“The Doctor is an angel who aspires to be human. Sherlock Holmes is a human who aspires to be a god.” Here’s a great interview with Doctor Who and Sherlock writer Steven Moffat from 2010:
In April 2008 Benjamin Cook, a writer for Doctor Who Magazine, emailed Russell T Davies, lead writer and executive producer of the series, to ask if he’d consider offering some insight into the actual creation of the show, “the nuts and bolts of the process, from start to finish”. Two years later, as Davies hands over to the brilliant Steven Moffat we have the complete (seriously: this is a 700 page book) transcript of their correspondence, Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter.
Much like his Doctor Who episodes, this book is fast-moving, funny, suspenseful, hugely sentimental and occasionally self-indulgent, but it’s as honest, revealing and self-critical as any writer has ever been in print. It’s also, unlike most of the “how-to” books that try to teach the craft, written by a hugely successful screenwriter at the absolute top of their game, and, with its strict chronological format, by someone who genuinely doesn’t know if it’s all going to work out:
Here’s more [script] … but it’s absolute bollocks … Tonight this feels like a space-opera runaround. I don’t like it much. It’s too big, it’s daft, the Doctor arrives too late and does nothing all episode. It’s lame shit. It feels like we’re going to spend millions of pounds of licence–fee-payers’ money on silly rubbish.
But other than the fact that all writers have moments of self-hatred (no surprises there), what can Davies teach us about how to write TV?
1. On characters: There is a real, vivid selfish streak running through these characters, and that’s very me. I love writing that into characters. Too many TV characters are just “nice”. Make them selfish — naturally selfish, as we all are — and they sing. Allow the bastards to be lovely, allow the heroes to be weak, and then they’ll come alive.
2.On dialogue: Dialogue is just two monologues clashing. That’s my Big Theory. It’s true in life, never mind drama! Truest phrase ever: ‘The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.’ Fran Lebowitz said that, and I bloody love it.
3. On making the audience care about the characters: I think what you’re talking about is story, not character. You care about a character because they’re in the story. You’ve chosen this story, you’ve switched on this programme, you’ve picked up this book, you’ve paid to see this film,and that’s where the caring comes from. Your choice. Your investment. From thereon in, it’s up to the story … if the story doesn’t work, the characters aren’t served … I’d just say: don’t think about it. Ever, Don’t sit there thinking, will anyone care about my characters? Put your energy into making the characters real, and honest, and true, and interesting, and three-dimensional — and the caring should follow. Like a dog.
4. On making choices: Any story can go in any direction. It’s not what you write, it’s what you choose — and I’m good at choices. By the time I come to write a lot has been decided. Also, a lot hasn’t been decided, but I trust myself, and scare myself, that it’ll happen in the actual writing. It all exists in my head, but in this soup. It’s like the ideas are fluctuating in this great big quantum state of Maybe. The Maybe is a hell of a place to live. As well as being the best place in the world.
5. On finding your voice: It’s so important to start writing, because then the process never, ever ends. Finding your voice isn’t the last stage, just another stage along the way. You reach the top of that mountain, only to see a whole, bloody endless range of mountains waiting beyond. You’ve a million more things to reach for, a million more variations on your voice to articulate. Because your writing always lacks something. Mine does. Moffat’s does, even Paul Abbott’s does, everyone’s does, and that’s why we spend the rest of our lives, still typing away in the dark, trying to get better. Until we die.
There’s been a lot of talk about Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, much of it around its apparent betrayal of its source. How dare he portray Holmes as some kind of scrappy action hero? That’s almost as bad as putting on a fake Cockney accent when your mum is Lady Leighton. But —
Holmes is a kind of scrappy action hero. Conan Doyle’s original has studied boxing, martial arts and swordsmanship. He’s handy with a revolver (although, just as in the movie, he generally forgets to bring his own), strong enough to bend a poker (why does that sound like some kind of Victorian double entendre?) and agile enough to take on — and knock out — one of London’s champion boxers. He wears tails in the drawing room, rags on the street and a ratty dressing gown at home, and he tends to smell of whatever vile chemical he’s been working with that morning. He’s also a manic depressive, a voracious reader of the tabloids and a regular user of cocaine, which would guarantee him a top job in television, were it not that he’s also highly intelligent with a genuine interest in people.
I love the Sherlock Holmes stories (not the novels: apart from The Hound of the Baskervilles they’re pretty tedious) and grew up on the Jeremy Brett series, but Robert Downey Jr. is as good as any Holmes we’ve seen: dangerous, mercurial and brilliant, you can see why Watson loves him, Lestrade loathes him and London’s villains tremble at his name. Ritchie and his screenwriters (Simon Kinberg, Anthony Peckham, Michael Robert Johnson and Lionel Wigram) also restore Watson to his rightful role as brave companion rather than bumbling fool, and in doing so have freed Jude Law to be a terrific character actor rather than a reluctant leading man. There’s also sparkling support from Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and Mark Strong, who manages to play the fiendish Lord Blackwood without even a moustache to twirl. And there’s London. We’ve grown so used to Victorian London on a BBC budget — fifteen orphans and a hansom cab — that it’s a thrill to see it with a Hollywood one. Crammed with people, choked with smoke, this is a throbbing, pungent industrial metropolis. Reflecting this, Ritchie sets his action less in drawing rooms and libraries than in dry docks, slaughter houses (a very scary sequence involving Rachel McAdams and a giant bacon slicer) and laboratories: this is the port and factory of the world.
So why, after a hugely enjoyable first hour or so, is the movie ultimately disappointing? The problem, as so often with big thrillers, is a massive misjudgement of scale. In the first half of the movie, Holmes and Watson are — well, being Holmes and Watson: cracking conundrums, annoying the police and searching for a missing midget (they’re always in the last place you look). In the second half they’re saving the world, and this is where the film goes awry. As Stalin famously put it, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”, and nowhere is this truer than in big budget films. Do we care about Ms McAdams being turned into pancetta? Hell, yes. But do we care about Mark Strong and his followers taking over the world? Well — not really. Time and again, film-makers feel that to increase the suspense of the audience they must increase the scale of the story. But in reality, the opposite is often true. When a story becomes too big it becomes statistics, and the audience stops caring what will happen, because we lose any real sense of threat.
Hitchcock always understood that the “big” story — the stolen military secrets — was essentially irrelevant: that what we cared about was Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. James Bond has been successfully reinvented by focusing on Bond and the people around him, rather than lasers in space. And the best episodes of the relaunched Doctor Who have been its smaller, more intimate stories — Blink, The Girl In The Fireplace, Silence In The Library — rather than its “end of the universe” epics.
Sherlock Holmes is a hugely confident, clear-sighted start to a franchise. It’s funny and charming and exciting, and I’m looking forward to more of Downey, Law and McAdams. I’m also looking forward to more Moriarty, the villain in the shadows of this film. But let’s not forget that Conan Doyle’s climax was not the entire world in peril, but Holmes and Moriarty, alone at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls.
John Guare is the playwright best known for Six Degrees of Separation, which became a terrific film starring Will Smith and Stockard Channing and is now being revived in London. There’s a funny and insightful interview with him in today’s Guardian, including his thoughts on his current obsession, Amanda Knox:
“She’s a complete blank,” he says. “You can project anything on to her. Is she Henry James’s Daisy Miller, an innocent young girl who goes to Europe for experience? Or is she Louise Brooks, the woman who takes what she wants and destroys everything? Or is she Nancy Drew caught up in Kafka?” … “When the police started questioning her, her response was to do cartwheels and the splits. I love that. That’s when I fell in love with the story. That’s when I thought” – he smiles, potential building – “this is my kind of murderess.”
Guare’s plays haven’t always been successful, but they’re always ambitious. And he’s a passionate advocate of the importance of emotional truth over literal accuracy in drama:
[Guare] combines the fantastic and humdrum in accordance with the Henry James principle of the “balloon of experience” – that is, “an audience will go anywhere with you as long as you, the writer, keep your hand on the string. You don’t want to lose the balloon. I love that image.” … When he first saw John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, he was amazed and disappointed. “Where is the revolution?” he asked. Now, he says, “What I hate about kitchen-sink dramas is [this idea] that the set is real, therefore you’re going to be seeing truth. You have to earn truth. Truth can’t be a part of the fact that people appear to talk that way and live in that room. You’re looking for the poetry in something, and I don’t mean poetry in the fancy sense. Naturalism believes by just replicating a thing you give the truth, rather than earning the truth.”
Theatre in Britain at the moment is great shape, partly because it’s happy to aim higher than reality (and which is why Enron is a better play than The Power Of Yes), but our film and television often (with honourable exceptions like Lynne Ramsay) feels hamstrung by its determination to feel “real”, and its reluctance to soar beyond the everyday. While this is well-intended, it’s short-sighted: Doctor Who and Torchwood, with their manipulative politicians, over-weening corporations, secret prison systems, sweat-shops and eco-collapse feel like more accurate barometers of Britain in the Noughties than a slew of more “realistic” television dramas, just as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later feel like truer reflections of our times — and our fears — than any number of more supposedly “authentic” portrayals of contemporary life.
One of the few things that truly differentiates humans from animals is that we talk naturally in metaphors. Metaphors are, in essence, the application of emotion to fact: not “this is what I saw” but “this is how it felt”. And that’s really what stories are: the feeling of what happened.
So let’s hold onto that balloon.
I’m one of the few people who didn’t ask “Matt who?” when the new Doctor was announced, partly because I’d hoped we might be able to cast him in Lady Audley’s Secret. I first saw him in the original cast of Burn/ Chatroom / Citizenship, the 2005 triple bill at the National that also featured Andrea Riseborough, Andrew Garfield and Naomi Bentley and should therefore be awarded some kind of post-dated casting BAFTA, and then in Party Animals and The Shadow in the North. The range of roles that he has played so far promises a mercurial, dangerous Doctor, and as Steven Moffatt is the writer of my favourite episodes so far (The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink), spring 2010 can’t come fast enough.