Sunday, 27 January 2013

Writing from the Back Burner

As writers, we are often plagued with writers block, other work, commitments or countless other reasons to *not* finish a writing project. Sometimes it simply doesn't take off the way you wanted it to, so you put the idea on the back burner and hope that you can get back to it some time. Some projects get left there, forgotten and cold. Others simmer... always there... bubbling... reminding you that they're still there.

For me, a Dracula TV series concept that I had wanted to develop had been stewing on that back burner since 1992. It was to be a modern-day sequel to Bram Stoker's famous vampire novel. I had written the pilot episode and three other scripts, storyboarded FX sequences (at a time when CGFX weren't available), wrote a series bible which included character backgrounds, backstories and a story arc for five seasons. To battle the 'campy' image that Dracula had acquired from Hollywood, I shot a promo video with Mickey Rooney narrating as Prof Van Helsing, setting up how Dracula survived, based on how Bram Stoker left a loop-hole in his ending. This video was effective in showing that Dracula was not going to be a cliché with a cape and a bad accent. It was perhaps too effective. In the age of political correctness it was deemed "too dark" for television. I was ahead of my time. The following year, 'The X-Files' premiered, followed shortly by 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Alas, because of their successes, nobody wanted to compete with them, so my series was backburnered.

I then decided to work in the film industry to learn more about it, and got experience in several departments such as FX, props building, set dressing and art department. I also made my own films, one of which started as an episode from my Dracula series, which I shot as a digital experiment. It did well in film festivals all over the world.

But HE was always there. Taunting me. Trying to draw me back. I found myself involved in other Dracula projects, one of which was as 'historical researcher' for another novel sequel which turned Dracula into a romantic anti-hero. I had argued that the character choice was not true to Bram Stoker's Dracula but was shot down. "It's what the fanboys want," they said.

Well, they were wrong. The true Dracula fans had expected a cold, calculating, blood-thirsty monster and were disappointed with the love story this sequel told. I thought of my series again, and couldn't help but think how much those fans would have liked its references to the original novel.

For anyone who as never read Bram Stoker's Dracula, it is terrific. Told entirely through journal entries, letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings... its mystery unfolds slowly and deliberately. The readers know what the characters don't, and it isn't until they 'compare notes' that they realize what they are up against. For this reason, Hollywood has never been able to capture the true essence of the original novel: Most of it is internal, via private thoughts written in letters or diaries. I had come to realize how difficult it is to show internalization through a visual medium as I created my own films, and listened only vaguely to the bubbling from that back burner again.

Then one sleepless night while battling writer's block on another project, I was doing what a lot of writers do - wasting time on Facebook. While following the banter beneath a Friend's posting, I suddenly realized that I was seeing a new way to tell a story! Inspiration hit, and the lid on that old Dracula pot started to shake.

I went into storage, dug out my old series files and thanked myself for not ditching an old computer that can still read 3 1/4" floppy disks. After a full day of trying to remember what password I had used to protect them, I finally looked at the scripts that I had created 20 years ago. Then I took the opening scenes and 'revamped' them for a new medium and it worked!

Un-Dead disks (1992)

So, it begins anew. I will tell my sequel as if Bram Stoker had written it today: through e-mails, blogs, text messages, memos and social media. All of my previous experiences as a writer, director, props builder, film maker and graphic artist come together to launch 'Un-Dead' at last - as a continuous on-line novelization.

Click on to see the new site and follow along each week.

Un-Dead logo (word 'Un-Dead' hidden in bat)

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Historical Research for the staging of The Diary of Anne Frank

As I was looking through my back-up files for old reference photos I found the folder containing stills from a stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank that I directed in 2004.

It's a clear example of my need for being historically accurate not only in my writing but in the shows I have worked on. During this production I not only had historical books and photos, but also a computer simulation of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It allowed our actors to virtually 'walk' through the Secret Annex. I designed the set to be as close as possible to the real annex where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years.

Here are some of comparison photos of the Anne Frank House and our multi-level set.

Anne Frank's Room

Anne's real room (left) was duplicated in our set (right). For lighting reasons we didn't cover the windows with the tissue paper.

The pictures on the wall were duplicates of the pictures that are still currently hanging in her room. Even a similar desk lamp was found for our set.

The Main Room
On the left is the real common room for the eight people in hiding. On the right was our set. The door visible leads to Peter's room - which was also the access to the attic. Such was the case with our set as well.

The main room had been a laboratory, which is why the sink was so odd. It's a small attention to detail but a few audience patrons who had been to the real Anne Frank house did notice this.

Opekta was the brand of pectin that Otto Frank's company manufactured.  A year before going into hiding, Otto began stocking the attic with their belongings and supplies.
At the top of the show, the set had some replicas scattered around.

On the left is the real Water Closet (washroom) from the Anne Frank House.

The visible green door led to Anne's room. Likewise, our set had the W/C in the exact same layout.
For a publicity still we recreated a famous photo of the real Anne Frank, taken before she went into hiding.

The talented actress (Jennifer Waiser) who portrayed our Anne Frank was dressed in a replica costume. Note the trim in the blouse and the wrist watch as well. 

There were other tiny historical details that I can't show here ie. recreating the exact chimes of the Westertoren bells which were melted down during World War II. Many such details were never really noticed, but it helped to authentically recreate a dark chapter of our human history. This stage production with an amazing cast of actors was seen by hundreds of school children, in hopes that they learn from history, never forget and never repeat it.

Review of The Diary of Anne Frank from TorontoStage .com