Friday, July 08, 2011

'Tone' part 4 - a BBC script editor speaks

Had this email from Madeleine Sinclair, BBC script editor on South Riding and Robin Hood, as well as, in another incarnation, Primeval. I've also been working with her for some time developing my BBC4 eighteenth century comedy/drama thing.

Maddie says:

"I'd say tone is really the feel of the piece - it's what sets expectations really. The tone of the script helps you to understand what to expect from it - and so when something leaps out that feels unexpected (and not in a good way), it's often because it's tonally not a fit.

(An example that springs to mind for some reason... is when I found myself watching Deathproof at a festival in Amsterdam... I sat down in the midnight hours, a little worse for wear, thrilled to be treated to an outdoor rom-com watching experience with all my pals... I saw Kurt Russell (and was hoping for Goldie Hawn) in a rednecky sort of bar, flirting with a barmaid who I think may have been wearing his cowboy hat. He offered to give her a ride home... So far, so good. She even satin the back of his car... All very chivalrous... He asks her if shewants to go left or right... She makes the mistake of giving the wronganswer and before you know it, her brains are dripping down the window.

As the colour drained from my face and I reached for a sick bag, I realised I had made the error of misjudging the tone of this film! All the signals were there for rom-com fun and suddenly, I was inhorror-ville. (Yes, I'd got the genre and style wrong too - but it feltrom-com like in tone if you ask me (for those few minutes anyway)... And then suddenly blood and guts a go-go).

However, if I'd been aware of the title, my expectations would have been set... and had I not been so inebriated, I probably would have questioned why a field full of blokes were so eager to watch it! Guess the point I'm trying to make is how important tone is in setting expectations - and what can happen when you misjudge it!

Establishing the tone of something is crucial really in defining what it is and how it should be executed - before every drama begins shooting, there's always a big tonal meeting where the director (informed by the writer of course!) sets out his vision and all the HoDs talk about how they're going to achieve this... (Sure you know all this but just thought it might help in your exploration of what the flip 'tone' really means).

Tone is the defining characteristic of a piece really - you can have two very different dramas about the same subject that are differentiated by their tone... Bad example but Waterloo Road vs. Teachers... Same territory, very different shows, very different attitudes. In fact, attitude is probably another useful way to think about tone - you can have two cop shows (same genre, same subject) but their attitudes can differ hugely and that, I'd say, was down to tone."


Rob Self-Pierson said...

That's great from Madeleine.

I'm working on a script with a friend at the moment - a familiar idea with a new twist. A lot of that twist needs to come from the tone. That's what we're making sure we've got right. Not easy, but good fun.

Thanks, James. These posts offering advice are always very useful.

spacemonkey said...

Isn't it also somehow a kind of CONTRACT between the writer and the audience? You set up in the first few scenes the kinds of flavours and emotional notes you're going to be playing with - like the emotional DNA of the piece - and then the audience know "where they are" with it. It's like setting out your stall - people know what they're signing up for.

And then, while people want and expect to be "surprised" in terms of the actual Things What Happen, they DON'T, as a rule, want to be surprised by a sudden change of "tone". It's like changing the RULES of the thing - the emotional equivalent of gravity suddenly working in the wrong direction, or people whipping out blaster guns in the middle of a historical scene. If you've set that up as part of the "rules" up top, people are fine with it - but not if it's late enough to cause a disjunct.

For me the prime exemplar of how to lay down tone swiftly and elegantly is the pre-credits tease of the first ep of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Boy and girl break into school at night - some sexual goofing around - he's pretending to scare her, it's funny but with an edge that there MIGHT be menace lurking there somewhere - then boom, switcheroo, she bares her fangs and it turns out she's the vamp and kills him. Pretty much all the flavours of the next seven seasons of it are right there in those first few minutes, so we trust it whenever it cleaves to them, and when it doesn't - it requires work to win our trust again (cf. the Spike/Buffy rape stuff).

You CAN do jolting things with tone, but it tends to put you in the territory of arthouse stuff - eg. the end of There Will Be Blood, where it all comes down to *SPOILER ALERT* a guy smacking another guy's head in with a bowling ball. For me that's a gear shift - like going from 2001: A Space Odyssey to A Clockwork Orange - but it kind of works because it's a self-consciously arty film, and the THEME (violence and power) holds it together.

And now to bed!

James Henry said...

Rob: glad these are proving helpful.
S. Monkey: cheers for this, will put in another post.

Monica said...

Hi James

Just to let you know that the London Screenwriters' Festival 2011 kicks off on October 28th for a three day festival like no other - Television screenwriters, producers and commissioners are amongst top speakers.

Best wishes,