Ten years ago I enjoyed/suffered/endured my first ever Eastercon as part of the Gollancz team. Looking back at my diary it’s interesting just how little of the actual conference I chronicled — mostly because I was away filming authors — but I must have liked it, as I’ve been back for more several times since, even getting to attend as an author a couple of years ago! It’s generally a slicker affair these days, but some of that ramshackle charm remains. I won’t be going this year, but I’ll always have Chester…
Easter Sunday, 8th April 2007
I’ve spent the last couple of days in Chester for Eastercon – the British science fiction convention. There were engineering works on the trains all weekend, so I decided to drive the 240-odd miles to Chester. Points of interest along the way included a sign directing tourists to a Secret Bunker, and a pub called The Headless Woman.
I arrived at around half-six and made contact with the rest of the Gollancz gang. We had dinner at an Italian place called Piccolino’s. The author Roger Levy was there with his wife Tina. Roger is a very pleasant guy, quiet-spoken, but with a quick wit. Also with us was Dave Bradley, editor of SFX.
On Saturday morning I was up fairly early for a stroll around Chester to film its more interesting bits (I had come along to film our authors in conversation, and I thought I might need some links). Chester is completely charming. It has wonderful two-tiered shopping arcades with plenty of independent shops. Even the chains look more interesting, although once you get inside they reveal their usual indentikit selves. One highlight was an evangelist busker who played a five-string bass guitar while singing Amazing Grace at the top of his voice. He was joined by a man with a harmonica, another with an acoustic guitar and a woman in her seventies with a mandolin. They looked like the worst Led Zeppelin tribute band ever.
(Gollancz publicist) Jon Weir grew up in Chester and gave Gillian Redfearn, Sara Mulryan, myself and Marcus Gipps (lovely guy from Blackwells… looks like Paul McCartney circa Let It Be) the grand tour. We saw the ancient walls, the excavations at the amphitheatre and had lunch by the River Dee, which looks a lot like Putney and Richmond, but less crowded.
In the afternoon I filmed Richard Morgan in conversation with Ian McDonald, followed by Roger Levy and Jon Courtney Grimwood. All were great and very pleasant to work with. I like that they didn’t shamelessly plug their books, but instead discussed the issues that inspired their writing.
In the evening we had a Chinese meal at a restaurant called Raffles which had French airship murals on the walls, so we figured it hand’t been Chinese for very long. There was a heated debate between Richard Morgan, Jo Fletcher and Ian Drury on the historical accuracy of the film 300. I was way out of my depth and just listened, learning an awful lot about ancient Greece and Persia.
We followed the meal by attending the British Science Fiction Awards. It was a fairly ramshackle affair, with more in common with a village fete raffle than a glitzy awards ceremony, but that seems to be how the hardcore SF fans like it.
Today we ended the conference with a trip to Jodrell Bank. A very pleasant way to spend an hour or so. We took a 3D trip to Mars, then stood and stared at the mighty dish.
I drove with Jon Weir back to London. We discovered a mutual love for John Williams’ movies scores and sang along with Muppets and Disney show tunes. In all the weekend was less a conference and more of a weekend break. Chester is a lovely place, though, and I’d love to go back one day.
For our family it was a huge shock when Carrie Fisher passed away at the end of last year. We are massive Star Wars fans in our house and it was a sad day for all. We will all look forward to seeing Star Wars VIII when it comes out in the cinema. As a tribute to Carrie Fisher we chimed the Star Wars theme tune at the end of our bell ringing practice the other week. Whoever said bell ringers are boring, clearly hasn’t met the band I ring with. Thank you so much to the other ringers who made this possible.
But this was the premise for a sketch that I filmed with some old friends a couple of years ago. Friends that I was writing comedy sketches with back when I was a teenager. The way I remember it is we would meet in the drama hall after school, writing, improvising and laughing for about two hours non-stop. And by laugh, I mean breathless, bent-over-in-agony, pounding the floor, thinking you’re going to die, convulsing in spasms laughter. I have not laughed so hard since.
As a teenage boy there was a kind of comedy arms race among my peers: we were always trying to be the fastest and the funniest, and a few of us tried to get it down on paper, then on its feet, thinking we were going to be the next Monty Python…
Well, of course, we were not…
But it was the first writing I did with an audience in mind, and we’ve since all gone on to do cool, creative things: Jeremy is now a documentary filmmaker, Dom is an incredible musician and award-winning filmmaker, Paul works in West End theatre, and I write words and sometimes get paid for them. There’s a moment in Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian where he recalls the same thing. His friends at school were as funny as he was, if not funnier. The difference is, he pursued it as a career and didn’t allow the formalities of life — getting a job, behaving like an adult in polite company etc. — slowly beat it out of him. It’s a sobering thought that I’ll never be as funny as I was when I was a kid, confirmed perhaps by the sketch we filmed when we all reunited again for Paul’s fortieth birthday…
Yes, that’s me on the right as Michael Caine (as Widow Twankey), with Paul on the left (Aladdin), in a sketch written by Dom and filmed by Jeremy. There’s an alternative universe where we’re begrudgingly reuniting for a stadium tour, we’re all millionaires and we all hate each other… I wouldn’t want to live there, but it might be worth a short visit.
My son is fourteen, my daughter seventeen, and they’re both quick wits and make me laugh every single day, and I regularly plead with them not to let life beat that humour out of them.
Cling on to the funny, folks.
Christ knows, over the next few years I suspect we will need a good laugh more than ever before.
Dean asked if I was interested in another project he’s developing. It’s called ‘The Office Christmas Party’, and comes from a party witnessed by his brother. So far it’s just a series of ‘It really happened’ events. There’s no story or even a rough outline, but in some ways that’s best if it gives me more of a free reign. Anyway, I’ll look at what he’s got and see if it’s do-able.
Tuesday 9th January, 2007
I read the notes for Dean’s ‘Office Christmas Party’ idea… Yikes. There’s really nothing to work with. It’s basically what happens when you give people a free bar and too much coke. The concept is a good one, but I’d have to start from scratch and I have a nagging doubt that Dean doesn’t have the money to pay me for that.
Wednesday 10th January, 2007
Agreed with Dean to put together a two-page treatment for his April deadline…
The more observant of you might be asking, ‘What the hell? You clearly didn’t like the idea, so why are you writing a treatment for it?’ Indeed, and you’d be right to be confused. But I was inexperienced, eager to please a producer who was developing another project of mine, and I had the writer’s hubris to think that I could mould this idea into a personal statement. How wrong was I? Well, let’s say this led to a further three and a half years of working on a film that would never happen. Three and half years! I know this because I looked it up in my diary…
Wednesday 8th September, 2010
Dean called yesterday and I think I’ve finally laid the ghost of The Christmas Office Party to rest. I simply told him I’d run cold on the idea. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it.
You’ll note the slight title change there (because we didn’t anyone thinking it was anything to do with Ricky Gervais’s The Office… how times have changed). It’s not a question of the time taken, or not being paid – I’ve worked longer and for less on other projects – but the difference here is I was completely wrong for the project. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t like the tone they wanted, nor had I any experience in writing a raucous comedy, but I still said yes. It was an interesting concept, and I thought it could get made, and when you’re an un-produced screenwriter, all you really want in life is to get something made.
The lesson I had yet to learn is the most powerful thing a writer can do is say No.
Seriously, try it.
Saying no means you can move and find something new and follow your passions. Saying no means you still have all the power. Saying no means they might even consider paying you for the project.
Saying yes means you’re suddenly obliged to deliver writing, for little or no money, and with no end in sight.
This isn’t to disparage Dean as a producer. Like all indie producers, he’s building a slate and simply doesn’t have the money to pay writers for endless drafts. The mistake was all mine, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.
So, it was with very mixed feelings when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Office Christmas Party’. It was a good idea, and Dean had beaten Hollywood to it by ten years… he just needed the right writer. Trouble is, it wasn’t me.
Be ye warned, I have all the spoilers in the article below and we can only proceed on the assumption that you’ve seen Rogue One: A Star Wars story and stayed awake to the very end.
Are we cool…?
Let us begin with a trailer showing a ton of shots that did not make it to the finished film…
I’ve seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story twice now, and I enjoyed it very much.
There has been chatter, some negative, about the stream of in-jokes and easter-eggs in the film, and no one has summarised this better than Adam Roberts in this article. But, despite all the scaremongering news of reshoots and rewrites (like this was the first film ever to suffer this), we have been gifted a very enjoyable film.
I’ve seen plenty of rave reviews, some saying it’s the best Star Wars film for thirty-odd years, though I wouldn’t go that far. When watching it for the second time its flaws became more apparent, and it got me wondering about the future of this series, which is very close to my heart, and the future of this kind of shared-universe storytelling.
But let’s start with the movie itself. It has a finale to rival any other in the series, and it’s full of incredible moments, but second time around I found the journey to reach that epic climax was slow and stodgy.
My biggest problem is our leads. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are fine actors, but they’re both saddled with dour characters with downturned mouths. They’re very earnest and sober and lack any of the verve of Finn or Rey, let alone the swagger of Han Solo, or the infectious energy of Luke and Leia. They feel very one-note all the way through, and it’s hard work to care for them.
I blub at the drop of a hat at the movies, but I felt curiously unmoved by their sacrifice at the end. It was as if they knew they were doomed from the start and allowed their story to play out with a defeatist tone. How many kids will want to be Jyn or Cassian when acting out their adventures in the playground? I suspect Rey and Finn will remain the top ‘bagsy’ for some time.
The story is a patchwork of rewrites and you can still see some of the stitching. There are visual clues of discarded story threads, such as the unexplained wreckage of a still-smoking X-Wing on Jedha, but that stuff just adds to the intrigue of a bigger story, and can make for fun speculation.
More problematic are some of the character beats: Bodhi Rook is interrogated by the big jelly-Cthulu-like creature which, Saw Gerrera assures him, will make him lose his mind. Yet, one quick chat with charisma vacuum Cassian Andor and suddenly Bodhi is tickety-boo. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to rely on a defective defecting pilot who is one sandwich short of a picnic? And what should be a perfectly simple plan by Bodhi to hook-up a cable during the final battle needs explaining not once, but twice, and at great length… it feels like a cut-n-shut script solution to a bigger story problem.
And why did Saw Gerrera need to die when he does? Okay, he might have had to stop to oil his legs, or take a fresh puff from his oxygen mask, but he was perfectly capable of getting to a ship with the others. It makes absolutely no sense, other than that’s where Joseph Campbell says the mentor should die if you’ve been studying The Hero’s Journey. I suspect there was more to this story thread, but it was lost somewhere in the rewrites.
And speaking of ships, why do space ships in science fiction movies land so far away from their final destination? You travel halfway across the galaxy to your quarry’s farm in Iceland, and park two miles from his house. Why??
We also have an utterly pointless excursion by Krennick to see Vader’s compact and bijoux residence with hot and cold running lava, which feels like an awful lot of unnecessary shoe leather for such a short conversation. Wouldn’t a quick holo-call have done? Then Vader could have at least stayed in the bath…
But, much of this is nitpicking. Overall, the film was a blast. One for the fans, made by the fans. I think this film marks a turning point in the Star Wars canon, and how these kinds of films will be made. This is where the fanboys have taken over the franchise. Yes, The Force Awakens was made with affection and nostalgia, but, crucially, it was written by the man who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. Not a fanboy.
With these stand-alone stories we’re now seeing a progression to a different kind of storytelling, where men (and it is all men writing and directing these films) of a certain age, who grew up playing with their Star Wars action figures, are now getting to play in the sandbox of the Star Wars movie universe. When I first saw the trailers for this film, it reminded me of the games I would play with my toys as a child. Stories that focused away from the main saga, and were free to dabble in corners of the universe that we’ve not seen before. And it is play: watching the end sequence of this film – a triumphant, crowd-pleasing finale – it played out like a live-action version of the game Star Wars: Battlefront, each problem they were presented with felt like the next level of a platform game. Even Vader’s thrilling moment scything through rebel soldiers was seemingly taken straight from the Battlefront Hoth map…
Don’t get me wrong; this is all fun stuff, but these adventures are feeling less like iconic movies, and more like serial TV. We have a very capable show runner in the redoubtable Kathleen Kennedy, and we have the Lucasfilm Story Group (mostly comprising of women, which is encouraging), to keep everything on track. I don’t envy them. This must be like a game of Jenga, where writers have to make extremely delicate manoeuvres to ensure that the whole edifice doesn’t come tumbling down.
The Star Wars universe is no longer the vision of just one man, it’s a big business that will be squeezed for all its worth for at least the next two decades, in movies, TV, games, theme park attractions, books, toys, food and clothes. Along with Marvel, Disney, DC, Harry Potter and Bond, this is industrialised storytelling and it’s here to stay.
There was a time in the late ’80s where I felt like I was the only Star Wars fan in the world. The films were done with, they had stopped making the toys, and a fan could almost know everything there was to know about the saga. And then, when something new came along, like the Timothy Zahn books, it was a thrilling event, but an isolated incident. Those days are gone, and eventually we’ll reach a saturation point where I fear I’ll be sick to the tits with anything Star Wars. I’m guessing this is what fuels a lot of the impotent male rage you see online; the idea that something that was once special to them is now cherished by the masses, and – heaven forbid – girls. But to complain about this is to reveal a thin skin. I love that my kids are enjoying a golden age of Star Wars, that they can enjoy exciting stories with a cast of characters as diverse as those in The Force Awakens and Rogue One, but already I can see a day when the bubble bursts. All it takes is a disappointing opening weekend and the franchise will begin to die. And, with each new iteration of an increasingly-complex storyline, the odds of a disappointment will increase and the Jenga tower will fall, and the masses will suddenly be interested in a new shiny thing to decorate their bedrooms with. So, let’s enjoy it while we can. Just because a thing doesn’t last, it doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. The fanboys and fangirls are running the show, and they’re off to a pretty good start.
A simple proposition: write, edit, publish and market a self-published eBook and get it up the Kindle charts… in a year. Fifty-two weeks. Yeah, a doddle…
Oh, and while you’re trying to achieve this, and on top of all the other crap you have going on in your life, you’ll also be helping run a weekly podcast where you interview folk from the industry and maybe a few authors? Maybe even a few bestselling, mega-million-household-name-type authors?
And yet, here we are… Luckily, my cohort in this exercise in insanity is the super-driven entrepreneur and life coach Mark Desvaux who could convince the most devout nun to abandon her vows and take up pole dancing (don’t worry, he only uses his powers for good, not evil).
Mark is also that wannabe writer who’s started writing a novel a few times, but has never finished one. He still has that joyous naivety that all it takes is a bit of application and before you know it you’ve written Harry Potter And The Cash Cow Of Azkaban.
I, on the other hand, am a cynical sod who’s worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty years and have seen more disasters than Donald Trump’s press office. There’s no way you can cynically take a dash of Dan Brown, add a smidgen of James Patterson, sprinkle it with EL James’s chutzpah and wait for the royalty cheques to come rolling in.
However, that’s not entirely our plan. While our book may end up the literary equivalent of the Hindenberg, we are totally convinced that there are writers out there who can beat us to it. Writers who might have a half-finished book in their bottom drawer, writers who just need a little guidance from the experts (that’s not us, let me make that absolutely clear!), and could get their work published and read by the masses.
We launch today with three episodes, so you can really get your teeth into it, and they’re all fab. You can find the podcast on iTunes: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/itunes
Please subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes, and, if you like us, please, please, please leave a review and a rating on iTunes. I had no idea how important this stuff is to keeping your podcast alive. Apple use these as their major metric when it comes to making the podcast visible and easy to find! Without them, we wither and die… and I want this to fail because I was right, not because of some sodding metric!
If you’re not on iTunes, you can listen and download from our website: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/podcasts/
This really is aces. Updated every week it’s the highlights of our interviews, and by the time we’re done there will be about 80,000 words of advice from some of the best authors on the planet… For free! You’d be crazy not to.
Still not convinced? Then check out our trailer for a quick peek…
Like I said, this is going to be fun.
Oh, and to the chap who left a comment on our Facebook page bemoaning the whole exercise and declaring that Graham Greene would never have stooped to this… it’s called the Bestseller Experiment, not the Timeless Literary Classic Experiment.
After three days of intense workshopping (see previous blog entries), we were given a day away to prepare our pitches for the real thing on Friday…
Thursday 12th October, 2006
A blissful day at home working on the pitch and the script for Eddie. Got lots done. Had a conference call with Dean and Jon. I was confident then, but nerves are starting already.
Friday 13th October, 2006
Dean, Jon and I pitched to Film London this morning. As pitches go, it was textbook stuff and we covered everything. However, Dean called a little after to nine to say that we didn’t get the green light. No reason was offered and he didn’t ask. The positive spin is that we can now go and raise a proper budget instead rather than be constrained by the strict £100k that Film London insisted on. Dean’s right: at least this way we get to make it on our terms. Still, I can’t help but feel really disappointed. The green light from Film London could have meant that the film would be in cinemas next year and would have got us all some quick recognition.
Dean also reminded me that Film London’s remit is to support independent/arthouse film, and our script is very much mainstream and commercial and much more likely to get funding elsewhere than some of the other projects on the Microwave scheme. There’s no news yet on who actually did get through. Apparently an announcement will be made in the next ten days.
Aah, can you hear it? The post-disappointment rationalisation? There is some truth in our reasoning: the script is a ghost story, with a far more substantial VFX budget than any other script on the scheme (a habit I can’t seem to shake!), and it would have been nigh-on impossible to make effectively on such a small budget. All that fluff about arthouse versus commercial is balls, though. Looking back at my script ten years on, it’s far too idiosyncratic to be commercial, and the films that were selected by Film London were both eminently marketable and, while not runaway box offices successes, earned their money back, were highly acclaimed, and successfully launched careers.
The first I saw was Eran Creevy’s Shifty, which is a fantastic debut with terrific performances from Riz Ahmed and Daniel Mays. The second was Mum and Dad, a nicely twisted horror directed by Steven Shiel.
We eventually learned that we were ultimately rejected because my script was “too TV”, which burned at the time (and felt a bit of a flannely excuse), though now it’s got my cogs whirring and wondering if there’s mileage in a London-set TV series about a haunted house and guy called Eddie trying to figure out who murdered him. TV execs: you know where to find me!
Last full day of Microschool. First of all, I have to tip my hat to our fellow filmmakers… a thoroughly nice bunch. An awful word was coined by a producer (who shall remain anonymous): “co-opetition”. A mash of co-operation and competition that he felt summed-up the spirit in which he wanted us to work. We ignored his banal wittering and just got on with each other anyway. Special mention should go to Rani Creevy, writer/director of Shifty, and Carol Morley, writer/director of Hotel Deadly – she was a straight-talking breath of fresh air, as was her producer Cairo Cannon.
Producer Christine Alderson was really helpful, too. She basically guided our group through the sessions with plenty of wise and practical advice. Judy Counihan, co-writer of the excellent Faber book The Pitch, came along to talk for an hour on pitching and I made nearly three pages of notes.
Dean (Fisher) is still wary of the restrictions on the budget, but Jon (Wright) is still confident that we can pull it off. I’ll work on our pitch script at home tomorrow and Friday is the day we pitch to the Film London panel!
What’s fascinating about looking back on this entry is the wealth of talent at this first Microschool. I didn’t know it at the time, but Eran (Rani) Creevy would win the first Microwave and go on to make Shifty, and then Welcome To The Punch, and Carol Morley, who, like us, would not win, but went on to make some of my favourite films of the last decade including Dreams Of Life and The Falling. What’s doubly fascinating is I recall their passion and no-nonsense approach to their filmmaking. No “co-opetition” for them, they just wanted to get their fucking films made…
Oh, and Faber books have somehow let The Pitch go out of print! Boo, Faber, boo! Simply the best book on pitching your film ever written. Totally essential, and grab a copy if you can.
More on how turned out soon (though I guess if you’ve been paying attention you already know the ending)…
Ten years ago, my horror-comedy script Waiting For Eddie had a producer, a director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. And day two saw the script get some serious interrogation from some industry professionals. Would it be knocked out in the first round, or would it pick itself up, battered and bruised, and ask for more…?
Tuesday 10th October, 2006
Day two of Microschool. Jon (Wright) and I had a meeting with script editor Toby Rushton that was so good it gave me goosebumps. He started by saying some very nice things about the script, we then all agreed on some of the problems. He liked the suggestion in the script that the house has something to do with its murderous history. Jon and I were initially wary: we didn’t want to go down the Amityville Horror route, but then I latched on to the slaughtered Victorian family in the Fleetwood sequence and we now have a new character called Cassandra and an ending that is ten times better.
Poor Dean (Fisher) was stuck in the basement at the Institute Francais, poring over the budget with all the other producers. He’s still wary of making of making Eddie for £100k, but Jon is more optimistic.
This was the first time the script had been read by anyone not directly associated with the film, and it was something of a relief to be told that it wasn’t a steaming turd, and how dare I call myself a writer? I remember the goosebumps came when Toby took a tiny part of the script — a throwaway line about previous murders in this haunted house — and started talking about how we could extrapolate that into something bigger, and by the time our session was over we had a new character and a better ending (and I had a ton of revisions ahead of me… years of them, in fact).
Getting feedback and notes can be a traumatic experience, but this was such a thrill to be given permission almost to dig deeper and explore these characters and situations all the more. At the end of day two I was certain of one thing: our film would get the £100k and would be made within the year (spoiler alert: nah).
For more on Day Three of Microschool, tune in tomorrow!
My script Waiting For Eddie had a producer, a director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. But we weren’t the only ones, of course, and first had to survive a week of Microschool: a kind of Bake Off for filmmakers. Jon and I were treated to masterclasses from producers, writers and sales agents, while our poor producer Dean was sent to a dark basement for a week of budget school (some people get all the luck). Reading this ten years on I feel like I come across as a cocky little know-it-all. Don’t worry, dear reader, the next ten years of trying to get scripts off the ground will knock that out of me…
Monday 9th October, 2006
Day one of Microschool. An up and down sort of day. It started with some sales agents telling us exactly what sort of things they were looking for in a film. A lot of what they said could be filed under “The Bleeding Obvious”, but it was surprising just how few of our fellow filmmakers have twigged to the basic tenets of writing for a market. Some just want to experiment at the artistic end of the spectrum and that’s great, but I think Film London are looking for a hit to come out of this scheme and, as far as the comedy films are concerned, we’re the only one of this scheme that comes close. That said, there’s a lot of work to do this week: budgets need a rethink and the script will need to be knocked into a practical shape. Dean is torn: he’s still totally convinced that he can get £400k for Eddie, but Jon and I feel that we should really get our teeth into this week and go for a win!
This was my first time surrounded by other filmmakers in a hotbed of talent and competition, and it was pretty intimidating at first, but you soon discover that they’re just as terrified (or as full of shit) as you are, and you start to realise that you might actually deserve a place at the table here.
You hear people talking about breaking into the film industry like you just need to kick down one door and suddenly you’re a filmmaker. It’s nothing like that at all. More a series of incremental inch-like shuffles in a never-ending post office queue, but while you’re in the queue you get talking to others who have just as far to go as you and before you know it you have a peer group and a sense of belonging. I’ll always be grateful to the Microwave scheme and Dean and Jon for getting me a place at the back of the line, and I’ll stop now before this metaphor completely exhausts itself.