Sunday, 26 May 2019

Review: Eyes Wide Open by Frederick Raphael

A book unfairly maligned in these eyes
Having recently attended the amazing Kubrick exhibition at the London Design Museum, I sought out some books on the man to learn a bit more. The first I finished was by his collaborator on the screenplay of Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick shunned interviews for a very long time, and what has been publicly said about him has leaked out in often contradictory forms. Those closest to him can't speak highly enough, but don't share details, and those on his periphery share contradictory details. The result is a mystery. Who really knew him, and what was he really like?

The endless hagiographies surround the man are tiresome, so I found Raphael's untainted eyes to be a very refreshing change of pace.

After I finished Raphael's book, I was surprised to discover the apparent backlash, prompted by the family and associates of Kubrick, on the book's publication. Kubrick's widow both accused Raphael of betraying her late husband's privacy, as well as painting an image of him that was false.

I don't mean to sound unfeeling toward those who were close to Kubrick, but there is a slight bit of contradiction in that complaint (too revealing and false in its portrayal?).

Another faint whiff of contradiction comes from the fact that Michael Herr, another collaborator of Kubrick's, wrote a series of articles about working and knowing Kubrick for Vanity Fair, which were later collected into a book. His recollections of private conversations and moments received no criticism from friends and associates for not respecting Kubrick's privacy, but they were far more flattering.

I think those close to the real man were blinded by the proximity to someone they loved and/or admired. They saw Raphael's critical observations as cold-hearted and overly critical, frustrated that he could make such comments about someone they felt he didn't know.

The truth is, and I hope those close to Kubrick take some solace in this, that Raphael's book is not about Kubrick the husband, the father, the friend. It's not even really about Kubrick the collaborator (although it's much closer to being this), it's actually about the relationship Raphael had with Kubrick.

Raphael makes no claims to have cleared the mystique surrounding Kubrick; an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, he attempted to peer through the haze, but the mysteries surrounding Kubrick only seem to intensify the closer he got. Raphael shares his particular experiences with him, through their relationship as director and writer. It would be disingenuous (as others have tried) to suggest it is anything but a completely and frank and honest account of Raphael's view of that working relationship.

As someone not close to Kubrick, and so not hurt by unflattering portrayals of a person I miss, I read this book very differently to his bereaved friends and family. Raphael is not an omnipotent or unquestionable narrator, and nor does he present himself as such. His personality bears down into the narrative, and (from a reader's perspective) is open to as much scrutiny as his supposed subject.

Raphael never professes impartiality or objectivity, only the accuracy of his feelings and thoughts. He shares his views, his perceptions, his experiences, and, yes, he comes across as cantankerous, difficult, and cynical about Hollywood (all possibly with good reason), and even seems to acknowledge this about himself.

It's ironic, but despite the book's reputation I found Kubrick to be ultimately humble, patient, honest and understanding. Raphael's worst fears about working with him are never realised, and Kubrick stays true to his word throughout. When Raphael at one point nearly sinks the entire project by one act of accidental impropriety, Kubrick is quick to forgive and move on. Kubrick is never a beast, he's never dishonest, and is always forthright. He may be kooky at times, but there is plenty to admire about him in Raphael's account.

In fact, I found the Kubrick in Raphael's book to be largely the same one revealed in Michael Herr's book (which can also be unflattering at times, calling Kubrick cheap, obsessive and demanding) and perhaps across both books we see a clearer picture of the real man: Demanding, but not with malice. Humble, but also difficult. Distant, but also soft-natured. Confident, but also searching.

We will never know the father, the husband, but across both Raphael's and Herr's lenses, we do get a glimpse of the colleague.

Also, unlike Herr's book, which is frequently embarrassing and sophomoric when it tries to offer insight into Kubrick's work, Raphael has moments of genuine and deep revelation. In fact, I could recommend his book for those rare moments alone. I've never read a better distillation of what made a Kubrick film. (The flipside is that, unlike Herr, Raphael is often embarrassing and pretentious when describing himself, especially at the beginning of his book. Soldier on, dear reader.)

So I'm sorry, friends and family of Kubrick (and by automatic extension, overprotective fans), I don't think this book does anything to damage the lasting image of the man. If anything it makes me wish I knew him better, and actually made me appreciate his work more.

I highly recommend this candid book. The author lays himself bare, and through his honesty, we get a glimpse of a very interesting, unique, and talented man that was taken from the world too soon.


If you want to watch Raphael share some anecdotes (aged 83, and especially cantankerous and a little full of himself, but brutally honest and entertaining none-the-less), here's a great series of videos.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

To Live and Lie in LA

When I lived in Los Angeles, back in 2002, I worked at a call centre selling storage. One colleague I became friends with told me he was an actor. Actors frequently work regular jobs to pay the bills between gigs, so it wasn't a strange thing to say.

When I asked about his career, he told me his one big job had been playing a character on the campy soap opera, Sunset Beach.

I'd never seen the show, but as it turned out, it was running in the UK, and my mother was a huge fan. When we next spoke I told her that one of my new LA friends had appeared on her favourite show. Understandably she was excited to know which character he'd played, I told her, and that was that. Or so I thought.

My mother did a bit more research on my friend and didn't recognise him from the show. The IMDb listing showed two actors playing the role he'd claimed to: Him and the one my mother recognised as actually being on the show. I rationalised that he'd probably been replaced, or that he'd replaced someone else. Such things happen all the time on TV shows, but my mother wasn't convinced. Nobody else, she insisted, had ever played that role.

I decided to do some research of my own. I couldn't believe he'd like to me. I mean, why? It's not like I was a movie producer or an agent, but the more I looked, the less his story added up. No Sunset Beach fan sites mentioned him, or his character being replaced by another actor, or anything. Everything pointed to the person my mother knew as being the only person to play that role. I looked into my friend's other credits, and they seemed even more dubious, not appearing anywhere else online.

I was too embarrassed to confront him, but one day I asked him again about his role on the show, just to see his reaction, and if he would add a caveat about being fired. Instead he was just as earnest and sure as he'd ever been. There were no caveats, he'd played that role. I couldn't quite believe it (and still can't), but it appeared my new friend was lying to my face. Why?

I never said anything about it to him about what I'd discovered. He was always extremely nice to me, and was otherwise an incredibly warm and genuine person. I wished I was wrong (and still do). I always felt that he was such a nice guy that he really didn't need to lie about his achievements. I liked him for who he was, not for anything he'd supposedly been in, but it was a lesson learned.

10 Years Later...

Having a continuing interest in the writing process, I decided listen to the TV Writer Podcast. I'm always on the lookout for quality advice from successful writers in the industry, and this looked somewhat promising.

Having listened to countless episodes of the Creative Screenwriting Podcast (now The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith), The Nerdist Writers Panel, and reading Ken Levine and Jane Espenson's amazing blogs, I know what good advice sounds like.

The TV Writer Podcast video blog was an interview with someone I'd never heard of, but the host was extremely enthusiastic about his scriptwriter guest:

"[Name withheld] is back! In an interview that is sure to change the path of your career, [Name withheld] relates in great depth how and why some artists fail, and others succeed."

I'm usually very wary of taking advice from people whose work I'm not a fan of, let alone someone I don't know, and especially of bold claims like the above, but the interviewee was "Emmy nominated" with "20 years of experience", so I decided to give it a whirl. 

As I watched the video podcast, my bullshit-o-meter registered something immediately -- things seemed a little off. This didn't feel like good advice. I made it 15 minutes before I stopped the interview and deleted the episode. I couldn't believe what I'd heard.

The writer had just wandered into "positive affirmation" territory, claiming the "biggest step" in becoming a writer is really believing you're a writer, and not being ashamed of it. The biggest step. OK. There may be some truth in the power of truly committing yourself to something. And there's no reason to feel ashamed of what you're trying to achieve, so if you have issues about that, you should try and get over them if they're hindering you. Maybe that's what he meant, maybe I was being too criticial, but then he came out with this doozy:

"The next step is saying it out loud. Whether you like to believe it or not, things you say, whether good or bad, probably will come true."

Wait, what? As way of proof of this bold claim, he had this sage observation:

"A good example: I would say that 99.99999% of all divorces start with the word 'divorce'. Someone brings it up and, lo and behold, that's what happens."

Hmm. It's pretty difficult to ask someone for a divorce without using the "D word"!

I suddenly felt very dirty. I felt this man was filled with terrible advice, just who was he anyway? I looked him up online and, as it turned out, the interviewee, while having some writing credits on the IMDb, had NOT received an Emmy nomination. In fact, at that time, he hadn't been nominated for anything. And his TV career spanned 8 years, not 20.

To be fair to him, that’s still an accomplishment, certainly more than most, and maybe the podcast host had simply got his facts wrong when introducing him.

I delved a little deeper and discovered that his personal website had a stack of projects which don't appear to exist anywhere else on the internet. Not even on trade magazine sites. And then I came across the following sentence: "[Name Witheld] is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of more than 20 years."

There it was on his personal website. He was definitely making the claim about himself, but nothing backed it up. Not the IMDb or the Emmy website. Uh oh.

I was suddenly reminded of my old friend back in LA. Was this guy cut from the same cloth? Was it just Hollywood? What was scary about this time was that the suspected liar was, actually becoming a recognised scriptwriting guru.

I can't say for sure what's true and what's not about this guru. Maybe he's the innocent victim of some terrible website error. Several terrible website errors, that all conspire to make him look less than honest. Maybe there's some way his claims can be true, but also not appear online. Maybe lots of TV movies are never properly documented. Maybe he was an uncredited writer on an Emmy nominated script and felt justified in making that claim. Either way he appears on TV and radio interviews about his career, has been featured on other sites offering advice to up-and-coming writers, and (if his website is to be believed) "often guest lectures and panels on screenwriting at film schools and festivals across the country."

What's more, he's also written two books on scriptwriting and created his own consulting firm which promises "professional script consultants with real Hollywood film and television credits and experience".

I don't know what to believe. Surely it must be true if he's got this going for him... but, as with my friend, all the available evidence doesn't add up.

Cut to today...

My friend's IMDb credits are today filled with even more dubious claims (including things that surpass his Sunset Beach credit from before I knew him, which he surely would have mentioned at the time I'd known him if they were true) and new credits which (having checked) don't actually exist in the film's credits themselves.

The screenwriting "guru" no longer claims to be Emmy nominated anymore, but instead claims to have three Image Award nominations. (Guess what, I found record of one nomination, but there's no record of two of them.) His website still has lots of credits, and most of them still don't appear on the IMDb.

Are both of these guys the same? Is it the norm in Hollywood to lie? Or am I unfairly maligning an innocent and successful man, just because many of his scriptwriting gigs never went into production, or aren't properly documented?

I still don't know what to make of either of them. I still want to believe my friend was telling the truth (I know, I know), and I also want to believe the scriptwriter isn't carving a career as an "expert" by spinning lies that no-one has bothered to check. But how can it be? Is this the norm in LA?



My old acting friend is now spiritual guru with his own YouTube channel. The perfect ending. Still, oddly enough, he seems perfectly suited to this new role. I hope it finally gives him whatever peace of mind he's been searching for.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

No Man's Sky: A Review

I tried to post this to Steam, but unfortunately it seems their system can't handle one more negative No Man's Sky review, so I'm posting it here instead.

I've liked the idea of No Man's Sky since I first saw the incredible teaser trailer. Unlike lots of other people though, I didn't get too hyped up after that. I came to the game ready to accept whatever it was, with no preconceptions based on whatever the developer may or may not have promised. I'd been told it was slow, and chilled out, with an emphasis on exploration... and that sounded fine to me. So I finally picked it up.

First impressions: WOW. What a beautiful game! I'm immediately in love. The first two hours I loved exploring the planet I'd been placed on. Yes, the drones that are constantly pestering you seem a bit annoying, and the resource collecting wasn't fun, but I was too enamoured with how cool it looked and felt to care. I felt like I was walking around in my own private Ralph McQuarrie painting.

I was excited to uncover mysterious things around the planet, from base camps to ancient relics that taught me the language of the aliens I encountered. I wanted to explore everything, unlock everything, learn everything.

The next day I eagerly booted up the game to get back to where I was, except now I found the initial sheen had faded. Yes, the game was still beautiful, but I found I needed more for it to be fun. For the next three hours I found myself, not just disliking, but actively hating the game.

I have no idea what people think they were promised in terms of features, and I really don't care about that. This game isn't fun because it's lacking in features, it's no fun because it's completely unbalanced. Imagine playing MineCraft except you're constantly running out of space to store the ore you mine. And there's annoying drones that follow you around everywhere and attack you. And there's randomly generated plants that attack you as you walk past them. And the interface gets in the way of everything you try to do.

None of this is fun, it's all irritating.

What pleasure there is in No Man's Sky comes from doing what it is clearly at its core: Exploring beautiful alien landscapes with progressively more advanced technology. That's it. The rest of the features of the game feels like an attempt at making it more interesting by inserting annoyances.  Yes, annoyances.

Let's talk about each one in turn:

As you wander about exploring, every planet in the entire universe has these little drones that may attack you and pull in their friends until you're overwhelmed. The good part is that you can usually ignore them, or jetpack away from them, the bad part is that they actively get in the way of what's fun about NMS: Exploring beautiful alien landscapes.

These digital gnats are the present and the same on every planet. Who owns them? What do they do? Why are they present everywhere, even planets you're supposedly discovering for the first time? Aside from being annoying pests that are NO FUN to fight, they actively homogenise the galaxy. The beautiful alien planets are little less special, a little less alien, because wherever you go... there they are. The exact same annoying drones. ON EVERY SINGLE PLANET.

The same can be said for the tentacled plants that attack you as you walk past them. You discover a weird alien planet that, literally, no other player has ever seen before... and there's the same plants that are on every other planet. Why? Because the developers thought the player needed some sort of challenge? They're not challenging, they're annoying, and they damage your immersion in the atmosphere it's trying to create.

One of the best things about NMS is the beautiful imagery, the fact that each planet is a little bit different. You can wander over a hill and find a genuinely beautiful vista, or into a cave filled with glowing wonders. Make no mistake, this is a game where its beauty is a big selling point. Exploration of beautiful things is basically what this game excels at, and does better than any other game. Unfortunately it seems only half the dev team got this memo. The aliens and base camps that populate every planet are ugly, dull and almost entirely the same!

Again, the atmosphere this game is trying to create; the exploration of infinitely different planets, is damaged by this bland design choice. There's no diversity or anything interesting about what you discover.

On top of this, the camps themselves are ugly. I want to discover encampments that look as different and interesting as the rest of the alien planet. And I don't want to fly into a space station only to discover that internally it looks the same as every base camp on every planet. It's soul crushing, and it makes me hate this game.

If you want me to chill out and enjoy exploring things, dev team, then give me things that are worth exploring. Make me feel there's something new to discover. Not just a single alien sat in a room on their own who will give me an item when I talk to them.

Imagine a version of MineCraft where you're constantly having to return home to store TINY amount of the resources you need. Only to discover that, even at home, you can barely store enough. In NMS you're constantly having to keep topping up resources instead of being able to stockpile what you've taken the time to plunder.

By limiting the player so severely on what they can carry, the game actively pushes against you exploring. Once again it seem to be unsure of what it wants to be: Everything about the core experience of the game is exploration, and everything that's been tacked on that core is pushes against you being able to enjoy it.

Having the patience and temperament to explore a planet and mine it to oblivion is actually punished. Every trip around a planet consumes so much energy that you're constantly having top up fuel, leaving little time or space in your inventory, to do much else. This means that even taking the time to explore and mine feels unrewarding.

As the game is so heavy on trying to push you towards resource management, you'd think at least that aspect of the game could be enjoyable. Nope, the user interface makes EVERYTHING you have to do a chore. And a confusing and messy one at that.

Why can't the progress through this game be more clearly sign-posted? Why can't it clearly and succinctly explain what everything is? Why can't it make the chore of upgrading and resource management less of a chore? Upgrading technology is confusing and again, there's little sense of reward.

Other sections of the UI are just as bad. It literally gives me a headache just thinking about it. Consider how you earn credits for "uploading" the name of every planet, creature and outpost you discover. Instead of making this a pleasurable experience that feels rewarding for having collected so many items, the game forces you to manually upload each one INDIVIDUALLY.

This tedious task sums up everything that's wrong about the UI perfectly, and maybe even the game itself: Nothing, except the core exploration of planets, is pleasurable to do... and the game does everything it can to even make that unpleasurable.

The game is beautiful to look at... and it should be beautiful to play. Unfortunately it's almost like a bunch of extremely average developers were handed a piece of genius planet-building technology. If only the beauty of its core technology extended to the rest of the game experience.

The developers can add bases, space battles, online play, virtual poker, whatever other features the moany public insists this game is supposed to have, but it's never actually going to be fun to play until they fix the turgid, bland, unrewarding core experience.

Monday, 20 June 2016

London Second City Improv Class: My Review

The rather wonderful Angel Comedy Club in London, and the comedy blog, Comedy Blogedy, reached out to the legendary Second City improv troupe/training school and set up two week's worth of classes in May 2016. I attended the first week's "Improv for Beginners (Level A)" and kept a diary of my thoughts after each day.

Here they are:

Day One

The class began with two simple tasks. The first was introducing yourself by telling the class something they didn't know about you, and the second was inventing a silly alliterative action to go along with your name.

I was so petrified that I was unable to even think of something beginning with the letter "J"... I ending up with "jingling", and I still don't really know what I meant.

Jumping, jolly, jovial, jammy, jaded, jokey, jittery... Hmm. It's much easier when there's not the pressure of 20 strangers in the room.

As the games continued, our excellent teacher slowly chipped away at everyone's hesitance and self-consciousness, encouraging us to trust our instincts. The cardinal rule being that there was never a "wrong answer", there was only ever something you brought to the game.

We were admonished for acting like we'd made a mistake and beating ourselves up, or reacting to our scene partner's input as if it was wrong. We were encouraged to allow ourselves to do what we liked, and take any suggestions that came our way as a gift. We were a team, and our job was to enthusiastically embrace whatever came our way, and make our partner look good.

Our teacher successfully managed to create a safe environment. By the end of the class we'd all loosened up and were having fun with each other.

I've already learned a lot about myself and what I need to improve. For example, during the "create a story a word at a time" game, I noticed I was always playing it safe with pronouns  - and even my game partner commented on it. He was absolutely right. When I decided to offer something more interesting, it got a huge laugh from the group.

Likewise, [in another game] when we were mimicking each other's moves, I found it hard to build on what people had just done, and take it to new heights [like we were supposed to]. It nearly always ended up with attempting to do it louder, which was a shame because there were so many ways it could have gone. I could have really had fun with it, and it never would have been wrong.

Let's see what day two holds!

Day Two

Today we actually slipped into some scene work without too much fuss. It wasn't blown up into something big, it was just expected of us... and we did it. Even me.

It was scary but good. I even got a few genuine laughs of my own... a very generous audience.

Halfway through the day I actually felt, for the first time, comfortable. I just relaxed and stopped worrying so much. It's tiring bring worried, and part of me just gave up and let go. It was a good feeling.

[Of course, I was still a tad anxious the next morning going in.]

I learned a bit more about Angel Comedy and I'm seriously impressed with their founder (Barry Fern) and what they've achieved. It seems like a home for comedy without ego, driven by the pure fun of it. It feels so genuine that the energy is infectious.

I backed their Kickstarter (something in the bar will permanently have a plaque named for me) and hope they do well. Maybe I could volunteer my services to improve their website. Dull, but it's something I can offer and do well.

Onto Day Three...

Day Three

Today was the most emotional day so far, which was fitting as we were focusing on doing emotional work in class. Today marked the point we were over halfway through, as well as the first time we socialised after class as a group.

I discovered my class is filled with interesting and ambitious people. (Where were they all when I was single and unemployed and desperately lonely, looking for direction?) Being with them is very inspiring, in the sense that they make their achievements (eg. performing stand-up, and all the struggles that go with that) seem... everyday.

Talking about doing a stand-up gig around these people doesn't feel like a life-breaking, brain-shattering, earth-shaking experience. It feels like a difficult, trying, anxiety-inducing... but normal experience.

In class I learned that people enjoy seeing a thread of behaviour grow to its logical, heightened conclusion. A small taste of behaviour before moving on to something else is unsatisfying for the audience. They want a narrative to follow, and changing tack breaks that narrative.

The key seems to be to make an interesting choice and stick to it until you've drained it.

The saddest part of the day was realising how genuinely upset I'm going to be when the course ends.

Only two days to go...

Day Four

The worst thing about today is knowing that tomorrow is the last day. It's been a hell of a roller-coaster, and I'm going to miss it when it's gone. I've learned so much.

The most important thing [I've learned] is trusting in myself and trusting in the process. Throwing yourself into a situation is OK. In fact it's better than OK, it works. You don't need a plan. You can purely rely on your brain's instincts to give you what you need. The only thing that stops that process is your fear.

And what's more, it's FUN to discover where you end up. You're discovering at the same time as everyone else, and it's enjoyable.

After tonight's show I went to a gig with a classmate where our teacher, Erica Elam, was performing. I felt self conscious for her, worried that she would be put off by our presence, but I needn't have.

Everything we've learned from the course was on full display, and then some. She's was fearless and present, and the comedy flowed naturally.

This course has been a life-changing experience.  From the people I've met, to the things I've learned. I feel personally changed for the better, and I hope beyond hope that I can continue to practice [improv].

Last Day

The last day was extremely emotional. After a physically and mentally exhausting five days, I feel a bit lost. Tomorrow I won't be pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I have no big scary thing to face... and I miss it already.

I can't think of anything that's pushed me quite as hard, or excited me quite as much. We've finished [Second City Improv] Level A, but there's no Level B waiting for us [like there is in the US]. We're on our own now... and that "we" has no leader, only the vaguest collective idea of how to move forward, and we will ultimately, inevitably dwindle.

It's a sad moment.

On the flip side I've learned a lot about what I'm capable of. I've got a solid foundation in the basics of improv, and I've achieved my goal: I'm more in touch with my instincts than ever before. Right now I trust in my ability to take a situation and find something funny it. I know my brain will fill in the gaps and make the connection, all I have to do is listen [and practise!].

The most difficult part of improv is learning to trust in your instincts. It's a personal battle for every new improviser, and I'm sure it's ongoing [even when you've mastered it]. As our teacher put it, it's a struggle against our societal conditioning. Kids are great at improvising, but as we get older we're taught to restrain ourselves, and improv is sort of fighting back against that pressure, getting in touch with our most creative part... without fear.

This week has been a major step toward that [for me].

Everything seems a little brighter today. Building seem bigger, colours seem more vibrant.

Now is a sad moment, but I'm happy that I was brave enough to give it to myself.

The Morning After

After spending the last five days feeling like I was being shot out of a canon (at ever increasing speeds), and last night's resulting free-fall once class was over, this morning was a painful crash-landing back into reality. But I've dusted myself off and what I'm noticing is that I'm different. The most obvious thing is that I'm less self-critical. I feel like I should be able to create more easily now, and with less self-awareness. This was my main goal when I decided to take the course, and I'm more than a little amazed that it's what I feel I'm taking away from the experience.

There's still a long way to go, but I'm definitely on the right path. I just have to keep walking down it, and not get waylaid.

Pushing myself out of my comfort zone for that week was immensely rewarding, and something I highly recommend. For those interested, here's how I felt I'd changed after one week with Second City:
  • I noticed my default reaction to everyday frustrations was altered. Instead of getting irritated and annoyed by little things that didn't go exactly how I expected/wished them to, I found myself reacting as you would in an improv scene: Accepting them as a gift and focusing on my reaction instead. (A much more desirable and productive response!)
  • I found myself less in my head, and more paying attention to what was going on around me - again as you would in an improv scene when you're listening.
As for improv itself, I now can see what the pros are doing more whenever I watch it. They really do make a pretty tricky process look effortless. 

As the saying goes, "Improv is getting up in the air and building the plane as you go". I now fully appreciate what that means. I've learned that taking a leap of faith is part of the process, and that it's not a problem if you don't know what you're going to say or do, because when you're doing it right, you're truly allowing yourself to be completely open and react in the moment (which I can imagine takes years to master).

For me it was a leap of faith, and it felt great when it worked. What I discovered is that, if you're brave enough to step out, your brain will make the connections for you. It's what it does all day anyway -- we're all improvising all of the time. The trick is to allow yourself to trust in that process.

It's jumping off the cliff and figuring it out on the way down, or as Keegan-Michael Key puts it, zooming out...

Thanks to our instructor, Erica Elam, and my classmates. If you're reading this wondering whether you should take a Second City improv course, my advice is YES! Be brave and go for it. You'll thank yourself later.