Long films, my poor bottom, and the running time code

I’m 40 in a few weeks, so I guess that makes me middle-aged, and with that comes the added weight of middle-age spread, thus increasing the pressure on my poor derriere when I have to sit through overlong movies.

I seem to have endured more of these in the last 12 months than in any other year, and the main offenders are:

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN – 136 minutes: Would have been a fine 110 minute movie, but you had to bog it down with all sorts of sequel bait, didn’t you?!

THE HUNGER GAMES – 142 minutes: My kids loved it, but then they don’t have to get up at 5 AM for a pee every day.

SKYFALL – 143 minutes: Actually a cracking film, and the Bond films have a habit of breaking the 2hr mark with their over-complex plotting – there’s a list of their running times here – but next time, let’s knock it back to 120 minutes, eh? As we’ve already established, my bladder isn’t what it used to be.

THE AVENGERS – 143 minutes: So, over 12 hours of backstory movies wasn’t enough? To be fair, in the UK this was called AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, so we were forewarned that there would be some assembly. It’s a bit like calling another movie THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN HAVE TO GATHER BEFORE ANYTHING INTERESTING HAPPENS (incidentally THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is arguably the better film and runs for 127 minutes).

THE MASTER – 144 minutes: Absolutely spellbinding performances lost in a meandering collections of vignettes that eventually get bored with themselves and end up as celluloid rattling in the projector.

DARK KNIGHT RISES – 165 minutes: That’s nearly three bloody hours! About a bloke who dresses up as a bat! Don’t get me wrong, I love these films, but let’s not forget that this is about a comic book character. Do we really need all those scenes about the Wayne Company Board and shareholders and the scenes with the mayor that think they’re straight out of The Wire? We have to wait 45 minutes before we even see any Bat action. You wouldn’t get away with that in a comic book.

DJANGO UNCHAINED – 165 MINUTES: Spaghetti Westerns have a long tradition of being too long, but bullfighting and fox hunting are also painful, drawn-out exercises in ‘tradition’, so let’s bring the torture to an end now.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY – 169 MINUTES: Crikey, where do I start with this one? There’s an entire musical scene about washing up. If they could cut Tom Bombadil from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, surely they could have started by cutting the washing up shanty and going on from there?

I was going to add PROMETHEUS to this list, but it only runs for 124 minutes. I guess it just felt longer (ooh, you bitch, Mark!).

I recently watched LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which, in its longest version, runs for 227 minutes. It’s an utterly compelling film, wrapped around one of the best film performances of the 20th century, so it earns its running time, and you know what…? They have to decency to provide an interval! You even get it on the Blu-Ray: music plays over a dark screen for a few minutes. Back in the day, cinemagoers would buy choc ices from vendors in the aisles…

The mind plays tricks, but in my memory I'm sure they all looked like Kelly Brook.
The mind plays tricks, but in my memory I’m sure they all looked like Kelly Brook.

… I checked my email and did a few stretching exercises.

As this rant has gone on long enough, I think it’s only fair that I provide you, fair reader, with an interval of your own. She here’s the Overture from LAWRENCE (yes, the film is so long it has it’s own overture). Go stretch your legs for 4 minutes 38 seconds…

Better…? Welcome back.

So, how about reviewing the running times for the worst offending genres from now on? A RUNNING TIME CODE that all film makers should adhere to:

HISTORICAL EPICS: Okay, these should maybe run to 3 hours, as they have to cover a lot of ground. You have the childhood incident/murder/beheading that inspires the historical character to change the world, scenes of bearded men talking about honour and duty, lashings of battle scenes, and a romance that historians will insist never actually happened.

SCI-FI ADVENTURE/COMIC BOOK MOVIES: 110 minutes. Two hours tops! These are not THE SORROW AND THE PITY, these are fluff. Enjoyable fluff, yes. The stuff we all get excited about, definitely! But when did 144 minutes become the average running time for these? Cut the angst and get on with the story!

COMEDIES – 90 minutes, no exceptions, and I’m looking at you Judd Apatow! Those improvised scenes you shot with your pals may have seemed funny at the time, but they add nothing to the story. Their rightful place is on the DVD extras, not in the main body of the film. I’m looking forward to THIS IS 40 (can’t imagine why, it somehow strikes a chord with me), but does it really need to be 134 minutes long?

ANIMATED – 90 minutes. Think of the poor animators’ RSI!

BOOK ADAPTATIONS – 120 minutes. If I want the boring bits, I’ll read the book.

Any other suggestions…?

PS. Should anything I ever write exceed these rules, then feel free to slap me in the face with a leather glove and demand satisfaction.

Taking massive liberties with history

Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie ZERO DARK THIRTY (with a screenplay by Mark Boal) has come in for criticism for its depiction of the events leading up to the death of Osama Bin Laden.

It’s been called pro-torture by some and an exposure of the futility of torture by others, and it’s merely the latest in a very long line of historical movies (albeit very recent history in this case) to be criticised for its handling of the truth. Christopher Hitchens called THE KING’S SPEECH a ‘gross falsification of history,’ and Antony Beevor was quick to point out the flaws in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and you don’t need to be Antonia Fraser to find fault with BRAVEHEART, GLADIATOR and BEN HUR.

And even when you do try and present something historical with attention to detail, you might despair to discover that a large chunk of your audience weren’t even aware it was based on fact. Like all those kids who were astonished to discover that the Titanic was a real ship.

But isn’t this all missing the point? Does anyone really go to the movies for factual truth? Is it even the job of the movies to give us facts? Emotional truths, most definitely, and if you want facts then try reading a book. But then, as Greg Proops has said on a number of occasions, most of human history has been written by icky white men who rape their maids (I couldn’t find a link with the exact quote, but he says it enough on his podcast, so check it out), so even the written truth from esteemed historians should be approached with caution. Even the best of them are writing with an agenda or bias.

Maybe the way to go is to follow the example of Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and start taking massive liberties with history? It added hugely to my enjoyment of the film when (SPOILER ALERT) Hitler was shot to pieces near the end. If the guardians of the facts aren’t happy with how film depicts history then maybe we should abandon all pretense and go all out? Have Napoleon riding a dinosaur into the battle of Agincourt! Why not? Well, I guess the process has already begun with ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, and may God have mercy on our souls for that.

On one script that I’m working on at the moment, my co-writer and I are having enormous fun placing one very prominent historical figure precisely where he shouldn’t be and then putting him through hell. I know it will probably enrage Antony Beevor, but we’re not writing the script for him, we’re writing it for you because you’re smart and you know the difference between the truth and the facts.

PS. A quick update: I was delighted to get a reply to this post from Antony Beevor himself! Only he did it over on my ‘About’ page…


Letting actors loose on your precious words.

Last week we took our screenplay up to the Television Workshop in Nottingham, an institute for training young people for drama that’s nearly thirty years old with some very impressive alumni. The aim of the day was to take the dialogue that we (two crusty old geezers with a vague memory of childhood) had written for our juvenile characters and hand them over to actual youngsters and see what worked and what didn’t.

I was a little nervous, but also really looking forward to it: the trouble with being a screenwriter is you rarely get to hear actors playing out what you’ve written. Too many scripts go into development hell and the words are doomed to remain on the page. When I first started out, I was writing for local theatre, turning out a play a year and regularly working on the text with actors. It was always the proof of the pudding; if it didn’t work when they got it up on its feet, then it was back to the drawing board.

Writers can have a reputation for being precious with their words. In his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet says “Invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school.” Or, to paraphrase it as I interpreted it, “Learn the fucking lines, no stupid backstory, and do as I say.”

I think this can apply to a lot of theatre, where the text is set and there are audience expectations. If someone started dicking around with the finely-honed dialogue of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, I’d be the first on stage to beat them to death with my heavily annotated copy of the Faber edition.

But movies are different: from the first producer notes, to the shoot, edit, and final ADR, changes will be made, some little tweaks, some major changes, and if the writer stamps his feet and has a hissy fit with each and every one, then he will soon be fired.

That’s not to say you should be a pushover, but even when you get a dumb note, it’s usually a symptom of something wrong. The fault or solution offered might not make sense, but it was a moment that took the reader out of the script and it needs to be addressed. Roll with those punches, work with people, keep the anger for private moments and you’ll find your script can only improve (and you’ll remain employed).

In the end, I needn’t have been nervous with the kids from Nottingham. Under the guidance of the Television Workshop’s Ian Smith, they did a reading on the script, then improvised off-script with great confidence and skill. It was great to see these characters finally come to life, and we found a few kinks in the dialogue that we’re now working on ironing out. More importantly, we discovered that the main concept worked, and that they found the characters relatable and fun to play (and we discovered some new swears that we’ve filed away for future use!).

So don’t be too worried about your actors. Yeah, some are crazy and have massive egos (like… er… writers), but the good ones can make you look awesome.



Prometheus, Alien: Engineers, and the perils of early draft hangovers

Aww, remember this? Remember how excited you were…?

And then you saw the movie.

Some have been scathing of PROMETHEUS, but I rather enjoyed it. No, it wasn’t Alien or Aliens, but it looked jaw-droppingly stunning, and there were great performances. But something wasn’t quite right, and it was largely the screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof who came in for a kicking.

Spaihts has already spoken in some detail about what was in his original draft, and then this week it was released free-to-read online for a few days (though it now seems to have disappeared from the Prometheus website).

It’s an absolutely fascinating read, and if you’re a screenwriter I urge you to read it. i09 does a great job of highlighting the main differences, but for a writer it illustrates one of the main perils of rewrites: THE EARLY DRAFT HANGOVERS!

I mean those little moments that made perfect sense in draft 6, but now seem completely nonsensical in draft 12. And I’m not talking big things, like the alien goo and losing the xenomorphs from the story, it’s usually little things; a character’s motivation, a single line, a brief moment, the tiny hole that can sink a very big ship.

For me, the best example of this is the character of Vickers: in Spaihts’ version, her motivation is very straightforward: she’s there to ensure that Weyland gets the technology that allows the company to terraform new worlds. Simple. She’s following the company line and if it means a few people die along the way, then so be it. A good villain is the hero of their own story and that’s what we have here.

In the filmed version… oh, blimey, can anyone figure out what she wants? There’s the whole father/daughter thing, and she sleeps with Janek, and she torches Fyfield, and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah… A lot of the original motivations are there and make sense, and maybe the daughter-superbitch thing makes sense too, but then the early draft hangovers get confused with the new stuff and you end up with a bit of a mess, squashed by a spaceship that looks like a giant croissant.

One of the projects I’m working on is at draft 15 and it looks like (fingers crossed) that we’re going into pre-production. Therefore we have to deliver a script for the producer to budget, the cast to read, the production HoDs to start doing their thing. This is it – the map that will steer the ship. And we’ve spotted a couple of these moments. Not big things, but scenes that used to make perfect sense, but now seem a little… odd, out-of-whack, ‘Why is he saying that now?’ ‘Why does he give that to them here?’. We’re fixing them and the script has improved tremendously as a result, but then we perhaps have the luxury of time that Damon Lindelof didn’t have when the juggernaut of PROMETHEUS went into production.

So next time you spot a plot hole or weird line that doesn’t seem to fit, spare a thought for the poor writer, head in hands, suffering from a bad case of early draft hangover. It can happen to us all.

PS. Thanks to Kevin Lehane for the tip-off.

Skyfall and how the writers made the most of a unique opportunity **massive spoilers**

First of all, apologies for two Bond posts in a row (but it’s all Bond fever round these parts, y’know), and secondly if you haven’t seen Skyfall, then read no further. This one’s riddled with spoilers

All good? Let’s go…

Skyfall is getting the kind of notices that genre movies dream of; fans and critics alike seem to be united on praising this as one of the best Bonds ever. And it deserves it, with some great action, a fun villain and a light smattering of Komodo dragons.

But what really sets this Bond apart is that Sam Mendes and the writers have taken advantage of a fairly unique situation that gives them the chance to tell a story with real emotional heft, the likes of which Bond fans haven’t seen since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Just checking one more time – spoilers ahoy – anyone here who hasn’t seen the film should leave now. We’ll be here waiting for you when you get back…

Okay, as we all know, Judi Dench’s M dies at the end of the film. I guess she announced to the producers that she was retiring from the role and that she wanted to go out with a bang. So, for once in a Bond movie, we get to see the death of someone who really matters to us and to Bond. She’s been in the role since 1995, she’s done seven movies – as many as Connery and Moore – and she’s a national treasure. Everybody loves her. How often does a Bond writer get a chance like that?

So it’s great that Purvis, Wade, Logan and Mendes made the most of it and caused friends of mine, who aren’t big Bond fans, to shed a tear at the end.

But here’s the rub; some poor sod has to follow that. Okay, it’s probably going to be Logan. A fine writer. But at the end of Skyfall, we’ve hit a reset button. We have a new M, Moneypenny, and the set of M’s office now looks like the wood-panelled room of the Roger Moore era. You can’t help but feel that they’ve painted themselves into a corner and been too clever for the franchise.

I recently caught the beginning of The Man With The Golden Gun on TV and cringed at how it had the look and feel of an ATV series like The Persuaders: episodic, flat lighting and odd pacing. I don’t think for a second that Craig’s next films will end up like that, but by their nature Bond films are episodic and do seem to have a boom and bust cycle to them. So how long before Craig is driving an invisible car into a low Earth orbit space station to the tune of a penny whistle?

I once met Judi Dench. She really is lovely. Here she is giving me orders to kill the photographer.

PS. Oh and Albert Finney at the end… He was great, but do you not think that role was written with Connery in mind? 50th anniversary and all that…

PPS. Regarding Connery, I told you so…

So, what happened to the other Bonds…?

There is a theory, and not a very good one, that the name James Bond is a nom de guerre that comes with the 007 job, thus explaining all the different incarnations over the years. This theory is typical fanboy fodder – we just love to tie up all the loose ends – and it even seeped up to the film makers themselves, with DIE ANOTHER DAY director Lee Tamahouri wanting to include a scene where a retired Connery Bond passed on advice to the then-active Brosnan’s Bond. This would have been fascinating and no doubt a lot more watchable than the godawful CGI parasailing sequence that somehow found its way into the film.

But if this theory is true*, then what happened to all the other Bonds over the years?

The first incarnation of Bond died of emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver aged 44.

Waiter! 40 Bensons and a Vodka Martini.

The second incarnation retired in anger after nearly dying when a British Navy sub sub capsized his lifeboat…

“Is that a submarine in your pocket, or…?”

After some years advising the Chicago Police Department (“He pullsh a knife, you pull a gun…”) he’s now happily residing in the Darby O’Gill home for the elderly.

After the tragic murder of his wife, the third incarnation…

Do you get Fry’s with that?

… suffered from a severe lack of self-confidence, and on his second mission had reconstructive surgery to look like his predecessor. But whatever he tried, he could never quite get the hair right…

Matching the eyebrows was the hardest part.

He later died in a foolhardy attempt to retrieve diamonds from an orbiting satellite.

The fourth incarnation enjoyed a long and successful career…

It’s like you’re actually there!

… but was tracked down and beaten to death by this man…

… who was set free by a sympathetic jury once his defence lawyer successfully proved he had suffered years of mental anguish at the hands of the deceased. A Venetian pigeon was a key witness.

The fifth incarnation caused a scandal when he turned down an offer from M to rejoin MI6. He eventually moved to Sandford in Somerset where he became the manager of a branch of Somerfield.

The sixth incarnation was last seen driving an invisible car off a cliff after seeing the film Mamma Mia.

Though there are reports that he’s been seen as a gun for hire in Ireland…




Of course, these are just theories. Feel free to add your own.



*And it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny: Connery, Moore and Brosnan all make reference to the death of Diana Rigg’s Contessa at some point… THEY’RE ONLY FILMS, PEOPLE!

Trolls, Holes, Gremlins, Goonies and seeing movies at the wrong age.

Really enjoyed Troll Hunter the other night, but slightly baffled by its 15 rating for ‘sustained intense threat’. I watched it with the kids (10 and 12) who were thrilled, but never terrified.

But then my poor kids have been subjected to all sorts of horrors over the years. I made the mistake of showing them Gremlins when they were way too young, and they never made it past the first hour, and this has subsequently put them off ever watching it, or its sequel, ever again (the merest suggestion sends them running from the room).

And yet they both loved Joe Dante’s more recent and much more frightening movie The Hole…

So I guess it all comes down to timing. This blog post was inspired by a chat with my friend Jo who revealed a friend of hers didn’t get The Goonies. I didn’t understand. He’s about the same age as me, and everyone in my generation loves The Goonies. Was he mentally deficient somehow? Missing a gene? No, he’d simply made the mistake of seeing it in his 30s and for him it was a bunch of annoying kids running around.

I first saw it when I was 12. I was in California on an exchange trip and feeling very, very homesick. The previous film I’d seen on that holiday was Mask…

Aaargh! Laura Dern!

… so my hopes weren’t high. But The Goonies was a non-stop roller coaster thrill ride, that made me laugh so much I thought I’d puke, and the people sitting around me were giving me some very concerned looks. For me, it’s one of the most pivotal films of my childhood. Beyond reproach.

Similarly, esteemed critic and Jessie Birdsall look-a-like Mark Kermode has frequently said he just doesn’t get Star Wars. And I totally understand this: to really feel the full power of the force you need to have seen it between the ages of 5 and 12 (I was 5: first generation Star Wars fan and it ruined my life).

So be wary of film ratings and remember that age and context is everything. The Omen (first viewing aged 11) is far scarier than The Exorcist (I was 21), but nowhere near as ball-tighteningly horrific as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (I was probably 3) or the ultimate horror… the video for Bohemian Rhapsody (age 2).

Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country is bloody… (spoiler free review)

I remember getting an email from my colleague Simon Spanton some years ago. It was a simple message, ‘You’ll like this.’ Attached to the email was a file with the first few chapters of a book he wanted to buy for Gollancz called The Blade Itself. I opened the attachment and started to read.

He wasn’t wrong; the combination of black humour, violence and dental torture appealed to me very much. I wanted to read more and I’m happy to say that when we published The Blade Itself it was something of a hit (that was a golden summer for Gollancz debuts, also published were The Lies of Locke Lamora and Stormcaller – all belters).

I’m also happy to say that I’ve got to know Joe Abercrombie a bit over the years and should declare that before ploughing into this review of this latest THE RED COUNTRY. I’ll also do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but if you’d rather go in cold, then come back when you’ve read the book.

When Joe announced that his next book would be a Western, but still set in the same world as his previous books, I was excited and slightly worried. The Western genre is incredibly tricky to pull off, especially in literature. Even in the movies, you could count the really good Westerns of the last 20 years on one hand (Unforgiven, Assassination of Jesse James… and… er… that might be it).

But what Joe understands is that Westerns aren’t about Sheriffs, or shootouts, or John bloody Wayne, they’re about the frontier. The farthest reaches of civilisation where lawlessness is the norm, where the regular rules don’t apply and death is ever-present. And what he’s done is take some of his most interesting and complex characters, drop them at the very edge of his world, and let the chaos unfold.

There are some new characters; Shy is a woman with an outlaw past trying to reform her life on a farm. She’s one part Calamity Jane (the Deadwood version) and one part Marion Ravenwood (the Raiders version).

Temple is a classic Abercrombie coward; he wants to be a good man, he promises that next time he’ll make a stand, but every time he caves in and takes the easy option.

Lamb is Shy’s stepfather – described as ‘some kind of coward’, he too steps away from any kind of confrontation, and would rather be alone working in the fields than raise his fists.

And there are some old favourites, not least Nicomo Cosca, here playing a combination of Richard Harris in Unforgiven and General Custer. He even has his own biographer, scribbling his every utterance for posterity.

Oh, and of you watch the book’s teaser trailer you might just see something significant…

Did you see it? The fingers? Count ’em… Nine!

Shy’s little brother and sister are stolen and she and Lamb follow their trail to get them back. And as they’re led further and further west, you realise that this will be no breakneck chase. This story unfolds like The Searchers and their quest will continue through blistering desert heat, driving rain and deep snow. They will encounter so much bloody violence that Joe gives Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a run for its money for gallons of claret spilt. And, as always with Joe’s books, villains reveal themselves to complex individuals, the heroes of their own stories, and our heroes will make choices that are questionable at best.

Joe has clearly been watching a lot of Deadwood, a lot of classic Spaghetti Westerns, a lot of Eastwood, and he’s been reading a lot of Elmore Leonard’s Western stories. This could have been a mess and, if you read Joe’s blog, you’ll know that this has been hard work for him. But it’s a terrific read, a picaresque journey through a dying wasteland and a world about to change. The action is intense, but you never get lost in the mayhem, the story is complex, but it’s a joy to read, and the ending will leave you wanting more.

Saddle-up and enjoy the ride.

Pixar’s Brave… or playing it safe?

Just returned from enjoying Pixar’s Brave. An entertaining movie, if – oddly for Pixar – an entirely predictable one. The story lacked suspense or surprise, and got by on the charm of its characters and the stunning locations.

This movie was to represent many firsts for Pixar: first period piece, first female protagonist and first female director. But then about a year prior to release it was quietly announced that director Brenda Chapman was no longer working on the project (though she still retains a co-director credit). This is not an unusual move for Pixar. Ratatouille suffered a similar setback with the original director Jan Pinkava being replaced by Brad Bird, but it is perhaps more notable that in this case a woman was replaced by a man.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Chapman speaks for the first time of the heartbreak of being removed from Brave, and wonders how women can gain more positions of power in Hollywood. Pixar, for all its genius over the years, is starting to come across as a bit of a boys’ club, with no women whatsoever on the famed brain trust and one too many movies about Cars. Surely there must be a some women in the organisation who can add a few x chromosome into the brain trust mix?

I doubt the truth of what really happened will come out anytime soon, and it’s a fact of life that directors and writers are often fired from movie projects, particularly in the perilous world of animation where Directors’ Guild and WGA rules don’t seem to apply. But I wonder if Brenda Chapman’s more personal version of Brave might not have felt so pat, might not have been so obvious? Might it not, for all its flaws, have been more interesting?

Co-writing with a director

I’m on hols in sunny Spain, relaxing at my in-laws’ place halfway up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, the perfect place to work on script revisions between important sessions of poolside vegging…

It’s essential to have somewhere quiet to work…

I’m currently working on a project with director Jon Wright. We’re on a deadline to deliver our latest draft by the end of the month and we’re swapping revisions while I’m out here. This is nothing unusual; this script has been written in locations as varied as the Royal Festival Hall, the Sundance Festival, a friend’s flat in Whitstable, and assorted trains from Waterloo. We’ll write together, one of us pacing as the other types, or solo, swapping rewrites over email.

More recently, as the script nears the final furlong, the rewrites have become more focused. I’ll often open Jon’s latest Final Draft file to find it in 150% mega-large print as he scrutinizes the script line-by-line, and this perfectly illustrates the advantage of co-writing with a director. Jon is the guy who has to make this work. He’s the one who’ll be standing there on location with the day’s pages, surrounded by an eager cast and crew, each with a million questions for him, and if he has a script that doesn’t work then he’s stuck, and that’s no fun when the clock’s ticking and each second represents a fistful of dollars.

So he will take some of my more fanciful stuff and give it a reality-check, turning something that looks cool on the page into something that can actually be shot. The running gag while writing this has been me turning in an awesome action sequence and then reassuring Jon that it’ll be a doddle to film. He somehow resists the urge to thump me and we then work together on knocking it into shape, breaking it down into set-ups, and trimming the dialogue down as far as it will go.

I love co-writing. Movie-making is a collaborative process and any screenwriter who wails about actors and directors changing their script should perhaps consider writing novels instead. But more than anything I would recommend writing with an experienced director; it’s an incredible learning curve, rooted in the realities of day-to-day film-making. If you get the chance take it!

PS. Bear in mind that Jon has been writing this during the post-production and release of his latest film GRABBERS. It has a wicked script by the mighty Kevin Lehane and is on release in Ireland on Aug 10th, at Frightfest later this month and in the UK later this year.

Check out the trailer…