War Stories

I’ve been absent from this blog awhile for the best of reasons, i.e. I’ve been working. At the time of writing I am in that limbo state Waiting For Notes, a gap in the schedule which all dedicated professional screenwriters use to polish old projects, develop new ones, network with influential executives, or simply kick back and War and Peace in the original Russian. Although admittedly some have been known to spend that time tidying their tip of an office, reading the paperresearching current affairs, or simply writing blog entries.

War Stories is the title of one of my favourite episodes of the TV Scifi epic-that-never-was, Firefly by Joss Whedon.  It is also the industry term for the tales told in the pub about megalomanic producers, clueless executives, egotistical actors, outrageous misfortune and all the thousand ills that a filmmaker’s flesh is heir to.

Personally, until recently I didn’t know they were called ‘war stories’. But a few years ago a famous writer/producer approaching retirement had a go at TV drama commissioners for, as he saw it, preferring new TV drama to conform to cosy and established formulae instead of encouraging writers to produce original, challenging and therefore riskier material.  His remarks seemed to vindicate all the moans of us toiling away at the coalface.  Usually you hear that sort of talk from young, idealistic and struggling writers before they learn to shut up and toe the line; certainly not from distinguished programme makers who can barely get into their offices for TV awards.

Of course this distinguished writer/producer had nothing to lose; he was at the end of his career.  When invited to comment, his younger counterparts muttered something like, ‘We all love hearing war stories, but TV has always been a collaborative medium.’   Which roughly translated as ‘We have a lot of stuff in development with these commissioning editors and we can’t afford to piss them off.’  All the same it was a subtle and effective way to defuse this bomb the senior TV statesman had dropped – dismissing his remarks as the sort of world-weary anecdote pissed-off filmmakers tell over a pint.  We all do that.

Why do writers and film-makers tell war stories, and constantly moan about the industry they are in?  Because they – alright, we – can.  We aspire to be storytellers.  Many of us have worked on shoots with perfect weather where the actors turned up sober and on time, remembered their lines and giving thrilling interpretations of the text from which the director did not cut a word.   But who wants to tell stories like that, and who the hell wants to hear them?

There’s a joke in Ireland about the weather – if it’s not raining, that means it’s going to rain.  At any given point most writers are either unemployed or about to be unemployed (self-employed is something of a euphemism.)  While I try not to take pleasure in other writers’ struggles, I have to work hard to enjoy hearing about rivals, or worse still friends, doing Really Well.  We’d all rather hear tales of doom and gloom, of betrayal and treachery, of epic, moving ideas mangled and ineptly shot because it turns out the director wanted to write the script and play all the parts himself. We want to hear about senior commissioning editors solemnly giving notes from which everyone present can instantly tell that they haven’t read the script.  Stories like those reassure us that even the most successful writers and producers still have to put up with infuriating crap and tiptoe around the egos of idiots.

Face it, we’re in showbusiness.  None of us got into TV and movies in order to have an easy and predictable life.  We chose this career because a proper job would very likely have driven us mad.   And sometimes it goes well and the scripts you write come out better than you ever expected, thanks to the talent and hard work and imagination of the producers and the crew and the cast. And sometimes it all goes tits-up.  But then at least you get some wonderful war-stories to tell down the pub.

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