Archive for the Miscellaneous Grumbles Category

A Spud By Any Other Name

For those of you having trouble, I officially pronounce my name Nile Lennard.

Back in the twentieth century when I used to wander around Dublin on behalf of the BBC I had a meeting with a  lovely woman who at that time ran the Irish Film Centre*.  ‘O yes,’ she said when we met, ‘You’re the guy who doesn’t know how to pronounce his own name.’  I suppose I’d set myself up for that because I used to, and still do, pronounce my name differently depending on the circumstances.

When I grew up Niall was quite an exotic name – hard to believe, because there’s millions of the buggers now – and the most popular way of spelling it was Neil or even Neal.

For the record, the most famous Niall in Irish history was Niall of the Nine Hostages, supposedly the last Irish king to die a pagan.  (I’ve always regarded that factoid with a certain amount of smugness to which I am no way entitled.)  In the Irish language the son of Niall, if he were called Colm, would be Colm MacNeill (pronounced Neel), ie Colm son of Niall. More distant members of the tribe would be O’Neill.  So ‘Neil’ is the possessive form of the name ‘Niall’ and strictly speaking should not be used as a first name.

That said, in many parts of Ireland it is perfectly acceptable to pronounce Niall as Neel.  One Irish speaker I know of, the actor Niall Tobin, pronounces it this way, and since it’s his own name he’s entitled to.  But that is largely a matter of regional accent, which allows for wide variations in common words.  In Dublin, for example, the word for ‘black – ‘dubh’ – is pronounced  ‘dove’.  Up North the accepted pronunciation is ‘doov’.  This can and does cause confusion for people learning Irish but there is a lot of resistance to standardising the language because it would mean some Irish speakers accepting that their accent is inferior to another, and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

I care less about how my name is pronounced than how it is spelled, so when I speak on the phone I invariably say my name is ‘Ny-al Leonard’.  That way most people know my name is spelt with an ‘ia’  and not an ‘ei’.  In real life, I answer to Neel, Nile, and even Nail.

But if you meet a Niall – and, as I said above, there are millions of the buggers now – be sure to pronounce his name ‘Nile’…  and wait for him to come up with his own explanation of how that’s wrong and how you should really pronounce it.

Next week a guest posting from my good friend Aisling Walsh about the joys of having an really unpronounceable Irish name.

*Can’t remember her name now.  Funny, that.


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.

Everybody’s an Expert

In an earlier blog I grumbled about ‘The Curse of Robert McKee’.  McKee is a well-known screenwriting guru who does a great two-day lecture on the structure of the classic Hollywood screenplay.  The session I attended, a few years back, was based on Casablanca and the first Alien movie.  Nothing wrong with that – two of my favourite films, undisputed classics, and McKee knows his stuff.  He expertly exposes the mechanics of the script, exploring the way the writers use visual and mythic themes to create unity, and illustrating how they structure the narratives to create a series of climaxes building to a resolution. The way he explains it, it all makes perfect sense.

The problem is that memorising these principles does not per se make you a great writer.  McKee’s own screenwriting credits are pretty modest.  However his lectures are always packed, not so much by up-and-coming screenwriters (they can rarely afford the course fees) but by producers and executives, many of them there because they’re desperate to sound as if they know what they are talking about when giving notes to writers.

A writer starts with an idea for a story.   You develop the ideas and try to explore them to the full, dramatically and visually, employing classic structure or ignoring it as necessary, in order to create the maximum emotional impact.  You can’t start with a structure and graft ideas on to it; the outcome will feel formulaic and even cynical.

If you’re ever developing a script with a production company and you get a note asking ‘Where’s the Act Three Climax?’ or complaining the opening ‘didn’t have an inciting incident’, you’ll recognise the voice of a parrot who’s been on a McKee course.  These remarks always sound very technical and authoritative, and they almost never help to improve the scripts.  But the approach allows some clueless people think that creating and structuring a screenplay is simply painting by numbers, and that’s the Curse of Robert McKee.

Creating a good story is art.  Analysing it is science.  Let’s not mix them up.

The other thing I’ve know insecure executives to do is hire a ‘focus group’.  A panel of ‘typical viewers’ would be asked what they liked and disliked about a TV series.  In broad terms no-one could object to the principle of listening to the audience, but these executives would always take it too far, and start asking focus groups how the series should develop.  They would then tell the writers that ‘the focus group doesn’t like that sort of thing’ or ‘the focus group really loved that idea.’  To which the self-respecting writer should reply, ‘Well then, get the f**king focus group to write it.’

A good storyteller doesn’t stop to ask the audience where the story goes next – a good storyteller feels his or her way to the right ending.  It’s scary and risky, because you cannot be sure the audience will like where you take them.  If you love the story and are excited and entertained by it – well, at least one person’s happy.  If you are bored and frustrated by it, it’s a good bet the audience will feel the same way.  And if you try to second-guess your audience, and write to a formula ‘guaranteed’ to please, the audience will know they’re being sold a product, not listening to a tale that came from someone’s heart.  There’s no joy in that.