Friday, March 22, 2013

The Primeval writing process

A few years ago I wrote an episode of Primeval (series 3, episode 2). Recently, I was asked on Twitter about unused storylines and plots, so I thought it might be interesting to go through some of the process here. All opinions are my own, and not those of anyone else, etc etc, just in case I've remembered anything wrong (which happens a lot).

Obviously, major, major spoilers for the episode if you haven't seen it. You really should see it before reading any of this, otherwise you'll (a) ruin the episode for yourself, and (b) have no idea what hell I'm babbling about for most of this blog post. You can find series 3 on DVD here, or grab the episode off iTunes (for £1.89 in the UK, or $1.99 in the US), or it'll probably be on TV again sometime soon (it's repeated on the Watch channel here in the UK quite regularly). So go watch it before reading this.

Initial outlining

Back in late 2007, I was asked if I'd like to write an episode for the show. Of course I said yes (duh, obviously) and jumped on to the fun monster train. Because the process of animating the creatures is so complex, they have to start working on it *very* early - when you sign up, they give you a rough story outline and tell you what creature you're getting, so that they can plan out the whole series. You even get concept art of your creature, which is really helpful and cool (these 3 images used with permission of the fantastic Daren Horley, who has this and more amazing work on his websites here and here):

This creature was based on the Madagascan aye-aye, which is much cuter (and smaller) than this version... Lots of the series stuff is planned in advance, including the serial stuff and character journeys - you can't exactly change the serial story halfway through the animation process, so they need to make sure it all hangs together properly before anything is done. I was given a document with a rough outline of the story of the week, the serial beats to hit, a creature, the planned series arc, and descriptions of where the characters were at the start of series 3, and where they would (hopefully) end up.

Obviously some things changed between outline and filming - the 3D string model of anomalies replaced the original set of charts and graphs, which then became the flexible rods, and so on. Also, it was going to be episode 3, and show the fallout of Helen's attack on the ARC with her clones, which was supposed to happen at the end of episode 2. Once things changed, I got moved to episode 2, and the attack moved later. But I'm jumping ahead!

Draft 1

I did a longer outline, played around with it, then delivered my first script draft. It was pretty much the same storyline as the finished episode, but originally had Cutter and Jenny trying to solve the mystery of the creepy old house, and Connor stuck back in the ARC trying to fix the broken anomaly device, while trying to work up the courage to ask out Abby - who was also in the ARC fixing her lab. There was some fun stuff with Lester's new management style, where he discovers that he can just tell people to "go away", and they actually go away - so he keeps using it, delighted at being able to get some work done for a change.

And there was my favourite sub plot, where Connor separately asks everyone (Cutter, Jenny, and Lester) for advice on how to ask out Abby, getting utterly useless, conflicting advice from everyone - apart from Rex, the cute flying dinosaur, who proves to be the most helpful, because he says nothing and Connor is able to figure things out for himself. Cutter's advice is to just be assertive and say what you want, Jenny's advice is conflicting and seems to be talking more about herself than Connor, and Lester's advice is to treat it like a military strike - which he demonstrates on a technician, who then makes eyes at him for the rest of the episode. So after all this advice, Connor is fired up, marches over to Abby - but before he can say anything, *she* asks *him* out. It was all part of the serial beat of moving on Connor and Abby's relationship, and was good fun too. Then at the end, Abby cancels the date, and has to rush off, leaving Connor standing in the rain with some flowers. Awww.

In that version, Cutter is arrested for trespassing, not Connor. Just before that, Abby and Jenny go out to a karaoke bar and end up singing a terrible duet really loudly - a silly moment designed to make Jenny miss Cutter's phonecall as he got arrested. There was some flirting between Jenny and Cutter before she gets him released - and she makes sure to take a photo of him behind bars, for her own amusement. All fun stuff, but in a different order to the eventual episode, with other sub plots.

And that was the first draft. I was pleased with it, the people in charge seemed pleased, and I was all set for the notes to take it to the next draft. But then, Douglas Henshall's upcoming departure and scheduling meant that we wouldn't have him for as long as expected in some of the episodes, and hardly at all in mine - which was obviously tricky, given that he was in most of the action! But these things happen in TV all the time, the job is to figure out ways around it, and make it fit. I just had to make the story work without using Cutter very much.

Draft 2

So, the rough plan for the second draft was: swap Cutter for Connor and Abby. Cutter stays behind at the ARC, working, while Connor, Abby and Jenny go out in the field (a natural solution, as none of the characters expected the anomaly prediction to come true, so they didn't need any backup).

I duly delivered the second draft, swapping the characters around, and replacing the charts with a 3D string model of the anomalies. In this version of the story, the strings got moved by accident, which set off Connor's computer simulation and predicted a future anomaly. Cutter stayed behind to try and repeat what they did, while Connor and Abby went to the spooky old house. It all worked nicely, but sadly meant there wasn't enough room for the romantic advice sub plot - because they were out of the ARC, Connor couldn't ask all of the others for help. Instead, Abby asks Connor out at the start, and he then starts obsessing over whether she meant a date or not. Then, when he gets arrested (instead of Cutter), he ends up missing the date. Later, they try the date again, but Abby rushes off as in the previous draft. This time, Connor dejectedly offers the flowers to Rex, who starts eating them.

A bigger change was the addition of Sarah, who was now one of the main cast. She was researching strange historical reports to see if they could be possible anomalies. Helen's plan was brought into the episode too, to set up the big attack later in the series - she also appears at the end, in a scene that is pretty much the same as in the finished episode. And, showing how much technology has moved on from 2007, there was a scene with Connor trying to find an open wifi hotspot so he could find some crucial information online - now, we'd just have someone use their smartphone...

A really good note resulted in the addition of Emily, the little girl, who feeds the creature so it won't eat any more pets. Abby rescues a hedgehog from some local bullies, and gets some vital clues about the creature's behaviour from Emily's observations. Something that slowly filtered out in later drafts is that the creature was very sensitive to sound - hence the attack on the kids (with a loud portable hifi blaring music), the estate agent (talking loudly on his phone), and the others (Connor leaving his phone in the house, their repeated visits and conversations etc).

Draft 3

Draft 3 refined the anomaly-predicting strings further, to make it absolutely clear what was going on - once they map out all the known anomalies, the gang realise that two strings are touching. They work out the co-ordinates based on the other strings, and theorise that this means an anomaly will happen at that location one day. Cutter stays behind to work on the strings, and the story continues much as before.

Another change here was setting up Helen's plan some more, to seed it in for later - she bumps into Sarah at a library, in casual clothes, to swipe her keycard, but realises she'll need to somehow fool the fingerprint and retina scanners. There was a bit more added to explain the creature's behaviour, and some more refining of the various elements.

Draft 4

Finally, draft 4 arrived, and things were more or less settled. I had to add some more Cutter scenes, as ironically he now wasn't in it *enough*! It's a fine line between minimising someone's scenes and cutting so far back that they're only in it for 30 seconds, so you have to balance these things out. I also needed to work in Helen's dastardly plan a bit more with the clones, and give Cutter some more stuff to figure out.

This draft featured some more flirting between Cutter and Jenny, to make it look like they were going to get together soon - to help set up the tragedy that would occur later in the series. There was also a chase sequence where Quinn is trying to catch a "burglar", without realising it's the camouflaged creature, which is why he can never catch up to it.

Sadly, by that point we had locked in the full schedule, and my episode was in a Ben Miller-free block - so I had to snip Lester's scenes. Luckily he wasn't heavily involved in the main storyline, but I missed his acerbic commentary on the events. I added in the sequence where Emily feeds the monster, and a quirky local who gets killed when she looks for her enormous dog (cue Connor's line: "Don't forget your horse"). And I made more of Jenny's efficient way of getting Connor out of prison, to play up how good she was at her job. Jenny was lots of fun to write for, it's a shame that much of her stuff couldn't stay in.

I worked in some more haunted house-style stuff, making it creepier, as by now we had photos of the location which I could use for inspiration. And in all drafts, and the finished episode, there's a plot point some viewers missed: the characters don't think the anomaly has opened yet, so they're not scared to go into that house - once they've checked it out, they have *no* reason to suspect a creature is involved, they think it's a waste of time. The 4th draft played up the murder suspect a bit more, so the first suspicious thing that happens seems to have been done by a human, not a creature. Although we, the audience, know it's a creature, so we'll be more worried for the characters unknowingly walking into danger.

There was also room at this point for Connor to act like an old lag after his short night in prison, talking about how doing his "time" had toughened him up, now that he was an "ex-convict", etc, prompting Jenny to reply that she'd stayed in worse hotels. I really enjoyed the banter between the team, particularly the panicky realisation that the creature is a meat-eater - "but WE'RE made of meat!"  We also learn that Abby is particularly good at telling dogs to "SIT", a trick Jenny asks to be taught so she can try it on Lester.

I think the only thing that never changed, in all the drafts, was the introduction of Danny Quinn (who I got to name, after my mate Emmet Quinn) and his story. Probably because he was a new character who hadn't been cast yet, so he didn't have to fit into any schedule or block. The only slight change was trimming out his first chase sequence, but apart from that, he managed to stay pretty much the same. It was possibly the TV episode of mine that changed the most between every draft, but that was purely down to schedule, cast availability, and location stuff. Luckily I was able to keep up.

Filming and beyond

Draft 4 was the final draft from me. After that, it went off to Adrian Hodges to polish (it's his show and he is the final person it goes through), and terrifyingly soon after that, we were filming. Some stuff got trimmed along the way, including Connor and Abby's upcoming date, as some serial stuff got moved around to fit - these things often happen late in the day, when you can see how everything slots together. TV is scarily fast, compared to development, but I love the speed of it, it's really exciting. Sometimes you have to adapt and improvise (actor availability, location changes, etc), but that's all part of the job. If you think *this* sounds complicated, you should hear about plotting the Spooks episode - but that's another blog post...

The finished episode has several deliberate horror movie references (The Evil Dead porch swing, girl in red coat, Torrance Estates, Quinn's boss Stanley, and an unintentional Kubrick one on Connor's t-shirt, unless it was deliberate, nice work whoever did that). There are probably more that I've forgotten about, and the production team did a wonderful job on making the same house look brand new and then abandoned.

Hopefully that's given a flavour of how things develop and change over the scripting process, and given a sneaky peek into the alternate Primeval universe where Lester gave romantic advice, Connor bought a new hat (for his date), and Abby and Jenny drunkenly sang a karaoke version of "It's Raining Men"...

Thank you to the lovely folk at Impossible Pictures for letting me spill the beans on the process. Go support their work and buy DVDs!