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.
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:
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.
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.
When watching movies, I know I’ve found a new personal favourite when I’m grinning from ear to ear as the credits roll. It’s a recognition of the craft – the art – that went into what I’ve just witnessed. It’s the realisation of how slickly I’ve been played as an audience member. And the jaw-stretching grin is all the more sweeter if my expectations were pretty high beforehand.
In the last five years, that credit-roll grin has been hurting my face after just an hour – sometimes only half that – of television drama. From the oh-my-gods-I’m-exhausted elation/relief of The Shield and Bodies, to the what-the-heck-happens-next-gods-dammit addiction of The Wire and Sports Night – and let’s not forget the hot-damn!-that-was-good enjoyment from The Closer, The West Wing and the occasional Burn Notice episode.
So what is it about Mad Men that makes me griiin and whine cry out Finished already? each week?
Nothing happens. It’s about relationships – between a bunch of distinctly unlikeable rogues bastards in an era where women were little more than chattels, blacks were invisible, and every damned one of the characters smokes.
It’s those very things that I savour about Mad Men.
Nothing much may happen in an ep but we’re learning more and more about Don and Peggy and company – and what we learn not so much answers questions about them but deepens what we know about their characters. Where most other television dramas would portray the dick-swinging camaraderie with a post-Top Gun homoeroticism or symbolic gunfights and car-chases, the male relationships in Mad Men are so finely detailed that even The Goddess is forced to ask me What was that all about? And as for the show’s portrayal of the time and place: I salute creator Matthew Weiner‘s unflinching lack of gloss or veneer – ‘S how it was, baby.
In portraying a period of history as unflatteringly as one might cover current events, Weiner’s genius is in showing us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Where the choice on the box is usually between procedural (or procedural with a twist) and soap (or soap with a twist), it’s great to have a drama that – just like its characters toil at in advertising – gives more of the same, but different.
In films and television, the hospital waiting room is where our protagonists get The Bad News. (Unless it’s a comedy and someone’s about to give birth with help from a Third World-trained and -accented duty doctor.) It’s invariably Bad News along the lines of parents’ long-limbed catwalk model daughter being disfigured and will look merely average, or an athletic and square-jawed boyfriend who will Never Walk Again, or a friend who Always Loved Life and Lived It To The Full contracting a Terminal Disease. You know: plot turning-point kind of stuff.
I’m in a hospital waiting room as I type this. There’s no emergency or anything – I’m here with a friend who doesn’t like hospitals. They’re understandably nervous and anxious to get this over with. For my part, I’m cool to wait. It’s not an I’m-glad-it’s-not-me kind of cool. It’s a calmness borne of experience: a lot of my early childhood was spent in doctors’ and hospital waiting rooms. So despite decades of passive exposure to ER, Bodies and Shortland Street, I don’t find hospitals or doctors’ surgeries particularly discomfiting. They’re just a place to wait, sometimes for hours on end, so the mind must be occupied with something (and a Matchbox car or three no longer cuts it nowadays).
You’re wondering what the hell this has to do with screenwriting.
I’ve… no idea. I’m in a -, oh I’ve said that already.
… Okay. Two things.
One: a really cool thing about being a writer is that you can write anywhere.
Two: I’ve realised that – with the exception of a failed Shortland Street application – I haven’t written a hospital waiting room scene in any of my scripts. But one thing I’m going to put in it when I do? A sense of waiting that won’t require someone to stand up and huff: I’ve been waiting here for hours!
Fill yer hand, friend, and after a few seconds of blurred action and sharp noises, the cordite smoke lifts… and I’m the last man standing with a television concept I’d been sweet on for a few years.
Back at the saloon, I take a stool at the bar. Two-Fingered Frank serves up a double and, after the barest hesitation, leaves the milk bottle within reach. The shot goes down but I don’t taste it. I begin to pour another but then I stop. I turn the concept over in my hands. I remember the last time I saw it; the amount of work I put into it. I admire the craft and heart inherent and also remember working against seemingly innumerable constraints and frustrations. It was mine now – mine.
The following morning, I need hair of the dog and some several raw eggs before I’m on my way; it’s not until I’ve carefully shaved my tongue that I feel human again. Sunlight glints off something in my saddlebags. Before I realise it, the concept’s in my hands again. Only now do I feel its dead weight. I may be the one-and-only now but it’s been years since I was in that space. After years of wading around in ninety minute-plus stories, packing a decent story into forty-five minutes with beats to match opening credit sequences and commercial breaks is a different beast to tame. And don’t forget story and character arcs to be entwined and paced over thirteen episodes.
Movement in the corner of my eye and I draw instinctively, ballpoint steady, elbow nice and relaxed. It’s only my reflection in the mirror. Gone is yesteryear’s cocky inkslinger, replaced with a wary, slightly squinty, keypuncher.
So be it.
What’s the point of aiming high if you can’t just shoot for the moon?
Jed Mercurio, creator of the excellent, visceral, Bodies, wrote this about adapting novels for the screen. What I found most interesting was –
Cynics argue that drama adaptations for television demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm for original material or, worse, a lack of quality in original scripts. I disagree with both propositions. Commissioners crave original drama, and many (if not most) writers prefer to create their own material, and most (if not all) of them feel more attached to their original script than an adaptation. But marketing original drama isn’t easy. … The audience doesn’t know the story or the characters. That’s hard to explain in a trailer or a billboard poster.
As an audience member, I must confess to a double standard: I want more of the same – but different.
I work hard at trying something completely new though. How else could I have found and sworn by Bodies or The Wire – or even Green Wing or The Insiders Guides to Love and Happiness?
What I admire most about these series is the sheer depth, and complexity of story and character that’s packed into each forty-five minute episode. It didn’t matter if it was a procedural or soap. The writing, directing and acting is so good that the underlying structure is barely noticed.
Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are my poster boys for giving more of the same… but different. They showed that even the tired superhero, horror and fantasy genres of comicdom – and their audiences – could be treated just as seriously as any other form of ‘real’ literature – with maturity and intelligence.
I returned to comic-reading in the last few years – one could hazard that it was a precursor to my true return to reading. And upon my return I’ve found the pleasures of Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson‘s blistering Transmetropolitan, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon‘s heart- and gut-wrenching Preacher, and David Lapham‘s mindblowing Stray Bullets. These – and more – are just proof-positive that, just as the good doctor purred,