Monthly Archives: February 2015

Oscars 2015: Birdman soars, but Imitation Game moves

London, Hollywood assesses the Oscars

London, Hollywood

Eddie Redmayne Eddie Redmayne at the 2015 Oscars, where he won best Actor

After months of jockeying for position, the Oscars had settled down to being a two-horse race between the two “B” movies, Boyhood and Birdman. The Globes gave no clue, since they split Best Picture into Comedy and Drama and honoured both films. Last night at the Academy Awards, Birdman emerged as the big winner with four of the big ones: best picture, director, original screenplay and cinematography.

Boyhood had to make do with best supporting actress, which was no mean feat given that Meryl Streep was nominated in that category. Meryl took defeat more than graciously. When Patricia Arquette gave a speech thumping the tub for gender equality and equal pay for women (the hacked Sony emails having showed how culpable Hollywood was in this regard), Meryl whooped, pointed at the stage, and shouted “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like…

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Lazy Sunday

Occasionally, it’s nice to wake up with nothing in particular planned for the day.  It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have the luxury of not having to jump up out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and can instead laze under the duvet with a mug of coffee and a good book.

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

I recently decided to revisit War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, which I first read when I was at university ie a fair few years ago!   It’s hard to imagine anyone publishing a novel of that length these days; I expect most modern editors would be itching to cut huge chunks out of the book.  There are whole chapters dedicated to relatively minor characters and pages and pages of Tolstoy’s philosophising about the nature of history and the role played by great men.   And yet taken together, all these things are an essential part of the whole.  They’re what make it feel real.

In the chapter I read last, Tolstoy describes how an officer, Prince Nezvitsky, is pinned up against the railings of a bridge as a whole company of soldiers swarm across it.   Although Nezvitsky is a completely minor character, Tolstoy nevertheless treats us to his thoughts about the river flowing around the piles of the bridge, snatches of conversation he half-hears, his feelings and anxieties about the battle ahead.

For a short while, the reader is plunged into Nezvitsky’s world, and can identify with him completely, so that we too are trapped on the bridge, can hear the water roaring below, mud spattering and shouts and sweat of the oncoming troops.  We too feel Nezvitsky’s relief when a fellow officer helps him break free.

This is what Tolstoy does so brilliantly – he creates an immersive world so full of the detail of actual lives that the reader cannot help but feel a part of it.   There’s something very visual, almost cinematic, about the way the whole panorama unfolds as before our eyes.

 War and Peace Film

What a novel allows, however, as film rarely can, is insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.   Tolstoy – by all accounts pig-headed and frequently insensitive in real life – nevertheless has an uncanny, almost magical knack for describing the deepest and darkest corners of the human heart.

He creates rich, complex, distinctive and very fallible characters, who cannot be other than the way they are.  Thus it makes perfect sense that Natasha Rostova, a younger member of a large boisterous family and the child of warmly generous, spendthrift parents, should be impetuous, passionate, unguarded and completely charming.   Or that Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously rich but distant father, should be insecure, clumsy, earnest, and shy.    Or that Prince Andrei, the motherless son of a pedantic and exacting father, should be arrogant and ambitious.

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

No doubt, many people find the sheer length War and Peace off-putting, but it isn’t a difficult book to read; Tolstoy’s style is wonderfully clear and accessible.   And knowing you’ll be spending a good few hours in the company of his wonderful characters only makes it seem better.

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Letting Go of Your Baby

Although it’s still only February a whole load of green shoots are beginning to poke through the earth, promising that spring will soon be here.  At this time of year, I begin to get really fed up with the cold and damp and start longing for the weather to warm up a bit.

Crocuses

Cheery crocuses and anemones are the first signs that things are changing.  However my favourite winter blossom belongs to the Christmas Box.  I love it not for its flowers, which are pretty plain and uninteresting, but for its fabulous perfume, which fills the air outside my front door at this time of year and always seems to promise wonderful warm days to come.

Other exciting things have been afoot, not least the filming of my short screenplay.  It’s a comedy – not a particularly sophisticated one, I have to admit – about a young photographer who finds himself saddled with the flat-mate from hell, and after being driven to his wits’ end, comes up with a very novel way to get rid of his tormentor.  It’s a situation many, many people can identify with, so I’m hoping that will give it some fairly universal appeal.

Not as fun as it looks

The process of the filming itself is a lot less glamorous than you might imagine and involves endless repetitions of the same lines and scenes from different angles and viewpoints.  As the writer, it’s quite hard to get a sense of how it will look once it’s finished.  It all seems very disjointed at this stage, but the director seems pleased with how it’s shaping up and clearly has his own plan for it.

While I was writing it, I had a very clear image in my head of what the characters were like, what the settings would be like and how it would all play out.  What is very clear as we make it, is that the director has a completely different mental image of the story and so do the actors.   And then you have to take account of what’s practically possible to film with the resources and locations we have.

Too many cooks

What will emerge will be a synthesis of all these things – our different thoughts and ideas about the story, modified by what we can actually get down on tape.   With any luck, a bit of magic will happen that will transform it from being a series of mental images existing only in the imaginations of those who’ve read the script into something richer and more interesting than any one of those involved had conceived of.

Screenwriting, more than any other form of writing, is a collaborative process; the articulation of a shared vision for the film is essential to bringing the project to life.  As the writer of a film, you have to be prepared to let your baby go, and let others get fully involved in shaping it and making it as much theirs as it ever was yours.  It can be hard at times and the annals of film-making are full of stories about writers who were no longer allowed to work on their own films.

Personally, I really enjoy that collaborative creative process.  I like the idea of making something that’s more than any one person could produce.  Yet as the writer, you also have the satisfaction of knowing it all started with you, and your idea.  Without that, there would have been nothing.

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