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!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Swanwick Writers' Summer School

I'm going to be a guest speaker at this year's Swanwick Writers' Summer School, a week-long conference for writers, from 10th to 16th August.

Terrifyingly, I'm the opening night speaker, which means I'll have to actually give a speech, rather than do a standard Q&A. I'm planning on talking about things I've learned, things I've yet to learn, and will try to make sense of my own career.

The current working title is "Murdering innocent people for fun and profit".

Hey, I never said it would be tasteful.

I'm also leading a short course on Sunday, assuming the opening night talk doesn't go horribly wrong, and I don't get deported from Derbyshire (that's a country, right?) Both days will probably involve swearing, scurrilous stories, and weeping (me AND anyone listening).

So go check out the website and see if you like the look of it, despite me sullying their reputation. They've got lots of other speakers, courses and workshops - and there's a bar. I probably should have mentioned the bar first, I know what writers are like.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Slice and Dice screening in Glasgow

A while ago, I was interviewed for a documentary about slasher movies (and for a documentary about Zombie Flesh Eaters, which is featured on the new blu-ray). The slasher documentary is now ready, and we're having a screening in Glasgow on Sunday 24th March.

It's called Slice and Dice: The Slasher Film Forever, it's in a double bill with Intruder, the 1989 slasher directed by Scott Spiegel, and you can come and see both films if you're in the area. There'll be a Q&A afterwards, with me and Norman J Warren (director of Terror, Inseminoid, and Prey), and tickets are a tenner for the whole thing.

Details and tickets are available here, so go and snap one up before they're all gone. Just think, it's the only movie starring me AND Corey Feldman! Although we never actually met. But it still counts! Sort of!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Black Death plague pit found in London

Without giving too much away, the opening scene of Cockneys Vs Zombies starts with builders unearthing a Black Death plague pit filled with skeletal husks.

Things do not go well.

So today's news of Crossrail diggers uncovering a Black Death plague pit means I'm locking my doors, gathering weapons, and keeping an eye on my neighbours, as I may need to kill them. It's all part of my zombie outbreak survival plan. I suggest you buy the movie on DVD or Blu-ray, and use it as a video survival guide.

Then you might want to tool up, and get behind the nearest Cockney.

VS Comics issue 3 out now

Issue 3 is available now, for the low, low price of £2 for a PDF. You can still buy issues 1 and 2 from the same site, and I'd recommend you do that to catch up on all the ongoing stories.

I can't really do a preview image of Day and Night this time, they're all quite spoilery. But take it from me: things get bloody. VERY bloody.

Once again, you can buy VS Comics from anywhere in the world, there's no region restrictions or anything like that. So go and get yourselves some comics goodness!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cockneys Vs Zombies commentary

When Cockneys Vs Zombies landed on UK DVD and Blu-ray, for various reasons there were no commentaries. I promised at the time to record my own commentary, and post it up here for free. So here it is! You can download it, and play it alongside your copy of the movie.

But wait! Why are there two files, Moran? WHYYYY? Well, DVDs are a slightly higher frame rate, so movies end up being slightly shorter than their normal length. CvsZ is 88 minutes, but on DVD it's 84 minutes, due to those technical shenanigans. I recorded my commentary using the DVD, so I made a copy and stretched it to fit the Blu-ray. The DVD one is exactly the right length, and the Blu-ray one is as close as I could get it - so download whichever version you have.

There's no fancy syncing to be done - the commentary is the same length as the movie, so you'll have to start them both at the same time. If you open the movie in whatever you use to play DVDs (on your computer or DVD player), and play the movie from the main menu, you'll have a few seconds to press play on your commentary file, wherever you have it. It shouldn't matter if you're a couple of seconds off, there's only one or two moments where I say "there!", you'll figure it out.

Here is the Soundcloud page for the DVD commentary.

And here is the Soundcloud page for the Blu-ray commentary.

Both pages have a download button you can use. If I max out my download limit on Soundcloud, I'll change the links to point to my copies on Google Drive.

If you don't have a copy of the movie, you can get it very cheaply in shops, or from Amazon on DVD or Blu-ray, or Blinkbox, Lovefilm Instant, or you can rent or buy it on iTunes. Other countries: it will be heading your way as soon as possible - August 2nd in the USA, with a Florida screening in April.

SERIOUS WARNING: DO NOT listen to this before you watch the movie for the first time. It will RUIN it, spoil lots of surprises, and generally be all kinds of wrong. This is ONLY for people who have seen the movie! If you haven't seen the movie, this commentary will be 50% gibberish, and 50% spoilery, so WAIT until you've seen it. You can download it now and wait, but MAKE SURE you wait. Or I'll know. I can SMELL betrayal.

Milder warning: It contains some swearing, but nothing worse than you hear in the movie itself. It's fairly ordinary sound quality, as it was recorded on a cheap headset so I could safely hear the audio while talking - there's no audio from the movie, it's just me.

Thank you to Owen Billcliffe for the photo above - he was the photographer on CvsZ, and caught me doing my zombie cameo (which was tragically cut out, though I'm still in there as Terrified Bank Customer). Thanks also to Brian Edwards for spotting the man on the boat (mentioned in the commentary as "someone on Twitter"). And extra big thanks to Matt Goble for a ton of technical information about the different lengths/speeds of DVDs and Blu-rays.

I'll do one for Tower Block as soon as I get a chance. And hey, maybe I'll do one for Severance too, seeing as I mostly laughed at everyone's jokes and clammed up when I did the actual DVD commentary. This could be a thing! Watch this space.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Cockneys in Florida

Cockneys Vs Zombies will be screening at the Florida Film Festival, which runs from 5th-14th April (they don't have a date set for CvsZ yet). Details are at this link here, and there's a news article about it here, so if you're in the area, or can get there, and want to see the movie on the big screen, here's another chance.

Update: It's screening on Friday 12th and Sunday 14th April, at midnight and then 10pm. You'll be able to buy tickets from Sunday March 17th.

The US release is still happening this year, Shout Factory will be unleashing it soon enough, as well as Tower Block, so watch this space for more news.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Richard Briers, 1934-2013

Richard Briers has been making me laugh for as long as I can remember. I first became aware of him through his distinctive voice. When I was a kid, I loved watching Roobarb, and a large part of that was his narration. Later, when I started watching The Good Life, I was surprised to discover that the voice from Roobarb was actually a real, flesh and blood person. It was like having an imaginary friend become real.

And he stayed a friend, a TV friend, as I followed him from The Good Life, to Ever Decreasing Circles, anything he appeared in. As an adult, I was stunned by his amazing performance in If You See God, Tell Him - it was a world away from the cuddly sitcoms of my childhood, so gloriously dark and twisted, anchored by his central role. He did several other serious roles in TV and movies, proving to be a great dramatic actor.

When I worked on the 2nd series of Torchwood, I was delighted to hear he would be in one of the episodes - but couldn't help feeling envious that I hadn't got to work with him. He was perfect in the episode, as always, so I was happy enough that he was in the same universe I was writing for.

When we were looking for someone to play Hamish in Cockneys Vs Zombies, it never occurred to me that he'd be available, or even interested in such a small role. The producers mentioned that they were going to approach him, but I didn't think he'd want to do it. I was so happy when he said yes. I immediately did a polish on the script to give him some extra lines, knowing that he'd be brilliant and wanting to make it worth his while.

In a movie filled with veteran, expert scene stealers, he zimmer-walks away with the whole thing. I knew *that* scene would be good, but he brought it to life even better than I could have hoped. And my favourite line in the movie was ad libbed by him - "that was really sad" (it makes sense when you watch it). It cracks me up every time.

I got to meet him on set, made a beeline for him as soon as I got there. I shook his hand, told him how great he was, and thanked him profusely for doing our silly movie. He was charming, gracious, and thankful for the role. I'm really glad that he enjoyed the movie too, and feel hugely honoured that I was able to make him laugh, to repay him for just a few of the many, many laughs that he'd given me through the years. Later, I tweeted: "I met Richard Briers. Richard. Briers. I met him. He’s in my movie. Speaking my words. Richard Briers. Richard. Briers." I still can't believe it. And I still can't believe he's gone.

He was a lovely man, a wonderful actor, and when I think of him, I automatically smile - even though the thought is now tinged with sadness for his loss. He'll be greatly missed, he already is. But his work will live on, and he will continue to make people laugh, forever.

That's a pretty damn good legacy.

Tower Block screening at St Albans Film Festival

Live in or near St Albans? Fancy seeing a screening of Tower Block? At a brand spanking new film festival? With me attending?? Well, er, you can!

The first annual St Albans Film Festival is on this weekend, with bucketloads of films, talks, and shorts to see. Tower Block is screening on Saturday 9th March at 3pm in the Pioneer Club, and you can get tickets here. I'll be doing a Q&A straight afterwards.

Check out their website for all the films and talks, and their excellent programme cover featuring A Clockwork Orange.

Update: The festival will be opened on Friday 8th by Christiane Kubrick! Blimey.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Tower Block on DVD in Denmark

The subject line says it all, really - Tower Block is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray in Denmark, next week, on March 6th. So all you Denmartians (I'm reliably informed that's the correct term) can pick it up, and enjoy the Danish subtitles. I look forward to their translation of "proper fucked" and other swearier lines.

I'm not sure if that is the actual DVD cover, it was a temporary sales image, but if so, I'll have to get myself a copy. I've got several different versions of Severance, from various countries, and I think it's becoming an obsession. So far, nobody has beaten the Spanish version: "Desmembrados".

Don't forget, both Tower Block and Cockneys Vs Zombies will be landing in the USA this year, thanks to Shout Factory. Check out my other blog post for details.

Friday, March 01, 2013

FrightFest Ident Competition

Remember the idents from the 2012 FrightFest? They warned people to "turn off your bloody phone", or face gruesome consequences. I did two of them, which you can watch here.

Now you can win the chance to get your own ident shown at this year's FrightFest, with their new competition. The video announcement is here, and the full details are here (with scary photo of me). Basically, make a 25-second ident (30 including the end title card, which is supplied), submit it, and you could be one of five lucky winners getting your work shown during the festival, in front of tons of horror fans and filmmakers.

I'm one of the judges, and I'm going to be very fussy and strict, so make them good! The website has all the details, terms and conditions, so go read it, think of some ideas, and go make stuff. Go! Now!

Update! Twitch Film is covering the story here.

Update 2: The competition is open to anyone in the world! Not just the UK!