Two days ago auditions were held for my new play, Hometown. This in and of itself is not a hugely monumental occurrence; auditions for various plays happen every day. But for me, it’s still something crazily surreal. It’s not the first time I’ve had a show performed and as such not the first time there have been auditions. But it IS the first time I’ve had an outlet to talk about the weird mix of feelings that something so mundane can create.
The first time this happened was almost three years ago, when I was at work while auditions happened for the first stage version of Windmills. It was the first time anything I had written had been performed and I was totally ready for it all to go wrong at any second. I took whatever excuse I could to step out the back and call the increasingly exasperated director, asking her who was playing who, how they had gone, if the cast liked the script, etc, etc. I can be very neurotic with this kind of thing. After all, it’s still scary to see something that I created in my own time, something so singularly mine get thrown out there into the world. I mean, it’s terrifying enough when I get an email from someone telling me their thoughts on the book Windmills, but a play is a very different proposition altogether. A play requires a group of actors to take a script, engage with it, find something in there that they can develop and make their own, before presenting it to an audience, usually made up of people who aren’t really sure what to expect. I tend not to hear from people who don’t like my book, because they can easily put it down and read something better if they want. But when people go see a play I’ve written, it’s a totally different scenario. They spend money, sit in the audience and unless they REALLY hate it they’ll usually stay to the end. If I am in the audience myself, this is usually the point at which I will run outside as quickly as possible so as not to hear any negative feedback. It’s not that I’m adverse to hearing bad things about my stuff, more that I already feel so vulnerable sitting there with no control over what I’m seeing performed in front of me, that I can’t take knowing that people hated it. The thing is, my script, no matter how much it means to me, is just a backbone around which the actors and director form something entirely their own. If I disagree with what I’m seeing, well, tough luck. And believe me; so much jumps out at you. Lines that seemed good on the page are just clunky, people interpret the characters wrong, and so on. It all feels like my fault and usually by the end I am a shivering wreck.
The worst scenario I ever had, and one that was quite unique, was in the aforementioned first stage version of Windmills when, due to casting issues, I had to come in and play the character of Ed at the last minute. This was all very well and good; Ed is probably the best character I’ve ever written and a lot of fun to play, but in all my life I have never felt so panicked. See, if I was just an actor I could blame the script and director for anything in the show people didn’t like. If I was just a writer then I could blame the whole crew and go on a big, self-indulgent rant about how they butchered my work. But as a writer AND an actor? Well that implies a pretty big level of responsibility and involvement. There’s no distancing yourself from that. Being an actor in the show meant that on some level I had to approve of what the director was doing. If the play flopped, I had no-one to blame but myself. Now, I’ve done plays for years and while I still get nervous, stage fright isn’t something that really bothers me. But on Windmills I was pretty damn certain that I would not be able to go on. I was so thoroughly terrified, it’s a miracle I got through the show at all. And it was rough; if the audience laughed at moments that were meant to be serious, I took that extremely personally. But I also learnt harsh lessons about scriptwriting; about the moments that worked on the page but not on stage. Overall though, I was happy with that show.
Contrast this, however, with the second version of Windmills, at La Mama Theatre in Carlton. This was just after the book had been published and I planned on selling copies after the show. I had updated the script to something I was very happy with, and there seemed to be a pretty good cast in place. I wasn’t involved at all this time and I invited a whole lot of friends to come with me to opening night. I could not wait. This, by the way, was the second time anything of mine had been performed and the first time I knew nothing about the rehearsal process. My first experience of it would be the finished product. Plus, being performed at a well-known theatre in the city promised greater exposure than I had ever had before. I was very, very excited. So needless to say, it was hard not to feel stung when the play sucked. It was just bad; the whole thing felt unrehearsed, the lead actor didn’t seem to care, and I had the impression that the cast only barely knew their lines. Dialogue that was meant to feel fast and snappy was slow and, consequently, was really stilted. Add to this the fact that only two members of the cast seemed to have even the vaguest understanding of their characters. I walked out feeling embarrassed and very angry. I left as quickly as I could, avoiding talking to the cast where I could. My friends wordlessly accompanied me to the pub, waiting to hear my reaction. And when I told them how much I hated it, they were relieved; not one of them thought it was good.
Then again, it’s so rewarding when you see it done well. The performance of Life Without Me that went on last year was so damn good that I didn’t even care if people didn’t like it, because I knew that they’d got it right, so I was happy to take the rap for it. I saw on stage not only the show I had envisioned while writing, but something better. Characters I had not thought much of came to life in ways I never expected, in the hands of an assured director and good actors. I walked out totally satisfied with what I had seen.
So now it’s going to happen all over again with Hometown. I was present at the read-through a couple of weeks ago, which prompted me to re-write a lot of the script, but I’m glad I had the chance. Hearing the dialogue read aloud illustrated a lot of issues for me, but at least I learnt what they were before the play actually goes on. But really, the beginning of the process for me is the auditions. A cast will be chosen, people will become the characters I wrote and in a few months’ time I will walk into a theatre, absolutely terrified, to see what happens. But having experienced it a few different ways now, I can be a lot better prepared for it. Still, none of that makes the whole thing any less daunting than it was the first time.
So, it’s time to come clean about something potentially very controversial. But I’m tired of keeping quiet about this fact. When you’re as immersed in internet discussion regarding popular or cult TV series’ as I am (I know, I’m a geek) you tend to notice certain staples that come up time and time again in discussion. I.e. Breaking Bad is incredible (true), Two and a Half Men is crap (true) and Community is essentially above reproach. It’s every geek’s favourite sitcom and it’s not hard to see why. Community is undeniably clever and original and occasionally shows flashes of brilliance. But here’s the thing; it’s not that good. Fans like to ignore the dud episodes, the many attempts at experimentation that just fall flat. Now maybe this is the price the show has to pay for its innovation, but the fact remains, you cannot rant about how perfect and amazing a show is when it is as hit and miss as Community.
Okay, let’s break this down. The paintball episode; a hilarious and surprising analysis and loving parody of action movies that makes perfect sense within the context of the show. It advances understandings of the characters, is very funny, and pretty damn cool. Likewise the Dungeons and Dragons themed episode, which coupled a touching plot about a potentially suicidal student with an awesome pastiche on fantasy films. My housemate tells me that it’s an inaccurate depiction of the game, but whatever. The episode is entertaining regardless.
But then, some episodes are just awful. Like, really, really bad. For example, the season three episode where Annie and Abed go into the dreamatorium and then… something happens which I guess is meant to be a cool, meta comment on the characters and… okay, COME ON, that episode was just ABYSMALLY bad. I have never been more gobsmacked by such a level of awfulness in an otherwise good show. Or what about the episode where Britta dates a guy called Subway, which is funny because his name is Subway. Right. Genius, eh? Or the episode which seemed like a clever space film rip-off at first, and ends up being a weird mockery of KFC… somehow. I’m sorry, but just being outright odd is not an adequate substitute for cleverness. It just seems like the fanboys around the world who bow down at the shrine of Dan Harmon’s boundless greatness are happy to accept any and all bad flights of fancy as part of the shows ‘quirkiness’. Ignoring the fact that they’re just not funny.
And what about the REALLY beloved episodes that are not as good as everything thinks? Like the zombie episode. Every time Community has taken on a genre, for all its contrivances, it makes sense within the universe and context of the show, which, by the way, is half the genius. The paintball episode would not be nearly as funny if they were firing real guns. Why, then, did all the characters become REAL zombies? Why was that a good idea? It made all of no sense and yet was just taken in stride by the characters. Obviously comedy shows don’t need to adhere to the same principles of believability as dramas, but there is a limit. Also, the critically adored ‘timelines’ episode where six different potential timelines are shown based on which characters went to get pizza. Great idea in theory, but the scriptwriting was just abysmal. In what way was Britta’s lame pizza dance funny? And why did we have to see the full lead in of Abed explaining the timelines theory before seeing each one? Sheer filler. And the Claymation episode was shit. It was corny, trite and not nearly funny enough to justify this.
But there is a deeper inherent problem with the show, and that is the characters. Not individually; they’re overall pretty well developed. No, the problem is the core concept of the ‘group’. There is just not that much chemistry between the characters and, as if the writers are aware of this, they have shoehorned in endless references to how ‘close’ the group are, and how important it is that they stay together. Compare this to say, How I Met Your Mother or Scrubs, where the core cast naturally developed a strong chemistry over time, rather than stating it as a fact halfway through the first season and assuming that was the same as a well-earned sense of camaraderie. These things take time, otherwise they just feel forced.
Look, at the end of the day Community is a really good show, and it is more genuinely original than pretty much anything else on TV. But that does not change the fact that it IS overrated. The thing is, I would rather watch old episodes of How I Met Your Mother, a show not nearly as critically adored, purely because I actually feel like the characters enjoy each other’s company. Or Scrubs, where I know that, aside from the later seasons, I can put on any episode and enjoy it, or at least, not feel like cringing. I find myself having to be way, way more selective with Community. Which is something that should not be ignored. After all, consistency is as important as originality, if not more so. That’s all.
A few weeks back it was announced that How I Met Your Mother would be dragged out, sorry, renewed for a ninth season. This was met with the resounding sound of millions of fans hitting their heads against the wall in exasperation around the world. It also prompted a lot of internet analysis over just why this was. After all, the show was still killing it in the ratings, implying people were happy to keep following the adventures of Ted and co. So why all the anger?
There are a lot of accusations that the show has jumped the shark, and to be fair, it probably passed its creative peak around the season five episode where the audience was expected to laugh at the unbridled hilarity of Marshall being mugged by a monkey. Comic gold, right? Especially compared to so many of the brilliant ideas that populated the early years; Robin Sparkles, Interventions, Sandwiches, The Playbook, the list goes on. The show was full of great comic concepts, and probably was never expected to go past about five seasons. Like most popular shows, it’s a victim of its own success. However, the biggest creative challenge facing How I Met Your Mother lies in arguably its best innovation. It’s right there in the title.
How I Met Your Mother is original in how it successfully married the classic sitcom tropes of a bunch of likable characters hanging it in a bar and having relationship issues with elements more reminiscent of something like Lost; clues to its endgame and setups for jokes that would not be paid off until multiple seasons down the line (i.e. the goat). It’s pretty rare for a comedy show to have this much internal continuity, all building up to a moment the title already pre-empts. And therein lies the problem; even if the show had remained as funny and consistently innovative as in its early years, fans would be getting frustrated that eight years in they were still waiting to meet the mother. Then, couple that frustration with the fact that, while the show still delivers classic episodes, they are few and far between. Maybe future viewers watching all the episodes in a blur over a weekend won’t notice as much, but watching week by week the failures stand out. Most episodes are at best not very funny and at worst unwatchable.
But the biggest problem caused by the yearly renewals is the way in which the overall plot has been dragged out and filled with such blatant filler. For example, the endless relationships that we know won’t go anywhere. Why, for example, did we have to sit through several episodes of Ted’s reunion with a girlfriend from season one that we’ve all forgotten, when we know he won’t end up with her? The writers tried and failed miserably to make a case for him having to see her again because somehow she was important to him or… something. But it didn’t work. Likewise, Barney’s relationship with the stripper Quinn, and before that with Nora, went on and on despite us all knowing that he would get together with Robin in the end. It’s very simply a symptom of a programme that has been dragged out much, much longer than it needed to be. Think back to the early years, where it became clear how one thing led to another. Ted dating Robin led to him getting the tramp stamp that he had removed by Stella, who he almost married before she was whisked away by her ex-husband who felt sorry enough to get him a college job where he met the mother’s roommate and then… filler. Lots and lots and lots of filler. It’s the closest thing to clear evidence that the writers only had enough plot for five, maybe six seasons of story. The moment the show started dragging out the plot was around the time the quality took a sharp downward turn.
There are, however, signs of life. The last episode showed Ted meeting the aforementioned roommate of the mother who recommends a certain band with a certain bass player to perform at Barney and Robin’s wedding; thus leading to Ted meeting the mother. It was a clever and effective pickup of a subplot from several seasons ago that was clearly meant to lead in to the meeting. In doing so, it’s almost justified itself and showed that it’s still smart enough to connect the dots and respect the audience. It also made very clear that Ted will meet the mother at the end of the current season, by confirming that Barney and Robin’s wedding occurs this May, when the season comes to an end. And yet, that season nine renewal might just mean dark clouds on the horizon.
After all, if Ted meets the mother at the end of this season, that means we will have a season of him getting to know her and the building of their relationship. It makes sense in a lot of ways; Ted simply meeting the mother without any development of their relationship might be seen as an anticlimax, but it opens up a whole host of new problems for the show. Will people keep watching once the mother is met? That depends on whether the vast majority of viewers are sticking around because they love the show or because they just want to know who the damn mother is. But deeper than this; what if the mother simply doesn’t work? It’s hard to know how audiences will react to new characters until they show up. You know how unlikable all Ted’s girlfriends have been? That was never intended by the writers. The actresses just didn’t fit the dynamic of the show. How I Met Your Mother’s greatest strength is the camaraderie of its central group. How will that shift with the addition of a new member? What if she and Ted simply have no chemistry? What if she fails to be likable? Then suddenly we’re stuck with twenty two episodes of a show that has been thrown out of whack by its very central concept and so this much loved series ends on an unpleasant whimper. Once the mother is introduced, she can’t be retconned or written out like any of Ted’s previous poor excuses for love interests.
I don’t envy the production team right now. Unless the mother is an awesome character unanimously beloved by the audience, the show will lose out. It no longer has the ratings safety net of the core group waiting around to meet the mother. This ninth season is the biggest gamble ever undertaken by a show that is notoriously safe with its creative decisions. Ending with the actual meeting might not be tremendously satisfying after eight years of build-up, but it’s the safest option that the show could get away with. Now? It’s hard to guess. Naturally I’ll be sticking around whatever the outcome. I’ve stuck with the show too long, and hey, if I could sit through Dexter’s execrable sixth season, I can sit through anything. Maybe the show will knock it out of the park. But considering the general creative quality of the last few years, it’s hard not to have serious doubts.
How do you make a good sequel?
Naturally this isn't a question that causes many Hollywood types to lie awake at night tossing and turning. Any sequel that'll make money tends to be good enough for a producer, and as maligned as they are for the shameless cash ins churned out every year, you have to try and look at it objectively. Film making is a business and if you fail to produce a new installment in a profitable franchise every couple of years you are pretty fiscally irresposnible. Any producer who turned around and said 'No, actually, I think that making a sequel to the billion dollar earning last Pirates of the Carribean is a bad idea and compromises artistic integrity' would be booted out of the studio in seconds. It's a sad inevitablity of life; if something you love makes money, expect follow ups with increasingly diminishing returns.
The reason I'm writing about this is that the other night I went to the wonderful Astor Theatre to see a double bill of Psycho and The Birds. Now I was pretty excited about this as Psycho is one of my all time favourite films and I had never seen it on the big screen. And naturally it was just as damn good as I had expected. But a couple of days later, still thinking about the film and having just seen the new movie Hitchcock detailing the behind the scenes dramas, I dug out my old Psycho Collection box set, with all four films on DVD. Oh, for those who don't know, the Hitchcock classic spawned three sequels.
But ignore three and four; I want to discuss Psycho II. When I first saw the film years ago, I loved it almost as much as I loved the original. Heresy? Maybe, but there are a lot of reasons to love the sequel. It's scary, tense and beautifully continues exploring the mythology established by the origninal. It's also one of the most shameless attempts at money making in cinematic history. When Psycho was released in 1960, the studios demanded a sequel, but Hitchcock refused, stating that the story was complete. Hitchcock died 21 years after the release of Psycho. One year later Psycho II was released. The studios literally waited until Hitchcock died before rushing the film into production. They brought back Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, the surviving stars of the original and hired director Richard Franklin, a protege of Hitchcock.
Today, Psycho II is generally forgotten. When I mentioned it at the Astor screening, most people laughed. It's not hard to see why; the original is a complete, perfect, self contained story. It is an immensely satisfying film that does not need to be continued on or expanded upon. And yet, for those who might just be the tiniest bit curious as to what happened to Norman Bates and Lila Crane after the 1960 classic, well, there's a lot to enjoy in the sequel.
See the biggest thing working in Psycho II's favour, funnily enough, is the distance between itself and its predecessor. At the time of its release Psycho was already regarded as a classic; a groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece. Making a sequel at all, let alone without the involvement of Hitchcock, was tantamount to blasphemy. How could it be done? A straight retread of the original (i.e. The Hangover Part II) would be derided as lazy and insulting, while something that shook up the formula too much (i.e. Texas Chainsaw Massacre II) would be written off as damaging to the legacy of a classic. It was an impossible situation, but the studios knew that, even if purely out of curiosity, people would see the film and it would make everyone involved a lot of money. It had to be done. But how?
It's surprising how well the film works. It walks a very fine line between homage and continuation. It knows that it will never escape the shadow of its classic predecessor, but it also takes risks in deepening and exploring the world of the original. After all, we never really knew what kind of person Norman Bates was. How much of his nice guy persona was just an act? Did he genuinely believe his own innocence? Psycho II shows us a lonely, damaged soul determined to just get on with his life without hurting anyone. He is scared of himself and his past but goes back to his motel because he has nothing else in his life. He silently accepts Lila Crane telling him to his face that he is a monster who should be locked up forever, because some part of him believes it. The tragedy of the film is that Norman Bates may very well be cured, but the world at large simply cannot accept it and the constant pushing and tormenting of those who don't believe him drive him right back to what he knows; the twisted comfort of believing that his dead mother will always watch and control him, eliminating anything that makes Norman feel threatened. One look at Norman's face at the start of the film tells us everything; this is a man who wants to be sane, but he doubts himself at every corner, and it is people like Lila Crane, arguably the heroine of the original and now unquestionably the true villain, to take advantage of his insecurity and drive him insane again. At the end of the film, the status quo is returned; Norman is calling a corpse mother and is ready to kill to preserve his little fantasy. It is in every way a set up for another 80's slasher franchise with a twisted killer mined from a classic film that had not yet been exploited enough. But somehow this is all okay because the film does such a good job of exploring Norman's psyche and showing the audience just why this was the only possible fate for him. Without watching the mind numbingly awful Psycho III, Psycho II is an exceptionally good 'what if' scenario, a great love letter to a classic and a film that deserves a lot more love than it gets. No, it is nowhere near as good as the original, but there is nothing wrong with it either.
So why did I just let loose on a really exceptionally long rant about a film probably nobody who might stumble on this will have seen? Because it's a really good film and well worth checking out. Everyone should see it. The only people who shouldn't see it are those who haven't seen the original. And if that's the case then get off my website, drop what you're doing and watch Psycho now. You have no excuse. Go on, I can wait.
So. I now have a website. Just like a real writer! I have to admit, I'm pretty thrilled by it, even if it makes me 'that guy' who's showing off his less than well known products on a self made site, but anyway. When I'm a multimillionaire (snort) it'll all pay off.
Essentially this exists so that I can print it in the back of future copies of Windmills and, hoping anybody is interested enough, they can come here and check out some of my other work. Plus, it makes me feel all professional and stuff. In the meantime, I can use this blog to discuss film, TV and books. Not that I'm presumptuous enough to presume anyone will read it, but honestly, why not just write it? I'm geeky enough to get a kick purely out of putting my admittedly obsessive thoughts down on paper and if anybody gets anything out of it well, hey, added bonus.
Once I figure this all out a bit more, I'm hoping to fit some more stuff on here, like play excerpts and whatnot, just to give more of a sense of what I've got to offer. No point in putting up descriptions of things if the audience has no way of knowing what the quality is. But it's all just a work in progress thus far. Honestly, I'm just stoked to have this set up.
At the time of writing the website hasn't gone up yet. I promise you I am not sitting here refreshing the browser every minute to see it in all its pre-designed glory. No, I have a life.
He says, without a hint of sarcasm.
Writing words about writing words.