mjhearle

Month: February, 2013

A glass and a half of full cream magic

Open any book and chances are you’ll find a dedication. I dedicated Winter’s Shadow to my wife, Greta, and Winter’s Light to my Dad. The third Winter book will be dedicated to my Mum (if not, she’ll kill me). These dedications are more than gestures. They’re gifts. A way of immortalising a sentiment. Authors don’t dole them out willy nilly. Which is why it might come as a surprise to readers when they open my next story, Claudette in the Shadows, and see a dedication to Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut Chocolate.

Cadbury's Fruit & Nut

Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut (Photo credit: Prato9x)

Let me explain: I hate getting up in the morning. Absolutely loathe it. If I had my way, I’d stay in bed till noon. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that…well…no, I’m just lazy. Unfortunately, the morning is the only time I can write. The day job occupies 9 to 6.30, and most nights I’m busy eating, having a relationship with my wife and sleeping. So basically I have from 6am to 8am to get anything done. Those precious two hours (more like an hour and half when you subtract showering, coffee making, and dressing) is guaranteed to be ‘my time’ so long as I can get to my desk and utilise it.

Which is where I hit a snag. I can set my alarm for 6am but that doesn’t mean I’m going to acknowledge it. Or even hear it. In the past, I’ve slept right through only to be woken by a well placed elbow courtesy of Greta. Even then, I’m more likely to go back to sleep. Some people spring from bed full of energy ready to tackle the day. I hate these people. It’s always a struggle for me. The Sandman is a wily jailer.

In the past, a publisher deadline has been enough of a motivator to get me out of bed. Something about knowing there are people expecting your work by a due date – have actually already paid you for it – can really light a fire under your arse. Laziness or not, with a deadline I generally get things done. Without one…there’s a reason the third Winter Book won’t be coming out this year. I watched 2012 slide by with an increasing sense of guilt and frustration as stories went unwritten. Yes, I had a wedding to plan for which ate into a lot of my free time and sucked my mental energy like a greedy vampire, but I wrote Winter’s Light under similar stressful circumstances (changing jobs, living with in-laws, buying a house).

The simple truth is, I didn’t write last year because I muster the discipline to drag my lazy arse out of bed, and plop it down in front of the laptop. Over the Christmas break I had a good long think about how to remedy this situation. Here I was, afforded this amazing opportunity to write books and have them actually be published and I was squandering it due to bad discipline. Something needed to change. I needed to change. And so we come to Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate.

I don’t like candy. I never have. You can keep your boiled sweets, milk bottles, and jelly snakes. Chocolate, on the other hand, is my vice. I love the stuff. A good book/movie, a block of chocolate and a hot drink is a perfect night in. Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is my brand of choice. It’s a little fancier than your standard Milk, Dark or White chocolate but not as outrageous as your Top Decks, Rocky Roads, or Bubbly Blocks. Just like bread, milk and butter there is generally a block of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut in our fridge. It’s a standard item in our grocery inventory.

During my long dark tea time of the soul during Christmas, I tried to create various incentives for me to get up in the morning. Coffee was fine, but didn’t work on its own. Neither did peanut butter on toast. Watching a half of hour of TV wasn’t any good because that half hour inevitably became two hours. Whatever I tried, I was still left feeling groggy and tired and miserable. And then during one attempt, while I was getting the milk to make my morning coffee I spied the block of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Lacking serious impulse control, I broke off a row and took it with the coffee to my writing desk. As I munched on the delicious fruit and nut filled chocolate squares reviewing the feeble hundred or so words I’d typed of Claudette in the Shadows, something amazing started happen. I felt happy, energised – the combination of sugar, flavour and caffeine was kickstarting my brain.

I began to write.

The next day, when my alarm went off I felt the familiar reluctance of having to climb out of bed, except this time I had the happy memory of the previous day’s writing session to bolster my resolve. I stumbled downstairs, made myself a coffee and broke off another row of chocolate. Again, serotonin levels soaring thanks to Cadbury’s cocoa I experienced a productive and satisfying writing experience.       Claudette in the Shadows was starting to take shape. Even better than that, I was actually enjoying writing it. The process wasn’t the grind it usually was. The words were coming more easily.

A month and a half later, I’ve finished two drafts of Claudette, an outline for a children’s fantasy novel, and the first third of a horror movie screenplay. I’ve accomplished more in this short period than all of 2012. Every morning I wake up, have my chocolate and coffee and sit down to write. I no longer feel frustrated and unfulfilled. Perhaps, Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate is a Dumbo’s feather. Maybe I had the capacity to be this kind of writer all along. I don’t know? What I do know is every block of Cadbury’s chocolate contains a glass and a half of full cream dairy milk. Milk has calcium in it which is good for your bones and stuff. So eating Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut is healthy. If it also helps with your writing, then that ain’t bad.

M.J.

Tropfest, Amateurs Need Not Apply

I watched the Tropfest telecast on Sunday night and was struck by just how professional most of the shorts looked. Recognisable actors from TV, slick camera work, orchestral scores, top notch sound mixing, special FX and stuntwork were the norm not the exception. Thankfully, all this technical polish was at the service of some pretty great storytelling. Most years, Tropfest is a bit of a mixed bag with one or two genuinely effective shorts, plenty of middling efforts, and a couple of headscratchers but this year the finalists were uniformly strong. My favourite was the surprisingly emotional zombie film, CargoWho would have thought you could mine fresh material from such an overexposed monster conceit?

Despite the high standard of Tropfest flicks, I was left feeling a little disappointed. Something was missing. The first time I went to Sydney’s Domain to watch Tropfest was in 1997. The sixteen finalist films were largely shot on off-the-shelf camcorders, featured bad sound and even worse performances. Yet, they were charming and a couple of them were even ingenious. The poor production values certainly didn’t detract from the experience. They felt hand-made and personal. These were movies anyone could have made so long as they had a decent idea and a couple of mates they could rope in to helping them out.

I left that first festival feeling inspired to make my own Tropfest film. My film turned out pretty rubbish (the ‘story’ involved a couple of flatmates making a friend dance for beer) and suffice to say I didn’t make it into the final sixteen but that didn’t matter. The act of making the film with my friends was such fun that the process became the reward, not the end product. This is what was so great about Tropfest. It didn’t matter how good your movie was, just that you were making one. And if you were talented enough maybe you’re DIY film might end up being screened in front of 100,000 people and you’ll get a chance to shake hands with Russell Crowe or Samuel L. Jackson.

As the years went on, I watched the Tropfest finalists become more and more polished. Advertising agencies and production companies began entering work, professional actors cameo’d in their mates movies almost guaranteeing a spot in the final sixteen. The movies started looking better and sounding better but something was lost along the way – that DIY spirit that infused the earlier years. I can’t imagine a young person watching the Tropfest finalists last night and thinking to themselves they could go out tomorrow and shoot something of commensurate quality. It wouldn’t be possible without a couple thousand in the bank and friends in the industry willing to donate equipment, time and expertise.

Today, Tropfest seems less of a launchpad for struggling outsiders than it is an opportunity for film students and ad-land creatives to get a leg-up in the industry. Hopefully, next year the Tropfest organisers will remember their roots and not feel bashful about putting up someone’s backyard cinematic endeavor next to the more polished fare. The audience doesn’t mind if the seams show, if the acting is atrocious, or if the music score is supplied by a toy piano. All we care about is whether the film makes us smile. Think. Feel.

M.J.

How to make the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie

I’m a geek.

Not that this should be surprising considering the sort of stuff I write, but I thought I should put it up front as we’re about to get into some particularly geeky territory. How geeky? Well, let’s just say if you know the difference between Hawkman and Hawkeye you should be okay. If you don’t, then I apologise in advance.

Now, many of you probably caught Joss Whedon’s The Avengers last year. Personally, I found the movie a little flat, save for any sequence featuring the Hulk. Sue me – I dig a big green guy beating the crap out of people. Clearly, I was in the minority with my luke warm response as The Avengers went on to become the number one box office hit of the year. Hollywood tends notice when a particular movie makes piles of money so news of a proposed similarly themed superhero team-up movie, Justice League, hit the interweb soon after.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, The Avengers was based on a pre-existing MARVEL comic book that dates back to the sixties. Justice League will feature superheroes drawn from the DC comic book series which also began in the sixties. Both DC and MARVEL publish stories about muscular men and women in tights yet the ethos behind the comics are quite different.

As personified by Superman, DC stories typically feature character-types who represent hyper-idealised notions of courage and strength. DC superheroes are more than human, unimpeachable – ‘super’ in every sense of the word. MARVEL stories, on the other hand, generally depict superheroes as all too human and having to contend with real world issues. The MARVEL mascot, Spiderman, is just a poor kid struggling to pay rent and keep his girlfriend. Fighting supervillains is just another pain in his ass. This characterisation is pretty far removed from the ‘lonely god’ archetypes of the core DC trio: Superman, Wonder Woman and (despite his mortal frailties) Batman.

When MARVEL first started making movies as a fully fledged studio (after watching Hollywood muck it up for years) they were careful to establish a real world aesthetic for their first film, Iron Man, that was in keeping with their grounded storytelling approach. Certain narrative aspects strayed into the realm of science fiction but the characters remained recognisably human. When Iron Man became such a resounding success, it set the template for the following films Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Moreover Iron Man gave Marvel the clout to employ a production strategy never before attempted in cinema – they would produce a series of origin movies featuring characters from Marvel comics existing in a shared universe. The ‘shared universe’ aspect of their plan was the revolutionary part of their plan. While Iron Man could appear in Thor or The Incredible Hulk’s comics, nothing like that had ever been done before in the movies. What first seemed to be a cool gimmick actually turned out to be a narrative device that paved the way for  The Avengers.  

MARVEL had no way of knowing audiences would embrace characters like Thor or Captain America but charged on ahead anyway. Even when a film stumbled (cough* Incredible Hulk cough*) it still served to strengthen the Marvel cinematic universe. As The Avengers box office receipts indicate, Marvel’s gamble paid off, which brings us to the proposed Justice League movie. I can see how on paper this production makes sense. After all DC characters like Batman and Superman have arguably much more traction with the movie going public than MARVEL players like Iron Man, let alone Hawkeye or Black Widow. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie featuring the two of them plus a bunch of other beloved classic superheroes?
However, Warner Bros. (the studio that owns DC Comics) doesn’t seem to understand that the reason The Avengers succeeded was not because it featured a bunch of superheroes in the same movie but because it felt like the culmination of one gigantic overarching story. Without Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America,  The Avengers wouldn’t have been half as well received because audiences wouldn’t have cared about – or even been able to identify – the characters (Who the hell is that blonde guy with the big hammer? Why is Robert Downey Jr dressed up like a robot? Where’s Eric Bana?).
Making Justice League an even dicier proposition is the previous cinematic success of DC superheroes. Green Lantern, was a massive failure, both critically and at the box office. Superman Returns bombed. Movies featuring Wonder Woman and The Flash have never even made it past the development stage. Sure, the Batman films have always been huge moneymakers but I’d  suggest that while Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are brilliant, his version of the character does not lend itself to a Justice League movie. It’s far too mired in it’s own complex mythology to be easily dropped into universe where a man flies around in blue leggings. No, if Warner Bros. are smart – and by announcing that they will release Justice League head to head with Avengers 2 this remains doubtful – they’ll leave Nolan’s Batman alone and start from scratch with the character.

I have recently given this proposed Justice League movie significant thought (see first sentence of this post). Probably, too much thought considering I have absolutely no power whatsoever in effecting its outcome. Fan wanking I believe it’s called. Nevertheless, I offer my suggestions here on the off chance that these words will find their way onto a Warner Bros executive’s BlackBerry and help avert not only a financial disaster but a storytelling one.

First of all, don’t release Justice League against Avengers 2. That’s just a colossally stupid move. At best you’ll be the year’s Deep Impact, to The Avengers Armageddon. Why not wait a year to have that summer spot all to yourself? Or hell, why not wait six years and spend the interim time following the Marvel model by crafting a series of origin pictures featuring the revamped Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman existing in a shared universe. Oh that’s right, you want to make your cash quickly before this whole superhero thing goes the way of the Western, which lets face it, is only a matter of time. Just like denim cut-offs, movie trends fall in and out of fashion with frightening abruptness.

Okay, so you’re locked into the Justice League movie – the first thing I’d do is hire the guys and gals behind the Justice League cartoons of the early naughties to oversee the script. Folks like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini who were also responsible for arguably the greatest Batman movie, Mask of the Phantasm. Clearly they know the DC characters inside and out, and more to the point understand good storytelling. I’ve been re-watching episodes of Batman Beyond recently and am constantly struck at just how well written these episodes are. It baffles me that Warner Bros. animation consistently outshines the live-action division yet goes unrewarded. Green Lantern would not have happened under Paul Dini or Bruce Timm’s watch.

Now as for the movie’s story, internet rumours suggest it involves the Justice League facing off against Darkseid, an intergalactic superbeing. This sounds pretty interesting and nothing at at all like The Avengers 2 which has Iron Man and co facing off against Thanos, an intergalactic superbeing…oh wait! It’s the same story! I dearly hope this rumour turns out to be false because while releasing a superhero team film against another superhero team film is bad strategy, releasing a film with the same basic storyline as your competitor is borderline retarded.

Don’t use Darkseid. DC has a roster of fantastic villains including the ever-charismatic Lex Luthor. Get Gene Hackman out of retirement or even bring back Kevin Spacey and his kryptonite shiv. I sincerely believe audiences would rather watch superheroes facing off against human foe rather than a CGI monster. It’s an empathy thing. Monsters made of pixels will never be as compelling as a human character portrayed by a charismatic performer. If you use Die Hard as your model and create a villain worthy of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, then you’re already ahead of The Avengers in my book.

Finally, my big suggestion for the Justice League movie is an aesthetic one – make it a period piece. Superman and Batman first appeared in the late nineteen thirties. By setting your story in this decade not only do you immediately imbue the film with a timeless quality, but it’s also befitting the characters. Superman’s old fashioned boyscout persona will certainly play more comfortably in this decade (I dread to think of the studio notes suggesting the character be made *ahem ‘edgy’ to better suit these cynical post-modern times. See Man of Steel trailer for evidence of this. Or don’t.) Also, who wouldn’t want to see an art deco Batman? We’ve already had the gothic Batman (Burton), disco Batman (Schumacher), and techno Batman (Nolan).

Perhaps most importantly, from a marketing position a 1930’s aesthetic will also allow you to visually differentiate the film in audience’s minds from the inevitable brushed steel, lens-flare heavy look of The Avengers 2. It doesn’t have to be sepia toned, hire a talented production designer to create something stylish and beautiful. Continuing this aesthetic, think of the poster/banner/billboard campaign you could run – classic character portraits of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman painted in the art deco style. As for multimedia, how about this – instead of derivative Inception BWAMM! scored teaser trailers, you could release period appropriate black and white newsreels featuring Batman/Superman’s/Wonder Woman’s exploits. It would be a great way to introduce audiences to this particular cinematic re-imagining of these properties. Hell, put them on YouTube and watch them go viral. Don’t worry about chasing The Avengers – let them worry about being hip. Hipness is temporary. Justice League can be classic.

M.J.