CREATIVITY FOR SCRIPTWRITERS 1 day course London Saturday Feb 21st 2015
A course for scriptwriters in all media – TV, film, radio, theatre – designed to help you generate exciting ideas and characters, and give your creativity a boost with a day of fun, stimulating writing exercises. Run by TV drama script editor, producer and script consultant PHILIP SHELLEY.
This week radio dramatist JACK HOLLAND has written a fascinating, thoughtful response to my blog two weeks ago about the ADAM CURTIS : UNSTORYFIABLE talk at this year’s BBC Drama Writers festival.
Some thoughts on the Unstoryfiable Story
The Script That Came in From the Cold
Parts of the world in which Curtis is interested have now become unstoryfiable.
We used to give politicians a vote and they’d tell us a story about the world. But that doesn’t happen any longer. There’s a new system of power in the western world that we can’t get to grips with, one that’s not interested in telling stories, not interested in us.
The thesis that the contemporary world is ‘unstoryfiable’ is one that has occurred before, during the Cold War. In the days immediately after the end of WWII, politicians and the military hierarchy realised that major wars could never be fought in the same way. The shadow of the bomb, and the philosophy of what become Mutually Assured Destruction, meant that clashes between troops on foreign soil were historically irrelevant. Future global conflicts would mean massive attacks on the civilian population via ICBMs. Unlike the cinematic and literary discourse of WWII, there would be no individual or group acts of heroism or resistance, merely men in bunkers pressing buttons. Similarly there would be no real winners: only a side that remained marginally less destroyed.
After the initial slew of self-justificatory war movies and novels, there was a shift in Hollywood production that mirrored the neuroses of the day as writers tried to explain this changed world in a narrative that was coherent and entertaining. Though the enemy was ‘known’ he was faceless. The almost unthinkable horror of the weapons he would use led to a series of apocalyptic films that sublimated this sense of helplessness against unknown evil into Earth-struggling-against-invaders-from-outer space movies; these were so popular as to become a staple of the 50s B-movie diet (the best example being Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The terror of annihilation by the bomb was also played out in nuclear disaster movies (On The Beach, The Day the Earth Caught Fire). The Day the Earth Stood Still arguably fits into both categories. The McCarthyite era fanned the fear of the Red under the bed, and the idea that seemingly normal next-door neighbours could be concealed agents of destruction of civilisation (AKA ‘The American Way’).
My point is that until the late 1960s and Fail Safe/Dr Strangelove/Manchurian Candidate etc, filmmakers did not know how to storify this anti-conflict that broke all the rules of the war their generation had just won in Europe and the Pacific. They had to create new genres, or transform existing ones, in order to fix these fears in a narrative.
I think two things happened. The first was a return to a classic genre where good and evil were black and white – the Western. In this Manichean, reassuring world, the bad guys were obvious from the colour of their skin (or even the colour of their stetson). Studios churned Westerns out, audiences went home reassured. Within a decade of the end of WWII the Western genre had become more sophisticated as writers and directors reworked its themes. A study of the work of John Ford reveals an increasingly complex oeuvre that parallels the changing moods in Cold War America: by the time his most morally ambitious film The Searchers was released in 1956, the HUAC hearings were in decline and McCarthy discredited.
Secondly, neurosis, both individual and collective became valid subject matter for film for the first time. This reached its apotheosis in the movies of Hitchcock. Consider The Birds from this aspect: the everyday, the mundane suddenly becomes the agent for civilisation’s downfall; harmless objects become deadly (cf. the celebrated crop spraying sequence in North by Northwest). As McCarthy had claimed, even individuals are not who they seem: the mild-mannered desk clerk in Psycho becomes the killer capable of hiding in a Freudian nightmare, even disrupting the traditional grammar of the movie’s storytelling (where else is the character in whom we are most invested killed in the second reel ?).
Hence I’d argue that some of the best film making comes when people feel the world around them to be unstoryfiable. The old tropes have to be recalibrated to include contemporary concerns, or new ones created. Eventually these concerns and fears become objectified or reified. Later in the Cold War such scripts become increasingly sophisticated: apply this thesis to The Stepford Wives or even Rosemary’s Baby.
Curtis points out that “Large chunks of the world aren’t being reported on – because we don’t understand them. The world has become unstoryfiable until we find a new way of telling the story… It [the world] needs a conceptual frame that we haven’t come up with yet to ‘storify’ it.”
I think the converse is simultaneously true: that most audiences cannot understand complex events unless they are framed in a narrative construct that resembles a story. To develop Curtis’s point, the financial crash, war in Afghanistan, the situation in the Middle East – these events are so complex (or have such powerful competing, antithetical narrative standpoints) that they cannot be reduced to a story, at least not from the proximity of today’s historical perspective. Valiant attempts like Syriana have to be kept oblique, and reductive crowd-pleasers such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty [ZDT] are really suspense movies grafted onto recent wars, not stories that have grown out of it.
Like Zero Dark Thirty, Four Lions also concludes with the death of Osama Bin Laden. But Four Lions is arguably a more daring and more original work that goes much further into telling us the unstoryfiable than either of Katherine Bigelow’s recent films.
Admittedly Riz Ahmed’s performance carries the movie, and the humour goes too far into slapstick and stereotypes, but Four Lions presents a far more persuasive framing of the question ‘why?’ than two and a half hours of the tired tropes and quasi-fascism of ZDT. ZDT pleases us with great action sequences and brutal (but of course ‘justified’) torture scenes, yet makes no attempt at an understanding of ‘why’. One script tells the story: the other tries to explain the unstoryfiable. You leave ZDT thinking about night vision goggles, silenced rounds and preventable explosions in remote CIA HQs. You leave Four Lions considering why intelligent, articulate Brits become Jihadis.
[Curtis] discussed the phenomenon of Facebook – and its emotional contagion. The modern power structure of our world – that can read and predict in a way that we can’t. Like Facebook and the Amazon algorithm…. a fascinating and significant minority of scripts entered for this year’ C4 screenwriting course do seem to be dramatising the phenomenon of how we live so much of our lives through our personal devices and screens.
Interestingly, Radio 4 has had a slew of dramas over the last 18 months concerning the effects of computers and information technology on the way we see the world. Among the better attempts are Billions (Ed Harris), We Outnumber You (Ed Hime), Love Contract (Mike Bartlett), Dream Repair (Tom Legandre), Drone Pilots (Robert Myers) and Mind Out (Jonathan Myerson). I would like to be able to claim that because of its low budget and comparatively quicker production schedules, radio drama is better placed to reconsider the conceptual frame you mention, but I think that would be overstating the case.
I think such a framework will be a slow and steady evolution. Let’s not forget that all the major providers of drama form part of a socio-economic elite, even if the power structures that support that elite are more amorphous than in the past.
Why do we prosecute old entertainers but not those involved in the financial crises that have made such a huge negative difference to our world? And companies like Wonga – sending out fake lawyers’ letters but nothing’s going to happen. Why do we not know whether we’ve won the Afghan war? Or indeed what the Afghan war was for / about?
Vis-a-vis the question of prosecuting addled old entertainers while Rome burns –well, ’twas ever thus. The majority of Henry VIII’s subjects were probably much more interested in the latest round of local bear bating than they were in the developments of the Reformation. Paeodphilia (and to a lesser extent ‘abuse’) is the great evil de nos jours, and while no right-minded person would ever condone any such behaviour, it does seem that yesterday’s ‘celebrities’ are paying the price, not for any absolute moral crime, but for the changing views of society. Anyone over 50 will remember that the mores of the 1970s were significantly looser (that’s not to say better) than they are today, and to impose a contemporary moral code on historical behaviour seems to serve the needs of the chastisers more than punishing, educating or rehabilitating the guilty.
Conclusion – feeling is the most important thing in creating a story – creating a feeling around that story. [Curtis] challenged the screenwriters present to find ways in which to ‘storify’ this New World in which we live.
My conclusion – the answer is not to write about the technology or mechanics that have created our Timid New World, as Curtis suggests, nor analyse how we got here. The drama lies in the way Wonga has shafted grandparents; of how a father comes to terms with the death of his son in a war that neither of them believe in; or indeed how a bunch of misfits embrace death for a war they do believe in but don’t really understand. Exploring the effects will help illuminate the causes. These are themes, I reckon, that would have been familiar to Aristotle.
A huge thank you to Jack for this excellent article.
Until next week
All the best
Dec 5th 2014