7/30/10

U got the look

Site under redesign, using the new Blogger templates. I was thinking the Courier font might not work but reading back over the screen I immediately spotted two typos so I'll probably stick with it. This will be news to the two and a half people who read this, and the one or two anons whose comments I've disabled. (Sorry about that, Chief: it's not so much a question of coping with criticism as being full to capacity.)

The best Courier font is Courier Final Draft, from the screenwriting application: it's tall and loopy, not unlike the IBM Selectric font designed by Adrian Frutiger. If I was rich I'd write on a Selectric; nothing beats that punch and click. I write in Courier on a lap top because it's the closest experience to working on a typewriter, which was what I grew up wanting to do. Stephen J. Cannell shares some of the blame.

I'm working on the new thing, reading about John Michael Hayes, and working on the new thing. The London weather has cooled, there is no news of any great thing or other, and the locals are gearing up for something they call 'the holidays', a tradition which has been outlawed in my home country. Fuck that, I'm going to be writing.

7/28/10

Now playing

The moving hand

After digging out my (UK) copy of Raymond Chandler Speaking to quote for the previous post (he liked cats) I started flicking through it, stopping at the many corners I'd folded down. On 5 Feb 1951 Chandler wrote to Hamish Hamilton*:
'I am not much interested in stories about Martians or 3000 A.D... The trouble with fantastic fiction as a general rule is the same trouble that affects Hungarian playwrights** - no third act. The idea and the situation resulting from the idea are fine; but what happens then? How do you turn the corner?'
This the point I was considering in my notes on Brian Clemens' screenplay for Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde. By grafting Stevenson's stories on to the Whitechapel Murders, Clemens gave the original story a third act. To create his elixir of life Jekyll extracts hormones from female corpses. When the corpses run out, he hires corpse robbers (Burke & Hare) who provide an adequate supply. Jekyll's experimental elixir causes his transformation and subsequent addiction. Desperate for more, Jekyll discovers Burke & Hare have been caught, and must resort to killing his own victims. Jekyll becomes the Whitechapel murderer (the name Jack the Ripper is never mentioned) but is caught when he is betrayed by his own inner turmoil, transforming to Hyde at a fatal moment. Bada-bing: Stevenson's two-act novella becomes a three-act screenplay, with a subplot.

It's only a schlocky horror movie, but I really admire the craft behind that storyline.

* Obviously a fake name.
** Hungarian playwrights? No idea about that one. Also: he liked cats.

7/26/10

On the long tradition of cats

In every life a few cats must fall, so congratulations across a couple of oceans to Diesel and Soya for scoring a good home. In London the cats are out lying on footpaths. On my morning run I stopped twice scratch heads; further along I found a ten pound note. Karma.
'[Cats] provided, she said, "something for writers that humans cannot: companionship that makes no demands or intrusions."'

-- A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2003)

'[My] secretary is a black Persian cat, 14 years old, and I call her that because she has been around me ever since I began to write, usually sitting on the paper I wanted to use or the copy I wanted to revise, sometimes leaning up against the typewriter and sometimes just quietly gazing out of the window from the corner of the desk as if to say, "The stuff you're doing is a waste of time, bud."'

-- Raymond Chandler, Raymond Chandler Speaking, Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker Ed. (Hamish Hamilton, 1962)

7/24/10

The Positive Negative Man

Went to see Brian Clemens talk at the BFI. He's old and grumpy now, as opposed to young and grumpy: a straight shooter and a brilliant mind. The event was to discuss his role as a writer and show runner for The Avengers. He wasn't asked enough about his influences; he talked a lot about how much he liked film but never expanded on why he'd done so well in TV. He had a lot of anecdotes but the ones that stayed with me were about the writing.

Clemens worked on the original series of The Avengers. A producer had come up with the title but didn't know what it meant and threw it to the writers to come up with something. The Cathy Gale role was originally written for a male. When the makers decided to recast the role for a female the studio was too cheap to commission rewrites so Honor Blackman was given the first eight scripts as they were written, dialogue and fight scenes included. Thus the "Avengers girl" was born.

Commissioning writers, Clemens would sit down with the other person and discuss the story. They'd talk while Clemens "typed telegrams" (gesturing typing with both index fingers), keeping notes of what they'd discussed. Clemens looked for "eight moments of intrigue" for every a script. (Three ad breaks equals four parts equals eight moments, I guess.) When he felt he had it down he'd give the notes to the writer and keep a copy for himself so he could write the script "in case the writer got hit by a bus." The notes came in handy when Terry Nation was commissioned a script and delivered something different. Clemens rewrote it - "but I didn't take the credit, I would never do that; it's not my style." Nation was so shocked he delivered the next two in perfect shape and on schedule. Clemens stressed how much he admired Terry's work, and gave effusive credit to his fellow writers and producers. More than once he emphasised the importance of writers taking a credit and getting paid.

When The Avengers broke through in the US the producers fired Clemens and his co-writer. Soon after the producers realised they couldn't come up with any more scripts and had to hire them back. Clemens talked at length about how he refused to kill off characters, including Mrs Peel. "It leaves a bad taste in the mouth - it ruins the re-runs for the viewer."


Clemens cracks wise. He's famous (among writers, at least) for his word play. One of his jokes was that changing a single letter of Dr Jekyll & Mister Hyde would create an entirely new spin on the story, i.e.: Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde. Clemens wrote the screenplay for the 1971 Hammer Horror which was screening as part of the BFI celebration of Clemens' work so I went and saw it to settle an old debt. It screened at the Manurewa Cinecenta when I was way too young for the R16 rating but I remember finding the poster disturbing.

Nowadays Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde is presented as a camp amusement (the BFI flyer was apologetic) but the film is the usual Hammer grimness: the makers are taking it seriously and bring it off rather well. Clemens' version of the story is no more preposterous than Robert Louis Stevenson's and the gender change gives it a satisfying, predatory twist. Jekyll cannot control changing into the female Hyde: he is cursed like a werewolf, as a victim of the same scientific folly that transformed Francois Delambre into The Fly. Hyde is as sleek and elegant as Dracula - an avenging lamia whose scheming to overtake her male host's body has more than a slight echo of Norman Bates in Psycho. In one murder scene editor James Needs cuts between the male and female killers: that would be paging Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill. It's all in there.

What Psycho couldn't show in 1960 but Hammer could toss off in 1971 under the banner of horror was the sexual extent of Jekyll's transformation. The movie's most disorienting effect of the movie is casting. Ralph Bates as Henry Jekyll is an eerie mirror of Martine Beswick as Sister Hyde, especially around the eyes. Beswick's smaller, so the camera angle drops to accentuate her jawline; Bates is handsome, but speaks softly.

The effect simple but amazing. Over at Comic Con, the kids - and me - are getting excited about a similar effect with Jeff Bridges that cost hundreds of millions. In 1971 they did it simply by getting two actors who looked the same. Roy Ward Barker and DOP Norman Warwick even conjure a seamless in-camera transformation from Hyde to Jekyll that is one take, POV, no opticals. (It took me a good hour to work it out: while the camera is tilted down at one actor, they tip the mirror towards the other sitting alongside.)

The dramatic result is that Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde freaked the audience out. The flip from the tortured Doctor to the transformed Hyde creates more than one uncomfortable scene which the story dwells on, unblinkingly, and people in the theatre were squirming. There's even a knife-through-the-throat gag that predates Tom Savini's squirt trick in Friday The 13th. Clemens sets the story in the Ripper's Whitechapel. Burke and Hare appear along with other characters and tropes from the period - if you're looking for the inspiration for Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, look no further. (Including the white face and penny specs. Go see it - you'll see what I mean.)

Basically I went to see the movie for fun and left shaking my head thinking this property alone could spawn a modern remake and countless sequels. After fidgeting for half of Avatar and being disappointed by the last werewolf fighty thing, Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde was pleasantly disquieting.

Some more notes on the plot structure here.

7/20/10

I never lend books to coal miners

In an interview at GQ.com Bill Murray explains how he got a green light for his version of Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge:
Back when I wanted to make The Razor's Edge, [Dan Aykroyd] sent me the first twenty-nine pages of Ghostbusters to read. And you know, they were great, even better than what we filmed, so I said, "Okay, okay, gotta do it." And Danny said, "Uummm, okay. Where should we, uh, er, do it?" And I said, "Well, I'm trying to get this movie made over at Columbia [Pictures]." And he said, "All right, well, you tell 'em that they do your movie there and they'll have the GBs." We had a caterer for Razor's Edge in forty-five minutes.
The 1984 version of The Razor's Edge was a failure with critics and audiences. It was the second adaptation of Maugham's novel; the first in 1946 with Tyrone Power didn't go down that well either. (A third version was made in 2005.) Maugham's story is teasingly attractive but notoriously challenging to dramatise. The main character, Larry, is off-stage for most of the novel, his actions reported to the reader by third parties, and his journey of enlightenment is internal. This puts any screenwriter two steps away from the tools he needs.

Director John Byrum collaborated with Murray on the screenplay which puts Larry at the center of events while several different worlds collapse around him. In some ways their version is better structured than the source: after seeing the movie and going back to the book you can see Maugham's glissando style for the soft lens that it is. (The Painted Veil even more so.)

In The Razor's Edge Larry Darrell moves through life's terrible events without being dragged down: he remains cheerful, flip, serenely detached. All Murray had to do to remain true to the character was to be himself, which he did. He couldn't muster the dramatic moments, and there are some cute bits in there that didn't work, but I still think the 1984 version is a great adaptation of a really good book. Theresa Russell pours it on in a bob, and there is a wonderful scene when Larry, living in North England and literally working at the coal face, is chided by a fellow miner: 'You've never read The Upanishads? You really don't know anything, do you?'

7/19/10

Author pics


My friend (aka mon ami) Mathieu Bourgois featured in Shooting writers at Toro magazine. That's Mathieu's picture of Colm Toibin above; my pic of Mathieu below when he was taking my pic in Paris for Editions Christian Bourgois. Mathieu had just helped me locate a secondhand Olympus XA so was unable to protest.


The article by Salvatore Difalco discusses photographing authors. Short version: we don't like it. It's difficult for non-authors to understand why. Writing is a draining and private process and by the time it comes to publishing the thing the writer just doesn't give a damn - even when he/she knows that he/she should. This is not arrogance or shyness. Merely exhaustion. Please move on. Nothing to see here.

7/17/10

Now playing

Of everything that stands, etc. The Doors are the soundtrack to the Thing I Never Finish, not that I need an excuse to listen to them. In Paris at Christmas after swinging by Jim's grave at Pere Lachaise (no need to buy a map - just follow the goths and Berliners in silver-decorated stetsons) I felt the pang of travelling without a copy of L.A. Woman and bought a copy at iTunes. Nick Cave is rightly disparaging of the remix which is for little white earphones and not big black stereos like the one I have in storage, but because I'm in transit and on little white earphones most of the time it does me fine.

I can recommend the new Doors documentary When You're Strange if it's out where you are. Narrated by someone called Johnny Depp, it has a getting-things-straight-for-the-record approach and some incredible footage. They were filming each other and being filmed all the time, of course. Jim's mother attended many of his late concerts even after he sang about wanting to fuck her. That showed character.

It's late and I'm scribbling. Or rather I have been, after sleeping all day and getting up around 10pm and thinking alright, let's take another crack at this. Handwritten on yellow legal and slipped into the ring binder: Revisions To Do. Mental in tray. Etc. Into your blue-blue blues.

7/11/10

Old bones

Predators is a time travel movie that takes you back to an age when action movies were bloody, the monsters were some guy in a suit and the digital effects were a bit askew. The original moved the action genre forward a step by being two movies in one. Ahnuld's Predator started off like Ahnuld's Commando, giving the neck-and-pec fans all they wanted from the star in the first quarter hour (one liners, exploding ethnic stereotypes, the star lifting a truck with his bare hands). Once the special ops team had done their stuff and it was revealed they themselves were being stalked, only then did the ten little Indians countdown begin. Predator was an Alien rip off that has aged better than its source, partly because sci fi has diversified but largely because of that stylistic shift. No matter how many times you watch it, Predator is a great bait and switch.

Tasked with a sequel in the shadow of the truly awful Alien vs Predator mash ups, Nimrod Antal / Robert Rodriguez have made a faithful and loving remake in the plural, Predators, that is less daring than Predator and less tense-making than Predators II. Sticking to a single story line and tone, writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch move the same pieces around the board to much the same effect. Instead of noble Native American soldier who faces off, knife in hand, with the invisible beastie, Predators has a noble Japanese yakuza with a samurai sword (in a fateful field of long grasses, conjured up by the alien world as surely as a Chaucerian knight's longing for a castle will make same appear around the next corner). Instead of a square-jawed tobacco chewing southern state gatling gunner it has a square jawed Russian gatling gunner. Instead of Elpidia Carrillo's "men of my village" speech it has Alice Braga giving a "men of my village" speech. Stumbling on a bad thing the humans escape the same way as Ahnuld did in 1987, falling through the bushes and into a body of water. (It's a stunt worth repeating: Jake Sulley does the same in Avatar. The sequence matches Predator almost shot-for-shot.)

Instead of Ahnuld Predators has Adrian Brody who does a pretty good job balancing knowingness and 'roid rage. It also has similar continuity problems: the troops break cover long before anyone thinks to look up and notice the alien sky, and the aliens have varying degrees of mortality, but with these lies come the satisfying "gotcha" moments, and a bullet count, and a fun cast and some parts when it's almost scary, thus balancing the filmmakers' goal of getting back to action movie basics while meeting the needs of a modern audience whose idea of mystery is a Tumblr link. Recent movies such as The Hangover change gears five times to keep people watching; if modern cinema is any indication then audiences have not been this restless since the Monkees' Head.

Predators is way more fun than Avatar. The movie has been shot on what looks to be a live set, and looks great: the digital effects are often tacky, and the old soundtrack and sound effects have been retained, to its benefit. I stopped counting the references to the previous Predator movies and Alien because it made me feel old, and because I was having fun watching it. There's a lot wrong with it and a couple of things brilliantly right with it. The irony is that this is how movies used to be before the movie that inspired it came along.

The premise of a human hunter who is himself hunted by an alien was the subject of a 1953 short story 'The Ruum' by American SF writer Arthur Porges. When a game hunter in the Canadian Rockies stumbles on the alien's eerie gallery of life specimens, the ruum pursues him to add to its collection. I read the story when I was 11 in R. Chetwynd Hayes' 1975 anthology Tales of Terror From Outer Space; years later when I first saw Predator I immediately wondered if it had been the movie's inspiration. Porges' alien is also liquid, like a rolling bubble of mercury, and morphs into different tool shapes to pursue its prey, just like James Cameron's T-1000 in Terminator II. Someone owes that writer lunch.

7/8/10

Work in progress

Back to work on the Manuscript I Never Finish. No idea whether I'll finish it this time. Maybe, or maybe not.

7/6/10

Have you got anything left to say before I shoot myself

The above is poster advertising a book (or 'printed entertainment') as displayed on the London Underground. The book - that's it down there in the corner, see? - is titled Even. I'm guessing Even is a story of revenge, probably starring Agent David Trevellyan who is motivated to seek revenge when someone steals his life. Because Agent David Trevellyan's life is his - not theirs - he's angry but instead of getting angry like you and I might do, Agent David Trevellyan will get even. Sure enough, Even is the title of the book. That's probably Agent David Trevellyan talking in the poster - or rather, quoted, because if he was actually talking you would hear his voice in your ears above The National on your iPod. Agent Dav - oh, look, I can't be bothered typing it again because there are so many letters in it omg it goes on 4eva but Even, it's called and it's about this guy who gets even. Do you follow? If you can't, try reading the poster again. But don't move closer to read it because then you would fall on to the tracks, and that would delay the Northern Line.

I like a thriller as much as the next man but if the people you're selling the book to are truly this hard of understanding then reading the thing will be fucking hard going, unless it has a lot of pictures in it, or the pages are blank.

By contrast, drinkers are approached with this level of sophistication:

You don't need to be smart to drink. Why do you have to be a moron to read a book?

7/3/10

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

In a funny kind of way Philip Kaufman is one of my favourite directors. He's made some great adaptations: Rising Sun, Henry and June, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a remake of the B-movie classic. Invasion is such a perfect story that it's become a template for a genre I always think of as the Twilight Zone format: everyday setting, big concept and a tidal current of consequences - sexy, unavoidable, bleak. All this is based on a writer's idea: Jack Finney who wrote the original story as a serial for Collier's magazine. You've never heard of Jack but the idea he had feeds into everything from Close Encounters to The X-Files.

7/2/10

The Black Dahlia

First saw it in France, with subtitles, which is the best way to see a Brian De Palma movie: the text is a constant tap on the shoulder, reminding you that it's a "film" and framing its artifice as, well... artifice. The movie version is monstrously inferior to Ellroy's novel, which in turn runs second to the author's White Jazz and American Tabloid: a seething, self-loathing, tangle that twists towards multiple resolutions, and is the greater for it. If you can survive the first 100 pages you will be hooked and rewarded.

David Fincher developed the movie version before being replaced by De Palma; I've always considered Fincher's lengthy, multiple-storylined Zodiac to be the modern imprint of how his Dahlia might have been. De Palma reduces the novel's layers to tight, trademark sequences that belie its multiple twists. Josh Friedman's workmanlike script makes a similar mistake, structuring the story with such concision that the main characters' emotional dips and dives - faithful to source - seem irrational and even silly. Josh Hartnett's Bucky is especially undermined, tearing up in almost every scene; Scarlett Johansson's Kay seems spoiled and childish rather than the complex mirror-of-the-Dahlia victim that she and all the other females in the novel become.

Still, even without subtitles I'll go the De Palma version for Scarlett's voice - a menthol woodwind cracking wise - Hillary Swank's ice-cold Madeleine, De Palma's steadicam introduction to the inbred Linscott family, and Fiona Shaw's extra crazy Ramona. For all the movie's (studio trimmed) gore and savagery Shaw provides its most ghastly moment using just her face and two fingers. Aaron Eckhart holds up his end as Lee Blanchard but true to 40s noir the men are redundant: it's the women who drive. Mia Kirshner plays the saddest girl in the world. The movie was much longer before the producers cut it down: it would be a dream to watch the version De Palma intended. Until then The Black Dahlia is a movie that could have been: a beautiful corpse, in pieces.

What do you need, a road map?

The NBR is putting on a happy face by saying Peter Jackson's co-review of the NZ Film Commission "hit the spot" with producers. The lawyerly SPADA press release conspicuously avoided mention of the report's recommendation that the NZFC bypass producers in the early stage of development and instead funds writers directly, a suggestion which the NZ Writers Guild liked very much.

Reading Jackson's report is emotional for any NZ writer who has experienced what is charitably termed "the development process", i.e. bullshit about writing by people who can't. I don't have a dog in that fight (and won't again) but liberating experienced writers will make for better New Zealand films, period.