Ostrich IFcomp postmortem

I recently wrote about a game I’ve made that I entered into IFcomp, the premier interactive fiction competition. The results are in, and out of a strong field I made it to joint 14th place out of 77. I’m dead chuffed with that result, and with the atmosphere of the competition generally. There’s been a brilliant forum for authors to discuss their mid-competition thoughts, worries, plans and that sort of thing. As a part of that, authors have been sharing postmortems of their games, looking at the genesis, the implementation, and the results. I’ve written one which I think is worth sharing here as well.

There will be some spoilers ahead, though the game has a lot of variable content depending on which options you pick, so if you haven’t played Ostrich yet you can do so in about 45 mins for free here: https://borntopootle.itch.io/

Background

I took a one week course in IF that focused on Twine over the summer, organised by the British Library. I’d previously had a quick poke of Twine and GameMaker, but not really worked out how to get anything done. Following the course (and another month of work) I published my first game. The day after publishing I had a proper read about IFcomp, noticed the deadline and the rule about being previously unpublished and realised I’d have to make a whole new game if I wanted to enter. I had about six weeks before the deadline.

The idea

Ostrich is not very subtle (which I’ll come back to). It’s very clearly a response to the rise of populist governments and sentiment in political discourse. I don’t think that’s gone over the head of anyone who’s played it!

I’d been toying with the idea of making a game about the regulation/censorship balance in some way. I worked for a company that pre-clears ads for TV (in effect working with the ad agencies to make tweaks to scripts or review evidence for product claims like ‘biggest’ ‘nothing works faster’ etc etc) in the UK for about 7 years, leaving just before they suddenly became newsworthy: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/19/banned-iceland-christmas-ad-clearcast-facvebook-palm-oil

Anyway, the descent from ad regulation to fiction censorship seemed like a good Orwellian trajectory to plot through, and gave me an instant structure to work with.

My initial plan was to have a slightly more subtle game, one where depending on which options you chose you might not see anything untoward happening at all. That was part of the Ostrich name idea – that you could be so buried in your bubble that you might not notice the rise of fascism.

The ‘don’t put your politics in the game’ arguments in mainstream gaming are so annoying I sort of thought that I might be able to turn them on their head. The onus in Ostrich could be on the player to put their politics into the game…

However as I started work I swiftly realised two things. Firstly, if you could miss all of the juicy stuff then some players might find the game very dull. Secondly, I don’t have the skill to pull the subtlety off. Or definitely not in the time I had at any rate. So I embraced the lack of subtlety.

I knew that I wanted the protagonist to be gender neutral, the location to be ambiguous (and definitely not the standard quasi-communist Russia-alike) and the time to be unknown (mainly because I didn’t want to have to deal with emails, mobiles and social media as options for the player).

So then I picked a rather arbitrary 10 step process for evolving from ad regulation, through tighter rules, into censoring the news, and on into fiction. I tied this to what I thought the government might be doing in the background at each stage of the process – protest ban, curbs on immigration, cutting some services to reinforce gender norms, rounding up dissidents etc – and then thought about what events those moves might trigger among the general populace. That gave me the ideas for the train journeys and evening activities.

The execution

The structure was fairly quick to get down: 10 work days, a new twist of rules on each day; a commute to and from work, some with a choice some without; a selection of evening activities to see a bit more of the world and make more choices (or make a choice to not engage with the wider world).

Cycling links were the only way I could think to easily implement the day-to-day work of regulation/censorship. I’m also a big fan of using cycling links for some very simple character-building, so added a few of those early on to give the player a choice of where the character’s apathy sits and their work history.

To give a bit more value to the choices I added a suspicion-meter in the background. This was affected by the choices made on the commute, in the evenings, and also by the quality of your work. When the suspicion meter reaches a certain level you receive a warning letter, and there are a couple of other small reactions tied to it too – aiming to give a bit of feedback to the player about how their choices are affecting things. If the suspicion meter hits another, higher, level you are carted away for questioning. And there were two options that would lead to an early ending regardless – if you took an active part in the protest then on the penultimate night you are rounded up with other dissidents; if you told your boss about the resistance code and still put it in the paper you are, unsurprisingly, caught. If you manage to get through unscathed, then the whole office is taken in for questioning – it’s up to the player whether they think that’s because of their actions.

I didn’t manage to find a satisfactory way of giving the player feedback on their censorship work. And given there was quite a lot of it I think that’s a bit of an oversight. There are one or two points where the boss can give a different response, but I don’t think it’s enough.

And the ending… I knew it was all going to end with the player being hauled in for questioning and I tried to come up with a few options for how naming names might go. Some options only appear if you’ve found out certain things, but I also quite wanted to find a way of implicating other people, like the combover man. But I didn’t find a satisfying way of doing that. And the interrogator spouting back some of the choices you’ve made isn’t massively exciting. I tried skipping a lot of that and going straight to the final outcome passage, but that didn’t have quite enough weight to it. As the deadline was looming I reverted to the list-of-choices ending.

The reception

It’s my first time being involved with IFcomp in any capacity so I really didn’t know what to expect. I was happy with the game – mechanically it did what I wanted it to, and seemed to have the desired emotional effect on my testers.

And the response has been really positive. I worried that a depressing political game might rub some people up the wrong way, but perhaps they were put off enough by the blurb that they didn’t actually play and review the game! And of course Twine has a fine history of games looking at sobering subjects. The phrase ‘on the nose’ has come up in a few bits of feedback. It’s usually a negative phrase but the reviewers have, in the main, acknowledged that in this case it kind of works. Initial hopes for subtlety aside, Ostrich is a blunt game and elicits a response in part because of that bluntness.

Papers Please cropped up in a few reviews, which is both pleasing and not surprising. I did worry at times that it was going to be too similar to Papers Please (which I’ve not actually finished – must get back to it!) but ended up going in a different direction.

Looking at my reviews and reviews for other games, I thought I’d probably finish somewhere in the middle, which I would’ve been happy with on my first attempt and with a depressing game. And by all accounts it’s been a good year for IFcomp with no troll games and loads of great stuff. So to finish in joint fourteenth is ruddy marvellous and I’m hugely grateful to everyone who has played, rated, or proffered feedback. Being a part of the comp has been brilliant, particularly with the lovely authors’ forum. And the organisers of course, without whom etc etc.

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The 100th Film Spectacular – Chain Reaction Film Club

We were so young, so naïve back in those hazy 2016 days. “I know,” said one doofus. “Why don’t we decide what film to watch each week by taking it in turns to pick, limiting the choice to the something starring an actor in the previous film.”

“Sure,” said the other doofus. It was an agreement he would come to regret…

And so was born the Chain Reaction Film Club in a blaze of noncommittal agreement and arbitrary rules (actors must be seen on screen and have dialogue! So no animation! And no TV movies!).

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

At least the film inspired something…

The first film was 1996’s Chain Reaction (obviously), the most recent 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Along the way we’ve been back as far as 1945 in search of hidden gems, classics we’ve not seen and films worth reappraising. We’ve watched some brilliant stuff, some weird stuff, and a couple of downright stinkers.

The darkest moment came pretty early on. In the 8th film we watched in fact. Hands up who wants to see Danny Devito’s embittered ad man relocate to a military base to teach English Lit to new recruits? Hands up who then wants to see those young recruits rapping Hamlet? Here you go: https://youtu.be/5Ij5XXaUl48

I don’t think we’ve bested (worsted?) that. Yet.

Traffic.jpg

It’s a very yellow film

There are a clutch of films that have proved entirely forgettable. I couldn’t tell you much about Sweet Dreams, The Insider, Syriana, Sunshine Cleaning or A Single Shot. I’ve now seen Traffic twice and still can’t remember much about it apart from the general message being ‘drugs are bad, m’kay’.

The player.jpg

Do you think Altman was dropping some hints to the Academy here…

But let’s focus on the positives. Mud was an early favourite in amongst a lot of mediocre choices, and a strong showing for Matthew McConnaughey. Robert Altman’s The Player was every bit as acerbic and well-told as everyone says, with a killer opening tracking shot. The Fifth Element was exactly as good as I’d remembered. I’m still gutted I didn’t see it at the cinema when it came out. I did see Starship Troopers on the big screen when it came out though, and again for the 50th film triple-header last year. It’s ageing very well, as the satire seems even more horribly relevant now.

Duellists

Got to entertain the sheep somehow…

Probably the strongest run of three films in a row was the Edward Fox triple-header of The Duellists, The Day of the Jackal and The Dresser. They’re all absolute stone-cold classics.

The best film about stunt pilots you’re ever likely to see is The Great Waldo Pepper, made all the better by finding out that Robert Redford really did climb out on the wings without safety tethering while high above the earth. Two other absolute stormers with great central performances were Talk Radio and Muriel’s Wedding – fewer stunts perhaps, but both just as gripping.

 

Along the way we’ve had mini-seasons for Edward Fox, Paul Verhoeven, Susan Sarandon, William Goldman, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Gregory Peck. And it’s with the latter that I think we found my favourite film of the CRFC so far – Cape Fear. The standout of our Peck season, even compared to the excellent To Kill A Mockingbird, The Gunfighter, The Big Country and Twelve O’Clock High.

And what of the weird? Well the jarring switch between race relations study/coming of age drama/black comedy about a woman and a decapitated head of Sweet Home Alabama will take some beating. Tank Girl was weird, but not in the same league. And I’m still perplexed by the nonchalant way characters reacted to revelations of child abuse in Last of Sheila. Compared to those, a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali in Spellbound actually seemed pretty tame.

So what next? We’ve been hankering after rewatches of Tombstone and The Blues Brothers for a while. Tim’s in a big Western mood. We both fancy heading back to the 30s, 40s and 50s slightly more. And Tim still hasn’t managed to trick me into picking Shooter with Marky Mark Whalberg…

Gregory Peck – The Chain Reaction Film Club

One of the great things about IMDb is that the URL for people betrays how early they were added to the database. For example, the first person on the IMDb, with the url ending ‘name/nm0000001/’, is Fred Astaire. There’s another film club to be had around that idea, now that I think about it.

Last time I wrote about the rather strange Last of Sheila, then waxed lyrical about two Gregory Peck fims. Anyway, so taken was I with Gregory Peck, and so enticed by the fact that he’s got a relatively small filmography for someone of his fame, that a season beckoned. And now after ten Peck films in a row I am a dedicated fan. Even though I’ve written about two of them before, I’ll look at the whole season here, because Peck deserves that sort of treatment.

From Last of Sheila we linked via James Mason to The Boys From Brazil. I enjoy Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives (the original, obvs) so another Ira Levin-based ooky thriller seemed like a safe bet. Laurence Olivier is a Nazi hunter (and the 59th person added to the IMDb), and Gregory Peck is the fiendish Joseph Mengele (and number 60, conveniently enough. The first hundred or so seem to have been added in alphabetical order!).

Peck Boys from brazil

It wasn’t great (nor was James Mason’s accent come to that), but I thought Gregory Peck was outstanding. Looking up trivia afterwards, it turned out that Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which seemed terribly hammy to me. Peck on the other hand was critically mauled. Perhaps it’s time and acting styles passing on that have affected my view, perhaps it’s just down to taste, or perhaps it’s that I wasn’t saddled with the view of Peck that critics of the time had. He was, by all accounts, almost always cast as the good guy, the moral authority. But I can count the number of Peck films I’d previously seen on the fingers that I’d hold up at the President if I saw him.

The previous films were Roman Holiday and The Omen, neither of which I remember him from particularly. In fact, in my head Cary Grant played the lead in Roman Holiday, so what do I know!

Peck Designing Woman

It definitely wasn’t all top quality stuff in the season. Designing Woman was a fun enough romp, but would have benefited from Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in the lead, with their screen personas more able to invite laughter at their expense. Spellbound and Mirage were a pair of duff Hitchcock and Hitchcock-wannabe thrillers. The former is notable for a Dali-designed dream sequence, the latter for an excellent Walter Matthau interlude.

Peck Mockingbird

But everything else was gold. To Kill A Mockingbird and Cape Fear both came out in 1962. Even without seeing any other Peck films, those two alone should be enough to cement an iconic image. A man of unwavering moral authority, brought to breaking point. A man for whom morality is the ultimate arbiter. I think Cape Fear is one of the very best we’ve watched as part of the Chain Reaction Film Club.

Peck Cape Fear

I’ve not seen the remake (I mooted it as a way to end the season, as Peck turns up in it, but Tim was less keen) and am a little scared of it now. I found Robert Mitchum to be skin-crawlingly horrible enough. I’m not certain I want to see where De Niro takes it.

Then there was The Gunfighter, a stripped down Western that would work well as a stage play. It’s largely set in one bar as a weary-of-fame gunfighter waits for the woman he loves and tries to fend off young hotheads and horrified matrons. It’s good stuff. The Guns of Navarone is one of those Sunday afternoon standards that I somehow missed growing up, and its band of plucky misfit soldiers assaulting a Nazi base seems to have laid the blueprints for parts of the original Star Wars trilogy.

A war film with a different tone, Twelve O’Clock High had Peck taking over a bomber unit suffering from low morale. Determined not to get attached to the men for their own good, it’s another great example of his moral strength being tested. Bouncing back to another western, The Big Country is as handsome as they come.

Peck Big Country

It’s here where Peck’s archetypal quiet competence and morality seemed to find their most natural home. Thrust into the middle of a feud which is about to bubble over, Peck outwardly takes the moral high ground, using brain over brawn. At the same time he tackles physical challenges on the quiet, determined not to use those as a means of proving himself to others.

After ten films, almost a fifth of his entire filmography, I am absolutely converted to the temple(ton) of Peck. Is he the greatest actor? No, I don’t think so. There is an unbendingness to his performances that suits his most notable roles. I think that’s also why he excelled as Mengele – a man who believes as unwaveringly in his (horrendous) actions as Atticus Finch believes in the law.

After leaving Peck behind we tackled The Ballad of Cable Hogue, then via Strother Martin we watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made four years after The Big Country, it was a similar story of Jimmy Stewart’s moral man forced into a world where the rule of law is seemingly meaningless. When we started the Peck season I thought of him as an also-ran compared to the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Watching Liberty Valance I was struck by how much I would have liked Gregory Peck to be playing the lead instead.

It turns out that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the 100th film in the Chain Reaction Film Club, so I’ll have a little look through what we’ve watched so far and pick out a few choice morsels. And if you haven’t looked at my post about some exciting writing news, then maybe tiptoe over here and see what’s going on.

I’ve Published a Thing. Or Two.

When I started this blog, part of the purpose was to keep a record of what I was doing writing-wise, both for myself and for anyone else at a similar (beginner) stage with their writing. So there have been posts about redrafting, sending manuscripts to literary agents and, swiftly afterwards, rejection. What there haven’t been many of is posts about successes, or getting something published. So I’m slightly baffled as to why I’ve published two things in quick succession recently and not mentioned them here.

Whoops.

Longtime readers will know that I’ve been working on three or four different novels over the last few years. A couple of years ago I posted about trying to write a game (I play more games than I read novels at the mo, so it seemed sensible). Unsurprisingly that involved learning a lot of new skills as I was trying to do it all myself, including art, animation and sound. After playing around with it for a while, I realised any finished piece wasn’t actually going to show off anything good writing-wise. Because I was struggling so much with all the other bits, the actual writing itself was almost an afterthought (which is something that could be extrapolated out to a sizeable percentage of actual games, now that I think about it). I was aware of software like Twine that can be used to make primarily text-based games (or Interactive Fiction depending on who you ask), but after a few cursory experiments I got distracted by novels again.

This summer however, at a bit of a crossroads with my various projects, I went on a week-long Twine summer school at the British Library and it’s kickstarted a few new ideas. I went to the course knowing what story I wanted to work on – it’s a horror story about people living in a squat and an ancient evil under the streets of London. I’ve been wondering what to do with it for a couple of years and couldn’t quite decide if it was a novel, a script or what. So taking it into a different medium seemed like a good way to actually get somewhere with it. Halfway through the course I realised that it was too big a project to actually utilise some of the techniques we were learning in the given time, so I swapped to something a bit lighter. And a few weeks after the course finished I published my first game.

Understudied places you as the understudy in a rock musical version of Macbeth. It’s three hours until press night and the star is ill. You must step up to the role having not rehearsed, and try to muddle you way through with generally pretty disastrous results… It takes about 15 minutes to play and is available here.

Now, that was pretty pleasing. I’ve been working on novels for a fair few years now, and not had a single thing published. While I’m not snooty about self-publishing, it’s not something I’ve wanted to pursue myself just yet. But with the Twine projects it feels a lot more free to finish (and test) it, then hit publish. And then it’s out there and, hopefully, able to be enjoyed.

But the title says I’ve published two things. Because with unerring timing I published Understudied a day before I looked up IFcomp, an annual interactive fiction competition. And one of the rules of IFcomp is that the entry can’t have been published previously. I love a deadline though, so with only six weeks to go before entries had to be in I decided to make my second game. Ostrich is altogether a less upbeat affair than Understudied. You start out as an advertising compliance officer for the government. But after a populist party rises to power the advertising rules start to tighten up, and then it’s not just adverts that you have to amend… And in the background you can choose how to spend your evening, get a sense of what’s happening in the country and, most importantly, decide how you will get through it all. Do you have a line in the sand, or is your head buried in it (ooh, that’s a better tagline than I’ve had for it so far)? That, along with more than 70 other entries, is available here. Judging is open to anyone who plays at least five games, and there’s some great stuff in there.

So there we go. It feels very strange to have two bits of creative writing finally published and able to pointed at. So strange that I have neglected pointing at them!

You may also remember me posting about a short film that I wrote and starred in. Well my partners in crime/doofusing have finished up the edit and it is 100% complete. I can’t share it yet as I’m planning on entering it into a few film festivals (like IFcomp, most festivals frown upon a film being available to the general public pre-festival). I imagine it will be the talk of Cannes soon enough. It’s silly and fun, and hopefully another thing that I can point to as an example of my writing.

This year feels like a few things have really come together and projects have gone from being things that I work on indefinitely with nothing tangible to show, to being out there and available and, of course, utterly nerve-wracking. But that’s part of the fun I guess.

What next? Well there’s still that horror game I want to write, and I’m thinking of using the structure of Understudied as a shortcut to making some more games. And now I’ve self-published games, I might take another look at one of my novels and see if that’s something I’d want to self-publish too.

If you have some spare time and haven’t tried Understudied or Ostrich yet, I’d love to know what you think.

Chain Reactions Galore

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Chain Reaction Film Club entry, but rest assured it has been carrying on in the background. Last time I posted about it we’d just tackled Animal Kingdom. Here’s how the chain has continued – I won’t put in a slavish entry for every film, but a few broad strokes.

From Animal Kingdom we linked to Kinky Boots via Joel Edgerton. It’s a somewhat different tone (Australian crime family to British drag queen shoe manufacturing), and although Joel and Chiwetel Ejiofor put in decent performances it never quite rises above a sort of Full Monty lite. I started drafting a post about it, but it just descended into a rant about how unfair it is that Idris Elba is always mooted as the first black James Bond but Chiwetel seldom is. He’d be excellent. So that’s you told. Apropos of nothing, my other half saw Chiwetel, Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln in Joe Penhall’s play Blue Orange years ago. What a cast.

ejiofor

From Kinky Boots to Inside Man to… Bond?

Using Chiwetel Ejiofor we moved on to Inside Man, a 2006 Spike Lee joint that was perfectly enjoyable. Though now I write about it a couple of months down the line I’m actually struggling to remember much about it. Chiwetel was underused though, I remember that much. Oh, get ready for a spoiler… I absolutely loved the bait-and-switch tension the title gave the film. As it deals with a bank heist the instant assumption is that either the cops or the criminals have a man on the other side. But for once that’s not quite what’s going on… I can’t remember another film that built tension purely from its title. Also, the way Jodie Foster says Baron De Rothschild is worth the entry price.

The big cheese in Inside Man was played by Christopher Plummer, and so I decided to tackle his Kipling. The Man Who Would Be King (1975) is one of those films that everyone else seemed to see repeatedly on lazy Sundays growing up, but I didn’t goddammit and I think I missed out. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are the ne’erdowells who decide to take over a country and somehow manage it until their own greed plays against them. It’s a top watch, despite Connery’s repeated ‘we two Englishmen’ lines being spewed in his Scottish accent.

Man who would be king

Nothing to see here, just two Englishmen, oh yes indeed.

Following that I was up for a season of either Connery or Caine films, and we plumped for the latter. So over the course of a few weeks we tackled Zulu (which I did see on lazy Sundays growing up, and was not quite as problematic as I feared it might now be), Gambit (1966 – an incredibly well played twist early on), The Ipcress File (it must surely rate as one of the most British films ever made, and certainly features some of the best passive-aggressive paperwork) and two of its follow ups – Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain (the law of diminishing returns applies).

Ipcress

Britishness is most definitely afoot. And ahead. And ashoulder.

Finally, having started the season with a war epic, we finished with the same. 1969’s all-star Battle of Britain which was worth watching purely for the scene of Edward Fox parachuting into a greenhouse. Here, I’ll save you a couple of hours, watch this.

Making a wonderfully fresh-faced appearance in Battle of Britain was Ian MacShane and so I poopooed the likes of Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier’s weighty filmographies and plumped instead for The Last Of Sheila.

Last of Sheila

Swearengen. Mhm.

It’s a sort of whodunnit cat and mouse affair about a film producer going on a cruise to uncover which of his chums killed his wife in a hit-and-run. Strangely enough it was the only the only film either of its co-writers ever scripted. And who were those writers? Why Psycho’s Anthony Perkins and composer extraordinaire Stephen Sondheim! Apparently they used to host murder mystery treasure hunts for their celeb chums and it spun out of that.

It’s surprisingly good and nicely twisty, however there is one deeply strange thing in it. The game the producer plays is to give each of his guests a card with a dark secret on. Over the course of a week the game is meant to be deciphering who has which card. The secrets don’t correspond to the person who has the card, but they are of course, a secret harboured by one of the other guests. Raquel Welch’s diva character is devastated when it’s revealed that she shoplifted a coat early in her career. However when it is revealed that James Mason’s character is a child molester there is no comment. It’s mentioned a couple more times in the film and, despite the fact that one of the other characters was around him when she was a child, no further comment is passed. It is completely shrugged off. Now, this was in the 70s and we’re living in a post-Saville world, but even so surely it wasn’t something to be glossed over. On the plus side, James Mason’s voice is gloriously James Masony.

From his dulcet tones in The Last of Sheila we pivoted to an occasionally German accented James Mason in The Boys From Brazil. I’m a big fan of Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, and while this wasn’t on that same level it was still enjoyable. Laurence Olivier and Steve Guttenberg are Nazi hunters (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write), and uncover Dr. Mengele alive and well in Panama. But an evil scheme is afoot… Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for it but Peck’s performance was apparently lambasted by critics at the time. Seeing it for the first time now, I’d argue that Olivier’s performance almost ruins the film and Peck is excellently monstrous.

Boys from Brazil

Peck is excellent, Mason is just enjoying the holiday.

So good was Peck in fact, that I struggled to pick just one film for the following week. But eventually I settled on Cape Fear – the 1962 version. He does actually appear in the 1991 version too so we may well get to that shortly. I know the Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons very well, though it seems like that’s more of a riff on the 90s version. I worried that Sideshow Bob’s version of Max Cady’s evil revenge story might soften Cape Fear a bit, but my gosh was I wrong. Robert Mitchum is incredibly horrible, and despite some censoring and the removal of references to child rape from the script, it’s really clear what his plan is. Peck is a muscular counterpoint to Cady and the testing of his almost inflexible moral core creates brilliant tension. One of the best we’ve seen in the 90 films we’ve tackled since the starting point of Chain Reaction.

Cape Fear

Sideshow Bob Mitchum

Phew. That’s caught me right up to speed. It’s Tim’s choice this week and I’m hoping for another Peck film. I had about 8 or 9 on my Peck shortlist without even looking at any Westerns or war films. And most importantly I could name the season ‘The Pecking Order’, so presumably we have to do it now. Got a favourite Gregory Peck film? Let me know and I’ll add it to the list!

 

Just Fucking Doing It – An Update

Covering clothes in blood for a short film

Back in January I posted about my own writing for the first time in a while. One of the things I mentioned was a short film I had written, and I hoped to have some sort of update by the end of the Easter holidays. Well schools went back today (I can tell because my commute took twenty minutes longer than last week) and I suppose I’d better come clean about how little I’ve achieved…

Psych!

For once in my life I have actually knuckled down and got on with something properly – largely thanks to the director/co-star helping keep things ticking along. What that means is that on Saturday the two of us plus camera and sound chaps popped round to a friend’s house and spent the sunniest day of the year cooped up in a kitchen making a film. Oh, there was a little time in the sunshine covering clothes in fake blood.

Through a combination of ambition and laziness we were aiming to make the whole film (about 9 mins) one single take. Ambition because it was my first script, Kellie’s first time in the director’s chair, and I for one haven’t done any acting in seven years. Laziness because neither of us know that much about editing, so it should make that a lot easier.

I’ve been on set for short films before, but purely as an actor. It was a very different experience this time – as writer and, I guess, co-producer as well as actor (not to mention joint costume, prop, hair supervisor) it felt much more stressful. Fortunately Kel and I had rehearsed a fair bit over the previous few weeks as acting became about the last thing on my mind while sorting out all the logistics and keeping one eye the time.

Anyway, with some great assistance on the technical side we’ve managed to get something in the can. However it turns out I’m pretty pleased to have actually done something.

And that begs the question why was I doing it? If I’m honest I’d quite forgotten while I’ve been rehearsing. Partially it was an excuse to work with Kellie – she’s always been top of the long list of actors I worked with that I really wanted to do something with again. And with her leaving the country for good later this year (boo) there was a deadline (yay). Also, I’d had a ‘what if’ setup going round in my head for a while that I wanted to do something with, but it didn’t feel like a novel. I have finally remembered the other reason…

I want something I can point to for evidence of my writing. I’ve got novels at various stages, but none published, a couple of sketches that were used by Newsrevue a while back, but nothing tangible that I can direct people towards.

Some time ago I mentioned that I was trying to write a game both for my own edification and as a means of approaching the games industry with something tangible. I got a little bogged down in the technical side of things and realised that the writing in the game was suffering because of my lack of technical expertise. Since then I’ve also read that having theatre or film scripting experience can prove useful. So bam, one film I’ll be able to link to when it’s finalised. Hopefully.

I’ve also just booked on to a week long interactive fiction class at the British Library over the summer. By the time summer is over I should have a film and a couple of Twine projects to shout about.

And the novels? I had said that I intended to get a redraft of one and the synopsis of another completed by the end of April, with a view to sending both off for a professional critique. I’m just about on target at the moment, over three quarters of the way through the redraft and with a little more brain space now the filming is done.

So. Just fucking doing it is just fucking doing it for me at the moment. Maybe I should have been just fucking doing it all along.

Animal Kingdom – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 78: Animal Kingdom

Poster for the 2010 Australian movie Animal Kingdom

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Muriel’s Wedding and it was one of the best we’ve had so far in the CRFC.

The Choice

Like last time it came down to a binary choice. On the one hand Animal Kingdom (2010), a gritty crime drama. On the other, Children of the Revolution (1996), a comedy about Stalin having an illegitimate Australian heir. I was mainly considering the latter to compare with last year’s excellent The Death of Stalin (plus it seems fairly positively reviewed and has Geoffrey Rush, F Murray Abraham and Sam Neill in). Then I watched the trailer and… it was Animal Kingdom all the way.

The Link

Dan Wyllie

Actor Dan Wyllie in Muriel's Wedding

Dan Wyllie in Muriel’s Wedding

He was one of Muriel’s deadbeat siblings last time, and seems to be something if a mainstay of Aussie film and TV. I’ve not seen him in anything else, but as he’s one of a couple of cast members who could link is to Animal Kingdom, it’s time for a second bite of Wyllie.

Animal Kingdom and me

I’ve always been a bit scared of Animal Kingdom, if I’m honest. I don’t gravitate towards gritty crime stuff at the best of times (there are a LOT of seminal British gangster films I’ve never seen), and this is Australian. And in my head Australian films tend to have an extra layer of grit, an extra twist of the knife.

Proposition

This is the image that springs to mind when I think “Aussie cinema…”

The Proposition always sticks in the mind as an example, but it’s true of the first couple of Mad Max films too (fyi I will not hear a single word against Mad Max Fury Road, but that’s a different topic for another day). Muriel’s Wedding demonstrated this too, tackling topics a UK or Hollywood film about Abba and weddings would not go to. And last year’s It Comes At Night, directed by Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton, fits the bill too…

So although I’ve only ever heard great things about it, Animal Kingdom scares me.

IMDB says

A seventeen year-old navigates his survival amongst an explosive criminal family and the detective who thinks he can save him. 7.3 stars.

I says

Well I don’t know what I was so worried about. It’s not exactly a light hearted romp, mind, but there’s a lovely sensitivity to Animal Kingdom that balances out the subject.

Animal Kingdom 005

James Frecheman and Dan Wyllie

When the opening scene was of J (James Frecheman), a teenager, calling paramedics to attend to his ODed mum, who had died, I’ll admit I felt a little bit justified in my fear. That said teenager is then inducted into his extended family who specialise in armed robbery didn’t help. A family being molested by police who are, by all accounts, itching to shoot first and plant evidence later…

Animal Kingdom 002

GRIT! SO MUCH GRI- Hang on…

But the violence, when it comes, isn’t lingered on. There’s a spray of blood from off camera here, a gentle panning away there. J doesn’t have to see the worst of it, and we’re not made to either. So J is hauled in for questioning by Guy Pearce’s tired cop we still have sympathy for him holding out. He’s not a saint himself, and the family have shielded him from the worst brutality.

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Grumblegrumble Gritty Moustache grumblegrumble

Let’s just pause and have a chat about Guy Pearce for a second. After Memento he was bona fide leading man material. He’s hunky, he’s interesting. And yet he rocks up in strange roles. The weatherbeaten cop here, the tacitern lead in The Rover, Weyland in Prometheus. He hasn’t gone down the star route, whether by choice or the ins and outs of the hollywood system. But he is consistently interesting and just slightly weirder than you expect (without being a stone cold oddball). I think Robert Pattinson might have taken notes from his career trajectory.

Anyway, J’s uncles are a combination of inspiring (cheers, Joel Edgerton), maverick (cheers, whatseryername from the 300 sequel), and creepy (cheers Ben Mendlesohn). His girlfriend’s family are a great contrast, a clear family unit but not saccharine. And over it all Jackie Weaver’s matriarch presides. She’s a Lady Macbeth figure with the hard edges tucked away so far that you forget all about them. And when she brings it, it’s in such a matter of fact style that it’s all so perfectly natural.

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Something real gritty might be happening, careful

I liked The Rover, David Michod’s follow up film, very much too. Critics made loads of smug puns that sort of spoiled some plot stuff, so if you’ve not seen it do give it a watch, but don’t read too much about it first.

The Verdict

I am less scared of Australian films than I was before, but no less impressed.

Coming Attractions

We could stay paddling around in Australian waters, but with Joel Edgerton and Jacqui Weaver having made a number of international films maybe we won’t… It’s Tim’s choice, so who knows where we’ll end up.

@BornToPootle

Finding an Ancient Manuscript

This week I’ve come to understand how all those Victorian explorers must have felt plundering Egyptian tombs and ancient temples. And not because I’ve started taking laudanum.

I posted recently about just fucking doing it, and in that spirit I dove back into planning a novel that I was working up a year or two ago. But at the same time I remembered that I had a whole manuscript sitting in a box that, upon completion, I’d never read. And so I read it.

And so I read it.

When I first started trying to write a novel I entered NaNoWriMo 2009 and ended up with my first ever beginning-middle-end longform story. It was called Hello Summertime and stretched to about 50,000 words (on the short side for something that might actually get published). And it was, of course, a right old mess. At that point I was a dedicated pantser, someone who thought planning a novel would kill the fun of writing. These days I’m quite the opposite because frankly, the plot was godawful.

Anyway, I wrote a few other short bits and bobs, and the first drafts of a couple of other novels. Along the way I did more research about how to plan a novel, plot structure and all that good stuff. So when I was letting a draft of a different novel sit, I started planning and then comprehensively rewrote the whole of Hello Summertime from scratch. The (sort of) second draft was 95,000 words. And then I put it to one side. That was in 2013 or thereabouts.

I’ve just finished rereading the manuscript and that’s where the explorer analogy comes in. Some of it I remember, some not at all. It’s like delving through the mind of me from 5 years ago and looking at what was occupying my thoughts, what themes were on my mind…. and what words I was overusing (anything involving walking/moving/stepping/heading and looking/staring/gazing fyi).

There’s a lot in there that’s reminiscent of themes in other stuff I’m working on. I once heard an interview with Emma Thompson about her dad, the Magic Roundabout creator. In it she said that people often write where they need healing, which is something I think about a lot. Is that why Stephen King often has alcoholic father figures in his books? I’m pretty sure that’s why my themes go the way they do (which I may talk about in a different post, but I’m not drunk enough today).

Anyway, like those Victorian explorers (or Indiana Jones, just to mix it up a bit) I must now decide whether the manuscript belongs in a museum, or whether I should try and flog it to the highest bidder. And it’s tricky. The novel is in rough shape in places, but seems pretty fixable. The language is very basic and full of repetition, but polishing the language is a job for further down the line. It’s the flow of the plot and characterisation that is more pressing.

As an aside, one of the reasons I let it sit originally is that it’s on a topic that was suddenly pretty overwhelmed a few years ago. The first draft was about a zombie apocalypse, though in the rewrite I got rid of the zombies. My heart wasn’t in it, so to speak. I was (and am) more interested in the emptiness of the world after a plague or similar rather than the shambling hordes. And it’s always people who are the real baddies in zombie stuff anyway.

But do you know what else is interesting? The new novel I’m planning full of ghosts and psychedelic cults. So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

So I’ve come up with what I think is an alright plan… I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a mild redraft of Hello Summertime to fix some of the glaringly obvious stuff. I’ve put together a bit of a writing schedule for myself as well as a deadline, as otherwise nothing will happen. I’m also going to dedicate a few spots of writing time to working up a one page synopsis of my new project. Then I’m going to send both off for a pro critique, see what the feedback and let that help me decide where to spend my time.

I want to be done with the redraft by the end of April at the latest, so hopefully I’ll have a better idea of how I want to spend the rest of my writing year in May.

The only fly in the ointment is that I’ve had an idea for turning the first part of Hello Summertime into a one man stage show and am Quite Excited about it. But that can wait until May, right?

Muriel’s Wedding – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 77: Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel 001

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

Snogging boys out the back of the Yeoman, confusing feelings for Jamie Theakston, oh and the film Velvet Goldmine. It’s one of my favourite posts in the CRFC saga so far, so please check it out if you haven’t already.

The Choice

It was up to Tim and he managed to narrow it down to The Dark Knight and Muriel’s Wedding. One we’ve both seen (him repeatedly) but are always up for a rewatch, the other is an Australian film about a lady getting married… So that’s what we picked!

The Link

Toni Collette

Muriel 003

Usually I’d use an image from the previous film here, but I just don’t wanna

Well I didn’t know she was Australian, so it’s true that every day is a school day (though not sure that’s on any curriculum. And, well, she’s fab generally, isn’t she. Whether it’s an off kilter indie or a Hollywood romcom she tends to bring the goods. She’s never been one of those actors I get properly excited about and would see something purely because of (take a bow Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell, alongside whom she starred in The Way Way Back), but I’m usually pleased to see her.

Muriel’s Wedding and me

This falls into the heard-of-but-never-seen category. Some would say that it also falls into the chick-flick category to which I would say a number of things (my wife is studying for an MA in gender studies so I’d copy some long words out of her textbooks), but the upshot would be that I think that’s a singularly unhelpful genre label and normalises the idea that other genres are for men. So. There’s that.

It’s also forever tied up in my head with the film Let Him Have It about the last person to be hanged in the UK, purely because I heard them both advertised on Capital fm around the chart show, albeit a couple of years apart. I imagine they’re quite different.

M8DLEHI EC010

Muriel’s Beheading would’ve been a great pun. If only the UK had employed the guillotine.

IMDB says

A young social outcast in Australia steals money from her parents to finance a vacation where she hopes to find happiness, and perhaps love.

I says

Genres labels are stupid. They come with so many preconceptions for starters. Take ‘goth’ as an example. There’s the black clothing, the make-up, the scowling and the listening to Sisters of Mercy… and while some of that may be accurate (or certainly was for me), that’s never the whole of it.

On a Friday night at the Yeoman (second week in a row I’ve been able to shoehorn that pub in. I’d ask for a commission if they hadn’t closed 18 years ago) our goth gang would gather and drink Smirnoff Ice until we were wobbly. Then on particularly special nights Dancing Queen would come on the stereo and up would go one of our number, up on to a table, and a dancing queen he would be.

Muriel 004

The Kentish Yeoman, Tunbridge Wells, circa 1998. Around 11pm.

Which is to say that whether you’re a goth, emo, hardcore punk, grime obsessive or whatever, Abba know their way around a tune.

So finding out that the backbone of the film was the music of Abba was not exactly off putting. If you’re drunk and Abba are playing and you’re not dancing then you are doing it wrong. Or you’re too drunk and everyone should get out of vomit range.

I’m going to leap into spoiler territory now, but for a film about a wedding-obsessed social misfit looking for love after making a break for the big city, jesus christ does it go to some dark places. My initial reaction as the credits rolled was to say that you could tell it wasn’t an American film. The Hollywood version wouldn’t have the balls and the indie version wouldn’t have the charm. To juggle life-changing disability, suicide, selfish main characters, dance routines and sex slapstick and come out with a coherent charming and moving film is really quite incredible.

Toni Collette’s Muriel goes through the whole standard hollywood character arc in the first act of this, from retiring shrew to ballsy extrovert with a rebellious best friend in tow. And then the film has the nerve to keep going, to show where she goes next and the ramifications of her actions on those around her. Some of them have it coming, some of them not so much. But the film doesn’t pull those punches.

Muriel 005

Rachel Griffiths is The Best.

This is one of the earliest credits for both Collette and Rachel Griffiths (as one of cinema’s best best friends) and it is not hard to see why they have both gone on to long successful careers. They are really rather good in it, and work brilliantly together too.

So. It’s a chick-flick. About Abba and weddings. And I loved it.

Muriel 002

Toni Collette doing an impression of me watching Muriel’s Wedding.

But I imagine that’s apparent.

The Verdict

If you are not on your feet cheering during the Waterloo routine then I put it to you that you are, in fact, dead.

Muriel 004

An all-time great scene. Really.

Coming Attractions

Lots of Aussie actors to pick from, a few of whom have crossed over into American cinema too. I might try and keep it down under for now though, just for a bit of a change.

@BornToPootle

Velvet Goldmine – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 76: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Velvet 001

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We tackled Ride With the Devil, Ang Lee’s empathetic take on the American Civil War.

The Choice

This time it was on me, and I narrowed it down to the bare essentials before making my final choice.

Pleasantville (1998) via Tobey Maguire because… I’ve been meaning to watch it for years.

The Newton Boys (1998) via Skeet Ulrich because… I really should see a third Skeet Ulrich film.

Outlander (2008) via Jim Caviezel because… it’s got aliens and vikings in, I’m only human!

The Village (2004) via Celia Weston because… an M Night Shyamalan film might at least be fun to dislike.

Safe Men (1998) via Mark Ruffalo because… it’s got Sam Rockwell in it and I will watch him in anything.

And the winner… Velvet Goldmine (1998) via:

The Link

Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Velvet 002

Turns out I’ve been lucky enough not to see him in that much. Ah, I miss those innocent days. I mean, he’s clearly very pretty, he looks like a Frank Quitely comic book character, all bee stung lips and such… but… well, I’ll talk about it below.

Velvet Goldmine and me

Sometimes we come across classics in CRFC and it’s a little embarrassing to admit I haven’t seen them (I didn’t start blogging this until after we watched The Godfather, thank christ). Other times there are films which, if they’re not stone cold classics, they are at least so incredibly pertinent to my interests that my not-having seen them beggars belief.

I got into glam rock when I was in my early teens, mainly through T Rex and Sweet. Then in my late teens and early 20s I was in a goth band with definite glam leanings. We preened, we were thin white dukes all (ok, thin white oiks), and I had the best silver mock snakeskin coat the world has ever seen.

Velvet 003

I miss this coat

And as all this was happening, Velvet Goldmine came out. My best friend and bandmate saw it at the time and told me I had to see it.

And for some reason I didn’t.

IMDB says

In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.

I says

Hum.

And that’s the hum of someone unsure of what they thought rather than someone humming along with a tune.

It’s definitely not what I expected, which can be both blessing and curse. And realising that it was directed by Todd Haynes, he of the Dylan biopic in which 7 diverse people play Dylan at different times of his life should have been a clue (really must see He’s Not There at some point).

Velvet 004

Not Bowie

Jonathan Rhys Meyers is Bowie-alike Brian Slade (though different enough following lawsuit threats apparently); Christian Bale is a journo who had a formative experience at a Slade (oh, I see what they’ve done there) gig 10 years ago and is now doing a where-are-they-now piece about the vanished star; Ewan McGregor is Iggy Pop-alike Curt Wild. That one. I’ll watch the Iggy one please.

Velvet 005

Not Iggy

And I think that was my main feeling – I couldn’t give a monkeys about Meyers or Bale in this, Ewan McGregor’s Curt Wild was so much more fun and charismatic (and likeable) that the others sort of paled (even more than the make-up). He was a lot Iggy, a bit Jim Morrisson and, according to Courney Love, a bit Kurt Cobain. It’s a strong mix. Rhys Meyers on the other hand, fresh from last weeks appearance as some sort of bizarre vampire in 1800s America, seems to be playing a bizarre vampire in 1970s London. Is he a bizarre vampire in everything? I’ve not seen The Tudors but can picture bizarre vampire Henry VIII all too clearly…

It did make me think a bit though. Not about what it wanted me to think about, mind, whatever that was. No, it struck me that it was made in the late 90s when there was a sudden surge (or it seemed like it at the time) of experimenting with sexual orientation. Out the back of the Yeoman on a Friday night you’d have to be blind to miss boys snogging boys and girls snogging girls, and this in Tunbridge Wells. People were professing their bisexuality all over the shop. I had some confusing feelings about Jamie Theakston for god’s sake. And Velvet Goldmine reflects that atmosphere back and says yeah, it was right there in the 70s too (though there did seem to be a conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia in places which was somewhat… troubling).

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I mean… Hunky, yeah?

And now that we’re living in a time when sexual orientation and gender identity are big mainstream topics my main thought is that I hope it sticks this time. It’s been bubbling away in subcultures for so long that I really do hope we’re at the point where it isn’t all forced back underground and cloaked behind euphemism. It’s there behind the hippies, glam, punk, new romantic and on and on and on. It’s always been there, now perhaps we can discuss it sensibly and publicly accept that it has indeed always been there. Always will be there no matter what happens in the grand scheme of things. It feels like we’re really close this time, laws have been made after all and mainstream gay and trans icons abound, but events across the pond are showing how quickly things can be undone…

Getting back to the film for a sec, most damningly I didn’t come away from it humming any tunes. And that’s unforgiveable. There’s a decent version of Gimme Danger courtesy of Ewan’s Curt Wild. And Placebo turn up to give 20th Century Boy a decent outing (but come on, unless you piss about with it 20th Century Boy is always going to be 100% banger). For all Cadillac Records‘ flaws I was singing Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf songs for days afterwards. I still find Sing Street’s Riddle of the Model popping into my head (seriously, go and watch Sing Street if you haven’t already. And watch it again if you have). The Blues Brothers is held together by the strength of the songs… and that’s where Velvet Goldmine falls flat.

Come to think of it, The Blues Brothers might be a good comparison. Both have a sort of hyper reality that keeps becoming quasi music video. Both deal with forgotten musical heroes in a way… Wikipedia tells me that Velvet Goldmine closely parallels Citizen Kane, but I’m saying The Blues Brothers is the one to compare it to. And I know which of those gets me singing…

The Verdict

If you’re after Citizen Kane allusions I’d recommend the episodes of The Real Ghostbusters and Pinky and the Brain instead.

Coming Attractions

It’s Tim’s choice. I hope it doesn’t involve a bizarre vampire.

@BornToPootle