Friday, 30 January 2015

Wait for it...

I’m an impatient person by nature, but watching Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood made me reassess the value of creative patience. For those who don’t know, the film was made as a series of five-day shoots over a period of twelve years, depicting a boy as he grows from six to the age of eighteen. The film is engrossing (if not quite the stone-cold classic I was led to expect), and has already picked up numerous awards from critics keen to praise its experimental approach and humane worldview.

What gave me pause was the fact that the director was roughly my age when he started the project. Where did he get the patience and confidence to keep pushing through, year after year? Would I be able to do something like that? In interviews, Richard Linklater seems supremely relaxed, and his personality type has clearly contributed greatly to his ability to deliver. He’s a filmmaker who I admired greatly even before this latest film, and he’s only gone up in my estimation since.

In books (especially literary fiction), there's a definite culture of “slowest wins the race”. Consider the twelve years that J.R.R. Tolkien took to write Lord of the Rings, or the glacial work pace of writers like Donna Tartt or Jonathan Franzen. And yet, when these writers do finally produce new novels, they are lorded as instant classics of towering literary achievement. For these writers, patience definitely seems to bear critical fruit.

By contrast, I find myself constantly frustrated by my own unrealistic expectations of how quickly creative work can be completed. For instance, I’m still writing the first draft of a relatively short children’s book, nine months after I started. And don’t get me started on how long it takes agents and editors to respond to submissions! Yet, other writers seem to zip relatively quickly through the publishing process – I was at a talk by Julia Golding on Wednesday, where she explained that she writes so much that she needs three different pseudonyms to manage it all. I was, needless to say, rather jealous.

Perhaps I’m not comparing like-for-like. I have a full-time job in addition to my writing, whereas Julia Golding has to write that fast in order to survive as a full-time writer. And then there’s all the thinking time required for writing a novel, the exploration of world, character and plot that makes an invisible, but vital, contribution to the finished work. Richard Linklater had the luxury of almost a year’s worth of thinking time between filming instalments of Boyhood, though he was hardly slouching around in the meantime - in the period between starting the project and finishing it, he directed another eight films and a feature-length documentary!

So, what are my lessons here? Well, short of quitting my day job, perhaps I could improve my work rate by reducing procrastination, setting better targets and interleaving projects more successfully. I’m also very outcome-focused, and (regular readers will sense a familiar refrain here) I need to nurture a love of the process rather than the results. I’m quite sure that Linklater didn’t approach each year’s filming of Boyhood with a fearful pain in his stomach, wondering what would happen if he died before finishing the film (in fact, he had a contingency plan where actor Ethan Hawke would take over). Each 10-15 minute yearly segment of the movie was approached as a short film, which was later built together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I don’t think I’m about to embark on my own epic project, but I can definitely go easier on myself and others in terms of how long stuff takes. The important thing is to keep (sustainably) busy, and with that in mind I’m sure I can find plenty of creative challenges this year to occupy myself with. After all, I’ve written complete flash fiction stories in 0.025% of the elapsed time taken to produce Boyhood!


Friday, 9 January 2015

Flashback to the Future

For some reason, I started thinking about flashbacks today (perhaps the reason will actually become clear in a later blog, explained through the use of a flashback?)

The flashback seems to be in vogue at the moment in serious TV drama, as a narrative device to add character backstory. The final season of Boardwalk Empire had them, Broadchurch is now including some, and Game of Thrones will apparently have a flashback at the beginning of its forthcoming fifth season. This latter decision is interesting, given the avoidance of flashback in the Game of Thrones world up until now. Considering how much of the plot revolves around lineage, longstanding grudges, references to dead kings and inter-family rivalry, a few judicious flashbacks would have made the first season much more digestible for the casual viewer. But perhaps that isn’t the point of Game of Thrones - it’s a story that you have to swallow whole or not at all.

Lost was the series that cemented the use of the flashback in serialised TV drama, focusing on a particular character’s backstory each week. The timelines involved were deliberately blurred, and it often wasn’t until the final flashback segment of an episode that you understood how (and when) the strands fitted together. Sometimes, you didn't immediately know which character the flashback was even about! This was a neat formula that kept the viewers guessing and allowed the writers to play some clever dramatic tricks. The most surprising was surely the final episode of season three, when it was revealed that what we presumed were flashbacks were actually a flashforward to season four. That very much threw the cat among the narrative pigeons, but in retrospect, it was perhaps also the point where Lost became too clever for its own good and started going downhill (a few years later, a series unimaginatively titled FlashForward tried to reuse the Lost template to greatly reduced effect).

So, what accounts for the current popularity of the flashback? Dramatically, it adds weight and structure to a story, which can make these TV series seem more important when awards season comes around. As serious drama continues to have more money and time in the schedule allowed to it, so space opens up for subplots which enrich character (and what is flashback if not just another kind of subplot?)

But there are dangers to the technique too. What begins as heavyweight and important can quickly drift into self-importance. It’s easy to indulge in excessive world and character building when you should be pushing the main storyline forward. When I think of a series like House Of Cards (which has incredibly detailed character work with minimal use of flashbacks), it’s clear to me that time spent in the past would greatly reduce the number of present-day characters that could be depicted, along with the ever-shifting web of allegiances that gives the narrative its tension and drive. It may be heresy to admit it, but I find the portentous flashforwards in Breaking Bad to be more annoying than tension-building, especially since the series is so damn tense already as to be almost unwatchable!

There seems to be significantly less use of the flashback in books, possibly because there’s a range of easier ways to deliver exposition. J.K. Rowling came up with a neat way of packaging flashback using Professor Dumbledore’s pensieve, which allowed Harry to experience other people’s backstory as it happened. Often, when flashbacks are used in books, they tend to be so numerous that they form a parallel narrative instead.

Maybe novels don’t need such devices to convey a perception of weight and importance, because just by being novels they’ve already achieved this status. I’m reminded that one of the key objectives of the HBO series The Wire (a strong influence on much serialised TV drama today) was to be more novelistic in its storytelling than conventionally televisual. So, I wondered to myself, how many flashbacks were used in five critically-acclaimed seasons of The Wire? Exactly one (in the pilot episode), which was demanded by network executives, worried that viewers wouldn't be able to follow the story. Where flashbacks are concerned, less is definitely more.