Posts Tagged ‘Screenwriting’

When teaching screenwriting, or any type of creative writing for that matter, I often say that all the moving parts of the script should serve the story—character, plot, structure, setting, the whole shebang.

Structure is the element least experimented with to really compliment the needs of the story; often a simple linear three (or five) act structure provides a stable backbone for all the other more experimental/complex elements of the screen story to hang off. Of course, there are some notable examples: Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), for one, where the non-linear, backwards motion of the film reflects how the protagonist experiences the world.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016) I think, takes this to a new level; in fact there are two structural tricks at play which tie neatly back to language acquisition, the central theme of the film and the driving force of the story.

Be wary from here on there are spoilers for Arrival, Westworld and Your Name.

Two tricks, I said. Now one I think is more obvious than the other; this related to the nonlinear aspect of Arrival’s structure. The other is subtler, it is to do with pacing and I’m going to start with there.

1) The speed of learning a language.

When someone learns a new language, the beginning can be tedious and repetitive. Progress from, my name is … I live in… can be slow. I think a case can be made that the first hour or so of Arrival, in which the pacing is slow, the scenes long, the scenarios repetitive, mirrors the way that the protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), and other people, acquire a new language. There are sudden bursts of progress, followed by false starts and misunderstandings.

arrival poster

Poster for Arrival

However, once the grammatical patterns are learned, a series of essential vocab mastered, the process speeds up dramatically; new discoveries are made in quick succession. This is reflected in the latter part of Arrival in which the pace switches up several notches towards the dramatic conclusion.

Now I realise that many stories have slower starts and gain pace towards the conclusion, this is the way the three/five act story structure plays with pace. (If you want to know more about three and five act structure read John Yorke’s excellent book Into the Woods.) However, I wonder if a case can be made in a film so obsessed with the acquisition of language that this choice of pacing is deliberately tied to the theme.

2) Time is out of Joint

Arrival starts with what the audience assumes is a flashback, accompanied by voice over narration from, Louise . It is addressed to, and documents her life with, her daughter, Hannah—whose palindromic name also mimics the structure, mimics the theme of the film. When this section ends, after Hannah’s premature death, we are introduced to an assumedly grief stricken Louise, who is so wrapped up in her own world that she doesn’t notice the arrival of the aliens until her students point it out to her.  So far, so linear…

Louise is a linguist, and is brought into a team of government officials who are trying to communicate with the newly arrived aliens. They want to know the answer to simple things ‘what is your purpose on earth?’ In a brilliant moment, Louise deconstructs this question showing how much of it depends on different cultural assumptions and pre-existing knowledge. The screenwriter Eric Heisserer, deconstructs this moment in interview here.


Louise (Amy Adams) breaks down all the problems with this question

Throughout the film, at moments of high stress, Louise experiences flashbacks of her time with Hannah. Again pretty normal behaviour for someone grieving in high pressure situation. Only, at some point it becomes abundantly clear that Louise has no idea who the child is either. She isn’t married, she hasn’t had a child, what in the name of Spock is happening?

There is a theory that once you start to learn a new language you rewire parts of your brain to accommodate thinking in that language.

The Heptapods, the name given to the aliens because they have seven squid-like limbs, of Arrival use language which is not bound by time and so, as Louise immerses herself in the language she starts to think beyond time. Soon she can see the future—her life with her daughter, her failed marriage to Ian—and use that skill to handle problems in the present; stopping China declaring war on the aliens.


Heptapods writing with ink

So, the nonlinear structure of Arrival mirrors the nonlinear way that Louise, the Hetapods—and one assumes the whole of the human race who take the time to learn the alien’s language—now experience time.

It’s quite an elegant solution, to quote another Nolan film, to the question of structure; one that aspiring writers might want to analyse. I don’t condone structural manipulation for its own sake, or to show off how clever a writer is—these will always ring hollow. However, when alternative structures are used to allow the story to shine then can make the screen work even more effective.

And so time really is out of joint…

westworld poster

Westworld Poster

A pattern of structural manipulation emerged in 2016, where the timeline is presented to the audience as linear, or two stories as simultaneous, when this is not the case. In HBO’s Westworld the story lines of Billy and The Man in the Black Hat were presented as occurring simultaneously when in fact, these two characters were the same character shown at different points in his life. Across the Pacific, Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016) presented a body swap story between a city boy and a country girl; it’s mid-point reversal was the revel that not only were the swapping across the country but also through time.


Your Name Poster

I saw all three of these films and television series in the same fortnight – which is why this pattern jumped out at me. It made me wonder, as a writer, how I might use structure to enhance the stories I want to tell and think about how I could manipulate the presentation of time to better suit the narrative.

These are just three examples in a short blog and I am sure there will be more manipulations of the timeline in store for viewers as writers struggle to keep the audience on their toes.

My former PhD buddy and York writer extraordinaire, Helen Cadbury, invited me to take part in this blog tour about writing process. [Click on her name above to see her answers to the questions below.] I find it fascinating to see how different writers work, there as many processes as there are writers really, and I must admit I might be trying out some of the other bloggers techniques to overcome my own moments of procrastination.

Apologies in advance, this blog is the end of this particular chain. I haven’t had the time to seek out other blogger writers to nominate. So my little branch will be filled with blossomy details of my process and you’ll have to backtrack and try Helen’s other nominee, who hopefully will keep the vine alive.

So to the questions…

1) What am I working on?

I’m what I think might be termed a magpie writer, or a writer with a severe case of creative ADHD.

Writers are magpies, stealing the shiny stories from everyday life - image from here

Writers are magpies, stealing the shiny stories from everyday life – image from here

I tend to have more than one project on the go and perform a complex juggling game with deadlines. At present I’m working on…

A feature film script for a sci-fi cop thriller with a genetic modification twist.

A very british horror radio play [think Wicker Man].

In the early stage of a play commission for Christmas…

Anything else..? Oh yeah my first screenplay for my PhD by creative practice, that’s a sci-fi noir with a posthuman twist too….

As you can see I have an issue with focusing on one project. [Side note: this does not include all the shorts, flash fiction pieces and the medieval web series I’m working on.]

Is all this healthy? Probably not, I was on verge of a creative mental meltdown around Christmas 2013 and vowed never to work on more than two projects at once… see how well that worked.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

We all bring our slightly different experiences to everything we write, so in a really simple answer to this question my work differs because it’s mine, it’s focused on my own skewed view point of the world.

As  for a more complex answer…I’m not sure. As I write scripts in genres like sci-fi and action adventure, which usually have female protagonists that in itself is a difference.

Fighting aliens and saving cats - image from here

Fighting aliens and saving cats – image from here

Think about the last time you saw a strong female lead in a sci-fi film, there’s Ripley from Alien franchise but in the last couple of years the tent pole films have all been about guys – Star Trek, Oblivion, Elysium, Iron Man 3…

One strong influence on my work in the last decade has been Japanese Anime, since seeing Spirited Away I’ve been hooked. There is a real freedom in the blend of genre tropes, characters and styles in anime that I love and that makes me think more freely about what can and can’t go into my writing in particular genres. I talk about this in detail in an interview for One&OtherTV here. Anime also makes up part of my PhD research so I can see it continuing to influence and inspire my work in the future.


3) Why do I write what I do?

Again there’s a simple answer: because I find these genres fun and exciting to create in.

And a more complex version… I used to think I had to write things that were worthy or overly complicated and, let’s face it, full of pseudo intellectual pretentiousness. Being a bright kid at school I was quickly encouraged to abandon children’s fiction for the ‘classics’ both modern and older. I got stuck somewhere in the Victorian period [not that I’m complaining, my stage plays have been adaptations of Victorian/Edwardian Literature which I still love].

Young Sherlock Homes poster - image from here

Young Sherlock Homes poster – image from here

Growing up I had loved action adventure films like Indiana Jones, Young Sherlock Holmes and sci -fi Blade Runner, surely if I wanted a career in writing I couldn’t do things like that, could I?

After studying for my MFA in California I realised that I was being an idiot. Of course I could write whatever I wanted – I have to say a big thanks to a professor out there who ran a ‘writing for the family audience’ screenplay class which knocked most of my pretentious attitude out of me.

4) How does your writing process work?

As I said in answer to the first question my process is one of juggling multiple projects. I think I like to have at least two on the go to flip between if my writing on one is getting stale or I reach an plot/character impasse. I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious to solve any writing problems if it is given enough time/space/material. I’m a huge consumer of story in all forms, films/tv/anime/comics/fiction/plays/newspaper articles, I feel I have to understand what is out there if I’m going to add to or subvert a genre.

I’ve always been someone who is inspired by visuals so my process involves trawling photos and the internet for images that I can modify to become locations in stories or objects that can become macguffins [or mcguffin or maguffin]. In the same sense I like to travel, visit museums, walk in the countryside. I can’t over emphasize how important this is to my work for generating ideas to not be cooped up in only one space. Not being able to come up with an idea is an alien concept to me, I’m constantly inspired by the world around me, both the real physical world and the digital one. Having the time/brain capacity to get all these ideas down in correct format is more of an issue for me.

Research is also pretty key to my work, whether I’m creating in speculative futures of my own imagining or recreating the landscapes of the past I like to put in the time to research properly. Maybe this is because I’m one of those irritating people who will read/watch something and complain when the details aren’t right.

Image reference board for one of my previous projects

Image reference board for one of my previous projects

As for getting stories on paper, since I got into screenwriting about 5 years ago I’ve become an uber-planner. I like to have a detailed outline done before I start any script pages. This way I can work out a lot of the plot holes and iffy character motivation moments before I’m in love with the pages I’ve written.

Recently I’ve gotten into a habit of writing first drafts in 2-4 weeks. It’s really important to get to the end of the script, because until then you really can’t start to edit and turn the story into something that’s actually good. The first draft is never any good, I’ve pretty much gotten over the mental hurdle of realising this, so I vomit it out as quickly as possible [after research preparation] so that I can start cleaning up and feeling better about the story.

My final point on process is something that is occurring as I work further into my PhD by creative practice. I am becoming more aware of the reasons behind my creative decisions. Not in an overly analysing way, it isn’t detrimental or freezing to my process. I feel I have a pretty good gut instinct for the stories I tell, the locations I place scenes in, but now I am beginning to really understand why my gut tells me to do these things. Perhaps that has nothing to do with my PhD and is just my maturing as a writer, still it has occurred after I’ve started to really pick things apart for my academic research and so I feel they must be linked.

So I think that’s it… again I apologise that this is the end of this particular chain but I hope you’ve found this interesting or at least mildly amusing.

Last Wednesday I took a day trip to Durham, primarily to attend a seminar run by the Inventions of the Text series  in the English Department [a department I was attached to, with the History, department for BA]. I saw BioShock and games narrative mentioned in one of the papers and we’ll, what’s an academic nerd girl going to do but turn up?

BioShock was one of the games that I had hoped to include in my PhD thesis before I realised that I just wasn’t going to have the words to do the research justice. As I am on a PhD by Creative Practice course my thesis is only 30-40,000 words, which is less than half a normal PhD thesis. My initial scope of film, anime and video games was a little over ambitious.

This doesn’t change the fact that the game BioShock fits all the criteria for my PhD research. It is set in a posthuman noir world with a very unreliable narrator/protagonist who navigates the gamer through the genetically modified nightmare of Rapture.

BioShock is a first person shooter game where the player inhabits the view point of Jack, a guy who is on an airplane that crashes in the sea near a lighthouse in 1960. On reaching the lighthouse Jack finds it is actually the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture, built by Andrew Ryan as a place where science and the arts could flourish outside of government control, or any control for that matter. Jack soon discovers that the citizens of Rapture made a breakthrough in genetic engineering through use of ADAM a substance harvested from sea slug, granting the citizens superhuman powers called plasmids.


As the trailer makes very clear this is a game which revolves around choices; the player’s, the characters’, the moral and the immoral decisions we will make to survive. This is what makes the twist and turns the player experiences as Jack all the more challenging.

Amnesiac playable characters are pretty common in computer games, they allow for important information about the world of the game to be explained to the gamer without it feeling too expositionally clunky. [NB – not always a successful strategy.] The first person shooter POV also places the gamer right into the view point of the character, usually with a pair of hands wielding weapons of mass destruction in front of you.

I’m not a huge fan of first person games, I think growing up playing Tomb Raider has made me feel more comfortable seeing the whole of my character on screen, from an over their shoulder P.O.V. But I warmed to BioShock because visually and narratively there was a lot of draw me in.

Now what makes BioShock different and unsettling is the twist in the identity of the unreliable, amnesiac protagonist. For two thirds of the game, you bomb along, following the directions of friendly rebellion leader Atlas, trying to survive the bat-shit crazy citizens of Rapture so you can escape to the surface and get your old life back. So far so ordinary for this type of game until the designers pull the rug from under your feet.

The fact that the playable character, the gamer’s identity within the game, is revealed to be false, a clone of Andrew Ryan who Fontane/Altas, designed to take out the king of Rapture, really sucker punches the gamer. Like the main character, the gamer believed they had some autonomy in the game world, they could explore where they wanted and could make large moral decisions like whether to harvest [kill] or free the Little Sister characters

But Jack, and the gamer, never really had any freewill and now ‘would they kindly’ play by the rules of the designers and die…

This brought the gamer to think about the horror of the game’s thematic concepts of brain washing, genetic cloning and control, but also to think about the process of playing videogames in general. Once you engage in playing a game you surrender your freewill to the game’s mechanics, don’t you? Or do you?

That issue was the crux of the paper given by Dr. Julian Reidy at the Inventions of the Text Seminar, titled “You just complicate the narrative!” Computer games as ‚Erzählspiele’ (narrative games). [That’s a quote from BioShock Infinite, by the way, Daisy Fitzroy shouts it at Booker in one of the alternative realities.]

Video game criticism usually falls into a debate between ludology  [it’s all about playing the game] and narratology [it’s the story, stupid]. Some critics feel that because the gamer is constrained by the rules of the game world, there is little room for the interpretation that occurs when someone reads a book or reads a piece of art and therefore games cannot exist as art in their own right. [I’m paraphrasing terribly and overly simplifying.] Needless to say this is something I disagree with.

Dr, Reidy posited a two way communication between gamer and game, demonstrating that narratives are developed from even the most simplistic game mechanisms, the gamer can’t help creating them; story cannot be cut from mechanism, they co-exist.

Moving on to BioShock Infinite he examined how the latest in the BioShock series [and the original game, in my opinion] draws the gamer’s attention to how they, and the playable character, complicate and reinvent the narrative—an attitude not much different from the way we engage with literature or history. Interesting, huh? And you thought it was all about mashing guys in the face with a skyhook…

Hopefully the article this talk was based on will be published and translated from German into English soon so that I can read and rethink the points raised.

[The talk also sparked a thought on my recent gaming/viewing.I’ve been revisiting the Silent Hill game series while watching Twin Peaks for the first time… Do we think Silent Hill 2 can be read as a game version of a Lynch film/show? I don’t know, but there are a lot of visual and narrative similarities.]

The second talk was given by a PhD candidate at UCL, George Potts, titled ‘You seen The Godfather?’ – The Sopranos and the postmodern gangster. The discussion revolved on the ways that fact and fiction inform each other.

The Sopranos exists in a modern world where the gangster characters would have seen films like the Godfather trilogy or Goodfellas. The show uses these already established media pieces to take apart the idea of the gangster, separating fact from fiction and howing the blurs in reality.

This got me thinking about my own creative work. How many times have I reacted to a horror movie by thinking ‘Why would they do that, haven’t they seen a horror movie before?’ I find characters who exist in ‘present day’ versions of reality who haven’t experienced the same cultural devices that we have stand out. It’s the same as writing a movie now without smart phones.

Any character of my generation or below—without a good excuse of growing up beyond the reach of electricity—would be hard pushed to not mention Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, Uncharted or even Harry Potter when faced with an action adventure scenario. Are these references avoided because there is some copyright law doom looming or just writer oversight?

I reference the above Indiana Jones scene—the running behind the gong in the opening of Temple of Doom—when two characters in my adventure film attempt a similar trick to escape bad guys. “It worked in Indiana Jones, didn’t it?” says the love interest. “But that was a film!” the heroine retorts.

It felt natural that these characters, who were obsessed with archaeology, history and myth as kids, would have at least seen Indiana Jones movies. Movie referencing is part of our everyday slang, our short cut language of the twenty first century. I wonder if any character can feel realistic if they never reference games or films or tv shows? Is this any different from character referencing literature, poetry or myths?

I don’t know the answers, just ponder the questions…

So the seminar series did exactly what it should have, it provoked new academic and creative thoughts. It was an interesting, exciting and mentally stimulating evening.

In part one I set up the reason for my visit to the Kubrick Archive and highlighted one of the first drafts of the A.I: Artificial Intelligence script which Ian Watson wrote. In part two I discover just how many permutations of the story Ian Watson did… Short answer: a ludicrous number.

Filled with a delicious lunch from the Japan Centre, including a matcha green tea [a real energy boost] I descended once more into the archives to try and make some more sense of the process through which the film A.I: Artificial Intelligence was created.

For my second day trip to the archive I placed the boxes of materials in as close to chronological order as possible and picked out the earliest box. Most of the materials, which were not in order, [why would anyone want to make my life easier] were from drafts in 1990.

Through reading a series of faxes I began to see how the writing relationship between Ian Watson and Stanley Kubrick worked. It seems that almost every day Watson would fax a new iteration of a section to Kubrick, which would be read, notes made and faxed back with ideas for changes and edits.  As a writer the very idea of working like this made me want to collapse with exhaustion. I’ve had experiences of turning out very quick re-drafts of treatments but nothing on this scale—I think this went on for about eight months.

Ian Watson has a fantastic article on his own website about his time on A.I. which gives more of a sense of the pressures and inventive freedom of working with Kubrick which can be found here.

What continued to surprise and delight me as I read through the numerous iterations of A.I. was the sheer inventiveness of Watson. There are some thoroughly wonderful visual and thematic ideas that just never made it near the end film—ideas that I would love to turn into movies in their own rights.

There are robot oracles stuck in abandoned reactors, where the area around has turned into a crystal encrusted tomb; Rouge city as noir a gangster controlled nightmare Las Vegas with dark secret revolving on eternal life; there are robot cults of various types who worship or sacrifice David, our little robot boy. The crystalline imagery does make it to the final film as the Blue Fairy statue frozen in ice after many centuries have passed.

Any of these ideas sound more interesting than the final film? Yep, that’s what I thought. Although at the same time I see how much of a risk they would have been to film; robot popes, I’m imagining, have always been a hard sell. Then there is always the question of audience, it seemed that Kubrick initially wanted this to be a general audience film that the whole family could see… it is clear that some of these darker, sordid drafts didn’t conform to this image. Nor did the final movie which got awarded a 12 certificate in the UK or PG-13 in the USA.

Another fascinating element that emerged from trawling through these different drafts is how Watson would get attached to a motif which would appear in various versions, each time slightly changed, to fit the new agenda. I’ve found I have a tendency to do the same thing when I’m writing. I get attached to an image or a concept which doesn’t work, I cut it out and then when another story comes along I try to mold my cut motif into the new story.

Bell Tower at Reschensee - Image fro

Bell Tower at Reschensee – Image fro

I’ve been trying to get the town under the man-made lake at Reschensee into a screenplay for about four years now. The location has been in my mind far longer, from tales my grandparents told of this underwater town and others like it. At one time or other this place has featured in three projects, from which it has been cut each time because, although it is beautiful/ haunting/ making a statement of man vs nature, it has never been quite right. I’ve always felt that I’ve been shoe horning it in somehow. One day, Reschensee you will be the location for a touching romantic moment or more likely, a stirring action sequence. I did see a Miyazaki, The Castle of Cagliostro, which has a similar location in after I wanted to write about this place, so at least someone has managed to make the image work.

With Watson it is a different image, a pit that bores deep into the ground that repeats. It is a source of eternal torment and punishment a la Dante’s Inferno, or a mysterious location which could great immortality. See how the image modulates in the different iterations, same location, very different purpose.

It’s the same with characters. Often as I start a new story my gut tells me I need a character in a particular moment to move the plot along, but that character might be drastically changed by the time the drafting process is over. The same thing happens in Watson’s drafts for A.I. The boy robot, David, and his friend Gigolo Joe need a sympathetic helping hand to push them on the quest, that much is clear, but who that character is alters dramatically from journalists to recluses.

There was so much potential in that tiny box, only a fraction of the creative output that went into the movie. To a lover of science fiction, Watson’s drafts are a real demonstration of the power of an imagination to generate different variations under pressure of tight deadlines. I’m the kind of writer who also functions best, sometimes, when the deadline looms like the blade of a guillotine.

Whether this brief trip to the archive was completely useful to my own research is up for debate. There was one very noir version which I would love to find in its entirety to read, and perhaps there is a conversation to be had with Ian Watson about it in the future, and I would love to know which anime he recommended to Stanley Kubrick.

However, visit has inspired a desire to read multiple drafts of the film scripts from my core texts: Blade Runner, Gattaca, Dark City, The Matrix to see how they developed into the final films. Perhaps there are gems in these drafts that, due to various elements of economics or risk, never made it to the final product.

As a screenwriter it has made me think about early drafts and that perhaps I need to be more inventive, maybe I need to go that extra step outside the box and be more experimental in the early story stage. Because even at my strangest, I have nothing on some of the things I’ve read in the Kubrick Archive.

To finish here’s the theatrical trailer for A.I.

Location: University Archives and Special Collections Centre
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle


Here is part two of the blog series where I take a look at creative adaptation through showcasing some anime adaptations of western books. In the first post of the series I explained a little of my love for anime and then analysed Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo.

This time I’m looking at one of the most well known anime adaptation of a western book, Howl’s Moving Castle [2004] directed by Hayao Miyazaki based on the book of the same title by Dianne Wynne Jones [written in 1986]. I’m tackling this next because a) this is the adaptation that got me thinking about this little series and b) I have just finished reading the book, kindly lent to me by the person who also sparked the idea for examining anime adaptations.

English version of the trailer

Howl’s Moving Castle follows the story of Sophie Hatter, aged 18 until she falls foul of The Witch of the Waste who places a curse on her, aging Sophie to around 90. Unable to stay at home, Sophie sets out to find a way to break the curse and finds herself  pretending to be a cleaning lady in the Moving Castle owned by Wizard Howl, a selfish character who eats woman’s hearts, apparently. Soon Sophie is involved in breaking more curses than just her own.

Poster for Howl's Moving Castle

Poster for Howl’s Moving Castle

Doesn’t that image fill you with a sense of charmed whimsy? Of course it does. Miyazaki’s visuals for this film capture the spirit of Jones’ novel perfectly as does the swirling score by usual Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisashi. [My favourite tracks on the OST have to be Flower Garden and The Boy Who Drank Stars.] The attention to detail that Miyazaki demonstrates in all of his films, the idyllic country imagery and panache for animating magical worlds really brings the flavour of Wynne Jones’ writing to life.

Howl's Moving Castle Poster

Howl’s Moving Castle Poster

And that is the secret of a successful adaptation in my mind, not to mention the thing you will be told over and over by teachers of screenwriting. Capturing the essence of the book is the trick. It is nigh on impossible to get the visuals to match the varied pictures the readers will create in their heads, but if you can convey the feeling the book creates for the reader than a good sixty percent of the battle is won in the adaptation. Of course there will be people who disagree with this, after all, the creative medium is a subjective one. No right or wrong answers here, only opinions and debate – and box office sales figures if you are cynical.

Unlike the last example of book to anime adaptation, Howl’s Moving Castle is a feature film which means it has a much shorter time to tell the story than the 24 episodes of Gankutsuou. It’s only natural then that characters and subplots are cut and moments modified to tell a coherent story. Gankutsuou’s strength came from having the breathing space to explore all the convoluted elements of The Count of Monte Cristo, Howl’s Moving Castle on the other hand like most filmic adaptations had to pick and chose what stayed and what went, which drawing out new themes that were relevant to the audience watching in 2004.

Brief warning that from here on be spoilers

Thematically, Miyazaki has drawn out one of the less mentioned, but still present, ideas of impending war in the book to become a major motif. It is a motivator for Howl’s actions and a way for Miyazaki to explore his own anti-war feelings around the period where American, British and European troops were involved in the contentious period of the war on terrorism, in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was not until very recently that I found out there were also Japanese troops in those regions so it is little wonder that Miyazaki who has such a strong anti-war feeling in many of his movies [starting as early as Nausicaa and The Valley of the Wind] should pull this element out.

Bombing raid

Bombing raid

War makes monsters of us all, despite good or bad intentions the film seems to say by literally transforming the court wizards into horrific flying creatures loaded in bomb bays of mega airships. [Airships, another Miyazaki visual motif and fascination that places his stamp not Wynne Jones’ on the adaptation.]

Howl loses control in action

Howl loses control in action

From a plot point of view this changes some of the motivations of the characters. Howl is running away from war and his old tutor Wizard Suliman, who is a character hybrid from the book, as she wants him to fight. The presence of warships at Porthaven replaces the fantastic magical battle between Howl and the Witch of Waste, which loses something.

But the Witch of the Waste [pictured below] gets the usual Miyazaki villain treatment; she is no longer purely evil. She is another woman who fell in love with Howl and was scorned seeking revenge, so far, so like the novel, but then she is reduced to her own old age and inducted into the gang who live in the moving castle. She becomes a lonely old lady searching for comfort and companionship and is thus redeemed through the film.

Witch of the Waste - image from

Witch of the Waste – image from

Other characters are changed and merged to deal with the tighter scale of a film. Sophie remains true to the novel’s protagonist, but she loses a sister, Martha, and a little of her complex about failing because she is the Eldest. However, her charm, resilience and determination still captures the heart of all around her, including many inanimate objects like the bewitched prince scarecrow. [One of the more abrupt reveals at the end of the movie which loses from the missing prince not being overtly introduced earlier in the film.]

Calcifer too remains very true to the sarcastic fire demon in the book, despite his visualisation being quite different.

Calcifer - image taken from

Calcifer – image taken from

“A thin blue face… very long with and thin, with a thin blue nose… curly green flames on top are  definitely your hair… purple flames near the bottom make your mouth… curiously enough the only orange flames were under the green eyebrow flames.” [Wynne Jones p.47]

Wizard Suliman has one of the greatest transformations.

Madame Suliman - a character merger of Wizard Suliman and Mrs. Pentstemmon

Madame Suliman – a character merger of Wizard Suliman and Mrs. Pentstemmon

No longer is he another visitor from our ordinary world Wales, turned magician, and come to think of it he’s no longer even male, Madame Suliman is a merger of Howl’s tutor the formidable Mrs. Pentstemmon and Ben Sullivan/Wizard Suliman the royal wizard. As the Wales-as-Howl’s-native-birthplace subplot is gone—replaced with a lonely childhood of study to make his and Sophie’s lonely upbringings relatable and provide a beautiful set piece of the flower garden on the edge of the wastes/marshes where star demons fall—it seems a natural and sensible merger of character. It does not detract from the plot for those who do not know the novel, and it is understandable for those who do know the original.

In losing the youngest sister, who was Michael’s love interest, Michael now Markl, can also become a younger character; someone Sophie can look after and who can add youthful energy to the story, and still seem ridiculous as he attempts some sense of authority. The character of the dog remains but is no longer part of the Suliman/Prince Justin hybrid the Witch of the Waste was building as her ideal man.

Sophie cleaning

Sophie cleaning

Finally I just want to draw attention to the fact that Miyazaki manages to bring in flavours of Japan to the adaptation. Sophie, when cleaning, ties her dress to keep it out of the way which is a blur of Japanese and Western styles, reminiscent of the way the characters in Spirited Away tie their uniforms out of the way to clean.

I guess this blurring of East and West sums up the magical animated worlds of most of Miyazaki’s creations. There is so much more to write but this post is already very long so, to end, here is the Japanese trailer for the movie which has a bit of a different tone to the English one.

When I started my PhD, little did I think that I would be pawing through Stanley Kubrick’s original notebooks and other written ephemera related to the unfinished [for Kubrick] film AI: Artificial Intelligence. Let’s face it, I didn’t think anyone would let me get my grubby little student hands anywhere near anything belonging to Kubrick, not without going through some trails by decontamination first.AI Poster

Of course Kubrick is renowned for movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, but it is the movie AI: Artificial Intelligence that fits loosely into my area of PhD research. It is about an unreliable protagonist, a robot boy who isn’t entirely sure he’s a robot at first, nor that he isn’t an individual, who on realising this information wants to become a real boy and sets off across sci-fi noir landscape on this quest.

[Actually it is debate-able in the final film, which was finished by Steven Spielberg that David, the robot, is the only protagonist. It feels to me that David’s “mother,” Monica, is just as much of a protagonist in the first section of the film as he is. The unsatisfying feeling I get  during resolution and quest of the movie stems from the fact that Monica’s goal, her story, is not fully explored. Although for this post that’s beside the point – what was I saying about PhDs and focus?]

The year that Kubrick bought the rights for Super Toys Last All Summer Long from Brian Aldiss was 1982, the year Blade Runner was released in the cinema. It was with Aldiss that Kubrick began work on the screen idea [thanks for the term, Ian McDonald] that would become the Spielberg film A.I.

There were multiple writers brought onto the project and, after re-watching the film, I was interested to get a little taster of different drafts that eventually evolved into the final movie. As a screenwriter myself, I find it fascinating to see the different ways a script story develops from the original idea, through the influence of directors/producers/studios and even actors, to the final product.

Naturally I was a little excited, in what I hope wasn’t too obviously a fangirl kind of way, to be entering the Kubrick Archive at the London College of Communication. The room itself even threw off a Kubrickian aura, white being the dominant colour, clean lines, glass partitions and a luminous ceiling. It was like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey and I was well on my way to a little researcher heaven when the trolley arrived with, as I’d been warned, the un-catalogued material on A.I.


2001:A Space Odyssey


The Stanley Kubrick Archives

There was more material than I imagined and, excitingly for me, most of it different drafts of the scripts. Unfortunately the material was not in chronological order so a later draft from 1999 was mixed in with something from 1990.

In hindsight, the logical thing to do would have been to get all the scripts onto a table and order them before starting to read. But it was my first foray into the world of the academic researcher so I picked up the box nearest me and just about managed to work through it. This gave me a flavour of the collection.

  • Cue cards covered with Kubrick’s mostly legible scrawl, questioning key points, brainstorming scenes, locations, characters and especially character motivations.
  • Notebooks filled with slightly less legible scrawl again showing Kubrick’s mind at work on the project, locating the plot holes, the places where pace dies in various earlier drafts and trying to find ways to fix the problems.
  • Script drafts and script-ments [these feel part way between a screenplay and a treatment]. I looked at two different script-ments by Ian Watson.

The first scriptment, Foxtrot, was a long way from the final film and I feel shows a lot of influence from the cyberpunk novels of the 1980s like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. There was a voice over, noir narration from a super artificial intelligence which reminded me of Wintermute in Gibson’s book. The untrustworthy narrator of this version really caught my interest as it fits into one of patterns I am exploring in posthuman noir science fiction films and anime. The scriptment read more like a sci-fi novel than a script and with that carried an  unfilmable quality, some scenes would certainly be difficult to get into a PG or even a 12 certificate film.


Rouge City in the final film of A.I – the dark cyberpunk influence remaining from Watson’s first story idea

As a story, though, Foxtrot was a compelling and complex look into the relationship between humans and their robotic creations. The obsession of a little boy to become the person his mother wants him to be, a ‘real boy,’ and the dawning of childhood’s end.  The imagery and set pieces were mind-blowingly creative, making me feel a bit tame in the way I approach screen stories.

In another link to my PhD research, this scipt-ment by Ian Watson’s first stab involved multiple references to Japanese language and culture, like the cyberpunks fictions of the 1980s and 90s. So far, so exciting – for me, anyway.

When I’d found myself connected to the interwebs later, I discovered Foxtrot was a short story Watson was commissioned to write as a sample piece before he was hired to work on A.I. You can read the full article about his experience working on A.I. on Ian Watson’s website.

The second script by Ian Watson, dated around 1993, was far closer to the film made. It has the figure of Gigolo Joe and the locations of Rouge City and the Heavy Flesh Festivals. The super-A.I. is gone, Teddy is spared his Wintermute styled AI possession, and the journey David, the robot boy, takes follows a similar pattern to the film.

There is one character, a female recluse who hates humans, who Kubrick has copious notes about but who clearly will never make it to the end. As I closed the box for the day it was she who was playing very vividly on Stanley’s Kubrick’s mind.

More to come in Visiting the Kubrick Archive – Part Two...

Details of the Kubrick Archive:

Location: University Archives and Special Collections Centre
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle


One of the comments on the last post got me to thinking about some anime adaptations of western material I’ve seen in the past few years and how innovative they have been. Now I will wax lyrical about the genre bending bliss that is anime and how that has influenced and given freedom to my own creative writing. In fact last year I did just that, on camera for Auburn Thought and One&OtherTV and if you are interested you can watch the video here…

Just as the last post on adaptation emphasised imagination on overdrive so some anime adaptations have taken western source novels and transported them to brave new worlds. In the course of a few posts I want to highlight a couple of anime that re-imagine the source material in interesting ways.

I’ll try to keep these as spoiler free as possible but the nature of analysis means some mild spoilers.

Gankutsuou – The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)


Gankutsuou promotional poster

The lavish and unusual visual style of Gankutsuou is only the tip of the iceberg for creativity in this adaptation. The texture heavy layering of image, the opulent colours and vivid patterns seem perfect for Dumas’ tale of betrayal.

The first big change is the time period, Mahiro Maeda’s story is set in the future which still has the trappings of eighteenth/nineteenth century life mixed in with high technology and some duelling mecha. There is also something of art nouveau movement in the shapes and objects that fill the cavernous settings.

gankutsuou second generation

From right to left: Albert, Franz, Eugenie, Beauchamp, Raoul de Château-Renaud, Lucien Debray, Valentine, Maximilien Morrel

The next great leap is the change of focus. Instead of following Edmond Dantes as he struggles for revenge on his so called friends, the anime chooses the second generation as its protagonists. Albert de Moncerf is the young naive hero who, along with his loyal friend Franz d’Épinay, is sucked into The Count of Monte Cristo’s web as he longs for adventure, love and a life bigger than his own. We are also brought into the mind spaces of Eugenie Danglers, the spirited pianist who wants independence and sickly Valentine Villefort who longs for a different kind of freedom.

The Count of Monte Cristo, himself, gets a gothic makeover as a sort of vampiric creature [See promo poster image]. Like the vampires of nineteenth century literature he carries the scars of a tragic past, drawing the naive Albert and Franz, but also like nineteenth century vampire he is a consummate schemer and manipulator. This character alteration visualises the theme of a man hollowed out by revenge, his passions and life force switched to darkness.

The flip of focus onto the innocents, the children of Moncerf, Danglers and Villefort naturally changes audience sympathy. We see these lives torn apart by the schemes of the Count from the perspective of the younger generation. Although some are spoilt and deserve to be shaken up, others are kind and demolished indiscriminately. This is the ugly face of revenge, it has consequences on all involved. From our position, in Albert’s shoes, there is more pathos in the discovery of the treachery of his father and the cruelty of his new friend The Count.

This adaptation still embodies the themes of the original text and surprising transformations on most of the multitude of subplot lies from the book, but it also presents a vibrant, futuristic vision perhaps more tempting to a teenage audience than Dumas’ book.

Here’s the Japanese trailer to give you a sense of the imaginative style and hopefully inspire you to watch the series.

Adaptations are the bread and butter of the script writing trade at the moment. Get them right and you promote the source material (usually a book) and gain support for your own work. Get them wrong and the source material’s fan base will rip you to gooey little shreds and plaster your insides across the interwebs. The stakes are high folks.

In my very short experience as a writer I’ve already tackled two adaptations; one for screen, which never crawled out of development, and one for stage which I was received pretty well by the audience, which means I did my job right.

Yesterday, I attended my first Script Yorkshire workshop on the hot topic of adaptation, run by Lavinia Murray  who has a lot of experience in adapting various materials, especially for radio. The session got me thinking about my first adaptation and the errors I made through lack of confidence in the value of my creative voice.

I was attached to my first adaptation within a year of graduating from my MFA, I’d found an agent and she had been sending my family adventure script around as a writing sample. One producer liked what I did and we had a chat about adaptation projects they were interested in. I bought the book the next day, eager to prove I was a proactive and enthusiastic new writer. It was a children’s book set in a near and alternative future.  Elements of the story resonated with me immediately and there were certainly sections that were incredibly cinematic. I told my agent, she told the producer and I was given a chance to produce a treatment.

The error I made, because this was my first go, was to stick too closely to the book. I performed mannerist feats of story sculpting to keep all the original plot and character elements in but it just wasn’t working. The producer was exasperated [who could blame them] and I got a very stern call from my agent telling me that if I didn’t pull it out of the bag I was going to lose the job.

That’s when, super stressed, I confessed that I had different ideas about adaptation, but didn’t feel I had the authority to just rip the book up. My agent told me to throw the book away and tell the producer my own take.

I should have had the confidence to take the story my own way from the start.  I realised I could keep my integrity to the soul of the story without keeping all the elements. I had a lot more fun working on the film once I could express my own interpretation, removing elements that worked in prose but were clunky for a screen story. The ultimate failure of the project was a due to the myriad of factors that are in play when working on any large budget production. I can’t say that I wasn’t disappointed, very disappointed, but my time on that adaptation taught me an awful lot about the industry.

Which is a very long set up for the Lavinia’s adaptation workshop which emphasised the script writer’s interpretation of the source material and encouraged us to think well beyond the box in what we could do.

Based around a short story by L.Frank Baum The Glass Dog   Lavinia started the day with a discussion about the parts of the story that we liked and disliked. It’s always surprising how much you can draw out of a seven page short story; the hollows and gaps in the piece allowing for each reader to bring in their experiences to the piece.

Then we were tasked with picking a genre, any genre, and then adapt the short story to fit that genre. A terrifyingly daunting idea. We were given lunch to stew in our creative panic.

To help us along Lavinia had a useful website handout and, as usual with workshops, I found out about a great online resource I hadn’t heard of before, behold the periodic table of storytelling… hours of good old procrastination for all scribes.

After lunch the workshop was silent as we all scribbled away, figuring out what would need to be changed to fit the genres chosen. Then Lavinia dropped the next bomb, she wanted us to write the first scene of our genre-ized adaptation for radio.

Radio? I’ve never done radio before. How does it work? Panic!

Lavinia’s main writing experience is in radio and she gave a wonderful, short explanation of the differences and advantages of this medium. I calmed down instantly. Radio seems incredibly creative and freeing once you get your head around how much you can do with sound. I feel I might dabble in radio, when I have time, in the future.

By the end, when we began to share ideas, I was stunned by number of really different interpretations: a ghost story, a comic American gothic, a western and my own little contribution in sci-fi noir [what else would it be?].

Of course I shouldn’t have been that surprised, my research trip to the Kubrick Archive to read some of the early drafts of A.I: Artifical Intelligence,  based on the story Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brain Aldiss, had shown me how weird and wonderful the imagination can be once allowed to experiment [more on that in another post]. Then there was Frozen [see my thoughts here] which was a very creative re-imaging of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen.

The thing is we all bring our very different, individual voices to writing which are shaped by experience and everything we’ve ever read/watched/heard and loved, or hated.

I’m a huge architecture nerd. Buildings both modern and ancient really excite me. I’m working through a book, given as a Christmas present, of 1001 buildings to see before you die. I’ve seen 110 across Europe, China, Japan and America. Not too bad. Of course since 2007 when I was given the book new buildings have been created, so it’s a futile gesture really to try and see them all.

I also find architecture immensely inspiring for my writing. As I am focusing on science fiction these days, the city-scapes of these speculative futures form an important part of world building. The city itself often becomes a character. It exists as a means to show the theme of a film and to create mood or atmosphere.

And I’m a sucker for an ancient ruin that can be transformed into a spectacular set piece location for an action adventure movie. [That’s my youth watching Indiana Jones and playing Tomb Raider showing.]

So, whenever I can, I find time to see exhibitions involving architecture. The one currently on at the Royal Academy in London until 6th April is a thrilling, interactive experience I’d recommend to anyone with a spare hour and a few bob. It’s called Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined.

Seven architects have been given rooms to turn into their own architectural wonderlands. Some are gigantic structures like the towering wooden platform by Pezo von Ellrichshausen and the plastic tunnel by Diébédo Francis Kéré; while others develop more intimate spaces where the mind turns inwards like Kengo Kuma’s dark, scented rooms with delicate bamboo sculptures or the play of shadow and light by Irish Grafton Architects.

My favourite, pictured below, has to be the labyrinth forest of twigs by Li Xiandong.

Li Xiaodong exhibition piece at Royal AcademyPhotograph by Max Gee (on terrible phone camera)

The viewer walks on a luminous white floor, between walls of twigs in a darkened room, often turning to dead end seating spaces and eventually reaching a zen stone garden at the centre. Other people and spaces can be glimpsed through the twigs walls which are not solid. Caught on the peripheries of vision, these half seen sights create an atmosphere of mystery.

The quiet is broken when you reach the zen garden, where you are encouraged to walk across the pebbles. This brings back nostalgic experiences of holidays on pebbled beaches – a strange association in a dark, forest of twigs. Magical, I thought.

Li Xiaodong’s exhibition piece led to a google search of his other work; the library at Liyuan, struck a chord as inspiration for a location in a future movie.

Liyuan Library by Li Xiaodong

Photograph from Dezeen online magazine article

The strong lines of the main structure seem so current, modern, in clean light wood but they are tempered with the external shell of twigs found in the nearby landscape. The walls are solid, but not; the architect interested in the flow of light and air. It is the library to aspire to having – although I feel it might be completely impractical in Yorkshire.

I have a suspicion that flavours of the pieces in this exhibition will be making their way into the scripts that I will be writing for my PhD, apologies in advance Mr Li Xiaodong. 

Exhibition details:

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, The Royal Academy of Arts, 25th January until 06th April 2014,

Yesterday I finally caught the latest fairytale re-imagining from Disney, Frozen. A major overhaul of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, the film focuses on the relationship between two sisters, Elsa, born with the ability to manipulate snow and ice, and her rather more ordinary, happy-go-lucky younger sibling Anna.

After Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her magic, Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers are removed and the King and Queen decide to seclude the sisters from the world, fearing the rest of society will react badly to Elsa. [Oh boy are they right – as the Mob Song goes in Beauty and the Beast, “We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us… Kill the beast…”] Soon the parents die, time passes and Elsa’s coronation approaches. After years in isolation the sisters finally have to interact with the outside world again. The stage is set for drama.


Image taken from

Bit of a confession first, my interest in seeing the film was created last week when, on the 10pm train back from London, I caught the first thirty minutes. It was through the seats, there was no sound, and the picture wasn’t brilliant because it was on a family’s laptop and clearly a bootleg download.

The vague story I caught seemed fun, exciting and used medium of animation to develop a visual spectacle. I just had to see the real, full version. Granted, maybe a lunch time showing during the half term holidays wasn’t the best time to go see a Disney movie, but even my stony heart melted enough for there to be tears in my eyes at the end of the movie; my emotions expertly manipulated by the writer Jennifer Lee (yes a woman!). Well worth a watch, I think. Here are some more thoughts, with mild spoilers…

It was refreshing to see another Disney movie, like Brave, that focused on familial love rather than romantic love. This movie concentrates on the two sisters coming to understand each other’s perspectives and fears.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a romantic sub-plot, two really for Anna [the little tease] and for one of the romantic leads there’s emphasis on the plotting. But the guys are along for the ride to facilitate the development of the female characters and primarily Anna’s quest. No one tells Anna she has to chase her sister, in fact most of the town’s folk are against her leaving, but in true heroic fashion Anna will not be swayed.

Then we move onto what I feel is quite a nice exploration of reactions to seclusion from three different perspectives:

  • ·         Elsa’s self isolation due to her fear of powers and the way others might perceive her is something she needs to overcome. Control and trust issues abound.
  • ·         Anna’s ridiculous, naive trust in all people because she just can’t wait to interact with others after being shut away for so long. Her journey revolves around learning when to trust and when to be wary.
  • ·         Kristoff’s cynical mistrust of other human beings due to abandonment is put to the test when he interacts with Anna. His journey is about realising, like Elsa in a way, that all people aren’t horrible and dealing with his own trust issues.

Ultimately, Frozen passes on the message that the best way to handle internal problems is through interaction with others. It might go wrong, you might get hurt, but eventually you will learn and heal.

I’m also a fan of the fact that the film ridicules, like Enchanted, the idea that two characters meet one evening and are immediately ready to get engaged. Love, as the film postulates, takes time and trust to really develop; that goes for familial love to.

My late agent told me, when I started to pitch my own animated fairytale re-imagining idea that the main thing I needed to keep at the front of my mind was “spectacle.”

Frozen embraces this from the opening scene with the chorus of Ice Harvesters working on a frozen lake, as dawn becomes day becomes night illuminated by the Northern Lights, all to a song which encapsulates the theme of the film . “There’s beauty and there’s danger here…Beware the frozen heart.”

Then there is the wonderful demonstration of Elsa’s powers during the main song “Let it Go” which is a real joy to watch.  It’s described in the script as…

“In a flurry of creative release, she [Elsa] raises the snowflake on ice beams, builds walls, archways, a glistening chandelier, and an intricate ceiling that leaves the sky visible.” (From screenplay for Disney’s Frozen by Jennifer Lee.)

The sequence this tiny block of action describes is a marvel to watch and uses the geometric patterns of snowflakes to stunning effect.

As anyone can tell I thought the film was a blast and it gives me hope that female driven film is around to inspire young girls and show them some of the errors of the usual fairy tale model.