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.
When I was in high school I attended a talk by Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels. Naturally at some point an audience member asked the mandated question that all these events endure at some point: “do you have any advice for aspiring writers?” Lindsay’s response, without missing a beat, was simply: “learn to weld”.
Of course, there were lots of laughs, but almost a decade later, his point has never felt more pertinent. Unless you’re a hotshot screenwriter or a bestselling author there is very, very little money in writing. And the truth is if you are making very, very little money writing then you are officially better off than almost every other writer on the planet.
A few months ago I was out with friends and told them I had to leave early due to having work in the morning. One of them scoffed that my job was writing stories – I could be hungover for that. At this I was presented with a strange dilemma. Obviously the job I was referring to was not writing anything, it was selling fireplaces and trying to look manly while driving a forklift, but this friend actually thought I made my living as an author. And I did not want to correct him. To do so would be to admit defeat, to reveal that as impressive as certain things seem, the depressing reality was that I still had to maintain a dull day job in order to eat.
Of course, being not a total wanker, I explained the truth to him. He was shocked; he thought I lived off Boone Shepard royalties. Fat chance. I get $2 per book, and while Boone has been doing very well for himself, you’d have to be selling an astronomical amount of books for that to translate into a reasonable income. Shortly after the release date I was doing a school talk in a small country town, after which I dropped by the local bookstore to see if they would stock Boone Shepard. They agreed to take a couple of copies, which I wasn’t about to complain over. Half an hour later I got a phone call; several kids from the school had come in asking for the book, as such they needed twenty more ASAP. So, feeling pretty good about myself, I headed back to the store, arms overflowing with books, thinking about how much money this would make, only to remember that if they all sold it would be exactly $40. Less money than I would make for two hours waiting tables or working in a bar.
There can be very good money in writing. There have been times I have been paid over a grand for three days of work. Once I got a similar amount for a job that took me roughly twenty minutes to do. But freelance work isn’t exactly consistent and while you can feel like a total king after one of those big paydays, they’re almost invariably followed by more months of rejection letters and frustrating day jobs.
But something has sort of shifted for me. Back in January I somehow managed to stumble on a couple of those bigger paydays. And then ever since then, more money has slowly come trickling in. A little from Boone, a little from Sanspants, a little from a youth theatre company doing one of my older plays, a little from Den of Geek and so on. And for the first time, I straight up haven’t been doing anything else for a living. Make no mistake; I am broke as balls and barely scraping by. But I am scraping by. Do I have a debt or two? Sure. Can I afford to eat out or go drinking? Not at all. Am I fare evading like a champion every time I take public transport? You bet. But I am happier than I have been in years because for the first time in my life, I’m surviving purely on writing work. For the first time in my life I feel like a straight up professional writer. And while I’ve got a long way to go before I am living as comfortably as I’d like to be, I’m alive, I’m doing what I love and I’m not doing much else.
The brutal reality is that the tiny modicum of money I’m bringing in is barely enough and doesn’t allow for any emergencies that may come up. The truth is that writing work being inconsistent means that the tiny trickle I’m surviving off could dry up in a heartbeat and leave me destitute. The responsible thing for me to do would be to go back to my day job and at least make sure I’m somewhat financially stable. Yet I’m finding it very hard to be responsible when I can be happy instead.
It would be fair to say that I listen to a potentially unhealthy amount of Bruce Springsteen. To the point where he probably constitutes roughly 60% of what I listen to in any given week. No matter how many times I hear them, I always find myself circling back to certain albums at certain times and never get bored (unless it’s High Hopes I’m listening to but to be fair I was bored of that the first time I heard it).
The last two weeks have been a whole other level, mostly because the last two weeks have coincided with the run of the Bruce Springsteen play I’ve been threatening to write for a few years now, along with his latest Australian tour. Add the rehearsal process and for a couple of months I have been living and breathing Bruce.
It has been a strange, thrilling, frustrating, special and deeply rewarding time. Coming into this project I had no idea how it would go down. Would the cast invest if they weren’t already Springsteen fans? Would the hardcore fans in the audience hate our less-than-glowing portrayal of the man and would the non-fans find it boring and inaccessible? Would the play drag due to the fact that it wasn’t a comedy or a twist-packed thriller?
Any of the above outcomes were foreseeable, but none of them came to pass. The cast took the material above and beyond, tirelessly researching and discovering their characters. In the process we ended up with one of the most close knit teams I’ve ever worked with. The final night was emotional for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was the huge amount of love this crew felt for each other and excitement at the prospect of taking this show to the next level.
As for the response, well it’s always hard to quantify just what the general reaction to a play is. But the reviews Springsteen got were great and multiple thrilled Facebook posts from Springsteen fans in addition to their demands to have photos taken with our lead actor at the end of the shows implied that we stumbled on something people seemed to really like. Obviously it’s a bit of a cheat when the subject matter is something certain people are already really passionate about, but the amount of fans who loved the play seemed only rivalled by the amount of people saying some variation of ‘I’m not a Springsteen fan but that was fantastic’. If I had to guess I would say that the commitment of the cast had a lot to do with this, making the stakes feel real and the characters more than just caricatures of actual people plenty of the audience would not be familiar with.
All through the rehearsal process uncertainty lingered, but there was definitely a sense that there was a bit of magic going on with this one. So many of our rehearsals were built around long, revealing discussions with each other about the very real emotions and experiences underpinning what we were exploring in any given scene. Over the months leading up to the shows there were more than a few raw, teary hours spent with each other as we got to the heart of what was going on here, with Bruce’s music providing a backdrop.
Being so focussed on this play added a whole new level to seeing the man himself last Thursday; the third Bruce concert I’ve ever been to. There was a really strange new sense of familiarity as he walked out on stage, a weird kinship all the way through that glorious three hour set. Absurdly, it was almost as though I knew him now, like I had a more personal connection than ever before. It was a feeling that seemed ridiculous until Bruce turned to his band and asked ‘are you with me?’ – perfectly mirroring the ending of our play. And that was a very, very special moment. A profound feeling of ‘man, we really got this right.’
Independent theatre can often feel like a thankless task – although, as I’ve said before, even calling it that feels inherently arrogant, like you’re expecting thanks for asking people to pay for stuff you’ve come up with in your spare time. But even so, that doesn’t eradicate the fact that it is a lot of work that usually results in a handful of people coming to see the show, a little bit of money in everyone’s pockets, and maybe a good review or two if you’re lucky. This show felt different. Every night was a full house, or else a few seats short or, in the case of our second week, well over capacity. The response across the board was glowing. The passion and love we were met with at the end of every show was enough to overcome any stress about the endless shit that the venue made us deal with. And while we have every intention of taking this play further, whether to a better Melbourne theatre or on a tour of some sort, if this first run was the end of it I would still feel totally satisfied with how it all went.
More than anything Springsteen felt like it represented another turning point for us as a company; proof that we can do something subtler and more character driven than most of our past work has been. I do wish we had put on more shows and tried to secure a better venue from the start, but ultimately I think we gave the audience their money’s worth. And more than that, I think that we pulled off something that everyone involved should be very, very proud of. Earlier in this blog I suggested that the play’s success was a bit of a cheat considering it was about a real person. That’s only half true. Being about Bruce Springsteen meant that we got people through the door, but had the play not been good, had everyone not been operating at a level that meant our portrayal of an icon was actually credible, it would have flopped hard and fast. If anything, the challenge was bigger than any we’ve done before. And, working together with the best team I could have asked for, we rose to that challenge and then some.
The opening of Springsteen last week officially marked the tenth play of my theatre company, Bitten By Productions. In some ways it’s a milestone; ten plays in roughly three and a half years feels like a lot considering we’re a tiny, no budget indie company but the fact is, I write fast and we produce cheap. But lately I’ve been starting to feel like we’ve probably done as much as we can in the no-budget sphere of theatre we’re operating in. We’ve been on a bit of a hot streak of good reviews and decent audiences lately, but after the pains of watching Springsteen performed in a venue that has, charitably put, presented significant challenges, I’ve made a promise to myself that from now on we need to be presenting the plays in a way that suits the calibre we’re now operating at. The brilliant casts we seem lucky enough to assemble for each show deserve better.
The odd thing is that we started off operating at a higher production standard than we do now. A couple of our early shows had a relatively high amount of money sunk into them and had actual sets and costumes, with the sparser, more minimalist shows intended to be the exception rather than the rule. But reality got in the way and while I don’t think many of our recent shows have needed a much more elaborate presentation, thinking about the future makes it pretty clear that we need to change the way we operate, and after this, our tenth play, the time is ripe.
But thinking about the future often has the strange effect of making you think about the past and ten plays in I wanted to do a bit of a retrospective of our output to date; for my money, what worked, what didn’t work, what I’m proud of and what makes me want to bash my head against a brick wall.
Reunion was one of our least ambitious plays in every way, but it was never meant to be more than what it was. Presented at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne with a set consisting of a table and four chairs, a cast of five and a running time just on an hour, Reunion told the story of four high school friends who get together for a drink five years after the last time they all saw each other and things, of course, go terribly wrong.
When our shows are discussed over beers at the pub Reunion always tends to get a bit ignored. Personally though, I will always have a real soft spot for this show. It was sentimental, a little corny and a very ramshackle, skin-of-our-teeth production but it was also the first time I had written, directed and produced my own play and it was a very personal story. I will always remember the moment after closing night when I walked out on to the empty stage and thought ‘shit, we actually pulled this off’. Reunion was far from perfect or memorable, but it represented a starting point and for that I remember it very fondly.
When we started Reunion we weren’t yet Bitten By Productions; it was only during that process that we decided to start a company and Reunion sort of retroactively became our first production about halfway through the rehearsal process. But our first real team effort was Below Babylon, a futuristic thriller about a former assassin preparing for a final showdown with his nemesis. Below Babylon was a passion project for everyone involved from start to finish and part of me still suspects that the only reason anyone agreed to do Reunion was because it promised them a part of Below Babylon.
In terms of production, we’ve never since gone all out in the way we did with Below Babylon. We had a website designed from the ground up, we had a pretty feeble attempt at a viral marketing campaign (covering the city in posters saying ‘WHAT IS BELOW BABYLON?’ with a link to the website) and we even had a tie-in prequel comic. Lots of money was spent on an awesome set and props; visually we’ve never again matched that level. Below Babylon showed every cent that was poured into it.
The problem was the script. I’ll always be grateful for everyone having the faith in my work that they did, but Below Babylon promised an edgy noir thriller and in reality it’s kind of boring. Most of the first half is just exposition and while I was starting to develop the style of bouncy dialogue I predominantly use now, I went for a pretty weak attempt at hardboiled western/noir dialogue that just made everyone sound slightly constipated.
However, I am still extremely proud of the final scene of the play, when the long-promised showdown occurs in bloody, spectacular and twisted fashion. In a lot of ways the whole play was just treading water until I could get to that scene and even now in retrospect it’s killer; one of the first times I could tell from sitting in an audience just how much I had everyone on the edge of their seats.
But the rest of Below Babylon was just too bloated and humourless to really deserve all the money and work poured into it. Everybody was operating at their A-game, but in this case it was me who let the team down.
Beyond Babylon started life as a bit of a side project, a semi-sequel to Below written during the rehearsal process and featuring one of the surviving characters in a new story set in the same world, but from the start it was designed to be a different beast. A two hander, Beyond Babylon was the cheaper, nastier cousin to the first play, and while it didn’t have the visuals to match its predecessor, it was better in just about every other way. Just about.
Beyond suffered from something I’ve always grappled with in that it is just way too talky at the expense of very much happening. More recently I reunited with the cast of two to rework the show for a festival and we quite easily reduced it from an hour to fifteen minutes without losing anything essential. Beyond had significantly better dialogue that Below, had a better ending and more compelling themes but ultimately it was a short play bloated to full length and as such was kind of draggy and repetitive. That said, Dhania and Finn both gave brilliant performances and Beyond was our first play that got unequivocally good reviews. It was also the first time I started to really get a handle on directing. Ultimately it was a very rewarding show, albeit a flawed one.
A Good German
Yeah. Okay. This one. Chances are some people have clicked on this wanting to see what I have to say about A Good German. The answer is a lot, but I’ll try to be succinct. A Good German is tough because it’s the only show of ours I outright regret and look back on with embarrassment, but it was the most valuable learning curve I’ve ever experienced. Straight up; A Good German is the worst script I’ve ever written, only matched by the worst production we’ve yet done. Not the worst because it was cheap or anything; it’s the only play since Below Babylon that tried anything remotely ambitious for set or costumes, but the problem is you get very few points for trying if a play is about the Holocaust and you don’t succeed.
Here’s the thing; three reasonably successful shows in, we got arrogant. A Good German was an idea I’d had since high school, about a Nazi soldier who becomes infatuated with a Jewish inmate in a concentration camp. The script went through multiple drafts, none of which I was happy with, but in the end I listened when people told me it was good even though I suspected it wasn’t and let the show go ahead with an attitude of ‘she’ll be right’.
She was not right. She was not right at all. We made so many mistakes that seemed so obvious in hindsight. We let the play go forward in the hands of a director who had never directed before. I stupidly decided to audition despite the fact that I had long since stopped acting and my stupid decision was only matched by the stupider decision of the directors to cast me in the lead role. Only a couple of the cast could really do a German accent (I was not one of them) and instead of making a call to get rid of the accents, what we ended up with was a strange collection of vocal Frankensteins, which didn’t help when the dialogue already made Below Babylon look like Shakespeare. The rehearsal process was rushed; we had a month from auditions to opening. The costumes either didn’t fit properly or didn’t make sense (all the Jewish inmates wore nice, clean clothes).
Did I mention this play was about the Holocaust?
There were circumstances beyond our control; the Revolt, where we had previously done Below Babylon, had since undergone a change in management, by which I mean there no longer was any management, and so our set was only bumped in the day before opening night. Additionally, a few of the shows happened to fall on the same night as a dance concert next door that nobody saw fit to tell us about, meaning depictions of some of history’s greatest atrocities were regularly punctuated with bursts of Beyonce. But ultimately, had we been more organised, none of this would have been a problem. Had we been more organised, we would not have done this play, or would have done more rigorous workshopping or redrafting. But we did none of those things and were rightly eviscerated for it by our first review.
I so vividly remember the morning after opening night, waking up to read what remains to this day the most savage review of anything I’ve ever read. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach and the whole ensuing day of telling myself and anybody who would listen that I didn’t care, that the guy just didn’t get the play but knowing on some level that he was right, that we had fucked up and had to wear it, that we were asking an audience to come and pay for something that was not only an embarrassment, but actively offensive in its apparently cavalier attitude to the Holocaust.
All I can say is that we didn’t set out to seem like we didn’t care. We did care. We just got cocky and we assumed it would all be okay. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about theatre, it’s that that is never the case. If you put on a play, you’d better be sure that you believe in it a hundred percent. I didn’t, and that means that the responsibility for A Good German will always rest with me.
The Last Supper
So, coming off a creative failure on the level of A Good German, what’s a fledgling production company to do? Basically, learn and change. So when the time came to do The Last Supper, the third part of an accidental trilogy with Below Babylon and Beyond Babylon, we approached everything differently. Luckily the script, which I had written in a giddy three day writing session, was probably the best thing I had written up until that point; not perfect, but a damn sight better than what had come before it, so we were working off a stronger foundation than ever before. We brought in an experienced director. We made the play profit share, meaning that the cast we attracted were of a higher calibre due to the very effective promise of some payment. And for once, things went pretty smoothly.
There were two major issues with The Last Supper. One, despite containing moments that I think rank as some of my best, the script did have its issues. Far too much of it was devoted to recapping or discussing the previous two plays, so The Last Supper doesn’t really kick into gear until roughly its halfway point. And two, which seems to still be a theme for us, the venue.
I don’t want to get into the many, many issues we had at My Handlebar in Brunswick, the since closed bar that you may have heard of due to an unfortunate run in with one Clementine Ford, but suffice to say that despite having built a theatre upstairs, the place had no interest in actually running one, meaning that the play was constantly punctuated by beeping and yelling from outside (soundproofing was not a concern) and, even worse, loud music from the bar downstairs that apparently simply could not be turned down.
Still, we powered through. The Last Supper represented a turning point for us and set us up for better shows to come.
We Can Work It Out
I still think to this day that We Can Work It Out is our best play yet. An hour long comedy about the Beatles, We Can Work It Out was the first script written after doing my Masters of Screenwriting at VCA and it shows. Structurally it’s impeccable. It’s also very funny, thematically on point and has buckets of heart. We assembled a great cast and the tiny venue Voltaire actually worked in its favour, giving it an intimate, quirky feel. We Can Work It Out opened to full house shows, rapturous audiences and glowing reviews. It’s not my favourite of my scripts, but this was the first time that almost everything came together in the right way. Consequently, it only gets one paragraph.
The Lucas Conundrum
Still buzzing after We Can Work It Out we went straight into The Lucas Conundrum, a black comedy about a Hollywood director trying to avoid letting a dying kid see his latest blockbuster before its ready. Also performed at Voltaire, The Lucas Conundrum had a great cast, a top director in Ash Tardy and also had a great reception. Lots of laughs, good reviews, plus it remains my parents’ favourite of all my plays. Script-wise it had issues; it drags in the middle and gets a little too didactic at times, but I think it made up for it with a great twists and an oddly sweet ending that made it more than just a snarky look at Hollywood.
I get bored easily, and so after two well received shows mostly centred around four people in a room having debates about art, it seemed time to shake things up. And when it came to Regression, a play I probably consider to be my best, a different presentation seemed like a good idea. When my high school drama teacher Joachim Matschoss, who is regularly in production on shows all around the world, expressed interest in directing it I took the opportunity.
Joachim is a highly stylistic, non-naturalistic, visual director. My plays are fairly grounded and dialogue driven. I suspected this combination would result in something very different and special and for the most part I think it did. Performed in the studio space at Allpress Espresso, Regression was unlike anything we’d done before. Performed in the round with the actors interacting both behind and in front of the audience, Regression was strange, atmospheric and eerie, utilising an unconventional space to tell an unconventional story.
I wasn’t 100% thrilled though. I gave Joachim full creative freedom and so he tweaked the script slightly to fit his vision, which I was okay with, but there are moments I wish he hadn’t cut, chief among them the ending. I don’t want to be that writer who complains about every word not being used, but I did feel a bit confused that moments I was really proud of in the script were replaced with what I felt to be unnecessary improvisation.
All that said, it was exciting, new and different for us, and the reviews reflected that. And, in a little moment of personal vindication, it got a glowing write up from the same guy who eviscerated A Good German two years previously. So that was alright.
On the script level, I didn’t think much of The Critic. It wasn’t especially deep or personal, more of a comedic look at the odd relationship between creatives and critics, based on my experiences as both. I liked what I had written, but it didn’t feel like it was hitting the same heights as something like Regression. To me it rounded out a little thematic trilogy with We Can Work it Out and The Lucas Conundrum, so appropriately it was also performed at Club Voltaire. And like those two plays, it did very bloody well. Better than very bloody well. In the endlessly capable hands of Ash and with a top notch cast of four brilliant women, The Critic got us our best reviews ever, including my first and to date only five star review. I think this play was just a perfect marriage of all the things we have started to do very well; with no money behind us, we have to rely on good scripts, good direction and good acting to make our shows worthwhile, and I do feel like we’re at a point where we’re consistently operating on that level. The Critic wasn’t ambitious, but it was very good, and that’s probably more important.
How do you write semi-objectively about a play that’s halfway through its run? You can’t, so instead I will write with gushing subjectivity, with enthusiasm carried over from a first week that has exceeded all expectations. I honestly didn’t know how Springsteen would be received. Would the Bruce buffs hate it due to its less-than-flattering portrayal of the central character? Would it fly over the heads of Springsteen newbies? Would people find it boring due to a lack of explosive twists or broad humour?
Apparently none of the above. Springsteen has been received with the kind of enthusiasm I haven’t seen since We Can Work It Out (funny that). We’ve had people return for multiple viewings, we’ve had reports of tears from people who know nothing about Bruce and we’ve had hardcore fans demanding photos with Chris, the actor playing the icon. Next week is almost completely sold out and the reviews have been excellent. So much of that is down to the cast we have assembled, probably across the board the best I’ve ever worked with. As a director, Springsteen has been by far the most rewarding thing I’ve done. Stressful and terrifying, but it seems to have paid off.
Okay so this was predictably lengthy, and if you’ve read the whole thing hats off to you. I assume anyone who clicks on this probably was involved in one of our shows and skipped to the bit they were in to see if they were mentioned, which is fair enough although I tried to steer clear of naming names. Writing this was more for me, a way to articulate my thoughts as we come into the next chapter of our company’s life.
Our immediate next show is Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter, the first Bitten By Production not written by me, which means a bit of a break. Then it’ll either be Heroes or Chris Hawkins, a pair of dark thrillers I wrote last year, or Moonlite, a musical I’ve been working on with a good friend about the life of a (real) gay bushranger. Beyond that we have The Commune, another thriller and our first co-production with a different company.
Basically, the future looks bright for us. I’m trying to look at everything we’ve done before as honestly as I can to see what worked and what didn’t work, but I really do believe we’re in a good place right now. We’ve got all the right people on board and after some big mistakes I think we’re more clearheaded in how we approach things. The early days were marked by a lot of clashes of egos and unpleasant politics, but we’re past that now and I think we have the right attitude about what needs to happen for us to continue to grow, develop and innovate.
In short, it’s gonna be a good year.
It wouldn’t be an enormous stretch to say that A Series of Unfortunate Events is my favourite children’s series of all time, and so the announcement that Netflix was going to be adapting it into a TV series was just about one of the most exciting things that ever happened, rivalled only by when I received screeners for the first four episodes. These arrived rather unexpectedly, so I hadn’t yet had the chance to re-read the first four books that the Netflix series is adapting. Luckily the episodes I had received only covered the first two books, so I swiftly set to work reading The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room before giddily diving into the screeners.
The Netflix series, for the record, is excellent and an absolute gift to people who love the books as much as I do, but this isn’t about the show. I want to talk about the experience of reading those books as an adult.
I had only planned to revisit the first two and then read the next two before the official release, but that wasn’t what happened. Within minutes of finishing The Reptile Room I was on to The Wide Window and suddenly buried in a devoted binge-read of the whole series, going through a book a day even as they got thicker and denser. It was a strange, dizzying experience where I maybe wasn’t paying as much attention as I could have due to the fast-paced nature of the read but was so lost in the world, lore, story and characters that it didn’t really matter as one book blurred into the next and the story of the Baudelaire orphans unfolded like one long, tangled, winding novel.
Due to signing an embargo that means I can’t publicly refer to having seen the show until January 5, I won’t be posting until then, but I’m writing this literally minutes after putting down The End, while the storm of emotions I experienced over the last couple of weeks is all still fresh in my head.
Nostalgia is a big one, of course, as is always a part of revisiting any series that you grew up loving. I found myself flashing back to all the places I was when I eagerly dived into each new book upon release and the excitement of thinking that maybe this time all my questions would be answered, before Daniel Handler piled on a whole new assortment of mysteries on top of the ones that remained frustratingly unsolved. I relived the obsession I had with all things V.F.D, Snicket, Olaf and Baudelaire, combing the books for clues and hints that, in retrospect, seem far less meticulously planned than I chose to believe they were when I was younger.
But nostalgia is ultimately a shallow reason to enjoy something, and to me the definition of a classic is how it holds up to multiple readings/viewings. And while the early books in the series were well worn from how many times I read them as a kid, the later books weren’t nearly as ingrained in my memory due to only having read them once. The possibility lingered that the series might not be as good as I remembered it, and while I was reasonably confident that wouldn’t be the case, part of me was a little concerned that I would be tainting my lingering love for the books by viewing them with adult eyes.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. And while the early books are fairly repetitive and predictable, all following more or less the same formula, they’re short enough that it doesn’t really matter and once you reach the second half of the series the wild ride really begins. And so does the realisation that, while I always suspected there were hidden depths to this series, I was too young during my initial discovery of them to really appreciate what Daniel Handler was trying to do.
A Series of Unfortunate Events isn’t perfect, but no masterpiece is. Flaws tend to give something its individuality, and besides, the thematic genius of this series far outweighs any plotting/pacing/believability issues. As a kid I think I struggled to get my head around the tone of the series; absurd and blackly comedic one second, sombre and meditative the next. As an adult though, it makes a lot more sense and is a lot more rewarding. A Series of Unfortunate Events starts out as a dark joke; watch bad things happen to unfailingly good people. By the end it’s so much more than that. It’s a celebration of curiosity, literacy and decency. It’s a rallying call for the best in humanity. It’s a searing indictment of talking down to children or trying to shelter them from the things that we don’t believe they can understand. It’s a gentle assurance that even though someone might be flawed, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. And it wraps all of that up in an intoxicating cocktail of gripping storytelling, shocking twists, compelling mysteries, witty wordplay and lots and lots of outright hilarity.
I think the biggest telling point for how this series shifts on a second read from a more grown up perspective is how I felt about the conclusion. As a kid, The End was frustrating and anticlimactic; after the brilliance of The Penultimate Peril, which brought together all the plot threads of the preceding novels but stopped short of answering any massive questions, The End felt like it should have provided the solutions to all the lingering mysteries. Did the Baudelaire parents have anything to do with the death of Olaf’s? What really happened between Lemony Snicket and Beatrice? Do the Quagmires survive? Is Aunt Josephine alive and was she the woman who lured Widdershins away from the Queequeg at the worst possible moment? What exactly is V.F.D? And just what is the importance of the Sugar Bowl? Some of these questions are answered in the excellent prequel series All The Wrong Questions (which I’m starting a re-read of tomorrow) but The End provides just about no closure for any of them, which is hugely annoying when you’re a fourteen year old who’s spent far too much time counting down the days until all these tantalising mysteries are solved.
But coming into The End knowing this allows the book to reveal itself as what it actually is; essentially a thesis for all the central themes of the series, themes that made it far more than its secrets. The End basically forgets all the lingering loose ends regarding V.F.D and instead takes Olaf and the Baudelaires to a distant island overseen by Ishmael, a dictator who attempts to shelter his people from anything upsetting. Items that might be useful are discarded, books that might be revelatory are hidden and the people of the island are kept dosed up with an opiate that stops them getting too restless with their tedious circumstances. The arrival of the Baudelaires and their nemesis changes things, however, and in a key scene the children learn that their parents were here before them but kept silent about the whole experience. Ishmael makes a compelling case for their parents attempting to protect them from secrets better left unsolved, in much the same way as he protects the people on the island from the darkness and complexity of the outside world. The Baudelaires are given a choice; is it better to live safely without considering any dangerous ideas or confronting anything ominous, or is it better to ask questions, live your life, experience the world and accept that doing so means you will sooner or later come up against evil and injustice?
Handler squarely comes down on the side of the latter, because, as the people of the island learn, you can’t hide from the things that scare you forever. The world is not a safe or gentle place, and the sooner you realise that the better. Handler famously detests condescending children’s stories with contrived happy endings because that’s not how life works, and to pretend otherwise for the sake of sparing people some discomfort is to lie. I think it’s this central ethos that makes Unfortunate Events special, that makes it so much more than just a lot of dark humour and frustrating McGuffins. Like any classic, the things that draw people to it, while fantastic in their own right, are in many ways just window dressing for the deeper purpose below it all. Is The End satisfying from a plot perspective? Not especially, but thematically it’s about the most perfect conclusion this series could ask for.
But finding a deeper appreciation for the themes of the story doesn’t in any way dilute everything else. A Series of Unfortunate Events is as funny and resolutely odd as ever, and I found myself analysing all the mysteries all over again and tweeting my theories to the three people who might know what I’m on about. Having read All The Wrong Questions gave me some new ideas about all those lingering loose ends, and I’m looking forward to seeing if the more recent series is just as good on the second go round as its predecessor.
But as far as A Series of Unfortunate Events is concerned, for my money it is a masterpiece of children’s literature, unlike anything that came before or after it. It’s not every bit as good as I remembered; it’s much, much better.
Just some thoughts.