Bad writing

Friends from both sides of the Atlantic had been on to me about Breaking Bad. I resisted because I was already following Ronald D Moore's BSG remake, Mad Men and the first three seasons of Burn Notice, which could have been and still might be the new Rockford Files, and three TV series in your life is already too many.

Breaking Bad came out around the same time as another what-would-you-do series, Hung which tailed off (sic) in the first season and I imagined Bad would go the same way. The premise seemed obvious, and cancer storylines are depressing. (1970s TV characters were usually felled by a heart attack which finished things quickly.)

When I finally caved I discovered what I liked most about Breaking Bad was that the premise was obvious. The second thing I loved was the scripts. Series creator Vince Gilligan discussed the writers' approach to the show to Robin Kelly:
"I look for good visual storytelling. We take pride in our dialogue, but TV and movies, this is visual storytelling. It's the difference between a play and a screenplay. A stage play is all about the dialogue, and I've seen and read some wonderful ones, but that's not what we're doing here. We're telling a story through the images. I specifically look for visual writing, which is to say not the dialogue on the page, but the action lines, the scene description. How much is the writer getting across through a look, through a bit of body language, the omission of an action or the action itself? Versus a writer who gets everything across verbally. Because in real life, very often we don't say what we mean; very often we say the opposite, or we don't say anything at all."
Series DOP Michael Slovis talks about the arc to the LA Times' Josh Gajewski:
"The other thing that 'Breaking Bad' has in its favor, which is very interesting to me, is time... There is no need to rush anything in 'Breaking Bad' because it's an ongoing story, so you don't really have to re-explain things visually or storytelling wise, so we have time to actually let people move through spaces, down halls, into homes, in a very sort of European storytelling way."
In an interview with J.C. Freñán for Slant Gilligan talked about the difference between writing for movies and TV:
Slant: You've worked in both television and feature films. Do you have a preference for either one?

Vince Gilligan: I would have to say television, because once you are on a writing staff, or once you create a television show, for as long as that show exists you know that you're writing, you know that your work will get produced. The same can't be said for writing for features, unfortunately. Write a movie script, you can put your heart and soul into it for months, for years, and peddle it around Hollywood and ultimately it may well go nowhere. I've experienced more heartbreak in the movie business than in the TV business.

Slant: Is there anything about the format of serial television itself that influences the way you write, that you have a preference for? Is it easier to write a one-off film than it is to sustain a season at a time?

VG: They're both hard, but I suppose that the saving grace about writing a television show is that you don't have to wrap up everything plot-wise at the end of every episode, and you can leave certain questions unanswered. You can leave certain emotional issues not quite completely tied up. In a movie, on the other hand, you have to tie up every loose end that you have set for yourself, and you have to wrap things up emotionally in a very satisfactory manner, and you have to complete the plot in that two-hour segment of time that you're allotted. Endings are just very tough for a writer, at least speaking personally.
In 2010 Gilligan talked to Slate's Noel Murray about ending season three:
My writers and I sit around and dream this stuff up and then we see it executed a week or even days later, and it's a wonderful feeling and it's magical. Especially in moments like that one, which was a great example, because I had high hopes for that scene and then seeing what Adam Bernstein the director did with ['Half Measures']... He exceeded my expectations. That moment was thrilling to watch in the editing room for me. I've never had children but it must be akin to the pride you feel watching your children grow or be born or something. I don't know. I don't have that background in my real life. But it's an intense pride. And it's not a pride of "I did this," it's a pride of "we did this," because it really is a group effort. There's no one person doing it all in television or in the movies. It's always a collaborative effort and anyone who tells you otherwise is awfully pumped about their own contributions to the endeavor. But it's a great feeling, a great collaborative feeling, and it's wonderful.


Lock the parents out, cut a rug, twist and shout

Whenever I hear the song 'Santa Baby' I always think 'spider baby,' like that head in John Carpenter's The Thing, i.e.
Spider Baby, slip a sable under the tree for me
Been an awful good girl, Spider Baby
So hurry down the chimney tonight...
And so on, until the authorities are called in with their flame-throwers.

There was a trailer for the Thing remake in the movie theater last night: the kids in the audience kept talking over it and didn't notice. But when Paranormal Activity 3 started they went quiet – no texting – and then they all screamed, a lot. The movie includes one gag specifically from Halloween and some tricks Carpenter employed very effectively in Prince of Darkness (still one of his scariest). The pan-and-scan sequences put me in mind of the long, unblinking cabin shots in Friday the 13th, and there is a nice pay off that improves on The Blair Witch Project, a movie which is now so old that many in the audience would have only seen it on the small screen. It made no difference: the kids were shitting themselves. Paranormal Activity 3 is scary but above all harrowing. Despite the faux-casualness – handheld is the new sprezzatura – it makes you sit and watch. Loved it.

Amy Winehouse died from drinking too much. This is old news but still depressing. Some editorials are trying to paint her music as part of her suffering but it wasn't, which only makes it the more tragic. She didn't suicide: she just didn't cope. Being so physically small can't have helped.

I'm forcing my way through Stieg – a better translation this time, but his obsession with detail undermines his own plot. In contrast to the oddly entertaining details about sponge cakes, sandwiches and coffee – Blomkvist is a man who always knows where the next snack is coming from – it drives me crazy that in twenty years, nobody thought of trying a Bible code. A row of numbers, anywhere, anytime, that's the first thing anyone reaches for either in the real world or fiction. On the other hand the Hedestad sequence with the photos is great – Antonioni's Blow Up via De Palma's rock-and-roll editing suite sequence in Blow Out. Salander is not Pippi, she's Hannibal: the NeXT Lecter. Anyway, I'm making myself finish it this time so I can be up with what the young people are skimming.


Just one last thing

Television, I dare you.


Auckland on air

This Sunday France Culture will broadcast a documentary about Auckland featuring in situ readings from my novels Departure Lounge, Shirker, Electric and The Church of John Coltrane along with interviews with Auckland artists, musicians and general creative types. You can read about the broadcast and the podcast at the France Culture site.

Bedside reading


Woody Harrelson at the BFI

Before Woody Harrelson came on stage for his live interview at the BFI London Film Festival an official reminded the audience not to take their own photos. I respectfully complied while everyone around me snapped pictures on their smartphones and cameras for the next 90 minutes. Some of them even used flash.

It's always interesting to see movie and TV actors in the flesh. Harrelson looks and sounds exactly has he does on screen: crooked smile, Texas drawl (he was raised in Texas and Ohio). It's interesting that such a distinctive actor has had such a varied filmography. He called his career sketchy but it could be compared to Michael Caine's: the same presence tuned to different intensities.

The interview presentation leaned to the political. Harrelson was queried about his roles in The People vs Larry Flynt and Natural Born Killers in terms of their political and social "impact" and the actor responded in kind, saying he had "learned things" from every role and that "we don't have free speech in my country." But the tilt of the questions implied a right and a wrong answer, resulting in some awkward silences. It's only acting, after all, and off someone else's script.

Harrelson majored in theater arts and English at college before moving to New York and landing no parts for two years. His breakthrough role in Cheers came a few months after he landed an agent whom he credited more than once for his success.

He talked about Oliver Stone's "gentle quality" and mimicked Milos Forman's fatalistic gruffness. He cited Marlon Brando's quote that acting is not an art and said now that his kids are at school, "school always wins out" against career decisions. He dropped a good-natured hint (not picked up) about drinking with Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock and is still friends with Larry Flynt. When Harrelson and his wife "were having some trouble" in the past Flynt "helped out" by appealing the actor's wife on his behalf. We don't know what the trouble was or what the publisher of Hustler said to her that helped. Cue another awkward silence.

The best question of the night came from the floor, about working on The Thin Red Line. Harrelson said Terence Malick was an interesting man and "kind of a savant" before raising his voice to a childlike whine and imitating the director standing with his head tilted, pointing at a field of grass saying, I kinda like the way the light falls; let's film that.

Harrelson was at the London Film Festival to promote his new film Rampart, which is based on a James Ellroy story. The clip looked good. Harrelson said the dramatisation differs from the source not least of all because director Oren Moverman has been "making a lot of changes in post," his emphasis implying changes beyond traditional editing. In the clip that was shown Harrelson's crooked smile appeared to tilt the other way and I wondered if the footage had been flipped: the opposite of the man we saw on stage.


Hey Jupiter

The Moon and Jupiter, 2150hrs.

"I spent most of my life trying to humour people"

Hunter S. Thompson talks about The Rum Diaries.


Departure Lounge on air

Someone's just told me that National Radio are re-broadcasting their dramatised reading of Departure Lounge all this week, afternoons at 2:30pm. Not sure if it's available as a podcast. Happy if it was. The radio version is abridged, read by Jed Brophy and features a Fripp & Eno track.

As a child I was introduced to many stories via the radio version. I particularly remember a dramatisation of The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle: it was scary and atmospheric.

Anyway, Departure Lounge is on, or was by the time you've read this. If you're quick you can still catch the ending.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

I reviewed Midnight in Paris in 1985 when it came out as The Purple Rose of Cairo; before that it was, broadly, Play It Again Sam. Paris is Woody in his magical mode, better than its predecessors but not as flip as, say, Scoop, or as sexy as Match Point, and it's not the fizzy slam-dunk of Vicky Cristina Barcelona... but it's still a delight, and a relief. I wish more movies were made this way. The camera is about the lens and the takes are long because he worked out that that way, he can spend less time in the editing suite. The script flows in his own voice; when "Hemingway" talks it jars but when Brody comes on as Dali things lift off.

By setting his late-period movies in Europe Allen has become the great chronicler of the Comfortable American – a five-star Continent of hotels, shopping, tourist strolls – without being seduced by it. Gil (Owen Wilson) is likewise bored. Spirited back to the 1920s, the American writer tells Bunuel about a great idea for a movie about a dinner party. Bunuel doesn't get it ('Why don't they just leave?'); Gil can't stop to explain. Midnight in Paris is an old man's movie: short on time, not fussing over the details.

He churns them out. That's what I like most about Woody Allen. He just goes out and does it, making two a year sometimes, and lets them stand or fall. He's sentimental but doesn't look back; sour but not bitter; captivated by youth, but casts them in great parts. It's a story of magic: it's just another piece of work.


Find Your Ancestors: The Avengers girl

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.

BRIAN CLEMENS: I didn't do Diana a very good service. It made her an international star but I think I could have done more for her as far as the script was concerned. She was rather a stooge to Patrick Macnee's Steed.

JULIE NEWMAR: This is what I get from people when they talk to me about the original Catwoman and compare it to the latter ones. I think people prefer the more humorous one, the lighter one. People seem to complain that the recent ones are too dark in spirit. But that's what reflects what's going on... It was a heck of a lot more fun when Adam West and I did it.

BOB RINGWOOD: We had to justify the catsuit. Where did the Selina character get it? Black, shiny fetish clothing can very easily slip into the sleaze/porn world and this, after all, was a film for family viewing.

Q: How much information did you have on the Catwoman issues before drawing the covers?

ADAM HUGHES: Sometimes I'll get one of Will Pfeiffer's scripts, and sometimes I'll get a synopsis because Will is still writing the script. And then sometimes I'll say, "Can I draw Selina in a pool?" And they'll say, okay.

ALAN MARTIN: During the mid-eighties I was in a band with the then unknown Philip Bond. One of our favourite songs was a track we had written called 'Rocket Girl.' I was studying at Worthing at this time, which is where we met up with Jamie Hewlett. He and Philip hit it off straight away. I was a little put off by Jamie's habit of drawing huge penises on any paper that he came across.

Jamie had drawn a grotty looking girl brandishing an unfeasible firearm. One of our friends was working on a project to design a pair of headphones and was basing his design on the type used by World War II tank driver. His studio was littered with loads of photocopies of combat vehicles. I pinched one of the images and gave it to Jamie who then stuck it behind his grotty girl illustrations and then added a logo which read 'Tank Girl'.

DR: Where you surprised at how popular she became?

AM: It didn't really come as a shock to us.

STIEG LARSSON: I considered Pippi Longstocking. What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I'll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.


When we were very Jung

Drive feels like the movie I have been happily watching my whole life: Le Samourai by way of The Driver, Vanishing Point, Medium Cool, 8 Million Ways to Die, 52 Pick-Up, Thief, Heat. The references are indirect: Drive is in the spirit of those films, and the tone. There is not that much driving in it and the violence is overdone and it's a little under budget but these limitations feel right, too, if not appropriate to the genre. That's just Drive's thing: cars, LA and robberies cast in the blue key of existential. For all the darkness, it's a bright, upbeat tale of brooding.

Drive is presented as "A Nicolas Refn Film" but is based on a screenplay which is in turn based on a novel so the director is a realisateur rather than an auteur. The blissfully spare screenplay is by Hossein Amini, who also recently adapted Elmore Leonard's Killshot, and is based on the novel by James Sallis.

Sallis was born in Arkansas 1944 and has written 15 novels - seven in the Lew Griffin detective series. He has written SF and worked as an editor and essayist as well as a translator, translating works by Pablo Neruda, Mikhail Lermontov, Pasternak and Pushkin, among others. He's also a musician. Sallis published Drive in 2005, when he was 61.

In an interview with Paul Kane Sallis talked about his Lew Griffin character, and crime as a genre:
Kane: Do you see yourself as primarily a crime writer or simply a writer, period?

Sallis: A quick look at my list of publications should answer that: collections of poetry, books of musicology, a biography, translation, a lot of science fiction, wide literary-magazine publication, a large body of criticism. I'm a writer who writes, among much else, crime fiction.

Did you choose crime fiction or did it choose you?

I came to crime fiction rather late, actually – after many years of involvement with science fiction, then, when that market changed, with "literary" fiction. I was introduced to Chandler and Hammett by Mike Moorcock when I was in London editing New Worlds; this would have been 1968 or so. I read constantly in the field: Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout, Chester Himes, Ed McBain, Larry Block, Donald Westlake. I didn't turn to writing crime fiction for some years after. The Long-Legged Fly was the beginning.

What can you do in crime fiction that you can't do in a straight literary novel, or in say science-fiction? What possibilities does the genre offer you?

Crime fiction shares with arealist fiction (fantasy and science fiction) a built-in edginess: an alienation, an apartness. It gives access to a straightforward skeleton of plot that's able to hold as little or as much weight as you wish to pack on; and it's connected more directly to the archetypes within us, which can be a source of tremendous power. I should probably add here that one of my agendas as critic has been to tear down as many of these artificial distinctions as possible – crime novel, "literary" novel, commercial novel....
In 1997 Gerald Houghton interviewed Sallis about the Griffin novel Eye of the Cricket:
Q: In Cricket we are told that New Orleans is a city that 'could still be 1940.' The Griffin novels take place over many years and yet seem to exist within the same time - almost out of time. References to beepers and e-mail in the novel leap out.

Sallis: The modern touches are to some extent meant to be jarring. In Cricket for the first time Lew begins to feel that the world has passed him by, that he's on his way to becoming an anachronism. New Orleans, as Lew says again and again, is a kind of island, cut off from mainland American society, timeless in its own peculiar way, filled with people (as well as buildings and social structures) who are anachronisms. Remember, too, that in these novels Lew is looking back on his life, relating it; memory, as it always does, runs things together, blurs them (more poet than reporter). That's pretty much the reason for using the title for The Long-Legged Fly from Yeats. Lew, like the fly in the poem, is sitting up above the stream of time, watching it flow beneath him.
The full interview is here.