This week a look back at some of my drama highlights from this Autumn so far –
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018
SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (adapted from one of his own short stories). Lead actor Bill Nighy was interviewed afterwards and talked about how director Kar Hunter sold the job to him – told him 3 things about the shooting process – 1. No close-ups. 2. No improvisation. 3. No shots of anyone getting in and out of cars, going in and out of houses.
I think we can all learn from no.3. There aren’t many times where these sorts of shots are anything other than dead screen-time. A good reminder that every shot, every moment, has to count. If you’re writing scenes in which characters get in and out of cars, walk in and out of houses, brush their teeth, shower, have breakfast, dial a phone number, buy something in a shop…I could go on – think very carefully about whether you need these moments. Do they tell us something vital about the characters? Do they have story meaning? Do they advance or change the story? If not, cut them out.
Screenwriting is so much about the way you cut between the different scenes, as much about what you leave out as what you include. The great virtue of screenwriting and the way you can cut between scenes is that you can leave out the boring bits and include only the interesting bits.
Screenwriting is about telling the story in the way you move between the scenes. In this way script editors and writers need to think like film editors.
HAPPY NEW YEAR COLIN BURSTEAD
Writer / director Ben Wheatley introduced the film with a self-deprecating references to Mike Leigh. ‘I’ve done my NUTS IN MAY with SIGHTSEEERS, and this is my ABIGAIL’S PARTY.’ (It may also have been something to do with the fact that Mike Leigh was in the baudience.)
This made me think about the nature of creativity. None of us start with a completely blank page. What we experience and what we watch and read can’t help but influence and inspire us. It was really interesting to be reminded of how Ben Wheatley has picked up the baton from Mike Leigh – how we all need role models, how generation passes on the creative spark to generation. However much HNYCB is inspired by ABIGAIL’S PARTY, it’s still absolutely its own thing and an expression of Ben Wheatley’s artistic sensibilities. It’s a brilliant depiction of family. I was going to say ‘dysfunctional family’ but what family isn’t dysfunctional in some way? And the brilliant observations in this film feel emotionally universal. There are so many great performances and it’s very funny.
It’s also deceptively narratively tight. It’s essentially a study of family who get together for a New Year celebration but there are a load of narrative clues and hooks that make it compelling as a piece of story-telling as well as a study of family and relationships. The ultimate message seemed to be – however difficult we find our families, we all, ultimately, need them.
Both SAN & HNYCB had strong narrative threads of ‘The Prodigal Son.’ Bible stories are a great source of universal story templates.
THE FRONT RUNNER / FAHRENHEIT 11-9
I saw these two political films straight after each other and the comparisons / contrasts were interesting. TFR is about 1988 democrat presidential Gary Hart and his campaign to become president being destroyed by a sex scandal. The film’s thesis seems to be that Hart was one of the first victims of tabloid excesses – the film dramatises Hart’s furious response to questions about his marriage and private life. On the one hand the film seems to be saying Hart was a noble man who was victimised by the press but on the other hand it’s also saying that he was a bit a sleaze-bag, who had extra-marital affairs & one-night stands with several women and brought defeat on himself (although it’s very much the first idea that dominates). While the film is objectively excellent – the acting, direction and writing are of the highest standard, ultimately I felt that this film was trying to have its cake and eat it; and that it didn’t really know what it was saying. I think it’s trying to be interestingly complex but for me, this is a classic example of a lot of time, money, talent and effort being expanded on a deeply flawed idea – and it will amaze me if this film is successful (although it’s very much worth seeing).
FAHRENHEIT 11-9 on the other hand is Michael Moore’s best film for some time (although IMO all of his films are pretty damn good – the world needs more campaigning, committed film journalists like Michael Moore). The film tries to hit a lot of targets and it could be said that it’s a bit scatter-gun in its approach – but it is undeniably powerful. It has a real emotional kick and is terrifying and inspiring in equal measure. The film covers so many completely extraordinary stories. It’s films like this that make me despair of the less good, small ideas that I get pitched. When so many terrible, jaw-dropping things are happening in the world, so many things that need to be exposed and discussed, do we really need a comedy drama about a family-run café and its owners attempt to keep it running? (NB This is MY terrible idea – NOT an idea that I’ve been pitched – but just there to show you what a low stakes drama idea looks like to me!).
And it’s not just Trump who gets both barrels from Moore – there is also some really interesting flak for Obama and the democrats.
THE LEHMAN TRILOGY – National Theatre
This is what I call a good idea – an epic 3 ½ hour play, performed by 3 actors, about the history of Lehman Brothers – from the arrival of the three brothers in the USA from Bavaria in the 1840’s to their role in the financial crash of 2008 (and the company’s liquidation) – in effect a history of US (and World) capitalism seen through the prism of a single family and their business. And the play lived up to the promise of its compelling idea – the writing is razor-sharp – never less than fascinating, often humorous and at times really powerful. Above all it feels epic – and important. The script is enhanced by the brilliant direction and performances. All three actors are outstanding, the musical accompaniment almost throughout by single piano works wonderfully and the design is also excellent – really classy, well-judged, unshowy direction by Sam Mendes. I could never claim to be the most patient audience member but I was gripped throughout the 3 ½ hours; I was even a bit surprised and disappointed when the play ended – and at that length, that’s the greatest compliment I can give it.
STORIES by Nina Raine – National Theatre, Dorfman
Beautifully-observed writing about a subject that is emotionally universal and felt all the more so because this account of it also felt so specific and personal. The story of a 39 year old woman who is determined to have a baby. As a follow-up to the wonderful CONSENT, STORIES marks Nina Raine out as one of the foremost dramatic writers in the UK at the moment.
It’s been a very enjoyable (ongoing), thought-provoking process discussing the scripts with my team of 7 script readers. I talk a lot about the huge importance of characters with whom we can relate but one of the things that keeps coming up in many of the scripts I’ve responded to is a big, clear story hook. When you start reading a script, as a reader you need something to hold onto, something to anchor you in the story. In some of the best scripts the title points the way, but there’s also a really clear and compelling narrative idea that is evident often from the very start of the script.
It’s also been great shifting between long days of concentrated reading broken up by the occasional theatre matinee and bouts of LFF films (it’s a tough life but someone’s got to do it) and using some of the brilliant plays and films I’ve seen as a touchstone for the standard of scripts I should be looking for in the 4screenwriting submissions. And it’s been really exciting to read so many scripts that absolutely live up to the standards of shows like STORIES and HAPPY NEW YEAR COLIN BURSTEAD. It feels like a very exciting privilege to be on the front-line of discovering some of the new dramatic writing talent in the UK.
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 16th.
All the best
November 2nd 2018