2017 Screenwriting Research Network Conference

University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ.jpg
By Nathan Hughes Hamilton – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nat507/12468333624/, CC BY 2.0, Link

The past four days have been such a blur of ideas, conversation, food and shockingly warm weather that I’m still having trouble believing it’s Thursday already — I only flew down on Sunday to get a headstart on things and —. Did I say I’m having trouble believing it’s Thursday already?

I was very chuffed to attend the 2017 Screenwriting Research Network (SRN) Conference in Dunedin this week. It took me a good day or so to get my head around what the SRN mean by “rethink[ing] the screenplay in relation to its histories, theories, values and creative practices”.

Screenplays as more than just the starting points for film and television productions. I could dig that. Kind of.

Since Monday, academics and practitioners have rubbed shoulders and broken bread together on the Otago University campus, and I thought everyone played rather nicely together. Highlights included — beware shameless name-dropping:

Big props to organisers Davinia Thornley, Al, Amie, Maureen Lloyd, PippaKatie Baddock, and a small army of volunteers for making the whole occasion smooth sailing.

The next conference is in Milan. How hard can it be to knock up an abstract on Screenwriting as discomfit: at which point did I begin to self-identify as a writer?

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Box Watch: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale was my first Margaret Atwood book. It introduced me to her other writing. I’m a fan.

So when I heard last year about this television adaptation, I was prepped and ready to hate it hate it hate it so much that I wasn’t going to even bother wasting my time watching it. And then…

First ep in and I’m on the fence: great world-building but I don’t like the flashbacks — I’d read the book, dammit; viewers should either fill in the gaps or use their damned library cards if they were confused. Second ep in and I’m immersed: the flashbacks aren’t gratuitous; and lead (and producer) Elisabeth Moss’ performance is television gold. The eps are consumed in rapid succession — I read somewhere that it’s been renewed for a second season — and then the season ends just where the book ends and something goes off in my head:

They’ve gone off-book.

I haven’t been this excited about a sophomore season since I don’t know how long.

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Reduce

We wanted some comfort telly recently, so a few Law & Order eps were screened and it was comforting.

This evening The Goddess and I tried a new police procedural show — and boy oh boy were there a heckuva lot of shots of:

  • driving to/from work/crime-scene/witness;
  • walking to/from office/room/building.

It was unfortunate timing for the latter show to follow so soon after some L&O eps.

But still illuminating from a storytelling point of view.

(I know Apocalypse Now is a galaxy away from television police procedurals but it was all I could find on reducing right down.)

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2016 in Pixels

Okay, I’ve been a bit laggardly on the fitness and health side of things but that’s okay: I’ve been investing those ‘lost’ hours in my televisual research (145 titles totalling 496 hours, up a respectable amount from last year).

Mississppi Grind Poster.jpg
By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

Enjoyed on the big screen were:

  • Mississippi Grind
  • Deadpool
  • 45 Years
  • The Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  • The Nice Guys
  • La Isla Minima
  • Keanu
  • The Accountant
  • Blood Simple
  • 99 Homes

Honourable mentions: Beach Boy Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, unexpectedly affecting Rocky spin-off Creed, the unlikely and uncompromising Young Adult, the ridiculously fun Central Intelligence, and Florence Foster Jenkins which I was totally prepared to hate but couldn’t because it was so well executed.

The-americans-title-card.png
By DreamWorks Television and/or FX – The Americans, Season one episode five “COMINT“, Public Domain, Link

The small screen offerings held their own:

  • The Americans S01–04
  • The Expanse S01
  • Getting On (UK, 2008) S01–03
  • Better Call Saul S02
  • Low Winter Sun (UK, 2006)
  • Animals Pilot
  • Westworld S01
  • Game of Thrones S06
  • Catastrophe S02
  • The Good Wife S07

Honourable mentions: low key sci-fi robot drama Humans S02, an happy bonus season of Offspring S06, and Transparent S02 which continues to make me scratch my head after each ep but unable to stop pressing the Next button for the next episode.

(I’d actually already watched the first two seasons of The Americans but made the mistake of introducing the Goddess to the pilot. It was a hard slog rewatching those first two seasons, I tell you.) (It wasn’t a hard slog — it’s a damned good show.)

Bring on 2017!

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BSS

Late last month I attended the 2016 Big Screen Symposium in Auckland. It was the second network-y thing I’ve done this year (ah yes, I neglected to mention I attended the 2016 PANNZ Arts Market in Wellington in March).

Cue shameless name-dropping as I saw:

As for the speakers, highlights were:

  • creative couple Cate Shortland (SomersaultThe Slap) and Tony Krawitz (Devil’s PlaygroundThe Kettering Incident) on writing and directing Australian television drama;
  • Jonathon Raymond on screenwriting for Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) and Todd Haynes (Far From HeavenMildred Pierce); and
  • producer and BSS keynote speaker Heather Rae (Frozen River) on decolonising the screen.

Nice work, all around.

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Endings

Two six-ep mini-series were consumed recently:

Both have excellent casts, are slickly directed and written, jet set around the Continent, and are absorbing thrillers with compelling and flawed characters.

So why have I forgotten most of one while still mulling over the contents of the other?

It was the endings that sorted these two out — I was fully invested in each of them through the first five eps. In one show, the final ep was a stomach churner of suspense that followed the main players to inescapable and sometimes bitter resolutions. In the other, what began as a tense finale went limp partway through as it copped out with an ending where good triumphs over evil.

Who am I to say that it copped out? Well… what was I supposed to expect after five eps of betrayals and reversals and sacrifices? It certainly wasn’t what I got, I can tell you.

And what the heck do I know about inescapable and sometimes bitter resolutions? We’re all doing life, aren’t we? And, like it or lump it, betrayals, reversals and sacrifices come at a price.

So: beware endings.

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Box Watch: Offspring

Offspring Logo.jpg
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43487416

What possessed me to try this show with The Goddess six years ago? Was it recommended to her and I was humouring her? Was it a weak/apologetic/fawning moment on my part? Was there channel-surfing and we got hooked like I did once upon a Wire?

At first I swore to merely be in the same room with her as she watched it — I’d be doing something (anything) else like knitting, taijutsu or practicing quick-draws — yet as every episode unfolded, I found myself sitting with my beloved as we were pulled into the world of a thirtysomething obstetrician and her family and friends.

Shit ain’t bad, yo.

When it wasn’t renewed after its fifth season we were both a bit bummed at the unfairness of it all.

But ooh, look — and just in time for an anniversary with the Better Half: a sixth season is playing right now.

I suppose the wool, gi and gun leather will have to wait.

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Go To

Contrary to popular belief, when energy, motivation, and/or creativity is low in the Writing Cave Keep, I do not resort to singing along with Ms Krall ad infinitum.

If it’s a technical challenge, I turn to the writing library, top most being William Goldman‘s Which Lie Did I Tell?, Alex Epstein‘s Crafty Screenwriting and Stephen King‘s On Writing.

If a project has certain constraints or is more long-form, there’s these classics to crib from:

  • Joss Whedon‘s Buffy the Vampire Slayer — not just a scantily-clad teen-girl who can kick serious demon ass1;
  • Jed Mercurio‘s Bodies — a visceral and heartbreaking look at just how little separates life and death in a maternity ward; and
  • David Simon‘s The Wire — its novelistic approach to presenting a criminal investigation, showing us every shade of grey between the police and their adversaries, as well as the world in which both operate, is something to which I can only dare aspire.

The words "The Wire" in white lettering on a black background. Below it a waveform spectrum in blue.
And if it’s all too much and/or I want to procrastinate for hours I just need a little kick, I never go wrong with any of these:

  • James Cameron‘s Aliens — a war movie in space;
  • Quentin Tarantino‘s Jackie Brown — a small-time crook’s One Final Score;
  • and David Mamet‘s Spartan — a rogue agent’s attempt to Do The Right Thing.

Spartan movie.jpg
It’s not necessarily the story I worry about — it’s how I’m going to make it interesting. I want to grab and hold the reader’s — and, eventually, the paying audience’s — attention, take ’em for a ride, and then afterwards, drop ’em back in their seat, exhilarated, exhausted, and begging for more.

All of the above touchstones do exactly that.

Most times, soon after referring to any of the above, I’m back at the keyboard, writing.

 

1   But oh how The Goddess rolls her eyes when I talk about superior subtextual story-telling amidst well-choreographed ass-kicking.

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