Wednesday, 3 June 2009


Having spent a weekend frolicking in the country as a guest of my lovely cousin, it became increasingly apparent that I’ve definitely reached the point where I should really, really, really, do what I’ve been lazily promising to do for some considerable time. Change my blog address. Or, for all you Orc speakers, change my URL.

In another example of "how small is this world, eh?" during my cousin’s party I met a chap who had not only recently worked for the BBC but also lives just around the corner from me. We were merrily discussing work in progress and mutual acquaintances (whilst successfully multi-tasking in the drinking booze department) when the conversation inevitably stumbled around to our experiences of the BBC’s bumbling bureaucracy. Stories were exchanged, much hilarity ensued, and then I mentioned that a version of my recent experiences were available to read online.

You’ve got a blog?

And there it was. That was when it dawned on me with the subtlety of a drunk pissing on a rare mountain flower. I slowly nodded my head, yes.

Great. Love to read it. What’s the address?

As he reached into his jacket for a pen I contemplated my options:

        1. Run. Just run away and keep on going. No looking back.
        2. Fake a heart attack. Or maybe just a swoon and blame the champagne.
        3. Tell him it was actually a lie and offer him money to keep quiet about it.
        4. Some other rubbish.

It was never going to be an easy sell telling the best friend of my cousin’s husband my blog address when my cousin’s husband is called Tom. Not really the kind of thing that’s going to go down at all well at a church blessing for Tom’s daughter.

My fixed grin wavered as I watched him fail to find a pen on his person and turn to the assembled table of really nice people and ask if any of them had a pen. Of course they did, and of course the question briefly stopped them all from talking, and as the kind-eyed woman with the warm smile rummaged through her bag for her pen I realised with utter terror that he was telling her what the pen was for. A few of them looked over. I tried to play it cool, convincing myself that rapidly rotating thumbs are a perfectly normal accompaniment to bad whistling and manic rapid eye movement. I thankfully stopped short of enacting an impromptu tap dance. But only just.

I was desperately struggling to think of some light-hearted repartee to quell the presently brewing social holocaust when relief arrived in the form of my cousin who dragged me off to meet an old friend. I waved an “I’ll be back” at the table and allowed myself to led away, back into the security of anonymity, and this time vowed to do something about it.

So, here it is. At long last an end to my worries and also, in fairness, a timely end to my long running j’accuse of MySpace’s friend-to-all, Tom.

The blog is dead. Long live the blog...

Monday, 11 May 2009



It’s pointless me charting a path to what you’re about to read because you already pretty much know how I arrived at this point. If in any doubt, just substitute the previous bureaucratic madness about trying to get someone to come and make a phone work, with something similarly ridiculous about how to get someone to come and get a desk powered up, and then simply apply the same RIDICULOUS timeframe, chuck in half a dozen disinterested people who each think anyone but themselves should be sorting this out and then add magic mushrooms.

Allow me to make the introductions.

POWER MAN (40s) smart new boiler suit, a confident swagger to his walk, saunters through the open-plan office. He stops at a desk, puts his surprisingly clean and very shiny toolbox down on the floor, straightens up and winks at me.

Alright. Got a couple of desks need powering up?

(It still really bothers me that I failed to initially note two massively glaring pieces of characterization: the smart boiler suit - it even had ironed creases - and a shiny clean toolbox.)

Anyway, I pointed out that indeed these were the two desks that needed powering up.

Let’s see what we can do for you.

(The royal plural, eh? Pluralis maiestatis. Unless he actually means a hoard of them are about to turn up similarly dressed in brand new boiler suits? Maybe enacting a synchronized saunter across the office to musical accompaniment. “MEN AT WORK - The Musical: it’s men working, but with songs!”)

He drops to his knees (mind those creases) and crawls under my desk.

I back away a little whilst trying to determine what should be a respectful distance in this kind of scenario, somewhere between not too far away that it seems I’m not interested in the work he is doing on my behalf, but also not too close for him to think I’m somehow checking up on his work. The result, I think, must have been maybe a little too close; because when he reappeared from under my desk I stupidly pretended to be surprised that he had just appeared from under my desk. His head popped out, my eyebrows shot up and I gave a little “Oh! Hello!” and consequently felt a right twat.

Why did I do that?


Yeah. The problem is your desk isn’t plugged in. You’ve got no power to your desk.

(If only this genius had thought to study the great diseases of our time or famine prevention instead of desk plugs, then the world as we know it might be a different place. I stress might.)

I know. That’s why I called you.

There’s nothing powering it up. It needs connecting to the mains.


You see, what you’ve got, you got the power block attached to your desk, that’s those plugs you see under there. See? That line of plugs?

I make a point of looking under the desk to look at the plugs. I nod my head.

Well they’re your plugs. But they’re not plugged in themselves. What you need is a lead to plug into your power block, that block there, that also plugs into the mains via that floor box.

I continue to stare at my powerless plugs and sagely nod my head as if I’m finally being allowed in to the inner sanctum of plug knowledge.

That’s how you power it.


Basically you’re gonna need a lead. A lead and a plug.

Right. A lead and a plug.

Yeah. You’ll need a lead and plug.


Power Man gathers together his shiny toolbox. I take note of this worrying action but remain rooted to the spot unsure of what to do or what say to him. The gormless concern obviously etched across my face prompts him to reiterate by way of reassurance --

You need a lead and a plug. You’ll need to put in a request for a lead and a plug.


You’ll need to put in a request for a lead and a plug.

I stare at Power Man. I look around at the surrounding desks, all inhabited by silent strangers beavering away at whatever it is they do. I can’t find one person to make eye contact with in the hope of exchanging a knowing smile, or maybe even a Valium or two. I look across to the window, half expecting to see Jeremy Beadle grinning back at me. Except he’s dead now. Although I’m not convinced seeing him standing there would make any less sense.

It turns out that there are four different departments involved in the installation of my desk. Of course there is. Firstly, naturally, there is the actual desk department who deliver and build my desk and kindly throw in a wonky chair for good measure but not good posture; then there’s the floor box department who install holes in the floors under desks for plugging things into; then there’s the guys who wire up the holes in the floors and make them work; then there’s the department who supply power leads and plugs. They are four separate departments, each owned by separate independent contractors, who each bill the BBC for each job they carry out. They do not appear to communicate with each other or have a good word to say about each other. I should also point out that Phone Man is not employed by any of the above departments as the phones are also a separate outsourced service. Fun, eh?

In summary: Power Man informs me our desks are without specific leads and plugs required for power. I point out that we had already worked out that bombshell, hence the request for someone to come and power us up. He then points out that the actual supplying of leads and plugs are not his area of responsibility; his area of responsibility is simply to ensure that there is actual power available but stops at making that power accessible through the unusual and outdated practice of supplying an actual power cord and an actual plug. Or as he succinctly put it:

Look. I can confirm your desks have the ability to get power. That’s not a problem. But as to whether you can actually access that power, well that’s not my area of responsibility. You need to speak to the building facilities department to get a plug and a lead. They can supply you with the route to the power but not the power itself; that’s my department.


… having known for six months that I was due to start here on a specific date and would need a desk on arrival, it still took one month after I arrived to actually get a desk, and having got that desk it then took a further two weeks to get a working phone and power to that desk. Brilliant.

Once this Millennium Dome of desks was finally complete, with all the different departments having contributed their bit to the jigsaw, the first item I plugged in, of course, didn’t work. No power. Nothing. Which, it turns out, wasn’t such a bad thing as it meant I avoided electrocution when I repeatedly smashed my skull into my monitor screen. Eventually they/someone/not sure who at this point, returned, in my absence, and diagnosed the fuses in my desk plugs needed replacing. Yet it wasn’t because I was told about the fuses that I knew they had been changed. Oh no. Nothing that obvious. It was simply because when I returned to my desk, planted my arse and moved my mouse, the resulting sharp pain and subsequent smear of blood across my desk was revealed to be caused by smashed fuse glass imbedded in my palm. I discovered more small pieces of glass generously scattered across my desk, as if a mouse juggling act had gone terribly wrong in my absence.

A kind soul from a neighboring desk advised me where the first aid box was kept. I thanked him for his concern, and then apologized to his colleagues for screaming the word “FUCK!” at the top of my voice. I'm sure they heard my apology from under their desks.

My hand wrapped in tissue paper, I trotted off to the kitchenette area, as instructed.

What a marvelous sight to behold…

I found this Telegraph article written in 2002: Suffering Succotash! which has since left me with with one eye on the ceiling and the other browsing Ebay for secondhand Miner's hats.

It looks like I picked a bad year to give up glue.

Friday, 10 April 2009


(a tragicomedy in two acts)

So, after patiently ‘hot-desking’ for one whole month (one of those annoying sugar-coated expressions that attempts to pointlessly garner excitement from a miserably dull reality, in this case the supremely uninspiring practice of sharing desks with everyone and their empty coffee cups) my buddy and I, working together on our latest broadcasting caper, finally manage to get our very own desks. Hurrah! Two empty desks. All ours. Not anyone else’s desks. No seats left uncomfortably warm by unknown bums. No mysterious coats over chairs. No dirty mugs beside keyboards smothered with buttery breakfasty fingerprints. Nope. Two fresh, clean, empty desks devoid of any suggestion of previous habitation and intended for the sole use of us both. Time to plant a flag and claim these babies as ours: one twelfth of a year later and we finally got them. And considering the insane bureaucracy we’ve been privy to during this time maybe we should consider one month as being quite an achievement.

Yeah right.

We got no phones. Well, we got phones, two of them, one on each desk, but neither of them actually in working order. A condition compounded by the fact we’re also in an area that has no mobile phone coverage; we’re basically on the dark side of the moon. Except on Earth. And the desks have no power. Like the phone situation, there are plug sockets in attendance, several of them smiling away under the desk, but they don’t work. Nothing works. Nothing actually works.

So we mention that neither of our desk phones work and that our desks have no power. We mention this to several people. Repeatedly. A lot. We repeatedly mention this a lot. To a lot of people. And finally… it gets “elevated to a higher level” and we’re told that we need to put in a proper request to the relevant people.

So let’s start with getting these phones working…

Okay. How do I do that?

Phone them. Here…
(writes number down)
… here’s their number.

I stare at him as he holds out the post-it note with the number on it. He smiles, nods, and holds the number towards me. Embarrassed for him, I take it.

You want me to phone them?

Yeah. Just mention my name as a reference if there’s any problem.

Right. Thanks. You want me to phone someone to report my phone isn’t working?

(I’m thinking to myself as I’m looking at him, well, I’m no psychic, but I can already predict there being one massive problem with that suggestion. But I’m looking at him and he just isn’t getting it. I should point out that this is also the same bloke who one month ago suggested I email the IS department to tell them that I wasn’t able to log onto my computer.)

Yeah. Seriously, if you get any hassle just put them onto me.

I won’t be able to phone them. My phone doesn’t work. I can’t phone them.

I follow his lead and stare at the defunct phone on my new desk, both of us willing it to do something to get us out of this mess…

… finally…

Leave it to me. I’ll phone them.

It was a further TWO weeks before the smiling phone man appeared and my phone was networked to the BBC system and finally up and running. But only my phone, not my fellow workmate’s. Once the phone man had finished pressing my buttons and explained some phone functions that I can’t imagine anyone ever needing, ever, I then pointed him towards our other phone that needed doing, a phone less than three feet away on a desk opposite and attached to mine.

You’ll need to put in a request for that one.

We did.

For that phone. You’ll need a request for that phone.

We did. That’s why you’re here. We already put it in.

No. I only got a job request for one phone. This phone.

But we got these desks at the same time. Two weeks ago. And neither phone was working. That’s when we put in the request. Two weeks ago.

I only got a job request for one phone. You’ll need to put in another request for that phone.

I’m sorry if it wasn’t made clear. It was BLOKE who put in the request for us, obviously we couldn’t because we didn’t have a phone, and I’m sure he would have put in a request for both phones because he knew we needed both --

I only got one job request for one phone.

-- so maybe he got it wrong or didn’t explain himself properly, and if that’s the case I do apologise, but --

You’ll need to put in another request for that phone.

(one… two… three… four…)
Can I put in a request now, then? To you? Whilst you’re here? The phone’s right there. Please? We would be really grateful. Really. It only took a couple of minutes to do this one.

We look at each other…

… he looks towards the other phone…

… looks back to me…

(Jesus, the suspense is killing me!)


Sorry. I only got one job request for one phone. You need to phone a request in for that phone.

An internal primal scream threatens to blow my eyeballs out of their sockets. Thankfully, years of regimented study in several Japanese martial disciplines has taught me well; I take a deep breath and instantly calm my inner psycho. It’s only a phone. A phone. It’s not as if it’s anything actually important. Yeah. I'm cool.

Do you need the number?

I decide right there and then to kill him.

Tune in soon to WORKING AT THE BBC - Part 2 where you’ll find out all about POWER MAN: the man in charge of powering up my new desk. He’s a real hoot, that one, a right barrel of laughs.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Screenwriting Gurus

Contrary to popular belief, I think many of the popular screenwriting books and self-styled screenwriting gurus can be responsible for driving away promising hopefuls by shackling their writing potential. I stress many, but not all…

I accept that any book or teacher that offers the best/easiest/guaranteed route to success will always attract customers from both the lazy and inquisitive camps, but once they have your cash and your attention, then what? Most of us have only been schooled in the ways of reading and writing literature and to throw ourselves suddenly at drama, via a book or course that guarantees success, can easily end in confusion when we’re presented with a new language, new set of rules, and an assortment of scientific formulas.

It’s easy to see why, after several miserable attempts to grasp these new doctrines, so many enthusiasts fade into disgruntled oblivion. Wasn’t this meant to be easy? A thought further exacerbated by examples of successful screenplays.

A screenplay should be slick, succinct, and easy to read and understand. But we put so much time and effort into researching, structuring and writing a screenplay, to ensure it looks simple and is easy to read, that the finished product looks like anybody can do it, which naturally leads everyone who reads a screenplay into thinking they can do it. Take the recent critically acclaimed release, The Reader, as an example. The very talented playwright and screenwriter David Hare took Bernard Schlink’s complex 224 page novel and crafted it into an 82 page non-linear narrative, telling two stories fifty years apart, that reads ever-so simply and must have been a dream for both director and actors to work with; and was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Anyone reading that script with aspirations to dabble in dramatic writing could be forgiven for initially thinking “Only eighty-two pages? Not many words on those pages, either. Mmmm, have to say, this looks pretty easy.” Add to that the promise of a book/guru/course pretty much guaranteeing success and you can understand why most wannabe writers end up nonplussed when they repeatedly fail to create a winning screenplay.

We do not need to be spoon fed how to write stories; basic storytelling technique is instinctive. Many moons ago I was on a beach with my young nephew. He's a quiet, sensitive little chap, not one for pouring his heart out, so when he began telling me how he was being bullied at school, I didn't make a fuss, I simply continued to look for stranded mermaids in rock pools and let him get on with it. As I listened, I realised we are all born with the ability to tell stories; it's just that as we grow up, those who become the storytellers tend to have a more natural ability to successfully convey those stories.

He set his little world up for me. He told me about school, about a particular lesson, about the teacher, the kids and what they were all doing. I knew who the bad guy was, although he didn't initially tell me, then he threw in the inciting incident and the effect it had on him, swiftly followed by the subsequent plot point which seemed to tie in with the end of his Act I. Although hardly a riveting story, it was still a story, and one that was structured pretty traditionally. But ask my nephew who McKee is and he'll probably suggest that's what Ronald McDonald uses to get into his house every night. So what miracle occurred to gift him the power of story?

I firmly believe we are all born with an unconscious understanding of the basic principles of story. Combine that with years of being told stories, reading stories and watching stories, and it’s easy to see how we develop an unconscious appreciation of drama: a perfect platform to experiment with writing drama at a later stage. I also believe that those formative years, spent unconsciously absorbing valuable dramatic information, can be quickly rendered redundant by opting to become disciples of books and gurus rather than having faith in our own natural ability to work things out ourselves. Learning by writing through our own mistakes, rather than being told what those mistakes might be before we even know they exist, is what contributes to us developing our voice and becoming individuals in a field awash with imitators.

Novice screenwriters should avoid the books and gurus and concentrate more on writing and telling their own stories in their own way without the restrictions of previously unknown dramatic rules and principles. It is a much more organic fertile environment and will allow any hidden potential to happily flourish. Once a writer has become more confident and established in his/her ability, then it makes more sense to dabble in the informative arts of gurus and their offerings, as these resources are much more useful to those already familiar with a basic understanding of drama in practice.

In positing this theory, I fully accept I’m now off the Christmas card list of most gurus, their agents and publishers. Mind you, maybe that’s not such a bad thing; once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Thought For The Day

Cambozola is good
it`s better than wood
coz it`s easier to spread on your bread.
But it`s hard to believe
that a full fat soft cheese
would make a strong four poster bed.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Preparation... It's All In The Sauce

Plants & Payoffs

When a writer introduces a specific detail into a story, he needs to examine whether that detail will be unconsciously believed by the audience. If it isn’t, the writer runs the risk of alienating the audience and undoing all the hard work that went into the script. To avoid that happening the writer should subtly foreshadow the specific detail so it feels completely natural when it eventually happens. The writer has to prepare.

Subtle preparation starts with our characters: how we set them up and how they subsequently behave. For example, if we know a character is a former soldier and when jumped by three heavies easily overpowers them, the audience are ready to accept that. If the character is a mild-mannered accountant yet still manages to come out on top, unless the audience have been prepared to think otherwise, they could be sceptical of the outcome and might snap out of the story. A mild mannered accountant who also boxes as a hobby would at least be a good starting point.

Likewise, imagine that same accountant, off work with a broken leg, watching his neighbours from his apartment window. Thinking he’s just witnessed a murder, he opens a drawer and produces binoculars and various telescopic lenses to zoom in for a clear view. Might that be just a little too convenient? If we were to establish earlier in the narrative that he’s a bird-watching enthusiast or, even simpler, change his profession to that of a photographer, then the groundwork has been laid for unquestioned audience acceptance.

This may all seem very obvious to read, but so many films and their audiences suffer because of a failure in preparation. It could be a result of the filmmakers being too involved and losing perspective or simply through complacency or maybe even arrogance, but the fact remains even seasoned pros fall foul of poor preparation.

In the David Koepp-penned, Steven Spielberg classic, Jurassic Park, poor preparation results in a disappointing finale, made all the more disappointing by how simple it would have been to avoid. Following a tense chase scene, the two kids, Timmy and Lex, find themselves trapped in the computer room with Dr Grant and his fiancé, Ellie. Earlier in the film, a computer breach results in all security doors being automatically unlocked and disabled, which now poses a serious problem for the kids as the one and only door to the computer room cannot be locked manually and a velociraptor is about to get in. They are trapped. They are dinner.

Dr Grant and Ellie are fighting a losing battle to hold the door shut against the raptor’s superior strength and weight. It’s surely only a matter of seconds before the raptor bursts through and massacres them all. We hold our breath … the kids cower … any moment now … and then something miraculous happens. Lex sits down at the recently rebooted computer system, speedily navigates through its operating systems and promptly activates the security systems. The door slams shut and locks, the disappointed raptor peers dolefully through the glass and the kids breathe a sigh of relief, safe and sound within the locked room. WHOOSH BUMP! That’s the sound of me returning to reality; suspension of belief has just been suspended until further notice. How I hate those whoosh bump moments.

I invested time and emotional energy rooting for these kids only to be rudely affronted when one of them (who up until this moment has spent the majority of the film crying and screaming) morphs into a high-security computer systems analyst in the nick of time and saves the day. Where on earth did that come from? Poor preparation.

Lex using her computer skills was a specific detail that should have been a payoff moment. The problem was, there hadn’t been a significant plant earlier in the script to make that payoff acceptable. All we had were a few lines of dialogue, very late on in the film, where Timmy calls Lex a nerd because she’s always on her computer at home. Lex responds to Timmy by saying she’s a hacker; Timmy again calls her a nerd. And that’s it, a brief dialogue exchange in which a nine-year-old boy tells us that a twelve-year-old girl likes computers, and from that we are expected to accept her elevation to heroine über-geek status as she speedily navigates her way around a complex computer system whilst a terrifying monster breathes down her neck.

What’s even worse about that scene is that in Michael Crichton’s original draft, adapted from his novel, it is Timmy, not Lex, who saves the day in the computer room. Crichton turns bad preparation into an art form by failing to plant even a whiff of Timmy’s technical prowess. I assume Koepp and/or Spielberg, in reading that draft, figured it a bit far-fetched that a nine-year-old would be so au fait with computers and so, in the new draft, they changed the nine-year-old boy to the twelve-year-old girl, and for good measure threw in a line about her being a computer nerd to plant a seed in our minds. It’s a real shame that having identified a problem, the resulting fix was too weak.

I’m not sure why they were so keen to have Lex using the computer as a tension-building moment (let’s face it, in a story involving dinosaurs and children there’s hardly limited options for creating tension) but having decided to include that element, why not prepare it properly?

We are first introduced to Lex and Timmy in an amusing scene that is a payoff for Dr Grant’s character. We are shown early in the film that Dr Grant hates kids, yet his fiancé, Ellie, wants kids. When Dr Grant is about to embark on the much-anticipated tour of the dinosaur park, he discovers to his horror that two children are to accompany him. This is the first time we realise there are children on the island. It’s a surprise that instantly annoys Grant, which amuses Ellie and in turn amuses us. That joke is a payoff for the earlier plant but unfortunately it’s included at the expense of the ultimate payoff scene towards the end of the movie.

Any number of options could have been used in this instance. They could have introduced Lex in the computer room being given a systems demonstration by the resident computer genius. She is the owner’s granddaughter, after all, and if he’s happy for the kids to drive around a park full of dinosaurs, surely he’ll not mind a little tinkering in the engine room? The sibling rivalry can still be used as a tool to disguise the plant. The computer guy could be impressed by how quickly Lex picks up what he’s showing her - specifically, the park security systems – and say, “She certainly knows her way around a computer.” This would prompt a smile from the proud grandfather, which in turn would be swiftly followed by Timmy’s, “She’s a nerd! She’s always on the computer at home.”

It’s still subtle yet establishes a more effective plant to help us accept the plausibility of a twelve-year-old sussing out an automated security system at the end of the film. Furthermore, rather than show us an effective plant, they use a nine-year-old boy to tell us a weak plant. Whoosh bump. Bad decision in what is otherwise an extremely well-written script.

For this kind of subtle preparation to work, not only is it important for the plant to establish enough information to justify the payoff (as above), it’s also important the plant appears as an insignificant detail, nothing to arouse excitement or suspicion. It’s only later during the payoff moment, when the critical detail has been introduced, that it all falls into place and the relevance of the plant pays off. When this works, it’s a great moment because the audience feel they have participated in the story. They’ve had to work for it, plus they know you’ve trusted them enough not to spoon-feed them exposition. You’ve connected with your audience.

In M Night Shyamalan's Signs, the young girl, Bo, believes that all drinking water is contaminated. Whenever she’s given a glass of water, she takes a sip, turns her nose up and puts the glass down. As the film progresses, more and more glasses of abandoned water collect throughout the house. Her family indulge her, knowing it’s just a harmless childhood phase, and we all smile at what is a very cute little girl with a very charming character trait. At no point do we suspect these actions to be anything other than good characterisation. It’s only at the end of the film that we discover the perfect combination of great characterisation with a well-crafted plant.

Shyamalan offers further examples of great preparation for all his main cast, giving them subtle and believable character traits that never feel forced or telegraphed yet all serve as great payoff moments at the climax. The script is a masterclass in preparation, as well as a great example of low-budget scriptwriting.

Good preparation isn’t always about being subtle. Telegraphed preparation - flagging information to the audience - can serve as a good tension builder simply because the audience are aware there’s a payoff coming. One of the more common forms of telegraphing is through variations of: "If you do this, then this will happen." When Little Red Riding Hood is warned, "Do not stray from the path!" we are immediately on high alert when she eventually does stray from the path because we’ve been told to expect trouble.

Where this type of preparation can suffer is not necessarily with the original plant, but with the expected payoff, and to demonstrate I’ll use another Spielberg classic, Minority Report and another well-written script, this one by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen.

A policeman, John Anderton, is on the run in a futuristic society where everyone is tracked and identified by eye scanners wherever they go. There is no avoiding detection and because it’s only a matter of time before he will be caught, Anderton takes the only route left to remain a free man: he has an eye transplant to remove his ‘fugitive’ eyes and replace them with those of an average Joe. It’s this scene that lays down two pretty heavy plants that both result in unnecessary whoosh bump moments.

With the Jurassic Park example, we saw a weak plant fail at the payoff due to shoddy preparation. With both the examples in Minority Report we see two blatantly telegraphed plants fail miserably because there is no pay off in either instance.

John Anderton’s fugitive status forces him to visit a shady back-street surgeon for the eye transplant. Just prior to the operation, Anderton is given an anaesthetic that quickly renders him physically useless, although he can still speak and hear. It’s at this point that the surgeon reveals he and Anderton know each other. Many years ago, Anderton arrested and locked up the surgeon for the shocking crime of setting female patients on fire. Anderton remembers him (not one to forget) and as Anderton lies there paralysed, trapped in the surgeon’s chair, the surgeon recounts his prison experiences, even alluding to the fact that he was raped.

As Anderton struggles with the grim reality that this nutter is probably after some serious payback, the surgeon lifts a laser gun to Anderton’s face, thanks him for sending him to prison and then says, “Let me return the favour…” and as the laser gun moves in, we collectively recoil from what must inevitably be this madman’s gruesome retribution.

The script then cuts to another scene and when we eventually return to Anderton, he’s in the same place, post-op, with his face and eyes wrapped in bandages. The surgeon is still with him and explains that it’s imperative he waits twelve hours before removing the bandages otherwise he will go blind. The surgeon stresses this several times, to the point that Anderton even repeats it back to him, demonstrating that he (we) understands he will go blind if he removes the bandages before twelve hours have passed. This is the second telegraphed plant. The audience are still waiting for the payoff on the first one. What has this nutter done to Anderton’s face and eyes they wonder? Also, why isn’t Anderton wondering that, too?

The surgeon gives Anderton a timer and some recreational drugs. An alarm will sound in twelve hours letting him know he can safely remove the bandages. The surgeon exits, Anderton takes a hit on the drugs and settles down to wait the allotted time. Unfortunately for him, the police are closing in and with six hours still remaining on his “gonna-go-blind” timer, Anderton is forced to uncover his newly transplanted left eye so a scanner can read it. He peels back the bandages, forces open his eye and the scanner strobes across it. Ouch! The new eye fools the police. They think it’s a different guy and the audience breathe a huge sigh of relief at the end of an extremely tense scene. The pain and suffering and ultimate blindness in one eye were worth it because he’s still a free man.

The next scene shows Anderton in public wearing sunglasses. We sympathise with him and his recent sacrifice, that is until he removes the glasses and can see perfectly well with both eyes! Whoosh bump.

If you telegraph this kind of detail you have to follow through with your promise and deliver, otherwise the audience will feel cheated and you could risk losing them. If Little Red Riding Hood defies her mother’s warning and strays from the path, something pretty rotten must happen to her. Failing to realise telegraphed preparation deprives the audience of expected payoff. It’s part of the deal. Chekhov said it more succinctly: “do not show a rifle on stage unless you are planning for someone to use it.” This is exactly what happens in Minority Report. What about the mad surgeon? Where’s the payoff there? Exactly what did that warped, woman-burning psychopathic surgeon with a chip on his shoulder do to our hero’s eyes? Is something yet to come? No. Nothing.

Anderton’s face is unscathed and his eyes work perfectly well for the rest of the film, despite the surgeon heavily hinting it was payback time, and despite the fact that Anderton exposed one eye within the timeframe that we had it drummed into us he would go blind. That’s a double whoosh bump moment. Two massive payoff scenes that should have been written were deafening in their absence.

Although both preparation problems in Minority Report are the same type of problem - telegraphed plants with no payoff - their differences lie in accountability. Whereas in Jurassic Park the problem is created at script level, with Minority Report the honours are even, with both writer and director demonstrating a shocking lack of vision. (I think it’s safe to say I’ll never work for Mr. Spielberg.) The first problem, the telegraphed threat from the lunatic surgeon, was a poorly-executed attempt to create even more tension in a succession of scenes already crammed full of tension.

In continually trying to up the stakes for the already beleaguered protagonist, the writers overlooked the required payoff scene. The result? Audience distraction and disappointment, the very opposite of what they were after. It’s a great example of where less would have been more. Throwing more and more problems at your protagonist just for the sake of it doesn’t equate to heightened tension. Allowing the scene to breathe and for the audience to focus, allows for existing tension, of which there is plenty in this example, to take root and build, making the eventual payoff that much more rewarding.

The second telegraphed plant, the warning not to expose his new eyes until twelve hours have passed, was originally followed by the required payoff scene but only in the script. In Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s script, when Anderton exposes his left eye after only six hours have passed, the eye actually turns white and for the rest of the script, as promised, he remains blind in that eye. That is the payoff scene that should have been seen, has to be seen, but unfortunately didn’t materialise in the finished film.

For whatever reason Spielberg decided to remove the element of Anderton going blind from the film. That’s fair enough; it’s the director’s prerogative, scenes are dropped and chopped all the time. However, having made the decision to drop the blindness element, Spielberg failed to remove its preparation, which left a gaping hole where there should have been a payoff scene, resulting in confusion, frustration and ultimately a betrayal of investment for the audience.

A similar problem occurs in Kieslowski’s Trzy Kolory: Bialy, where a confusing and disappointing finale is the direct result of specific preparation, present in the script, being cut from the finished film. Rejected husband, Karol, decides to fake his own death in a ploy to bring his estranged ex-wife, Dominique, from France to Poland for his funeral. Karol’s best friend, Mikolai, is in on the plan and after Karol’s ‘death’, arranges for a new identity, a new house and a new life for Karol in Hong Kong. Karol is due to fly to Hong Kong the morning after his own funeral.

Spying on his fake funeral, Karol is both moved and shocked at Dominique’s genuine grief, which prompts him to visit her at her hotel that same night. She expresses enormous relief that he is alive and they make sweet beautiful love and fall asleep in each other’s arms. It’s unclear why, after yearning for her for so long and going to such extreme lengths to induce her to come to Poland, Karol then sneaks off early in the morning before she wakes.

The police suddenly arrive and Dominique is surprisingly arrested for Karol’s murder. She is subsequently convicted and imprisoned leaving a sad Karol to pine outside her Polish prison with no further mention of his proposed Hong Kong plans. THE END. Whoosh bump.

The script reveals all. It turns out that Karol faked his own death to deliberately implicate Dominique as payback for the hell and humiliation she put him through in France. What we don’t see in the finished film is Karol arranging the set-up by having one of his men pinch Dominique’s passport whilst she’s at his funeral and replace it with one containing a new airport stamp that proves she was in the right place at the right time for his murder, the plan being that as Karol takes off for Hong Kong in the morning, his friend Mikolai will tip off the police about Dominique and all will be wrapped up nicely.

But it isn’t wrapped up nicely, at least not in the film, because the audience do not see any of that significant preparation and so when the police unexpectedly arrive at Dominique’s hotel and question her about her passport, we have no idea it has been faked and cannot understand why she has been arrested.

The script further reveals that following their night of passion after the funeral, Karol decides he can’t go through with the frame-up and he has also changed his mind about going to Hong Kong. So, the next morning, he leaves Dominique asleep in bed and hurries to the airport to cancel his ticket before phoning Mikolai to call the whole thing off.

Unfortunately, his arrival at the airport reveals that the clocks have gone forward. He tries to get hold of Mikolai but it’s too late; Mikolai’s already phoned the police and there’s no going back. And so we get the bittersweet ending. But only in the script, because in the film Karol sneaks off without explanation and Dominique is bizarrely arrested for Karol’s murder. We then see Karol seemingly devastated about Dominique’s arrest and imprisonment yet still allowing her to be wrongly accused of his murder, and there is no mention whatsoever of why Karol’s planned new life in Hong Kong hasn’t materialised. It’s about as clear as mud. Whoosh bump.

Kieslowski recognised this and admitted the ending was not clear. He agreed with the criticism but still defended his decision to cut the film saying he didn’t want to burden the viewer with a longer story. It seems very strange to cite audience welfare as his reason for cutting a film’s length when the subsequent result is mass audience confusion, especially when you consider the film is only an hour and a half long and the actual time cut from the finished film, according to Kieslowski himself, would have extended it by only “at least another ten minutes”.

Let’s suppose that is the case and for whatever reason he was against breaking the ninety-minute barrier. Director’s prerogative. But why did he choose to remove critical preparation that would undoubtedly lead to audience confusion and disappointment when he could just as easily reclaim that time from other areas of the film and sacrifice less important material? There’s plenty of opportunity to do that, plus he could have perfectly adequately foreshadowed the climax in less than “at least another ten minutes”.

All Kieslowski needed to do was show the all-important set-up with the passport forgery, then show Karol, after leaving Dominique in the hotel, discovering the time differential and trying to stop Mikolai from making that fateful phone call. That’s it. No longer than a few minutes. Instead we’re left with an intriguing and amusing film that ultimately confuses and disappoints at its climax. With all due respect to another brilliant director, I think he simply got it wrong. I think he made a mistake, an error in preparation, something none of us is immune to, neither the gods of film nor those of us who aspire to lie at their feet.

Of course, it’s always easy to pick holes in others’ hard work, but despite the problems highlighted above, all the examples have been consciously chosen from films that are recognised as being both critical and commercial successes. I just believe they could have been better. I fully accept that it’s extremely difficult to craft a work of drama without any holes, but we have some wonderful tools at our disposal to help do that, and by respecting just how delicate those tools are and understanding that even the greats can sometimes get it painfully wrong, hopefully we can be aware of our own fallibility and never become complacent.

First published in SCRIPTWRITER MAGAZINE issue 43 November 2008

Little Red Riding Hood by the very talented Annie Rodrigue

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Pursuit of Literature

2009 is the year of the book. At least the book I’m writing. Or going to write. Which isn’t easy on two counts. No, three actually. The first being the actual writing of a book. No walk in the park, that. Secondly, I’ve been stuck in a present tense declarative world of writing drama for so long that any other way of writing looks plain wrong and in all honesty extremely dull. And thirdly, each time I try and write something I end up in a late nineteenth century novel…

    The ancient grandfather clock chimed for the twelfth and final time and returned the room to a silence interrupted only by the occasional crack and pop from the fireplace.
    Donald Leach looked at each of his three friends, all similarly reclined in well-worn leather armchairs, all in possession of cigars and brandy glasses.
    “There it is, gentlemen, the witching hour,” he produced a fresh cigar from the box on the table beside him. “Who would like to start proceedings?”
     James Patrick, a giant of an Irishman with purple ruddy cheeks and a shock of blonde hair that would please a man half his age, looked over to Donald, then to his gathered friends.
     “I wouldn’t know where to start, to be honest. I can’t say I’ve ever done anything to inspire concern or controversy, contrary to popular belief.”
     “Oh, come now, James, if there’s one amongst us who is surely over-qualified in that area, surely it must be you?”
    The big man laughed, “Oh, I’ve lived a life, there’s no debating that, but not one full of the kind of intrigue you’re sniffing for. I’ve fought in wars, yes, I’ve killed people, and I’ve seen some pretty unpleasant things, some of which still weigh heavy on this old mind, for sure, but there’s nothing out there exists, or happened, that I feel was out of place or against my nature. I’ll go to my grave with a full belly and happy conscience.”
    “Now that’s disappointing to hear. I was expecting tales of dark mischief from foreign lands, with maybe evil done with foreign hands? And here you sit amongst us, a decorated war hero, without so much as a blemish on your soul. What is the world coming to?” Donald reached across towards the fireplace and gave the long satin sash a silent tug. “Another brandy, gentlemen?”
    “And I’ll not be much use to you, either, I’m afraid.” Robert Jackson was a slender, elegant man, around seventy with a full head of glorious white hair, with eyebrows and moustache to match. “I have no war medals to boast of, but neither do I have any dark tales to further darken this room. Although content with my lot, my life has been relatively dull, certainly in comparison to the Major here.”
    “Oh, Bob,” said James, “routine is routine. My tales of derring-do are only of interest to those that have no experience of the army. You sit in a room filled with retired officers and you’ll soon see how dull life sounds. It’s always what the other man has that is of interest. You, for example, have had three wives, and for a man that has kept true to his vows to the same woman for fifty years, that certainly inspires a raised eyebrow or two.”
    “Robert Jackson and his harem,” laughed Donald, “an ongoing saga that has kept many a tongue busy in certain circles and not a few happily married men more than a little jealous, mark my words. Yours is no dull life, my friend. But where is the darkness? Somewhere amongst us we must have a secret, some sin knocking on our conscience, waiting to get out. None of us have long left on this earth, gentlemen, confession time is upon us, lest we miss out on our place on the other side.”
    “What about you, then, Donald, you brought this up, you suggested this evening’s post-dinner confessional. Are you about to drop on us a bombshell of the type that will have James comparing endless near-miss encounters with enemy mortar?
    “No, nothing of the sort, unfortunately,” laughed Donald, “there is nothing remarkable about my life, not only are there no skeletons in my closet but no defining moments, either. I fell in love with my first, and only, wife, the dear and departed Isabelle, whilst still only in short pants. It seems I always new what I wanted before I ever really needed it and always ended up getting it. Pretty damn dull, really. My only regret would be never telling her just how much I really did love her.”
    “Come now, Donald, that woman doted on you, night and day, she knew how much you loved her, there was never any question about that.” Robert drained the last of his brandy and, as if on cue, a light knock at the door advertised the arrival of their refills.
    “Come in, Batters,” called Donald, “bring the booze; this lot are in need of livening up.”
    Batters shuffled across the library and laid the tray down on the serving table. “I took the liberty of bringing in some cheese, sir, and a few of those chocolates that arrived the other day.”
    “Batters, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” smiled Donald, “well, apart from lose weight, that is. I don’t suppose you can gift us with any dark tales from your seedy past and save this evening from being a complete failure? Any skeletons in your well groomed butler’s closet?”
    “I’m afraid I can’t help you there, sir, a butler’s closet is always skeleton free. Our time is mostly taken up removing the skeletons from those who employ us.”
     The room erupted into laughter.
    “Oh, if only that were true, then I’d have a glorious tale to regale my dull old friends with, but my old antique closets are only rich in moth-eaten silks and not much more. Thank you, Batters, that will be all, you may retire now.”
    “Very good, sir. Goodnight gentlemen.”
    A chorus of muttered good evenings accompanied Batters as he left the room, leaving the men sitting in silence.
    A loud crack and pop drew their attention to the fire. They all stared in silence as the flickering flames cast a ballet of shadows around the enormous fireplace. After what seemed an eternity, Robert Jackson cleared his throat, shifted uneasily in his seat and said quietly, "There is something, actually. Something I would like to say."