Blade Runner 2049 is almost upon us and I can barely conceal my excitement. Blade Runner is one of my favourite films. They better not fuck it up; but going by the trailers and previews it looks like they’ve managed to get it right. We’ll know for sure on Friday. When I’m not working on my novel, or marketing my collection, I’ve got a sideline in movie memoir. I’m collecting together pieces about films I’ve seen with family. Here’s a shortened version of the one about Blade Runner.
Tears In Rain – The First Time I Saw Blade Runner
We made and odd couple, my Dad and I, walking into the dilapidated late night cinema. I was fifteen and he was in his mid-fifties. I had Sun-in hair and too much black eye-liner, waif-like in the way that only teenagers can be, while he was tall and solid, his bulk made bigger by his sheepskin coat. It was winter 1982 and we’d gone to a midnight screening, both of us wanting to see different films on the double bill. In 1980s northern England there no instant movie streaming like there is now; if you wanted to see an obscure American movie you had a window of about a fortnight and even then only at selected cinemas. If you missed this opportunity you sometimes had the chance to mop it up at a repertory screening. And so it was that Dad and I braved the Yorkshire winter to go and see a double feature of Blade Runner and Firefox. You’ve probably only heard of one of those films, and with good reason, but in December 1982 I first had to sit through Clint Eastwood’s mediocre cold war offering in order to experience one of the greatest films ever made.
I was a film mad teenager. I consumed movies the way other people ate food – they were necessary for my survival. Severe hip-dysplasia had meant a childhood of surgeries and immobility. I spent a lot of time watching television, lying in bed or, when I was feeling up to it, on the sofa in the lounge, from which I’d watch mid-morning reruns of classic Hollywood movies. I was born late to my parents, my mum was 46 and my Dad 40, we were not just one but two generations apart. A love of cinema helped Dad and I bond. He introduced me to all the greats, John Ford westerns, Busby Berkley musicals, screwball comedies. He liked both Marylin Monroe and Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart and Robert Mitchum. His all-time favourite was Humphrey Bogart. I suspect that as a young man he’d been told he looked like the morose movie star because he often emulated his idol; in any given film Dad knew many of Bogart’s lines by heart and often wore a Philip Marlow mackintosh and chewed a match. There was indeed a striking resemblance. Dad had the same pleading eyes and thin upper lip, a square jaw and a slightly dissatisfied expression. We’d watch the movies together over and over; Key Largo, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, To Have and Have Not, The Caine Mutiny and, of course, Casablanca.
Most of the films we watched were on TV, trips to the cinema were rare, especially as I moved towards adulthood and away from a love of Disney. I began to go with friends to see modern horror movies and comedies. I’d read about Blade Runner in my beloved film magazines and was intrigued – a sci-fi movie in film noir style! I watched for the listings at my local cinema but it never appeared. I’d just about given up hope of seeing it when I saw the ad for the double bill in Leeds. I showed it to Dad knowing he liked Clint Eastwood and to my surprise he said we could go.
‘It was strange thing to do,’ said my sister, home from college a week later, when I told her about it. It had been an experience. As you can imagine, those attending a Saturday midnight screening were not the usual cinema audience. It had been freezing outside, a few scant snowflakes making an appearance as we walked up the stone steps to the old-fashioned picture palace, slightly out of town. The doors were art deco, their brass handles worn from the many hands that had held them open. Inside we were hit with a blast of acrid heat and the odour of stale popcorn mixed with cigarette smoke hung in the foyer. The bored looking woman at the box office eyed us suspiciously as she sold us our tickets. We opted for the balcony because they were the best seats in the house. There were a few single men dotted around the aisles, some obvious junkies in from the cold and a row of drunk students at the back. Firefox was on first. It had a ridiculous cold war plot about Clint Eastwood stealing a spy plane from a Russian airbase. My Dad loved it, I watched his face more than the film, saw the delight on it, the joy when the hero saved the day.
‘That was fantastic!’ He declared and nipped out for a cigar in the interval, leaving me to sip my cola and stare at the patched velvet curtain closed in front of the screen, even at that age aware that it would not be a good idea to catch anyone’s eye. He arrived back in his seat just as the camera panned across Los Angeles 2019, accompanied by the first notes of the Vangelis score, and I decided that I was going to be a film director. I sat open-mouthed throughout. Here was a movie that had managed to incorporate all my beloved classic films into something shiny and new. It felt like it had been created specifically for me. I must be the only person who likes the original voice over version the best because it’s the most like those old Bogart movies my Dad loved so much. Dad wasn’t so keen. He snored softly at one point. Afterwards as I enthused he said it thought it was ‘a bit boring and so damn dark you couldn’t see anything’. Within a week I’d dyed my hair auburn, started smoking and wearing vintage clothes and put the poster on my wall. I still have an antique VHS version of the film somewhere, though nothing to play it on.
I never became a film director. But I did study film at University and managed to get a research job at The British Film Institute in London where I stayed for fifteen years. During that time I went to West End premieres, special preview screenings and Q&As with famous directors but still nothing beats that screening of Blade Runner in terms of raw cinematic experience.
Now I’m a writer I use cinema a lot in my work. I often write about people going to the cinema, using the way they respond to certain films as a way of developing character. In my current collection (15 Minutes) I have two stories in which films feature heavily. The first is Lost In Translation which sparks an unhealthy Scarlett Johansson obsession in my protagonist and the second features a teenage boy obsessed with Blade Runner. He listens to the soundtrack, talks like Deckard’s voice over and smokes unfashionable Marlboros.
As we walked from the cinema in the pre-dawn, the snow had turned to rain. It pattered on the car windows on the silent drive home, windscreen wipers creaking. Dad concentrated wearily on the road ahead while I watched the city lights flick past and imagined that I was riding into the unknown with Deckard, searching for immortality. My Dad is no longer with us. I often think of the night we went to that midnight screening. I sometimes imagine the times he went to the cinema as a young man, on dates, to shelter from the rain or just because he wanted to catch the latest Bogart before anyone else. Only he knew about those times and now they are gone – moments lost in time, like tears in rain.
One of the great things about crowd-funding through Unbound Publishing is that there is a real sense of community amongst the authors. We all keep in touch via a private Face Book group, swap news of achievements and frustrations and give each other tips on all aspects on writing and publishing. Sometimes we even meet up, as a few of us did at Unbound’s fifth birthday party in November. They’re a great bunch and today one of them is the first guest contributor to this blog. Shona Kinsella, who has just released her brilliant fantasy novel Ashael Rising, gives some tips on world-building that are very useful for writers of any kinds. Personally, I’m a pantser that stops halfway through for a bit of obsessive map drawing!
Approaching World-Building by Shona Kinsella
One of the most enjoyable and challenging parts of writing fantasy is the world-building. There are fantasy writers who spend years creating a world before they feel ready to write a story set there. They have maps, detailed histories, notes of the flora and fauna and knowledge of political factions in every country – but they don’t have a book.
I’m very different from this. I’m what is sometimes known as a pantser (as in flying by the seat of the pants) although the term I prefer is discovery writer. What this means is that I discover the story, and the world, as I write.
When I sat down to write Ashael Rising, I knew very little about KalaDene. In fact, it didn’t even have a name until the third draft or so. My world-building was all done as I went along. I once heard an excellent description of the process; it explains just what it feels like to me so I’m going to share it here. World-building is like walking through a tunnel (the world) with a torch (the story) so I can see as much of the world as the story shines a light on and a little bit around the edges but everything else is just fuzzy shapes in the darkness, with maybe a puff of cool air indicating that there might be a door to somewhere else off to the left.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. For example, sometimes I could spend most of a day’s writing time trying to figure out how the limits to the magic system worked or whether the climate I’ve described would support the plants that I have my characters eating. That’s not a particularly efficient use of my time and would not have come up had I built my world in advance. On the other hand, people who have created an entire world before writing a book will often find that they have wasted time in building details that they do not need for the book – time that could have been spent writing.
It also means that I made substantial changes between my first and second drafts, tightening up world-building details, as well as improving the plot, and fitting in things that I changed or introduced over the course of writing the first draft. My understanding is that this is common for discovery writers while people who have plotted and world-built in advance will often have something close to the finished work at the end of their first draft. This probably balances out though – they spend the time up front, before they start writing, and I spend it at the other end.
One of the things that I like about my approach is the massive amount of flexibility it gives me. If I find myself inspired by something I see on a nature documentary (something that happens more often than you might think) I generally have space to work it into my world somewhere. I already have a few notes to myself about elements I’d like to fit into book two.
The only major drawback that I’ve experienced is that, since I make things up as I go along, I have no idea what will end up being important and I must try and keep the elements of an entire world straight in my head – something the planners don’t have to do. I have taken to keeping a world-building file open while I write, somewhere to make notes of characters that I’ve introduced, plants that I’ve made up along with their uses, distances between places and so on. The thing is, I’m pretty bad at actually updating the file. While I’m writing, I’m too involved in the story to keep stopping and starting and switching files. More than once I’ve found myself having to search back through the text to check how I spelled something a few chapters ago or whether or not I said a particular plant was poisonous or what someone’s name is. Again, not the most efficient use of my time. Still, efficient or not, it is the way that works for me and it’s the way I’ll continue to work for the time being.
The West Pier is dying. Last Wednesday a huge chunk of her fell into the sea, dislodged by heavy winds and swelling tides. Now there is a gap on the Eastern side of her and the middle hangs precariously over pirana waves. Brighton’s residents gasped collectively and wailed about her not lasting the next twenty-four hours, many braved the wind to gaze on her last moments. The wind raged through the night but the Pier stood defiant. She won’t last the weekend, they said. Tomorrow a week will have passed but tomorrow the weather forecast is gales and high swells.
The West Pier features in the first proper short story I ever wrote, a story which went on to form the first ‘chapter’ of my episodic novel, Starlings. For me the landmark is the most beautiful place in the city. She is definitely female and also old. I don’t mean in terms of actual years, I mean anthropomorphically. She is, to me, an old lady. She was once a great beauty, immaculately dressed, popular at parties, blessed of many lovers but then she aged and she couldn’t afford the fine clothes and shiny jewellery the younger girls had and her looks began to fade, people didn’t come calling anymore. She still paddled in the sea, as she had in her youth, but she grew thin through lack of sustenance and good company and her legs withered, the bones showing through. Then there was the fire.
I remember visiting Brighton in the 1980s and 90s and seeing her listing downwards, her paint peeling and windows broken and I remember thinking how romantic it was that she wasn’t a naff bells and whistles fun-fare like the Palace Pier. Every seaside town had a pier. I’m from the North, you couldn’t really beat Blackpool for seaside attractions, but Brighton had the West Pier, decaying, abandoned, loved only by the birds. It was special. The white picket fence brigade hated her then, she was an eyesore, a blight on their beautiful city, someone should do something about her. But whenever I came here she was the thing I wanted to see the most. She was Miss Havisham. She appealed to my introverted younger self. I wore black then, even in the sun, Wuthering Heights was my favourite book, the Mary Chain played in a loop in my head and I wouldn’t have been caught dead swimming in the sea. What better than a pier you weren’t allowed on because it wasn’t safe! I didn’t want a kiss-me-quick hat and a stick of rock; I wanted to gaze on decay.
I’ve changed, I hope, I like nothing better than a sea swim these days, but I’m still drawn to the desolate beauty of West Pier. I thought she was at her most beautiful after the fire. I didn’t move to Brighton until 2003 so I wasn’t here for the fire but afterwards she seemed elevated into a new art form, something truly unique. Her burnt out wreck has inspired me in so much of my writing, even when the work isn’t actually about her, the image of her guides my hand, churning up thoughts of lost beauty and aged stoicism. She is memory personified. She is death. She is anything you want her to be.
Brighton will be a much less interesting place without her. There won’t be the collective thrill of walking around her ruin at extremely low tide or watching the waves crash over her prow in stormy seas. I won’t be able to hear the peculiar metallic ting of the wind shaking her strutts or see clouds of starlings crowd her at sunset. If I’m honest though I’m really looking forward to seeing her fall. To me she is a reminder of our mortality, that technology is meaningless and that all things eventually come to an end. How much sweeter it is to be here when she goes? To be able to say ‘I was there when…’ This is selfish of me I know, but I don’t want her rebuilt like she was, because then she’d just be another pier and in the end she’s so much more than that.
If you are not as selfish as me and you would like to see a life size sculpture of the West Pier on the front when she goes then please sign this petition (anything is better than a stupid tower).