubbling along on the back burner since the end of last year. It started as a one line idea, supplied by Martyn Quin. From there Martyn, Rhys and I figured out a rough three-act structure. And from there, after many re-writes, a long treatment.

Throwing ideas around is one thing. Sitting down to write a screenplay as a team is quite another. Would the creative chemistry work?

At 9am, surrounded by pictures and models illustrating Rhys's love for horror movies, we started scripting Memorabilia - a gentle and poignant comedy. We worked through solidly until 3.30pm - (other than the twenty minutes we took for lunch and the twenty we took to silence the building's alarm system.) I arrived home a couple of hours ago exhausted but happy.

Did the creative chemistry work? I'll give a big, fat yes to that.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Climate Change and Religious Communities

This morning I had the pleasure of attending part of a conference on the religious response to climate change. As port of this I was asked to give a 5 minute introduction to the Baha'i approach to these questions. I'm going to print my short talk below, but please be aware that this is not some definitive statement. This is merely my limited understanding of some of the Baha'i teachings on this issue:

We stand at a unique moment in human existence. It was only a few decades ago that we, the human race, acquired the capacity to completely destroy ourselves through nuclear war. And in this decade we have come to a certainty that continuing to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere will derange the equilibrium of the global climate. These are not age old problems taken to a new level. They are fundamentally new because they are global.

Writing in the nineteenth century, Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i Faith wrote: 'The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

This unity has an outer, material, organisational aspect. It also has an inner, ethical, spiritual aspect. The solution to the problem of climate change must include both these aspects.

If the problem of climate change were restricted to one city, Leicester for example, if we were producing all the greenhouse gasses and the pain of global warming were to be visited on us alone, then we would undoubtedly do all in our power to find a solution. Every individual, every household would make the needed changes in lifestyle. Because all would know the terrible consequences of inaction.

And if the problem of climate change were confined to one nation – similarly, the government and the people would work together to solve it. Passing laws, changing lifestyles. Knowing that if we didn’t, our water supply would run out, our crops would wither, our low lying cities would be inundated by the rising sea.

But the problem is global and the nations are at present failing to combat it. They are not acting with the unity required to solve this problem. They are acting like the last cowboys of the Wild West, accepting no law higher than themselves and their own guns.

Achieving a degree of material, organizational unity sufficient to combat global climate change requires new institutions and a new way of thinking. The Baha’i writings call for the establishment an international legislature and a comprehensive code of international law to regulate the global problems that we now face. In the words of Baha’u’llah: “The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”

But that alone is not enough. Indeed, without an inner unity it would be quite impossible. This inner unity requires us all to widen the circle of our own loyalty beyond our race, beyond our gender, beyond our nation and even beyond our religion. It calls us back to the fundamental meaning of the word 'religion' – to bind together in common cause. In this day the highest manifestation of religion should be our being bound together as one human family, to be waves of one sea and fruits of one branch, unified in all our rich diversity.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Frost / Nixon

Watching the movie Frost / Nixon last night left me with a question. How did the writer produce such an entertaining, suspenseful story for an audience that already knows the ending?

I don't think I need to put in a spoiler warning before saying that the real Richard Nixon was confronted by the real David Frost in a series of television interviews and ended up giving a more complete apology and admission of error than he gave to anyone else. That's history. What room is left for suspense?

And yet Frost / Nixon works as a story. Superbly well, in my opinion. We all know the bare bones of where we are going. But we don't know how we're going to get there. And we don't know what effect the journey is going to have on the characters.

Stories tend to have an outer journey and an inner one. The outer journey is the obvious quest. A knight attempting to recover the Holy Grail, for example. Or Frost attempting to make a successful television program and boost his career in America.

The inner journey is often a byproduct of the outer one. It is the fact that in seeking the Grail, the knight comes to a deeper understanding, a greater wisdom. Perhaps the outer quest is a failure - the Grail is not located. But the inner quest may still provide a victory.

What is the inner journey for Frost? That is something the history books do not so obviously tell. And that is the real substance of this story.

I'd wanted to watch Frost / Nixon to figure out how the writers would tackle this problem. I hadn't expected to enjoy it so much or to find it quite so compelling. If you are looking for a thoughtful, beautifully textured movie to get out on DVD, this one comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Research for novelists

"How do you do your research?" is the question I am most often asked at public readings.

"I don't!" is the first answer that comes to mind.

But the deeper truth is that I am not aware of doing research. This is because I accumulate so much strange information on account of my insatiable curiosity. Some might call it 'being nosey'. I prefer to look at it as a vocation.

Research is not usually a conscious process. It is a way of life.

How about this one: a safe door can get jammed closed in cold weather because a partial vacuum is formed inside. Or this: thieves sometimes try to steal slate gravestones from cemeteries because the slate itself is so valuable. Or this: Policemen trying to keep warm sometimes put their hands inside their stab vests.

I wouldn't have known where to look to find this kind of information. But it is all gold dust to a crime writer. And it is free. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open.

Perhaps this approach comes from my dyslexia. It is easier for me to see things than to read them. And perhaps it comes from laziness.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy-go-lucky review

Ever since I saw the poster image for the movie Happy-go-lucky, I have wanted to see it. There is something immediately inviting about the picture of Sally Hawkins playing the part of the protagonist Poppy. The open smile. The open gesture. The plastic bead necklace.

Last week I finally had the chance to borrow the DVD and am pleased to be able to say that the film delivered exactly what the poster had promised. Poppy is a delight to watch from start to finish. And although I couldn't really put my finger on the thread of a story plot, I was a happier, person with more of a bounce in my step after watching it.

Worlds are not in danger here. No one is killed. No banks are robbed. No dinosaurs are recreated. Poppy, her friends and her relatives are more or less unchanged from start to finish. The one person who changes is Scott, Poppy's driving instructor. So in a story-telling sense, he is the real protagonist. But that is not how it feels.

Confused? Sorry. That is what you get when you ask a structure-fixated writer to tell you about a film that is really about the audience spending a little time in the company of an extraordinary person.

That it works so well is testament to the superb acting and the director's achievement in co-creating these fascinating characters. Happy-go-lucky is a movie of the small, beautiful, everyday. It is a rare celebration of the breadth of the human spirit. And it is a reminder to writers such as myself to trust in what we are doing and not to feel the need to shoehorn a helicopter explosion into our screenplays.

Thank you Mike Leigh.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

National Poetry Day

It is National Poetry Day. Of all the themed days of the year, this is one of my favourites. Yes, I think it even beats the international Speak Like a Pirate Day (September 19th).

This year the theme of National Poetry Day is Heroes and Heroines.

Tonight I'll be heading into Leicester for a poetry evening at the Writers' Club. Hopefully I'll be able to perform the following new piece (though of course without the hyperlinks):

Cutting with light

In the musty cinema
our awkwardness dissolved in darkness
and pale beams cut the smoke seeded air
of 1977

Gripping the worn velvet of the seats
our pupils huge and hormones coursing
we watched as knights sparked light
in an epic duel of right v wrong.

I read about it afterwards
That modulated double hum
ninety Hertz
and ninety-eight

with a Doppler shift thrown in
as Ben Burtt swung
his shotgun microphone
before the speaker stack

It was iconic from day one
The static hiss as beam hit beam
and heroes pitched their strength
was interference from a cathode ray

The crew would later
have to shush the stars
‘We put the noise in afterwards,’ they’d say
‘It’s just a sound man’s trickery.’

But in all our adolescent grey on grey
we’d have traded real life
in a flash
for such high-contrast clarity

To choose the narrow path
or let the dark side win
and know for certain
which was which

Or wracked and wreathed
in luminous blue pain
change sides
cast down the enemy

And when Vader’s helmet was removed
revealing a broken man
made whole by one good choice
were not our own half-sins healed also?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

How to write great sex scenes

How to write great sex scenes may be a blog title that will get my site filtered out for adult content. But if your search engine has allowed you to reach this point, fear not. Nothing below should make you blush too deeply.

Here is the problem: A novel should take the characters through the full range of their emotions. That frequently means a journey to or from romantic love. The physical expression of romantic love is usually an act of sexual intimacy. Thus a good proportion of novelists will at some stage have to sit down and write a sex scene.

As a species we fixate on sex. But there are only a certain number of ways to do it and to describe it (however adventurous or flexible a writer you may be). Thus it is hard to be original when writing about sex. The writer risks becoming clich├ęd if he/she is not experimental enough and risks ridicule if he/she tries something a bit different.

Witness the annual ‘Bad Sex Awards’

The Bad Sex awards celebrate some of the most entertainingly ill-judged forays by authors into this well-trodden meadow. These are the authors who tried to put a fresh spin on an act as old as geological time. Read and be warned.

Unfortunately I have no great wisdom to share on describing the act itself. Any attempt would certainly get this blog blocked. My suggestion regards the build-up to the scene.

If you are writing a story about a terrorist planning to blow up a building, the explosion itself is just a moment. A couple of lines of description. It may be spectacular, but it lasts a couple of seconds of real time and contains little inherent tension. But the reader’s awareness of the bomb that may or may not go off – this has almost unlimited potential for drama.

Perhaps I am side-stepping the issue when I say that the part of the sex scene that writers should be most concerned about is the lead up to it or its aftermath.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Sorry for the long period of silence. I am once again rendered mute by Virgin Media. No telephone either.

Hopefully I'll be online again by Monday evening.