Words on film (it’s a global conspiracy actually).

There’s an odd disquiet in the air this evening as the sun wanes a grubby orange and London’s throaty roar thunders more angrily than ever; a noxious Last Post for a city slowly eating itself. Maybe I should just shut the window; maybe I should reign-in the hay-fever pills a little or maybe I should load up my fingers with words and tap out the bellicose rhythms of a linguistic war upon my battered keyboard.

Or maybe just get on with it.

I am bothered by the stats page on my WordPress site. I pretend not to be. I feign indifference like a recovering smoker shrugging at the pub on a Friday afternoon as a forgetful friend offers him a fag even though it’s been nearly seven weeks since he’s last smoked. He declines politely. He pretends not to care. He ignores the raging beast of nicotine addiction stomping around the wires and neurones of his brain – yes, he thinks, yes for the love of all that is holy and grand, please just let me smoke. But he says nothing. He smiles. He is fine. Really he is.

My name is James and I’ve given up smoking. This makes me simultaneously very happy indeed (and god, do I feel better for it) but also a tiny bit sad.

Anyway, this analogy began sometime in the late C19th and let me try to bring it some sort of, inevitably disappointing, conclusion. Yes, the stats page. I pretend to be immune to its charms but the last few days have seen the longest period so far during which nobody on the planet has read anything that I’ve published here. This blogging duck (a cricket metaphor, sorry American readers – hi Julia) was broken today by a single view of my (ahem) award-winning post about motivational quotations for writers from a reader in Djibouti. Which is a very hot country on the East coast of Africa. I know this because the internet has just told me. So anyway, time to tap my way back to a few more readers.

There’s a fair bit of Long Arm news on the horizon; something about a finished feature film, a trailer for said film; some exciting developments about our short Ex Libris and a draft of a new feature script that features a man called Spider and a lady who keeps a shotgun in her bra. However, none of these exciting headlines can be supported by much detail just yet although we do hope to expand on these themes in the coming weeks. We should be able to show you something exciting in roughly a fortnight. And I don’t mean Jimmy’s bum. Although clearly for most rational human beings, things just don’t get more exciting than this.

So to continue a theme that I began in my most recent post (which was published a blushingly large number of weeks ago) I thought I’d write a little about something very close to my lungs. Nicotine. No, not nicotine. I am over nicotine. Smoking is SO OVER. No I mean scripted dialogue. As ever I don’t profess to being any sort of expert on the subject but as a writer whose written more of the stuff than I have anything else, I do feel that I have a few observations worth sharing.

There are manifold challenges for the screenwriter as he or she sits down to write some dialogue for a scene. Not least the fact that people are rubbish at talking. Real people in real life spew a never-ending shite-stream of piss-poor construction and half-remembered cliches. To quote them directly would render your script utterly turgid and sound like the average chat on an episode of Masterchef –

“I’m going to give it everything to reach the next level and cook outside my comfort zone and nail these dishes like one hundred and twenty percent and if I go home today I will be just like gutted because this competition is the most important thing that has ever happened to a man or a woman ever”. 

No one wants to hear people talk like that (says the man who gets very upset if he misses even five minutes of an episode of Masterchef) and so writers are forced into playing a game with the audience in which they attempt to fill their characters mouths with words that SOUND as if they could be actual spoken at some point by a real human being but are in actual fact as highly constructed as an oil painting or a giant medieval tapestry. Oh I do love a giant medieval tapestry.

Great dialogue writing is really about how far you can push the characters’ language towards unreality before anyone notices or, more importantly, before anyone gets cross. Some writers are masters, absolute masters at pushing this tolerance threshold to a point so distant that it becomes irrelevant. Take Noel Coward for instance; no one in England has ever spoken with the spontaneous beauty of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Not even when England was black and white and we drank our tea from bone china tea-sets.  But the audience does not give a solitary fig (roll) because the language is extraordinary:

Alec: I wish I could think of something to say.

Laura: It doesn’t matter, not saying anything I mean. 

Alec: I’ll miss my train and wait and see you into yours . . .

Laura: No. Please don’t. I’ll come over with you to your platform, I’d rather. 

Alec: Very well. 

Laura: Do you think we shall ever see each other again?

Alec: I don’t know. Not for years anyway. 

Laura: The children will all be grown-up. I wonder if they’ll ever meet and know each other. 

Alec: Couldn’t I write to you? Just once in a while?

Laura: No Alec please. You know we promised. 

Alec: Oh my dear. I do love you. So very much. I love you with all my heart and soul. 

Laura: I want to die. If only I could die.

Alec: If you died you’d forget me. I want to be remembered. 

brief_encounter

Swoon! Tears! Coward was a genius. And Brief Encounter, for me, represents perfection in film making. There is not one second that is misplaced or anything other than luminously brilliant.

Compare this to one of the more abject examples of dialogue writing that, for some reason, has stayed with me for well over a decade. Remember the X-Files? Of course you do. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Mulder and Scully running around in the 90s with poor quality torches in search of extra-terrestials? It was ace. Remember the X-Files movie? The first one? Er, not so much. But I do. And I remember this speech with dizzying clarity:

Bartender:  So, whaddya do?

Mulder: What do I do?

Bartender: Mmm hmm.

(Mulder takes a sip from his new drink, puts it down and begins his tale.)

Mulder: I’m the key figure in an on‑going government charade, the plot to conceal the truth about the existence of extraterrestrial. It’s a global conspiracy, actually, with key players in the highest levels of power, that reaches down into the lives of every man, woman, and child on this planet. (he laughs) So, of course, no one believes me. I’m an annoyance to my superiors, a joke to my peers. They call me Spooky. Spooky Mulder, whose sister was abducted by aliens when he was just a kid and who now chases after little green men with a badge and a gun, shouting to the heavens or to anyone who will listen that the fix is in, that the sky is falling and when it hits it’s gonna be the shit‑storm of all time.

Oh dear. Oh dear indeed. To be fair a lot of the work required of dialogue in the average film is to get plot across to an popcorn munching, girlfriend snogging audience (not a problem in a Long Arm film of course due to Jimmy’s wholesale rejection of anything remotely resembling a story) but really, credit the audience with a soupçon of narrative literacy please. And poor David Duchovny. He had to sit for a day and repeat this speech countless times without ever being able to rip off his own nipples in disgust. This may have had something to do with the paycheque he was receiving of course.

And then of course there is Aaron Sorkin a man who, as regular readers of this blog will attest, I love more than I ever thought possible. In his West Wing pomp, Sorkin was untouchable as a writer of dialogue; at its zenith I’d suggest that it beats pretty much anything else I’ve seen on television. And I’ve seen Rentaghost. Again it is no more real than an episode of The Simpsons, in some ways far less real, but when the President of the USA chastises God for killing his secretary in a car accident IN LATIN then you either throw a grenade at the television in utter disgust or you just stand to applaud and marvel. And I did just that.

And yes Martin Sheen is a genius. And yes I now do want a cigarette.

But not every writer can be Sorkin. And nor should you even try so to be. I often get my work sent back to me by Jimmy with comments such as NO ONE EVER SPEAKS LIKE THAT. And OH PLEASE. And THIS IS LARGELY PISS. And for this I am grateful. Jimmy is a brilliant man. A man of images. A man of vision. And these little spats between us (and goodness, the making-up is always SO good) are indicative of an inescapable tension between the image and the word. Film is by definition a visual medium and for the first thirty-ish years of its existence got on very well indeed without any words whatsoever. Words bastardised the medium, diluted the purity of the form. And the two have been competing ever since. What are the greatest ever moments in film? The door to Michael Corleone’s office shutting on Kay at the end of the Godfather or “Here’s looking at you kid”? I guess it is a matter of taste.

Do we forgive Star Wars “It’s the ship that made the kessel run in less that twelve parsecs” or “Luke, run away, far away. If he can sense your presence here then just leave this place” just because you know, it is Star Wars? Well millions upon millions do.

But for some of us, despite its inherent friction with the genre in which it exists, there will always be a greater thrill from watching someone on a huge screen say something really, really cool.

“Go and never darken my towels again”.

And from Groucho to a pair of Swedish sisters who make lovely music. And no, there is NO connection whatsoever. But I’ve been listening to this a lot this evening and I think you should do so too:

10 entirely invented motivational quotations for writers

I try very hard not to be a moaner. I mean we all love a good moan now and then: about the government, the football, the shockingly poor selection of cheese available from the corner shop but no one actually LIKES a moaner do they? No one wants to be sitting on the bus, or in the tea room or astride a ski-lift next to someone who is letting rip about the veins in their legs or the price of lawnmowers these days or the shocking state of post-structuralist teaching in some of our second-tier universities. We all moan about moaners. And with good reason. So I do try to avoid the overly-negative in these “blog’ posts; I try to look towards the light and not the dark, celebrate rather than denigrate, be silly rather than cynical. Sometimes I succeed (I bought some new boots this weekend; they are brilliant! – see, just like that), but at other times I fail (Peanut butter is disgusting and anyone who says otherwise is on the devil’s payroll – yep, like that) and I am sad to say that this is one of those times.

So here goes. Existence: feel my wrath!

You know what really annoys me? Quotes. And not just the fact that the noun is “quotation” which EVERYBODY GETS WRONG ALL OF THE BLOODY TIME (although this does make me cross and repulsively self-righteous, so much so that at times I do want to punch myself in the face) but also the fact that they get plastered up everywhere as if somehow such gobbets of wisdom could be of actual use to ANYBODY when in reality they’re just further examples of the reductive and under-baked nonsense that passes for thought in this so-called “Twenty First” century of ours. (Gosh, I am grumpy this evening).

Bruce Robinson, author of “Withnail and I” reportedly had a sign on his typewriter which read “Write damn you; it’s the only thing you’re good for”. I like that. That one can stay, that one is allowed but all other quotATIONS that are plastered around the walls of student flats and schools and pubs (those ones particularly grate – I don’t need Samuel Johnson’s reassurance that drinking a pint of ale is like kissing a princess or something – I KNOW IT IS) should be made illegal from tomorrow. No, earlier than that. They should be made illegal from this very moment. From now. That’s it. I’ve passed the law. They are now illegal and the punishment for displaying even the most likeable aphorism in a public space will be punitive and entirely unfair. And if you post one on Facebook then the keys on your keyboard will secrete superglue before becoming electrified. And that is for your first offence.

I am sounding entirely unlikeable aren’t I? I do try not to be wherever possible. Perhaps I should be a little less misanthropic; after all, if a well-chosen quotation gets you through your day then what the hell does it matter what I think? It doesn’t matter a jot, of course it doesn’t. But do a quick google search for “inspirational quotations” and be prepared to vomit all over your pyjamas – even if you have to cross the sitting room, go up the stairs, past the bathroom and into your bedroom where you open the second drawer on your chest just to find your pyjamas in order to vomit over them. Listen up world, you don’t need the blessing of someone most likely dead (and certainly as flawed and farty as you are) to kickstart your chosen career. Writers seem particularly needy in this respect and whilst I know only too well the challenges involved in sitting down and ACTUALLY WRITING SOMETHING I don’t see how a phrase ripped entirely from its context and then rendered in a twee typeface gets you closer to finishing your masterpiece. Did James Joyce have a little sign blue-tacked up in his garret as he wrote Ulysses which said “Words are like rain. Just put out a jar beneath a piece of guttering and assuming that it is a rainy night then after a bit you’ll have lots of them“? Well if he did, it would certainly weaken my point so let’s just agree that he didn’t.

If you are the type of a writer who needs an aphoristic jump-start to get you going in the morning then at least let me help you; let me save you the searching and the sifting through thousands of trite and largely useless scrapings from the barrel of human thought by providing you a list of handy phrases to set you on your way. For this there shall be NO CHARGE. Yes, the following is absolutely free. It will cost you neither pound nor dollar, neither Yen nor Euro, as I present:

LONG ARM FILMS’
TEN ENTIRELY INVENTED MOTIVATIONAL QUOTATIONS
FOR ASPIRING SCREENWRITERS

Bill Murray quotation

1. “Even Bill Murray has days when he is not Bill Murray”. – C14th Estonian Proverb

2. “Good writing is like good jam: sweet, fruity and sealed with a floral lid”
– Sarah Basterds – “The Impish Sentiment” (1932)

3. “Film is the distance between onanism and quantum theory” –
Prof F.J. Ruislip – “Once upon a time in the Western Avenue” (1998)

4. “The perfect screenplay is like the footprints of a deer across a Scottish hillside. I don’t need to sodding explain why.”
Alice Childress – usherette at the Alexandra Cinema, Newton Abbot, 1985

5. “Working hard is almost always relatively useful”.
Edgar Sirmadam, (19th philanthropist and sausage pioneer

working hard quotation

6. “Love yourself. Frequently”.
Sir Francis Walsingham

7. “Take doubt out to dinner. Give good chat to doubt. Let doubt linger over dessert and coffee then stab doubt repeatedly in the taxi on the way home”.
Mary Quite, “Fish and Chaps” – The birth of seaside homo-eroiticism: (1974) 

8. “Choosing the right words is less important than order them the putting in right”
Geoffrey Chaucer -“The Screenwriter’s Tale” (1378)

9. “Belief is the fart that warms the duvet of talent”.
King Christian VII of Norway addressing the Oslo branch of the WI (1802).

10.  “When people ask me why I write, I tell them it is to nourish my soul. When people ask me how I write I tell them that I use my fingers on a computer keyboard and press letters in a pre-determined sequence, that I began to learn around four years old and really haven’t stopped working on since, which in turn creates words that are understood by speakers of the English language and then I repeat this process until I have created something that is maybe just a shopping list or maybe the libretto for an opera it just depends on how sexy I’m feeling”
Hadrian Patel – Winner of the Branston Prize in 2005 for his novel “Balls”

belief quoteFeel free to pin any of these up by your desk and reap the creative and inspirational benefits.

You are welcome. I do it because I care.

A rose by any other name would smell like teen spirit

This blog entry begins with a sound effect. And a really cool one at that. No waffle (that is to follow, clearly), just get in there and hit the button below:

That’s good fun isn’t it? Suddenly you are Bill Murray in a boiler suit. Suddenly you are sitting around your breakfast table in the 80s and fighting with your sister over the “cut-out-keep’ Ectoplasm-Dectector (TM) on the back of the packet of Shreddies. (Isn’t it utterly absurd that we remember such ridiculous ephemera? Today I locked myself out of an email account because I couldn’t remember the new password that I dreamt up YESTERDAY but I can readily transport myself back to Devon in the 80s and picture exactly what the aforementioned packet of Shreddies looked like. Absurd and deliriously brilliant). Anyway, back to the sound. Do you fancy another go? Go wild:

I love it. My excellent friend Mark used the sound to open his debut album. I can’t play you that track here as I haven’t asked Mark’s permission but I can play you this one from a few years ago. (written with our good pal Bob). Seriously, Mark is brilliant. Properly brilliant. And he once covered our kitchen wall with spaghetti. Great days. Whilst on the subject, here is a track that Mark, Rupert and I recorded whilst drinking. It is actually one of the more cogent examples of our work and we recorded it as a birthday present for our pal Chris who knows a LOT about George Orwell.

Back to the sound. Do you remember it?

I suggest finding a way of triggering this sound at key moments of your day thus bringing a frisson of movie magic to otherwise onerous domestic routines. For example, you successfully pull your pants first thing in the morning (and Americans, I do mean pants in the British sense of the word), turn to the mirror, salute yourself and PRESS PLAY! You shut your car door, depress the lock button on your car key and PRESS PLAY! Storm into the office of your boss, PRESS PLAY! and then demand that they take you the hell more seriously or, goddammit you are outta there like a bat out of an extensive sequence of Peruvian caves!

All of these are certified excellent ideas (aside from their lack of certification and dearth of excellence).

In a moment of structural brilliance I can now reveal that the Ghostbusters sound effect that I have overused above has absolutely nothing to do with the remainder of this post. Am I sorry? Not really. Am I embarrassed? A little. But that might be something to do with the fact that I am currently typing this naked in “Ewan’s Internet Cafe” in Stranraer. I mean, who uses internet cafes nowadays? Embarrassing or what?

I better warn you now, the remainder of this post may well slip towards the quicksand of “self-indulgent writerly moaning”. In which case you can stand impassively on the bank, arms on hips, thumbs through belt-loops like a redneck linedancer (are there any other kind?) as I disappear beneath the surface. I am not waving, I am drowning in a metaphorical quicksand of my own making.

But. And there always is one. I’d like to spend a few paragraphs musing on the challenge of coming up decent character names. When Jimmy and I were in the early stages of writing “High Tide” we spent a considerable amount of time wondering what to call the lead female character. The film is set in Wales so it seemed like a reasonable idea to find a Welsh-sounding name. Easy we call her Cerys because that’s what Cerys is called. Cerys from Catatonia. Who were ace. And very Welsh. But no, that was deemed “too Welsh” (as were Angharad and Myfanwy). So what about “Sarah”? No, Jimmy cried, that’s not Welsh at all. We finally settled on “Bethan”. Which sounded “quite Welsh but not overly-Welsh”. It’s a minefield I tell you. Particularly after all that Bethan may not be Welsh after all (long story – I will save it for another time).

To avoid further head-scratching and cold, soulless violence in the Long Arm office, I will now provide you with a handy guide to naming your characters. If you ever want to write a script or a novel or even hastily find a new identity for yourself after perpetrating a major crime then please feel free to refer to it. Here goes.

THE LONG ARM GUIDE TO NAMING YOUR CHARACTERS IN A FILM THAT YOU MAY POSSIBLY BE WRITING AT THE MOMENT OR MIGHT DO IN THE FUTURE SOMETIME. 

You have SEVEN options. And no more okay? There are NO MORE. Don’t even bother trying to think of others because you won’t.

1 – THE PLODDING HACK METHOD

We’ll start with the most common and most deadeningly tedious of the seven options. You sit at a desk with a pen and a piece of paper and then you embark on a reasoned and subtle process in which you consider options based on the ethnicity, age and birthplace of your character. You may well have a conversation such as the one Jimmy and I engaged in above. At the end of the process you will have a number of plausible options and you will go to bed content. BUT YOUR SOUL WILL BE DARK. This is the most sensible method by far and is to therefore be avoided at all costs.

Sample names conjured by this method:

Simon Banks; Rachel Huntington; Phillip Balls; Dwaine Devons.

2 – THE SCI-FI METHOD

Blame George Lucas. When I wrote the Sci-Fi musical “Moon on a Stick” with my two pals Rupert and Andy, we had endless fun thinking of names for the parade of ridiculous characters we created. Some of them were very obvious in their inspiration – the character “Jupiter” made it from the very first notes we wrote to the first night with his name unchanged. We also drew inspiration from some of the poor bastard animals that NASA blasted into oblivion in the early days of the space programme: “Belka” for example. Others we just made up a word that sounded “spacey” – “Grok”. All great fun and the perfect method for those of you working up a script set in London in 1800 based around the early days of the Royal Institution.

Sample names conjured by this method:

Nova Rockets; Zang Petersburst; Laika Lovelace

3 – THE IKEA METHOD

Sometimes when a little drunk in pubs I begin banging the table and telling my friends for the hundredth time about what I consider to the best job in the world – i.e  the man or woman employed by Ikea to NAME THEIR FRIGHTENINGLY UBIQUITOUS PRODUCTS.

Seriously, someone must have this job. And I am jealous. There is someone sitting in Stockholm office right now (which is tinted by those 70s hues of brown and green that you see in all those Scandy detective series) with a box of those little brown pencils and a big pile of new products and their mission is simple – give these products slightly arcane, slightly Swedish and ENTIRELY INVENTED names that are either ridiculous or unpronounceable or both. Now all you need to is apply this system to your gritty drama set in the lift of a South London tower block and your naming crisis is ended.

Sample names conjured by this method:

Wayne Faönkulla; Tamsin Knutdaag; Old Mrs Gregonspluff; Billy Bookcase

(Balls, I have just discovered that Ikea’s names are not invented. They are proper words. This is hugely annoying so PLEASE FORGET THAT YOU READ THIS. Thanks so much).

4  – THE WIKIPEDIA METHOD

Simple – go to Wikipedia. Look at the “In the News” box and pick the first appropriately gendered christian name listed. Then go to the “On this day’ box and pick the first word that could be a surname, no matter how outlandish.

Today’s example: Beatrix Venezuela.

Beatrix Venezuela is a crime-fighting member of the aristocracy who sleeps and bakes her away around the criminal underworld of Exeter in her search of her nemesis Handball Polish . . . .

It works!

5 – THE DICKENSIAN METHOD

Dickens was a genius. For multifarious reasons but no more so than his character-naming policy. No need for pith here, just luxuriate in these unmatched examples: Bayham Badger; Sgt. Buzfuz; Luke Honeythunder; Harriet Tattycoram, Rosa Bud . . .

Have a go yourself by all means. But if you fail (as I have done) then I am sure you could borrow a few of Charlie’s for your slacker comedy set in the Mid-West.

6 – THE FRIENDS AND FAMILY METHOD

All writers have used this one. Scour the scripts of every published writer and you will find names stolen from people that they have met, slept with or are related to. They may be changed a little to avoid legal action but make no mistake these are names that belong to REAL PEOPLE. I have done this. And I am going to confess a few below. None of the characters that were given these names were murderers I promise.

Sample names conjured by this method:

Simon Wain; Andy Patrick; Richard Fletcher; Janet Miller; Sophie Barrs . . . . .

I am sorry. I am very sorry to all of you.

7 – THE WILDCARD METHOD

And so we come to the final method on our list – JUST PICK SOMETHING. ANYTHING. Sometimes called the “sod-it-that’ll-do method”. And the very best example I can think of right now is from the filthy, violent and wonderful sitcom “Bottom’ in which one of the two main characters is called Eddie Hitler. Offensive, misjudged and very, very funny.

And a great excuse for a clip.

I know it isn’t a film. They did make a film version of Bottom. But it was rubbish.

Thanks for reading. Good luck in all your naming adventures.

With warmest regards,

James Stiltingflud Banfer’estest.

Sixty Unseen Seconds

To continue the story  – such as it is.

Jimmy and I returned to London from shooting Sliced and a few days writing and then shooting what would eventually become Jesse – our entry in a one minute film competition.

This was a lot of jolly fun, especially as we were working with our good friend Rupert Waring. This (very) short tells the story of a man writing to a partner asking for some time and space to clear his head. The first draft of the script was my usual verbose and hyperbolic stuff but Jimmy stripped out all the nonsense and we were left with something tight and affecting.

The irony of the film is that our protagonist is mistaken and far from escaping the modern world of noise and electronic fluff, he is in reality submerged in a digital context but one that is unseen. So far, so much bad sixth form poetry. However we succeeded in achieving something of note with the film by using (I think) nine different cameras on the shoot, to give the impression of multiple pairs of eyes staring at our hero as he writes. This made it a bit of a sod to edit but it looks interesting.

Again we ballsed the sound up – even though we were simply recording a voiceover – so please don’t listen to it through headphones. However, the more I watch Jesse the more I like its distant and distracted tone; I don’t think that the “point” such as it was, comes across particularly clearly but for all that I think it is a decent piece of work.

And Rupert is great in it.

To finish the story, the competition for which it was entered folded before the closing date and Jesse was put out to grass on our Vimeo page where it was largely ignored.