Last Updated on Saturday, 11 February 2012 16:13
Hello. I’m Owen, co-producer of The Elder, a thrilling cinematic journey into the unknown for us all: one that guides us through the sun-lit promise of childhood to the autumnal redemption of middle-age.
As you can see, our strap-line still needs work.
NB: a movie’s strap-line is the summarizing sentence that usually appears on the posters. It also tends to be one of the first promotional tools used by the producer to achieve backing for his or her movie. Often, the strap-line can become almost as famous as the movie itself. (Pointless Elder Pub Quiz Question #1 - name the three films that these legendary strap-lines are for:
“In space, no-one can hear you scream.”
“Let’s go to work.”
“Does for rock’n’roll what The Sound of Music did for hills.”
The first person writing in with the correct answer will - oh, I dunno - feel a little smug for the rest of their day.)
So, after my recent shredding of the Writer’s initial offerings (see Seb’s last post-but-one), I have been frog-marched to the blog to explain myself. I feel my position is somewhat analogous to a vicious killer of kittens being summoned to a convocation of cats – presided over by Peter Criss in full make-up. (To civilian followers of the blog, that was a crafty feline/Kiss allusion right there in your bitchin’ faces. Keep up, slackers.)
To begin with, puss-cats, some context...
I am a professional actor, and since leaving drama school in 1996, I’ve had the usual torrid career path of the middling, muddling thesp: some high points (handcuffing Kevin Spacey in a play at the Old Vic), some low (playing a tomato-ketchup stain in a Belgian advert for kitchen cleaner). Before drama school, I spent three or four years in a succession of grotesquely appalling heavy metal bands in the usual hare-brained, twenty-something belief in fame and world-wide notoriety. Which is how I met Seb. I auditioned him for a dreadful covers band I was fronting in the late 1980s in Winchester and ultimately forced him to play ‘Spirit of Radio’ by Rush. He was unable to master it and was forced to temporarily make way for a guitar genius from Andover. Seb has never forgiven me, and has been my best friend ever since.
Common strands in our relationship include a shared passion for heavy metal, a fervently peculiar enthusiasm for the electoral cycle and my regular satirical inclusion in books he occasionally writes about himself. We can sit for hours arguing over what position ‘The Opening Ritual’, the debut EP of Wolverhampton NWOBHM band Cloven Hoof, reached in the metal charts in 1982 (Pointless Elder Pub Quiz Question #2: what was the position?) whilst simultaneously conducting interminable investigations into the foreign policy of the Liberal Democrat party at the last election … the Liberal Democrat party in Japan. He will then write it all down and somehow make our deliberations appearing amusing. Undeniable literary skill, this kid.
Owing to my ‘career’ as an actor (see above) and progress as an international movie mogul (I once tried to help another friend of mine produce a film – you’d think my friends would learn), I also have a degree of knowledge about the whole process of writing a screenplay and shooting a film (aswell as acting in one, of course) that Seb doesn’t. By ‘a degree’ of knowledge, by no means do I intend that to be taken as a nationally recognised academic measure of proficiency. I mean ‘a degree’ as in an incremental fraction (and I mean fraction) of superior understanding: I’ve read tons of scripts in my time, but never actually written one. I’ve done my fair share of acting in front of a camera, but have never succeeded in being the proud father of my own baby movie. I have occasionally had my name roll past at the end of the credits, but never in the capacity of producer. Yet. In other words, I talk a good game but have I actually kicked a ball in anger? No sir. My knowledge is, in the final analysis, not dissimilar to Music from the Elder itself – ie: not as impressive as it sounds.
Hence my complete awe - and not inconsiderable anxiety - at watching Seb dive into the writing of the Elder script without so much as taking off his clothes and leaving them on the beach first. The big, fat, hairy cojones of the man! I’ve always had this admiration for him: his ability to simply create without allowing considerations of convention or form get in the way and tie him to a state of writer’s paralysis. If he has an idea, he will simply apply it forthwith and deal with issues as they arise. Like, as a young man, his aptitude for making up nonsense lyrics on the spot while breathily intoning in a girly voice over a sweetly plucked guitar. Like how, more recently, he writes books.
Let’s call this approach, shooting first, asking questions later.
Now this is fine & glorious if one is, for instance, noodling with one’s guitar in an ‘improvised, less dogmatic, non-idiomatic ‘ electronic trio called Crater, available to listen to on Spotify and other outlets. (See how I help him whilst simultaneously kicking him in the teeth?) However, it becomes potentially more of a problem when you’re approaching one of the most structurally unforgiving forms there is... (cue huge ‘E7’ chord with liberal use of whammy bar):
A man called Joseph Campbell suggested that as a species, homo sapiens is hard-wired to grasp story structure no matter what era or culture we come from – it’s a universally understood succession of points on a ‘Hero’s Journey’ that has its roots in myth dating back thousands of years. And he must be right, because George Lucas had Campbell sitting next to him when Lucas wrote Star Wars.
William Goldman, who wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man & All the President’s Men, and is generally revered as something of a deity in Hollywood, is quoted as saying: “Screenplays are structure.” In other words, there is a clear and present scaffolding around a screenplay that a screenwriter tinkers with at his peril.
This has to do, I think, with the immediacy of the medium. Because film allows the transmission of the story at an almost kinetic level, the milestones on our narrative odyssey (inciting incident, plot point one, plot point two, showdown, resolution - or if you’re Campbell: call to arms, road of trials, achieving the goal, blah blah blah, just go & look it up on Wikipedia if you’re that interested) have to be intuited by all. Even if they’re at different points, back to front, upside down and clothed in song and zombie dwarves, those milestones still have to be definably present and doing their job.
Now, I could bore you rigid with the difference between three act, four act or seven act structure (too late, you say?); or the way fifteen story-beats divide into forty mini-beats; or who the blinking bejesus Robert McGee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder are. But really, what would be the point? Because you would quite cheerfully say: “PLEASE, enough already, all I need is a story that’ll move me, thrill me, shake me, make me care for the characters, and has a beginning, a middle and an end...!”
And you’d be damn right. Because that’s the three act movie structure in a nutshell. A nutshell in italics. And now in higher case. (And also bold.) BEGINNING. MIDDLE. END. And without really, truly channelling that structure - with all its bewildering array of variations, narrative possibilities and subtle subtextual reverberations - the audience probably won’t be moved, thrilled or shaken by the journey of the characters the film is about. That’s why structure matters: without it, what you’ll be watching is something closer to an art installation. Might evoke a sensation – but won’t have told you a story. Like wearing a bin-bag on your legs rather than a pair of fetching slacks. People will certainly stop and look, but ultimately, you’re a mess and you’ll never make any money.
So much for form. But the same criteria could also be applied to the process of writing. Because it’s such a structured form, writing a screenplay also requires you to adhere to basic rules in the construction of the thing. Obviously, no-one’s holding a gun to your head and shouting at you to DO IT THIS WAY, OR NOT ALL!!! ...(although, to be fair, I came quite close to purchasing a fire-arm); it’s just that it has been done so many times before by so many people that an optimal strategy has been refined over the years to facilitate the smoothest possible writing process. For you the writer. As well as for him, the bastard. PRODUCER, not bastard, producer is what I meant. Producer.
Basically, we’re on hugely trodden territory here, with starving scribes in their draughty garrets worrying their keyboards/biros over the minutiae of this bollocks for all of this century and most of the last one too. But Seb – powered by a nuclear blast of iconoclastic enthusiasm – launched himself into the whole process and simultaneously sloughed off the requirements of the form and the process like a great big lovable hippopotamus in a pond full of A4-sized lilies. A hippo who can write. And talk. And play guitar. (Reasonably well, these days.)
And he began to write the screenplay from a standing start. By which I mean, first-line-of-dialogue-in-the-first-scene sort of standing start: no treatment, no synopsis, no blueprint, no plan, no nothing. As startling and ill-advised as an Englishman striding naked into the Serengeti, grinning broadly.
NOT EVEN A STRAP-LINE, LADIES & GENTLEMEN, NOT EVEN A COCKERMAMIE STRAP-LINE!
So I warned him. I wrote in an email: “Please tell me you’ve at least written a synopsis first.” Which, bearing in mind he’d just sent me his first three pages and it was the week before Christmas, was perhaps not the most tactful, or indeed Christian, response. The lamb had nervously proffered his first delicate submission; in return, he needed reassurance, a kind comment, a gentle touch on the buttock. Not a chilly put-down demanding an immediate volte face. But hell, what’s done was done. The door had opened. And it sort of went a wee bit sour and downhill from there. He got a little stroppy and committed to doing it his way, he had the thing all worked out in his head, leave me the feck alone, you big, hairy bully, and so on. So, I submitted. It’s his baby after all, let him mistreat it if he wishes, social services (me) will come knocking on the door with a protection order before he has a chance to do any real damage.
Also, crucially, a substantial part of me genuinely believed that Seb would be able to pull a rabbit from the hat and create something of rare beauty from scratch if he was given his head. After all, this was the gentleman who twenty five years before had stirred countless teenage hearts in a variety of Winchester living rooms with his guitar, his friend, Orbs, and his free-form musical imprecations to ‘Fuck the Parrot’. This is an artist, I’ll have you know, who is capable of occasional flashes of genius. Anything is possible.
And indeed it was. Unfortunately, what was possible in this instance was also what was most probable – indeed, with hindsight, was all too inevitable. Here was someone who had no particular prior interest in films, had never read a screenplay from start to finish, and had read no more than the opening chapters of one of those countless how-to-write-a-screenplay manuals we’d bought when we’d both had a bit to drink in Central London; and who was insisting, still, on providing no treatment for himself by way of initial support but was wading ever deeper into the swamp of his unplanned, un-sketched, unbidden first draft. What did I imagine it’d be like?
When I read the first 25 pages of Seb’s script the week after Christmas, I could, if I’d had but the sense, have reacted rationally. It had a lot a lot of really good points. Plenty of areas with great potential. The fundamental premise was sound and really rather curiously engaging. But the actual execution of it all was crashingly bad. Simply because of a number of easy screenplay techniques that were pelting through the pages of his script, frothing at the mouth, screaming: “I’M NOT HERE, READERS, I’M NOT F*****G HERE!!!”
Telling not showing – problem. Way too much dialogue - problem. Weak characterisation - problem. Scenes much too long – problem. But learn the techniques & precepts for dealing with these flaws fast and well, and you’re on the way to creating a first draft that we can really work with, old chum.
That’s what I should have said to myself. (And later to him.) Unfortunately, I let myself be carried away by my sense of disappointment. It’s like the Van Halen reunion: I mean, c’mon, Dave & Eddie are in their late fifties, they still probably despise each other and they could do with the money. Did we honestly think their first offering after twenty five years apart was likely to be any good? (Pointless Elder Pub Quiz Question #3: Did we?? Seriously???) Surely we only have ourselves to blame if we feel just a little let down. They simply need some time to get back in the groove. That’s all. No biggie.
Likewise Seb. He just needs some time to figure out which buttons to press, which levers to pull, and how much to squeeze the sticky-outty thing on the narrative transmat beacon console thingamajig. Doddle. Oh, and a producer/colleague who doesn’t totally over-react at the Writer’s first stab and end up giving catastrophically clumsy and almost exclusively negative feedback.
Yeah, that too. That one’s going to be crucial, I think.
Constructive feedback – and its alternative
In the event, I panicked. I stalled for time. My favourite – and, as we both found out, most disastrous – ploy was to suggest that I wait til he’d been given a camera by Mentorn, and then give him the feedback by way of a video-diary. That way, I could rehearse and fine-tune what I had to say. I took advice from my wife. She’s a psychotherapist – she knows about this shit. I read self-help books. I put my fist in my mouth and wailed like a fool. Long dark night of the soul. Plot point two.
Y’see, here’s the deal: I love Seb. He’s my best & most treasured friend. We share that chemical something that all best friends have: as soon as you meet up, something clicks and you just relax. Why would someone want to drop a fat, ugly rock into the pool of his best friend’s enthusiasm? But a producer must and should if necessary. Act two - rising conflict, right there, students. Also, I’ve always been blown away by everything he’s ever written – no need for any negative feedback before. Until now. But I needed him to radically change course before he got any further into his swamp.
Anyway, I froze. Sitting on his sofa, camera on, “So what did you think of the script, Owen?” Rabbit caught in headlights. Of car driven by kitten. And out I breathed and proceeded to unburden myself of all the negative voices that had been reverberating in the lunatic echo-chamber of my head for the preceding few weeks. To begin with. Before I said a single kind word about the script. And his face started to drop, he began to look uncomfortable, and I blathered on like an idiot with a chain-saw who can’t turn it off. In a room with a kitten. A kitten who’s got out of the car by now. No, forget the car. Kitten in a car? Doesn’t make sense. Wrong genre. On & on it went: I’m worried about your lack of this or lack of that, this won’t work, you need to understand this or that, these scenes are simply not act-able, etc, etc, ad nauseam. And then, eventually, finally, after what seemed like an excruciating eternity, I found the off-switch to the murder weapon and gradually stopped speaking. Silence. Then quietly mumbled some of the things that I liked about his work. And then felt dreadful and embarrassed. Far, far too late.
Jesus, it was horrible. Like that scene in Hostel.
To compound the misery, I left my A4 sheet of notes that I’d brought along with me on the Hunter coffee table. For the most part, this was written (I thought) in the general style of our email exchanges: curt, knock-about, occasionally sarcastic, um, robust. My plan had been to pass on these notes after I’d given my vocal feedback in the deluded assumption that the atmosphere would have been congenial and good-humoured enough to withstand some forensic pummelling on paper. Big misjudgement. If in doubt, NEVER write it down. And if you have to, keep it sweet. As I’ve discovered, being direct and no-nonsense when imparting critical written feedback can very quickly be mis-interpreted as brutal and aggressive. Nut/sledgehammer. Kitten/chainsaw. Ooooops.
As it turned out, yer man took the whole experience magnificently on the chin – and we proceeded to have a splendid evening teasing out further juicy plot-strands for the screenplay over a curry. Not for nothing is he my best pal. But as he told me later, he was devastated and briefly wanted to give it all up. Head/hands/shame.
Over the course of the last fortnight, we’ve had something of a further email tussle (see Seb’s last post) which allowed us to iron out a few relational glitches following the great feedback debacle at his house. On reflection, I was concerned that Seb was being carried away on a tidal wave of enthusiasm and rushing headlong into proceedings with the net result being an amateur pile-up in front of a sniggering prime-time documentary audience. He assured me he was being calm and steady as a snooker player and he had no pretensions to being Werner c*****g Herzog. I threatened to resign because I didn’t want to end up being a nag, and suck all the vim & buzz out of him. He told me to stop shouting at him and being so hysterical. I told him he never does any household chores, treats this house like a hotel and came home the other night smelling of perfume. He bought me flowers and told me not to...
Whoops, wrong relationship.
Basically, we resolved things handily, and have decided that the optimum space for creating this movie is somewhere approximately half way between Seb’s delusions of grandeur and my default angry pessimism.
Grand. Pessimistic. Angry.
There’s your strap-line, folks.
Keep It Simple, Stupid.