Archive for December, 2018|Monthly archive page

Story Structure

In recent years the word and concept of Story has become fetishised. Every dull brand has a story, every prostituted hack is a storyteller. But despite this cheapening, Story remains a fascinating aspect of human behaviour. I have been interested in the structures underlying Story for many years. A couple of landmarks were being sent, on my second job, at Melrose Film Productions by my boss and mentor the late Peter Cole (ex-BBC Panorama), on an early outing of Robert McKee’s Story course in London. And reading Into The Woods by my former Channel 4 colleague John Yorke (Head of Drama).

robert mckee story book and course

Also on the McKee course, which has since become something of a screen industry cliche, were John Cleese, Joanna Hogg and a famous British sci-fi writer, I think it was Brian Aldiss but I forget. It took place at the Liberal Club off Northumberland Avenue over a weekend and it was a profound experience. I remember writing to McKee after to thank him for a transformational couple of days.

into the woods book john yorke

Into The Woods I found a great synthesis of the various theories I’d heard over the years.

Another key experience was the first time I worked on a development with my Little Dot colleague Paul Woolf. I was a Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 at the time and he was a senior Development Producer at Maverick TV. He is now based in Philadelphia heading up Unscripted Development in the US for Little Dot Studios and we’ve been working together closely throughout 2019 – a lot of Skyping. I was struck by how Paul applied story archetypes to the factual entertainment programme we were developing at the time – not an obvious tactic but it worked really well.

I use concepts of Story Structure all the time in developing documentaries, even when derived from sources more focused on movie and drama scriptwriting. In the area I work in much of the time, short form online docs, there is a tendency to neglect narrative and default to what are in effect mini character portraits. I’m a real Story merchant, pushing all the time for narrative drive in documentaries.

violet vixen poster real stories original documentary

A good example is the recent Real Stories Original Violet Vixen. The young director, Leanne Rogers, brought me some lovely footage centred on Leo, a charismatic 11 year old exploring his gender identity. But there was little story in place. I gave her a commission for a 25-minute doc on the proviso that she add an element to up the narrative drive. I suggested she encouraged Leo (and his mum) to go see his hero. It turned out his hero was Courtney Act, drag queen graduate of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Leanne managed to pull off the encounter and the trip down to Brighton to meet Courtney (the charming Shane Jenek) gave the film a spine. Our timing was lucky too as Courtney won Celebrity Big Brother while we were in the edit – he has since been given his own show on Channel 4 this Christmas.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last year thinking about Story Structure. My starting point was reflecting on Why Do Us Humans Love and Tell Stories?

Cavemen at camp fire telling stories cartoon

My conclusions in brief can be summarised thus:

* to distract us / entertain us
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences
* to get a sense of there being order
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations
* to get guidance on how to understand other people
* to connect to others through shared experience
* to pass on information
* to pass on values
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison)

All of these seem to me to grow out of our Human Condition and the imperatives of evolution.

* to distract us / entertain us – the world is a tough place
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences – evolution has made us great pattern spotters
* to get a sense of there being order – we need a sense of meaning and purpose
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations – we’re more likely to survive if we’re well prepared
* to get guidance on how to understand other people – we’re more likely to thrive if we have insight into how our fellow bald monkeys think
* to connect to others through shared experience – we have an inherent need to belong (to the family and tribe and race)
* to pass on information – e.g. to help our offspring survive & thrive
* to pass on values – to help our society run smoothly
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group – we need the group to survive
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison) – the world is a tough place.

In the same way, archetypal stories grow directly out of the human condition. Let’s start at the beginning – Birth. One of the main story structures is Paradise Lost. We spend nine months floating around in a benign place, well fed, nicely muffled sound, a steady reliable rhythm of heartbeat. And then we get ejected. Into a tough place.

When I was doing some research on that second job at Melrose I went down to the old Docklands to meet a bloke whose big theory was that the trauma of Birth was the defining moment of our whole lives. I’ve reflected on that from time to time over the years and I buy it more and more.

So what I’m calling the Paradise Lost story is: I was in a perfect place. I got ejected. I need to get back there. I reckon this is reflected in all sorts of human behaviour from people tending to drift back in their later years to where they grew up (or a place similar to it) to men spending so much time and effort trying to get back up that little birth canal. This story is intimately linked to the concept of Home.

It’s the central human story of the Bible – the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s there in The Godfather – Michael gets sent off to Sicily after tasting the forbidden fruit of illegal killing (the murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey) and works his way back not just to the family kitchen but also to the desk in the background. It’s there in Where The Wild Things Are – Max gets sent to his room and from there finds himself in that wild place, it’s fun but he’s happy to sail back to the peace of his childhood bed.

al-pacino godfather murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey

Of course it also the story of both Trump and Brexit as highlighted in John Harris’ excellent 3-parter for BBC Radio 4, The Tyranny of Story, which has been repeated this week. “Make America Great Again” – America was a great place (e.g. in the post-war 50s boom); that disappeared; Trump is going to bring it back. “Take Back Control” – Britain was a great place (e.g. when we had an empire); that disappeared; Brexit is going to bring it back. Neither Hilary nor Remain came up with an effective counter-narrative.

where the wild things are maurice sendak book childrens

Over the holidays I’m going to reflect more on the connection between the human lifecycle (both as individuals and a species) and the core human stories.

Come Trip with Me

Mind-Explorers-Poster real stories little dot studios documentary

My latest commission for Real Stories channel is The Mind Explorers: a psychedelic weekend . This half-hour observational documentary follows ordinary people on an extraordinary trip, centring around a 4-day psychedelic retreat in the Netherlands, where psilocybin-containing ‘magic truffles’ are legal. With new research suggesting that psychedelics can effectively treat depression, accessible retreats abroad are appealing to a new wave of curious ‘psychonauts’.

Following participants before, during and after the experience, the film explores the potential of psychedelics to transform people’s lives in the long term when taken in a therapeutic setting.

The participants range from a marketing manager on a self-improvement quest who grew up in Soviet-controlled Kazakhstan, to an IT specialist from Chicago who is a big fan of psychedelics of all types. Grandmother Mary hasn’t told her husband she is going on the retreat, and 30-year-old business owner Lucy wants to know how taking psychedelics recreationally differs from this more therapeutic experience. After delving into the unknown, we follow how the experience changes their minds – for better or worse.

After many refusals to other producers, this is the first time filming access has been granted to one of these retreats.

In the last month psilocybin has been granted ‘Breakthrough Therapy’ status by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The designation was given to London-based COMPASS Pathways’ psilocybin-based therapy for treatment-resistant depression. The UK life sciences company is backed among others by PayPal co-founder, entrepreneur/venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

The Mind Explorers: a psychedelic weekend is an original production from Real Stories. It was directed and produced by Rebecca Coxon and executive produced by Anna Hall of Leeds-based True Vision Yorkshire for Little Dot Studios. You can watch it for free here.

The director’s experiences making the film were featured recently on the homepage of the Huffington Post.

Huffington Post Screenshot 2018-12-14 17.14.36

Huffington Post 14/12/2018 I Took Psychedelic Drugs on a Self-help Retreat

huffington post Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 17.28.54

Coincidences No.s 349-355

No. 349 Rome

villa wolkonsky British Ambassador's residence rome

The Villa Wolkonsky, British Ambassador’s residence in Rome

I am on a train to Exeter to be on the panel of a documentary pitching session at Two Short Nights film festival. I am with my colleague Harold who is telling me about his choir and a recent performance at the British Ambassador’s residence in Rome.

As he mentions the residence an email notification appears on my phone, right that second. It is from a woman at the British School at Rome (interdisciplinary research centre) who I met at a cocktail party at the British Ambassador’s residence in Rome, Villa Wolkonsky, when I was in the city in October to speak at the MIA Film Festival.

No. 350 A Man of Parts

things to come hg wells on set

HG Wells on the set of ‘Things to Come’

I am finishing a novel, A Man of Parts by David Lodge, about HG Wells, which I started ages ago but never got round to completing. The date is 28th October 2018.

I notice that I started reading it on 29th October 2015.

No. 351 Rishikesh

beatles white album portraits

A see an old Channel 4 colleague of mine at the annual Christmas drinks of Sheffield-based indie, Joi Polloi – an event now known as The Circle. He wants to train in transcendental meditation and one of the places he is considering is Rishikesh in Northern India.

I have just finished a book called Revolution: The Making of the Beatles’ White Album by David Quantick. It centres on Rishikesh where much of the album was composed. It’s the only context in which I’ve ever come across the city.

No. 352 Dimmer Switches

Heavyweight podcast by Jonathan Goldstein

I am listening to an episode of the Heavyweight podcast by Jonathan Goldstein, one of my very favourite podcasts. It is one about the making of the ‘one-take’ film Russian Ark by  Alexander Sokurov. In it there is discussion of changing a dimmer switch/rheostat to a regular on-off switch.

Just before leaving the house for the jog on which I was listening to Heavyweight I had had a domestic discussion about changing a dimmer switch/rheostat to a regular on-off switch – not a regular topic of conversation in our household.

No. 353 Meeting Your Heroes

Pete Shelley, Tony Wilson, Howard Devoto - Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley, Tony Wilson, Howard Devoto (L to R)

The news of the death of Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks is on the radio news. I met him once (as well as seeing him perform, supported by Joy Division at the Lyceum, London) on the studio set of a TV comedy entertainment show called In Bed With Medinner, execed by Jeff Pope [Philomena]. He turned out to be a bit of a cock, pissed on champagne, and made me think of that old adage about not meeting your heroes. Steve Diggle, the guitarist in the band, thankfully was a much more pleasant individual and asked for his wasted mate to be excused.

The next morning on the same radio station I am listening to novelist David Mitchell talk about his collaboration with singer Kate Bush on the Before The Dawn concerts in 2014. He evokes that old adage about not meeting your heroes and explains that in his instance with Kate Bush it did not apply, she lived up to his image of her.

No. 354 Catwatching

catwatching by desmond morris book

Ziggy look-a-like

I order the book Catwatching by Desmond Morris for my cat-loving older son for Christmas.

The book arrives today – I peel off the plastic cover and the cat on the front cover is our cat Ziggy – or a clone of her.

No. 355 Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa

Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa

I am talking to Enfant Terrible No. 1 about racism in football. It brings us on to a discussion of the movie Green Book and he says he is glad the pianist Don Shirley did not play in a restaurant in the Deep South in which he was not permitted to eat alongside his white band members by dint of the colour of his skin. I mention that it was jazz clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman who made a stand on this issue, refusing to have his band divided on the basis of skin colour.

The same day I am reading a crappy-but-enjoyable adventure novel (based on the Richard Hannay books), The Thirty-One Kings by Robert J. Harris. It mentions Benny Goodman.

Benny Goodman is who introduced me to jazz via a record I bought on my first trip to LA as a teenager, his greatest hits including Sing Sing Sing, featuring the proto-Keith Moon which was Gene Krupa on drums. Goodman is closely related to my best man’s Argentinian wife.

 

 

 

 

Missed Call smartphone doc wins AHRC Award

AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018 at BAFTA

Missed Call, one of my Real Stories Originals commissions, a documentary made entirely on an iPhone X, a story which revolves around smartphones, their media and communications, picked up a distinctive and prestigious award recently. It won the AHRC Research in Film Award for Social Media Short, one of just 5 categories. As veteran documentary-maker (and my mentor) Roger Graef pointed out on the night, it is not often Research gets centre stage and yet it is the vital underpinning of all great docs.

AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018 at BAFTA Sophie Morgan Channel 4

Channel 4’s Sophie Morgan revealing the winner

The award was presented at BAFTA to director Victoria Mapplebeck and her teenage son Jim, the protagonist of Missed Call, by Channel 4 presenter Sophie Morgan (Rio Paralympics 2016).

The following day Victoria and Jim appeared on ITV News in this item about children reconnecting with their estranged parent – video is at the bottom of this page (click here).

itv news report missed call documentary

AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018 at BAFTA Sophie Morgan Channel 4

Another cool million

Besides Real Stories documentary channel hitting 2 million subscribers on YouTube last week, we have recently also reached the 1 million  mark on Facebook from pretty much a standing start last year.

little dot studios 100 Million facebook followers

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