Wednesday, February 27, 2013

twelve f*cking minutes

Twelve minutes in the grand scheme of things is not a very long time. 

When your team is 1-0 down to Blackburn in the 80th minute of the FA Cup it can go by in the blink of an eye. On a fixed bike in a gym, where I ventured for the first time last week time passes rather slower, (especially when your heart-rate has reached 320bpm, blood is roaring in your ears, and you are wishing for the sweet release of death). But by most measures twelve minutes is a perfectly manageable slice of the day.

Except when you’re stuck in a lift. And wildly claustrophobic.

It happened today at the office. We’d just come out of a conference call in one of the fourth floor meeting rooms, and were still discussing the ins and outs of the conversation as the lift doors closed, we began our descent and then with a strange clank and a lurch we arrested, midway between two floors.

I’d often imagined how I’d react in this situation - I’d heard anecdotes of friends who had the same experience, and had been fascinated by the story of the New York office worker Nicholas White who had hopped into a lift on a friday night in 1999 and emerged forty-one hours later a truly changed man. And not for the better. [White’s incarceration was captured on CCTV and you can view a time-lapse of his lost weekend]

But on the whole I tried not to listen to these tales, immediately feeling the heart rate go up, and the muscles tense.

I didn’t always have this problem. I did my fair share of spelunking as a youth, squeezing through the infamous ‘Worm Wriggle’ at one cavern system or other on school trips. I used to ride the tube in London without a second thought, and elevators weren’t any great shakes. But something came unwired in my head around 2006, and suddenly the thought of an underground train stopping in a dark tunnel between stations became the stuff of my nightmares. I have a fairly good idea of why this happened, but at some point in my life I fear I shall be paying a New York analyst thousands of dollars an hour to rediscover the source of my anxieties, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.

When the situation started to unfold the first thing that happened was my heart started beating harder and a familiar sensation of anxiety started rising from my gut. Panic set in. The brain starts firing questions: what happened? how long are we going to be here? does anyone know we’re here? what’s the process they have to go through to fix this? Do they have to call someone in? How long is that going to take? The questions are always intricate and specific. They’re always about the process. 

At this quickfire brain-speed a minute can seem like a very long time, and twelve: an eternity. The question you try and avoid asking yourself is the most dark. It flits around the outskirts of your thought process trying to creep past the mental barriers and emerge into the light: What’s going to happen to me if this goes on much longer? The physical sensations are so intense that you start to wonder if you might eventually break.

Thankfully I haven’t found out. Yet.

It’s so frustrating to have something like this in your life that you can’t control. The relative argument holds true - it’s a comparatively small problem to have, and god forbid I should have something more serious to deal with, but it is both fascinating and horrifying to have a weakness, something so irrational and so much beyond your control, and that no amount of logical thought can conquer. Thinking both helps and makes the situation worse.

We’re adaptable creatures however, and three-and-a-half floors above Rathbone Street this afternoon, I held it together. It helped the others in the lift were friends. Strangers would have been worse. And there are ways I have found to cope with the anxiety. I try and always have a good book on me - being in the middle of a great story is wonderful for distracting the mind from malicious thinkings, and the better the book, the more powerful the diversion. In this situation, film scripts can be of wildly varying efficacy, for reasons I don’t need to explain. I once commuted to work with Season 3 of The Sopranos on my mp3 player. It was practical magic.

But there’s one thing I’ve found helps more than anything else. It comes from something I read in my various investigations into the way the human mind functions. The article, which has now become lost to me in the vortex, reported on a study (conducted by scientists and psychologists at some venerable institution or other) which concluded that recreating the physical sensation of something can cause the brain to manufacture that psychological feeling. Or to put it more simply: Smiling can make you happy. This was apparently something of a surprise to said psychologists who had previously believed that feelings always provoked the physical response, and the brain did not follow the body. Of course I tried it and goddamn if it didn’t work a charm.

So now, when the anxiety starts to creep in, I try and smile, and I find it’s a lot harder to be stressed when you are smiling. I care not for the other passengers in my tunnel-bound train carriage wondering who the grinning idiot sitting across from them may be - is he about to start asking them for money, proclaiming the divinity of Jesus Christ, or does he have something incendiary strapped under that shirt (which is bizarrely not one of my tube-based phobias). And as I sit there smiling away, thoughts come to mind of the good things in my life, the people I care about and the things I am proud of, and the fears start to lose their power over me.

I don’t exactly know why I wanted to share this. Perhaps because sometimes it can help to know that other people out there go through the same things as you, maybe someone would read this with a glimmer of recognition and feel comforted in some way. Perhaps I thought it might help me to put it out into the world. What I do know is that today I was confronted by one of my most potent fears, if only for twelve minutes, and when we were finally let out of that lift, I emerged with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ON WRITING: christopher nolan on 'inception'

In the shooting script for Inception, Chris Nolan is interviewed by his brother Jonathon.

He makes a few interesting points about the way he tells stories. I particularly like his comments about 'the rules' which I think is key to any type of fantasy / supernatural sci-fi. I first heard the idea expressed by Borges, who talked about the 'orbe autonomo' (autonomous world) of his stories. The basic theory is that the audience needs to know the rule of your world in order to engage with your story. If you set a story in a world in which anything is possible, it becomes un-relatable to the audience and ultimately un-engaging.

For any good fantasy I think you need to 'sell the rabbit hole', as I would describe it. Like Alice, the transition from our world to one in which magic/the supernatural is possible has to be fundamentally unquestionable to an audience, even if it requires a suspension of disbelief, or a surrender to some pretty hokey movie logic. In the best fantasies we want to surrender to the logic.

Some rabbit holes:

Struck by lightning = magical powers
Cursed by Hungarian gypsy woman = seriously scary shit happens to you
Christopher Lloyd + illegal nuclear sh*t from the Libyans = time travel
Buying pets in China town from mystical eastern dude = little furry thing capable of eating you after a midnight feast.

To an extent we believe in these rabbit holes because we want to, not because we think they're real but from the point of view of story logic they all make locked-down sense.

Here are some highlights from the Nolan interview (thanks to Jonathan Wakeham for the edits). Full text here

On the need for rules When I saw the first Matrix film, I thought it was really terrific, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood the limits on the powers of the characters who had become self-aware. Inception, on the other hand, is about a more everyday experience …. It doesn’t question an actual reality. It’s just saying, “Okay, we all dream every night. What if you could share your dream with someone else?” And it becomes an alternate reality simply because the dream becomes a form of communication, like using a telephone or going online.

On the need for emotional risk I consider this script to have begun when I figured out I was going to use a heist movie structure … The problem I had was finishing it, because the heist movie as a genre tends to be deliberately superficial … And I realised that when you’re talking about dreaming, this universal human experience, you need the stakes of the story to have a much more emotional resonance. If you’re going to do a massive movie, you’ve got to be able to unlock that more universal experience for yourself as well as the audience. As soon as I realised that Mal would be his wife, it became completely relatable.

On melodrama I’ve written quite a few dead wives, that’s true. But you try to put your relatable fears into these things. That’s what film noir is, and Ido view Inception as film noir. You take the things you are actually worried about in real life, and you extrapolate that into a universal drama, painted as large as possible. You turn it into melodrama. People always talk about melodrama as a pejorative, but I don’t know what other word there is.

On actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great casts on all my films. Particularly with a lot of the supporting characters, a great actor will come in with a whole take on it, and they’ll literally give what’s on the page some kind of life that you hadn’t forseen.

On trusting audiences There are points where you worry that you might be putting too much in and alienating the audience … Somewhere in the back of my mind, for example, I had assumed that the business with the spinning top in the safe would wind up being cut out of the film … But what we realised in showing it to people is that they actually grasped the imagery as something to hold onto, as an illustration of things that had happened off camera.

On sincerity I give a film a lot of credit for trying to do something fresh — even if it doesn’t work … I think the thing that I always react against as a filmgoer is insincerity, when somebody makes a film that they don’t really enjoy themselves, just to produce an effect on the audience. And what really frustrates me with a film like Inception is when you show somebody the film and they think you’re trying to be clever. Or show off. I always feel like I’ve completely failed at that point, because I know as a filmgoer that that’s something I react against … you want to believe that the film-maker loves the movie, loves what that movie does.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

ON WRITING: david simon on the 'average reader' (Quote)

This is taken from a fantastic piece in 'The Believer' mag, in which Nick Hornby interviewed David Simon - the mastermind behind 'The Wire', 'Generation Kill' and 'Treme'. This is a great quote, a great philosophy, and I think forms a kind of rallying cry for how HBO's drama changed TV storytelling for the better.

My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

Full interview can be found here

ON WRITING: david milch on convention (Quote)

It seems appropriate to start with something from David Milch - the screenwriter behind 'Deadwood' (as well as 'Luck' and 'NYPD Blue') as Milch is the reason I really became fascinated with the craft. Deadwood is truly a masterpiece of TV writing, more so because apparently Milch dictated each episode lying on his back in a trailer, the night before shooting. Whether or not this story is apocryphal the fact that I don't doubt it says a lot about the man.

Here's Milch's take on Convention:

"As I get older, I become less and less patient with convention. A convention is the set of assumptions in a story which are taken as given, rather than tested by the action."