It feels a little strange to be writing about a play I was involved in yet wasn’t mine, but here we are. Yesterday Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter wrapped, officially marking the eleventh play from my company Bitten By Productions and the first not written by me. When we first entered pre-production I was looking forward to it being a bit of a break, but then I went and got cast in the show, so it’s not really been the restful time I thought it would be.
That said, there was a definite lack of pressure for me in this show. For once the play’s success or failure was not on me and while obviously I was invested in it doing well and believed in the project it was beyond refreshing to just be a cast member, to turn up for rehearsals, learn my lines, then go home again at the end of it without having to worry so much about marketing or set or costumes or anything.
Of course, Bitten By still remains the company I co-founded and as such I was always going to be more involved than the average cast member. And Dracula, in more ways than one, represented a big turning point for us. With a new script from a first-time playwright, a cast that were mostly people we hadn’t worked with before and essentially a whole new venue in the refurbished Voltaire, Dracula in some ways felt like a new start. In fact, the production I was most reminded of during the process was Below Babylon, our first major show, and there was a weird bit of déjà vu to again being a part of a violent thriller with an elaborate set, costumes, fake blood and a mostly new creative team.
But 2017 Sean Carney and Ashley Tardy are a much better writer/director team than 2013 Gabriel Bergmoser and Ashley Tardy, and so Dracula was in no way a step back. With great reviews and enthusiastic audiences every night (not to mention a completely sold out second week), Dracula was a total hit, and in some ways I felt like a proud father seeing my company take on a life of its own outside of just my ideas.
There was a time, not long ago, when I was at a bit of a loss with Bitten By. After the resounding flop that was A Good German, 2015 was a bit of a wilderness year for us, with a sense that the plays we put on were almost more afterthoughts, produced quietly with none of the budget or fanfare that we had approached earlier shows with. And without the grounding influence of founders Justin, Ash and myself working at the same place we seemed to be veering off in different directions. Honestly, at that point the company probably could have dissipated and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Then, last year, stuff changed. We were still doing small, unambitious shows, but slowly we built a consistent core team of people all equally passionate about what we were doing, and as we went on the reviews got better and the audiences bigger. Now we’ve opened 2017 with two huge productions, both of which were critically successful and boasted multiple sold out shows. Granted, Springsteen and Dracula had the added bonus of both being about iconic subjects and based on well-loved Movie Maintenance episodes, but I maintain that neither would have been successful if they’d been shit. On the contrary, the heightened expectations of being about beloved properties would have made failure that much starker.
Looking ahead we have our next play Heroes already in rehearsal, a co-production with another company locked in for November, and potentially a third show around August. For the first time, we seem to consistently know what we’re doing and be doing it well. And considering the clumsy start to the company, that’s a very good place to be indeed.
Standing in the empty theatre last night with Justin and Ash, it was hard not to reflect on the journey we’ve had to get here and marvel at the fact that, after some middling successes and embarrassing failures, we’re at a point where our company is in better health than ever; finally something we can be unreservedly proud of. The future looks very bright at the moment, and on the back of another winner of a show, Bitten By Productions is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Oh, and also two members of our team went and got surprise married last night. So if that’s not moving onwards and upwards, I don’t know what is.
Like most people my age, or any age really, I have a deep love of Star Wars. True, it isn’t the fantasy trilogy that most shaped my childhood (that would be Lord of the Rings), but it does mean a lot to me and I have fond memories of seeing the original trilogy in the cinemas when it was re-released in 1997, and the huge excitement for each new instalment in the prequel trilogy. While I had a vague sense at the time that the newer films weren’t as good as the older ones, that had little-to-no bearing on how many times I watched and re-watched Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (even as a kid Phantom Menace could go jump off a fucking cliff) and how intoxicated I was with the whole mythology and singular feel of Star Wars. Even now, watching Revenge of the Sith presents a unique experience of being able to cackle at every hammy Palpatine moment and awful Anakin line and still somehow feel something in its final moments. Nostalgia probably has a lot to do with this, but I also believe it’s more than that, that there is something singular and elemental to Star Wars that manages to transcend its many, many shortcomings. Maybe it’s the realisation of a new modern myth, maybe it’s that those well-worn themes of good vs evil and overcoming our own darkness will never not be powerful, but whatever the case I have always seen Star Wars as something special.
Or at least, I have until recently.
The current blockbuster landscape is a fascinating one and will make for some very interesting film theory books in about two decades. A few years ago I remember saying that we were living through the ‘age of the geek’, with so many beloved yet previously somewhat derided properties getting big budget, popular reboots, more often than not infused with a winking sense of nostalgia designed to appeal to the inner child of all of us. Around the point of 2012, when a new Star Wars trilogy had been announced, The Hobbit was on the horizon, Game of Thrones had seized the cultural landscape like nothing else and the Avengers had revolutionised what a film franchise could do it was hard not to feel like a kid in an ever-growing candy store. If you could even vaguely be considered a geek or a pop culture enthusiast chances were there was something for you either in cinemas, on TV, or not far away.
Fast forward to the present day and just about every classic franchise has been resurrected in some way. Old horror properties litter the TV landscape, superhero films dominate cinema and we get a Star Wars movie every year. Dream come true, right?
A couple of nights ago I got home to a text that the first trailer had been released for The Last Jedi. Now back in 2014 when we knew a trailer for The Force Awakens was imminent I could barely sleep for excitement. I watched that trailer countless times on its first day, and I teared up in subsequent trailers (“Chewie, we’re home”). Even the Rogue One trailers got me pumped. And when I learned a glimpse of The Last Jedi was here my first thought was “oh yeah, cool I guess.” I didn’t even watch it immediately. When I did, I sort of nodded to myself and went straight to bed. Didn’t even remember I’d seen it until halfway through the next day. Its existence and the experience of watching it had next to no effect on me.
Then today I watched the trailer for the final season of Star Wars: Rebels, which was packed to the brim with epic moments and explosions and alluded tragedy and again, I felt nothing. Then finally it occurred to me; I don’t care about Star Wars anymore.
Back in the days of the prequels, Star Wars was special. The films came out in 1999, 2002, and 2005. Three years between each film, three years to speculate, get excited and crucially, to miss it. Star Wars was an event and part of what made it special was the promise that Revenge of the Sith would be the end, the final realisation of the vision Lucas had been sculpting since 1977. Of course retrospectively it seems somewhat naive to have ever thought a billion dollar franchise on this level would ever be put to rest for the sake of something as unimportant as artistic integrity, but at the time people believed it. It was a six part story that, once concluded, was to be put to bed.
Part of the reason the Force Awakens release was met with such fervour is that there was a genuine belief that we would never get an episode seven and the existence of one was basically a kind of geek holy grail. And sure, Force Awakens was well made and had decent characters and whatnot, but there was a sense to it that we had seen all of this before. Quite literally, considering how much it dedicated itself to emulating A New Hope. Then Rogue One, ostensibly the first real attempt for Star Wars to do something different, turned out to be little more than a basket of easter eggs positioned around thinly written characters and a dull story. And Star Wars: Rebels has its moments, but tellingly it’s only really worth watching to see a cameo from a certain favourite or a payoff to something seeded in the far superior Clone Wars.
Because here’s the secret; nostalgia is an empty emotion. It literally means yearning for something that no longer exists, in most cases our childhood. And sure, it has power, and being reminded of something that meant a huge amount to you as a child is difficult to turn your nose up at, but it can’t last. If you take away the nostalgia factor in Disney’s take on Star Wars, what are you left with? The storytelling is hardly exciting or revolutionary, the characters are okay at best and sure the films might be colourful or entertaining, but the same can be said of Marvel and with them churning out three essentially indistinguishable blockbusters a year isn’t everyone getting a little sick of it all?
The fact is, when you’re pumping out franchise films or television seasons at a rate of one a year or more, you don’t have time to miss that world or that feeling, and sooner or later those instalments start to feel inessential. Add to that a growing sense that nostalgia is the primary currency the franchise is trading in, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I miss George Lucas. Say what you will about his vision, but at least he had one. It’s easy to claim that he only cared about money or merchandise, but he also waited nineteen years to tell the rest of the story he wanted to tell, and even then only in chapters that came every three years. He didn’t have a different film scheduled every year.
The truth here is that Star Wars is no longer driven by any creative vision at all. It’s driven by the fact that everyone loves Star Wars and the products (because that’s what these new films undoubtedly are) are entirely built around reverse engineering the things people loved about the franchise at the expense of doing anything brave or new. And can I point out that Star Wars was originally successful because people hadn’t really seen anything like it before?
I’ll still watch The Last Jedi, of course, and probably whatever other films come. And I’m sure they’ll be competently made and full of crowd pleasing moments, because Disney will be extremely careful about protecting their four billion dollar investment. But I’ve officially checked out of the hype. I don’t really care anymore. Star Wars is now just another blockbuster franchise dedicated to giving people what we want at the expense of what we need; something new, exciting and thrilling, something that will ignite imaginations with possibilities the same way the original Star Wars films did. And hey, just because I feel that way doesn’t mean you will, but I am going to leave you with this question; what happens when that warm glow of nostalgia wears off?
There's not a whole lot of context to give for this story. I finished writing it about five minutes ago, after starting it on a whim. I guess it's my attempt to explore a legend that has always meant a huge amount to me. Also my recommendation is that you listen to The Fields of Athenry by the High Kings as you read; the song sort of inspired this.
Hope you like it.
In previous blog posts I’ve talked at length about the surreal, stressful and ultimately rewarding process that was putting on a play about one of my heroes. Springsteen was a bigger success than I could have hoped for and there was a definite sense of melancholy to the ending of the show, despite ongoing talks about whether we revive it at a bigger theatre somewhere down the line.
That melancholy might have been magnified due to how proud we all were of this show and the reception it got, but it’s hardly singular. Every play ending comes with a real feeling of loss, as the little family you’ve put together over the last few months separates and the thing that you’ve worked so hard on lingers only in memories and maybe a grainy video recording. And sure, the spontaneity and impermanence of theatre is part of what makes it special, but it’s hard not to feel like something you’ve put so much work into should live on in some form, able to be discovered by people who might have missed it the first time around. Telling everybody how good the show was is hardly the same as them experiencing it for themselves and reading the script will never compare to seeing something on stage.
Retrospectively, doing radio plays should have been a much more obvious choice than it was. Much of my time is divided between my theatre output with Bitten By Productions and my podcast work with Sanspants Radio, and so a marriage of the two would seem logical. And while it had been mentioned here and there in the past, everybody has lives, everybody is busy and it’s very hard to find the time to reconvene a cast for a day to record, harder still to find somebody willing to edit the whole thing together in a way that sounds as good as everyone’s work deserves.
When Chris Farrell, who played Bruce in our production, mentioned he had a sound engineer friend interested in moving into audiobooks and radio plays everything clicked into place very quickly. A diligent professional, Krisztian Pilisko oversaw a day of recording in my home studio and within a week and a half turned around an edit, interspersing the dialogue with appropriate background noises and, of course, the music of Bruce himself. And while I was excited to hear how the recorded version sounded, part of me was still unsure if it would work. After all, a play is at least partly a visual experience and we had transplanted ours pretty much verbatim from the stage version, with only a handful of allowances made for the new medium. Being new to the medium, us fucking this up was reasonably foreseeable.
And when I started listening this morning I was immediately unsure. Was it too talky? Was the dialogue intense enough? Should I have trimmed it down? Did the scenes transition smoothly enough? The first few minutes of listening I was somewhat on edge, unsure if it worked at all. Then, around halfway through scene two, I started to get in the swing of it. The end of that scene left me grinning. The end of scene three winded me. Scene four made me punch the air. Scene five made me walk outside to take a few deep breaths. And scene six had me actually wiping away tears.
Removed from a visual component, the play now has to rely on the vocals of the actors, and suddenly the subtleties and nuances of their performances become very, very clear. My writing has always been heavily dialogue and character driven, and in a weird way this format seems perfect for a play like this. We certainly lose some things due to not seeing the action, but I would argue we gain a huge amount from the forced emphasis on voices. The emotions almost feel more raw and intimate due to them being right there in your ears. It makes the play a more personal experience.
Finishing listening this morning left me in just about the best mood. Beyond the potential for Springsteen reaching a whole new audience, I started planning how many more of our shows we can immortalise in this way and how soon we can get them done. The Critic, The Lucas Conundrum, Regression and The Last Supper are prime candidates when it comes to older plays, and that doesn’t even touch on the upcoming shows we can do. Sean Carney’s Dracula, currently in rehearsal, will certainly get this treatment, along with a couple of other plays we have in the works, some written by me, others by other members of the Movie Maintenance crew. And the more we do, the more ambitious we can get. A full cast production of Boone Shepard is a mildly tantalising proposition.
Of course, if this is remotely the kind of thing that interests you then you’re probably wondering when they’ll be released. The tentative answer is hopefully soon. There’s a sense that we might want to get a few more in the bag before we commit to a steady release schedule (I’m hoping monthly). My impatient inclination is to get this out as soon as possible though, if nothing else to share with the world the amazing work Krisztian and the cast have done.
More than anything, this morning confirmed for me that radio plays are an exciting new opportunity for both Bitten By Productions and Sanspants Radio, as well as a fresh challenge. And while I probably have no business committing to more stuff right now, I am also terrible at approaching things with caution, responsibility or patience. So yeah, get ready for quite a few of these heading your way in the near future. I think they’ll be pretty good.
But for now check out the tiny excerpt below. It's actually eerie how much Chris sounds like Bruce here.
There’s a question that I’ve been asked a lot in the last few years, since I finished my Masters of Screenwriting and starting ‘fixing’ bad films on a reasonably popular podcast. It gets phrased in different ways, but it essentially boils down to some variant of ‘are you too analytical to enjoy films?’ or ‘has doing your masters/podcast/reviewing/writing ruined movies for you?’
I find this question immensely frustrating, so let me state this categorically; there is one barometer for how I feel about a film, and that is how I feel about a film. Studying screenwriting can teach you to appreciate elements, reviewing can help you understand why certain aspects work or don’t work, but ultimately nothing can take away how something makes you feel while watching it or the impact it has on you afterwards. Simple as that. My opinion is probably somewhat affected by what I’ve studied, but when all is said and done a film either speaks to me or it doesn’t. At worst, my knowledge of story and film makes me less tolerant of films I already dislike and more appreciative of films I already love.
Recently somebody on the Sanspants subreddit was complaining about me (this happens a lot) because apparently I only angrily criticise films ‘to be cool’. This person reasoned that I couldn’t possibly have really disliked Rogue One or Jessica Jones or The Cursed Child; I was just attacking things that people liked to be controversial and get a reaction. Plus, the argument continued, I had gone on record saying I love the Saw franchise! Therefore my opinion is evidently incorrect.
Well, yes, and also no. My opinion is my opinion, and opinions are subjective. I like the Saw films because I grew up with them and have a lot of nostalgic love for the series, I disliked Rogue One because I thought it was an actively bad movie that relied on cheap nostalgia and fan service to disguise its very obvious failings in the apparently unimportant areas of story and character.
But then, the counter argument goes, I loved Jurassic World, which was guilty of the exact same crime, right? Well, it’s hard to quantify these things. Jurassic World had problems, but it also made me feel like a ten year old. You can’t take that away from me any more than I can take away your own enjoyment of Rogue One.
There seems to be this idea on Twitter and Reddit that I will fly into an incandescent rage if you say you disliked something I love (Hannibal, Jaws). I probably propagate this notion through being very passionate and unafraid to express that passion, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned through doing Movie Maintenance it’s that films speak to different people in different ways, and as such there’s not really any such thing as an objective opinion on a film. So no, I’m not offended by someone loving Rogue One or hating Hannibal. The truth is I couldn’t care less what films you like or dislike, just like no-one is under any obligation to care about my opinion. That might seem self-contradictory considering I’m on a podcast literally built around opinions, but just because I disagree with someone doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what they have to say. Debate is invigorating and fun, even if you are ultimately very unlikely to change someone’s opinion on a film that made them feel a certain way. Personally I love understanding why somebody had a different experience in the cinema to me, but understanding that won’t change my own experience. It just enriches your cinemagoing, like reading a good, cogent review that makes points you didn’t think of.
So please, if you’re going to write off my opinion because I’m ‘too analytical’ and therefore unable to just enjoy a film, remember I love Jurassic World more than I will love my own children and once you’ve finished remembering that, just shut up. Likewise if you’re going to use the films I love that you don’t to try and deflate some perceived authority on film which I can promise you I don’t have.
In short, keeping enjoying what you enjoy and disliking what you dislike. I’ll be doing the same.
So, it’s official. On May 29 Boone Shepard will be back for his next adventure, careening across America with Promethia Peters and Oscar Wilde for a rollicking road trip that may or may not involve some time travel (it does).
Boone Shepard’s American Adventure has had a particularly tangled road to get to this point. As I’ve spoken about in other blogs, its early drafts were pretty messy and inconsequential feeling. There was some talk about skipping it and going straight to book three, which is far more explosive, but instinctively I felt like American Adventure was important, that it had value. And as ramshackle and bad as my first draft was, I felt there was a good book buried in there. I just had to work out what it was.
I rewrote American Adventure bit by bit over the last year, replacing scenes until it became a totally different novel to the one it started out as. With the help of a playlist heavy on Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bob Seger I found my tone and my themes and eventually I found the story I wanted to tell. A book at once funnier, more action packed, and more introspective than its predecessor, a story about learning to appreciate the people in your life and discovering what it really means to be a good person. I wanted to transpose the wild, fun tone of the Boone Shepard short stories on to a novel, and while it took a while, I think I cracked it. I promised myself that I wouldn’t let American Adventure go ahead until I was confident it was better than the first book, and now I’m sure that’s the case.
With a now confirmed release date fast approaching, I’m slipping fully back into Boone mode. This weekend we’re shooting the new trailer, which I’m very excited for, and I’ve spent the last few days organising another book launch. The draft illustrations are starting to come in and that very particular thrill of seeing my world and characters coming to life in pictures is back in force. As soon as the book is close to edited I’ll start work recording the new audiobook, which will require me to do enough Texan accents that I’m going to apologise in advance. But it’s looking like the recording will be scored by a bluegrass version of the theme song we had in the first book, so that at least should make up for some of my less-than-impressive vocals.
It’s a cliché to say I can’t wait to share it with you all, but I really can’t wait to share it with you all. It’s thanks to all the people who read and liked the first book that there’s even going to be a second, and I promise you Boone’s adventures only get bigger and better from here. Now let’s hope we can see this journey through to the very end. It’s gonna be a good’un.
So earlier today I finally saw Rings, the long belated third instalment in the American version of the Ring horror franchise. As you might expect from a regularly delayed, low budget sequel released twelve years after the previous instalment to little fanfare, it was not great. It was probably terrible. And yet I had an absolute ball.
The Ring franchise is one of my all-time favourites. The 2002 original American film was probably the first horror movie that really made me fall in love with the genre. It’s haunting, unsettling and about the most atmospheric film I’ve ever seen. Of course, being me, I swiftly devoured everything the series had to offer, from the batshit crazy Japanese films to the original novel series which starts out as horror and quickly turns into some of the most affecting, intelligent science fiction I’ve ever read. As a series, it’s the gift that keeps on giving because what you initially assume it to be isn’t quite what you get if you decide to follow it down the rabbit hole.
The American series has essentially lain dormant ever since the bizarre 2005 The Ring Two, and while the Japanese series, both novels and films, continued, I’m a little beholden to when the translations are released, meaning that new Ring content has been pretty thin on the ground for me, give or take a rage inducing attempt at watching the recent crossover with the Grudge franchise, Sadako vs Kayako. As such, the release of Rings was a big deal for me and going in to see it today, despite knowing it would almost certainly be awful, I was struck by just how excited I was when the flickering Dreamworks logo came up to the haunting strains of the familiar theme song.
And look, for the most part the critics were right. Rings is an odd beast; it boasts an entirely new (and significantly cheaper) cast to the previous two films and as such you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a total clean slate, but it so strongly relies on mythology established in previous films and so much of it is devoted to explaining loose ends left over from a couple of films that didn’t exactly give a damn about consistent story elements. So long since the previous films, which were never world-conquering classics, the logical choice for Rings would be to provide an in for people new to the franchise, but short of some convoluted explanation it doesn’t really bother. What’s especially curious is how much of the mythology it borrows from the largely forgotten The Ring Two over the more fondly remembered original film. And it does all this while beat for beat following the same template as the 2002 film, albeit in a far messier way.
And yet, I had a great time. From the aeroplane set opening scene to the actually somewhat creepy (if nonsensical) climax, Rings was an oddly nostalgic, fan service-y experience that felt designed for me to switch my brain off and enjoy it and not much else. It’s hard to see what kind of reception the filmmakers thought this film was going to get or how anybody greenlit this script over something, y’know, good, but I’m not complaining. The final scene of the film, while weirdly put together and stupid, left me grinning and I walked out feeling like I got exactly the experience I wanted from this film.
Rings is not good. But for the small category of hardcore fans of this strange, convoluted franchise, this strange, convoluted film skirts dangerously close to being great.
A few months back I wrote a blog post discussing the then-current state of Movie Maintenance, the podcast I regularly appear on. While we started out as a review show of sorts that was basically a spin-off of a different show, over time we developed and became something akin to a fan fiction podcast with a revolving cast of writers.
That might sound like I’m damning us with faint praise; after all, there’s a definite stigma that comes with the title ‘fan fiction’, but, while it’s fairly accurate, it’s probably not the best moniker to describe what we did. Basically it was a way for us as geeks and writers to demonstrate what directions we would take Hollywood’s biggest franchises and properties if were we given the keys. Some of the episodes were specific fixes of flawed films, but an overwhelming amount were essentially our ideal sequels/spin offs to various properties. Not really ‘maintenances’, as many helpful internet commenters deigned to point out.
I made the argument then that pitching a good new instalment in any franchise that was struggling essentially counts as a maintenance and I think that still stands, but it does make our title somewhat misleading. So, coming into the new year, we had to think long and hard about the future of the show. We’ve been doing really well as far as listenership and fan engagement goes, but the niggling sense that we weren’t exactly sticking to our premise remained, with straightforward maintenances regularly getting eschewed in favour of dream Harry Potter spin offs and Star Wars sequels. Fun for us, fun for a lot of the audience, not fun for anyone who likes the premise baked into the title of the show and wants to see how we would go about fixing existing films.
Some big conversations were had, and behind the scenes things changed. With the show’s founder, editor and ostensible producer Joel Zammit tied up in the rest of the fast-growing Sanspants Radio output, producing duties had more or less fallen to me, and that is not the kind of responsibility I should ever have. Plus, episodes recorded to coincide with recent releases just weren’t getting edited fast enough to capitalise on the relevance they were trying to achieve.
When Joel suggested bringing on board a new producer, I was apprehensive. For all our issues, we were doing well and enjoying ourselves. In truth, we probably could have continued the same way for a while yet. Did we really need somebody else coming in and changing everything?
But, as it turned out, Sam Loy was very much on the same page as us and we hit it off almost instantly. His ideas made perfect sense when it came to tightening and improving the format of the show, while at the same time putting the emphasis where it always should have been; on maintenances of flawed movies.
If you listen to the show you may or may not have already noticed a slight difference in the way things run. We’re now operating in cycles of six episodes; four of which will be ‘classic’ maintenances, one of which will be an ‘original’ pitch, one of which will be a more general discussion episode focussing on a topic (i.e. the Oscars, Superhero Films, etc). This will keep the show true to its premise while still allowing for fun, fresh new stuff and more generalised discussion. The cast has also been tightened a little; emphasising a core group of three with one of us regularly swapping out to allow for a guest. So none of your favourites are going anywhere, there’ll just be a little more of some of us and less of others, just to keep a bit more tonal consistency across the board.
Personally I feel really good about where the show is at; like we’re finally achieving our potential and have developed our own distinct voice. Of course, these changes might not be for everyone and that’s okay. Ultimately if they don’t work we’re flexible enough to reconfigure. But for now, I think we’re on the right track and we’ve got some brilliant episodes in the bag. Hope you like ‘em.
It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation that I love The Prince of Egypt. I saw the film when it first came out in 1998 and it became one of my earliest cinematic obsessions, a film I couldn’t stop thinking about, a film I obsessed over and raved about to anyone who would listen. Retrospectively, I haven’t changed a whole lot since age 7, but I digress. The Prince of Egypt blew me away and when I found out it was based on a book I begged my parents to buy it for me. A little uncertain, they got me a Bible and I distinctly remember being confused by how boring the written version of the story was. Where were the characters I had fallen in love with? Where was Moses’ subtle, tender, supportive relationship with Tzipporah? Where was the complex, tangled mix of love and hate he shared with Rameses? Where was his pain and fear upon the moment he finally decided to return home to Egypt? I vaguely knew at the time that the book was always supposed to be better, but in this case…
Blasphemy aside, my love for The Prince of Egypt didn’t really abate into my teenage years and then adulthood. I often listened to the soundtrack in my boarding school room while the other guys blasted rap and techno and whatever else was big at the time. I had many a raucous night with friends in my first years of uni putting the movie on at some ungodly hour and singing along to every word. I’ve never been ashamed to be passionate about this cartoon.
During my first year at VCA one of our lecturers was teaching us about conflict in storytelling and what separates the good from the bad. He told us that, bar none, the best example of cinematic conflict he had ever seen was The Prince of Egypt. Now I had a tendency to zone out during these lectures but this had me sitting bolt upright as he explained over the incredulous chuckles that the story of two brothers who were raised together and care deeply about each other only to be set at odds by circumstances beyond their control made for some of the richest, most compelling conflict he had ever seen. And, thinking back to every time I watched the movie, I was struck by how right he was.
Unlike so many other children’s films, The Prince of Egypt refuses to talk down to its audience or dumb down the story, a fact which may account for its less than explosive box office take but almost certainly accounts for the passionate love so many people of my generation seem to have for it. The villain of the film, Rameses, is such a tragic figure because we completely understand his motivations, and what’s more, we like him. We feel for him when his father suggests that he could be the weak link that destroys the dynasty of Pharaohs and it hurts so much when he refuses to let the Hebrews go because we know why he can’t do it. To bend to Moses’ will would be to prove his father right about him. Rameses just doesn’t know any better and his fatal flaw is his terror that considering a different point of view will prove his weakness.
And on the other hand you have Moses. Raised in the palace as a prince, never once suspecting he was different, Moses’ journey is a painful one as he is forced to contend with the fact that he is not the person he thought he was, that the slaves he has grown up spitting on are his true people. During probably the best song in the film (The Plagues), Moses laments about how much this devastation tortures him inside and while the line may seem clunky and obvious, it works because it’s undoubtedly true. His home and family are being ripped apart because of a situation set in motion long before he was born. Moses must have the strength to stand against everything he has ever known and loved to do what is right. It’s a terrific internal conflict only compounded by the external one of his struggle against the brother he still loves so deeply.
It’s Moses’s plight that gives this film its universal strength. The filmmakers don’t rely on the Biblical roots of the story to give it its power; they ground it entirely in the characters, believable people stuck in unenviable circumstances and driven by rock solid motivations. We know why Moses runs away and we know how hard it is for him to come back. There is an immense, understated power to the scene when he rides back into Egypt after years away, unrecognisable as the pampered Prince who ran and yet still the same character we have grown to care for. Again, you don’t need to be religious to appreciate this arc and you certainly don’t need to believe in God to be swept up by the beautiful, powerful, heart wrenching moment when the Hebrews finally escape, albeit at the cost of every Egyptian firstborn child.
The emotions of Moses’ flight and subsequent return had a huge impact on me as a kid, and maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to prodigal son stories. Give me a tale about somebody who runs away from their life due to terrible circumstances only to be forced to return years later, and I’m probably going to love it. It’s a trope that turns up in many of my all-time favourites (The Book of Joe, Breaking Bad) and one that tends to be the centre of a lot of my own stories. Windmills, The Commune, Chris Hawkins, Hometown and Boone Shepard all feature this in a big way.
In fact, Boone Shepard is very pointedly influenced by The Prince of Egypt, to the point where I would be worried about plagiarism if the Bible was in any way under copyright. Take away the absurdist, gothic trappings and the time travel elements and look at the central plot of the novel. Young man runs away from home after being responsible for a death, lives a carefree life in a whole different world until circumstances force him to return and confront his past in order to save an oppressed people from his megalomaniacal brother.
Yeah. Try unseeing that if you’re ever inclined to read it a second time.
The ways in which this film influenced me goes further than just plot, however. I’ve always tried to give my antagonists some humanity in the same way this film does for Rameses and in almost every case they tend to be characters who are closely linked to the protagonist, whether a family member or an old friend. Furthermore, I’ve always hated filler, to the extent that I’m often accused of rushing my stories. A friend once described my style of writing novels as ‘Matthew Reilly on crack’ and my Dad, who recently read the manuscript of Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, bemoaned the fact that every time he reached a bit he liked it was over and on to the next twist before he had the chance to absorb what was happening. It’s a fair concern, but I can only tell stories the way I like them to be, and I so much prefer a story that leaves you wanting more than one that outstays its welcome.
The Prince of Egypt boasts absolutely no filler. Nothing in that film doesn’t need to be there, and this makes it such an easy re-watch, one where you never want to leave the room for fear of missing another classic moment. Every scene serves a purpose, every moment either developing, establishing or progressing a character while advancing the plot and building to a wholly satisfying conclusion. I was struck while re-watching the film last night by just how fast it is, in a way that means you never once feel like the film is treading water. This has the effect of leaving you entirely satisfied at the end. The film hits its emotions hard and holds nothing back. It wears its heart on its sleeve and whether or not you’re a religious person (I am not) it’s very hard not to be swept up in the sheer passion that characterises every scene.
There’s more I could talk about. The beautiful visuals, the memorable songs. But I sort of feel like anyone who has seen The Prince of Egypt knows what I’m talking about and I hardly need to sell it to them. And if you haven’t seen it, well, you’re missing out.
It’s a film that does all the things I love stories to do, a film that taught me so much and shaped my sensibilities in a big way. If I can ever write a story that affects someone the way The Prince of Egypt affected me, I will have done my job.
So yeah. It’s pretty good. Now excuse me while I go watch it again.
Early last year, looking for a new book series to lose myself in, I decided to have a crack at The Wheel of Time. People who are even remotely familiar with those books will know exactly what a choice like that entails. Fourteen books, each longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, with so many characters, civilisations and subplots that you need a series-specific encyclopedia beside you at all times just to know what the hell is going on.
But hey, when you want to get lost in a story you can do a lot worse than something as huge and sprawling as Wheel of Time and there’s a reason the series is so well known; it’s very good. The characters are great, the twists are shocking, the lore is fascinating and it pretty much has all the things you could want from an epic fantasy.
And yet, it has a reputation as being a bit of a slog. People always warned me that the going gets a little tough later in the series, that things don’t stay as propulsive as they are at first. I shrugged this off; I survived Feast for Crows and Dance With Dragons, how hard could this be? Plus, the deeper I got into the series the more I was enjoying it. Book six was a clear high point. Book seven was great. Book eight had plenty of rad stuff going on. Book nine was a little slow but had a great climax. Book ten…
Book fucking ten. Crossroads of Twilight. The book that has been sitting in my bag for months on end now. The book that every day I pick up, determined to power through, certain that this time I can get through more than a page, knowing that everyone says it will be worth it, that it’s all smooth sailing from here.
A while ago I had a little tantrum on an episode of Movie Maintenance about the objectively bad TV show Jessica Jones. Apart from the shit acting, awful writing, glacial pace and dreadful characters, it suffers from arguably one of the biggest crimes you can commit as a storyteller; making your audience put up with something that has no discernible point, that adds nothing to the show, that swallows up screentime and detracts from any of the interesting stuff going on. In the case of Jessica Jones that something is the character of Jessica’s upstairs neighbour, a shrill, supremely irritating middle finger to the audience, a character who adds nothing to the plot, who isn’t funny, who is painful to watch and who, for some reason, the writers decide we need a decent serve of in every fucking episode.
I copped a lot of flak for going off in that episode and look, the truth is I was jetlagged at the time and probably could have been a bit more equivocal about the whole thing. But I stand by everything I said because including a character like that shows a profound disrespect for your audience and a frankly offensive carelessness toward the job of trying to tell a good story. I find it hard to believe that nobody in that writers’ room questioned the value of that character, which implies either incompetence or severe carelessness. And while we all have moments in our writing that don’t hit home the way we think they will, it’s hard to figure out what the writers of Jessica Jones thought that character would be. The only explanation is that they didn’t think, which simply isn’t good enough.
Now I’m finding that same feeling in Crossroads of Twilight. I recently endured three pages of two characters getting dressed, followed by those same characters engaging in page after page after page after page after fucking page of endless, circulatory discussion of things that seem to have no apparent bearing on the plot whatsoever. When I finally got through this one chapter (it took me about a month) I was greeted with the introduction of a whole new subplot about a whole new minor character when all I want to know about are the characters I’ve spent ten books getting invested in. And no, wanting to know about them does not mean wanting three pages of what they are wearing.
Earlier in this post I mentioned the great climax to book nine. It was a moment the whole series had built up to and it was just as satisfying and beautiful and exciting as anyone could have hoped. It leaves you with a giddy sense of wanting to know where the series could go from here, what the implications of this enormous moment are. But Robert Jordan apparently decided that we don’t need to know what happens next; what we instead need is to see how a whole bunch of minor characters in different parts of the world reacted to that big moment. I am just over halfway through the book now and it is yet to pick up the threads left at the end of the previous volume.
Why? Why is the author doing this to us? Why did he think this made for engaging, entertaining or important storytelling? It’s frustrating in the same way Jessica Jones was frustrating; because not only is it difficult, it’s impossible to see the value in it. It feels very much like I’m being punished, and I have no idea what for.
Ten books in, I can’t give up. I can’t be one of those people who puts down Wheel of Time and never finishes it. I’ve come too far to fail, but continuing is a grim proposition right now. I actually dread reading this book. I dread the frustration and the anger and the boredom that I get every time I try to struggle through another few pages. And I really hope the end is worth it, because this one book has been almost enough to undo all the goodwill the rest of the series built up.
So basically, any writers reading this, please make sure that whatever you choose to include in your story has a point. Please make sure it’s worth your audience’s time. Because somebody engaging with the story you’re trying to tell and choosing to spend their time on it is a special, precious thing that’s worth too much to waste on unnecessary bullshit.
Just some thoughts.