Saturday, January 31, 2009

Suffer From Irregularity? - How freelancing can impede blogging

Nearly every article I've come across about blogging states that updating regularly and often is one of the keys to building an audience and developing your niche.

Sigh. I have come to the conclusion that I am not likely to become an everyday blogger.

Nor even , it seems, a weekly one, despite hopeful aspirations to the contrary. I realize I am not the only one to confront these questions. I have also realized a part of this may be due to the lifestyle of a freelance writer, as opposed to one with a regular gig.

If you are story editing, show running or even part of the writing team on a television series, you spend your days (and a significant portion of your nights) immersed in the characters and plotlines. You are constantly solving plot issues and finding new ways to reveal character and stay true to their essence, while coming with new developments and exciting twists to challenge them; testing the boundaries.

The first time I was offered a story-editing gig my agent told to weigh the good news with the bad news. The good news was I would have to write only that show for almost a year. The bad news that I would have to write only that show for almost a year.

The benefit of such an intensive period of writing for one group of characters greatly outweighed the negatives.

On the plus side, you get to know the characters inside out and the rhythm of your show becomes so ingrained that you easily avoid anything that isn't true to the characters before your fingers ever hit the keyboard. Untrue moments become easier to spot and surmount. You're like a shark swimming even as it sleeps, constantly working out problems and brainstorming.

You also find your speed increasing because you know the show so well, you can blaze through an initial draft in days, allowing the times to actually edit and polish it before handing it in.

On the down side, you need a mountain of ideas to feed the wildfire or it's over. The flames will die out. Even if it's not fully worked out a new idea can inspire you. You may have to work your butt off to figure how and why your flying character can suddenly talk to birds. But in the process you get deeper into your characters and find new depths inside.

If you survive the lack of sleep.

The good news is that when you're so immersed in one thing for such an extended, intensive period of time, when you do break away for a bit your mind is thrilled to work on anything else. Sharpened by such intensive use, other ideas come flowing out, often already worked over by your subconcious brain looking for an outlet.

I find the opposite to be true when I'm a pen-for-hire working on several shows at once to cobble together grocery and mortgage money. At the same time I am juggling outlines and scripts for completely series, I usually also studying and pitching for other shows in an effort to line up next month's work.

The constant shifting of gears is so taxing the last thing I want to face at the end of the day is a blog post. I haven't had time to peruse the news or explore my world. I've already explored two or three separate television worlds in one. That's enough mental travel for anyone.

And at the start of each day when my mind is fresh I'm usually having to catch up on the writing I didn't get to finish the day before. And all this time the deadlines circle above, their dark wings spreading shadows on the ground around my desk. So I skip the blog post, even if it's one I've been dying to get too.

Sometimes there are so many post ideas in my brain (along with the other writing, filmmaking or cartooning thoughts and ideas floating around up there) I can't write them fast enough. But after a day of switch-hitting every hour, there are none to be had. The well is dried up and I need to relax and find a way to refill before facing my blank screen tomorrow.

Check the dates on these posts and the time between each one. I think you'll know which period I'm in right now.

So I surrender to fact that I shall not become a day by day nor a weekly blogger any time soon. I accept it and hope that you do too. I want each post appearing here to have my full attention and creative energy behind it.

You deserve it. And so do I.

Live the adventure.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Being Erica Pilot Is Being Awesome

I'll finish my Anne kvetching in the next few days. Let's move on to another example of show that is working well, if its premiere is any indication...

With advances notices like John Doyle's preview in the Globe and Mail here and Bill Harris' equally delighted preview in the Winnipeg Sun here, CBC's new Quantum Leap for women, Being Erica, has a lot to live up to. And CBC has been treating their advance advertising blitz like they've got a slam dunk on their hands.

I'm delighted to discover Being Erica not only lived up the excitement, it exceeded my expectation. Despite its high concept the producer's kept it grounded in the characters' reality and avoided overplaying the magic. It's an engrossing, funny, observant modern comedy that has a good times with it's genre concept.

Erin Karpluk’s  character Erica travels back in time, where she has a chance to take mulligans on life-defining moments, in the new CBC show Being Erica.

They also walked that creative tightrope between the drama and their sense of play, somehow managing to avoid the obvious choice at every turn, preferring to make the kind of real choices a character might make in those times. They get a big hand from this corner.

I'll happily spend an hour each week in this show's playful world with great characters like leads Erin Karpluk and the never-less-than delightful Micheal Riley. It was also lovely to recognize cast members from Jana Sinyor's previous teen sci-fi drama series, Dark Oracle, making appearances in Erica's colourful past. Her ability to marry high-concept with real life is augemented by a larger than usual co-pro budget that allows her to make the real world look like a place where magic can truly happen. Let's face, Toronto has rarely looked better.

The stand-out things for me were all little character bits: Erica trying to find an eighties outfit her adult sensibilities can stand and talking to her chaperon at her high school prom about how young and vapid teenagers are, all the while sounding younger and more airheaded with each sentence. It's the little things that make the magic.

Karpluk plays with the idea of modern woman in her thirties being absolutely out of sync with her younger selves, though she is just as prone to embarrassment and self-pity. And Micheal Riley makes a very funny guide through time, alternately mocking, pushing, arguing and ignoring Karpluk as she muddles through her impossible situation. I suspect speculating on the nature of his character will become forum fodder for the run of the series.

John Doyle sums it up best in his preview article.

"Erica is no ditz and Karpluk maintains the essential dignity and integrity in the character. Her eyes can stab at you, give the character a fierceness that's absolutely necessary to avoid the trap of Erica Strange as helpless, hapless female.

In a later episode, Erica gets to confront a young man who exploited her sexually in high school. The situation could have been played for laughs, or Erica could have been made a mere victim, but it's superbly done as Erica's rage and contempt is crystal clear. There's no self-pity, just the fury of a woman who realizes she was duped by a dumb, handsome male.

That kind of tone is necessary to keep the show on an even keel dramatically. There's whimsy and occasionally there's broad humour, but Being Erica is a smart show, buoyant and unpredictable.

There's no shame in CBC's search for female viewers. But there's always a temptation in the mainstream TV racket to make the central female character indulge in ludicrous and self-pitying impulses. Being Erica doesn't do that. Erica Strange is a character anyone can like, root for, and admire. CBC has the woman it needs and wants."

For more, Blogger extraordinaire, Denis McGrath, has an up close and personal interview with Series Creator Jana Sinyor and Executive Producer Aaron Martin here.

I'll be interested to see what the numbers are on the premiere. Did CBC's multi-media ad blitz pay off?

Live the adventure.

Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning - Failure to Launch?

In the last post, I tried to share some of the reasons why I felt that Kevin Sullivan’s original Television movie, Anne Of Green Gables, was a near perfect film adaptation of a literary work. There were too many good reasons the production was successful to list.

After stumbling across A-channel's rebroadcast of the first on a Saturday evening over the holidays, we were all ready for Sullivan's latest Anne production, Anne Of Green Gables: A New Beginning with Shirley Maclean the next night. Sadly, it failed to live up to the high bar set the night before.

The truth is, my wife and I saw so many things working against Sullivan’s latest Anne production, Anne Of Green Gables: A New Beginning, they held up in sharp relief what was truly good about the first one.

Yes, there was an immediate and tremendous contrast between the two productions. The same choices affect both films. Because Sullivan made certain decisions the first film soars. The fact that he failed to make the same choices this time around sinks the latest movie.

John Sculley (the noted American businessman who created the Pepsi Challenge and then took Apple Computers to new heights before turning it back over to Steve Jobs. You can read differing views on him here and here.) found that he learned more from his mistakes than from his successes. “If you aren't making some mistakes, you aren't taking enough chances. “

In keeping with that sentiment, let’s take a peek at the new production.

“When I lived with Mrs. Thomas [before coming to Green Gables to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert] she had a bookcase in her sitting room with glass doors. There weren’t any books in it; Mrs. Thomas kept her best china and her preserves there — when she had any preserves to keep. One of the doors was broken. Mr. Thomas smashed it one night when he was slightly intoxicated. But the other was whole and I used to pretend that my reflection in it was another little girl who lived in it. I called her Katie Maurice, and we were very intimate. I used to talk to her by the hour, especially on Sunday, and tell her everything. Katie was the comfort and consolation of my life. We used to pretend that the bookcase was enchanted and that if I only knew the spell I could open the door and step right into the room where Katie Maurice lived, instead of into Mrs. Thomas’s shelves of preserves and china. And then Katie Maurice would have taken me by the hand and led me out into a wonderful place, all flowers and sunshine and fairies, and we would have lived there happy forever after. When I went to live with Mrs. Hammond it just broke my heart to leave Katie Maurice. She felt it dreadfully too, I know she did, for she was crying when she kissed me good-bye through the bookcase door. There was no bookcase at Mrs. Hammond’s. But just up the river a little way from the house there was a long green little valley, and the loveliest echo lived there. It echoed back every word you said, even if you didn’t talk a bit loud. So I imagined that it was a little girl called Violetta and we were great friends and I loved her almost as well as I loved Katie Maurice — not quite, but almost, you know. The night before I went to the asylum I said goodbye to Violetta, and oh, her good-bye came back to me in such sad, sad tones. I had become so attached to her that I hadn’t the heart to imagine a bosom friend at the asylum, even if there had been any scope for imagination there.”

Upon arriving at Green Gables, Anne breathlessly encapsulates her previous life for Marilla
- Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1908

This is Lucy Maud Montgomery's own summation of Anne Shirley's life before Green Gables, in the breathless words of her flame-haired heroine. Sullivan has based his latest three hour opus on these word, research into Montgomery's own life own to create an adventure that rivals The Perils of Pauline movie serial for action, pluck and ridiculous plot turns.

Having weathered a lawsuit with the heirs of Montgomery's estate over rights issues, Sullivan has attempted to avoid taking anything outright from Anne's novels, preferring instead to allude to Anne's later adventures while borrowing heavily from other classic literature for plot fodder.

In veering off in a new direction with this prequel, Sullivan loads as many adventures for Anne as he can into the meandering, three-hour length running time.

A brief list of the high points:

(*Warning. Here there be spoliers!)

Precocious Anne Shirley's father is accused of theft and the murder of her mother. Marking her by association as a criminal in miniature and provides the character with a suitably Dickensian starting point.

Anne (played with plucky abandon by (Hannah Endicott-Douglas) is taken to an adult asylum where she, much like Oliver Twist,they try to break her innocent spirit. She meets bearded inmate Gabriel who only speaks aloud to Anne.

In a Count Of Monte Cristo turn of events, Gabriel teaches Anne the meaning of "kindred spirit" and quite literally holds the key to her escape. Gabriel also has been working a repository of the English language in his head for years and expresses extreme disappointment when Anne reveals a dictionary already exists. This character choice was likely inspired not by literature but by history, and seems to reference William Chester Minor, an American surgeon in the 20's who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary from his confinement in a lunatic asylum.

Anne escapes and happens across Louisa Thomas (Rachel Blanchard) a friend of her mother fleeing the city with our own kids in tow. One of the kids is Violetta Thomas (Hannah's real-life sister, Vivien Endicott-Douglas), whom Sullivan has promoted from imaginary friend to real life antagonist. Violetta will spend the next two and half hours going from friend to spiteful foe and back in the blink of an eye, and often several times in a single scene.

Violeta tricks Anne into getting on the wrong train, seemingly to get rid of her but then helps her mother call Anne back in time to miss the actual train they wanted. As they walk along the tracks past lovely, sun-dappled countryside, she complains, which caused me to wonder what the hell she had in mind in the first place.

Anne's constant , spastic fantasies are not grounded in an awareness of the reality around her, as the previous movies and book, make clear. This Anne patently ignores the major catastrophes around her as if living in a perpetual state of denial.

Anne charms a mailwoman named Nellie Parkhurts (Kyra Harper) and gets the motley crew a ride to Louisa's rich mother-in-law's home, whom Nellie despises. The runaways are grudgingly taken in by the matron (Shirley Maclean, bringing a lot of class and weight to a troubled script as Amelia Parkhurst).

Anne soon befriends and names her reflection Katie Maurice, just because, is framed and kicked off Amelia's estate for stealing and finds works as an itinerant worker to an apple orchard. I expected it to veer into Of Mice and Men territory but Sullivan gets bored of the orchard within a single scene and Anne is taken by the suddenly friendly Violeta. Violeta becomes little Anne's nemesis again in the next scene and continues to switch back and forth constantly.

One wonders if Sullivan was suffering short-term memory loss over the course of writing his script, as characters motivations and actions change with every scene. In a nod to Anne lying in the sinking boat from the foirst novel, Sullivan has Anne place Violeta's younger brother in a leaky boat so he can pretend to be a knight drifting away on his funeral barge. The boy is saved from drowning by one of Amelia's mill workers.

Sullivan's memory loss must be catching because it seems odd that Anne would nearly kill another child in this way and then repeat the experience with herself only a few years later at Green Gables.

Anyhoo, having found little dramatic traction at the cider mill, Sullivan quickly has run away from the estate again to find work in a lumber mill.

The lumber mill sequence soons turns into Joseph Conrad's The Sabateur when Anne becomes emmeshed with grousing union workers and the part of the mill is blown up. Anne's small size allows her to climb under the wreckage to help a wounded man but she is soon carried away from the area on a white horse no less, by Nellie, who is working for the rebels but for some reason trusts Anne implicitly with their secrets.

Anne sees the woman who framed her for stealing sharing Amelia's secrets with the union workers but doesn't share that knowledge upon her return.

Sullivan next uses Montgomery's "haunted forest" motif as Anne and Violetta (currently a friend in this sequence) will be kidnapped by Nellie on the white horse again (so she can see her lost father plotting with the villains). This later sequence borrows from Treasure Island as Violeta is literally, swept up in a net in the forest!

She returns home with Anne. But where any normal child would breathlessly exclaim, "Holy crap! I just got swept up in a net in the forest next door and Anne was kidnapped again!", Violetta never mentions a thing. Oh, and she's Anne's nemesis again. Perhaps she's sublimated the experience into her hatred.

Consistency and logic is lacking in most of the characters. Louisa is quick to ignore her own kids in favour of Anne, then truns around and does the opposite. Her motivations change from scene to scene (I guess that's where her daughter Violetta gets it).

Amelia is betrayed by her manager, who reveals her mill is on Crown land. Louisa betrays Anne and Amelia, out of passion for Anne's criminal father, a need to help the worker's earn more rights and a petulant desire to prove herself in Amelia's eyes. Anne is betrayed by her father and Louisa and Violetta.

Sullivan rips a page out of Jane Eyre's finale for his own and burns down Amelia's estate with a mysterious fire. Amelia disappears without so much as a sayonara. Having lost her sugar mama, Louisa and her brood turn their backs on Anne, who is no longer useful to them. Nellie takes Anne to help her friends, The Hammonds, raise their children. There, finally, Anne makes up her mirror self mentioned in the original book.

Whew! And that's just the main story.

The framing sequence features a grown-up Anne. The famous writer is conquering stage (we know from a single sequence of her taking a bow before an applauding crowd) and discovers an old letter from her Dad under the floorboards of Green Gables. Apparently, that memory loss we discussed earlier begins to heal itself and Anne remembers her father for the first time in years. Those memories are the main plot I just described.

A major issue with the framing sequence is that everything that happens to adult Anne is referenced mainly in dialogue and voice-over, off-screen. we are told she's a great writer but never hear or see her work. And we are told of her unbridled spirit but all she does is mope.

The only active thing Older Anne does is look for her father, though we never learn why she didn't look for him before this. She discovers he is dead and gets an update of other off-screen action form the family lawyer. Her father's wife Louisa and children covered their tracks and left Anne on the hook for the burial.

Casting comes into play here as well. As my wife pointed out, Barbara Hershey's performance makes her think of Francis Farmer after the electroshock. There's no life to her Anne. Hershey is an understated actress, here style simply doesn't embody the kid of life and spirit the character of Anne. We should see some of that in the adult Anne but we don't. Paying attention to the characters in even these simple ways seems to have gotten lostalong the way in this production. I'm not surprising, with so many plot turns jerking characters to and fro, it's a wonder they retain any personality at all. Oh wait... they don't.

In the end, Anne's adopted son, Dominic, returns from WWII to get married and discovers she has a half-brother. Older Anne's partner or lover or agent (or all three), a character so unimportant and invisible he doesn't even merit a bio on the official web page, comments on what an incredible woman Anne Shirley-Blythe is. And the most amazing things is, he assures us, she doesn't even know it.

Sadly, we don't know it either. Instead of getting to see her passion and spirit for ourselves, we are forced to take his word for it.

And then it's over.

Whew, you've got admit that's packed. Even for this film's three hour running time, this is a packed, packed story. Even just reading this I'm sure you can feel every painful minute of this three hour litany of woe. And that is the film's first big problem.

Lots of things happen but there is little time for the characters to reflect on those events. It is essential for us to see the events actually affect our characters psyche. But we're too busy looping through this plaot roller-coaster to slow down for that.

In the first part of a terrific interview up on YouTube, Ira Glass of "This American Life" actually distillsthe essence of 'story' down to two things anecdote and moments of reflection. Anecdotes are all exterior action while the moment of reflection is the time spent showing how the action affects and changes our characters. It is also the moment that reveals how and possibly why they take their next action. Without these moments, characters don't seem to grow and change.
In my first posts on the Anne Of Green Gables brought to the screen by writer/producer Kevin Sullivan, we found his early Anne adaptations to be exquisite examples of how to adapt literary properties. Sullivan showed trust in his characters and actors and allowed them room to breath and react and reflect on each event. This created characters that grew in slow increments before our eyes.

Instead of explaining everything, Sullivan treated his audience as intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions. He simply presented the events and let their own observations regarding the characters carry the day. The result was high viewer investment into Montgomery's world. I know people who haven't seen the movies for years and remember them as part of their own trove of beloved memories. A great achievement indeed, Mr. Sullivan. I thank for the first half of the lesson.

Unfortunately, A New Beginning is all about the events. Moments of reflection are almost non-existent over the entire three hours. It quickly becomes a laundry list of "this happened, then this happened, then this happened". Because there is no time to get to know the inner workings of our characters, Sullivan loses our interest and is forced to rely on splashy events to keep eyes on the screen.

An exquisite, subtle moment like Richard Farnsworth painfully shy Mathew buying Anne her first dress with "puffy sleeves"from Mag Ruffman's cheery store clerk in Anne Of Green Gables is nowhere to be found in A New Beginning. Yet the film is much the poorer for it. The scene carries far greater emotional force and resonance than an exploding mill.

Live the adventure.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Anne Of Green Gables - A Lesson in Literary Adaptation

This holiday season provided my wife and I with a unique lesson in how to do a film adaptation of a literary work right and how it can go completely off the rails.

On a pre-Christmas Saturday night we stumbled upon producer director Kevin Sullivan’s 1985 television movie, Anne of Green Gables.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s vivid tales of Anne of her compatriots in Avonlea have been in print for a century now, selling over 50 million books, spawning a worldwide merchandising industry, fan clubs, propping up Prince Edward Island’s tourist industry with museums, the Green Gables farmhouse that inspired Montgomery, and two yearly musicals in Anne of Green Gables and the Anne & Gilbert. This is one literary property with a lot eyes on any adaptation.

Sullivan's first film sure stands the test of time and seems universally considered to be the definitive adaptation. A nearly perfect cast is led by the incandescent performance of Megan Fallows in the lead role, and note-perfect supporting performances from Richard Farnsworth and Colleen Dewhurst as Anne’s adoptive parents, Mathew and Marilla Cuthbert. Kevin Sullivan’s writing (in concert with Joe Wiesenfeld) and directing take advantage of the episodic nature of Montgomery’s first novel to create a rhythm to Anne’s antics.

The Anne’s legendary flights of fancy carry her into mischief. We see her slow realization of her fate and then watch her indomitable spirit recover from each setback with a passionate heart. It’s a rhythmic dance that slowly opens the hearts of the viewer as Anne opens the hearts of Avonlea’s citizenry. Each incident and the subsequent reaction to it feel inevitable.

As Anne’s temper rises or her hyper-active imagination leads her to a wrong conclusion, we know she could not behave in any other way. Marilla's sterness slowly grows less pronounced with each of Anne's screw-ups and yet, it returns when she is forced to apologize to Diana's mother and the gossipy Rachel Lynde for Anne accidentally getting Diana Barry drunk on current wine. We have to smile as she snaps at Rachel after forcing Anne to apologize and force her tonguew. She and the little red-haired orphan are more alike than she cares to admit.

In his first Anne film Sullivan the director allows the space for us to see each the emotional transition each events takes the characters through. In short, each happening has an effect on their relationship to each other and we are privy to the change. The sum total is created from how the characters relationships are enriched and changed by each event, not by the events themselves.

The secret to the first Sullivan film’s success, besides the note-perfect and subtle Hagood Hardy soundtrack and the sumptuous cinematography, isn’t about what happens, it’s how inevitable the character’s choices seem to be. Each performer is utterly true to the character and Sullivan the director allows them the time to experience each event in the story.

Take Mathew Cuthbert…

Sullivan gives us several examples of Mathew’s extreme reticence and introversion in dialogue (references to Mathew’s past) and the way he handles various situations. Only Anne’s boundless emotions give him strength to step outside his emotional boundaries. So, having familiarized the audience with this important aspect of Mathew’s character, Sullivan then plays with Montgomery’s chapter in which Anne wistfully wishes for a beautiful blue dress with puffy sleeves for her first dance.

Marilla denies her request but Mathew can’t deny Anne anything she has her heart set on. Thus is spurred his one and only attempt to buy, let alone discuss, something feminine with Alice Lawson, the shopkeeper played Mag Ruffman. Mathew can barely get a word out but when he finally does convey his request he is relieved when Alice instantly understands and offers to pick the perfect dress for him. Mathew’s relief evaporates when Alice calls him over to the very-public window to look at several dress choices.

The scene is funny because we have been allowed to learn about Mathew and so understand the tremendous strength it takes him to get Anne’s dress. This culminates in a moving scene in the barn when Anne rushes out to model the dress for him. For once, Anne is too overwhelmed for words -- a first for her, and for the audience that has come to know the character. Suddenly, we understand just how moved Anne is.

When Mathew takes Anne’s silence to mean she doesn’t like the dress we see the keen disappointment and self-reproach in Richard Farnsorth’s eyes. All his embarrassment was for naught. But Sullivan holds the scene even longer allowing Megan Fallows to show the shock in her eyes when she realizes Mathew’s misunderstanding. We see how heartbroken she is to make him feel that and she finally finds the words to say she loves his precious gift.

The script takes full advantage of Montgomery’s dialogue, comic antics and her humanist point of view. The film leaves the actors room to breathe and build up to each character’s decisions and time for them to explore the results.

That is what it’s all about.

After being moved to tears by his first film my wife and I had a spirited discussion over the next morning’s breakfast about this and Sullivan’s equally outstanding second Anne film, Anne of Avonlea (also known by the clever and infinitely more marketable title, Anne of Green Gables: the Sequel). We were quite excited to be able to see his latest entry, Anne of Green Gables: A New Beginning, that very night.

Sadly, the new film offered equally important, though somewhat less positive lessons in adaptation. In short, it was an exercise in what not to do!

More next time!

Live the adventure.