Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Beautifully Crafted Work Of Art


En La Ciudad De Sylvia, by José Luis Guerín, is a film pretty much devoid of dialogue, plot and any urgency whatsoever, about a man whose raison d'être seems to be pursuing the life of a stalker. It is also one of the most compelling and captivating films I have seen in a long time, and is beautiful in almost every single way. How it looks, sounds, feels, the silences, the space, the actors, the story (what there is of it), everything is sublimely beautiful. Be warned, though: you have to put in what you expect to get out, as this film is certainly not the territory of the easily distracted or the manic household.

The film opens with the nameless protagonist (played by the striking French actor Xavier Lafitte) sitting unmoving and silent in his room. We watch him thinking, yet with nothing to go on we have no idea what might be on his mind, and we stay with him for what seems an age until he is finally moved to scribble something into his sketchbook. It couldn’t be further removed from the scriptwriting maxim of "hit the ground running", but it sucked me in and set the tone perfectly for how this gentle film calmly unfolds.

Lafitte’s character remains a mystery throughout. We discover nothing about him, other than he’s good at sketching and he’s searching for a girl. He spends much of his time trying to recreate the girl’s image in his sketchbook, but the sense here is that he remembers the feeling of her more than any specific detail. As he sits outside a busy café, he watches, and occasionally sketches, many of the surrounding women. Some are dining, some sharing coffee, others simply passing by, and each glimpse of someone new seems to set his heart racing as if she could be the one. (I've been searching for a café like this all my life.)

It is a truly remarkable and powerful scene, with each new face bringing real hope and drama. As the scene plays out, the camera settles into a relaxed voyeuristic rhythm of watching these strangers’ everyday lives, moving from one face to the next, then returning to the first. As these faces become more familiar to us, personalities slowly begin to unravel, offering little glimpses of stories, guessed relationships, happiness, maybe tragedy, all gently revealed through subtle character action, with an accompanying soundtrack of this bustling, vibrant city. It is an audio-visual masterclass, a fascinating scene, and one I would demand anyone study, no matter what side of the camera you aspire to.

Lafitte’s character does finally catch sight of a girl who, his reaction suggests, could be the elusive Sylvia (the equally stunning Spanish actress Pilar López de Ayala) and he leaps up and follows her on a journey through the cobblestone streets of this wonderful old city. She walks, he follows, and that’s it: yet this meandering stalking session through this ancient town makes fascinating viewing and gripped me more than most high-octane Hollywood chase sequences. This is real drama, yet is remarkably achieved without much happening at all, with very little plot and hardly anyone saying anything. Wonderful!

En La Ciudad De Sylvia is about the romance of memory and chasing those lost moments and chance encounters we’ve all had at some point in our lives. Maybe it was a conversation, a shared drink, or a silent coming together across a crowded room or train carriage, or even the momentary passing smile from a beautiful stranger - all brief but powerful moments wrapped up in the extraordinary excitement that comes with the blushing rush of embarrassment and elation when your heart suddenly leaps so violently you believe the surrounding world instantly knows your secret.

Love at first sight? Fate? Destiny? Although just a whisper in our lives, those moments leave an indelible mark on our memories that over time can develop into an exaggerated picture of lost opportunity, occasionally rearing up unannounced at the most unlikely of times or even deliberately recalled during melancholic moments. What if we had followed our heart that day? The mystique of these brief encounters is reinforced by our inaction, and gives fertile ground to imagine any number of wild and wonderful possibilities.

Most of us at some point in our lives have entertained and experienced the romantic notion that a specific other person exists, written in the stars, with whom it’s our destiny to meet and fall unconditionally in love with. Such fatalistic belief in predestined love reinforces all these near misses. What if she had been the one? What if that smile, that look, that gesture, belonged to the one person on this earth with whom I was fated to meet and love above all others?

The director José Luis Guerín used such an experience as the inspiration for En La Ciudad De Sylvia. As a young man on his travels he met a girl in a café in Strasbourg, spoke with her briefly, then they parted company. And that was it. But as the years passed he became so haunted with thoughts of that encounter, and what might have been, that he finally returned to the same café ten years later in the hope he might see her again.

Unfortunately for him he didn’t find her, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A decade spent re-imagining and fantasizing about what could have been would surely have engendered a romantic legend too great for the reality to live up to. Maybe. What Guerín did find on his return, though, was the inspiration to document that emotion in a remarkable and extremely brave film.

Will Self recently expressed disenchantment with the current state of film, proclaiming the art of movie making “definitely dead”! José Luis Guerín has thankfully proven that Will Self is a little premature in his evaluation. En La Ciudad De Sylvia is a beautifully crafted work of art by a master of the medium, and it reassuringly touched the heart of this hopeless romantic.

En La Ciudad De Sylvia


Monday, May 17, 2010


For a while now I have been vaguely contemplating adapting one of my specs into a graphic novel. I say “vaguely contemplating” in its loosest sense, pretty much the equivalent of a tortoise flirting with the idea of possibly entering the London Marathon before he gets too old. I’m not sure where the idea first came from, probably just evolved from countless industry-related stories absorbed over the years, certainly not born of any desire to emulate any graphic novels for the simple reason I’ve never owned or even read one* so I presume it’s just a case of head over heart.

I loved traditional comics as a boy and religiously read The Beano and The Dandy, along with some ancient Marvel and DC comics handed down from a family friend (which are still in my parent’s house… mmm, aren’t those things worth stupid amounts of money now?) but as I erupted into my teens and began devouring novels as fast as I could lay my hands on them, comics soon faded into the befuddled mist of childhood memory.

So, while attending the Selling To Hollywood panel discussion, it was with growing interest that I listened to Andy Briggs pushing the idea that graphic novels are definitely worth considering as a serious route to getting an original story picked up. It’s all well and good me thinking I already know that, but it’s an entirely different matter hearing someone enthusing about it as passionately as Andy. As I listened, my dormant vague contemplation rumbled slowly into life, like the stomach of that same tortoise awakening from hibernation, and it dawned on me that one of my specs not only fits Andy’s take on the current US market vogue for mega-bucks commercial projects, but also involves a character who could easily drive a graphic novel franchise. Cue light bulb moment...

That's me, that is. Looking at a lightbulb. 

I hung around after the panel discussion and hijacked Andy for a quick chat. He was very friendly and offered some great advice and support, after which, armed with my new and less vague plan of action, I trotted downstairs into the expanse of exhibitors to seek out the graphic novel stands and investigate what is it about these famed man-comics that makes so many go geek at the knees.

After walking around for what seemed an eternity and failing to find anything that remotely resembled a graphic novel, despite walking past all the graphic novel stands several times the previous day, I opted to repair to the bar (a decision made much easier as I was passing it for the third time) and there set about my newest plan of finding a map of the exhibitors arena. Armed with directions from the friendly French barman, and a nerve-steadying beer(s) coursing through my veins, I set off in hot pursuit of my destiny.




I had some interesting and enlightening chats with some very interesting and enlightening people, and had my first proper glimpse inside these previously unexplored books. What immediately struck me is how cinematic they are, or at least the ones I flicked through were, with the imagery storyboarded using close ups, long shots, various POV, and it quickly became apparent these graphic artists are effectively directing the story on the page, just with much fewer shots. All blindingly obvious to graphic novel fans and probably any vertebrate over the age of ten, but it was all a revelation to this card-carrying member of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club.


Two graphic novel publishers claimed to genuinely like my idea and were keen to read the script. Interestingly, every graphic novel person I spoke to, after hearing what I was proposing, warned me off the Marvel stand on the grounds they are the one group in attendance who wouldn’t be interested in hearing a pitch. Fair enough, but for the record, never point at the big red button and tell me not to press it. Having absorbed as much graphic novel info as possible I headed straight for the Marvel stand (I say straight, in reality I got lost again) and on eventual arrival at the Marvel stand aimed for the most important/bored looking bloke in a suit, whose screwed up eyes tracked my progress towards him with the same disdain I reserve for those punchable grinning charity-mugger fuckwits that infest London’s streets.
Although he remained a little uncertain of eye, once he started talking about his side of the business he was quite forthcoming and informative, and we were soon having a good chat. I eventually explained my curiosity, and as I took my first tentative steps into the territory of pitching my script as having graphic novel potential, I could sense him beginning to mentally retreat, so I did the honourable thing and stopped before I really started. He explained that Marvel didn’t accept submissions and went on to offer some sound advice, and it was right there that the London Book Fair’s serendipitous climate kicked into overdrive. Mr. Marvel produced some literature for me to take away, to help me visualise the directions he was suggesting, and emblazoned across the front of all this Marvel literature was the very familiar yellow and red trademark of Panini.
“Aha!” I exclaimed. “Panini! What’s the connection?” He explained that Panini and Marvel were partners. I then mentioned that a while back I had written a screenplay for a Channel 4 project, a charming little story about childhood unrequited love, er, and Panini stickers. Lots of Panini stickers. Turns out that not only was Mr. Marvel also Mr. Panini but he'd also seen the film and liked it (hurrah!) He then asked me to elaborate on the project I’d just swerved pitching him and we had a very interesting chat about it, after which he produced his card and told me to contact him with a view to working something out. Ta da!

So, thank you Andy Briggs for giving me a virtual boot up the arse. I’m now off to read some of these graphic novel things and work stuff out. The future's bright. And glossy. And maybe got lots of drawings in it.

* POST EDIT: I have since read three of these graphic novel things, chosen from an online recommended list. One was so shit I wanted to rip my eyeballs out and smash them with a hammer; one was just very very very dull, and the last one was thankfully a page-turner (in fairness, compared to the other two a BNP manifesto written in Greek and covered in cat shit would be more of a page turner). Rather than invest in any more graphic novels for the moment, I think I’ll do what I should have done in the first place and drag my arse down to the wonderful Westminster library and therein take my sport.

A surprising development of considering this specific story existing outside the screenplay format is that I now sense a growing exciting possibility that this thrilling spec script could also give birth to a fantastic novel sans drawings. A tingle and glow rears up at the bifurcation of the novel. The future might still be bright, but maybe not so glossy, with no drawings and lots of words instead.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010


The other week I ventured out into this green and sunny London and headed to the London Book Fair. Although it was a worthwhile experience for me personally, it was unfortunately an event that had been so painfully disrupted by the volcanic ash mayhem that I fully expect to see a slew of new books invading next year’s fair all bad-mouthing naughty volcanoes.

I spent the first day doing THIS with Lucy, missed the following day’s events due to several delightful prior engagements, and returned for the last day to plant my arse and immerse myself in the morning’s panel discussion on writing and selling to Hollywood from a UK perspective. The panel, chaired by Quentin Faulk, consisted of AP Watts agent, Rob Kraitt, and last-minute stand-in, British author and screenwriter, Andy Briggs, who was a worthy substitute for ash-grounded US producer David Gerson.
It was a fun and interesting discussion, and one that reinforced the grim reality that it’s now much harder to sell across the pond than ever before. Rob highlighted that it used to be much easier to sell unpublished books for adaptation to US studios, but now the studios are pretty much looking for material that’s already some way along the proven success route with a built-in audience and existing market.
Andy expanded on that by saying whatever you can do to help sell your product is to be encouraged, citing the recent film, 30 Days Of Night, which was originally written on spec, to no avail, then adapted as a graphic novel, to much avail, and subsequently picked up as an original screenplay. All hail the vail! Basically, anything you can do to enhance pre-sell and help executives imagine the finished film is a positive.
Dealing a further body blow to prospective sellers to the US, Andy relayed his recent experience attending meetings in LA where he was uniformly told “drama is dead” by all those in the know (aka all those holding the purse strings). Andy believes the “drama is dead” bombshell is down to the simple fact that US TV produces "drama so alive" so damn well that the film studios feel it’s best left to that medium, at least for the present. Of course, we all know what statements like that mean in this world where "nobody knows anything", so watch this space for an international drama hit coming to a screen near you soon!
So, with drama being the dirty word, this year’s vogue in Hollywood is the tent pole offerings, the popcorn movies, the mega-bucks mega-commercial movies, which naturally led the panel to discuss the impact of 3D. Rob dismissed 3D as a passing fad, but Andy feels this is just the beginning and 3D is definitely here to stay, but only for those tent pole offerings.
Quentin Faulk wrapped the session up by asking both Rob and Andy to divulge one gem of advice for those hoping to sell their work/themselves to the US. Rob said aim to get produced here first, and Andy advised make sure you have good back-up projects as you should always expect to hear the words “What else have you got?” Wise words, Mr Briggs!
My personal feelings about the future of 3D leans towards Andy’s view, and although Andy said he felt 3D would only involve the tent-pole productions, I still see that having a huge impact across the board, with the concern that the huge sums of money being pumped into these 3D behemoths can only mean less money and focus for smaller productions, ensuring the industry’s rich get richer and the poor just stay that way.
It’s not just the ridiculous extremes of money that will further freeze out those already on the outside, it’s also very easy to imagine 3D cinema changing the very nature of how we’re expected to write screenplays, as we’ll need to maintain a focus on events that involve characters and objects leaping off the screen, floating around the theatre, making the audience feel sick giddy with joy. With the huge kinds of cash involved there’s every reason to assume there will be studio issued objectives stating how many leap-off-the-screen moments and big scares are required to be inserted into scenes, further focusing these prodigious popcorn peddlers on the quick-fix draw of spectacle over conflict, sacrificing the heart and soul of storytelling along the way. How long before we begin to see the first of many “How to write 3D films” books and seminars appearing?
The simple reason why most traditional children’s fairytales have achieved continued global success throughout the ages is because they employ storytelling that focuses on conflict as identification (drama.. whisper is quietly). Our lives, no matter how dull and spectacle-free, are jam-packed full of conflict from the moment we’re born, which gives us a common grounding in reality that we can all identify with on many different levels. Sitting in a darkened theatre confronted with the latest ostentatious Wow! Factor can be immediately impressive, but it doesn’t leave an impression, at least not a lasting impression, and I fear the battle to pursue bigger and better will eventually become more distracting than attracting and degenerate into a sad pissing contest where Hollywood studios compete like desperate Roman emperors trying to appease bloodthirsty crowds with increasingly grotesque budget-busting pomp.

“Fear and pity may certainly arise from spectacle, but they may also arise simply from the system of the facts itself. This is the procedure that matters most, one that reveals the better poet.” Aristotle






Monday, March 01, 2010


Things you find at work on a BBC printer.

My employer pays more for the hire of a dog for a day than they pay me to do a day’s work.

To add insult to injury they even pay the dog’s travel expenses and I’ve got half as many legs as a dog. How is that fair?

I’m gonna get me a dog suit.

Then we’ll see who’s laughing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

BAFTA: from the page to the screen

Inspiration shouldn't be short in the world of screenwriting with last night's BAFTA results. The best film and the best short film were both directed by women, which is fantastic news, and two great scripts, Up In The Air and The Hurt Locker, deservedly won their respective awards, with the added thrill that the best original screenplay went to a script with a protagonist who (sshhhh, say it quietly...) doesn’t change. How many readers would return that script with well-rehearsed notes demanding more character arc, more resolution, more depth, more... insert guru quote here... further proof that if you write something that damn well the truth will always be more powerful than the idea. In keeping with that, an honorable mention goes to the stunning Un Prophète for winning the Best Foreign Language Film with a story that contained a mesmerising protagonist with hardly any back story or character exposition. Superb.

The two best actor wins may also be something worth thinking about. At the time of reading them I remember feeling that both scripts (An Education and A Single Man) were similar in being so basic in their execution I wondered how they would be received in the hands of the right actor. They felt like blueprints in the truest sense, nothing exciting as written but everything laid out clearly giving the actors free reign and space to do what they do best. Whether that was a conscious decision or a stylistic choice, who knows, but it certainly paid dividends for those actors, and it’s certainly arguable as to whether that’s exactly what a screenplay should be: no embellishments whatsoever, just a basic template to inspire others to work their magic.

My gut feeling on reading them centered on the main character roles, and although there were elements of both scripts that didn’t quite click for me, I genuinely felt excited at the potential for those main roles, especially in An Education, as it read as such a rare and great opportunity for a young female actress. What struck a chord with me (as someone who is moved very easily by writing) is that I didn’t *feel* either script and thought there was a distinct lack of emotion, more so in An Education, but both scripts have been bugging me since reading them, and the subsequent BAFTA wins got me thinking about them and about my own writing and this confusing discipline as a whole.

There are so many obstacles to getting your script produced, but writing such an appealing lead part can only increase the chances of a great actor championing your cause, even if the narrative is a bit creaky or slightly lacking in places, and even if the overall effect of reading the script isn’t particularly emotionally gripping. Just because I didn’t feel emotion from the page doesn’t mean some wonderful actor won’t then reduce me to tears with their interpretation. So what was it about those two characters that laid the groundwork for two storming award-winning performances?

They are both iconic figures. They are both very representative of their time and place in history. A desperately lonely gay man in a repressed 60s society and a confused rebellious girl in a repressed 60s society. They aren’t just characters dropped into any old setting, they are characters that helped define their generation. Throw into the mix a few universal themes of love, loss, despair and humiliation, and it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

When characters step off the page and in front of a camera lens the magic kicks in. The power of film to communicate and provoke visually on such a primitive level is unrivalled by anything literature or theatre can offer, from camera angles, framing, editing, lighting, point of view, music, and is why most writers would benefit hugely from a greater understanding, awareness and confidence in the power of the camera to communicate through imagery, often in a way that reaches out to us at a subconscious level. Being constantly aware of that, and being able to write into our scripts that intangible magical something, is what separates the good from the great.

Shit. This doesn’t get any easier.