Previously on Self Distract… I’m a writer and I talk too much but still I wanted to persuade you that shutting up is a good thing. I believe you looked at me like that. But what was on my mind was how effective silence is in drama and Heide Goody pointed out that there were these entire wordless feature films that I’d forgotten.
She mentioned Buster Keaton and his silent movies are amazing.
Yet even as I was nodding in agreement and even as I was thinking she’s dead right and I should’ve thought of the silents before, I was also thinking about this.
There are silent films that didn’t need to be silent.
I mean movies and TV that deliberately chose to be silent for effect rather than because they simply didn’t have microphones.
I’m trying to remember the name of a television drama, some kind of military thing, where it went silent for one episode for no reason. Well, no drama reason. No story reason. I imagine it was several years into the run and the production team were bored.
Instead of characters speaking to one another, you had them pointing and gesturing like they were in a clothes catalogue. In every other episode the characters were played at least as if they intended to look believable but here they were amdram and if any had a moustache, you expected toiling.
Was it called Commando? Something like that. I can’t find it and I’m not one hundred percent unhappy about that.
Whereas I have found and will watch again one episode of The Prisoner.
It’s perhaps my favourite episode, Many Happy Returns by Anthony Skene, and for all sorts of reasons but one is that nobody speaks for about the first 20 minutes – and it is superb.
The silence is so well done that you don’t realise it’s silent. It’s so much a part of the story – Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) wakes up to find the Village is deserted – that it’s natural. He doesn’t speak because there’s nobody to speak to.
That’s so obvious that you don’t think about it at all, you don’t think about how unusual this is for television drama. And then when you do hear speech it is a huge jolt.
That’s using silence for drama.
Do you know, I just looked up who wrote it and found that the script has been published. What’s more, I’ve got the book it’s published in. Right, that’s going to be my 421st script read of the year.
It doesn’t always follow that every writer likes every piece of great writing but, come on, you can’t fail to love every brilliant second of Trainspotting’s script by John Hodge. Only, I was into that film, entirely and completely engrossed from the opening half a second.
And specifically the opening half a second where there isn’t a word. Isn’t a sound.
I know it’s only half a second, maybe 20 frames at most, but the silence is completely arresting. For that one fraction of a moment you’re seeing a street scene before feet come down out of the top of frame and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life bursts in. Take a look:
Choose life, eh?
Then I suspect few people have ever compared Trainspotting to Gerry Anderson’s UFO, but here goes. Watch the famous title sequence and see what I’m seeing.
The far future of 1980. And the far past of camerawork focusing on a woman’s backside. Anyway. After the Century 21 Television sting, it’s silent for what seems like an age but is actually about a second.
It’s a punch. Maybe because it’s a little different from the usual, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that silence is a hugely powerful punch.
I think silence can also make you hold your breath. There’s that recent horror film A Quiet Place where you have to shut up to survive, for instance. I’ll never know how effective it is because it’s horror and I’m a wimp. Then there’s a noisy thriller in cinemas right now – I don’t want to spoil it just to make one small point – but it features a single moment of silence and that made me jump.
Flashback 22 years to the first Mission: Impossible film. If you’ve seen it, you remember the very long silent scene as Tom Cruise steals a list from a PC in a CIA vault. Forget the hanging off buildings and aircraft he does in the later films, this silent scene is excruciatingly tense. I love it. If you’ve a little while, take a look at this short video analysing the scene and its production. I can’t show it to you unless I point out that its clips from the television version of Mission: Impossible are from the forgotten 1980s remake instead of the 1960s original, mind.
Also, this is a YouTube video so in the midst of interesting detail it gets childish for a moment or two. Silence would’ve been better.
I’m conscious that for a piece about shutting up, this week I’m showing you an awful lot of audio and video clips. But I think this is all using the same muscles you do in writing. I think video editing is like drafting. I definitely think a film is finally written in the edit suite.
Which means I am a fan of sound and film editor Walter Murch. He works on everything and talks about it too. Of the very, very many lectures of his you can find online, here’s an excerpt where he talks about silence. It’s about the effectiveness of it but does also cop to how sometimes sheer production frustration can create art.
Give me a situation where one man and one woman are competing to write a particular piece of drama and I will ask why you bothered telling me their gender. It’s the piece I’m interested in, it’s their writing. I can’t conceive of a single possible reason that my knowing the sex of the writer would make any more difference than knowing their height.
Only, give me a situation where 86 percent of primetime television is written by men and now gender matters, now sex is telling me something is seriously wrong here.
Writing is not fair but then it shouldn’t be. Writers don’t get work just because it’s their turn. Not everybody should get to have a go. Because as much as I am a writer, as much as I care about writers, I’m a viewer first. I don’t tune in to satisfy a need in me for statistical balance. I tune in to watch and to be transported by writing that takes me places I don’t know with characters I’ve never met.
I want new.
And I ain’t getting it when 86 percent of television drama is written by men.
It’s not as if you suspect these men are the most diverse group, either, and that’s something the Writers’ Guild is looking at with Equality Writes. That’s a campaign launched this week that wants to fix film and television by making the industry recognise what’s actually happening. Get programme makers talking about it, get audiences talking about it, and maybe we can finally do something about it too.
Equality Writes starts with men and women because there are figures you can get for that imbalance. That’s why I know the 86 percent figure: it was uncovered during the research for an exhaustive and exhausting report that the Writers’ Guild commissioned. I nearly didn’t read that because I thought I already knew it was ridiculous how few women get to write for the screen. But then I’d see the report’s figures and then I’d see the report’s graphics about all this.
I did hang on for a while to the hope that things are getting better. Plus it’s a report about the industry today, maybe we’re just in a peculiar slump.
No and nope.
That’s the real jolt of this report and this campaign to me: the percentage of women writing television and film has stayed consistent for the last decade.
For ‘consistent’ read ‘low’ and for ‘low’ read ‘crap’. It is just crap how women aren’t getting to write and it makes me blood-angry that something is stopping me getting to see the writing of half our species.
This is a claim that going around the internet again and I think that if you and I get together, we can stop it. Are you game?
It’s about writing scripts and an insistence that film and TV companies will judge your screenplay on its first ten pages. More, the claim is that this is wrong, it is unfair and even that it is distorting how people write.
So far as I can tell, only the BBC “No Apostrophes Please, We’re British” Writersroom directly states that its readers will judge on the first ten pages. The BBC Writersroom has a brilliant online collection of scripts, albeit not searchable, but otherwise doesn’t matter.
Still, the claim persists and my problems are with this idea that it’s unfair to judge on the opening ten pages and it’s wrong how this is affecting the way people write.
The argument over the unfairness is always that you can’t tell if a script is good until you’ve read the whole thing.
And actually, yep, you can.
If a writer thinks they’re able to make a script brilliant from page 80 onwards but doesn’t see that the first 79 are crap, they are not able to make any of the pages brilliant at all.
Let me put it this way. I long to live in a beautiful New York apartment building called 56 Leonard and of course if I had $40m I’d spend it on the penthouse. But as utterly wonderful as that apartment is, the penthouse is on the 57th floor and it needs 56 pretty solid floors below it.
Then there’s this bit that sounds more sophisticated: that the demand for a great opening ten pages means writers have to put action and jeopardy and comedy in there. That they can never build up to things, they can never do some kind of pure writing. I’m fuzzy on that last bit.
It is true that I recently changed the opening of a script of mine before sending it to a producer. The script had begun with something mildly gentle as we followed a character going in to work. And what I changed was that I added a new scene before it.
Only, I didn’t do that to hook the producer with a teaser.
The scene I added was, if anything, quieter than the going to work one. And I’ve just checked: it was slightly less than half a page
But it focused on another character. She was always my favourite, she was always the reason for the entire story yet initially I’d held back introducing her. I think I still do, really, but having this tiny scene open on her changes how you read the rest of the script.
What I didn’t do was move up the calamitous situation she gets into or add in an explosion or something.
It did used to be that in television you needed to have something big at the start to stop people switching over. Whereas in film, the idea was that people had paid to sit there in that room and so they’d give you at least a little longer. Film could therefore be a bit more slow and seductive where TV had to be smash/bang/grab.
I think that line has blurred to the point of invisibility: films are seen more on Netflix than in their run in the cinema, for one thing. Television drama has never been better than it is now with its ability to draw you in slowly and deeply and richly.
I get annoyed at the ten pages rule for all sorts of reasons but one of them is that there is no such rule so the whole thing is bollocks. Another is that the same people who trot out a rule about TV needing to grab the audience’s attention are the ones who think it’s unfair to judge a script on the opening. A reader is no more likely to slog to the end than a viewer is to sit there for two hours hoping the ending will be good.
Drama needs something at the start to make you want to watch further. It just doesn’t have to be something big, doesn’t have to be action, doesn’t have to be suspense. It just has to be something that doesn’t stop people reading on. Character, that’s my favourite. Atmosphere, that’s a good one too.
Even in this day of being able to switch to another of the million different dramas available on demand, your audience and the producer reading your script want to like what you’ve done. They want to enjoy this. They come in on your side and you can win them over in the long run but initially your job is to not lose them.
And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t take ten pages to lose me. It doesn’t take ten pages for me to know a script is poor.
It takes one. At most.
True, you can’t tell from the first page just how much you’re going to like the script but you can tell if you’re going to dislike it.
I’ve read 180 scripts this year and every time you know right away. You know when you’re in good hands, you know when it’s going to work. You don’t know if it’s going to be to your taste or interest, but you know that the writer is good.
So if you read someone saying the first ten pages are crucial then they’re probably trying to sell you a course. If you read them saying this and also that it’s unfair, they’re rubbish.
If someone tells you that you have to have a murder on the first page, nod politely and walk away.
And maybe there is one rule I can get behind. It’s the rule I’ve just made up where if someone insists their script needs 79 pages to get going, do whatever you like but don’t offer to read it.
Take a look at this, please, and spot the one ridiculous part of it:
I’ve been flown out to St Tropez by a swimwear fashion company that is desperate for me to model their Summer collection. We’ve taken test shots with me pointing at things out of frame. Some of us have taken coke, some of us have taken Pepsi. And now it’s down to the real business: I ask what they’re willing to pay me.
The fashion CEO takes out a pen and a piece of paper. She writes a figure down and slides the paper across the table to me. As I read it, my eyes widen and I try to look calm.
Sometimes you’re rotten to me. The thing you were supposed to think ridiculous is that stuff with the paper and the note about the money.
At no point in the history of any negotiation with anyone about anything has a single soul written a sum of money down on paper and slid it across any surface to anybody ever.
Yet we see it in TV and film drama around once a month.
I think the shows might have a mind to the drama’s prospects for being repeated on ITV4 for the next several decades. The Six Million Dollar Man, for instance, could now just be somebody working at the top of the BBC pay scale, at least so long as it is a man.
Or maybe the makers are thinking of international sales and how never actually saying or showing the figure in Sterling or dollars or whatever it is might be a distraction.
There is one last possibility I can think of and it’s that the writer has not had the same level of experience in fashion modelling that I have and so doesn’t have a clue what an impressive figure would be. In either sense.
I have a solution. Say the figure aloud. We’re already supposed to get that it’s a big number because of the recipient’s reaction, we’ll still get that it seems a big number to him or her in exactly the same way.
Whereas when it’s this note slid across a table, I’m out of the story. I’m seeing a constructed piece of artifice, I’m not seeing characters I’m engaged with.
You’ve seen this. You’re reading a book or watching a film and some character says something that jars. It sounds more like the author talking than the character. It feels imposed somehow, like an idea has been added in through product placement.
Sometimes it actually is product placement. There was a sitcom recently where a character needed to find out something and announced that he’d Bing it. No, he wouldn’t. He’d Google it like everyone else, but Microsoft was paying for the promotion of their search service.
Often it actually is the author or the screenwriter, such as when there’s a political point to be made and it’s theirs instead of the characters.
That’s a tougher one: I don’t think writers always notice when they do it.
And then you have issues like Abi Morgan’s Suffragette. I think she did a marvellous job of conveying society and in particular men’s rejection of women’s rights. Yet it’s a case where the protagonists are the suffragettes and the antagonist is an entire society that is giant and also so clearly, entirely, totally wrong.
Drama works best, I believe, when it’s about two people arguing and they’re both right. Morgan had to find a way to embody male society and for dramatic purposes also to not make it as clear-cut a case of men wrong, women right as it actually was. The more I think of what she had to pull off in that script, the more impressed I am that she did it yet it’s still a case of the writer’s politics impressing on every character in some way.
The Bing case just saw me jerk my head and lament the state of advertising on television today. The Suffragette one was a case of my thinking about it after seeing the film.
Whereas “I said explain it to me, not talk science” is a line that stops me watching.
Quite literally: that line stopped me watching.
I relish time travel stories and there’s an intriguing film called Deja Vu by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio but I can’t get through it. Because of that line. In fairness, it isn’t quite as bad as the more common “Talk English, Doc!” that you regularly get.
But the intention is the identical and so is the effect. It’s just that those two things are not the same.
The intention is to make an explanation sound scientifically plausible while simultaneously making it accessible to non-scientists. The intention is to have us identify with the hero, who is always the one saying this, and so humanise the situation.
The effect is to say that the audience is stupid and the hero is more so. Without one single exception, whenever you hear a line like this, it is interrupting a scientific explanation that a five-year-old would’ve understood anyway. This is because the writer has no interest in science and so picked up the first fact he or she found in Physics for Dummies and assumes you don’t know it.
invariably, the science is nothing so having the hero interrupt is actually making that hero look thicker than multiple planks laid together. You can argue that it’s making an adversarial relationship with the scientists and drama feeds on argument, but instead it’s telling me that the scientists are rubbish and that they are the hero’s enemy.
Every character comes out of this badly and perhaps that’s ultimately the problem: I cease to believe any of them. i’ve said it before, if I don’t believe the characters, I don’t give a damn what happens to them. And this particular case, i’l never know because I stopped Deja Vu right there.
Here’s the trailer. If you see the film or if you have already seen it, tell me whether it gets any better. I’m on @WGallagher. Thanks.
Late one night this week, stewing with a cold and unable to sleep for coughing, I started to watch Somewhere in Time on Netflix. Don’t look for it: the film has gone. Even though I am new to Netflix, I did know that this happens, I just didn’t know that it could happen before I finished watching something I’d started.
There’s something fitting about it disappearing like this. I have to be in exactly the right mood to watch it and that mood is a bubble that never lasts long. Maybe Netflix is the Brigadoon of online streaming video services and in another hundred years the film will reappear. For a few moments or preferably the film’s 1 hour 48 minute running time, it will be as if the movie had always been there.
It does feel a bit like that now: it was made in 1980, and you can tell, but originally it was partly a present-day film, mostly a period piece and so now it feels like two period pieces. If you don’t know the film, it’s written by Richard Matheson and stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I think summarising the film diminishes it and that maybe that’s one reason it was a flop on release: it’s a time-travel romance. The film only succeeded, only became a huge hit, after it was seen knocking around cable TV channels in the States. So really it only became a hit after people saw it.
If you do know the film, that’s not what’s on my mind. The book is. I like the movie but for the most part it is a nicer version of the story, it has an innocent sweetness that is sometimes good but often just too much. In comparison, I feel like the original novel tore at me. By chance, this week I’ve been interviewed for a TV show about my life – I was chosen because of my brilliant and apparently unique availability – and thinking about myself, seeing that film, being caught in this cold, it somehow showed me that this novel is deeply important to me.
The novel is also by Matheson and it’s called Bid Time Return after Shakespeare’s line in Richard II: O, call back yesterday, bid time return. Or it was called that: most editions after 1980 rename it Somewhere in Time. It’s obviously about time and for whatever reason that has become a profound obsession for me in drama and fiction. I also know that it is the first romance novel I read and while I haven’t read that many more since, I’ve noticed that everything I write is imbued with this. It used to scare me a bit: you might not spot it but I can see time and romance – and, full disclosure, thrillers – in every single thing I write.
I just don’t see romance as slushy, I see it as dangerous. That unpredictable, unreasonable, impossible lurch in your life. I’m fascinated by the power of romance, the compulsion, the roaring way it changes who you are and exposes who you can be. I’m riveted by what in the hell makes us admit to someone that we fancy them – and by what it’s like when they feel the same. That’s not slush, that’s primacord explosive.
Picture me forming this opinion when I was around 15. I suspect hormones played a part but I also think it would’ve been around then that I found the novel. I wish I could remember the details but I think I read it and at first didn’t realise how it got into me. I do vividly remember wanting to re-read it and not having a copy. At the time, there was a science fiction bookshop in Birmingham called Andromeda and they didn’t have it in stock. Nowhere did.
I remember standing at the Andromeda counter, mentioning to the owner Rog Peyton that I was so disappointed to not be able to find a copy anywhere. And I remember him saying something like “Wait there”. This was an independent bookshop where you felt much of the stock was there because it was beloved by the staff and when I say they had a special place in their hearts for Bid Time Return, they actually had a special place in the back. Rog had kept perhaps three or four copies of the book to sell only to people who were specifically searching for it.
At this point the book must’ve been quite rare and out of print, though the edition he sold me had the film’s rather beautiful period illustration on the cover so the movie was out. Maybe it’s a sign of how poorly the film fared at first, certainly it was a sign that Rog didn’t want people to casually pick up the last copies and chuck them on a shelf to never read.
I say all this to you and I can see me in that shop, I can feel that paperback in my hands. The novel is the same story about a man who falls for a photograph of a woman –– so far, not so very unusual –– but discovers that the photo was taken sixty years ago. It’s a funny thing: you know they are going to meet and you don’t care how the time travel is done, yet it has to be done in a way that carries you along. Or at least in a way that doesn’t drop you out of the story. It’s a remarkably fine line and the film is fairly good at it but the novel kills you. You are in that story and you are feverish as Richard Collier of 1971 burns to reach Elise McKenna of 1912.
Then you also have to have their first meeting and even at 15 I thought bloody hell, Richard Matheson is a smart writer. I’m willing to spoil a lot of this for you as it’s over forty years since the novel came out and about thirty-six since the movie, but I won’t spoil that scene which works well in the film and perfectly in the novel. I also won’t go to the filming location and re-enact the moment but people do. A lot.
I want to spoil or maybe just a tiny bit heighten two other moments, though, and especially as I think they’re appropriate to writing. One is very much about books and the other is very much about visuals.
The first ties to this business of getting us to agree about time travel: we know it’s coming, you don’t have to really sell us but you must somehow make it fly. Matheson does all manner of things to set us up for this in the book and his film screenplay does many of the same things but quicker. Yet arguably it all turns on one moment of deeply believable despair as Richard Collier no longer believes or can even hope that he’ll ever do it.
Matheson brings us to a moment where we did not see this coming but we should’ve done: Richard is in a hotel and trying to get back in time to that same hotel sixty years ago. He goes hunting for the hotel’s guest books and in one of these dust-caked, mouldy old ledgers, there he is. His name, signed in as a guest in 1912. Matheson plays this as clinching proof for Richard, the thing that makes him believe and so makes him succeed but I keep thinking about that signature waiting there. Throughout Richard’s life, that line was in that ledger waiting for that moment of discovery. That line would not be in that ledger if he didn’t find it.
Then visually the entire plot turns on the photograph that Richard sees of Elise. The way it’s described in the novel and the feeling that is conveyed in the movie is that it seems as if in this photograph she looking at Richard. Even at 15 and certainly now at somewhat older, I’m thinking right, sure, he just fancies her, don’t try to make it slushy. But the punch, for me, comes much later when we find out that actually, yes, she is looking at him.
There’s a brief scene where Richard walks in on the photograph being taken and the moment of the lens click is the moment Elise has seen him. She is looking at him in that photo and if he hadn’t been there, the photo would’ve been different and maybe he would never have looked at it.
I’m biased because I love the novel, I like the movie and I think about all this far too much. But these are resonant moments that – I’m right, aren’t I? – only time can tell.
Perhaps you already know or even practice this Japanese art form, but it was new to me: I thought Benshi was that lovable dog. A friend said no, it’s those tiny trees, isn’t it?
Benshi sees a spoken word performer standing by a cinema screen: he or she performs a piece while it shows a film. It began as a verbal equivalent of the caption cards you would get in silent movies but it expanded. Benshi performers apparently began describing the action in between the captions then over years began to basically talk about anything they liked.
I have really severe twitching problems with taking someone’s film and using it as stock footage behind my words. I know and I feel the work that went into making any film so just taking it feels like when you’re in school and they get you to make a loathsome time-wasting, busy-work collage and you pretend you’ve created something.
Then I’ve been a critic plus I’ve been on the receiving end of professional critics, I am sometimes hyper conscious of the line between creation and criticism, art and journalism. I get mithered over criticising a film because how dare I take a feature film, reduce it to 400 words and diss it?
But then if I can save you from ever seeing Johnny Mnemonic, then I’ve genuinely given something back to the community. I’ve taken one for the team so you don’t have to.
All of which swirls around my head like I don’t have enough to think about – and I’d like to say that all of which evaporated when Chris Swann asked if I’d like to do a Benshi as part of the Flatpack Film Festival here in Birmingham.
It sort of evaporated. It also sort of coalesced more: I thought maybe this was a way to actually explore what I fret about in all this. Plus, let’s be open here, it was the Flatpack Film Festival and I was very chuffed to be asked to contribute to that. Normally you have to, you know, make a film first.
I had, I think, seven weeks in which to come up with a short five-minute spot and you should’ve seen the work I went through. Nobody saw me, most especially not the audience at the event, because it all went wrong. At one point in the plotting I had assembled a rough cut of ten film clips, each movie with subtitles because I’d decided to do something about the intertextuality of media and because I don’t know what that means, I reckoned having some text on screen would cover it. I actually re-did some of the subtitles so that the films would be commenting back to me as I spoke.
I went off down the deepest rabbit hole to do with writing and text and what we read versus what we see. One tiny point was based around Star Wars: how many billions of people have seen that and believe it’s set in the future? Even though the very first frame is text saying “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”. But then Star Wars came out in 1977 and it was beaten to the Best Oscar for that year by Annie Hall – and rightly so, Annie Hall is much better. Only, Annie Hall has that famous subtitled scene.
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are talking while the subtitles reveal what they’re really thinking as they try to impress each other. It’s simple, funny, clever and I don’t feel you can watch it now without the third layer of Woody Allen’s real-life relationships imposing. Not to dodge the issue but, well, yes, to dodge the issue with a quick summary, he lives with his adopted daughter.
Seven weeks of actual anguish over this and then with two days to go, I abandoned it all.
I realised that ten films, all with subtitles, some with altered subtitles where I’d have to precisely time my words to get the responses cued correctly, all with jokes in, some with serious stories, some with this thing where I want to prove that you read text but don’t register it, it was just a mess. It was a barrage of audio and video and if any one part of it worked, you’d never know because another three would drown it out.
I kept just one thought. This business of Woody Allen’s life: how, I feel, what we know and what we learn colours what we see and what we think. If you’re going to examine this business of how our reactions to a movie alter over time then Annie Hall is great because, for instance, I believe Diane Keaton spoke out defending Allen during the messiest times of his breakup from Mia Farrow.
Manhattan famously begins with a voiceover narration from one of its characters as we see utterly beautiful black and white photography of New York City and we hear George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Sweeping, soaring, inexpressibly wonderful music.
I can’t talk over that music. I can’t talk over someone’s film.
I can’t half talk about New York City, though.
So that’s what I did. I clipped the opening minutes of Manhattan and the Flatpack people muted it while I spoke about how this city has meant so much to me and always has, even before I’d visited. Then on my cue I shut up and they snap-faded the music up on a crescendo.
If I could do it again, I’d take longer: I read my piece too quickly. But after the anguish of trying to talk about movies, getting instead to pour it all out about New York City and do so in front of 40 people at the Flatpack Film Festival – to do so with a brevity I’ve not needed since writing Ceefax – I had a time.
Here’s my very short script and it’s followed by a YouTube clip of the real opening to Manhattan.
OVER OPENING OF “MANHATTAN”
“New York was his town. And it always would be.”
Wait. That’s actually what the film is saying right now. It’s a voiceover in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. That is a stark and beautiful film that in 1979 was… interesting for how it had Allen as a 40-year-old man in a relationship with a schoolgirl.
There you go. Now in 2015, knowing about Allen’s real-life relationship with his adopted daughter, every one of you just went eww.
The film hasn’t changed. We have. What we know changes what we think.
But films are also of their day and they tie us to that time. They tie us to how we felt when we first saw them.
I feel this. With Manhattan and every other film, every other TV show about New York, they formed me. New York is my favourite place in the world and it was so before I even went there. Because of film.
The monochrome beauty of Manhattan, the verve of West Side Story. The charm of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The colourful autumnal beauty of Hannah and Her Sisters – at one time my favourite movie of all. The meh of Die Hard with a Vengeance. The happy, peppy, perky New York of the TV show Fame. The cruel, cold, miserable New York of the film Fame.
I can’t justify what they did to me, I can’t explain it or understand it.
But when I step out onto those streets, I am taller. I’m also more English somehow. New York women hear my accent and say honey, you must be real smart.
New York men see New York women and sometimes think I’m a threat. Imagine that.
New York men and women. New York life. The smashing together of cultures. It’s what I like, it’s what I am.
It’s not like you should rush to find writing advice in the scripts to Star Wars movies, but bear with me. I’ve written before about how drama is a collaboration – and that this is one of its joys – but I’ve never before thought of how it can change over time. Literally change over time: the drama you and everybody makes can be physically changed a little ways down the road.
I don’t know what to think about it. But I’m thinking about it a lot now because actor Harrison Ford responded to a famous example of it this week.
Follow. You hide your inner geek very well so I’m not certain you know this, but there’s a thing about Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. It’s the tiniest very big thing there is. George Lucas went back to Star Wars and changed a scene by about a pixel and it enrages some people, it makes others shrug. It’s to do with a scene where Han Solo is confronted by a baddie and in the original version, Solo shoots this guy. In the revised version, the guy shoots Han Solo. It’s not as big a difference as that sounds, we don’t suddenly lose Harrison Ford’s character, erased from the rest of the film, because this guy misses.
Yet that’s the thing for me. I think we do lose Harrison Ford’s character for the rest of the film.
The guy is named Greedo and when Ford began a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, he was asked: who shot first, Han or Greedo? Harrison Ford’s reply:
I don’t know and I don’t care.
It’s a funny line and you can imagine the weariness in his voice. It’s almost enough to make me read the whole interview. (Have you tried, though? Reddit’s AMAs are impenetrable after the fact: the transcripts of these live interviews are stupidly hard to unpick. But go on, have a try with Ford’s here.)
The trouble is… it matters.
George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars film and George made these changes, Ford acted the scenes and had no part in the alterations. I’m not arguing that Lucas should leave his own films alone, I’m not arguing that Ford should get in a tizzy over changes to a thirty-year-old movie.
I am saying that this one small change is actually gigantic and that it was done after the collaborative heat of production. I tried watching Star Wars the other day while I was thinking about all this and I got a bit bored so perhaps I’m simply wrong. But I believe that had I got into the story, this scene would have taken me out of it again. It bothers me enormously that someone can make such a fundamental change and it makes my eyes go wide that anyone would want to. It actually makes me think that George Lucas genuinely does not understand storytelling.
Here’s the thing. When Han Solo shoots this alien fella dead, it tells us a lot. We’ve already seen a picture-perfect toothy farm boy hero in Luke Skywalker, this is telling us that Han Solo is very nearly an anti-hero. Let’s not get carried away. But he is out for himself and this is really his one character note throughout the first film. Fine.
When he doesn’t shoot first, when he waits for the baddie to shoot him, Han Solo is a hero. I’d say he’s as empty and unbelievable a figure as 1970s US TV hero, but he’s squarely a square-jawed hero type. We’ve already got one of those in Luke and the rest of Solo’s selfish actions and dialogue don’t square with the squarely square-jawed hero. With this one moment, he no longer fits.
More, this is meant to be a dangerous moment. Han Solo is cornered, we learn his enemies aren’t exactly legion but they are pretty big. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is correctly thought of as the superior film – it’s all relative – but one of its clunkiest lines refers to how Solo is hunted. “A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with,” says a man just trying to get through the script.)
Everyone’s hunting Han Solo and this Greedo guy is the one who gets there first. He’s beaten all the rest. And shooting a laser pistol at a distance of three feet from his target, he misses.
That is a crap baddie.
That is a cardboard baddie.
So now Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero and his enemies are worthless.
Harrison Ford made certain decisions about his performance in 1976 or whenever this was filmed. George Lucas the director made certain decisions then. Lucas the script writer had made all the decisions earlier. Together they created the scene we see but Lucas alone could step back into it decades later and make a gigantic change.
The positive thing I take away from this is that moments matter. It’s scary to think that a tiny touch on the tiller of one scene can so radically change a character but it’s also exciting. Makes me press harder on scenes and moments as I write them.
But the bad thing I take away from this is that unless Lucas simply could not see the impact of his change, he elected to do it regardless. I think he decided Han Solo had to be a good guy. I think he chickened out.
Only, this is Star Wars. It’s just Star Wars. If you’re going to lose your nerve over a character, it should surely be over a better one.