Caroline Norbury MBE in Film & TV

19/03/2015

BLOG: Lessons From SXSW 2015

Beau Willimon’s first thought when he wakes up every day is that he is going to die. This is apparently what “concentrates the mind” for the lead writer and creator of 'House of Cards'.  It’s a great axiom and one which I think I might adopt. It’s certainly better than Roman Polanski’s start to the day, which is with a cold shower on the basis that things can’t get any worse…

I have been to many film festivals but this is my first outing to SXSW.  I’m here because there are two films supported by Creative England in the festival. The first is Julien Temple’s amazing documentary on the living legend that is Wilko Johnson, of Dr Feelgood fame. The second is 'The Goob', Creative England’s first completed iFeature, which premiered at Venice Film Festival last year. SXSW is the film’s first US outing.

Both films have been very well received – particularly 'The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson'. You should check out the reviews on Indiewire and AintitCool - there definitely seems to be a competition going on for the most thoughtful and insightful critique. And as an avid cultural consumer it’s not often I can say that!

As well as watching some amazing indie films, I’ve also been to a few sessions in the interactive and film workshops, where two in particular stood out. The first was a session with writer and author James Frey – whose novel 'Endgame' is one of the first truly 360 degree content propositions to really excite me.

'Endgame' is the story of 12 teenagers dispersed around the world playing a competition to survive the forthcoming apocalypse. All come from a particular tribe and woven into their journey is a rich tapestry of mythologies and stories of ancient civilisations. These are then translated into to a much larger alternative-reality game. Frey has teamed up with Google’s Niantic Labs to create both a virtual and a real-life gaming experience that has the potential to work anywhere in the world. Think Second Life but playing in Real Life, connecting with people to collect treasure and weapons, defeat enemies and helping your dispersed team to win. To complete the IP circle Frey has also just signed a deal to transfer the stories into a theatrical franchise. 

The second workshop was with show runner Beau Willimon, lead writer on the Netflix series 'House of Cards'. Willimon talked through his working method and painted a picture of a team committed to character development and story excellence.  Finding a way to tell unique stories is the driver for Willimon – whose background as a playwright, academic and feature writer are all influences he draws upon.

He discussed the importance of intertwining character stories and plot with the issue and thematic storylines that make each episode so gripping. He also told us how adopting a tight framework - limiting shot types and colour palette - has forced the team to be more and more innovative with their material.

His pared-down approach is in contrast to Frey who, whilst also working within a tight story structure, has far less rules about what can or can’t be done and is happy to let things spiral in unexpected ways.

Yet there is something that unites both Willimon and Frey – the ability to tell brilliant and immersive stories that translate to a worldwide audience. There’s also a lesson we can all learn: If you put the story at the heart of your endeavour, then you can create a vision that is exciting, unique and utterly compelling.

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