Thursday 30 June 2011

Have you Laughed Today yet?

I recently watched 5minutes of Lead Balloon and found myself laughing a lot. How have I never heard of this programme before? Since I started writing comedy I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the different sitcoms and comedies around.

Apparently an adult laughs on average 17 times a day, it might not be much, but to me it seems like a healthy amount of times; but if someone does laugh that much then why is it so hard to make one laugh deliberately?

There is an art to writing comedy and like any genre, there will be people who either love it or hate it.

I remember watching Married with Children when I was younger. We would all sit and watch it with my Dad and he would laugh out loud (yes, he would lol) from beginning to end, my mum on the other hand didn’t find any of the characters likeable. I am sure she would approve of the more recent take on family comedy, Modern Family, also staring Ed O’Neil.

I know some people of a certain generation who didn't like Friends. A group of youngsters all ‘living in sin’ just didn’t fit in with their values. If they gave it a chance they would realise it wasn’t about whether or not they had sex, it was about the interactions. Although having said that, sex is funny! It is always a recurring theme in many comedies, why? Because it’s awkward, it’s clumsy, it can be taboo and is rarely sexy. As Lucy V Hay writes in her blog, you can tell a lot about people and their relationship through sex.

I digress; this is a post about comedy, not SEX.

Over the years I’ve come across a few people who think Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is one of the funniest films they have ever seen. I personally don’t get it and after watching it, I could not watch any films that Jim Carrey starred in. For me, his exaggerated facial expressions were just trying too hard to be funny.

That leads me to question how comedy on paper translates to screen? It is as much about the story and gags as it is about the performance. An average performance without all the right pauses could leave a lot to be desired; likewise, an excellent delivery of a mediocre comedy script will just be mediocre. How many times have we watched a comedy because of its cast, only to be disappointed? I can think of a few.

I’m now on a mission to read the script for Ace Ventura simply to find out whether or not I would like it better. Unfortunately, it seems that whenever I read a script of a film or TV series that I have already watched, I can’t help but imagine the characters as played by the respective actors, so reading Ace Ventura without imagining Jim Carey playing the lead role could be a challenge.

Whether it makes you laugh or not, a comedy should still read as a comedy, that is, one should be able to identify its genre without much thought to it. So if you have to think too much about the genre, or even worse, if you’ve written a comedy and someone mistakes it for a horror, then it’s time for a re-write.

It is hard to make everyone laugh at a comedy, so I try to at least write something that I find funny. If you can get just one person to laugh, then hopefully you’re on a roll. Do you know what? Laughter is infectious; the more people who laugh at something, the more other people will laugh too. Notice next time you are in a movie theatre watching a comedy. The minute someone laughs out loud at something, others will join in, and the more people laugh, the more others will realise it’s ok to laugh and will join in. 

Thursday 16 June 2011

Child's Play: Write What You Know?

As some of you may have noticed, I’m a sucker for competitions. I work best to deadlines and therefore jump at the opportunity of entering one more comp. It is also a welcome distraction from all those re-writes that I should be doing instead.

When CBeebies therefore announced their script competition Get A Squiggle On I was very excited. This is certainly something I know about.  I am a mother of two under the age of 4 and children’s TV is probably watched more than any other channel in this house. Having also worked on the promo team for Cbeebies I decided that I knew enough about the channel to write a twenty-minute script for an original live action programme.

I started to think about the various kids’ programmes and their content, which ones my son liked the best and why. It seems that no matter what the message is, the main characters are all very lively and exaggerated caricatures being mostly grown ups or older children. In Grandpa in my Pocket for example, the characters’ names tend to reflect their personality, such as Mr Whoops, Mr Liker Biker and Captain Shipshape amongst others. The characters in Balamory are equally all exaggerations of real people who live in a charming village with houses all painted in a different colour – being the use of primary colours another characteristic of kids’ programmes.

Music is key and whether it’s just the opening/ closing sequence or throughout, it is important to have a catchy tune with memorable and easy to learn lyrics. When they get it right, the children will be singing it over and over and over. This is great for the programme makers, not so good for the parents’ ears.

Finally, there is a formula that all episodes will follow. In Something Special, for example, there are intercut sequences between Mr Tumble and Justin as well as the use of Makaton signs. The viewer knows that no matter what the theme is, it will always start and end with Mr Tumble.

The duration of 20 minutes is a challenge but if you have a good strong formula to set the pace with characters and topics that the child can relate to, then hopefully it will keep the child engaged.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I started to brainstorm. Many different ideas later it seemed that it had either already been done, or it wasn’t really something I would want to watch myself. Eventually, Taro suggested we adapt a short he had been writing. It would have to be changed from dark comedy to a more colourful and child friendly version, but it could work and should be fun.

After a week or two of talking about it, we came up with a workable outline that could be adapted to any episode and I started writing. Five pages in I got stuck and I got bored. As Taro pointed out, even though we watch unhealthy amounts of children’s TV, it doesn’t mean that we can write for it or even that we would want to; and he’s right. I could spend another 2-3weeks on this project but I’ve found it very hard not to get distracted.

They say write what you know, but they also say love what you write. What was I thinking? I spend all day with children; my life has become a child’s programme, why would I also want to write about it? Writing dark murderous comedy as a contrast is definitely a lot more fun.

For those of you entering this competition, here is an interesting article by Ben Faulks, creator, writer and star of Mr Bloom's Nursery. He talks about the writing and development process of his show.

Friday 10 June 2011

Donkey Tails and other Random Facts

It was a breezy summer morning and we strolled along the beach. My husband and I walked hand in hand as the children ran ahead leaving footprints in the damp sand – the right kind of sand for building sand castles.

The seagulls squawked their squawky melodies rudely breaking the silence of that very quiet morning. As I looked around, I soon came to realise we were alone, there was no one in sight, not even a donkey, not a single one.

Something was wrong. It was a popular resort, the weather was reasonable, the seagulls were inviting and the sand was perfect for sculpting; so where were all the people, and most importantly, where were the donkeys?

I looked at my husband and squeezed his hand. He gave me a smile and assured me all was well. It was Friday after all. We might have been on Holiday but for others it was work as usual, the children were at school and as for the donkeys, well, the donkeys were having a day off.

There are about 400 working donkeys in the UK, of which 200 reside in Blackpool. It is therefore no surprise that there are regulations seeking to protect the animals from exploitation. They have a day off each week, on a Friday, a one hour lunch break and can only carry up to 51kgs.

I have never been to Blackpool, nor have I ever ridden a donkey. This is just one of the many pieces of trivia I've heard around the Production office as a shoot was being re-scheduled and scripts re-written to fit the real world. Writing and filmmaking can sometimes be a source of accidental knowledge, you become an expert at something you previously had little or no interest in.

Here is a list of a few of the things I have learned over the years:

·      When hiring a Drag Queen for a shoot, allow at least an hour for make-up

·      If someone asks you for a Paracetamol on set always say no, especially when there’s a nurse present.

·      Using a starting pistol for a shoot requires an armourer on set, even if it’s decommissioned. There should always be two people present when transporting the weapon, the armourer and a supervising armourer. The police need to be informed too!

·      It is possible to flip pancakes whilst running a marathon.

·    I now know how to make fake blood – the edible version

·      Filming with animals is expensive

·      If you plan on filming at Cannes do not book your flight and accommodation last minute unless you want to end up out of town or somewhere really really expensive

·      There is a small island north of Scotland called Shetland. They farm cod fish.

·      Travelling to a location for 48hrs with little or no sleep is not recommended

·      Thorpe Park is closed for maintenance on Tuesdays – and therefore perfect for filming without the added hazard and noise of crowds. On the other hand, having 12 turns in a row on a rollercoaster is not for everyone.

·      Haggis really is just a lamb sausage made with more spices, although I’m still not convinced about trying it. Incidentally, you can’t get it through customs into the US

·      With a few props a meeting room/ office space can double up as almost anything. The corridors around the offices at Elstree for example are painted like hospital corridors so they can be easily used for filming Holby City.

·      When at the BBC, if you get asked about the positioning of a DOG on screen, you do not search for a four-legged animal wagging its tail

·      If you work for/at the BBC you are required to do an extensive Health and Safety course and after that you never ever breathe again without filling in a form detailing the type of breathing, where and how you will be breathing, what risks are present in breathing and what measures you will be taking to prevent any of the risks. You are also fully aware of who gets blamed if you breathe in the wrong way. Oh and you get to see Anthea Turner on fire.

What facts have you come across accidentally or as part of your job, which you haven't actively sought out? 

Monday 6 June 2011

Virtually There

This past weekend Chris Jones, filmmaker and writer of The Guerrila Film Makers Handbook, held a Guerilla Film Makers Masterclass at Regents College. Having got a ticket with one of the discount codes available, it seemed great value for money, a weekend fully packed with talks on all aspects of filmmaking and to top it all up, it started on Friday night with a talk by Gareth Unwin and David Seidler, producer and writer for "The King’s Speech", respectively.

There was just one problem: the ticket I bought wasn’t for me but for my husband. Having recently attended a Raindance course, it only seemed fair that I did the babysitting instead. So whilst Taro was off to acquire invaluable knowledge, I put on Pulp Fiction and sulked. Every once in a while though I thought I’d see if anyone was tweeting from the event.        

I was very pleased to see that whilst some people were tweeting about getting a Mexican wave going, Leilani Holmes (@momentsoffilm) was busy transcribing key moments 140 characters at a time and even though it wasn’t the same as being there, Twitter was the place to be for those of us who were unable to attend.

The weekend followed in much the same style and I have actually learned a few things virtually.

I could copy and paste all the tweets, but it would be a very long post, so instead you can check it out on #GFilm

Here are some of my favourite tweets:

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#GFilm Advice to new filmmakers Gareth: Just do it. The day you become a Producer is when you produce. A director when you direct.

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#GFilm Advice to new filmmakers David: Write from your heart. Something that comes from within.

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#GFilm David: You cannot wait for devine inspiration you just have to turn up and put something on the page.

Lunarcheeseshop Garret Smyth 
Homo sapiens is much more than fifteen thousand years old! (This is a test message, although none the less true.) #GFilm

WandaOpalinska Wanda Opalinska 
Chris Jones>Our subconscious can't distinguish real & imagined emotions, which is why we cry @ films <What do we think, tweeps?#GFilm

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
We're in the business of creating powerful experiences. Movies are emotional training grounds. #GFilm

meddyford Meddy Ford 
'It's about making 10,000 phone calls and getting one result' Too true! #Gfilm

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#GFilm Nobody really cares if you make your film but you. There's competition and there's people who have more but it never matters. Work.

asylumgiant Mark Lo 

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#gfilm The material you end up with is your film. You may have to let go of the script and make the best film you can from what you have.

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#GFilm We're critiqueing a short. Audience a bit brutal here. A good indication of how people react & why to test screen where possible.

momentsoffilm Leilani Holmes 
#GFilm A feature stays around for a long time so you have to love what you do.

Lunarcheeseshop Garret Smyth 
#GFilm CHIPS! Someone is eating chips in the room. They smell delicious...

livingspiritpix Chris Jones 
Exhausted, exhilarated and inspired by the extraordinary people I met at the Guerilla Masterclass. The REAL future of the industry #GFilm

I also got my husband’s account of the weekend and like many people, he’s ready to just do it! He also brought me home a little gift, a DVD copy of Chris Jones’ award winning short “Gone Fishing”. Can’t wait to see it.

It is amazing what can be done in this day and age and that one can gather so much information from an event as it’s unfolding but I must emphasize that as thankful as I was for all the live tweets, this is just the next best thing (poor man’s solution) rather than a substitute to physically being there. So unless you had a good excuse, such as babysitting, then I hope you were there.

With 360 delegates, there might have been new friendships starting over the weekend that will last for years, or who knows someone could have met the love of their life? Whatever you got from the event, those are things that I have missed out on, although thankfully I’m already married. Social networking and live streaming can all be invaluable sources of knowledge and exchange of information essential for today’s fast paced lifestyles, but they lack the very important human touch.

Some of the delegates were quick to add their thoughts to a blog and I decided to list the ones I’ve come across. If you too have written down your thoughts and experiences of the weekend, feel free to send me a link and I’ll add it to the list.