One day I want to tell stories for a living.
Not even one day; today. As soon as anybody looks at my scribblings and says ‘hey, I’ll pay money for that’, I’m good to go. In the meantime, I’ll keep working to get better, but the long term aim is to get to a point where I can leave terrible hospitality jobs behind and make writing my whole life. While so far my most high profile output has been in theatre, I’d love to do novels, film and TV as well. I’m a little ambitious like that. But above all, I am so attracted to the collaborative style of TV. Put a bunch of writers in a room and let them plot out ten hours of story together? That sounds like a dream come true. Working in TV would, for me, be something amazing. And I would hope that the pay would be enough for me to get by.
Which, according to some parties is the problem. Television today is the leading medium for quality, exciting and interesting storytelling and every year more new and experimental shows crawl out of the woodwork to become the latest critical darling. But as TV gets better, more people want it and so millions across the world resort to illegal downloading, ostensibly strangling the amount of money a show can make and therefore robbing the talented creatives of the payment they deserve. It’s a scary thought, right? That quality TV may soon be killed by its own fans? It’s the sort of concept that should make somebody like me tremble in fear that my dream future could be snatched away from me before I have a chance to see it realised.
And yet, I pirate.
I don’t even pretend I don’t. I illegally download every new episode of every show that I love. Even series like Hannibal or Community, which are struggling in the ratings and need the support of legal viewing. Shows like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad too, which hardly need my help to become more popular. I pirate every single damn show that comes my way, and I am okay with it. So, the newspapers would have you believe, I am the ultimate hypocrite; somebody who seeks to make money in the industry I am helping to destroy. Look at it that way, I’m not only a bad person, I’m an idiot to boot. Right?
Maybe not. Let me throw you a quick anecdote. A few years ago, I used illegal sites to download single songs I liked. Things like BearShare or BeeMP3. I have no idea if they even exist anymore, but I used them like crazy. Any time I heard a new song I wanted, I would find it there and get it. And yet… I haven’t seen those sites in years. Why? Because I use iTunes. I pay for every new song I want. So, by the logic of any good pirate, why the hell am I paying when I could just get it for free? The answer is simple; because it’s easier.
See, on a dodgy site, you never know what you’re going to get. I could download a song and half the time I would get a bad cover, a remix, or, in particularly awful cases, a lovely little computer virus. On iTunes, I pay $1.69 and I get… exactly the song I want. By the right singer, with good audio quality, and it goes straight to my phone and computer in seconds. None of this copy and paste garbage. It is simple, easy and not all that expensive; yeah, I’ll pay to get the stuff I want when it’s this easy.
So imagine my excitement when, several days after the Breaking Bad Season Four Finale, I noticed the episode on iTunes for $2.99. I remember being stunned; why the hell had I been searching for torrents I could trust when it was right here for practically nothing? I’d just use iTunes in future, right?
The problem with this idea is hidden away in the above paragraph; several days. Sure, I could download the episode and pay a meagre fee for the assured visual and audio quality, but I would have to wait. And I’m sorry, but that isn’t good enough. In the age of social media, where we have on Facebook and Twitter overseas friends who will see things as they come out, I am not willing to just avoid the internet until whatever it is I am waiting to watch makes its way to iTunes. Sometimes that is as little as a day; all very well and good, provided you are not a person who loves engaging in debate immediately post consumption of your pop culture of choice, someone who goes straight to websites like The A.V. Club or Den of Geek to read reviews and see what people think. The water cooler moments people talk about, the moments in TV shows where people gather around the water cooler to discuss them the next day, are now international and online. But things on the internet pass quickly, and that day iTunes would have me wait robs me of the thrill of being a part of that conversation.
So my question to content providers is this; in this day and age, do you expect viewers outside America to be so archaic and disconnected from modern culture that we will just sit and twiddle our thumbs while the rest of the world of fandom goes crazy, until you deign we can watch something legally? How hard is it to put an episode of Game of Thrones on iTunes the moment it airs? Oh, sorry, my mistake; it’s really hard considering thanks to a deal full of foresight and intelligence, Foxtel are now the only Australian company legally allowed access to Game of Thrones.
The logic of this decision was… what exactly? To try and force viewers to get Foxtel to see that one show they want? To pay exorbitant fees for channels full of garbage and re-runs, just so we can see Game of Thrones on time for those ten weeks a year it is on? So please inform me why the fuck I would pay for Foxtel when I only want that one thing and I can get it online for free?
I’d much prefer to buy it on iTunes as soon as it comes out (meaning I can watch it when I want rather than when the channel decides to air it) and pay that little bit of money in order for ease of access. Also I love the fact that I’m paying for a show I adore. I would happily do that. But there is a big difference between paying specifically for what I want and paying a lot more money for a lot of content among which happens to be the thing I want.
How are the networks not seeing this disparity?
The solution is simple. Make things easy for us. Make paying for content the easiest, safest and fastest option and I guarantee people will do it. Why do you think Netflix (another thing we still don’t have here) is so successful? The choices here are simple and logical. To the studios, the ball is in your court.
Until a couple of days ago, I didn’t really care about Game of Thrones.
This may seem really odd, considering I regularly talk about it and post stuff online about it, so let me be a bit more specific. I didn’t care about the TV series. I am literally salivating over the thought of the next book. I’ve been thinking about that book for three years now (yeah, I know people waited longer for the last two books), ever since I saw the first season of the show, realised this was something amazing and spent the next two months glued to the source novels. I had never read anything so gloriously complex and gripping, full of thrillingly ambiguous characters and the kinds of plot twists that have you pulling your hair out in disbelief. It is my favourite ever book series.
However my rabid devouring of the novels back in 2011 had a less than desirable effect on my feelings toward the TV series. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great show full of amazing writing, acting and special effects. It’s a top tier drama unlike anything else on TV right now, or anything else I’ve seen. But the problem is that the only appealing thing about the show, really, is getting to see my favourite moments from the book played out on screen in the hands of a top quality production team. When you can deduce from an episode title what will be happening this week, it’s hard to feel a ton of anticipation. The last couple of years, seeing trailers for the new season didn’t fill me with anticipation; rather I just had a feeling of ‘oh, nice, that’ll be something to do on a Monday night’.
But in season four, things started to change. There were scenes that revealed plot points the books had not gotten to yet; potentially just artistic licence, but considering the Game of Thrones show runners know where this is all going, more likely the best clues yet as to the future of the series, both book and TV. On top of that, they made more and more bold adaptation choices, killing off relatively major characters who are still alive in the books, and coming up with whole new subplots that I actually found exciting, as for once I didn’t know what to expect.
I have always felt that in adapting a book, the more you change things up, the better. The best Harry Potter films, (Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire) bear the least resemblance to the novels they are based on. For the flip side of that coin, look at a film as slavishly faithful to its source material as Watchmen, which ended up just being incredibly dull to anyone who had read the comic. I really don’t understand the people who complain about changes to novels in film adaptations; it seems like you don’t want to be surprised at all. The outraged cry of ‘that wasn’t in the books’ is something that I just find bewildering and kind of stupid. If an adaptation choice is in keeping with the tone and character of the story, then who cares? Sometimes they’re for the best. Having Bran kidnapped by Nights Watch deserters only to be inadvertently rescued by Jon Snow was actually way more interesting than the equivalent plot point in the books (nothing), and added some cool action and tension to the middle of the season.
Today I read an interview with the Game of Thrones showrunners who said that, while aware that books four and five are, in polite terms, a little slow, mapping out that plot for a television season has actually revealed to them how interesting that plot has the potential to be, and consequently they believe season five may well be the best season yet. And you know what? I trust them. Season four was essentially the climactic chapters of A Storm of Swords dragged out to ten hours, and it was arguably the TV series’ best season since its first. And they reiterated that they have planned seven seasons total. That means that, starting next year, we are inevitably going to see hints of the endgame creep in, even if George R.R. Martin has yet to release another book. And while I know some people hate that idea and would rather read it than see it first, I’m really excited. Because it’s finally hitting home to me that, in one form or another, A Song of Ice and Fire is nearing its conclusion and questions are going to be answered. And honestly, I don’t really care that I might see those answers on TV. After all, the show is what made me fall in love with this series in the first place. I just want to find out how it ends. If Martin takes another ten years to finish the books, well, at least I can watch the endgame in 2017; it’s only three years away. And that thought has me incredibly excited.
Alternatively, considering how closely Martin works with the show, and the insistence on the seven year plan, maybe all this confidence means that The Winds of Winter is a lot closer than we think. Right? RIGHT?
Earlier this year I went through a weirdly despondent stage in regard to my writing. It’s probably due to a handful of factors, the main ones being that I was unemployed, bored, lonely and generally just feeling a bit hopeless about life in general. Somehow, this bled into my writing and I started to feel like I had lost something. On top of this, I was struggling with a lot of the concepts I was learning at film school and trying to reconcile what seemed to be hard and fast rules with my own feelings and experiences as a writer.
The funny thing was, while I was terrified that I had lost the ability to write, I was still writing. During this period I wrote two plays, and both are pretty reflective of my state of mind. The first, Beyond Babylon is a brutal and nihilistic piece of work about the worth of human beings who contribute nothing to society. The second, We Can Work it Out, is about the Beatles. On first glance they couldn’t be further apart, but both scripts deeply explored what I was feeling at the time. Midway through We Can Work It Out, John Lennon delivers a monologue about being terrified that he has lost a certain thrill and excitement in his art, that he no longer has what made it so magical to him. It’s probably one of the most personal and best pieces of writing I’ve ever done, and it’s in the middle of a comedy about the Beatles getting drunk and squabbling.
Lately I’ve been feeling a lot better about things, and my output of work has hardly slowed down, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about art, and in particular writing. What is it that makes it so special? When I sit down to watch a play/movie/TV series or read a book, what do I look for? What makes these fictional stories so important to us?
I think art serves four distinct purposes to people. The first is to be relatable; to portray feelings or situations that we as the audience recognise. There is a thrill to seeing characters on screen experiencing the same things we have, and I believe this thrill is the knowledge that we are not alone, the same feeling you get when you talk about your problems with a friend and realise you both have the same concerns. It’s knowing that there are people in the world going through exactly what you are going through, and that can make you feel safe.
The second purpose is to entertain, and this is best summed up in Martin McDonagh’s quote that a play ‘should be like a roller coaster’. This is the sole purpose of films like The Avengers, or TV shows like Banshee; to take you on a ride, to distract you and remove you from the real world. Escapism is important, I believe, which is why fiction of this nature is so popular. The third purpose, and possibly the most vague and nebulous, is to simply be beautiful. In other words, art for art’s sake. I think this applies more to paintings and music than anything, but it can also be extended to sequences I remember in movies, moments where the music and visuals and everything come together to create something breathtaking. In cinema, this is the purpose that is least likely to stand alone, although certain art-house mood piece films often attempt it. I hate those kinds of movies.
The fourth purpose is to challenge, to tell you something about the world or present a counter argument to a held belief. These are the films that make you think, the ones that are designed to leave you with a whole lot of uncomfortable questions, the films you discuss heavily when you go for a drink afterwards. For those familiar with the theatre of Bertholt Brecht, this was what he loved to do. Consequently, I think Bertholt Brecht is a painfully dull, obvious and didactic writer who dressed up political lecturing in theatre in a feeble attempt to make it more palatable to the audience. Personally, if I suspect a film only exists to tell me something, I turn it off. I don’t like people trying to wrap up an agenda in things I want to be entertained by.
The best art does all four.
Mad Men is a series in which I relate to the characters, I think about what it says about them, I marvel at the beauty of its composition and aesthetics, I am gripped by the plot and want to know what happens next. Hannibal, my favourite current TV series, does everything except give me people I really relate to, but I don’t mind because it does the other three so well. Same as something like Skins, which has nothing interesting to say about the world, yet when I was 17 it meant so much to me because I not only related to the characters, but I wanted to live their lives. Plus it was aesthetically and musically beautiful. Three out of four ain’t bad. And for the record, I’m only referring to the first couple of seasons. The rest never happened, y’hear?
So, coming back to We Can Work It Out, the closest I have ever come to writing a play about writing and what it means to me and now that is exactly what it will be. I am currently working on a new draft, one that assigns each member of the Beatles a strong belief in one of the four purposes of art. John wants to send a message, Paul wants to write music people can relate to, Ringo wants to have fun and provide distractions (the man wrote Octopus’ Garden for gods sake) and George just wants to create something beautiful. Suddenly, this script has more shape and purpose than its rather vague first draft. The conflict is more clearly defined, and just to make it really fun, we’re putting it in the hands and hearts of four of the most brilliant and interesting men who ever created art. I can’t wait to put this together. It’s going to be a great way to really explore these concepts, plus, we get to see the Beatles in a full on drunk punch up as well.
And just in case anyone had any doubts, I’ve got dibs on playing George Harrison. I’ve got the eyebrows.
Today I am going to use my barely touched blog to talk about something people have gotten tired of hearing me talk about in real life; Hannibal. The new cult TV series adaptation of Thomas Harris’ classic crime trilogy, charting the early relationship between sophisticated and erudite serial killer Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, the man who will eventually catch him. Anybody who has seen the series does not need me to tell them that it is a visually stunning, operatic and gripping nightmare of a show, delving into the abnormal psychology of its twisted, compelling and weirdly likeable central characters. For someone whose writing style was irreparably coloured by reading Red Dragon at thirteen, this series is a gift, full to the brim with references to the source material that make me grab and shake whoever I’m watching the show with and excitedly explain which book that was from and how they cleverly re-contextualised it for the series (note; do not watch Hannibal with me if you don’t want to start feeling homicidal impulses of your own).
Every episode of Hannibal’s incredible second season was the highlight of my week. If I finished work late on a Saturday and went for a drink after you could rest assured that the first thing I would do upon getting home at 5:30 in the morning was watch the new episode. And when the week long waits started to kill me, I decided to re-read Red Dragon to get my fix, which led to re-reading The Silence of the Lambs which led to me finishing the novel Hannibal around the same time as the season ended on a killer cliff-hanger. And then…
People tell me I’m too invested in fiction. But those people can get fucked, to be frank. Stories to me are everything; they are comfort, they are my career, they are entertainment, they are hobbies and they bring me endless joy and satisfaction, whether I’m writing them or consuming the genius work of somebody else. I have been obsessed with stories since I was old enough to watch them, read them, hear them, tell them and write them. They are the prism through which I understand the world. Watching Hannibal brought me back to some of my all-time favourite books and made me love them again, more than I ever had before. It reminded me of all the feelings that good stories can give me, and it inspired me to write more, to try and get to the point where one day I can tell a story that makes somebody feel the same way Hannibal makes me feel.
Hannibal is gone for a year, so I guess I’m going to have to find something else to obsess over in the meantime. But I am so glad that this low-rated oddity of a TV series could re-ignite in me the passion that has defined my life.
In my life I have come up with some horrendous characters.
There was Reagan in Below Babylon, who taunted and toyed with innocent people before killing them just for the fun of it. There was Andrew in Phoenix, who maimed people for information he knew they didn’t have. There’s Addison Cane in my still in progress Boone Shepard series, who threw our hero from a flying casino when he refused to help her plans for world domination. And Windmills was pretty much made up of characters who should be behind bars for one reason or another.
But I think I’ve now hit the peak. Two days ago, I finished writing the first draft of my latest play, The Last Supper, the conclusion of a loose trilogy with Below Babylon and Beyond Babylon. The seed for that story has been rattling around in my head for a while, if only as a chance to look into the mysterious Cartel that dominated the first two plays. But last week I came up with a strong enough concept; the leader of the Cartel calls his closest associates together for dinner, locks the doors and reveals that he knows one of them is planning a coup and nobody is leaving until he figures it out. Cue twists, shifts of power, reveals of secrets and lots of blood. Thanks to a night of awesome brainstorming with my business partners at Bitten By Productions, Justin and Ashley, I had the plot and the characters completely clear in my head when I started writing, and consequently I finished the script in three days.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it was just genuinely fun to write. And two, the central character is one of the most downright despicable monsters I have ever come up with, and so damn compelling that I just had to see more of him. Dorian is a middle aged, drug addled crime lord who rose to power by training the Enforcers, a collective of elite assassins who were so dehumanised they would do whatever he said, no matter how horrifying. Now, losing his grip on both power and sanity, Dorian sits at the top of his empire and prepares to neutralise all sorts of imagined threats, while snorting cocaine and monologuing about the nature of power and the sexual deviancies of Adolf Hitler. The depths of his corruption were a twisted joy to explore, as well as what remains of his humanity.
In many ways, Dorian is the natural culmination of the Babylon story. When I first started writing Below Babylon over a year ago, it was the story of the one Enforcer who decided to change his ways and how that led to both his death and redemption. The ripple effects of that have coloured the plot of The Last Supper, as we finally meet the man responsible for the appalling characters we have followed in the previous two plays. Between writing this new script and now being deep into the rehearsal process of Beyond Babylon (opening in August) my passion for this world has never been greater. I am immensely proud of this trilogy, and I can’t wait to see the rest of it realised.
Below Babylon was a noir/western about a man rediscovering his long lost humanity in the face of death. Beyond Babylon is the nastier, more unpleasant sibling that explores justice and purpose, and is probably the most nihilistic and bleak thing I have ever written (it’s gonna be awesome). And now, closing out the story we have The Last Supper, the most violent, action packed, twisted part; a story about a man unable to come to terms with the fact that his time has gone and the world is beginning to change. In my humble opinion (and granted this might just be because it’s new) I think it’s the best of the three.
Will there be more Babylon stories? Probably. It’s a rich world with a lot of corners still left to explore, however when you see Beyond Babylon and The Last Supper you’ll see that these three plays actually form one continuous narrative arc that has a pretty clearly defined beginning, middle and end. They are all standalone plays, but I think seeing all three will be the most satisfying way to consume the story.
I can’t wait.
Writing words about writing words.