Monday, 15 November 2010

Liberating limitations

We tend to see limits as that which merely reduces our ability to accomplish something.  We reason that if we don't have the right tools or the right access, then we can't do as good a job as we'd like.  If only we had the resources or the manpower, we could move mountains.  Without them, we can't even shift the molehills.

And yet, for a writer, limitations can turn out to be misunderstood opportunities.  They can be an obstacle to be overcome, a challenge to be met.  A limitation may not so much hinder as provide structure to a project and act as a focus for your creative energies that wouldn't be there is you had unlimited resources.  It may not seem like it at the time, but limitations can be the spark that leads to true originality.

In television, there is what are called "bottle episodes".  When a series is ordered, the producer is given a set amount of money to spend for the entire run of episodes for that season.  Usually, the producer sets out his budget so that most of the money is spent on the first episodes of the series and last ones.  Consequently, the ones in the middle have to make do with what's left over.  A bottle episode is what happens when the money runs out.  The producer is obligated to deliver so many episodes, but there's hardly any money left in the kitty.  So, the writers have to come up with a way to get around this "bottleneck" by coming up with a script that is incredibly cheap--preferably one without guest stars and special effects that is filmed on an already existing set. 

You'd think that such episodes would be the worst of the lot.  Without all the bells and whistles of a normal show, how can they possibly do an adequate job?  And yet, bottle episodes tend to be the best of the series because the writers have to push their creativity to the limits.  They can't rely on gimmicks; they have to fall back on the basics of plot, character, and dialogue to move the story along--and it must keep moving or it will die like a shark in a jar.  If you look at shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who, Porridge, One Foot in the Grave, or Community, it is the bottle episodes of the main characters trapped in a lift, or in the Tardis Control Room, or waiting for a bus that show what the writers and actors are really capable of.

It isn't just budget limitations that can work for the writer rather than against.  I have no doubt that Shakespeare's best work came about because he had to deal with Burbidge's mammoth ego or the fact that you can't get entire armies on a tiny stage.   I have long argued that the collapse of Hollywood's old production codes are the biggest blow to good film and television plays since the invention of method acting.  When you can't use graphic violence or explicit sex, then you have to fall back on decent writing.

Take the example of the Roger Corman film The Masque of the Red Death  (1964).  I came across it on the Satellite feed recently and I was astonished to find that it had a G rating (U certificate in the civilised world).  That put it on the same level as Bambi.  One of the most frightening and disturbing bits of cinema I'd ever seen and it was rated as innocuous as fluffy bunnies?  Strange but true.  that's because the ratings board was looking for sex, gore, and profanity, but in 1964 Corman couldn't be explicit, so writers Charles Beaumont and R Wright Campbell had to make the horror and degradation come out of images they could provoke in the minds of the audience through dialogue,plot, and character.  The result was a powerful script and a brilliant vehicle for Vincent Price.

Today, the writers would probably fall back on the Mitchell and Webb approach of writing down "They have sex" fifteen times and fill in the gaps.

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