Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Review: Writing the Short Film

Short films are, for many a young and new filmmaker, their first step into the business. Make a few, make a good one, you can generate a little buzz about yourself. Give people an idea of what your tastes and strengths are. However, their brief length can pose a challenge for writers, trained or not. So what could help here?

Back in 2004, screenwriting lecturers Cooper and Dancyger decided to add their perspective to the world of screenwriting manuals and bibles, but rather than doing the umpteenth book on features or coming up with another cute name for a three-act reskin, instead tackled the subject of short films. While still framed with Aristotlean principles and act structure, Cooper and Dancyger keep their focus small and tight by analysing and diseecting how the short form tell stories, how to convey information within limited time and what the differences are between feature and short, beyond length.

One of the very few screenwriting tomes exclusively about shorts, and certainly one of the more well known, Cooper and Dancyger deliver a solid enough guide to how all the fundamentals of film narrative (dialogue, characterisation, pacing, want vs need, subtext) can be applied and prepared for the short form, but it is unmistakably the work of academics. As such, the more bold and colourful among ye may be turned off by it. 

Whereas other writing manuals favour a more humourous, conversational style of writing, designed to ease the aspiring writer in and create a sort of bond between guru and pupil, the duo write with a clinical precision and analytical frame of mind. It very much reads like a classroom piece, making the book feel and read more like a collection of university essays than, necessarily, one writer speaking to another in a relatable fashion.

This by no means is a big negative, and Cooper and Dancyger do their best to supply the reader with tools, detailed maps and means to prepare a short screenplay. They frame most of it around a two act principle (though also concede to one act) using some adaptative exercises, tackling the classic Greek myth of Icarus, as well as scenes from shorts they or their students have been involved with, to illustrate their points. It works decently and it never had me confused. Indeed, some of the best parts come from these segments, where they go through revisions and show you how something changed.

Still, it all feels sterile and written without enthusiasm, which can leave it a little dry and ponderous at times. It's more instructive than it is motivational or inspirational, which does align it more with the stereotype of screenwriting books. Do not confuse this with implying the book is sloppy or boring; merely written by observers and analysts of the craft, teaching classes and engaged in an academic discussion of film, versus the more impassioned approach of a guru or working screenwriter of larger projects wanting to share tricks and fun anecdotes. 

On its own merits, Short Film is capably written, well structured and clearly geared at new film students. Indeed, it reads like classroom material: thorough, lengthy but always at an intellectual distance, more a teaching tool than a standalone piece that makes for a good read in its own right.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

More Pablo and Bang2Write - Ringing in 2019

So, belated Happy New Year to everyone. Hope 2018 was good to you, and here's hoping 2019 has more in store. It was quite a whirlwind year for me, with many highs and lows, but I managed to get my first few baby steps into the business, so hooray! 

So, a few announcements. First, I can now confirm I've written a second Pablo episode for the next series. In total, that brings my episode contributions to 2, and very proud I am of them. It's been an entertaining and highly educational experience. Andrew Brenner and Paper Owl Films were really cool to work with and knew exactly what they wanted. If and when there's a Series 3, I'll be all too happy to jump back in!

Next, I have contributed to jack-of-all-trades writing website Bang2Write with their little miniseries, What 22 Industry Pros Don't and Do Want. The articles are what they sound like: readers, producers and development folk in both film and TV as well as in books give their two pence on what they do or don't like when they see a new piece of work come in.



First up, here are the DONT'S.
And now, the DOS.

I'm also in very early stages of a new ten minute play, to be potentially produced by the Oast's Sandra Barfield (who helped bring Cull to life last year) but as said, it's still early days. Beyond that, working as always on new specs and honing my craft.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Three Years on: Was Ridley Scott's The Counselor that Bad?

What a reversal of fortune and fate movies can take,eh? Iconic director Ridley Scott teams with novelist Cormac McCarthy to deliver a modern morality tale about sex, drugs and consequence.Having an all-star cast certainly doesn’t hurt your film’s credibility, and the buzz around this film was considerable, to put it mildly. But like Steve Zaillian’s All The King’s Men seven years earlier, all thetalent in the world won’t shield a film from critical wrath, and a wrath indeed was laid upon this film.Accusations of being ‘slow, boring and pretentious’ sounded like war drums, and McCarthy’s distinctive dialogue was called ‘overwritten, indulgent and unnatural’ by many in the critical community. Add a mediocre box office, and you have what seems to eb a certified ‘turkey’. 

So, where do I stand on this? Boy, where or how does one start with this? Well, I'll throw this out to provide proper context: this isn't a high octance, blood & bosoms thriller. Don't go in expecting some akin to Pulp Fiction meets No Country for Old Men, contrary to what the marketing tried to present. This is more of a drama,and a slow burn one at that. Scott and McCarthy have instead crafted a gritty, dingy morality tale about the nature of choice and consequence set against a Mexican backdrop, and one filled with analogies and parables. In fact, for all of its big names and budget, it's very anti-Hollywood in its approach, ideas and ending.To make my thoughts easier to digest, as there is quite a lot to say, 

I'll split the following into Pros and Cons, as they both have knock on effects on one another. 

Ready? Let’s roll. 

The actual plot follows our titular character (Fassbender), a lawyer who has it all (Money and Cruz. Nuff said), as he decides to try his hand at the drugs trade with the help of some rather unusual middlemen (Pitt and Bardem). Of course, his naivety costs him dearly, and sets his world on an upside down turn.So, the Pros: Our casting quintet are excellent, as you'd expect, with Fassbender and Cruz' naive optimism and charisma a nice contrast to the distant, more deliberate and indulgent mentality that Pitt, Bardem and Diaz share as part of the drugs outfit. In fact, Bardem and Diaz serve as direct antithesis to our main couple, very much relishing their debauchery, and these two have an absolute ball with it.As for the technicals, the much undervalued Dariusz Wolski delivers cinematography that is nothing short of gorgeous. He captures the golden, sun baked landscapes and vibrant colours of Mexico andt he uncontrolled high life of these people, while contrasting that with the almost humourless and clinical grey of anywhere outside Mexico that hasn't also embraced this unadulterated indulgence. Musically, gaming and TV veteran Daniel Pemberton provides a rather effective score that enhances the semi-surreal atmosphere, merging the traditional Latin romanticism from say, Horner's Zorro scores, with a grungier sound akin to Morricone's western scores with the use of what I assume are electric guitars. 

Getting back to the actual story now, there is actually a lot of smart construction going on here:throughout, the script offers us numerous parallels between the world and our characters, like our contrasting couples serving as echoes, Diaz owning pet cheetahs to mirror her own animalistic nature,in addition to also reflecting her slightly predatory nature, the diamond Fassbender buys and what it says about value, and indeed the running thread of deceptive appearances and the falsehoods that spring from it. If there's one thing McCarthy can't be faulted on, its thematic detail. Plus, contrary to what a number of critics have claimed, the dialogue isn't just endless soliloquies and monologues (save for one scene, but that's for later), and are told more as anecdotes that are relevant to the situation, often as little warnings to the Counselor that he does not heed. Examples include Pitt and Bardem talking about Catrel killing methods when talking over the Counselor's drug deal and what's he getting himself into, or Diaz using her cheetahs to comment on the violent and animal nature of humans to another colleague at the end who also faces a similar choice to the Counselor. While lines like 'truth has no temperature' may not be the most natural, the people who say it are not the grimy Cartel thugs or lower class Mexicans, but people who have money and asense of mock-sophistication, as well as probably on something given their trade, so its not entirely unjustified or inexplicable to have them talk like this. In fact, its often in one-on-one, intimate scenarios, so that can also be factored in. Again, this isn't the bulk of the dialogue, and it only happens maybe four-five times across the film's entire runtime, so don't worry about actors constantly trying to perform lengthy Shakespearean pieces in the middle of, say, a big shootout or party scene, for the sake of awards notice.

And now, the Cons: While McCarthy may be great on themes and parallels, his actual plotting issomething else entirely, and this is probably, in part, what did the film in for most viewers. The narrative is clunky and lacking in details, which is a shock given how much attention he paid to the other elements. These details cover elements that you would think make up the basics: who are these 'associates' that Bardem and Pitt work for? What are their positions relative to them? How many cartels are there, at least, in direct relevance to our story? How much power does Diaz wield? Why, why, why, why, why? In fact, if that's too up in the air (how fitting), then try this for size: Diaz has her goons kill this biker who has the keys to a drug truck. Then, when her guys are driving along, another cartel duo come in and steal it. Okay, so why isn't she concerned that her own stolen truck was stolen by what seems to be another cartel when she seemsset on accumulating the assets of others across the second half? Or how about, also in the second half, The Counselor's world starts to unravel, and Cruz gets taken. There's a scene not long after where Diaz is talking to someone on the phone, but we don't hear the person on the other end. Who is she speaking to? The scene right before has Fassbender appealing to this lawyer/crime boss to give a hand in getting his girl back, so is she talking to him? Was this part of her plan, and how does it benefit her? If not, who is it then? The other cartel? Wouldn't that then make her plan overly complex given what I just mentioned? Because McCarthy doesn't define who is who in relative terms, good luck figuring out who really benefits from what in this film, and who is responsible for what.

And then comes the monologue that I'm all too confident is what upset the critics: so the lawyer says he can't help Fassbender. So far, sad scene, but then comes one of the most overwritten,overlong and bloated monologues ever put to screen. It seems to go on forever, dragging for several minutes as the lawyer rambles about poets and choices and consequences and 'the world you live in' and oh good lord, just move on already! There is no subtlety or grace here, and as if that's not enough,the lawyer repeats the whole 'consequences' bit several times, as if once wasn't enough. It's like listening to the same verse on a CD on loop for at least five minutes. Where the hell is a script editor when you need them? 

Oh, and the extended version? The opening sex scene is a little longer, the scene at the diamond merchant's is extended to add another long monologue about Jews, a phone conversation between Fassbender and Cruz is fully put back together with cutaways to her, and some scenes are a little rearranged. It flows a little better, but it doesn't cure any of the film's problems, and is probably one of the least substantial ‘Expanded’ cuts Scott has put out.

So, mix together an overly ambiguous story that definitely feels like it would be more suited to the printed medium, slow pacing, one of the most overt bits of 'theme-dumping' ever, and of course, Diaz' car-fudging. It really happens, and in all honesty, it seems too surreal and comical for a film this serious and theme heavy. The end result of this weird mixture? A film that isn't awful for lack of trying, but it screams of inexperience. It's no turd, and has a number of aspects to it that are good, but its core narrative is so clumsily handled despite all the attention to detail elsewhere that it leaves me sort of torn as to what to feel, but certainly not boiling hatred. If any of this has you intrigued, I advise rental unless you're a die-hard fan of Scott or McCarthy.

(This article was originally posted on ThirdActFilm.com on

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Relationship of Writers and Critics - A Response to Sarah Phelps, Niall Johnson and The ABC Murders

Another year, another Christie adaptation that does well but causes a ruckus among devotees of Mystery's First Lady. TV veteran and self-described 'Pervert' Sarah Phelps turned her skills to adapting one of Poirot's adventures, but as with Ordeal of Innocence, rejigged it to surprise audiences. Poirot is now old and faded, a shadow of his former self, and his battle with the elusive 'A.B.C' takes on a seemingly more personal dimension.

Now ostensibly, fans being upset about changes to source material is par for the course and wouldn't be worth talking about, save for in this instance, an additional debate arose. Phelps, as her moniker implies, is very upfront about her views, and as such, tends to joke or shrug off Twitter critique. One such example was from poet Niall Johnson, who wrote a detailed review of his dislike of the adaptation. Phelps blew it off and this then engendered discussion about viewers having the right, or need, to speak directly with creators.

Sure enough, this snowballed into other screenwriters offering their two pence on taking critique from Joe public.

DISCLOSURE: I do not know either of the two main individuals or have read the original 'The ABC Murders'. While Phelps could've, perhaps, taken the criticism better, she is also a veteran screenwriter with a particular sense of humour and it's not my place to lecture her. As for Johnson, while the review is passionate, it's also a little dodgy in structure and overfocuses on fealty to source material and not enough on the merits or negatives of the series itself as a standalone work.

This is an interesting topic for me, having walked on both sides: longtime followers know I used to do film and TV criticism, starting in an amateur capacity on Youtube before transitioning to, however briefly, paid work for websites. There is a tendency, however innaccurate, to assume that critics are some manner of vanguard, a sort of 'quality police', there to tell Hollywood or the industry wherever what's right and wrong. Add in the democratization of opinion, where anyone with an internet connection and a platform can share their views i.e. be a critic, surely it must be a free for all?

Of course, a cursory glance at box office or ratings guide like the BARB show that negatively reviewed material does not always do badly, nor does well reviewed material always do well. Nor should numbers determine what you like: we all have differing opinions/tastes and there's nothing wrong with that. However, that right to express views is not what's being taken umbrage with here. Rather, this is about if said democratization entitles one to address and critique a creator directly on a large platform, regardless of said critic's merit or background.

Partially yes, but mostly no. INSOFAR AS TAGGING CREATORS IN, I must stress.

Yes, the openness of a platform like Twitter makes criticism or differing views impossible to avoid, and so long as terms of Use are not violated, they are fine to do so. However, it's important to remember Phelps, Holdsworth, Jenner and others are not against criticism; they just don't find it tactful for people to bombard them directly with reviews. Boundaries exist and politeness doesn't matter if you're crossing a decorum line. It's the presumption that being a viewer on Twitter entitles you to have a direct audience with a creator i.e. @ your reviews.

Even if you don't intend it to be rude, it still is, since you're shoving your work directly under someone's nose when you have no real need to, since there are other ways to express opinion, and presuming you must be listened to. Yes, Twitter is a public platform, but there's a considerable difference between simply writing up your opinion, positive or negative, and sharing among peers or enthusiasts, and then shoving your critique right in the face of a creator. By doing this, you are presuming your view is more worthy of specific attention when there's no qualifiers for it: your own subjective opinion is no more inferior or superior to someone else who shared it via normal channels.

It also, unhelpfully, presumes there's no quality control in the industry (Script editors, development and producers? What's that?!), or that creators never get told no. Oooh boy, where do you even begin with that... 

And that's not getting into the logistical headache of how does a creator read through reams and reams of often contradictory opinions on platforms as big as Twitter or reddit or Youtube? How does he or she decide what gets priority? By platform? By length? By quality of grammar and punctuation? By the fact that the person is a writer? If so, what kind? Is a playwright or novelist's argument as valid as a another screenwriter's?

Even on the professional side, critics don't really view themselves as guides or advisors to the film or TV industry. That's not the relationship. They don't write reviews with the purpose of making an artist change their work: they write because they have a passion for the medium and want to express and discuss their reactions, emotional and intellectual, to a creator's work. They help us see their work in a grander context. Mark Kermode's certainly spoken many times about the difference between critics and practitioners. If critics had enough power to really kill a project or tell off the biz, well, BvS and Venom, among many examples.

So, does all this mean the industry is above reproach and you can't criticize things? NO. You can still write or film reviews, still going on Twitter or reddit and discuss and still be free to watch what you want to. But do it because you want to talk and debate, because you have passion, not because you want to be an armchair director and tell people FAR MORE EXPERIENCED than yourself how to do their jobs. That's not criticism or brutal honesty, that's hubris and both fandom and the industry are filled with enough wannabes as is.