Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost, BSG & TV mythology

Interesting reading the reaction to the Lost series finale today. Don't worry, no spoilers are to be found here! I gave up on Lost during the second episode of season one - the flashback structure had me running for the hills. Since then there have been, as I understand it, not only flashbacks but flash forwards and even something called "flash sideways". My concern, even back then, was that the fractured timeline storytelling was a technique to stall progress in answering the main question that was posed from the get go - what is the island?

For those who stuck with it, answers were slow in coming as the show mythology became even more intricate and obtuse. Expectations appear to have been enormous for season 6 and the finale to answer all mysteries and outstanding issues that have been debated incessantly by fans. Except by this stage that was literally an impossibility.

I went through this with Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Another show with a dense mythology that ran amok and seemed to get away from the writers - The Final Five, The Fifth Cylon, the nature of Starbuck etc etc. I for one, to this day, point blank refuse to believe Saul Tigh is a Cylon.

The episode "No Exit" in the final season was wall to wall exposition of the worst kind as it tried to retrofit an explanation for all the unanswered questions around the mythology. Moore pulled off a nice save with the series finale but the similarity to statements made by the Lost producers is very instructive. In essence - 'it's all about the characters, stupid!'

To me that's code for, 'yeah, I don't know the answers either'. And that's the danger of writing intricately plotted stories with elaborate mythologies where you fly by the seat of your pants. Is it really the characters or the plot that keeps the viewers coming back in these sorts of shows? Reading the Lost boards and blogs, people appear to agree the emotional side of the finale was powerful but that this masked shortcomings in the intellectual side ie character over plot. But people seem more preoccupied with wanting to know the answers to riddles and clues they have invested much time and energy trying to decipher. To me, you flirt with danger if you disregard the audience's visceral response to the devices and teasers you knowingly deploy.

So the question is, as a writer, do you deliberately create a dense and overtly mysterious mythology where you know you may never be able to answer all the questions you pose; or do you have some responsibility to your audience to have plausible and consistent explanations for the worlds you invent? Or does service to character trump everything regardless?

I know the Lost finale doesn't air until Wednesday in Australia but I suspect many diehard fans will see it well before then. If so, what did you think - were you satisfied with how the show ended or do major questions linger?

Monday, May 17, 2010


I see that SF series V has disappeared to the 10.30pm Sunday timeslot. I may have been a couple of weeks out but this was totally predictable. Science Fiction and prime time on Australian TV do not mix.

I have dropped Underbelly 3 after giving up in the final half hour of the double episode last week. There's only so much slow motion wankery I can take on a Sunday night (I could have put Chariots of Fire on a loop for a week and it wouldn't have come close!). I was screaming at the television because this could be really good Aussie drama but the amount of pointless scenes and sheer gimmickry make it unwatchable. It's a shame because the ABC documentary during the week, The Inquisition, really whetted my appetite with actual surveillance footage of Trevor Haken and Chook Fowler. Yet the dramatisation makes everyone out to be cartoon characters.

Thank you to everybody behind Beneath Hill 60 for not only making me eager to see an Australian movie again but delivering on the promise of a good yarn in spades. Well done!

Dear Funding Body

Dear [insert name of funding body here]

Re: Your Rejection Letter

I am writing to inform you of the outcome of your rejection letter.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it was deemed to be unacceptable.

I have received a large number of quality rejection letters vying for my personal humiliation, and with limited ego available for shredding I must assess all rejections competitively.

I therefore regret that I am unable to assist you at this time.

Yours sincerely,

A nameless, faceless, unfunded screenwriter

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Collective promotion

This looks to be an interesting venture - 12 actors joining forces to promote themselves locally but with international ambitions. I know one of the actors personally, a few by name only, but you have to admire their gumption. The website looks pretty good and I like the mission ("To create opportunities for Western Australian based-actors to hone their craft and showcase their individual talents within Australia, and abroad") and Aim "to develop and draw upon local talent wherever possible, and to lead by example in all aspects of being an actor in a truthful and honest manner." It will be interesting to see what the result is.

Can you imagine a group of screenwriters doing this? I mean, why not? Apart from our notoriously insular nature, would there be benefits to be gained by joint promotion? I am always looking for like minded writers (storytelling style and genres) and/or people who can stretch me but it's not such an easy task. Some writers still seem scared that people will steal their ideas (puhlease), or aren't confident enough to share their work, or have other agendas I don't really care to understand. Sure, there's the Writers' Guild and the occasional writers support group but we don't seem to really have a sense of community. Leastways not in Perth.

One of the joys of the online course, is that I have a detailed appreciation of two other local writers' scripts. One is a close cousin of mine, the other a completely different genre. As we rewrite and develop our projects there is continuous feedback and insight. Hopefully that will continue after the course finishes. But ultimately, I guess, we go our separate ways to get our scripts financed and made. So good luck to Scene Actors 12 - who knows, maybe some or all of them will end up in a script written by yours truly!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The simple things

A couple of exercises out of the rewrite course made me think about the things you try to improve individual scenes. Sometimes it ain't rocket science. The 'homework' in question was to take a descriptive heavy scene and turn it into a dialogue heavy one; the other, to convert a dialogue scene into a descriptive one.

The former, I chose a single character scene where the protagonist searches through her mother's old belongings and makes a surprise discovery. To add dialogue I had to introduce another character (a soliloquy didn't seem appropriate!) but there is already an 'unseen character' - the long dead mother. So in the reworked scene there's a beat between father and daughter as they vocalise their loss. Somewhat oblique so as not to be 'on the nose', it added a nice element and some foreshadowing for later.

The latter was literally a scene between two people who can't talk to each other. Taking out the confrontational dialogue and letting the actors convey the characters' frustrations and anger worked perhaps even better. The reworked scene felt a little flat energy wise though so I upped the ante with some physicality which I thought might be a touch melodramatic. But to my surprise when I shared the scenes with my director he liked this one best. He then said he finds melodramatic dialogue more problematic. Amen.

Another exercise was to take a description heavy scene and cut it in half and it's amazing the clarity you can obtain when forced to do such 'drastic' editing. In fact, our instructor believes every scene, sequence and script can be trimmed by ten percent. It's all about being ruthless and cutting to the essence of the scene.

Other things I've been known to try include re-assigning lines of dialogue between characters which can change the thrust of the scene in unexpected ways. Then, of course, there's the swapping of gender, perhaps the most notable in film history being Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies who was originally written as a male character. This can add whole new layers to a scene, or in that case, an entire franchise.

The point of the exercises is not being afraid to try different things to make a scene better ... and have some fun with it. A different approach may yield a surprising result. And I for one, love surprises!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

They're only words ... right?

The big "furore" this week is the sacking of Catherine Deveny as a columnist for a major newspaper for offensive tweets regarding the Logies. The most egregious of these being:

Rove and Tasma look so cute! I hope she doesn't die too #logies
I so do hope Bindi Irwin gets laid #logies

This Deveny character (who I hadn't heard of before today) is supposedly a comedian renowned for being vitriolic and "edgy". So why the controversy?

Rove's first wife, Belinda Emmett, died of breast cancer. So tweet #1 is pretty high on the tacky and tasteless meter.

Bindi Irwin, daughter of Steve Irwin, is eleven years old. That's right, ELEVEN. That makes tweet #2 outright sick.

Now, you won't get an argument from me that the Logies are a joke, not only as an Awards show, but as a supposed celebration of television excellence in this country. This year's Gold Logie winner is still being carbon dated.

The response to Deveny's sacking, however, is interesting. It appears said sacking has nothing to do with her lack of commonsense, judgment or simple decency:

The Logies took place on Sunday night but the newspaper in question, The Age, "only" sacked her on the Tuesday after a public outcry. Apparently this points to some terrible conspiracy as obviously the paper was only swayed by popular opinion. How dare they!

People have defended her right to tweet whatever she wants. Ah sorry, no, that's not how it works. Using social media, indeed any form of 'speech' has responsibilities entwined with the freedoms.

Deveny claims Twitter is the equivalent of "passing notes in class". Others have commented that people wouldn't have been able to read her tweets if they weren't following her (and by following her I assume this means you know she's prone to objectionable gaffes). Well, I would buy that except for the fact she was tacking #logies on the end of her tweets which means anyone following that topic would have been able to read her posts, something she would have been well aware of and, dare I say it, courting.

And now, today, on her Twitter feed, this:

Other people chose to reproduce those two tweets outside of twitter. They created the media storm.

Um, HELLO, how about you take responsibility for the fact that you glibly tweeted offensive dreck and have been called on it!

Words are powerful - they can inspire, incite, motivate, enrage, educate and entertain. As writers we should and must take full responsibility for what we write. Wherever we write it. Just because it's 140 characters on Twitter doesn't magically absolve us of our responsibilities, not as writers, not as decent human beings. How anyone could think the Bindi Irwin tweet, in particular, could be construed as funny or 'satire' is beyond me.

Many companies are now introducing Social media policies that govern how and what their employees post on sites like Twitter. Saying it is only personal when your name, certainly in this instance, is tied to a corporate brand is naive at best, disingenuous at worst.

Words are powerful. Take responsibility for them. Use them wisely.