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Thursday, 28 February 2008

Writer Killers

There's no actual list yet, but perhaps there ought to be. Wherever screenwriters gather and swap stories there are always certain directors whose names are passed around with an attached health warning. The writer killers.

They rarely complete a project with the writer who began it. Many of the projects they join don't get completed at all but run out of steam, time, money, and the will to see it made. And yet many writer killers are considered 'star names' - they usually have at least one award win on their CV which continues to get them hired.

But given the chance to play the auteur, they play it to the hilt. For me the absolute worst is when you get the bones of a thing right and then a director comes on board who wants afternoon-long meetings which leave you looking at a pile of broken parts that you know can never make another whole. Like someone gave a chimp a screwdriver and invited him to fix your TV. Then he strolls off, pleased with himself at having 'mixed it up', leaving you to implement his genius.

From then on, the project is like a crash victim; never quite consistent, never quite right, never quite beautiful. No longer created, more rehabilitated. As good as the limitations of surgery can make it.

Writer killers stay in the game because they're actually capable of good work. Usually under a strong producer who knows the value of script, and keeps them on message.

In a recent piece on working with directors in issue 3 of Black Static magazine, screenwriter Stephen Volk concludes "What I have thought for many a long year now: that the auteur theory (or 'Un Film de Michael Bay,' if you will) is essentially nothing to do with talent, but everything to do with who is in control."

He adds, "The purpose here is not a quest for deeper meaning, it is for the director to make the film theirs. Not better - just theirs."

When you get a producer who would rather unload a jobbing director than alienate the project's creator, you have a gem.

Their names get passed around, too.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

From The Hollywood Reporter:

British actor Rufus Sewell is set as the lead in Jerry Bruckheimer's new CBS drama project "Eleventh Hour."

The project, based on the British limited sci-fi series, centers on Jacob Hood (Sewell), a special science adviser to the government who, with his feisty female bodyguard in tow, saves people from the worst abuses of science.

In the original series, the role was played by Patrick Stewart.

Feature writer-director Mick Davis penned the script for the American version, which is set in the U.S.

"CSI" executive producer Danny Cannon, who directed the pilot for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and is credited with creating the hit franchise's distinct look, will direct the pilot.

Davis, Cannon, Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman and a Granada exec are exec producing for Jerry Bruckheimer TV, Granada International Media and Warner Bros. TV.

Sewell ("The Holiday," "The Illusionist") next appears in the HBO miniseries "John Adams," in which he plays Alexander Hamilton.

You might notice the one name that still doesn't, uh...

Ah, forget it.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

The Midwich Cuckoos

A few years back, before the project was stalled by litigation, I started to develop ideas for a contemporary TV adaptation of John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos for producer Marc Samuelson. At that time Marc's company had a long-term option on all the Wyndham material that still lay within the Estate's control.

My take on it was that the premise wouldn't easily modernise without losing its essential tone but that to do it as a period piece would be pointless, as Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned was pretty well definitive for its time. I reckoned that one could only clone it, or change things and do it less well.

My proposed answer was to incorporate the material from Midwich Main, expanding the range of story elements available to the adaptor while staying entirely true to Wyndham. Midwich Main was an unfinished sequel that Wyndham abandoned because, according to the correspondence in Liverpool University's Special Collections and Archives, he felt it was leading into developments that would be little more than a rerun of the original story.

What there is of the sequel, about 25,000 words, is also part of the Wyndham archive. Thanks to librarian/administrator Andy Sawyer, I was able to get myself over to Liverpool and read the typescript.

I could see what Wyndham meant about his structure. But I could also see elements in his new narrative that might be used to expand the original. All adaptation involves losses and additions, none more radical than when updating a story's setting. But using these elements, rather than inventions of my own, would mean that the reshaping could be done using mostly authentic parts.

It stopped there, because the producers of the John Carpenter Village of the Damned feature announced a TV spinoff that they weren't entitled to make, and which would have infringed on Samuelson's option. Back in the 60s the feature film rights had been separated and sold outright to MGM while the TV rights had been retained. Samuelson acted and the whole thing drifted off into lawyer-land, never to return.

One of my proposals included using the same two young actors for all the Midwich children, Oompaloompa-style.

Thursday, 21 February 2008


ITV have begun running promos for Dexter, so pretty soon everyone in the UK will have a chance to see what all the fuss has been about. In the US, it's already completed its second season. I referenced the show in a talk that I gave to the Forensic Science Society almost two years ago, and they must be starting to think that I made it up.

Dexter's great, and proof positive that the key to good drama is more in the tone and handling than the actual idea - on paper the entire premise looks like something dreamed up by the Columbine kids but in execution it's sly, witty, morally sound* and very entertaining.

(*if you can get past what the protagonist does with his power tools)

For the uninitiated: the creation of novelist Jeff Lindsay, Dexter Morgan is a highly-functioning sociopath with an interior monologue relaying his observations of a world that he doesn't feel part of, but in which he participates by faking human emotion.

By day Dexter works as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami PD. At night he tracks down those who've committed terrible crimes but somehow evaded justice, and offs them.

He was adopted by a policeman at a very early age after witnessing an unspecified atrocity, the exact nature of which is part of the unfolding story. His stepfather spotted his sociopathic tendencies when he was an adolescent and taught him to channel them away from the innocent, as well as teaching him the importance of appearing normal. It's dark, dark humour, and one of the beauties of the show is the sight of Dexter gradually getting closer to the truth about himself and growing a soul.

I also think it's one of the best-acted dramas around. Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Dexter's gawky cop sister, is phenomenal.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


From Vertigo this month:

A major new era in the Hellblazer saga begins as John Constantine gets back in the trenchcoat, and starts to put his life back together. Of course, things never go that smoothly, as a harrowing trip to Newcastle and near-drowning at the hands of a brutal gangster leads John to a community where the wronged take brutal and lethal magical revenge, and introduces a major new enemy! Red-hot writer Andy Diggle (Swamp Thing) and regular series artist Leonardo Manco take Constantine back to basics - with a bang!

Here's the best part of the Amazon listing:

by Andy Diggle (Author), Leonardo Manco (Illustrator), Stephen Gallagher (Introduction)

Equal billing for my miserable little 500-word intro! There's an art to it, I'm telling ya.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

The Turn of the Tide

Looks like the high-definition format war is as good as over and that the next time I upgrade my Jason and the Argonauts, it'll be to a Blu-Ray disc.

I mean, I haven't got a Blu-Ray player or anything. I haven't even got a hi-def TV. But at some point I will. I was an early adopter with digital, buying one of Sony's first widescreen sets with an integrated digital receiver. Despite some early problems with the technology - to which Sony responded with exemplary customer service, I have to say - the damn set goes on and on and won't die.

(Having said which, I'd still choose it over almost any hi-def TV that I've seen to date. The hi-def sets render more detail but I find their images crisp, crude, and unpleasant to look at. I quite like the look of plasma, especially for movies. But the LCD screens affect me like a singer whose technique is beyond criticism but who simply doesn't make a likeable noise. And when a hi-def set displays your everyday TV broadcast signal... ech!)

So I'm in no rush anyway. On Deadline Hollywood Daily Nikki Finke reports that Wal-Mart and Netflix - giant retailer and world's largest online movie rental service, respectively - are abandoning the HD-DVD format and going with Blu-Ray only from now on.

I could have predicted this. But only because Blu-Ray has the cooler and more memorable name. When you have no idea what the subtle differences in the technology may be, such things assume an absurd importance. I can see the lumpy-sounding HD-DVD struggling on a while longer, but essentially it's rolling off down the belt that carried away Polaroid Super-8 self-processing cartridges and the Advanced Photo System.

Rita Rudner once said that she wasn't going to buy a CD player until they promised that they wouldn't invent anything else. But once you pass the into the digital realm, new technologies don't necessarily make your old technology obsolete. Your CDs will rip to your MP3 player. Your DVDs will play on a Blu-Ray machine.

The disc and the case that you bought were an irrelevant part of the purchase; what your money paid for was the data. I never had much of a VHS collection, but I've got quite a number of DVDs. I give the cases away and file the discs in sleeves which allows me to keep my shelves free for books, as God intended. Trust me; DVD cases do not furnish a room.

When discs become obsolete I'll no doubt upload the stuff I want to keep into whatever the new format will be, and keep everything in even less space.

Except for Jason and the Argonauts. That, I'll have to buy again.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Whistle Down the Wind

I thought it worth giving more prominence to this comment by Stan in response to the Where I'm At post:

I looked after the remastering of Whistle Down The Wind about 5 years ago and usually we have to transfer full frame in 16:9 for broadcasters but because this was specifically for a DVD release, we were permitted to transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with the sides slightly blanked (in 16:9) - I think it's always much nicer to see features in the exact ratio they were shot. We transferred from the original negative and, with a bit of after treatment, I was quite pleased with the results. The DVD is still available and has a commentary by Hayley Mills - Play.com have it at £5.99 (a bargain).

Fascinating stuff! I have this, though I haven't actually watched it - I bought it to replace the disc that my daughter's drama teacher borrowed for a school production of WDTW, and which I never... well, fill in the blanks. Suffice it to say that I didn't want to be without a copy.

(My record on upgrades and replacements is held by Jason and the Argonauts... from Standard 8 silent to Super 8 sound to a sharper, American-sourced Super 8 print; then VHS, then DVD, and then a replacement DVD when... well, it wasn't a teacher, this time. But if ever there was a film that I'd like to see given a top-level HD makeover...)

I hadn't realised that she was doing me a favour. I assumed that the new disc was a repackage, not a complete new transfer; the fact that it was bundled in a boxed set with Tiger Bay and a disc of John Mills' home movies, all for about a tenner, kept my expectations in check.

That school production, by the way, wasn't of the overblown and Americanised Jim Steinman musical, but of an earlier musical adaptation by Russell Labey and Richard Taylor that preserves the tone and setting of the Waterhouse/Hall screenplay.

My kid played Cathy. I've said it before... my universe has meaning.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Mister Memory

Many years back I was interviewed by a reporter from the Manchester Evening News who asked me to sign a couple of Doctor Who books for his children. Later, when I was jotting down his contact details in my address book, I noted the names of the children as well.

I met him again more than a decade later. As it happened, I'd been transferring all my details to a new address book the week before. He introduced himself and I responded with, "Great to see you again. How are Rachel and Philip these days?"

Now there's one person on this planet who's convinced I must have a phenomenal memory for names. Everyone else, alas, soon picks up the truth.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

You're Kidding Me

WTF - Torchwood Babies????

New Gig

When people ask me whether I prefer working on novels or screenplays, I tend to give the same answer. Whichever I'm working on at any given time, I always yearn for the other. Novel writing is all brooding and solitude, which I kind of like. Screenwriting on a 'go' project is all deadlines and pressure and meetings, which I kind of like as well.

So after a quiet six months spent pulling together my follow-up to The Kingdom of Bones, there's now the prospect of a TV job to take me through the summer. I was approached for it back in December, but had to take myself out of consideration. At the time I thought - wrongly, as it turns out - that the presence of coproduction money could put me on the wrong side of WGA action.

I can't say much about the project until I'm actually on board, but it's potentially a lot of hard work and fun. Well, the hard work's a given. We'll have to see about the fun part.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Yo Bafta

So, the Bafta results are out. Read 'em here.

But don't expect to see Sweeney Todd much represented, and don't take that as an critique of its quality. Despite being (in my humble opinion) one of the top of this year's crop, a dark masterpiece with a superbly sweet and sad turn from Helena Bonham Carter, its release so late in the qualifying period is bound to have kept it off the radar of many voters. True, the distributors put on a number of member screenings just before Christmas, but most were in central London and many of those were during working hours. And the great thing about the Baftas is, they're mainly voted by industry pros.

For anyone who's interested in how the awards process works: it started in early December when notice went out that this year's voting applet was available for downloading. Up to that point I thought I'd been keeping up pretty well with the year's releases but as soon as I saw the list of eligible titles, I knew I had some serious catching-up to do.

Screeners started hitting the mat soon after. In the first round of voting, you can make up to a dozen nominations in each craft and performance category. Nobody can see everything but if everybody chooses by their own lights and pushes their personal boundaries a bit then a credible shortlist ought to emerge. For some categories there are also 'chapters', juries who can add to the shortlists in areas of membership ignorance.

All voting takes place online. When the shortlist is announced a few days later, I always try to make sure that I've seen every movie on it before voting again. That round produces the list of nominees, the people who sweat with the TV cameras on them as the gold envelope is opened.

I don't know how the Oscar process works but I imagine it's something similar. The Oscars are treated like some ultimate standard of deep worth, like God has peeped into each movie's soul and issued the final word on its value. But they're basically a poll of opinion amongst people who work in the industry and pay their academy subs.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I take my Bafta voting really seriously. I see it as a chance to exercise my own judgement, not to confirm the anointed. And I seem to be pretty good at anticipating the winners; my 'hit rate' over the past four or five years seems to have been a fairly consistent 70%.

For example; Marion Cotillard was described as a 'surprise winner' in the Best Actress category. Not to me.

Her Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose isn't what I'd call a great movie. It's one of those life histories that shovels on the misery with the energy of a stoker on a speeding train - I know it's all true, but cramming it all into two hours is a dangerous business. Genuine tragedy risks a descent into bathos.

But the whole thing is held together by Cotillard's astonishing performance. The only comparison I can think of is de Niro in Raging Bull, and he didn't sing; Cotillard mimes to recordings of the later Piaf but supplies her own voice for the earlier numbers, and there's no visible join.

The screenplay follows a pattern that seems to have become de rigeur for biopics; start at the peak, flash back to the beginning, a fantasy sequence or two along the way, go out on some well-known moment of triumph.

If I noticed a trend this year it was toward narratives that unravel rather than conclude, and thus purport to be 'more like life'. I'm not saying that I demand pat solutions but if someone's going to insist on telling me a story, I listen because I'm expecting them to make a point with it.

I don't always get it right. When I saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead I immediately added Sidney Lumet to my Best Director noms list. Ditto with Hoffman (Philip Seymour, not Dustin) and Marisa Tomei for best actor and supporting actress.

But the true standout film for me was German Stasi thriller The Lives of Others - touching, tragic, scary, realistic, suspenseful, beautifully acted and shot, and quietly educative. And it has a proper ending! But it's also a 'foreign language film', which means it'll always get nods, but never the scale of nod it deserves.

I wanted to say something about the Kenneth Branagh remake of Sleuth, but I'll just say this: don't go.

Sam's Way

Back when I was with the Curtis Brown agency, one of my agents handled the Samuel Beckett estate and was regularly obliged to engage with theatre companies who wanted to revise or reinterpret the plays in some radical manner. At which point the producers usually put out a press release portraying her as an enemy of artistic freedom.

But Beckett was very specific in his instructions for what can and can't be done with the material while it's in copyright, and the basic position that she was obliged to take was, You want Sam's license, you have to do it Sam's way.

I just always thought it was funny to hear her call him Sam.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Where I'm At

I'm fortunate. I work in a London-centred business but I don't have to live in London. I love the place, and I've lived there in the past; in Notting Hill Gate in the mid-seventies, when it was cheap, and for a while in Bayswater in the late 90s, when it wasn't. I always think of London as a great place to live, but not so great a place to spend your life.

Nowadays I just get in when I need to. It's a couple of hours on the train, or longer in the car when the trains have let me down yet again and I've sworn off them for a while. When I meet new people they always ask me where I've come from, and it's always slightly tricky to explain.

I live in Lancashire's Ribble Valley, with a view of Pendle Hill from the fields above my house. The closest big town is Blackburn, where I set my novella In Gethsemene. I think its most conspicuous genre connection would be with William Hope Hodgson, known for riding his bike down the long cobbled stairwalk along the side of Corporation Park. He opened his physical sculpture school in the town, and it was here that he bound the visiting Harry Houdini so tightly that it took him two hours to make his escape.

The novelist David Cook lived in my village. Dodie '101 Dalmatians' Smith was raised in nearby Chorley and Jeanette Winterson in Accrington.

It was Charles Dickens' visit to nearby Preston that inspired the 'Coketown' of Hard Times.

But none of that gives you any idea of just how lovely the valley can be. It runs across into Yorkshire, into All Creatures Great and Small country. Recently it was used extensively as a location for the BBC's Born and Bred.

But, most importantly for me, 1961's Whistle Down the Wind was shot about five miles from here. It was the first movie I was ever taken to see, by my grandmother at the Carlton cinema in Salford, and I've been stealing from its themes and emotional objectives throughout my career. A few years back I sent a copy of Nightmare, With Angel to Bryan Forbes, thanking him for the movie and acknowledging the debt. I still have the nice note he sent me in return.

My recording of the Whistle Down the Wind score was lifted from a nostalgically crackly '45. It was written by top British composer Malcolm Arnold.

Three or four years ago The South Bank Show ran a profile of Arnold and didn't hold back on his mental health problems; his dementia had left him in need of constant care and supervision and it seemed to me that his carer, Anthony Day, did a heroic job of not only seeing to Arnold's needs but also of maintaining his dignity. Day didn't seem to have any life of his own away from his charge, nor to want one.

Thursday, 7 February 2008


There's a story of a Disney staff party which included a screening of an in-house short in which featured Mickey and Minnie getting raunchy.

Walt Disney stood up afterwards, expressed appreciation, praised the quality of the work, and asked who was responsible for it.

The two animators put their hands up and he fired them on the spot.

The Steampunk PC

Alas, it's a one-off. The screen is a converted Dell monitor and the keyboard's a rebuilt IBM. I've no idea what the typing experience is like, but how Goth is that?

The handiwork of Steampunk obsessive Jake von Slatt. See how it was done, and more projects like it, here.

The Clockwork Steampunk Stratocaster is pretty special, too.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Myths of the Movies

Much-namechecked mate Steve Laws tells me that as children, he and his brother once dismantled all their fireworks to create a movie-style gunpowder trail.

They lit the end of it, and... phfft. Instead of the combustion burning its way steadily and dramatically down the trail, the entire line of powder went up in the same instant.

I'm told that shooting dynamite in midair doesn't make it explode, either.

Judgement Days

I don't know who's been handling the job in recent years, but back in the day I used to help out judging the Manchester Festival's amateur film competitions alongside Norman J Warren, director of Inseminoid and Satan's Slave.

The field ranged from pitch-perfect recreations of 50s American SF on 16mm by the Spence Brothers of Northern Ireland, to Standard 8 efforts by cine clubs that moved along with the power to slow down time itself. But rarely did I see a film where the love didn't somehow shine through.

One of my favourites was an utterly unpretentious remake of Superman by a bunch of teenaged friends. Superman's costume was a bath towel added to his school uniform. Flight was achieved by cutting a figure out of a comic book and sticking it to the inside of a train window, then filming it as the landscape raced by outside. Howard and Theodore Lydecker would have been proud.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Silent Witless

My friend David Mace writes that he just received an unsolicited flyer sent out by British Gas with the following strapline:

Make sure you and your family are safe and warm from Carbon Monoxide poisoning.

Seriously, to anyone who thinks that ineptitude in simple grammar doesn't matter - it does.

Because whatever your excuse for the error, it makes you look thick.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Out of the Unknown

The classic BBC anthology series. Only a few still exist, but when they first aired I watched them all. Best TVSF I've ever seen, because they treated the literary sources with the same fidelity and presumption of serious intent given to any classic adaptation. I've no doubt they'd appear creaky and flawed if I saw them now... but in their time and their context, they were damn-near perfect.

Of course, 'still exists' is a pretty flexible term, as evidenced by the truncated state of Little Black Bag, the Kornbluth story of which only a fragment survives.

Look at a 60s Twilight Zone now and it probably looks even better than it did back then, given that it's on stable and detailed 35mm film, probably remastered from an uncirculated print, and that both telecine scanning and TV sets have improved so much.

The BBC shot on tape, which it tended to wipe and re-use after a couple of showings. 16mm telerecordings were photographed off a screen for export to markets undiscriminating enough to accept them as broadcast quality, and these are what tend to survive.

It's a bit like burning the Book of Kells and keeping a photocopy. Where original tape does survive, it serves as a cruel reminder of what's been lost... Nigel Kneale's The Stone Tape now looks far better on DVD than it ever did on our 70s TVs. One falls into the trap of thinking that because old British TV looks so bad, that's what we must have put up with back then.

The BBC now has a restoration unit, economically justified by the revenue potential of old Doctor Who material and staffed by people who you imagine would probably do the same work for nothing if you took their funding away. One of the tools they've developed is Vidfire, a means of taking the old telerecordings and interpolating false frames to restore some of the 'video look' of the original material. They can tweak the contrast, clean up frames, digitally remove hairs, stabilise the jitter of shrunken film, and are generally elevating technical turd-polishing to the status of an art.

Nostalgia Corner

There was/is a chocolate bar called Topic, whose ad jingle went, "What has a hazelnut in every bite?"

"Squirrel shit!" we'd shout back at the TV.