The Rise of the Slow Burn Series

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Inspired by the end of ‘Top of the Lake’ and still missing ‘The Returned’, I steel myself to watch the misty nightmare that is Southcliffe.  The slow-burn drama series is enjoying a (long) moment – but what’s the appeal of these cult shows and what can they teach us about great storytelling?

My favourite show for many years was the fast-moving, action-packed and slickly edited ‘CSI’ series in the US.  These days I’m watching the hypnotic yet relatively slow moving ‘Hannibal’.   Scandi-Noir series ‘The Killing ‘and ‘Borgen’ have no doubt had a big influence on this new movement with Danish drama, ‘The Bridge’, the latest show to be remade for Sky Atlantic.

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So is slow the new fast?  These cult series demand your attention but in different ways.  How?

Less is more.  Less plot means more time for atmosphere and emotion.  The characters take centre stage, and the primacy of relationships is reiterated, allowing us to connect more strongly with their journeys.

You have to concentrate.  It’s much harder to second screen when watching as the plot is not as formulaic.  You can’t predict the sudden revelation or shock event as you are not set up for it with heavy music cues and other tension building devices.  So you give it your undivided attention, like watching a movie. The fact you can pause the show or watch it On Demand means you can sit down and watch it when you’re ready, with no ad breaks.  So less time doing recaps and flashy end of act breaks and more time telling the story.

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The Show Runner as Auteur.  From ‘Buffy’ to ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’, to ‘Breaking Bad’, the Americans have led the way with the rise of the creative writer/producer who has a vision for a new kind of TV show. But with the migration of cinema stars and directors to the small screen in search of funding for mid-budget drama, Jane Campion and Steven Soderbergh are now directing for television and Video on Demand.  Which means…

Television is the new Cinema.  These series are high on visual style.  The dialogue is minimal.  There is nothing ‘domestic’ about these dramas.  The landscape is a big attraction.  The beauty of New Zealand, of the French mountains, creates a form of visual-tourism, we can escape to these worlds and feel our world expanded by them.  And yet…

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They are Other-Worldly.  Supposedly real settings feel decidedly unreal.  Artful cinematography mediates nature creating a feeling of isolation from the real world.

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The Village is Key.  Most of these series are about a community in peril, the multi-protagonist storylines perfectly suited to TV’s broader canvas.  We have time to get to know whole families and learn about their world as it implodes around them.  This is not a new idea but the village has been reinvented – as unstable, damaged, at risk of flooding, occupied by squatters, or terrorised by a gunman who lives there.  And we are all shown as culpable because each character is connected to the main event in a very real way.

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Complex and Real Characters.  With less plot, the characters have time to breathe and have all the quirks and desires of real people.  Even if they behave in extreme ways we understand the psychology behind what they do, and so can relate it to our own experience.  The genius of ‘The Returned’ was to ask what real life questions and emotional damage the return of a dead loved one would create…

The most exciting revelation of these slow-burn series is this –

We are focused on the inner not the outer life.  Rather just the depiction of reality – the illusion of progress with a logical plot and cause and effect reactions, we are faced with the unpredictable and illogical world of a dream.  Isn’t that closer to the reality we face every day?

The writer with something to say and directors with new ways of saying it are at the heart of this new wave of dramas.  No more pretty pictures tied up in a bow for us to sleepwalk through.  Jane Campion and Co are plumbing the depths of the lake,  drenching us with images and ideas that wake us up, pushing us into new ways of seeing.

We are active viewers again.  And it feels good.

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How have you been inspired by recent TV drama? Leave a comment here or find me on Twitter @emlin32.  Happy viewing…

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Want to Write? Work with Actors!

Anne-FletcherThis week I’ve been directing actors in rehearsals at Ealing Studios.  Actors take your words and bring them to rich, complex life.  So what can you learn by having actors rehearse your script in progress?

1)   If they don’t get it, no one will. Actors are your first audience.  Their questions are about clarity:  ‘Why does she do that? How experienced is he at his job? How long have they known each other?’  Your script may be deliberately ambiguous on these points.  It may just be plain unclear.  Listen to what they ask you and adjust accordingly.

2)   They make choices, so should you.  A lot of the conversation during rehearsal is about emphasis and interpretation. ‘Would he punch her or punch the door instead?’ ‘When does she decide it’s over between them?’ ‘Is he really crazy or just afraid he’s going crazy because of the way he’s been treated?’  Some of these are actors’ choices but they can help you fill out the characters and make them real so your work becomes as precise and nuanced as their playing.

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3)   Timing is everything.  When and how information is released is crucial in all scripts, especially when it affects the characters’ behaviour.  An actor might ask, ‘Have I always known this or have I just discovered it?’ When rewriting, you can use actors’ feedback to focus this release of information, especially where it provokes an emotional response in the character.

4)   Turn Around.  Identifying the turning point in a scene is acting class 101.  Yet many early scripts feature scenes that have no real turning point. Without this the scene feels ‘undramatic’ and actors will have problems playing it. It doesn’t have to be a big moment but something has to happen to move the story forwards or force the character to take action.  Use rehearsals to find these moments and to identify and cut scenes which are treading water or repetition.

5)   Count the Beats.  Actors love to find smaller moments or ‘beats’ within a scene to play that change the direction of the scene – for example  showing the ebb and flow in the balance of power between two characters before a decisive move is made. You can create these in your scenes and then refine them with the actors.  Good actors will give you new ‘beats’ you didn’t know were there.

6)   Give them characters they can build on.  Actors love characters they can get their teeth into, with a strong emotional arc with highs and lows,  discovering things about their world, making life-changing decisions. If you lay this groundwork, actors will breathe emotional life into your characters, which can inspire you in turn to write them even greater moments.

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7)   Love what they give you and accept it.  Making a film is a truly collaborative affair. Trust actors to explore your work in rehearsal and help you change it for the better.  Actors, like the director and the producer, are ultimately servants of the piece, your piece of writing and so let them serve you and it to the best of their abilities.

Three Ways to Work with Actors on your Draft Script.

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1)   The Script Reading.

This is the easiest – and cheapest – way to get input on your draft script.  Find a comfy living room or big kitchen, provide food and drink.  Actors will often do a reading as a favour, as a way to stretch their acting muscles and meet new people, or to get involved with a project on the ground floor. It can become a nice way for folk to network and get something back. But don’t promise roles to actors who read for you unless you can deliver. This is hard to guarantee if you don’t know who’s going to pick it up yet.  Send the script out  a week in advance, to give actors time to re-read, make notes and think about the roles.

Keep the listeners to a select few whose opinions you trust.  It’s a great way to really hear the script without having all the problems smoothed away by clever rehearsal. This kind of private reading is very different from the public rehearsed reading of a polished script where the goal is to raise the profile of the project and/or financing, although this may also provide useful feedback at a later stage for you and the production team.

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2)   The Script Workshop.

This could be a day, a weekend or longer  and may need a decent size rehearsal space.  This demands a bigger time commitment from actors, so you could offer a fee.   Another incentive is that helping you develop your script may result in them becoming attached to the project.  Advertise for actors on websites like Casting Call Pro or try The Actors Centre.  Scenes are played out in full, not just read, giving actors more freedom to interpret and test the material and for you to explore new storylines.   You can video rehearsals for reference later – but ask permission first and agree that the video will not be posted online  (unless agreed as part of a Kickstarter campaign).  If you don’t want to direct the actors, then find a friendly director to do it for you so you can observe.  Try Shooting People.org to find independent film-makers looking to collaborate.  Make sure it’s someone you like and trust and that they understand the key themes, character arcs and genre of your story.  Ask yourself what they’re bringing to the process in terms of approach and discuss what they hope to get out of it.  Sit in on the workshop or, if your prefer, watch the video later to see what questions they and the actors are asking of the material.  You can even transcribe the scenes developed in the workshops for future use, with written consent from the actors involved.  Some writer-directors like to create whole scripts this way.

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3)   Rehearsing a Script in Pre-Production.  

The rehearsal of your script with the cast as they prepare to shoot can be the best way to test, refine and polish your work to create the shooting script.  The story can still go through big transformations  as real locations are factored in to visually expand the story.  The director brings their vision to bear taking the visual storytelling to the next level.  As a writer let the script go to the director and actors now. Be aware that as actors get really close to the shooting date they may become wary of big script changes as they worry about learning new lines or changing what’s already working in performance.  You may yourself feel that the script is now locked and should not be altered too much in rehearsal!  Yet film-making is full of such last minute changes.  Everyone is trying to make the film the best it can be, so a little goodwill and understanding can go a long way.

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Rehearsing your script with actors can be the most fun you can have as a writer and certainly one of the most rewarding ways to develop your story if you let them in and listen to their feedback wholeheartedly.

How have you worked with actors to improve your writing? Leave your comments here or contact me via Twitter @Emlin32.  Happy rehearsing!