Thursday, 27 November 2014

William Gibson on NEUROMANCER

I went, (along with a whole load of other fortyish guys dressed in black), to hear William Gibson talk about NEUROMANCER. Which was published thirty years ago.

For those of you who don't know it, the book is an amazingly prescient work of tech-noir - a great story that invented the concept of an internet, and the term cyberspace; inspired dozens of imitations, including THE MATRIX; kicked off a whole subculture - 'cyberpunk'; and has been seriously called the most influential book of the 20th century.

Go and read it if you haven't, it stands up well. It's about a junkie hacker living in a dystopian urban mess called the 'sprawl' who is hired by an Artificial Intelligence to put a team together for a mysterious heist. It certainly made a big impression on me when I read at seventeen or so, adding fuel to my desire to get out of suburban Wales and find somewhere a bit more cool and sprawlish.

Gibson himself came across as clear-eyed, affable, a cool academic with - suitably enough - an unplaceable, mid-Atlantic accent.

If he is bored of talking about his oldest book he didn't show it. He said he invented cyberspace - in the story a virtual world rather like that of Second Life - after watching teens playing arcade games: craning over their machines, they seemed so eager to enter the screen - what if they could? He said that as well as an original arena for a story it was a handy way to solve the age old writer's problem of how to efficiently get people in and out of rooms.

In similar self-deprecatory fashion, he said that the prose flights of fancy that the book indulges in, particularly in describing its two Artificial Intelligences, was a way to paper over some wayward plotting.

And he was quick to point out that he wasn't the first to write characters who were constructs inside a computer - apparently that was Alfred Bester, in a story called 'I have no mouth but I must scream'. He referenced one of his book's few blind spots by pointing out that any modern kid who read it would think the plot must hinge around how the AIs managed to uninvent the mobile phone.

Other influences and antecedents he acknowledged included Philip K Dick, Meryvn Peake, and William Burroughs - who he described as like a musician sitting with an electric guitar and an arc of pedals, when all the other writers were still acoustic. He wanted some of that wa-wa.

Asked why nothing he had written had been turned into a decent film, he accepted that the Wachowski's had stolen his best ideas, but lived in hope.

One of the things that made his invented world seem so real was its attention to surface detail - giving 'eyeball kicks', he called it - and branding. But as well as inventing cool names for new things (I still want an Ono Sendai) he felt he needed to keep the story anchored by using familiar tropes: So, for example, Case, the hero, is addicted to the rather archaic amphetamines, rather than some ritzy invented designer drug.

Another striking and prescient story point is the power of corporate 'zaibatsus'. The idea for those super-companies came, he said, from a college anthropology course, where a lecturer pointed out that an alien arriving on earth, looking for the most powerful entity to talk to, would conclude that the the dominant social lifeform was not the nation state but the multi-national corporation. Even during wars, he pointed out, they could split in two and sell to both sides.

So he took a lot of things that were happening, or starting to happen, and extrapolated brilliantly to create a future world, parts of which are now coming to pass.

He wrote the book as a commission, in 18 months, and if he hadn't had to do it he wouldn't have done it at all. Overall he gave the impression that he had written it the way first books are often written -frantically collating sets of disparate influences, solving problems by elision, making up the rules as he went along.

And he ended up with something magnificent. Skilful guy.

Thursday, 20 November 2014


Quick film review of NIGHTCRAWLER (with spoilers)

'When Lou Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story. Aiding him in his effort is Nina, a TV-news veteran.'

Jake Gyllenhal is great as a sociopath with glassy eyes and a cheesy grin, spouting get-ahead business buzztalk as he films crime scenes and sells the footage to a news channels hungry for gore and sensationalism. He re-arranges corpses to get a better shot, pursues villains and arranging for their arrest so that he can film it, and keeps on getting away with it. Unlike, say, Travis Bickle, he's found an arena where his lack of empathy and morality are advantageous. 

He lives in an empty apartment, his only friend is his plant, and he constantly negotiates, pressurises and blackmails all around him - principally, an amoral newscaster hungry for footage and his weak-willed partner. But the best scenes are when he's behind his camera. For instance, when he orchestrates a shoot-out in a diner: we see the shoot-out, but we also watch him watching it, trying to remain hidden... Voyeurism works really well in cinema. Think PEEPING TOM, REAR WINDOW. Maybe it's because, we, the audience, are voyeurs too, sitting anonymously in the dark, and observing, rather creepily, with impunity.  

Go see it, it's a genuine noir. Like the great noirs of the 40s it deals with the underside of the American dream and has a protagonist who is willfully evil and escapes justice. I guess it's the kind of film people normally complain about them not making any more - maybe it gets away with it because it gets labelled as satire. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

How JET TRASH got made.

I wrote a book, GO, years and years ago. You can read about it here.

It did pretty well, I think it sold forty thousand odd copies. That was quite a lot by the standards of the time and loads by a contemporary reckoning. But no one at the time thought to make a film out of it, I guess because it didn't have a main character - it followed three people with interlinked stories - and these people were all travelling - India, Hong Kong, China, which would have made it a tough proposition. And also, maybe, cause I didn't have an agent at the time to push it, it just wasn't landing on anyone's desks.

Anyway, some years after it came out, a writer called Dan Brown got in touch and suggested we collaborate and write a script for it. I was in China at the time, writing guidebooks, and it seemed like a good part time project. We whittled the story down, settled on one locale - India - as being the most representative and having the strongest story, and one character as the lead. That script went through a lot of drafts. And it nearly got made. At least we went to a lot of meetings with people who called themselves film producers, and a lot of noise was generated.

Looking back, I think now we made a mistake in not trying to get an agent as soon as someone was interested. Cause we could have, I think, and an agent would have been in a position to tell us when these producers were taking the piss - like getting us to do loads of free rewrites.

It didn't get made and I never made a penny and it went in my bulging drawer of dead dreams. For about a decade. Until I did have a film agent and was meeting producers again, in reference to other projects.

I met a producer called Andy Brunskill who had read the book first time around. He wanted to work with a director called Charlie Belleville and was a big fan of actor Robert Sheehan. Charlie liked the book - Robert was given it to read, agreed to do it, and suddenly the stars were right. The script was dug out. The smallish budget was raised on the back of Sheehan's involvement, and he was very active in getting funding. The whole thing kicked off very quickly - they raised the money in a few months, and shot it pretty much straight away.

So I guess the lesson of that one is, don't give up on old projects, know when an agent can help you, and don't underestimate how important casting is in getting something off the ground.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

How THE ANOMALY got made. Pitching.

Er, I don't really know how THE ANOMALY got made. I was living in Japan at the time. Super producer Noel Clarke wanted to buy TIGER HOUSE, but missed out. On a quick trip back to London, I met him, and mentioned that I had written a script that was nearly finished, about mind control. He told me to send it to him when it was done - I did it, he read it, bought it, did his thing, shot it eight months later. I was out of the country for the whole process so didn't have anything to do with it, first time I saw it was at the premier.

That is going to make for a very short entry so I'll beef it up by talking about pitching. Cause I guess that one started with a pitch.

My approach to pitching is to be very low key about it. It should just be part of a conversation. No one wants to have stories thrown at them. You talk in general terms, then move to the specifics of your idea, say just enough to pique their interest then move on.

Say your producer likes horror - 'oh you like horror films? But this torture porn thing has gone too far... wish someone would bring back proper scary ghost stories... like the RING. The Japanese are so good at that kind of thing, I guess it's cause they've got such a dense mythology to draw on... You know, I think British producers are kind of missing a trick, cause we have a dense mythology of ghost stories too, a huge gothic tradition, but we ignore it and always make scary films in American style - zombies and werewolves and so on... A really British ghost story could use our great heritage of spooky mythology - oh, and buildings - we have this amazing untapped resource of spooky old buildings. Okay, here's an example, how about-' - and then pitch your British scary ghost story. And because you've gone from the general to the specific, all is not lost if he or she doesn't like your story - because you can just go back to the general and say you'll work up a different 'spooky British ghost story' and email it later.

Friday, 14 November 2014

going cheap

writing a cheap film

Cheap films are more likely to get made than expensive ones. And they are more likely to get made the way you want them - the more money someone is spending on you, the more they interfere - nobody 'authors' a 100 million dollar film, there were probably a dozen writers on the thing.

There is something aesthetically purer about them too - a big budget film can rely on spectacle to get people to watch it. But if your budget doesn't run to blowing up New York, then you have to rely on the writing to make the story interesting - a great concept, characters, dialogue.

big concept don't necessarily cost anything - you would spend millions making a Nolan dream world, but it's just as striking and weird to have a copy of you and your house appear over the road (COHERENCE) - and that costs nothing.

Aim for fairly few characters, ideally less than ten - with one or two main parts. Write one 'cameo' - the 'Freeman' - three or four scenes, spaced throughout the film, that all take place in one location (let's say, he's the chief of police and always seen in his office). Then you can hire Morgan Freeman for one day, shoot all his scenes back to back, and it looks like he's in the whole damn film. And his name will be huge on the DVD box.

Not too many locations, the fewer the better. Don't set anything at night (that's expensive). And make your locations easy to construct or shoot in - big rooms with high ceilings (for lighting rigs) are best.
But keep one location for late on, it's good to have somewhere else to take the story as you get into act three.

You don't need money to make your scenes visually dramatic, if you're smart. Lots of things look great on screen and cost nothing: an execution, nudity, a foot chase, a game of poker, a hold up, a murder scene, undressing and dressing, someone singing well, something seen on CCTV, a trip scene (allowing you to get arty with the camera), a mexican stand off, complete darkness, wrestling, dancing, a weapon being stripped or loaded, fancy dress, someone escaping from their bonds, games of darts, snooker, and bowling, someone being followed... well, make your own list then stuff them in your script.

Admirable low budget films - RESERVOIR DOGS: basically one location, but with the flashbacks so well integrated you don't even notice. Just about every low budget cool thing you can do with guys, surprised he didn't get a card game in there. SAW - again, mostly one room, that you take regular breaks from. A guy sawing his own leg off is easy to shoot and, er, spectacular. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: two people in a house and some flour. A lot of artistry goes into making found footage look artless. OPEN WATER - simple but nerve wracking: a couple bob, worried about sharks. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED -A twist hostage drama, and three roles in the whole thing. COHERENCE - a bunch of yuppies in a room; but the universe is changing around them - a great example of big ideas for cheap. BURIED - actually I don't really like this film, it's too cruel, but you have to admire the simplicity, cause it's just a guy in a box.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

novel v screen

Dennis Lehane said that screenwriting and novel writing are as different as an apple and a giraffe...
I'm not sure I agree. I've done both, and they can be pretty similar. Driving a bus and driving a sports car are different, but there's a useful set of overlapping skills. Novels and films both boil down to character and story, after all.
Obviously, novel writing is a broad church and you get ways of writing novels that are very far from screenplay form - there's no filmy equivalent to the very subjective or overly fantastical, (Finnegan's Wake, Naked Lunch), or to the distinctive narratorial voice (Catcher in the Rye, Vernon God Little), or something written in third person that spends a lot of time inside the character's heads (Crime and Punishment... all the Russians come to think of it).
But most prose writing is exterior - action and dialogue - and objective rather than subjective; a lot of pulp and crime is written that way, but also Jane Austen and Dickens - and that's where the crossover happens.
Then it's just a matter of what works best: in prose, dialogue; in screenwriting, pictures. So, say you want to describe an unhappy marriage, in prose you write five pages of husband and wife arguing, and in a film, you do that Chandler thing - couple in a lift, pretty girl walks in, guy takes his hat off.
Actually, the main difference between novels and screenplays is a completely artificial one, to do with length. Publishers won't publish a novel that's less than eighty thousand words. And by my reckoning, that's the rough equivalent of about six to ten hours of screen time. Something that long will inevitably end up being less about beginnings and endings, and will become rather episodic - it will look, in fact, like a series. Indeed, to my mind, there is a lot that is 'novelly' about modern series dramas like Breaking Bad and True Detective.
The prose equivalent of the feature screenplay is the novella - the long story that's twenty to forty thousand words (Clockwork Orange, Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies). Novellas tend to be about one thing, they rush to conclusions, you take them in in one sitting, they depend on a good ending - just like a film. Unfortunately that's a literary form that is out of fashion, cause publishers can't sell them.

Friday, 7 November 2014

film review: FURY

quick film review -

'April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and his five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.'

FURY - the Second World War is a great vehicle for drama and tanks are, well, great vehicles. And David Ayer is great at guys-in-vehicle stories - mostly cops, like in TRAINING DAY and END OF WATCH.

So, this is about guys together - very close together - inside what amounts to a big gun (no sniggering at the back). Brad Pitt is the muscled uber warrior,  'Wardaddy' - a 'Storm Saxon' style Aryan dream who just loves killing nazis. And Logan Lerman is the nebbish lead, the audience identification figure, as he is whipped from the typing pool and fired into the heat of battle as the claustrophobic tank's new assistant gunner.

So far so Spielberg, but this is more cynical and brutal than Saving Private Ryan. The war scenes are as realistic but no punches are pulled on the brutality of the combatants. There's a harrowing sequence where Pitt forces Lerman to shoot an unarmed prisoner dead. That's a good scene; you know Pitt has to do it to make Lerman toughen up; but its politics are horrible, when you think about it, and it is has no consequences apart from helping to forge Lerman into a functioning soldier.

So, inculcated in the necessaries, Lerman starts kicking arse along with the other tankers. The first half is pretty good, and I guess pretty accurate and unflinching, in its depiction of brutalised men and the horrors of combat. But the second half is banal propaganda - juicy war scenes, a heroic last ditch defense, everybody dies a heroes death, the lead gets his arc.

It bugs me that films like this are sold as showing the horrors of war as never before. I think this, and others of its ilk, like Saving Private Ryan, are quite dishonest - while they are great at gore and battle they don't deliver anything of the true nature of war, and they have saccharine, even sentimental centres.

The very story conventions of Hollywood film making prevent any kind of realistic depiction. You see famous actors on screen, and you know that they will die in the end, but only after killing loads of enemy, and making some cool speeches, and going on their 'arc'. That character won't get killed by friendly fire half way through, there will be nothing meaningless or arbritary about his death, his courage will be rewarded.

Surely the nature of modern war is that soldiers die in meaningless and abritary ways, it's pretty much a lottery, and courage and moral rectitude make little difference, in that meat grinder, to your chances of survival. Presenting it otherwise is not truthful.

My favourite Second World War war film is still Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON. A bunch of doomed German soldiers fight on the eastern front, and at the end they try to get back to their own lines, get mistaken for enemy, and get machine gunned by their own side. The battle scenes might not be convincingly gory the way they are these days but the story feels true and accurate, capturing something of the nihilism and pointlessness of the whole venture, when seen from the individual's point of view. In comparison, modern takes on the second World War look like wishful thinking, macho fantasies.