White rabbit

Fred Topel: How do you make a genre film your own?

David Mamet: Well, you can't help but make a distinct movie. If you give yourself up to the form, it's going to be distinctively your own because the form's going to tell you what's needed. That's one of the great things I find about working in drama is you're always learning from the form. You're always getting humbled by it. It's exactly like analyzing a dream. You're trying to analyze your dreams. You say, 'I know what that means; I know exactly what that means; why am I still unsettled?' You say, 'Let me look a little harder at this little thing over here. But that's not important; that's not important; that's not important. The part where I kill the monster – that's the important part, and I know that means my father this and da da da da da. But what about this little part over here about the bunny rabbit? Why is the bunny rabbit hopping across the thing? Oh, that's not important; that's not important.' Making up a drama is almost exactly analogous to analyzing your dreams. That understanding that you cleanse just like the heroes cleanse not from your ability to manipulate the material but from your ability to understand the material. It's really humbling, just like when you finally have to look at what that little bunny means. There's a reason why your mind didn't want to see that. There's a reason why you say, 'Oh, that's just interstitial material. Fuck that. That's nothing, right?' Because that's always where the truth lies, it's going to tell you how to reformulate the puzzle.

– David Mamet interviewed by Fred Topel for Diary of a Screenwriter



Reproductive cycle

Watching Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (1951). Above: Dr. Carrington attempts to communicate with the monster, with disastrous results; below, in Prometheus (2012), Weyland attempts to communicate with the Engineer, which also ends badly. The Hawks-produced movie based on John W. Campbell's Who Goes There? (1938) is directed by Edward Lasker, or not, depending on who you read. It feels like a Hawks: rammed with characters and jibber-jabber to unintentionally comic effect. There are no close-ups, not even of the alien's disembodied hand which becomes reanimated after it's severed, the surrounding observers (nearly all talking roles) clustered like a Rembrandt:

The movie is more of a western than a sci-fi or horror. The Antarctic base looks like a homestead, there's a posse and a Rio Bravo-like siege. Captain Hendry and his airmen are all guts and thumbs. They use thermite to excavate the frozen spacecraft ("A million years of history are waiting for us in that ice!") which causes it to explode ("Well that's just dandy!"). They attack the alien with kerosene ("Here's where we start cooking!") and set fire to the hut. Hendry opens the door on the thing, closes it fast and everyone shoots at it forgetting they also have men posted on the other side of the wall ("Bob, next time raise the sights a little!"). The movie's Cold War message is not so much clear as embedded: alien invasion or not, our planet is not in good hands.

In between the yammering are the sequences that will inspire the original Alien and John Carpenter's 1982 remake, including a spooky corridor showdown that becomes genuinely dire when Dr Carrington tries to talk the monster down. (Goatee and significantly Russian-looking hat = doomed.) All three movies – the two Things and Alien – take inspiration from HP Lovecraft's equally disastrous trip to the ice At The Mountains of Madness (1931). But how funny to see Ridley Scott's Prometheus in it.


If you close the door the night could last forever

I can pick 'em. Netflix has announced it will cancel Bloodline after season three. Bloodline was easily the best thing Netflix has produced but after seeing what happened to House of Cards maybe it's best to stop at the Ewoks. The show's creators say they had a plan for five or six seasons. Josef Adalian at NYMag says it's a sign that Netflix is changing and that the show cost '$70 million to $85 million for a 10-episode season'. I wonder if the big cost had something to do with Florida's film incentives program. (Netflix says it will film the final series without incentives.)

Adalian rubs salt in the wound by going on to describe Bloodline as a 'slow burn' that did not generate a rapturous response. Boo. Slow was the point. Even when it stretched (serial TV is hard and 10 is somehow not a graceful number) the plot was a solid modern noir against a sunny tourist backdrop. It was wrong things happening in the right place: everything was fucked. And tight: this was no 28-episode Danish thing that strung you along with mood. This was story.

Maybe it's better this way. If noir was mainstream happy-clappy stuff it wouldn't be noir. Because for all its gloss Bloodline was about the underbelly and people doing wrong, and if there was a popular audience for that we'd all be stuck with Suicide Squad. Narcos, another supposedly 'dark' Netflix series is supposedly about the bad stuff but it's clear which side the audience is meant to be on. That makes Narcos watchable and renewable for more seasons but it'll never be as fulfilling. Bloodline is genuinely twisted and that's a good thing.



Close to You which I wrote for Radio New Zealand in 2015 has been nominated for Best Drama in the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) Prizes 2016.

The cast of Close to You is John Wraight, Victoria Gillespie, Rebecca Gumley, Francesca Emms, Mark Atkin, AJ Murtagh, Sebastian Macaulay and Nina Smith. Produced and directed by Adam Macaulay. Recording and sound design by Marc Chesterman. Production assistance and location management by Francesca Emms.

You can stream the production here.

The short story on which the drama is based first appeared in the Listener and is available as part of the collection Here She Comes Now on Kindle, Smashwords amd iTunes.