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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CREATE ENERGY AROUND YOUR SCRIPT

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CREATING ENERGY

How do you create energy around your feature film script? Forward momentum is essential, not just to keep you motivated as you write but to cut through all the other projects being pushed equally hard by everyone else out there.

TAKE ACTION.

I’ve just decided to go to Arizona to research my feature script, ‘Anchor Baby’, and recce locations. It was already a goal for this spring but setting the date and checking out flights has created a huge swell of energy and excitement. I feel like I’m in production already.

DON’T WAIT FOR PERMISSION

Features are so expensive and take so long to develop and make that you can often die of old age while the deals are being done – and undone – and done again.  As a first or even second time director you are under a lot of scrutiny – can you carry a multi-million dollar movie? A lot of money is at stake so it’s a fair question but if you wait for someone to say yes, it’s OK, you could be waiting a  long time. The popularity of Kickstarter and Indiegogo is testament to film makers who don’t want to wait for permission anymore.  The digital revolution and the internet mean you now have the option to take some or even all of the movie making process into your own hands.

ACT LIKE IT’S TELEVISION.

The long development period on features can get you down. Working on TV shows I’ve learned that things happen fast. You are given a deadline and you have to stick to it. And with a lot of prep and hard work, everything can happen on schedule, on time and turn out pretty damn good too. Instead of looking forward into an uncertain future, be your own commissioning editor and give your project the green light – and a delivery date.

THINK LIKE A DIRECTOR

Go to the location that inspired your script – and take some shots, even shoot a trailer, visualise the scenes you’ve written.  Make mood boards of inspiring images – costumes for characters, colours for sets. They could become part of your development package and, even if they don’t, they’ll help you be more specific in your writing as you’ll know what your world looks like.

JUMP BEFORE YOU’RE READY

If the script isn’t there yet, write it while you’re looking at the locations. Rewrite it while you’re casting, finesse it in rehearsals. The script has to be strong, but if sitting behind a desk is getting you down, start planning the movie and use that pressure to work harder and faster.

All these ideas come down to one thing and one thing only. Don’t let your movie exist only in your head… MAKE IT REAL.

If you’re not sure how to do this, brainstorm ideas with friends.  How do you create energy around your projects?  Leave a comment here or tweet me @emlin32 on Twitter.