The Challenge

…in which I tell you some fun news about my blogging escapades.

Something a little different this week. Although I’m still on course to self-publish my novel Black Moon towards the end of April (or perhaps a tad later), I’m going to take a bit of a detour.

One of the things bloggers do (and I guess, after all these weeks posting blogs, that’s what I have become) is visit other blogs and generally hang with the blogging community. You comment on each others’ posts (please tell me I got that apostrophe right), tap that ‘like’ button and generally party on in the blogosphere. Last week, I came across this…

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Blogging From A to Z involves literally thousands of bloggers taking up the challenge to post every single day for April. With Sundays off for good behaviour, that’s 26 posts for each letter of the alphabet. Forgive me but that’s mind-bloggling!

Initially, I told myself it might be fun and bookmarked the page for further perusal later. After a few glasses of wine, I was signed up and racking my brain for material. Fortunately, the posts don’t have to be epic masterpieces. They could be a thought or a picture or anything that comes to mind. I’ve already been planning and jotting and preparing. Blog A will appear on Friday. I won’t bombard you with Facebook reminders but I may tweet to announce each post.

So the continuing story of my self-publishing adventure will have to wait a bit. I will present you with the next episode on Tuesday 12th April when Blog J will be Jack Dixon – the name of Black Moon’s hero. In that post I’ll tell you a little bit more about the novel and how nice the publishers were when they rejected it.

Until then, don’t forget to check back once in a while to see how I’m doing. Hopefully, there’ll be a few doozies along the way. I could probably do with some super writing powers like the ones Clark Kent is demonstrating here…

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 A is for Anaerobic Digester. I can tell you’re intrigued. See you on Friday….

Kraitt out!

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The Rocky Analogy

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I’ve just discovered captions! The relevance of Sylvester Stallone triumphant on top of a Siberian mountain will become clear. Read on…

Last time, wannabe screenwriter Rob had hung up his keyboard and got a proper job but, years later, inspiration hit him between the eyes. What on earth happened next?!

So what kind of writer do I find myself in the Spring of 2008? Looking for a nifty comparison to kick off this blog, it seems too obvious to look at writers in the movies. Nicholas Cage in Adaptation? Too tortured. Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Far too bonkers. Joseph Cotten in The Third Man? Not unless I can identify with a hack author of pulp fiction caught up in a black market conspiracy in post-war Vienna.

Then it strikes me, looking back at that time, I was very much channelling the great Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky 4 (this is good, stay with me). After years away from writing (boxing, in Rocky’s case) and helping other writers (Rock was training Apollo Creed for an unlikely comeback), I come out of retirement to avenge the death of my writing career (Apollo’s tragic demise in the ring) against newer, younger, better writers (Dolph Lundgren’s pharmaceutically enhanced Ivan Drago). Going back to basics to battle my own demons, I rise victorious (write something) in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; thus saving the world from near certain nuclear holocaust by ending the Cold War through friendship and reconciliation (not that last bit).

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It was certainly a bizarre feeling to be hit by the bug so dramatically after years of working with writers, rather than writing myself. And it really was a ropey idea that had my creative juices flowing again: a boy who turns into a fox and gets in adventures?! I’d have to come up with a bit more than that.

What’s more, I had inadvertently raised expectation elsewhere. Strutting around the office the following day, excited about getting back in the writing game, I boasted to my colleague and fellow agent Elinor that I would soon be delivering a novel for her to sell.

“Ooh,” she said (or something like that). “What’s It called?”

“Er…it’s going to be called,” I paused, scrabbling for something half way decent. “Black Moon. That’s it…Black Moon.”

“Great,” she replied. I guess. I don’t really remember the conversation that well and she was probably trying to do some actual work.

And there in a moment, I had set myself the task of writing a novel called Black Moon that might be about an adventurous fox boy.

I did a lot of thinking and scribbling over the next few days and weeks and months. My memory is hazy on exactly how my idea evolved into the story of Cat Dixon, star of Black Moon (now JACK Dixon but that’s for another day). Strong influences crowded my mind. American Werewolf In London for one, an astounding picture that had a profound effect on me as a teenager. I didn’t end up writing a werewolf book, by the way. It might have ‘moon’ in its title and want you to think it’s a werewolf book but it has a few other tricks up its booksleeves.

It didn’t take long for the pieces to fall into place. I was shaping a story that was very far from what I thought I had. Isn’t that the best thing about writing? You’re always surprising yourself.

Devoting an hour or two a night, more than I could spare considering work, life, sleep; Black Moon started to come together. Next week, I’ll tell you what happened when I finished.

Keeping it pithy this time.

Kraitt out!

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My Bottom Drawer Overfloweth, Part 2

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Last time, Rob met Ash at college and they embarked on a writing career. They nearly made a film…nearly. Read on…

After four years working together, Ash and myself found ourselves not much closer to writing for the big screen than when we met at college. Something radical was called for. We needed to go back to our roots. We decided to write an action movie.

Following in the footsteps of greats like Steven E. de Souza and Shane Black, we were going to deliver 100 pages of thrills, spills, laughs and games – with an action sequence every 10 pages and a 30 page wow finish.We were pretty sure that’s how you wrote an action movie – and we had watched enough of them!

Cue SHOWTIME.

The pitch is simple: Die Hard on live TV where the game is life or death. We took our use of football character names to new levels (Arnie Wenger?!), agonised over one-liners, meticulously planned our action sequences, wrote a kick-ass speed-boat chase and delivered a climax at an aeroplane graveyard where literally everything explodes!

And it worked. Kind of.

Hugely proud of our new opus, we actually sent it to a few agents. A letter arrived from one Natasha Galloway at PFD in London (now one of the most successful reps in the business). I’m afraid I can’t find this important historical document to tell you what it said but she must have liked Showtime because she wanted to meet! Us!

So we took ourselves down to PFD’s magnificent offices in Chelsea Harbour, as nervous as any young movie geeks brushing against the big time, and found ourselves in a stuffy meeting room with Natasha Galloway and the legendary agent Anthony Jones. One thing I do remember of what seemed like a thirty second chat was that Anthony Jones was wearing a very sharp dark suit (no tie) and a pair of extremely colourful socks. I wonder if he still does that.

Natasha and Anthony told us they liked our script. Showtime had potential. They wanted to sign us up and send the script to their co-agents in LA who would sell it to a studio and we would become Hollywood screenwriters. It was that easy.

Of course, we said yes. We would have bitten their hands off…and their feet. We had an agent. We were going to be successful…and rich. We might even meet Bruce Willis.

Unfortunately, none of this happened. Showtime did go to Hollywood but it made little impact. Our super villain happened to be a cult leader and, apparently, Hollywood wasn’t buying cult leaders at that time.

We didn’t wait by the phone. Thinking we needed to write something for the UK, we got back to work on a time-travel action thriller: Call Back Yesterday. Set in Scotland, it boasted a fist fight on the roof of a speeding train and a cameo for Sean Connery as an irascible but lovable genius inventor (imagine him barking the line: “They can shove their bloody Official Secret’s Act up their self righteous arses!” Channel him below…). Natasha didn’t really like that one so it didn’t go very far.

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Unbowed, we went back to basics again with an even bigger, far more bonkers action blast called Lotusfinger, the story of a megalomaniac arms dealer who destroys Chicago to demonstrate a new superhuman fighting drug and the helicopter cops who save the day (lots of exploding flying machines!). Natasha didn’t really go for that one either. Maybe our luck was running out or the work wasn’t up to scratch. We were  certainly having a hell of a lot of fun writing.

And I’ll say this to any budding writers out there. Looking back as an agent myself, apart from the not actually selling scripts thing, we must have been the perfect clients. We just couldn’t keep away from our keyboard. We were bursting with ideas and desperate to write all the time so kept producing specs and firing them off. For anyone with that kind of enthusiasm, I’ll always say it takes the right kind of alchemy of effort, timing and blind luck to make a career in this crazy random business. The killer is giving up. If you give up, it’s never going to happen.

Ash and I haven’t given up. We’re just on a very long break. But we’ll get to that.

By 1998, after many years sending endless letters to production companies and distributors, I had started finding work as a script reader. I was actually pretty good at writing script reports and had made some good contacts. Those contacts actually translated into a few paid writing gigs. We wrote a heist thriller called The Elephant Men for Greg French (a budding American producer in London who actually had a pet wolf!) and Lee Magiday (still a good friend and now BAFTA nominated producer of The Lobster). We sweated blood over a teen action thriller for Australian producer Deborah Balderstone, which had various titles, including Lighthouse Island and – my personal favourite – Southern Charm Offensive. She eventually made the film, called The Entitled and starring Ray Liotta, but didn’t use our script.

Natasha got us a gig with Steve Matthews, one of the true good guys in the business (now running HBO Europe), who was then heading up Blackjack – a Columbia Tri Star-owned TV production company in the UK. Recruiting our friend Mike Narden, an aspiring director with a razor-sharp sense of humour, the three of us devised a series of comedy mockumentaries under the banner Unearthed. Each film would poke fun at a different documentary form. Pilot episode The Search For Alfonso Peseta was intended as a Nick Broomfield parody complete with a fake Nick called Bick Brushwood, on the Machu Pichu trail looking for a non-existent government conspiracy. It was actually very funny and there was a degree of excitement that we might even finally get a break. And on the eve of this sure-fire hit going into the broadcasters, Columbia pulled their funding and Blackjack crumbled. The script never saw the light of day.

Throughout this period, I had been reading scripts for a young producer called Aaron Simpson, who had been working at Scala Productions (he of the pithy rejection letter in last week’s episode). I’d say he was more like the Hollywood model than most you’d meet in the UK at the time. He shot from the hip and had a real ambition to be a ball-busting American-style mogul. He also saw something in us, particularly our next spec script. It was a family movie; a contemporary take on the Jack and The Beanstalk story set in the Arizona desert called Beanstalk! (exclamation mark compulsory). This is the one I’m most proud of. For me, the mix of tight story-telling and surreal comedy absolutely shows the kind of writers we could have been. Aaron took it on,  worked us hard in development and sent it out to directors. He told us at one point that Tim Burton was reading it. Perfect! Crushingly, Burton did not attach himself to our movie. Neither did any other film-maker. Aaron went on to produce the Brit-comedy Women Talking Dirty and then left the industry to become very successful doing something sensible.

So at the turn of the millennium, we were near-thirty-somethings who had come so close but had yet to develop a cigar habit. Ash was working in the emerging computer games business. I had carved a niche as a pretty good script reader and consultant. My  long-suffering and hugely supportive partner Mary was expecting our first child and I really had to get a proper job. I answered an ad in the Guardian Media section (whoever finds work there?!) and became an agent overnight (something else that never happens but that’s yet another story). I was able to put all those years of rejection to good use!

With responsibilities and salaries, the opportunities to hang it all and just write came fewer and further between. Considering my experiences of the previous ten years and my overflowing address book, I seemed to be pretty nicely set up to make a go of agenting. And I loved it. Still do! As Ash was making a similar impact in the video game world, the writing had to take a back seat.

There is one more notable chapter to our story so far. During the early naughties a very bright young exec at the UK Film Council (now the British Film Institute) called Natalie Wreyford (now part of the vital Raising Films initiative – check it out on: www.raisingfilms.com) realised that aspiring UK screenwriters were frankly rubbish at pitching (one of the most important skills in the modern film biz) so she devised the 25 Words Or Less initiative. If a writer could pitch their film idea in 25 words or less, they would be awarded funding to write a script. The scheme was split into categories to limit the barrage of entries. We figured “why not?” and dusted off a discarded idea to set the Frog Prince in high school as a teen musical called Me And My Frog. We won! We were going to write a musical for the BFI.

I was a little uncomfortable about this and worried about a Film Council award compromising my position as a writer’s agent so we agonised over using a pseudonym for the gig. Our top choice was Hoops McCann (only recognisable by real Steely Dan enthusiasts) but in the end we decided to let Ash shoulder this one alone. He would attend meetings and be our mouthpiece, with me in the background as his “agent”. It worked and no one suspected a thing. With exemplary script-editing help from the brilliant Lucy Ryan, we produced a kicking screenplay but were about four years behind High School Musical and completely beyond a British film industry that is still mostly running scared of family films. Another one bit the dust.

To be abundantly clear, Ash and I still have smiles on our faces. We are both engaged in fantastic careers and revel in these memories of very nearly becoming screenwriters as brilliant as our idols. And it may not be over. We still threaten each other with the prospect of a comeback.

I hadn’t written anything for a long while when I was struck by inspiration in Snaresbrook a few years later (see blog number 2). Next week, I’ll tell you what I did with that inspiration as we prepare our countdown to publication day. Until then, I leave you with Arnie as Hamlet…

Kraitt out!

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My Bottom Drawer Overfloweth, Part 1

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I love my job and apart from a hankering to go to space or lead Arsenal out at Wembley Stadium, I wouldn’t do anything else. But once upon a long ago, I was destined to be a screenwriter.

I had grown up on classic movie-writing greats such as Billy Wilder and William Goldman. I wanted to be just like them. Arriving at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design as a fresh-faced eighteen year-old, I was going to learn my trade and conquer Hollywood. And that’s where I met my future partner in writing crimes, Mr. Ashley Pannell.

Perhaps it was a twist of fate that two such identically-minded movie obsessives would find themselves sharing a student house in the toy-town suburb of Lower Parkstone in Poole (the most desirable location in the whole of the UK – no kidding!). Surrounded by a too-cool-for-film-school bunch whose influences didn’t go back further than Mean Streets, I was something of an outsider knowing anything about Capra, Wilder and the Marx Brothers. Ash boasted a shameless love of the works of Joel Silver and Simpson & Bruckheimer as well as Roger Moore’s James Bond. Combine this with a forensic (some would say geeky) understanding of gods of the blockbuster Messrs. Spielberg, Lucas and Zemekis – it didn’t take long for us to join forces. At that point, we were also the only students in our year who had any interest in actual writing. At risk of mixing my metaphors, the die was cast with knobs on. A writing partnership was born to rival the very best and a process was devised that stayed with us for the next fifteen years.

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The two biggest influences on our screenwriting from the early days have to be William Goldman and Viki King. Goldman, the legendary scribe who gave us The Princess Bride, Marathon Man and All The President’s Men (amongst many many others, of course) wrote two indispensable books about writing: Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell. They are absolutely two books you should read before you die, even if you have no interest in writing for the screen. Superb on Hollywood and the movie business, they are highly inspirational in only the way a hard-nosed, straight-talking, Oscar-winning Tinseltown veteran can be.

Viki King’s deservedly best-selling How To Write A Movie In 21 Days is perhaps less fashionable (and beautifully cheesy – Viki calls her process The Inner Movie Method!) but was just as seminal for me in cutting through the fear. I only picked it up because Viki promised to have me completing a  full length feature screenplay in three weeks – and she was right! My first ever attempt;  a vigilante super hero flick called Agent Orange (which had great reviews from my brother Steve incidentally), was written with Viki King looking over my shoulder. How can you resist quotes like “write from your heart, rewrite from your head“?

The main piece of advice we learnt from these gurus was to lock ourselves away until we had finished a full 90 pages. We were all about consistency of style and, by any means, getting to [write] The End. That first time, I can remember quite vividly staying at our empty student house for the holidays, rather than going back home, and stocking up with provisions as if we were expecting a nuclear strike. We wrote solidly for an entire long weekend, fifteen hours a day, to the tunes of David Bowie, Queen, Billy Joel and Bon Jovi – with a few of Ash’s Bond and John Williams movie soundtracks when we needed some inspiration. We’d break to watch the most eighties of action movies and maybe smoked the odd cigarette.

Fueled by Mars Milk and tinned Bolognese, that first Rob & Ash motion picture extravaganza was titled Fast Aid. Here’s the logline:

In an alternative NHS-less future where health insurance companies battle each other to get rich off the sick and dying, a rogue team of fearless medics steal patients to give free treatment and start a revolution. Fast Aid is a politically-charged action comedy with high speed ambulance chases through the streets of London.

What a pitch!

And it wasn’t bad. The pro-welfare state message was a little heavy-handed for sure but it had gags, action and a few nifty plot twists. We also introduced our technique of using the names of footballers from leagues all over the world for our characters. Unfortunately, we had absolutely no idea what to do with it. Our course at BPCAD was merely a foundation, offering an introduction to audio visual production. The intention was to send us on to a further film degree after our two years was up – not to teach us how to write big budget movies and sell them into the studio system. We were as far from selling our script to Hollywood as we were from dating the girls studying fashion (we hadn’t a hope in hell!).

We did proudly send our work to one producer. He was a friend of Ash’s father, I seem to remember, and sent us a bemused letter of encouragement.

The second year of our course was spent doing the stuff one does at film school: making epic short films, devising in-jokes that would last the next twenty years and more, spouting about the works of Francis Ford Coppola and rescuing future blockbuster film directors fuelled by tequila (but that’s another story). We survived.

I passed up the opportunity to spend another four years in higher education. I figured it would be so hard to break into the movie business that it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t get cracking immediately. I was back home, applying for various restaurant jobs while I knocked on the doors of disinterested producers in the threadbare excuse for a British film industry of the early nineties. Then I got a phone call from one Paul Albert.

One of life’s true menschen (look that one up in your Dictionary of Yiddish), Paul was an old friend from Bar Mitzvah class at Hendon Reform Synagogue. I hadn’t seen him for a few years. He had a proposition. He wanted to make a movie. And he wanted us to write it.

The adventure of the next two years is certainly a tale to be told in a future blog. Bringing Ash into the team, Paul and me and the legend that is Daniel Betteridge formed a production company with the intention of making a feature film about the 43 Group, a little known anti-fascist organisation that operated in the UK after the Second World War and halted a comeback by Sir Oswald Mosley, former leader of the Blackshirts, when the country was on its knees. It’s a great story and one that needs to be told. We were going to tell it and the next few years saw us spending a considerable amount of time with a collection of ex-43 Group bruisers, raising money for a trailer, taking an eye-opening trip to the Cannes Film Festival and writing endless drafts of a script that morphed from Shades Of Black (awful title) to The Book Club (better) and then eventually Welcome Home (just about okay).

And what of that script? Well, a report for Central Films (who they?) remarked: “This is a potentially fascinating story about the unheard of Group 43. However, the story is let down by its plotting and characterisation.” But what do you really think?! Scala Productions were told by their script reader “with a second draft it could be an excellent piece of forgotten history on a par with Let Him Have It but not quite Schindler’s List at the moment.” Could be, eh? Not quite Schindler’s List? Fair enough. We weren’t quite Steve Zaillian (you can look him up too).

Despite our valiant efforts and the amazing support from executive producers John Stevens and Clifford Kaye (as well as our wonderful families and friends), we never did get to make our movie but it was certainly an education.

Throughout this period, our writing partnership blossomed with a number of spec scripts:

All For Lenya was a psychological thriller about a prima ballerina facing a violent stalker on the eve of her glittering London debut.

Want a Victorian action thriller with nods to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps? Try our period actioner A Whiff Of Grapeshot.

The saucy romantic comedy Our House was intended to be accompanied by the music of Madness (yes, we invented the jukebox musical five years before Mamma Mia opened in the UK!). Producer Aaron Simpson of Scala Productions wrote in response “Thanks. But no thanks. Next?” More on him later.

Finally, and probably best of the bunch, was family comedy Living Image: the story of a young man whose life is so dull and hopeless that his reflection climbs out of the mirror and runs off to join the circus.

If any of these most speculative of screenplays had hit the spot, we’d no doubt be living in a beach house in Santa Monica, but they didn’t. Maybe we weren’t good enough. Certainly, the necessary alchemy of talent, timing and luck didn’t happen for us at that moment in time. By the time the Welcome Home situation was evaporating around 1996, we realised we needed to do something radical. Our fledgling writing career needed a kiss of life. So we decided to go back to what we knew best. We decided to write an action movie.

Cue Showtime.

Next time I’ll tell you how close we flew to the sun.

Kraitt out.

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