No writing today just a photo. Went back past the former kiln factory, this was at 10.15am today, the sky had clouded over after a sunny start. Took two, this one with the flash which brought out the rust colour.
I have been writing a fictional autobiography of Vincent which is quite an entertaining and rather extensive project. I am writing as if he is writing it now 2013 (the date to be moved as the book takes longer and longer to write!), looking back as far as the 1950’s and some family background to 1900. He is 65 and has lived, or maybe imagines he has lived, a highly adventurous and entertaining life, the point is whether he has or is this just his imagining, so I am trying to write each of the events as realistically and credible as my meagre skills can do. Real life characters people the story as well as fictional – Ronald Reagan, John Lennon, Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Erich Mielke and many more. I am writing it rather in the way a film is made, writing sequences all over the place then eventually I will bring them all together as I hope a coherent whole (don’t expect this for some time yet if I have wetted your appetite).
This has meant a considerable amount of research, again most enjoyable and something which can take me up long winding by-roads which quite often lead nowhere, but are most entertaining or worrying. If anyone looked at my Google searches they would think I was a gun crazy stalker!
The next part of Vincent’s life I am starting to write is when he is a manager of a fictional punk band, who I have called either The Vomitters or Dog Heads, they will make one pink plastic single given away free on a one issue magazine, and sink into obscurity. This will lead Vincent (who is a photographer most of the time) towards the Miner’s Strike infiltrating and reporting on the union activities.
Anyway, having lived through the punk period and seen quite a few bands, though I did not have safety pins in my lip or spiked hair, it struck me how in reality they were just another group of puritans which now and then come to the fore regularly in British history and culture.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but much as the Puritans in the time of King Charles wanted to smash what they saw as a flamboyant church which thought more about ceremonies and decoration, than about the message they believed was in their religion. The outcome was a ‘hardening’ of religion and sects which fought hard for their versions of Christianity. Punk took much the same course, it stripped down the beauty and flamboyance of the late 60’s and early 70’s, gone were the orchestral arrangements, fantastic light shows and both music and fashion became very basic until punk disappeared in 1979, and just became a style.
The same had of course happened before in popular music. Elvis Presley’s early stripped down sound has to be set against the lush ballads so popular in the early 50’s, he took ‘race’ music and sang it to a white audience. Ten years later The Beatles did exactly the same, just listen to early 60’s pop, it is soft sentimental stuff, they took away all those strings and arrangements and again sang black American music for white youth. Of course you will find many other examples of bands and singers who were working at the same time much more radically, but The Beatles and Elvis took their music to a mass audience, in many ways like The Sex Pistols did, in the 1970’s you didn’t get singles in the Top 10 without selling to just a few hard core fans, hundreds of thousands had to be sold.
I have been trying to think if this has happened since the punk ‘revolution’ of 1976-78. I can think of nothing that has really changed, simplified – puritanised things in the same way, to a wide public and probably with the dilution of music and media will not for a long time.
Today’s photograph was taken at about midday on an overcast but mild day, it is of one of the many derelict factories, this a former kiln maker in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent.
Hi Chris – thank you for taking part in this online interview. I have known you for nearly 40 years, you were a tutor at Cardiff College of Art in my third year and after that I knew you as part of the emerging film-making scene in Cardiff. Since then of course you have gone on to great things as you IMDb entry shows(http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0003355/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1), and you are now based in Los Angeles.
As a screen writer do you write work generated from your own creative ideas or do you mainly work from a brief?
I’ve written around 60 screenplays for film or TV and half of them have been my own ideas. Of my own ideas, I’ve written some speculatively, but mostly I’ve taken my ideas and pitched them to various companies who then commissioned me to write a script.
Of the assignments, many have been adapting books, (fiction and non fiction) or rewriting other people’s screenplays.
How detailed can you be, for instance as well as the dialogue do you detail the setting for a scene and note what should be seen on screen?
When I started writing screenplays, one was expected to be quite technical, using sluglines: Interior. The White House – Night – and using many abbreviations to list the shots, like CU, BCU, BG etc.. That has slowly disappeared and the quest now is to try and write a script that is an easy, fast read, that shows the movie to the reader. That same script would now start WE’RE IN THE WHITE HOUSE AT NIGHT AND –
Hopefully reading one of my scripts should be like seeing a transcript of the finished film: Anything and everything that the viewer must see and hear (with the exception of soundtrack) is described. But the descriptions must be very concise. A feature script can only be between 90 and 110 pages. Given that dialogue takes up so much page space, visual and aural descriptions must be kept to a minimum and plots must unfold in the scenes, not in descriptions. Most executives go home every weekend with literally dozens of scripts to read. Blocks of prose are a total turn off, and readers will just skip to the dialogue unless the descriptive lines are pithy and informative.
With the script for Temple Grandin I was attempting to show life from the perspective of a woman who literally thinks in pictures, so there was a lot of very specific images, often only to be used as quick flashes.
How much does a script depend on what actor will be playing a part, or if the actor is cast after the script how much intervention do you have in say fitting the words and actions to an actors’ style? Do you write with an actor in mind?
With the exception of some stars, the development of screenplays happens way before actors are committed or finances have been raised to actually make a film. The industry spends a lot of money on scripts, in a process that is just like R & D in any other industry – and the majority of scripts never make it to production. Once the script is written, it may attract stars who want to play the parts and their involvement will raise the finance; or the script may attract a director and producer, who find the money, and then hire the actors. I NEVER think of an actor when writing. I want to try and create characters that a whole range of actors might be attracted to.
The exception to this rule is that many big stars have their own production companies and often have specific vehicles written for them. I’ve rarely been involved in those.
However, it’s almost inevitable that in the final stages of preproduction the leading actors and the director, will ask for changes. I try to embrace these, because it’s usually a fresh perspective on something I may have been working on for months. It’s a bit like a playwright who will be making improvements during rehearsal.
Have you adapted someone else’s book or writing to create a script, if so how much do you work with the original author?
With a work of fiction I have little or no contact with the original author. In those cases a producer or production company will have acquired the rights to the book. I will have pitched to the producer how I would approach the adaptation, and the producer will have told me what attracted them to the novel. We might be trying to reproduce the book faithfully, or we may be using the book as merely a starting off point, and everything in between.
But with works of non-fiction, and especially with biographies and auto-biographies, I might often call the author to clarify some aspect of the text, or ask them whether my dramatic take on the events is believable. Very often I’ll be trying to collapse very complex events that took place over months or years into a few scenes, or trying to collapse several minor characters into one. It’s inevitable that a biography will make major abbreviations (otherwise the film would last as long as the portrayed life!) but one works hard to stay faithful to the true dynamics.
What is the process of taking a book and turning it into a screenplay?
Wow. That’s a big question, because each book is so different and presents its own unique challenges. Some books are inherently cinematic: They have strong plots and revealed characters. But if the strength of a novel is its prose, then it’s very hard to make it into a compelling film. Didn’t Godard say ‘Great literature makes bad films, but bad novels make good movies’? I think so, and he’s right. Pulp novels usually have driving plots with simple narrative twists – they make for easy faithful adaptations. But where does one start with a novel where all the charm and substance is in the prose style? I actually believe that many of ‘the greatest novels’ should not be made into films. Except in very rare cases it’s a recipe for disappointment.
Usually I start by breaking the book down – literally going through it page by page, transcribing the story beats and character changes. It’s usually clear very quickly whether the book’s structure will work, or whether I’ll have to add, subtract, or alter the time line. For example, a book’s opening paragraph may describe a character arriving in town, but telling us in prose how he or she got there, and what he or she is running from. One line might describe a childhood trauma. In a film you might have to start earlier to show those events, or find a place to flashback to them — otherwise you’re doomed to create a scene where that character has to tell all this backstory to someone else – and that sort of exposition is deadly dull.
Last year I broke down a 700 page biography for a 4 hour TV series. With that one I ended up creating a twenty-foot time line around the walls of my office. From that I broke it down into roughly 600 scenes, each one of which I wrote on cards and then spent weeks juggling them into four dramatic episodes, each of which had its own thematic thread.
You scripted the Golden Globe Award winning Temple Grandin, and you won a Writers Guild of America Award for it. It is very easy for those who don’t win them to be dismissive of awards, but how did you feel to have such a huge critical success be recognised by your colleagues?
(Actually I didn’t win the WGA – I was nominated. But I did win a Peabody, a Humanitas and several others and the film one literally dozens, everything from international TV festivals to science prizes.)
I think everyone in the industry has an ambivalent attitude towards awards. Ultimately they are great publicity tools but it can feel a little like being cast into a Reality TV show, where one will be lauded or humiliated. Sitting, waiting in the audience, can feel like a lose / lose. If you lose, you lose, but if you win you have to go up onstage and possibly make a total fool of yourself. Not fun…
What is indisputable is that they are career-changing – one’s profile and status are immediately elevated. You join a select club and it is much easier for your agent or manager to ‘sell you’ to a producer.
Winning was fun – I can’t deny it, but the thrill wears off pretty quickly when you wake up the next morning only to discover that you’re the same jerk you were the day before.
You have an impressive list of films and TV that you have both Written and Directed, probably the film most known to people in the UK that you both Directed and Wrote would be The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. For people who write getting a book published is a major achievement, but to get a film made is a mammoth achievement. Perhaps you could just outline the process you went through to get people to support your projects and get them made.
Each film happened in its own bizarre, non-linear way. What was common to each is that enough people with passion eventually joined forces to champion it along. Very often a piece of casting (that’s to say an actor who was bankable) clinched the deal, but before and during that process the producer was crucial. No film gets made unless there is a tireless producer shaking every money tree. Sometimes talent agencies help, sometimes it’s just luck that a major star becomes available and happens to want to work where your project is set. There’s literally no simple ladder and that makes it very exciting, and infuriating.
Have you a project you have wanted to get made but it has never come off yet, I remember you often talked of a Dylan Thomas project?
Like every writer/ director I have several – ! My script about the lives or Dylan and Caitlin Thomas is one – over the years I’ve had a range of great actors who wanted to be in it, but we never clinched both actors and the finance at the right time. I have another about my time working in a timber mill when the guys wanted me to take pictures of their wives in lingerie. That one has had actors attached twice and been in preproduction once, only to have the finance drop out at the last minute. Right now I have a film about a dog (yes you read that correctly) that I am desperate to make. It has almost no dialogue.
Do you think that with the huge success of the drama series on TV that the standalone film is now inadequate to still tell stories?
‘The Wire’ completely changed the way people thought about TV – suddenly here was something with the scope of Dickens, playing out over many many hours, allowing us to embrace a huge range of characters and situations. Having said that, I’m still amazed how much a movie can pack in – and the punch that it can produce. Recently on a long flight, I was bored and chose to watch Chinatown again. I imagined I was just going to enjoy twenty minutes before falling asleep – but I was riveted (again) and just stunned by how it has both scope and intimacy.
Ultimately film and TV are very different media, and I love both. I particularly now like the luxury of watching several episodes of TV ‘on demand’ or DVD – but there is something about the communal experience of sitting in a crowd, illuminated by a huge screen that I just love. As a kid movies transported me, and I still want that fix.
To finish, do you have film(s), music or book(s) you have recently experienced that you can pass on?
I wish I had some books to recommend – I’m a voracious reader but in the last two years I’ve been getting two or three books to read a week for projects. It’s hard enough to read when I’m writing, but reading more than these submissions has been nearly impossible. Also, when I’m writing, I steer away from reading fiction – especially if the author has a strong voice. I’m very nervous of sitting down the next day and finding that I’ve carried his or her style or plot into whichever script I’m working on. I do manage to read a lot of science writing. I can’t pretend that I always completely understand articles on string theory or dark matter, but I love entering that realm. There is a fabulous series of paperbacks published here, ‘The Best American Writing’ series. They are compilations of the best magazine articles published in the previous year. They range from The Best American Science and Nature Writing, through The Best American Horror, Fiction and Non-Fiction and even The Best American Comic Books. Last year’s Science and Nature had an article on octopi that totally changed the way I think about them. Don’t be surprised if an octopus makes an appearance in one of my scripts soon…
I have always listened to a lot of music (I did a film in Brazil some years ago and came back with 200 CD’s…) and am lucky to have possibly the best American college radio station here in Los Angeles: KCRW. You can stream it from the web. My tastes are utterly eclectic. Recently (and this may be the result of iTunes and iPhones…) I’ve found myself doing in-depth listening fests. I’ll suddenly want to hear everything an artist ever did. It started about four years ago when, on a whim, I decided I didn’t know enough about Hank Williams. I’d always liked a couple of his songs, but downloaded everything from iTunes and just played him for a few weeks. Then it was Charles Mingus. Then early be-bop and Swing. I’d never really listened to Swing, I’d heard too much bad Swing on British radio as a kid – but some of it is amazing. Recently I’ve been re-listening to 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Bob Dylan. I’d been a big fan in my teens and early twenties but switched off in the Seventies. But I’d returned to him in recent years: Time Out Of Mind and Love and Theft stunned me. Also I’d kept stumbling across some great songs that I’d missed (like ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and The Man In The Long Black Coat) so decided to give it all a listen again. Great fun.
Otherwise iTunes tells me my recent listening includes Tame Impala, Parquet Courts, Pharaoh Saunders, Curtis Mayfield, Alabama Shakes, Aimee Mann, Cannonball Adderly, Public Enemy, Sufjan Stevens, and Television. Pretty crazy mix…
Two tracks I’ve been obsessed with are ‘Precious Lord Lead Me On’ by ‘King Britt presents Sister Gertrude Morgan’; and ‘The Boy With The Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers’ from Karl Hyde’s new album EDGELAND.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Right now I’m finishing a 4 hour mini-series based on Robert Harris’ POMPEII. It’s being directed by Mikael Salomon and should be great fun. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before which is what attracted me to it – I never want to write the same script twice. Unfortunately this industry is often very unimaginative. After Temple Grandin I was offered a half dozen projects about autism, so to get offered the Roman Empire and volcanoes was very exciting. And next I’m hoping to write an animated film for a very talented director, Shane Acker, who made a wonderful film ‘9’. I’ve never written for animation before, so again, I’m excited by the opportunity.
On my FB page an ad for a job came up. It was for a Community Engagement worker in the Stoke-on-Trent area for an arts project. From what I can gather the work requires someone with experience. The project is offering a salary of £11,232 (which is a pro rata rate of £18,720), that works out about £10 per hour.
How has this wage been sanctioned by the Arts Council?
I thought that these joke wages were becoming a thing of the past. If the people organising a project cannot offer a sensible salary for this sort of post, say around £28-30,000 pro rata, then how can the project be taken seriously. This sort of work is not easy, engaging people to participate is one of the hardest skills and takes very special expertise.
There will of course be hundreds applying as jobs in the arts are so few, and building experience is hard to do in the funding climate we are living in.
I remember that theatres such as the local New Vic would offer pitifully low wages for marketing assistants, a miserable job, but is a starting point on the arts admin ladder. It was pointed out to me once by one of their managers that what they did was get a graduate for a year or so, work them into the ground, they would get invaluable experience then move on to another better paid post, then the theatre would get another at almost slave wages to and gain from their enthusiasm and energy.
It begs the question, do we really value the arts?
In a short story by Garrison Keillor, a drive through sculpture park is opened using an unused defunct bit of freeway. The story is about how the funds were raised and he makes the far too true point that it was easy to find the money for the art, but almost impossible to find funds for the janitor. This was something I found throughout my time raising funds for arts organisations.
The same attitude also comes in charitable giving. No one wants to pay for the administration, but without planning, admin and well cleaning no organisation can run properly and efficiently.
It is often expected that people working in the arts will work for little or nothing because of their love of the arts. For many the arts is seen just as an activity for spare time, a hobby; and yet when they go to a theatre, concert hall, film, art gallery or read a book, listen to music, they expect the highest quality and complain if everything isn’t just right.
For a few decades now there has amongst many people been an understanding of the economic value of the arts to the country and communities. I remember when this first started being talked about and people were amazed at how much in financial terms the arts gave to towns and cities, certainly far more than the public grant support. The main reason people come to the UK on holiday is not for its glorious weather (****) but for the experience of the arts, for all my dislike of the place, Tate Modern is now a major attraction, the theatres in London and the whole Shakespeare stuff vital for the economic wellbeing of the UK. It of course isn’t just the actual arts venue, performance or exhibition; it is the local hotels, restaurants, taxis and all the other services.
So come on, start paying proper wages for arts jobs, stop stretching budgets so far that people cannot be paid properly. If you don’t get the grants and income you need then cut back and do a smaller project, and pay people a decent wage!!!
Today’s photograph is yet another old one from some prints I found in an old file. It was taken in 1979 in woods near Llanfair Caereinion in Mid Wales (where I was living), on Kodachrome 25 with a long exposure, it’s a long time ago but I think about 30 seconds on f16, I took a whole roll in the darkness under the canopy of trees, the scan is ok, nothing like as sharp as the original reversal.
Today’s photograph is another old one as I had few insights of wonder walking down to the doctors and back. It is taken on the beach at Borth, just north of Aberystwyth in Wales, in September 1979, I was living about 30 miles inland in the hills. This is a scan of a print from an Ektachrome slide, taken using my Olympus OM-1n with a 28mm lens. It is of fishermen pulling in their catch. The scan is ok but the compression has lessened the brightness of the jackets which on the original slide stand out.
It was interesting to see how the different filters in the very simple programme I used for the transfer changed the picture (Photoscape, it’s free and very easy and quite effective to use http://www.photoscape.org/ps/main/index.php). What I have is as close to the original print as I could get. Some of the others changed the whole feeling of the picture.
Below is a version using just two of the filters, backlight and deepen.
Finding these few old prints has been very interesting, like finding old writing or as I referred to in a previous blog a very old sketch book. The distance in years makes one realise that all those times of angst that what you were doing was not interesting were pointless, there was more to it than you thought. It is useful to think this when working on present pieces, perhaps in 30 years (I could be well gone by then) someone will open a file of Traitor to the Cause and realise it is the finest novel written in the early 21st Century (or maybe not…).
Having not been to Renegades Writers for some weeks through getting over the operation I really miss the feedback. I am back writing, maybe not quite at the normal pace, but I’ve got another 6,000+ words done over the past few days – good words, words placed in an interesting order, words that make any sense, words that may annoy people, words that tell a story – I don’t know. They make sense to me, but I am now needing that valuable feedback the group offers. A few weeks yet I feel, but the time is getting closer!
Today’s photograph is an old one, it was taken in Central Park, NYC, in late October 1978. This is a scan of a print from an Ektachrome slide, probably taken using my Olympus OM-1n with a 28mm lens.
Why this got printed and not others from the hundreds of shots I took of my trip around the USA that winter I’m not sure, I think I did it for someone who liked the picture then never paid me for the print! One day I will get a slide/negative scanner and sort out the pages and pages I have of slides.
I was looking for this image and others because I am writing about New York in 1980 for my novel, Vincent is stuck with a dilemma and I need some background to set him in.
It made me also think about how when we do something we expect the media we do it in to have a future history. I do not even have a slide projector now, when the bulb blew on mine, maybe 20 years ago I just got rid of it rather than pay for a new bulb. The media of photography using negative or in this case reversal film is now all but over, the photographs I took in the past are sitting waiting in files to be changed to a newer medium. Yes, I know all the equipment is still available, but it is getting into a specialist thing. I had a very basic darkroom set up of my own which I could easily carry around to work with community organisations, I must have shared the skills with hundreds of people up and down the Valleys of South Wales at one time. I had access to good darkroom facilities at arts centres, where I would go now, I don’t know!
The past 20-25 years has been a time of media becoming obsolete almost before it has really got going. Remember 5¼ floppy disks or even the disks that followed, all those attempts to hold more and more data. Is any of that mass of information available to you. Never mind the equipment what about the software, made obsolete by newer versions which won’t read the old stuff. It has and will be always the case that companies require you to re-equip, spend more money which increases their profits. When I moved to Windows 7 my perfectly useable Adobe Creative Suite won’t run, and an update costing around £200 is required! I got the free Scribus and Gimp software instead which does nearly everything I need nowadays.
In 1986 there was a project run by the BBC to create a new Doomsday Book, hundreds of community organisations, schools and others took part. The information was available on huge disks and within a few years was obsolete. The information written in the original Doomsday Book from 1086 of course could still be read! There are now computer conservators who have worked on this, but it shows how careful as writers, photographers, film-makers, artists we ensure that we update our digitally saved work.