I teach screenwriting. I think I’m OK at it. Ach, that was false modesty, I totally rock at it. It was one of those things in life where you don’t even consider something as an option but when you stumble into it, you find you have an aptitude for it that you bitterly wish you had for the things you had chosen to do. In other words, I’m pretty sure I’m a better screenwriting teacher than I ever was a screenwriter.
At the time I started teaching, I was working as a screenwriter and had just moved back to Oxford after 7 years away, I knew 2 people and neither of them were ‘filmy’ so, hoping to expand my social circle, I went to the film workshop which had taught me how to make and edit films as a teenager and told them that if anyone was looking for free film crew, I was available. They grilled me as to my capabilities and on the spot offered me the job teaching their 16mm film production course. That’s how beautifully ramshackle the workshop was. I had never taught anybody anything and to this day have had no formal training but they were offering money and it seemed like a challenge. I loved it, I seemed to do a good job and I haven’t stopped since. I taught various courses there for the first couple of years but always jealously eyed up the screenwriting course they offered. The woman who ran it appeared to have no professional screenwriting credits and the course structure seemed a bit wrong to me – I never actually met her but I definitely resented her and was pretty forward with those running the workshop that really that course should be mine. In 2003, she dropped out and the course was mine, all mine. Teaching it became a bit of a passion. I knew what I was talking about, I’d lived it, I could answer any questions, explain any principle. It was like going on Mastermind with the specialist subject ‘Me and my life’, this knowledge I’d accumulated – consciously or sub – was of some value to people.
Within a couple of months, it all clarified in my mind. All those awful how-to magic formula books on screenwriting and one day courses I’d attended promising the secrets to screenwriting success had been bollocks. Empty, motivational, profiteering bollocks. There is no magic formula. It’s all about hard work, developing intelligent critical skills and understanding some basic technical principles. It’s a craft not an art. It’s something anybody can do and lack of experience is actually a bonus. Craft can be learned, it’s the life experiences, philosophies and perspectives you bring to it which make the writing unique.
I made a conscious decision to teach unprofessionally. My classes, although tightly structured on a fundamental basis, are very informal, often descend into discussion and debate and I make no effort to project anything other than myself. I hate the hoity-toityness of most education. Especially film education. I spent my whole teens and twenties going to lectures, seminars, workshops and classes which endlessly showed me the work of ‘brilliant’ film-makers. I didn’t see the point. Why show me Hitchcock? I could never be as good as Hitchcock. Why show me Fellini? I could never be as good as Fellini. Or Tartovsky, Powell and Pressburger, Stanley Kubrick or the mighty Orson Welles. Their films are great but their shadows are hugely detrimental as many film-makers have wrongly forsaken their chance to show their own unique aspects in pursuit of aping ‘the greats’.
I show some awful, average, unknown and forgotten films in my classes but I never, ever show ‘classics’ because I want students to realise that the principles I’m talking about operate in even the most bog-standard of films. You don’t have to be Hitchcock to master the three-act-structure – it’s right there in Dude, Where’s My Car. You don’t have to be Truffaut to master montage – there it is in Office Space. Theme? You don’t have to be Kubrick, John Landis did a better job with An American Werewolf in London. If someone wants to learn to neatly paint a ceiling with a tub of Dulux, you don’t start by showing them the Sistine Chapel.
Students always grill me as to my personal tastes in film and often react with bemusement when I talk about the work I love because it doesn’t ever sound very highbrow. I don’t have ‘highbrow’ tastes, yet I am demanding.
The biggest look of confusion I can ever wrangle is when I talk about TV. Specifically when they ask me about my favourite TV shows. The general list doesn’t seem to bother people – Curb Your Enthusiasm, The West Wing, M*A*S*H, Doctor Who (no I haven’t watched The fucking Wire yet, now people are starting to shut up about it, I just might) – it’s when I name my favourite ever TV show that they get stumped. My favourite ever TV show is The Incredible Hulk. Yeah, the one from the seventies. Yes – the big green bodybuilder one. Yeah. Yep. Yes. That’s right. I know. Honestly. Yes. No, I’m not kidding.
So once that’s said, people assume that I’m just a very nostalgic person. Which I probably am, but i have to explain that I don’t just like it for nostalgic reasons – in fact, I get frustrated with how badly certain episodes have dated, but, no, I still genuinely watch it and like it and find it relevant, intelligent, human and hugely engaging.
Jaws swing open, eyebrows furrow. The truth is, hardly anyone i know or have met have ever sat down and watched an episode since it first ran and the most memorable parts of it will always cloud judgment. People remember Bill Bixby with his bouffant hair and flares, they remember the big silly man painted green shouting and they remember the syrupy music that played over the end titles. All of which are undeniably constituent parts of the show, but the infantile need to render everything not from this decade as cheesy, retro and kitsch can do a huge dis-service to things of actual quality.
I engaged with the show when it was first on British TV. I remember clearly watching it on Sundays with my dad at my grandmother’s house. I also remember not enjoying it. The way most people talk about watching Doctor Who as a kid – the behind the sofa syndrome. I really didn’t like the bits with the Hulk himself. The transformation was scary and he was scary, but it was compelling. I felt a kinship with him because for that period of my childhood, I was prone to unexpected, illogical and epic temper tantrums. I didn’t turn green but I did as much physical and emotional damage as a five year old was capable of and had no idea why (it turned out to be a reaction to Ribena). The show as cancelled in ’82, I was six. When I was 12, Central re-ran a handful of episodes on Saturday afternoons. I fell in love with the show. I was struck by how smart it was, how diverse it was – how the simple formula allowed for such a range of storytelling styles and situations.
I didn’t get to see it again until they finally released the first series on DVD when the lamentable Ang Lee film came out. I bought it nostalgically, expecting the cheesy, retro, kitsch childhood weekend vibe and was blown away to discover myself connecting with it even more deeply and unironically as I had as a child. It is amazingly nuanced and sophisticated, engaging and touching.
For the uninitiated, the show centres around Dr David Banner. His wife died in a car crash and he failed to rescue her before it exploded. He dedicated his work to finding out how, in times of extreme stress, human beings are capable of super-human feats. He makes the connection that all of his case studies had taken place in times of high gamma radiation from the sun. Getting ahead of himself, he decides to become his own guinea pig, exposing himself to gamma radiation, unfortunately the machine is badly calibrated and he blasts himself with far too much. This leads to him mutating into a primal creature whenever he is placed under huge stress. This works on a metaphorical level very nicely and I can’t help thinking that the show’s makers were really held back by the demand to paint him green (coming as the show did from a hugely iconic comic book which, despite having tried to love over the years, I’ve never been able to connect with).
So, what you have is a man cursed by his own behaviour. Each week sees him arrive in a new town, get a new blue collar job, try to stay anonymous and slowly go about his long quest to find a cure for his condition but, inevitably (and usually through his basic human decency), finds himself in a stressful situation which will be both exacerbated and ultimately sorted by his terrifying alter-ego and see him back on the road by the end credits. This gives the show a strong, epic spine – a cursed man looking for a cure and a unique freshness – each episode is completely different to the others. Always a new town, a new industry, a new style, a new problem.I just discovered an episode called ‘Interview With The Hulk’ in which a down-at-heel tabloid journalist solves the mystery of the Hulk’s identity and corners Banner into spilling the beans but in the course of the interviews, connects with Banner’s motives (having been ineffectual in saving his own child from cancer) and ultimately aids his escape and destroys the tapes. It isn’t an episode about the Hulk smashing shit up, it’s about how our own experiences connect us to the emotions of others.
Playing Banner is Bill Bixby an actor who I’d like to say never got to deliver on his incredible abilities but know that anyone who watched the series knows that he did. He just didn’t get to shine in the world outside of the Hulk. His character is charismatic, decent, dark, thoughtful, resourceful and terribly sad. He has taken this ridiculous premise and imbued it with such intelligence and truth that it elevates into something brilliant.Bixby himself was a tragic figure, whilst he was making the show he was going through a tough divorce but cast his actress wife as co-lead in an episode to show their son that they could still get on. Their six year old son died unexpectedly and Bixby’s wife committed suicide shortly after. You can see this all in his performance as the show progresses. The longer his exile, the darker he becomes.
Lou Ferrigno plays the Hulk. He should be ridiculous. I mean, really. I think when you see photos of him in the role, it actually does just look silly with his ludicrous green wig and ripped jeans. His perfomance, however is actually fantastic. Like Bixby, he transcends the ridiculous by committing to it 100%. When he’s angry, he looks ANGRY. The show’s creator was clever in insisting that he always be filmed with an over-cranked camera, meaning that the Hulk is always moving in slow motion to give him more power and intensity. He brings a physicality to the role far above shouting and punching. In his performance, you can see the confusion and tenderness of Bixby’s Banner.
The show was created, produced and occasionally directed by a chap called Kenneth Johnson. Johnson was also responsible for a series in the 80’s called V which allegorically looked at the varied human responses and behaviour that had been displayed during the Holocaust. It was, on first appraisal, a show about a race of lizards disguised as humans taking over the Earth (hello, David Icke!) but my dad took the time to explain to me what was really going on with it. Johnson, in the early 90’s also created the Alien Nation TV series which, set in a near-future LA where a huge peaceful alien race had landed and, after a quarantine period, been allowed to integrate with society, explored issues of all forms of racism.
Johnson did that best, he was capable of using science fiction conceits to actually explore human behaviour. Which is exactly what storytelling is – a way of exploring our own humanity. It strikes me fantastic that a thirty year old show about a 7ft tall green man can do that better than so much of the crap we’re subjected to now.