Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Matter Of Degrees 1/11/11

This is a sentence I never thought I would write: I am freezing in LA.

Having spent two weeks completely buried under snow and, for the most part, unable to leave my house in the UK, I was looking forward to returning to blue skies and sunshine. But apart from three days, the first two weeks of the new year here have been grey, miserable, sometimes wet and, yes, cold.

I am spectacularly ill equipped for it, too. All my sweaters are in a drawer back home (well, six drawers, to be precise – I never risk anything in wet Wales), and as I can’t afford to stock up on any clothes here, I have to make do with layers of skimpy T-shirts and thin cotton cardigans if my nose is not to grow icicles.

Just as the UK is never prepared for snowfall, so LA is unable to cope with unpredictable cold. In bars and restaurants, they have the air con turned up to maximum heat to compensate for the dip in temperature, and then, just as everyone is practically down to their undies to cope with the heat, they turn it off, and you are once more shivering and have to start layering up again.

I spent two hours in Soho House last week, wrapping and unwrapping myself every five minutes like a one-woman, human version of Pass the Parcel. Down by the beach, the bar at the end of the pier is, ironically, freezing indoors, and absolutely scorching outside, with the overhead heaters on full.

My cheeks were so hot at the weekend, you could have taken a couple of slices off them and passed me off as tapas.

Brits are renowned for their willingness to talk about the weather at great length, irrespective of what the temperature is. It’s always too hot, too cold, too wet, too grey.

Forget the possibility of having to swear allegiance to the crown, if you want to come into Britain: what MPs really need to be discussing is people’s ability to merge according to their weather chatting skills.

I just never expected to meet the same enthusiasm in LA, but people here are just as bad. When I first arrived, in April 2009, it was always hot, but that didn’t stop the locals from commenting on the fact.

“Lovely day,” said every taxi driver, wherever I went. Yes, I know, I wanted to scream; it bloody well always is.

Now, though, with this smattering of cold, wet weather, and a not very good summer (incredibly, the UK was warmer), the citizens of Los Angeles talk about heat as if it is an alien, the like of which they may never see again in their lifetime.

Now, when I get into a cab when the sun is out, the drivers sigh, commenting “It’s a lovely day”, as they gaze longingly at the sky, knowing that something, someone up there, is going to steal that golden orb from right under their noses anytime soon.

I used to take the fine weather for granted here, but not anymore. Now, on the rare days when the sun is out and the skies pure blue, I walk down to the ocean to watch the sun going down over the Pacific.

It’s an exquisite sunset, but then sunsets always are – and they’re all different. The first time I came to LA over 20 years ago, it was the sunsets over the Pacific that struck me most clearly and that I remember even now.

Golden, to red, to orange, to yellow and, finally, to the fine sliver of intense white light that tells you it’s all over for another day.

It is nothing short of miraculous.

It’s that last line of light that always brings me to tears. Sunrise and sunset have been metaphors for so much in great art throughout the centuries, and it’s easy to see why. Light fades, light returns; people and experiences come and go; we lose, we gain; our hearts burst with light, they fade in the shadows.

There were shadows, again, in 2010. One friend committed suicide in January, another in December. Several friends were diagnosed with cancer. Family members fell sick. Across the world, tragedies continued to unfold, and still do.

In Britain, on Christmas Day, the body of 25 year-old landscape architect Joanne Yeates was found in Bristol; she had been strangled. This week, in Tucson, Arizona, six people died in a shooting, among them a nine year old girl. Elsewhere, people are starving, dying of thirst, hunger, Aids. Every day, everywhere, the sun goes down.

How do we cope? How does the human spirit sustain such losses, such tragedy, such hardship?

We are extraordinary creations, whose desire to survive, despite all odds against us, gives us strength. We sleep, in order to wake, and we still, incredibly, pull through suffering.

We are as miraculous as the sun and, like the sun, we know that, come the morning, and against all our expectations, we will rise again.

It's the cliche of dawn, but no less true, or incredible, for being so.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Mine's A Snowball 1/2/2011

The Elevator Pitch is one of the main things I learned from my mentor and friend, Blake Snyder, who taught me so much before he suddenly died in August 2009.

There are days when his death still stuns me, but there are as many days when I remember things he said and, at the end of another year, recall with pleasure the things I would not have done, the people I would never have met, had he not encouraged me to come here.

I might never have discovered The Elevator Pitch. Essentially, you have to imagine yourself between floors in an elevator and, in those few seconds, be able to “sell” your movie idea to the important person standing beside you who can make it.

I’m not often in elevators, and the luggage-loaded people in the Heathrow Express lift (I still can’t get used to calling it by its American name) never look in the mood to hear anything other than the ping that tells them they have arrived at their destination floor. It’s therefore hard for me to assess precisely how many seconds you actually have for an Elevator Pitch.

Are you allowed to press the emergency button to pitch a longer movie? If the elevator breaks down, can you justify pitching the sequel, too? It can become a complicated metaphor if you really put your mind to it.

But flying back to the UK for Christmas, I managed to put the EP theory into practice. Sitting in the Air New Zealand lounge, I bumped into Paul Abbott, the brilliant creator and writer of some of the UK’s greatest ever TV shows – State of Play, Clocking Off, Shameless (the US version launches on January 9th).

I know Paul through my work as a TV critic and also know him to be one of the few people in the industry who is hugely encouraging of new writers. So, after inviting him and his colleague to join my table that the lovely Thierry of Air New Zealand always reserves for me in the lounge, I set about pitching my idea. Well, several to be precise, but each of them wrapped up in EP speak, with title and logline, just as I had learned in Blake’s class and from his great screenwriting book, Save the Cat!

Paul responded instantly and very positively to my own personal favourite, perhaps forgetting that there were 11 hours airborne in which I could well be expected to expand upon the EP at great length, write most of it and even get to perform a couple of scenes before touchdown at Heathrow.

Had we been travelling Virgin, with the bar on board, I would doubtless have dragged him to it to do precisely that, so he had one thing on his side in that we were travelling ANZ.

He wasn’t getting away that easily, though, and I continued my EP over a drink at Heathrow and, I have to confess, in subsequent e-mails. It’s not the first time that Paul has been helpful and encouraging to me in relation to my writing, and his kindness and ability to see to the heart of the matter, not only in his own work, but others’, is truly inspiring.

It is also exceptional.

Writers in particular are rarely very encouraging to those they often perceive as their rivals, and, in these tough times, they are even less so. I was struck again, on returning to the UK, how the spirit of negativity increasingly pervades the TV and film industry and, while things are also tough in the US, how much more positive people generally are.

I know that I am living in the heart of the industry, but the constant talk of ideas, scripts and deals really does make you feel more upbeat about possibilities.

Yes, there is a lot of bullshit, as everyone says, but, as I have noted before: as bullshit goes, it’s the best in the world.

It’s bullshit that currently produces astonishingly good TV series. Desperate Housewives, Brothers and Sisters, White Collar, Psych, Life Unexpected, CSI, Law and Order – I really could go on and on. And although I’m less of a fan of the current batch of Hollywood movies, there is still enough variety to provide welcome escape from Britain’s obsession with Royals and toffs.

My experience back in the UK wasn’t helped this time with being snowed in for the entire two weeks I was back. I never even saw my car because it had turned into an igloo; any attempt to venture out meant risking life and limb. And then, just as the snow started to melt, freezing fog closed in, so then I couldn’t even see the igloo.

The only place not suffering from any kind of frost was the First Great Western train, which, between Cardiff and London on my way back to Heathrow, they miraculously had no ice at the buffet.

I have a suggestion: get the people who run our incompetent trains to tell everyone else how to get rid of ice when the rest of the country is ten degrees under.

I was too cold to make any snowmen, but made it to a neighbour’s house where I was offered a real Snowball (advocaat, soda, lemonade). I hadn’t had one for about 30 years and rather enjoyed it.

When I Googled it to check the ingredients, I also happened upon the term “snowballing”, which, I discovered, has nothing to do with Frosty and his eyes made out of coal, but someone taking a man’s semen into his or her mouth and passing it orally to the other – and a term not exclusive to the homosexual community anymore, according to Wikipedia.

I can’t wait to get into my next elevator to start pitching that one.

It’ll give a whole new meaning to White Christmas.