What I’ve Been Watching: Sense8

Sense8 – A Netflix original series

Thanks to the advent of Netflix in Australia (finally), I can once again legally watch all of the television shows and movies I want. Having Netflix whilst I was living in the UK, then moving back to Australia and surviving without it for the last two years, it now makes me appreciate it even more. One of the trends developing out of the streaming model is Netflix generated content – of which more and more are popping up in the Netflix library.

Sense8 is one of these (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers). It’s got really strong credentials – it comes from the Wachowski brothers who directed a small series of films called The Matrix Trilogy, as well as J. Michael Straczynski who developed the story of Thor and World War Z. The cast – although not really high-profile yet – are incredibly strong and they work really well, considering how difficult it would’ve been to shoot a show like this (eight main cast, nine different countries – I feel for the ADs). It’s actually just been renewed for a second season, so this is a very timely blog post.

Sense8 is about eight strangers across the world, dealing with their own lives and problems, realise that there are other people in their heads that they are connected to. They can step from their own point of view (say, in London) into the ‘sensate’ they’re speaking to (say, in Chicago). They can touch and feel each other – even take over their bodies and use skills that they have that the other sensate might not.

Considering all these story elements, it would be very easy for it to get unwieldy and hard to keep track of. I mean, when I watch Game of Thrones with my mum (yeah, yeah), we have to pause the episode at the head of every scene and recap where we last saw them and who they belong to (‘This is Reek, who was Theon Greyjoy, who was best mates with Rob Stark – he’s the one who’s the eldest son of Sean Bean – you know, the one who was in Lord of the Rings?’). It’s easy for a big story with lots of elements to lose its way.

Sense8 counters this by taking advantage of the fact that 61% of Netflix users binge watch their television shows (i.e. watch five or six episodes in one sitting). A 12 episode series gives the audience more than enough time to spend with each character, learn their worlds, their friends, their enemies. If anything, it spends a little too long keeping everyone separate – half of the conceit of the show is how these eight characters learn about each other’s existences and how they’re going to come together to survive. I wanted more overlapping action between everyone earlier – using each other to explore new worlds, test new skills, figure out what this connection to each other meant.

Sense8 – Eight main characters in the ensemble cast

That being said, the characters are easily the best thing about this show. When the plot flagged a little in the middle and I got a bit restless with no massive, cheeky interaction between the characters (I would’ve loved to have seen Wolfgang causing a bit of havoc in Will’s life when he was bored), it was the strong connection between Wolfgang and Kala, Will and Riley that kept me hooked. Everyone is so completely different and there are so many different types of representation here – it’s unlike any other show on television.

Nomi is transgender, living with her black girlfriend Amanita; Lito is a gay Mexican actor; Will is a bi-curious cop from Chicago; Riley is an Icelandic DJ living in London; Wolfgang is a safe-cracker in Berlin; Capheus is the happiest bus driver you’ll meet in Nairobi; Kala is a pharmaceutical scientist in Mumbai and Sun is the brains behind her family’s big business in Seoul.

Seriously, you would never find this cast on network television.

This diversity is what helps to make the episodes that aren’t as pacy still interesting to watch. Never underestimate the power of a character exploring a completely new world for the audience. Each world is completely unique to the character and each character would respond entirely differently to each situation. As long as your audience can empathise with your character – that they make your audience feel something (love, hate, admiration, loathing – it doesn’t always have to be a positive emotion) – that’s the key. I’m not a gay Mexican movie star, but I know how it feels to have to hide your true self. I’m not a safe-cracker in Berlin, but I know what it’s like to be under enormous amounts of pressure with a ticking clock.

Find the universality in your character and then draw it out to make your audience connect with and feel something. The emotional journey will always help carry the audience through if the plot has flabby, slower moments.

That being said, don’t foresake plot for character! It’s a fine balance, but when it’s done right, it’s amazing.


Things I Learnt This Weekend: TV Writers’ Studio – Melbourne

Although not technically ‘this’ weekend, on the 23rd – 24th of February, I was lucky enough to attend Epiphany Artists’ TV Writers’ Studio. This took place in Melbourne and in Sydney and I headed off to the Melbourne one as Sydney is a little too far for me to commute. The wonderous gang at Epiphany Artists had pulled together some of the top consultants and writers in LA and dragged them Down Under to chat to a bunch of us Aussie writers – and it was an impressive bunch of people. Jen Grisanti, Steve Kaplan, Carole Kirschner, Ellen Sandler and Glen Mazzara all made the trek down to help inspire a bunch of writers to push themselves to find the best in their writing.

It was a crazy and intense weekend. The good kind of crazy and intense. It was split pretty evenly between a comedy strand and a drama strand, big chunks of the day dedicated to each. This was a great way to do it, I think, as then you could either be really selective about what you wanted to see and slip out during the sessions that didn’t attract you as much or go eagerly to all of them and make thousands of notes, like I did. There was also a third day which was set up to be like a mini writers’ room – again, split into drama and comedy – but I had to get back to work so unfortunately couldn’t go.

It was really fascinating to hear how the system works in LA. The structure of television – particularly in comedy – is so different from what I’m used to playing with in a more British or Australian model. But what I think I learnt the most is that there are so many different ways to approach writing something, so you have to feel really strong in the core elements of your story so that when different writers throw their own style of story at it, the core elements still shine through.

Another really interesting point that it threw up for me, was to really define for yourself as a writer the different core elements you’re working with. To take yourself through your idea and your story step by step to find out the functions of different characters and flagging to yourself something that you may have known subconsciously but bringing it to the forefront of your mind so you can work with it consciously. That was an incredibly useful tool for me to push myself to lock things in. I think that it’s easy as a writer to leave things up in the air and not define things, because sometimes when you define something it feels as though it can never be changed ever again.

But with definitions come creative limitations. And often it’s these limitations that make it a more creative place for you to work. If someone told you to write a short film script about anything you wanted, you’d find it hard to know where to start. But if someone told you to write a short script about absolutely anything, but set in the desert, that’s a creative limitation that allows your mind to work toward something.

By saying to yourself ‘My lead character is a 29 year old woman, who lives and works in a petrol station in the South Australian outback who wants to be free of her life and pursue her dream of becoming a singer, but is stuck there by her over-bearing, small town mother who can’t let go of her daughter and her best friend who is unhappily married and the only mechanic in town,’ you suddenly have a whole lot more possibilities to work with in every episode, story and arc you write than a blank page.

She’s 29 and feels like she’s achieved nothing with her life. Minefield of ideas for how she could try to seize the day. She wants to be a singer – very visual and occasionally musical. Can she actually sing? What if she’s awful? Maybe that’s a running joke – we never hear her sing so are never sure how good she is. The relationship between mother and daughter also holds endless possibilities for stories. Likewise, a potential romance in the best friend AND anyone else who comes through the servo on their way to/from the outback.

Creative limitation.

Define genre, character, protagonist, style and tone, locations and arena of the story, what your protagonist (or central character) wants – what gets them out of bed in the morning? What are they passionate about? Who is your target audience? This last one will usually define your character’s ages and personality. Not always – there are exceptions to every rule.

Mostly though, the weekend was a great way to think differently about my projects. It forced me to look at things from another perspective and I think that always really benefits you as a writer/filmmaker and your project. Even if it’s a completely different opinion to yours – you need to figure out how people made that leap to that space and work out how to guide them better to where you want them. It’s hard work to do, but incredibly beneficial.

Have a go at it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it. That’s the beauty of writing – if something doesn’t work, throw it out. But it’s worth having a go to see what it might throw up.

You Know What You’re Trying To Say? Say The Opposite.

As Ronan Keating once put it ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’ Perhaps not the best way to start off a new blog post, but I’m going to stick with it. The flashback to the nineties aside, I went and saw Thor on Tuesday night. I was looking forward to it – I’m not a comic book girl, but I have a soft spot for Kenneth Branagh and Chris Hemsworth so was keen to see what magic the two of them could cook up together.

This is not going to be a review on Thor. No spoilers, nothing like that.
About thirty minutes from the end of the film, I started to get fidgety. The 3D glasses (which I’m still not sold on) had scratches on them and I was struggling to find a position to watch in that wasn’t annoying or blurred. I could hear two girls talking loudly about something – potentially Chris Hemsworth’s abs, I don’t know – but they were on the other side of the cinema. If I’d had popcorn, I would’ve thrown it at them.
If you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show with me – my siblings will back me up here – at a certain point I can often predict the next line of dialogue and proceed to annoy everyone by saying it aloud. Yes, I’m that person. But the thing about writing is that the audience isn’t supposed to be able to predict what the characters are going to say. Good writing is all about sleight of hand – leading the audience one way whilst you’re slipping the rabbit into your hat for later.
There were a few moments toward the end of Thor that I was mumbling the next line of dialogue under my breath. It was cheesy, it was clichéd and it annoyed me. Thinking about it as I walked home, I realised what was so frustrating about it.
The moment would’ve been so much more powerful if the characters had said nothing at all.
Subtext. What the characters don’t say is often far more powerful than what they do. One of the best examples of subtext I’ve ever read was a scene with a Man and his Wife in a bookstore and they bump into his Mistress. They have an innocent conversation about reading – how the Mistress is very fond of reading, as is the Man but the Wife rather snippily puts in that she doesn’t read much anymore which surprises the Mistress because the Man is such a fierce reader that the Mistress can’t believe that it hasn’t rubbed off on the Wife.
But they’re not talking about reading.
They’re talking about sex.
And it makes the moment brilliant. Because the audience knows what they’re really talking about and it heightens the tension – will they acknowledge what they’re actually talking about? Does the Wife know that they’re not just talking about reading? It was wonderful to read and it stuck with me.
It’s the same with dialogue and character action in films. Having a conversation about something seemingly innocent that is, in fact, about something else is a really great concept for a short film because it can be sustained for the duration of the short. It’s hard to maintain that over long periods of time. But the actors will be able to convey to the audience what the character actually means in their action – the action will intentionally contradict the dialogue.
Even better than using something else as a foil for what the characters are actually saying is saying nothing at all. To convey it in a gesture or a glance – an actor will fall over themselves to play a moment like that. The power is in the silence. Some of the best comic moments are physical – I’m not talking slapstick, a simple look, a blink, a cough can be enough to have an audience gasping for laughter. Some of the strongest dramatic moments are caught within an action – a stoic father, a stunned girl, a sobbing child. Think about the moment before a kiss. The charged energy in the air. Two people staring into each others’ eyes. Just before they give into temptation…
That moment is always more powerful than the actual kiss.
Really think about your dialogue. In a short, if the dialogue isn’t earning its place, it has to go. You don’t have time to be mucking around with irrelevant dialogue. Everything has to be essential otherwise it’s too random.
As for this moment in Thor, all the character needed to do was smile warmly and touch the other character’s shoulder. Instead, he said what he was thinking to spell it out for the audience. Sometimes you need to do this. Here, you didn’t.
Although it might’ve been handy for those girls who were distracted by Chris Hemsworth’s abs to know what was going on with the story…

Comedy VS. Drama

Genre is a tricky beast to tackle. Each genre has its own pros and cons; its own rules and regulations. Genre writing is difficult enough for a 90 page feature film, let alone condensing those elements down into a 5 to 9 minute short film.

To be honest, when I write, I don’t think too much about genre. For me, it’s all about character. Story, genre, location – that all comes AFTER I have a character in my head who whispers their story into my ear.

However, genre in short film is something that I have thought about at length.

Writing a short film isn’t like writing a feature. There are similarities, of course, but there are a whole range of different conventions that I find useful when writing a short film. There will be a blog post on short film structure coming up soon, but I wanted to talk about genre in short film for now.

In 2008, I was watching the graduate screening for my university. All the films made by the graduate students of that year, up there on the screen, showing to a real audience for the first time. There were some fantastic films, there were some not so fantastic films. But you always get a mixed bag in collections of shorts like that – it’s part of the deal. One of the things I did notice that night was that almost all the films were deeply dramatic, dark and depressing. Guns were a regular fixture, intense loneliness in children, night shoots – the tone was so similar that they’ve blurred together in the past few years. Some that I do remember were really well made, my own, or comedies. It didn’t even matter if the comedy fell flat – the fact was it stuck out because it was different. The only relief in an oppressing flood of drama.

I went to another screening shortly after and EVERY SINGLE FILM was a dark drama or a gloomy abstract film. I’m not saying the films were badly made – on the contrary, some were incredibly well put together, but the fact remains that drama dominates short film.

I realised that to make my film memorable, I’d have to make it different.

So I decided to write a comedy for my graduate film in 2009.

It was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not going to talk too much about that short film (called ‘Operation: Playstation’, if you were interested), but I learnt a lot from it. The script needed a lot more work than it got, but it was a fantastic experience and I loved doing it.

And it was the first comedic anything I’d written seriously.

I’ve been writing for most of my life. And I don’t say that lightly – I have memories of writing stories in my Grade 5 notebook. That makes me about 10 years old. I’ve been reading since I was 3. I’ve always loved stories. And even those half-written stories, scribbled in a primary school notebook, tell me something.

I’ve always written drama.

It makes sense. The market is so saturated with drama that it’s easy to pick up on it and channel it onto the page. From ‘real-life’ drama (I use the term ‘real-life’ very loosely), I moved on to fantasy drama. My first serious short film script was a police drama. Scribbled ideas in notebooks or scenes saved on to my computer were always dramatic.

So to challenge myself to write comedy was slightly daunting.

And writing comedy is hard. It is a really difficult thing. A person’s sense of humour is entirely relative. Whilst you’re crying with laughter at something you could find hilarious, the person sitting next to you can be impatiently waiting for the joke.

The single hardest part about writing comedy is getting the jokes to leap off the page and make the reader laugh.

I’m still working on it. I’m not pretending like I have all the answers, because I don’t. At the end of the day, I think that ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ is a funny script. It makes me giggle like mad. I sent it off to some writers for critical feedback and they commented on some parts positively and other parts they thought fell flat. But that was okay. I tweaked the jokes and tried again.

The easiest way to figure it out is to try. ‘With A Little Help From Our Friends’ isn’t a script filled with belly laughs (on the page. Once you bring actors into the equation, magic can happen). I wrote another drama/comedy script for a competition recently and the bit of feedback that made me grin the most was that the readers were coming back to me and consistently telling me that the same part of the script was funny. They were laughing aloud as they read it.

That’s no mean feat. It’s something I’m really proud of.

If you can make a reader laugh aloud from black words on a white page, you can get an audience to roar with laughter in the cinema.

And, at the end of the day, the audience is the most important part of the equation.