Be The Best Writer You Can

Control & The Counterfeiters

I’d hoped to bring you two warm recommendations of two movies you had to go and see at all costs. Both from this side of the Atlantic. Both getting great reviews, from all the British national newspapers right through to Rottentomatoes.com

Sadly…

Control is the story of a little ol’ Manchester band called Joy Division. They ploughed a determined furrow of melancholic post punk back in the late 1970′s, before executing a surprise leap over the ghetto wall and turning into one of the most influential bands of all time. I love their music, so watching that aspect of the movie was no hardship whatsoever.

But there was also the matter of the main story: the increasingly tortured life of their visionary lead singer, Ian Curtis.

He married young, had a baby, fell out of love with his wife and into bed with a fan, and spent the rest of his time being torn apart between these two women – to the point where the movie suggests this was a major part of his suicide at the age of 23.

I have no idea of whether this is a reasonable assessment of what actually happened, but in its own terms the movie fails totally, because the writer simply didn’t bother creating characters for either of the two women.

It’s not that he can’t write characters – most of the time the men were depicted brilliantly. He just didn’t give the women anything to do, or even anything interesting to say.

It’s a very simple question really – how can you hope to engage an audience in a man being torn apart over two women when you don’t give the audience any reason to see why he would love either of the women?

And if you’re just curious to see what the Manchester scene really felt like in those years go and watch Twenty Four Hour Party People instead. Far more entertaining.

And The Counterfeiters.

Another ‘true’ story. A set of skilled Jewish counterfeiters are charged with undermining the British and American economies by forging truck loads of paper money inside a concentration camp.

Enormous stakes, split loyalties, and the primal struggle between duty to the cause and preservation of the self. Hard to go wrong? So you’d think. Yet it crashed off the rails within ten minutes.

It opens with the lead character on the beach at Monte Carlo, after the war. He’s grizzled, dazed, bitter, emotionally frozen, has obviously been through some terrible ordeal. He picks a woman up at the casino – she sees the mark of the concentration camp on his arm. From there we plunge back 10 years, to the point where he was first arrested, and then the story in the camps begins.

That little introduction does one, terrible thing to the movie. You KNOW he survived, and you KNOW his mental state at the end of the movie. Any suspense ended there and then.

Apparently the director chose to do this deliberately. He thought the subject material was too grave, too important to be treated as a mere thriller. (I’d love to know whether the writer agreed with that.)

If the movie had managed to deliver on any of the rest of its potential, that might have been valid. But, amazingly, with the chosen structure (and lots of other little story telling problems) watching the life and death struggle of what was effectively a whole people was a bizarrely unaffecting experience.

If you want to see what this movie could/should have been, rent The Pianist, by Roman Polanski. No thriller structure either, but boy does that movie engage you.
I really hate to write bad reviews, and I particularly hate reviewers who sit and sneer. It’s so easy to do, and it belittles the effort and labour and love of the hundreds of people who spent months, possibly years, making the movie. The only reason I wanted to talk about these two was because the flaws were so clear, and so visibly to do with the writing, hence relevant to this blog.

Next time I see a film I don’t enjoy I’ll keep it to myself, promise.

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32 Comments
  1. I went to see Control. I wanted to walk out, but did not.

    When it comes to tragic love stories – which this one is, I want my love stories to be better than Romeo and Juliet. I’m looking for an ICONIC MOVIE. The director had the potential to do this, but he was not successful. Don’t call the movie CONTROL. Call it Mr. and Mrs. Joy (you know, surprise us!!).

    An the movie did not make me cry. That’s right — CRY. If a movie makes me cry — it will become box-office hit.

    Sorry, CONTROL is too dark and too unattractive and we don’t care for the characters.

    The director should take the premise of Control and spin it into a high-concept movie.
    And he should have asked David Bowie to do a cover song — as a tribute.

    We must write screenplays that will change lives on a MARCRO level and become forever unforgettable.

    Regards,

  2. Phil, you ended your review with:

    “Next time I see a film I don’t enjoy I’ll keep it to myself, promise.”

    Please don’t! Especially for writers, it is just as important if not more important to know what makes a movie go wrong or miss the mark. Your reviews with anecdotes to a specific movie are such strong teaching tools–visual, viewable, specific, from the ’real’ world. You can’t get better examples for us than these kind of reviews. And besides that, you do not sneer! I appreciate that, too. The whole industry will benefit from this form of gentle “instruction.” Please, continue to review any movie you see with a similar treatment, and tell us why you think they work or don’t work for you personally and as a piece of writing in general.
    –Aaron

  3. I really agree with you about Control. After hearing so many positive reviews, I was looking forward to it, so it was a massive disappointment.

    It made sense that it had been filmed by a rock photographer – the film felt like a series of unconnected albeit nicely-shot events.

    The narrative was so sparse that it actually left out crucial details which would have helped an audience engage. For example, the fact that Ian Curtis wasn’t able to bond with his daughter because he couldn’t hold her due to his epilepsy. In the book on which the film is based, this is one of the major contributory factors to Curtis’s suicide – in the eyes of Deborah Curtis anyway.

    It also felt like the film stumbled around a number of themes, but actually investigated none. I particularly liked the suggestion that Annik was attractive to Curtis because she was free and independent – it seemed to make a comment on the limitations and expectations of working class life in the late 70s. But this wasn’t explored at all.

    Nor was Ian Curtis’s depressive history or the build up to his death. The film made out that he killed himself because he couldn’t handle the idea of a divorce – there was little focus on how the live shows and creative process were affecting him mentally and emotionally.

    I really agree with Benjamin, above, when he says the fact that it didn’t make him cry is a bad thing. I cried when Stingray died in Neighbours, and I was sobbing uncontrollably when I read Heavier than Heaven, the Kurt Cobain biography. And yet I came out of this film thinking, “What a prick.”

    As well as blaming the writing, however, I also felt that Sam Riley wasn’t great in the role, and I think the way the whole film was shot wasn’t great (such as the way the band appeared to play the same sized venue over and over).

    What’s interesting about biopics, is that there is rarely more than one about the same person (with the exception of Capote and Cobain), even when the first version is rubbish. I think that’s a real shame, because often they are amazing stories . . . and Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis and co frankly deserve better.

  4. PS. I thought the supporting cast, particularly Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton’s characters, were excellent.

  5. Ben – loving the ambition, yes, it’s hard to remember to keep hold of the idea of changing lives with your screenplay – it is possible, we all know it is, and if we’re not careful the business will drum that out of us. And yes, the story should have been heartbreaking, and no, I was mildly irritated by the end by how much of my life the movie had just eaten, nothing more.

    Aaron – interesting point – it’s just that I hate sneering criticism – won’t mention any names but in general it’s all too easy to sit safe and shred other people’s hard fought work, and as an outsider you never have any idea of the compromises the production process has forced on people. But of course, pure discussion of what went wrong and right can’t be bad.

    Jess, fascinating – had forgotten the fact he couldn’t hold his daughter – that must have been truly terrible for him – yet, you know, even if it had been added in I suspect it would have been one more of the ideas that should have affected us but didn’t. There was something deeply lacking in the organisation of the script I reckon. But yes, weren’t those two characters fantastic! That’s why it was so sad the women didn’t get the same investment.

  6. I love that you to try to avoid the bad review. I’ve been on that side of the fence, after so much struggle, reading a nationwide reviewer sneer as if I purposely set out to make a bad play.
    The excellent review the play did receive did nothing for me after the bad one wormed its way in.

    An honest review with consideration for all involved taken into account is possible. No clever sneering required.

    Good for you.

  7. Phil – I agree completely with you that too many reviewers these days criticise to the point of not being useful any more. It reminds me of an essay by David Hare called “Why Fabulate”, in which he criticises critics and suggests one of the reasons they are so sneering and (often) unhelpful is because it’s their job to critique things all the time. Being aware of that is the first step towards forming critique which can be informative and helpful.

    I am currently studying dramaturgy and part of that has to do with critique which will help writers etc improve on their skills. Essentially, I believe reviews which critique for a purpose (ie to teach, to improve) are almost necessary for writers to read. You can know what you like, but being able to read about what other people like and don’t like can help put things in to perspective.

    So please do give your opinions for films whether you enjoyed it or not!

  8. Hello Amz,

    Control was directed by a director who is more in interested in making a movie for himself.

    We have to be responsible! Life is short, if we are going to write and direct, we have think about the future.

    Help people — for eg. artists, especially those that are self-destructive.

    Thanks

  9. Hi Benjamin,

    I think I understand what you’re saying – that artists need perspective because sometimes they are too close to their own work? Is that right?

    To an extent I agree with that. Many people seem to want to write and direct their own films, tv shows, plays, and some can pull this off quite well. Others can’t pull it off.

    I’ve seen a few films that have frustrated me because of this type of thing, and I think it’s a matter of being aware of your connection to the work. Finding a way to look at how it all fits together. Some people might be great writers and not-so-great directors and vice versa.

    I think the self-aware artists will generally be fine.

  10. Hi Amz,

    I’m meeting so many artists in Canada who are talented but needs coaching and supervision. I know I should not say that, but I really care for some of my artist friends – novelist and screenwriters! So of them really work so hard that they block their friends and reality.

    For the movie “Control” — I wish the script had a moral premise. So other artists around the world can learn from Joy Division.

    I don’t think any artist should think like that.

    Regards
    Benjamin

  11. Hi Benjamin,

    I agree with you that some artists need coaching or supervision or development But for some people the best way to learn is through “doing”, so I also believe it’s up to the artist to decide whether they want to be coached ect.

    I’m not clear about what you mean when you say “I don’t think any artist should think like that” – were you talking about something I said, or about the lack of morality in “Control”?

    Amy

  12. Hello Amy, Amz –

    This is going to be difficult to explain but here it goes…

    Two of my scripts deal with controversial artists.

    I believe that too many artists love what they do — in love with their “lifestye” — positive and negative.

    The artist in my scripts all strive to be 100% positive even though the genes for negativism and self-destructiveness is bolted in their DNA.

    Control, the movie, needs to teach and entertain us on a cinematic level. It did not do that. Thus I will only watch it in the theatre or on TV, but it will not be a DVD I will collect or buy at Christmas.

    Dec. 25 is just a few payroll away!

    Regards
    Benjamin

  13. Hi Benjamin,

    I think I understand what you’re saying…Is it that a lot of artists are so wrapped up liking what they do that they don’t consider the potential audience?

    “Control” is yet to be released here, and I’m curious to see it now just to know what it is like. From your comments it sounds like it doesn’t address the struggle/s an artist can face in any real depth. Is that right?

    It seems like quite a lot of film/tv/theatre/novels tend to romanticise certain occupations (particularly, I think, any form of artist). Is that something you’ve explored in your scripts?

  14. Deirdre, AMZ, yes, well, ok, fair comments therefore – more critical thought on any movies I see will be coming your way as and when…

    Actually I’m still processing my reactions to Gangster #1, which I saw late last night on TV. Fascinating movie – so much wrong with it, yet so affecting too. Terribly violent, problems with the ending, some great acting, (and some not so great), but mainly a powerful vision at its centre that was very hard to resist.

    Amz/Ben – I think the battle is having the skill to remain aloof from your subject and assess it critically as you write, yet retaining the ability to immerse yourself in it so wholeheartedly you can mine your own deepest emotions in an uncritical way. The control you need to switch between modes is hard to achieve. The only real way I can find to do it is to somehow factor in a cooling off period between drafts.

  15. Philip – having the control to “switch between modes” as you put it can be difficult, but very rewarding. I’m wondering if that is one of the reasons why you suggest taking breaks between drafts and also during the story development process?

  16. Hello Amz,

    As screenwriters we cannot switch from one mode to another — we have to be honest to our emotions and manage it with a moral compass.

    I write from my heart. Just like what Gandhi said “you must become the change you wish to see in the world”.

    Though my scripts are gritty, they must and will always have a moral premise. We cannot give up in life and play the blaming game.

    Regards
    Benjamin

  17. Hi Ben,

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean. I was referring to what Philip said when I was talking about “switching between modes”. You have a fair point, but I believe it depends on the individual writer. Some writers can develop a script, take a break, and then go back and critically edit it while others might work better simply writing from the heart and be more concerned with thematics than critical editing. All writers work in different ways, and I think that’s why there is so much diversity in how stories are told.

  18. I think if you write without taking breaks to get perspective then you run the risk of falling in love with what you write to the point that it’s hard to see that it isn’t doing the overall job as part of the whole that you need it to. That’s why a good script editor is invaluable in shows on production – by flagging up areas of concern they short cut the time you would otherwise need for the emotion to fade and the analysis to kick in.

    And absolutely we need to write with a moral compass. One question that is worth asking yourself is ‘is there a character in this story who is the moral centre of this story’? Ie, who is the one whose judgement on the events of the story we feel to be Good. If you haven’t got one of those characters then they are always worth considering. Not least because they’re often a way in for the audience.

  19. Control seems to have a nice story…the bad thing is (as someone said above) it doesn’t have a strong moral component.

    I think every character has to have their own moral by the end of the script because life and people are like that. Even when we don’t really notice, every good movie ends up with all of the characters having a moral component that comes with him/her.

  20. Hey VBgirl,

    I agree, if we look at Saturday Night Fever, the movie, its one of the darkest movie in the history of hollywood. Lots of people did not realize that. But we all love the main character. He’s self-destructive at times(without realizing it), but he has a good heart and knows how to break his weaknesses.

    This is what I call a good “artist” movie.

    Regards

  21. I don’t know if this is the right place to post this, if not, please let me know.
    I just wanna say that I saw a movie last week called “Basic” with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. This movie has quite a few years but I had the chance to see it short time ago. This movie has such a huge complexity in terms of script it just blew me away! I can’t imagine how long the screenwritter took to have that ready and how much he worked his head to have that story work as it does…It’s just hard to explain if you haven’t seen it but let me know what you think.

    Regards.

  22. Hello VBgirl,

    Basic!
    Could you believe it, never heard of the movie.
    I’ll try to rent it in the near future.
    What is Basic, all about? on a screenwriting level?

    Regards
    Benjamin

  23. Yeah, I’ve never seen it either. Sounds great – must look out for it.

  24. The movie is from the year 2003. It’s about a DEA agent (John Travolta) that investigates the disappearance of an army ranger sargent (Samuel L. Jackson) during some trainings on the woods.
    He is out of duty but he’s called because he’s known for his interrogatory skills. He starts interrogating a few cadets that were on the woods that day with the help of a Military Police agent. The thing is: Each one of them tells a different story to explain the sargent disappearance but every story seems to work just fine to explain it!! So, who’s lying? (If anyone’s lying?)
    Just watch the movie… It’s quite complicated to explain what it is in terms of screenwritting if you haven’t seen it yet but I would describe it as a complex movie with complex characters that tell complex stories. It completely “glues you” to the screen… I don’t want to reveal everything so…just watch it!!:):)

    Regards.

  25. Does sound absolutely fascinating. Guess it’s a matter of working it all out in different story documents and representing it all graphically making sure all the cross over points work before you consolidate it all into a final story document. Really will have to see this.

  26. On Control,

    I suppose that we as screenwriters have to avoid the pitfall that this movie fell into like the plague. If you’re done with a screenplay or even writing it, make sure none of your story critical characters are 2-D characters. It’ll make the difference from a great screenplay that gets made and a good screenplay that doesn’t get made.
    Also in this case, it may get made even if it isn’t good, but really, who wants to say that that terrible movie was made by you?

  27. On The Counterfeiters,

    I’m not sure if I agree with you entirely on that one. Example: I recently saw Blood Diamond but when it had just came out, I overheard how it ends. Now when I saw it I had on my mind what was going to happen throughout the whole movie. But I still loved it. Not sure if that fits perfectly, but I think you get my point. If it’s well done, it could possibly not matter if you know the outcome. Just my two cents.
    (P.S. I tried to make this comment as spoiler-proof as possible)

  28. I don’t know – you only get one chance for a first viewing, and it depends how much of the story is set up to work with ideas of suspense. Personally I HATE knowing anything about a movie before I go to see it, (and I mean anything), so I avoid review pages and preview pages like the plague before I go to see anything.

    But the other thing is that starting a story with a scene from later in the story can seem like a cheap way of avoiding having to come up with a proper opening. It’s seeming more and more like an empty and over used device to me these days. Never quite sure what’s wrong with telling the story in normal, linear order. He said. Sounding rather old fashioned.

  29. There’s nothing wrong with a linear movie, but take a movie like Pulp Fiction; nonlinear and one of the greatest movies ever made. As long as anything is done well, anything could work.

    P.S. I hate hearing about any spoilers of movies before seeing it, I got mad at the person who told me about Blood Diamond and that’s why I put off watching it for so long, was hoping I would forget of something.

  30. Yeah, of course, I love Pulp Fiction too. But, as you say, that works…

  31. I just saw on TV last night hte worst movie I can remember in a long time and it was so bad it made me angry that it got produced. To be honest, I missed the beginning, so maybe there was some premise there that would have saved it in my mind – it was called Little Children with Kate Winslet.

    There was pedophile character in the show that had nothing to do with the plot. AT one point he’s on a blind date with a pretty neurotic, and she actually starts to fall for him, and he is an ugly psychotic. That made me mad. So unbelievable, of course she saw through him when he started behaving MOST inappropriately in her car.
    Then there was the voice-over. Never have I seen anything like it, it descended sporadically, not to cover gaps in time but to describe what the characters onscreen were feeling! Because we weren’t bright enough to figure out that those tears meant sadness!

    And then the guy who’s leaving his beautiful wife to join his beautiful mistress, decides to stop on the street (suitcase & goodbye honey letter in hand) for a little skateboarding with the local punks and he bangs his head and has an epiphany and goes back to his wife!

    Truly unbelievable.

    There I’m done. Phew.

    If the writers of that show are listening, I’m sorry for being so negative, but really what were you thinking?

    Is this the type of negative review that is bad for creative spirits everywhere? Tell me.

  32. Been thinking about what you said, Philip, and there really is nothing wrong with a linear movie, and most likely because of Pulp Fiction (or Quentin Tarantino in general) we got flooded with nonlinear movies. Everyone wants to be like him and the end result is movies that could’ve been linear but are told in a nonlinear fashion to try to be like Quentin Tarantino. Maybe the screenwriter should’ve written it linear; the end product could have been much better.

    Kinda ranted there but just my two cents.

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