Category Archives: Film

Cooking with data

Netflix are about to spend £100m on a biopic of the Queen. According to The Atlantic magazine, ‘Royalty’ is Netflix’s second favourite subject (after ‘Marriage’). The new 20-episode drama series is to be written by Peter Morgan and shaped by director Stephen Daldry, both of whom have been nominated for Oscars. ‘Oscar-winning’ is another important Netflix tag for what viewers are likely to watch.

So is this the first drama series to be commissioned by an algorithm? And, if so, does that matter?


All creative media are constantly a-plunder because artists influence and inspire one another, because artists are sucking on the same Zeitgeist, and because, if audiences and readers have enjoyed X, they’ll probably go in search of more of it. That’s why a successful drama series gets re-commissioned, why Agatha Christie wrote so many Poirot novels, and why we can’t get enough of Scandi-noir.

We all love a good novel, movie or TV show. My aim as a writer is to create something that delivers narrative pleasure and satisfaction, and part of pleasure and satisfaction is surprise, is about pushing boundaries and deepening insight. And, if I were about to chuck £100m at a TV series, I might welcome a steer in terms of my initial creative choices.

There are script gurus who can reduce story structure to a Powerpoint presentation. And, like a Delia Smith recipe, that’s great if you’re not very confident about what you’re doing, or you’re writing in a very prescriptive or over-controlled environment. We all have to eat, and of course there are rules: the cake won’t rise if you use plain flour. But the joy of cooking is adding a bit more, leaving something out, throwing in a dash of something unexpected at the last moment, tasting as you go along – subverting the recipe. I don’t see Peter Morgan taking orders from an algorithm.

But you do have to start with some kind of recipe, even if it’s just the aim of recreating that dish you ate in some little place up in the hills on holiday. And it’s far more fun to cook for other people. So if an algorithm will tell me what my guests would really enjoy (and what they’re frankly indifferent to), that’s the right sort of information.

After all, Netflix made ‘House of Cards’, which is pretty nourishing drama.

In book terms, Amazon holds the same kind of data, but won’t share. While digital platforms like Netflix and HBO are using data to drive up the perceived value of scripted content because prestigious drama IS their brand, Amazon is minimising the value of fiction by driving down the price of books. [Full disclosure: they’ve sold shedloads of e-books for me at knock-down prices, and I’m certainly not ungrateful for all the new readers that’s brought me.] All the same, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ seems to be their brand motto. And that’s a real shame when the data is something we could all feast on.

Can creative writing be taught?

Novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi is Professor of creative writing at Kingston University. This is what he said recently at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, at an event supported by the creative writing department of Bath Spa University: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

I have recently stepped down as Writing Tutor on a screenwriting MA at Central St Martin’s (part of the University of the Arts, London), and totally disagree with him.

How to tell a story is the one thing that can be taught. Kureishi‘s right, it is difficult, but it is a craft skill and, especially for a screenwriter, one that can be passed along.

What can’t be taught is how to become a writer – the individual texture of a sentence, the truth of a character, the veracity of dialogue, how to make us care about a story, all that has to come from who the writer is and what they have to say about the world.

And then it takes hard work. Learning how to write is a process, which is what makes teaching it a skill in itself.

I have learnt more from my students over the past five years than they have from me because I have had to articulate my own process. No craftswoman is going to make a beautiful chest of drawers the first time she picks up a piece of wood and a saw – let alone turn out a Stradivarius. It takes years and years of honing one’s craft skills. Writing is no different.

But a good teacher can aim to lay down the right process on which to build – to show why that’s the best piece of wood to choose, which saw will be right, which smoothing plane, what sort of joint will be strong and tensile enough. Narrative drive, suspense, dramatic questions, set-ups and pay-offs, hooks – all these things “make a story go from there all the way through to the end”, and they can all be taught.

After that, as golf champion Gary Player said: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

Work in progress

Beginning to write novels after twenty-five years of screenwriting is a steep learning curve. Much remains the same, some new skills have to be learned and, as I’ve been rather slow to discover, some assumptions have to be unlearned.

It has taken me two novels to realise – duh! – that I no longer have the advantage of writing for actors. For the screen, it’s possible to explore self-deluding, manipulative, obsessive or selfish behaviour in people whom one nevertheless wants the audience to root for and ultimately like. I’m interested in writing about how and why, under pressure, we can all behave badly, can know we’re behaving badly and still continue to do so . But – and it’s a crucial ‘but’ – when my character is played on screen by a loved and admired actor, it’s never a problem to show someone not being their best self because the audience will always trust in the inherent qualities of the actor so the character comes good in the end. Indeed, the right actor can make us root for even the most despicable screen characters.


In fiction, one no longer has the in-built advantage of that kind of trust, which is what makes creating character along the knife-edge of psychological suspense so difficult – and such fun.

Don’t get around much any more

Disclaimer: I love my Mac, adore my iPad, appreciate the knowledge that a Google search can bring to my screen.

But … I’m returning to a drama project based on a real-life character who died in 1939. I first researched him in the mid-1990s, when I read the few books about him, checked out their bibliographies to make sure I’d missed nothing, received hand-written letters from people who had known or knew about him, met some of them, and visited several places that were significant to his story. (Including Claridges, where he died.)

Yesterday I Googled his name and found nothing new or significant that I wasn’t already aware of. Googling ‘images’ brought up a few extra photographs, but nothing that altered my view of him.

So, were I starting to research him now, I could easily do it all from my desk and discover the same information. A couple of the books are even on GoogleBooks. Magic!

But …

I would have missed out on some very interesting encounters.

I would never have left my house.

And, without direct experience of voices, accents, intonations, architecture, colours, smells, atmosphere, weather or light and shade – and their effects on me – what would my writing have been like?

On being a geek

When I was at university many moons ago, I studied structuralist film theory with Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath, watched obscure foreign language films and vaguely knew a few people who wanted to make films (and now do, very successfully). It seemed to me that, if I wanted to be involved in film-making as a writer, then I had to have profound things to say about lenses and camera angles and/or ‘Last Year in Marienbad’  – way too geeky for me (plus it was a bit of a boys’ club, to be honest), so I went off to be a journalist instead.

Now, watching Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E) give this TED talk where he describes watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ seven times in one month before he finally understood what the theme of the movie is, I realise that I AM a geek, but just not in the way I expected.

To write a screenplay, I have to understand why and how and when film works best. I have to think like a precision engineer – I really do want to watch the same film seven times so I can take it to bits to find out how it works – and then try to use those technical skills to create characters people will care about and a story that evokes wonder.

Easy to say, but how to do it?

Andrew Stanton shows us right here: the moment when the camera lingers on Peter O’Toole’s face as the motorcycle rider calls out across the Suez Canal ‘Who are you?’ delivers everything a screenplay should be about. Brilliant.