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Joz Norris

  • Tape 83: Small Worlds & Big Worlds

Small Worlds & Big Worlds

Ok, first up, I’m very sorry about the formatting in this newsletter lately. What the hell’s been going on? I’ll bet you’ve all been wondering. A few weeks ago, in this newsletter, Mailchimp seemed to delete all the spacing after I’d sent the email, despite it looking fine in preview. “Yuck!” I shouted when I saw the finished email in my inbox. “That looks like crap!” The following week, I double-spaced everything, so that it looked stupid and gappy in preview, but the final newsletter (this one) was correctly spaced. “Phew,” I thought, “Problem solved.” I pulled the same trick last week, only for last week’s Tape to arbitrarily decide not to delete all the spacing, so it ended up full of holes! I feel like saying “What gives, Mailchimp?” It’s crazy! Anyway, this week I’m going to tentatively try using regular spacing and see if it all just ends up fine like it did before all this chaos began. Apologies if it backfires and this one ends up looking all bunched up again.

Anyway, look, anyway you guys, this newsletter isn’t about formatting, please stop going on about it, it’s another one about writing! I talked in this Tape a few weeks ago about a writing tip I’ve been using to generate ideas by literalising something you can’t stop thinking about, and I also touched on two recent scripted projects I’ve worked on, an old spec script called False World and a new one originally titled I Can’t Live With MyselfThis week I have a new tip on how to reinvigorate an idea you feel stuck with, or don’t know how to progress with, and it’ll touch on both those projects again.

As I said in that Tape, both False World and I Can’t Live With Myself were the product of trying to come up with an incredibly literal manifestation of a philosophical idea I kept returning to at the time. The latter involved the idea of two friends who are forced to live in a house share with their own clones, and realise that they don’t like themselves very much. I thought it was a really fun starting point for a very weird, metaphysical take on a flatshare sitcom, and was particularly proud of myself for the hilarious title. While writing a very rough first draft script for a short version of the idea, I suddenly remembered that there was a recent American show starring Paul Rudd and Aisling Bea in which Paul Rudd played two characters. I thought I’d better look it up to find out if it was remotely similar. It turns out it’s not only similar, it’s almost exactly the same and even has essentially the same title. I’ve not seen it, but did read a plot summary to see if it panned out in similar ways to how I’d imagined my idea might pan out, and found that yes, the character and story arcs were identical to what I was imagining. “Hey ho,” I said to myself, “Let’s chuck that one in the bin and wait for the next idea.”

But then I had a meeting with a producer last week and happened to mention the idea in passing and my vague disappointment that it wasn’t an idea I could develop due to it being so similar to something that already exists, and she disagreed and encouraged me to think of alternative ways of exploring the concept. What I ended up doing in that meeting was to return to an approach I took when first working up False World, and turning it on its head.

False World was a Truman Show-indebted concept about the discovery that the entire world is an elaborate piece of performance art being staged by half the population for the benefit of the other half, who have no idea that 50% of their friends and family and loved ones are in fact actors. I was aware when writing it that it was potentially a very big, complicated, expensive idea that could involve building entire fake cities, a la Synecdoche New York, if I ever wanted to do it justice. My solution was to make the world of the show very small – although it was against the backdrop of a huge, avant-garde conspiracy plot, it focused in on one central character and his closest friends, and tried to have a lot of fun with what sort of small problems would occur in an unremarkable life if you had no idea which parts of your life were real and which were fake. It was a way of pushing the grander, more overwhelming elements of the concept into the background and shining a spotlight on something more intimate and grounded.

Here’s a photo of Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride. As I’ve said before, sometimes I’m not sure what photo to put here.

As I discussed the idea with this producer, I realised that moving in the opposite direction potentially turned my clones idea into a very different proposition to the Paul Rudd one. After all, the reasons why this cloning process existed in my concept and what it was being used for was very different to the reasons for its existence in Living With Yourself, and that core difference opened up different themes and story opportunities. The problem was that both ideas were focused in on a small central world of one or two individuals having to deal with the fallout from becoming entangled in this process. Turning the idea upside-down, however, prompted a really interesting question:

“If we’re saying this idea is set in a world where this is possible, what does that imply? What would that world be like? What would people use that process for, and what sort of stories does that enable you to tell?”

The answer we stumbled across to this question really excited me, and felt like an entirely different concept, both to my original idea and to the concept of Living With Yourself, albeit having an element of crossover in the centrality of cloning as a concept.

Quite where I go with it next I’ve no idea – perhaps I’ll develop it into a full script, or perhaps it’ll pootle along for a bit and then fade away. I’ll update you all here with it if it becomes anything significant! But the process of turning the idea around in that meeting reminded me that choosing the scale of the story you’re trying to tell has a huge impact on the nature of the idea itself. Just as False World found its identity as a result of my decision to focus in on a small world, so this new idea (which I will find a new title for) might end up finding its identity as a result of choosing to make its world bigger than I initially assumed it would be.

To any fellow writers who subscribe to this newsletter – let me know your thoughts! Have you had similar breakthroughs as a result of making decisions about the scale of the story you’re trying to tell? Are you working on anything at the moment where flipping the size of the world you’re painting within would fundamentally change the nature of the story you’re telling? Let me know what you’re working on, I’d love to hear from you!

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Robin Ince’s cult favourite festive weekend of comedy, philosophy and music, Nine Lessons And Carols For Curious Peopleis back this weekend and I’m very proud and honoured to be doing a short set for their family matinee show on Saturday morning! There’s loads of amazing guests booked – you can find out more and book tickets here.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I rewatched the music video for Fruit Bats’ Humbug Mountain Song last night and it’s just joyous. I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve not seen it, but you’ll know which bits made me guffaw.

Book Of The Week – The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism by Soshanna Zuboff, still. I’m approaching the end, though. I’ll have some thoughts on it next week.

Album Of The Week – Mouthfuls by Fruit Bats. Fruit Bats are the band Eric D. Johnson led before starting Bonny Light Horseman with Anais Mitchell. Because Bonny Light Horseman are my band of the year, and because I love “Humbug Mountain Song” so much, I’ve decided to go back into their discography. This early album, sadly, is not great. It’s very generic, almost boring, early-noughties indie folk. But I know they eventually get good enough to produce “Humbug Mountain Song,” so I’ll keep going.

Film Of The Week – Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio. This is good, but not great. It’s a darker take on the story that skews closer to the original tale than to the Disney template, but I still wanted it to be darker than it was, frankly. The original story is nuts – Pinocchio bites off a cat’s paw; Pinocchio gets hanged by bandits; a snake laughs so hard at Pinocchio’s misfortune that it has a heart attack and dies; the Blue Fairy is a living corpse, etc etc. I also hoped Del Toro could make a version that engaged more directly with the fact that the Pinocchio of the story is an irredeemable little shit, but instead it sticks with the idea that beneath his mischief he is fundamentally good, which I think is less interesting. It’s a good film, but I wanted it to be more horrible.

That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed this newsletter and would like to send it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it! Take care of yourselves until next time,

Joz xx

PS There was a public gallery of snowmen in Primrose Hill the other night. This was my favourite, and I think the greatest snowman I’ve ever seen:

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