3. Comfort Stories

Tuesday 21st April, 2020

30min 09secs

 

Often how we make sense of the world around us is through stories and creating a narrative. Right now, it might be that you're turning to familiar stories and re-watching, or re-reading your favourites for comfort. What do we get from this? And what stories that might be produced in the months and years ahead to reflect this time? This episode I'm joined by writer and TV producer Jonathan Gilbert as we talk comfort viewing, the warmth of predictability, and the joy of our favourite characters,

*PLEASE NOTE this is an uncensored recording that contains one moment of explicit language.

As with all episodes of the Humanish podcast, the transcript of the conversation is available below.

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NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

The world outside is quiet. How this effects you is probably on a sliding scale from a pleasurable relief to a disconcerting wobble. Perhaps, like me, you have begun noticing sounds in more high definition. I even stepped outside to watch and listen to a passing plane. Sounds invariably are trip wires to emotions. Sometimes it is someone else who blunders through them causing us to instinctively react. Other times, we seek out these sensory delights.A few sounds have surprised me with the sense memories they have unlocked:

Music: A collection of sounds including wind through trees and birdsong, a can being opened and pouring, a key in a lock, popping bubble wrap.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

One aspect we are more acutely aware of is the media we consume. Are you taking more care with the playlists you make and listen to? Are they certain songs and artists you're playing more often? What about books, TV, films? Even the soundtracks of certain shows and movies are are offering up a snuggly pillow of familiar comfort to keep me warm against the cold of the news bulletin. Maybe some of these are providing similar comfort to you...

 

Music: Soundtrack of : Harry Potter, Cheers, Gilmore Girls, ET, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Robin of Sherwood, Fraggle Rock, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The West Wing, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Detectorists, Community.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Fair play if you recognised all of those.

I find the Cheers theme especially poignant right now.

 

Music: Cheers theme.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Like a time capsule of a forgotten era – I'm not just transported back a few weeks, but years to when I was a regular in my local pub and I'd greet the Norms and Cliffs and chat to the Carlas behind the bar. There's a tantalising lure to the familiar. A safety net stretched out that we can fall into with open arms.

 

Music.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Eyup, I'm Nathan Human, this is Humanish.

 

On today's episode, let's embrace that pillow even tighter and talk about the comfort stories we might be turning to and what it is that makes them particularly attractive right now. One of the key ways in which we share our experiences and make sense of the world and try and put some order to it, is through stories. What might our cultural story telling look and sound like in a few months, in a year? Let's have a ponder. A brief warning – there are one or two words in this episode that might not please sensitive ears.

 

As we're talking films and TV, I thought it best to look a bit further a field for someone who might be able to help me out.

 

JONATHAN

My name is Jonathan Gilbert, I a writer first and foremost, writer and producer in Hollywood.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Everyone is finding their own way of coping at the moment and for Jonathan, it involves staying zen, because...

 

JONATHAN

I think you have to in this because you can't control it and I think it is so important to be aware of what you can control and what you can't. When it's something in my power to control, I can be a monster of anxiety but this is out of my hands so I just have to go “ok, well, I can make a sandwich or I can watch TV or those are the things I can control, I can't do anything about the world situation.”

 

NATHAN (Voice over)

We realised that certain careers or pursuits could prepare you for dealing with uncertainty and having to ad lib. A career in the Arts for example.

 

JONATHAN

For many years now I've just been sort of comfortable living with uncertainty. When you work in the Arts and things like that you never know what's going to happen. I've gotten good at trusting my instincts and trusting that let's just see how this goes and I feel like it's given me a little bit of an edge here because I'm not afraid of the fact that I don't know.

 

NATHAN

Yeah, I guess there's a little bit of the fact that people I know who work in any form of creative industry are generally good at being adaptable and to change and go with different circumstances. Even though work wise, it might be really scary, that ability is quite helpful in these situations.

 

JONATHAN

Very much. I went to undergrad for directing and I used to think about when you're directing a play – sometimes something you've really got in your mind is just not going to work and when you realise that in rehearsal you can either fight that and do everything possible to make your original vision work or you can adapt. And that's what we have to do right now. We all had these plans, well they're gone now, alright is that ok? Can I move forward, can I make new plans or am I paralysed by wanting those plans back?

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

I remember as a - relatively – fresh faced 20-something going to work on my first film set for a small, low budget short film. Even at that level, I was taken aback at the amount of people on set and all the different jobs that needed doing. Jonathan had told me that he'd worked on a couple of TV shows over the last year so I wanted to know what his role entailed. If a work experience person had to follow him for a week, what might they have seen on a typical day, if there was such a thing as a typical day.

 

JONATHAN

There was never anything close to typical. The hours were different almost every single day and it was really dependent on what was happening. If we were in production and on set, in say, Budapest, for a show that I can't get too specific about – that was 16-20 hour days in the rain, shooting outside in the forest, dead animals... It was like, anything that could go wrong did go wrong, so a typical day would be, if it was my choice to wake up then I would have a little time checking emails, seeing what was going on, as much as I could sending stuff back to someone in Los Angeles, or answering yes or no questions quickly and then going to set. If it wasn't my choice when to get up then it was because something was on fire, or we'd killed another horse, or

 

NATHAN

Not deliberately killed another horse?!

 

JONATHAN

No! We didn't kill any of them on purpose. One of the last things I did before things fell apart was I was working on a universal production policy for animals because every country, and sometimes region to region has different rules for how you handle animals in film. I discovered in Budapest you can pretty much do what you want and so that's why we like “ok we need to have a corporate policy on this” and that was pretty much what I was doing before we all stopped making TV.

There's a lot of people who really have a job and we were just there to help, there to guide to “oh please don't do that!” that kind of thing. We were coming in from company and informing production that way. Also just sort of making sure everyone was happy so a lot of it was that the show runner needs this, or wants this, or needs a meeting with people – sure, we can do that, everyone else has a job to do, let me take care of that.

 

NATHAN

That sounds like it might be quite mentally tiring? People get this idea don't they that a film set or TV set is really glamorous but that actually sounds like an admin' hell!

 

JONATHAN

It's like watching American football...it's soooo boring. There are so many breaks, and you stop for everything. Sometimes it is very exciting and you're watching art happen. Sometimes it is, we're going to do that for 47th time and each time you do it is a 15minute set up.

 

NATHAN

That explains it! That's probably why I like film sets, because I like American Football!

 

Both laugh.

 

NATHAN

I kind of like the detail of analysing what's happened.

 

JONATHAN

Sure – it really is, you stop for everything; if the light isn't quite right here, or we need this. Once you see the technical side of it – you have to spend years doing it to get to a place where your instincts inform it and that's when it gets to become a little more art. But you have to put in the time, you have to put in the effort to learn the rules before you can break them.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

In case you listening and thinking that I'm missing some juicy details about who Jonathan worked for and what projects he worked on recently; I did ask...but you might be frustrated by the answer!

 

JONATHAN

There is a show that has not yet come out, that I really enjoyed. It's based on underlying IP [Intellectual Property] from I believe it was a comic, a Manga is what I think it actually was, and it's going to have some hardcore fans waiting for it when it comes and I'm sorry but I can't specifically say what it is …

 

NATHAN

I knew you were going to say that!

 

JONATHAN

Think Harry Potter, but with sex and drugs, as a TV series. Harry Potter as WB show it's that kind of vibe. And the show runner is someone who did a WB show so he was exactly the right person for it. I set up the writer's room for it here in LA, and I was their “whatever you need while you're writing it” guy, and I got to watch them develop 6 episodes of it and it's lovely. It's mostly shot in Ireland, mostly a cast of people who will be new to American audiences. It's going to be fun, it's a teen, supernatural drama.

 

NATHAN

That sounds exactly like the type of thing I could binge!

 

JONATHAN

It will be hard to miss when it comes out. When it comes out, you're going to know what I was talking about. The thing is, I don't think they have dropped a date for it yet. It may still actually be in post [post production].

 

NATHAN

So at some point in the future I will be excitedly tweeting you saying “is this what it was?”

 

JONATHAN

Uh huh. You'll know.

 

NATHAN

Are there any shows you could tell us about? If people are listening and thinking “I'm really excited by these, what else has Jonathan worked on” - are there any you are able to tell us about that you've been involved with?

 

JONATHAN

There are not at the moment because of the unnamed, very large streaming service I work for . Before this I worked for NBC many, many, years ago, when I came to LA I worked in Universal City for a while and then I worked for Discovery Channel for a number of years. So most of my experience has been more along the lines of the network side of things and the last few years have been my first experience of awesome production experience but they are all very NDA.

Music

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Before we get on to our comfort story section, I just want to say that the NDA , the non disclosure agreement Jonathan mentioned is due to the company he worked for.

Thank you so much to all of you who have been listening and subscribing and saying nice things about this podcast - it really does mean a lot. If you are listening on an app that allows you to leave a rating or a review that would be extra lovely as it helps other people notice the show.

Each episode is transcribed by my not so fair hands and is available on the website at thehumanish. co. uk where you can find all sorts of info including the blog. You can get in touch via the website or by searching for humanishy on all social media platforms.

 

The main reason I'd gotten on the phone across the Atlantic to TV writer and producer Jonathan Gilbert in LA was to ask him about comfort viewing. I wanted to ask if – like a lot of people – he'd been turning to old favourites at the moment but for Jonathan, this isn't a recent trend:

 

JONATHAN

I think people have started looking for comfort since Brexit, since everything started getting shaky, and tI think people started saying “I wanna see the world before it changed, let's watch The West Wing, let's watch something from back then,” and now especially we need the “oh my god this is just warm, this is fuzzy, this is joy” and I'm all for it. I love I.t

 

NATHAN

Is there something in the structure of certain stories that are drawing people to them, is there something innate is these? There does seem to be a common tread of what shows and films people are watching?

 

JONATHAN

Definitely. Definitely. I think there is a hopefulness and a sense of – with The West Wing especially – “we can change the world, we can definitely change the world”, the idea that I want to believe our leaders are like this and there is, there's something to it. There's also just a simplicity. I'm watching a lot of Murder, She Wrote and it's sooo...the hair, the clothes are ridiculous, and I recognise all of the exteriors and I'm like ok but you're not in Italy, that's Burbank. There's something to it that is hitting those beats, it's telling the story in the, you know, the hero's journey, it's so simple and it's so easy and it's all they had to do and they are four commercial breaks. I try not to do six or seven hours of bingeing straight through unless it's like I just want noise. I just want to have Toby Ziegler talking in the background – that's one thing. But if I'm watching it, I try to do two, maybe three and that's about it and it's a sort of nice escape for a little while.

 

NATHAN

I think it's really interesting you saying about it's just in the background, this familiar soundscape. One, they have these iconic soundtracks that draw us in – but also the voices are the familiar. At the moment our soundtracks are totally different, it isn't the same and I imagine it must be the same in LA where everyone drives.

 

JONATHAN

It's very quiet.

 

NATHAN

To have the lack of airplanes, the lack of noise nearby – even people in their homes are quiet. Does that feel part of it where you live that having that [Shows and films] in the background, even if you're not watching it is the comforting noise?

 

JONATHAN

It definitely is. I have two tiny, furry predators who live with me, and if I didn't I, I think it might be constant – my TV would never be off. Because I have the cats I do at least have another creature here that is making noise and sort of responds to me. It [TV on] feels like having people without having people over. And they're safe people, they're people that I like and I know, and they're not going to make a mess and I'm confident with that

 

NATHAN

You were talking about the structure of writing that you're keen on. Is there a comfort to us of the character arc? Most of us aren't changing – maybe getting a little fatter – but we watching these characters evolving and there's a comfort to that knowing that someone is changing -

 

JONATHAN

Or not. Or not because that's the thing with Angela Lansbury, I've got literally twelve years – she was on the air as long as Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and literally she never changes. That's part of why she stopped doing the show because she was getting old and she didn't want to show a different Jessica Fletcher. That's part of it it too, seeing characters not change. I'm enjoying that more in movies – I've been watching a lot of Marvel films and Star Wars and things like that. Seeing the hero's evolution, or an antihero's evolution and tracking it and watching it and being like “oh, it's interesting that Act One was that long.” Whereas TV for me it's something more about the constancy. There's something about it that Jessica Fletcher doesn't change, or Allison Janney [plays CJ Cregg in The West Wing] doesn't change and there's something safe about that

 

NATHAN

There's very few modern things I've been watching. So my film output has been all from my childhood: Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark and increasingly back to Roman Holiday and Charade, this longing for something that bears no resemblance to our world. Have you been having any of those urges?

 

JONATHAN

I definitely have. I've watched a lot of things from my childhood, especially if I go on Amazon and they're just there – The Monster Squad? Ok, why did I like this movie? This is interesting. Star Wars for me is a big part of that, having that in the background. For me the sequel films feel like going back to my childhood so they're a part of that loop. There is something comforting about seeing a world that is very, very removed from any of the headlines right now.

 

NATHAN

We often see the creative industries respond to what's happening in the world don't we? After 9/11 there was a raft of superhero and fantasy films, which hadn't been popular for years and we suddenly had a load of them -

 

JONATHAN

Total escapism.

 

NATHAN

Can you imagine that there's going to be a reaction like that? I'm finding it hard to imagine what those stories could look like?

 

JONATHAN

Absolutely. I know writers several other writers who are terrified of and paralysed by that - and they're the ones that keep telling me to not feel any pressure to write – because they don't know what the fuck we're going to want when this is done. I don't know either, but when it comes to my own writing it's taken me a long time to realise that I'm not going to write for someone else's vision of this, I can't pitch for what is coming. I want to write a story that entertains me and if I get really lucky it will entertain other people at the right time, and if not then okay then it doesn't. Hollywood has such a bad track record of getting it right when it comes to what the public needed. I think the Lord of the Rings films were almost luck and it had been in develop for so many years. The Handmaid's Tale had been in development hell for ten years, and they really had that planned out quite a way into the future and a lot if is so serendipitous, it was just the timing, they just got lucky. And Peter Jackson really got lucky that we wanted to face Sauron instead of George W Bush.

You know with this, Hollywood will try – I promise you – Hollywood will try to figure out what is that we want and need as soon as they are allowed to make things again and that is going to be a while. But I don't know that they'll get it right.

NATHAN

It could be really rich from what you're saying.

 

JONATHAN

It could be.

 

NATHAN

If there are all these writers that can't meet up – maybe they chat over zoom – left in their own imaginations saying “I'm just going to write for me”?

 

JONATHAN

Yeah, and I hope they come up with things that are not about this. That's what Hollywood is going to try and do first. They're going to try and tell stories about the virus. It's like telling movies about the Iraq war when it was happening – no matter how goof they were, nobody wanted to see it. That's where I think corporate is going to go but I hope the storytellers who are in lockdown right now are finding ways to talk about this emotional journey without talking about this.

NATHAN

When we've had these big events before, it's either been USA-centric, or British-centric, or European-centric -

 

JONATHAN

- This is the whole world at once.

 

NATHAN

Yeah, I don't want this sound like I'm belittling what's happening but from a storytelling perspective the canvas is so broad -

 

JONATHAN

Absolutely, yeah.

 

NATHAN

That we might be able to make connections. We often talk about how there's more that unites us than separates us, that we have more similarities than differences, but right now that's even truer. Even allowing for social differences and class, the fact that most people have a version of a similar thing happening at the same time – should hopefully give us some interesting story perspectives?

 

JONATHAN

Something that worries me a little bit and this is why I think it's an obligation for artists because we can carry that forward and say what are you seeing in South Africa? What are you seeing in Sudan? How does it relate to what my grandmother is experiencing in Indiana and it does directly. And how do we show people that all over the world? That is our job. The leaders who are getting us through this – the doctors and the politicians and the bureaucrats – the direction that I see them going right now, and I don't know if I want to be wrong about this or not, but I'm pretty sure it's how things are going to go, we're going to become more insular. We shouldn't have let certain things happen so we're going to over correct in order to get to a place where we feel safe again. That's going to be a big thing and I think the artists have to fight against it and keep reminding people what we do have in common.

NATHAN

I was thinking from a storytelling point of view, there's a responsibility to tell stories from those places. The worst thing in my mind that could happen is that we come out of this with lots of films set in London and New York telling that perspective, when we could hear from all over the world. Do you think that's likely to happen or do you think we'll end up with our Western-centric stories?

 

JONATHAN

Well, because Netflix is one of the very few companies in the world that has the liquid debt to play with and the desperate need for eyeballs – yes. There are working very hard to reach into Africa and the Middle East and they are getting it half right. They really screwed up the Middle East operation just by choosing he stories that they did and the countries they did but they are doing really really well making in roads in Africa. And broadband access in Africa in 10 years is going to be a really different thing to what it is now – it wont even be broadband, whatever it will be. That's a whole lot of people with internet that don't have it right now that will and will have stories that they want to tell coming out of this and they'll want to see themselves reflected. The growth of streaming companies internationally is going to promote a lot of that kind of storytelling that Hollywood may nor may not find that interesting? But once they see that there's a thirst for it, they'll be a little more open to it than I think they have in the past.

 

NATHAN

That's encouraging. I feel like when I'm ready to watch something new, I think they're the type of stories I'd really like to follow. Well how did someone in – I think you said Nairobi – how did someone live in Nairobi, in these different continents and different circumstances and how can I relate to that? How is that similar to my experience?

JONATHAN

We really like what is familiar to us, and now – especially in America but worldwide – are being forced to spend a lot of time with what is familiar and with ourselves and that may really inspire a real thirst and excitement for how the other half lives, how somebody else is doing it somewhere else and I hope it does.

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Dear listener, That feels like the right note of hope and optimism to end on.

A huge thank you to Jonathan for joining me and I need to try some Murder, She Wrote and another film he suggested as a comfort favourite – Home for the Holidays with a stellar cast including Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Clare Danes and Robert Downey Jnr and directed by Jodie foster.

Obviously, I appreciate that some of you are listening and are a bit baffled as you might be throwing yourself into all new content – reading those books you haven't gotten around to, or those box sets and films you've said you'll watch – I totally get that. If you have any you would like to recommend please please please let me know, and I'll share some of them on social media and also in the next blog on thehumanish . co. uk

 

The next episode is my conversation with:

 

JAY HULME

I'm Jay Hulme, I'm a poet, performer, and a purveyor of historical nonsense I guess on twitter.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

This is the next one in a semi-regular one in a mini series about things that people love.

 

And it was another one that was recorded BC and involved a trip out to a special place for my guest – Bradgate Park in Leicestershire. But why Bradgate Park?

 

JAY

We're in Bradgate Park because I feel like Bradgate Park sums up a lot of who I am: It's a bit too dramatic for its own good, you know it's very poetic in its wildness. I doubt a lot of people will have been to Bradgate Park, it's very hard to get to unless you have a car and you won't have heard of it unless you live in the Midlands, it's not very hyped. And it's very historical, and it's very beautiful, and what better place to go for a poet who likes history?

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Join me and Jay on the next episode of Humanish to find out about poetry for teenagers, Jay's new book and ...The Victorians? Yes. The Victorians because for one...

 

JAY

The Victorians invented the tabloid newspaper and so we've got all these great newspapers that are just full of the ridiculous escapades of these Victorian people just doing wild things and having weird affairs and getting into stupid incidents. And there's so much Victorian porn out there still and that's just great to take the mickout of.

 

NATHAN (VOICE OVER)

Thanks for listening, see you next time.

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