Tag Archives: scriptwriting

LSF report #1: Tony Jordan on going from Albert Square to Life on Mars

27 Oct
Tony Jordan

Tony Jordan at Dickens’s home in Kent, for a BBC4 programme on Great Expectations. Jordan’s 20-part drama Dickensian will air on BBC One next year.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival was an incredible three days of talks, events, seminars, pitches and networking. Each day this week, and probably well into next, I’ll post a new nugget from the festival. These include wildly entertaining chats with Lynda La Plante, Charlie Brooker and Tony “Life On Mars” Jordan; commentaries on Lost Boys, Finding Nemo, and Silence of the Lambs; and some “how-to” classes on scriptwriting.

I’ve kicked it all off with a news story in The Times today. It’s mostly about Tony Jordan’s forthcoming BBC One series, Dickensian, so let’s start off here with more life-lessons from the irrepressible Tony:

1. You have to blag it: EastEnders was my very first job as a writer. I wrote a script by accident – that is, I was chatting to a friend who was trying to get into television, and if he was collecting butterflies I would probably have collected butterflies, but as it is, I wrote a script. I had a pitch in a market so they somehow thought I was an East End barrow boy, even though I was raised just outside Liverpool. So after that I was Dick Van Dyke, I had to pretend to be Cockney. It stuck for 15 years until I was told there was a magazine wanting to do a feature about me growing up in the East End and I had to come clean.

2. You must hold on to your voice: We all have a unique voice as a writer. The problem is, when you go to soaps, they say “we want your voice”, but they don’t really; they want all the episodes to sound the same. So I did what any writer would do: I watched an episode, paused it, counted the scenes. Dissected it. After a few episodes I realised the structure was always the same.

There’s always a cliffhanger at the end, and that’s your North Star, you’re aiming for that. That then gives you your first image, because it has to be connected in some way. Chuck in another three or four narrative staging posts, and you can cover all that in about ten minutes. I worked out that left me 20 minutes to myself. When you see an episode with all the men in one corner of the Queen Vic having conversations that begin “The trouble with women is…” and all the women in another corner going “The trouble with men is…”, and juxtaposing them in an interesting way, that’s me.

3. You will have to deal with twats like Andrew. There was this twat [at the BBC] called Andrew, I can’t even remember his second name he was that much of a twat. He had me, a 34-year-old father of three, used to fist fights at 6am to safeguard my pitch, sitting on my back doorstep sobbing like a child. I very nearly gave up EastEnders at that time, after about eight scripts [he went on to do about 250]. On his first script meeting with Ashley Pharoah [who later co-created Life on Mars], Andrew picked up his script, held his nose, dropped it in the bin, and said “Shall we start again?”

When you recognise the twats, you have to get away from them as soon as you can. Or strike them physically.

4. Just write the truth. I was expelled from school at 14, so I didn’t understand the frames of reference when they’d talk in meetings about Brecht or Shakespeare or Dickens. But I eventually discovered there is no secret. It’s just writing down the truth on a bit of paper.

Hustle

Hustle: breaking the fourth wall

5. You can break the rules – for a reason. When I was writing Hustle, I got stuck. I had to explain all the cons to the reader and it was just pages and pages of exposition, like wading through treacle. I phoned Jane Featherstone at Kudos and said “It won’t work,” and she said okay, if we can’t make it we can’t, but just have a Bacardi and a bit of a think; relax.

So a couple of days later it hits me: when we have exposition, we just freeze it, and have the actors talk directly to the audience. Jane had the imagination to say, “That sounds pretty f***ing weird, but you know what, let’s do it. We’ll either make history, or we’ll never work again.”

6. Rejection is not the end. I had this great idea, and gave it someone, and they said, “We can never make that. It’s too silly.” Too silly. Right. No getting round that. But someone else later took it on. That was Life on Mars. So it’s not necessarily that the script is bad, it’s just not right for someone.

I also had this idea for a show about the making of a soap, which would be paralleled on alternative nights by the soap itself. It stayed in my bottom drawer for 12 years until a new head came in at ITV, and said they wanted to break the mould and take risks. I said, funny you should say that, I have just the thing…

Life on Mars

Life on Mars: dreamt up in Blackpool with £1,000 in carrier bags

7. There is life on Mars. At EastEnders we used to do these away-days, 14 writers in Badminton House playing poker and getting drunk. That’s why I stayed so long, to go to the story conferences! So I pitched to Kudos that they give me £1,000 in expenses, in three carrier bags, for me and two writers to go to Blackpool. We would work till 4.30pm, then our time’s our own. So we arrived at Blackpool train station, and found this poor runner standing there on the platform, who gave us our carrier bags full of cash.

One of the ideas to come out of this session was Legion [which Watch has now commissioned as ten hour-long programmes], and another was Life on Mars. I recently found a photo from those days and it has a flip-chart with “’70s cop show” with a big ring round it. Life on Mars came about for one simple reason: we wanted to write for The Sweeney, but it wasn’t on anymore. We thought we could never sell a ‘70s cop show, so we thought “let’s put a spin on it”. Doing a time-travel cop show wasn’t done because we saw a gap in the market, it wasn’t ground-breaking, it was three pissed writers who wanted to write for The Sweeney.

8. At some stage, you may want to set up your own production company [Tony’s is Red Planet]. Sometimes, when I created a series, they wouldn’t want me involved in anything but the scripts. I don’t want to just put the script up someone’s arse and the DVD comes out their ear.

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Maps To The Stars: Cronenberg puts the hell into Hollywood

4 Oct
Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore, seconds away from screaming her head off, in Maps To The Stars

There’s a reason why Maps To The Stars languished unmade for 20 years, before being picked up by professional controversialist David Cronenberg: it’s not just structurally a mess, with a psychological-thriller jigsaw-puzzle plot whose pieces never quite properly fit together, it’s also a massive you’ll-never-eat-lunch-in-this-town-again f*** you to Hollywood. That it ends up being absolutely gripping, if not exactly enjoyable, is testament to Cronenberg’s steely command of mood and to his remarkable cast.

Julianne Moore plays a fading Hollywood star, literally haunted by her abusive childhood as she schemes to play the part of her late mother in a new film. She cries her way through therapy, squelches her way through a conversation on the toilet, smiles her way through insincere Hollywood conversations, and is gradually revealed more and more as a duplicitous, manipulative, spoilt, self-centred, narcissistic, charming bitch. It’s an Oscar-worthy turn.

Mia Wasikowska is excellent, as ever, as the enigmatic and occasionally sinister burn victim who returns to LA for reasons I won’t spoil, and so is 13-year-old Evan Bird as a child star with a substance-abuse problem who comes on like a hilariously vile amalgam of Macaulay Culkin and Justin Bieber. Robert Pattinson, who seems to be developing a relationship with Cronenberg like Leo DiCaprio has with Scorsese (the star gets to act, the director gets funding), plays a rather blank chauffeur – which was screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s first job when he arrived in Hollywood.

The different strands all connect eventually, after a fashion. But there are too many coincidences that aren’t logically tied up, too many different characters who see dead people, and too many events and revelations that seem there for sensationalist rather than character-driven reasons. It’s like a soap opera from hell: deliberately (at least so I hope) melodramatic and unrealistic, even if filmed in a downbeat way, and thus ultimately unengaging.

Even so, it’s something of a marvel. Bruce Wagner insists in interview that it is not a satire on Hollywood. In which case, his characters must be true to Hollywood life as an insider has seen it. God help us.

For my review of the David Cronenberg exhibition at Toronto’s TIFF Centre, including a look at Cronenberg’s brain, click here.

12 Years A Slave + Downton Abbey = Belle

21 Jun

Ever wondered what would happen if you crossed 12 Years A Slave with Downton Abbey? Oh. You didn’t? All the same, we now have the answer. You get the handsomely shot, impeccably acted British costume drama Belle.

Like 12 Years, Belle is based on historical fact. Unlike 12 Years, which adapted Northrup’s own personal diary, what little is known of the original “Belle” is given considerable embellishment by writer Misan Sagay.

We do know that, as the illegitimate “mulatto” daughter of a British nobleman and a black slave, Belle was raised as one of the family by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, and that she was immortalised in a famous portrait playing with her white cousin as an equal. We also know that, as Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield was called upon to pass judgement on a court case vital to the legitimacy of the slave trade. However the intersection of these stories, and the love interest that impinges on the politics, is pure fiction.

The result could easily have been risible. The searing drama of 12 Years is kick-started by Northrup being betrayed, kidnapped, and sold into brutal slavery. The more sedate drama in Belle hinges, for the first third of the film at least, on her mild irritation at not being permitted to dine with guests at Kenwood House, but only to join them for after-dinner drinks.

But as Belle discovers more about the brutal treatment of slaves, as gradually revealed by the precedent-setting Zong case over which her great uncle is presiding, and encounters genuine, naked prejudice for herself (at the hands of Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy), petulance over class distinctions gives way to a slow-burning and righteous anger. In a deft piece of scriptwriting, she also comes to realise that all women, even noble-born white women, are little more than pampered slaves in the male-dominated society of the late 18th century.

12 Years, as filmed by Steve McQueen, is a genuine work of art. Belle, as expertly filmed by Streatham girl and Grange Hill graduate Amma Asante, is more a work of artifice. But it’s an impeccably realised and structured one, with a career-best performance from the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the Earl of Mansfield and a star-making turn from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, that by the end arouses in the viewer real fury, and real tears. To say that it comes second-best to this year’s worthy Oscar-winner is by no means a slight. Go see.