Notes from TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 5


Notes from BBC’s TV Drama Writers Festival held in Leeds 30.06-01.07, 2010. The festival was organised by BBC Writersroom.

The Power of Storytelling
A conversation with Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis is a documentary film-maker, whose work includes The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self, The Mayfair Set, Pandora’s Box, The Trap and The Living Dead.

Adam Curtis: People live in a bubble – they’ve got their routine and their beliefs that they’re used to. The question is: how do you break through that bubble? How to tell them about new things, new perspectives? The task is to make an unknown (what they consider boring) world familiar.

Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays used Freud’s theories and invented PR. It had a huge effect on advertising. He discovered a way to manage the masses – if you open the doors, people will follow [this is also discussed in Cutris’s documentary The Century of the Self]. After they’ve entered the new world, you take them to new areas.You can have an affect on what’s going on in the state by affecting what’s inside a person’s head. 1980s marketing focussed on the individual. You target their values and lifestyles. [think of breakfast adverts – millions of people are having cereal for breakfast because adverts have been repeating the message that if you do, you’ll be healthy and happy].

It’s all about the mood. Curtis uses random images in his documentaries, images that have nothing to do with what’s going but can be associated though theme or mood. He uses images and sound bites that evoke mood. He’s playful with them.

Politicians want to the fear and other negative feelings inside the bubble to grow. The media keeps reinforcing it.

People want to be individualist, they want to be part of the story, take part in it. So the media has become lazy and uses the audience to create content [“send in your stories, you photos”].

Individualism corrodes the social bonds. [discussed in his documentary The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear]

People like variety, jumping from one thing to another (like browsing the internet). You can create associations between seemingly unrelated elements or problems.

How do you break into that bubble and make people see something new?

Saying that “bankers and politicians are bad” is not new. Hackers, hippies, bankers – it all goes back to 60s and 70s, 1930s [Ancient Rome, if you like]. So is there no other analysis or reaction to what is going on at present? The bankers have been ‘bad’ before (1930s) – so what’s different?

The film Blade Runner had the mood that defined the time very clearly for AC.

He thinks screenplays should have more mood in them. (“It’s all about the mood.”)

How many provocative dramas are there on TV? How many dramas that analyse the current state of affairs, the social and political atmosphere? At the moment, the characters are black and white – good and bad, they’re not provocative.

In his documentaries, Curtis has one simple message in one episode, and around that, more complex ramifications. Repetitions won’t feel like repetitions. On structure: say what you’re going to talk about, talk about it, and then say what you were just talking about. The story is about this and it means that – then he starts discussing it, and now and again creates associations, links between different storylines. He plays with atmosphere. He doesn’t like embellishing or preaching.

On The Wire: it was reactionary. It said that the politician and the criminal are similar, and then kept repeating that message over and over. “Look! This is what the world is like!” So what? And? Writers should go further than that.

Drama should reveal stuff. They play with clichés that are already in the back of everyone’s head. Dramas lack complexity.

Blade Runner changed Curtis’s view of the world, it showed him something completely new.

TV is a medium of reinforcement. Like a book of Victorian etiquette, it shows people the correct behaviour, etc.  Which drama shows the world through a new point of view, so that the viewer sees things in a new light? If drama focuses on the details it can surprise us and create positive associations. Otherwise we’re trapped in a bubble.

Curtis thought Battlestar Galactica (2004) was great. It was very emotional, and it’s an epic that deals with universal themes. Starship Troopers was a great political story, satire.

*   *   *

Visit Adam Curtis’s blog here

Adam Curtis – The Medium and the Message

Adam Curtis has made his documentaries available online:

Adam Curtis Films

Internet Archive (use search to find other films)


See also:

Part 1: Whose Voice Is It Anyway?

Part 2:  Poacher Turned Gamekeeper. Showrunners

Part 3: Writer for Hire, Commissioners, In Conversation

Part 4: John Yorke Masterclass – What is a series?



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