The Devil is in the Detail / by Karl Dixon

Friday 30th October, Manchester. Halloween. (Well, the night before Halloween at least).

I stand underneath a dark ceiling of cobwebs, sweat and ooze sticking me to a cold stone floor. Beside me are hordes of deathly dancers, cavorting on a raised, round platform and encircled by gothic cemetery fencing. In one corner of the room a pale gathering of lost souls sit amongst gravestones, while in another a giant red devil looms out of the wall, as if the very building has taken demonic form. This is where the night has brought me. Satan's Hollow. One of the very best (and cheesiest!) rock and metal clubs in the UK.

I have spent a lot of time preparing for this visit. The week has been filled with far too many google searches for "skinhead Halloween costume" and "bald movie villain". I have spent long hours stalking the labyrinthine passageways and dark alcoves of Manchester's alternative arcade,  Affleck's Palace, perusing the frilled, torn and ripped outfits and the pewter, leather and brass accompaniments being peddled. Now here I am. Ghostly pale, sunken eyed, a thin pair of tweezer fangs protruding from the centre of my mouth like some villainous insect. I have settled on my costume. I am Nosferatu the vampyre. 

I am not alone. My partner in crime stands beside me, a dead doll with creamy cracked complexion. Beside her two more friends complete our twisted troupe; a Transylvanian vampire with mouth of oozing blood and the towering, imposing figure of Mick Thompson from Slipknot. Tonight the building swarms with all kinds of evil. Behind me a horned and hooded Darth Maul brandishes a lightsaber, ahead a vine-clad Poison Ivy writhes alongside some kind of cat. Blade the vampire hunter wades past, thankfully oblivious to me and my vampiric kin. Together we lumber around, trading coin for cheap ale and spirits before wailing, roaring and screeching along with unholy musical devotions to the devil. 

The one thing we all share, the one thing that unites us? We've all realised, the devil is in the detail.

This whole experience reminded me of an issue I have come back to many times in filmmaking and screenwriting; that of how much detail or specificity to use in a depiction of a world, in order to create the most vivid and convincing imitation possible. Gut instinct might suggest that if you’re attempting to recreate a real world onscreen then you should iron out its peculiar idiosyncrasies, for fear of alienating the uninitiated. Fortunately this is very much not the case; it is exactly these idiosyncrasies that become truth-telling gems that can add infinite amounts of colour and texture when used correctly.

Anybody who has shared a conversation with me about television drama over the past few years is probably aware that I am a little obsessed with David Simon’s seminal show The Wire. Justifiably acclaimed, it took the very formulaic structure of a cop show procedural and used it as a vehicle to look at important wide-reaching social themes in a sophisticated and mature way. It treated its audience as the smart viewers that we all are and didn’t pander to their vastly different backgrounds by toning down or explaining the dialogue being used by the inhabitants of Baltimore.


As David Simon explains in The Wire – Truth Be Told

“We had it in mind that we would not explain everything to viewers. The show's point of view was that of the insider, the proverbial fly on the wall – and we had no intention of impairing that point of view by pausing to catch up the audience.”

Every successful story must contain an element of mystery.  Some genres use it front and centre as their most important element (thrillers and crime stories for instance), whereas in others it is used more subtly (comedies often have predictable chains of events, but it is the characters’ reactions that surprise and amuse us). The Wire took advantage of the audience’s thirst for a puzzle and used it in the presentation of the practices and traditions of the cops, dealers, public officials, dockworkers, teachers and journalists. However it also utilised the thirst for mystery right down to the detailed level of character dialogue. Don’t share the lingo of the Baltimore projects? Well keep watching and slowly decipher what a “burner”, “G-pack” or “WMD” is and what “slinging” is.

Simon explained the audience’s natural instinct to novelist Nick Hornby when he said that a viewer

“loves being immersed in a new, confusing and possible dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him.”

This confusing world is an intricately crafted one that shows a great deal of skill and foresight in its writing. As Simon goes on to say, “all of the visual clues and connections would need to be referenced fully and at careful intervals”. Satisfyingly, these intervals are careful enough to make sure that the world is rich and challenging, without being disorientating and impossible to crack. “Those foreign to Baltimore will miss many a reference” he explains “but not, I believe, the overall sense that they are learning about a city that matters”. Learning is the key word here; it’s an educational story-watching experience that is richly rewarding for the audience and has lead to a number of jokes at the expense of the white middle-class audience the show often attracted, many of who started to smugly feel like they understood Baltimore life thanks to the authenticity of the show. 

Paul Greengrass exploited this same audience trait when he directed United 93, the terrifyingly naturalistic real-time drama that looks at the unfolding events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In specifically focussing on the chaos experienced by the people in Air Traffic Control and on-board flight 93 the film presents technical conversations in straightforward ways, without relying on exposition that would sap the piece of its naturalism. Greengrass explains in his director’s commentary that they

“tried to make no concessions to things being comprehensible...if this film was going to feel real it needed to be quite challenging in that way. It would put the audience in ringside view of these events rather than having them explained to them... the technicalities just persuade you that this is real”.

The naturalistic power of the technicalities is part of the reason why the science-talk of recent sci-fi hits like Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian (which seem to place greater emphasis on the science than most of their blockbuster companions) have proved so popular and intoxicatingly absorbing, as well as why one can enjoy The West Wing without needing an academic understanding of American history, politics and legislature.

Once you start looking for it specificity and key details are present in all of the best naturalistic dramas. One of my favourite British movies, The Full Monty, uses the context of a very specific location, period and political atmosphere (working-class Sheffield in the midst of steel-plant closures in the 1990s) to amplify the stories of its characters. In his DVD commentary, producer Uberto Pasolini discusses how they rightly dismissed concerns about how the local language and accents would play with an American audience;

“I think it is the fact that this story is so strongly rooted in a local reality - the Yorkshire reality of these characters - that makes it more universal. I think if it had been more generically told, if it had been any town, anywhere, any place, it would have been no town, nowhere”

For audience members from Sheffield and linked to the world presented this would create a strong sympathy for the plight of the characters, but the clarity of the detail on show helps tell a truth that transcends needing prior knowledge of that specific place. For me, as a young teenager watching it for the first time in the early 2000s, it strongly echoed the plight of working-class men in Coventry who were losing their jobs in the rapidly diminishing car industry. While the imitation itself was of a different literal scenario, it powerfully evoked a similar emotional and tonal scenario in my head.

In Poetics Aristotle writes about imitation, saying that it, 

“comes naturally to human beings from childhood…so does the universal pleasure in imitations…we take delight in viewing the most accurate possible images of objects which in themselves cause distress when we see them”.

As human beings we experience a primal satisfaction when we recognise an imitation in art, a pleasure that suggests what we are seeing has a powerful and direct relevance to our own lives, that the poet or artist responsible for the imitation has shared an experience we had and is now speaking to us about it. Aristotle then goes on to suggest that

“if one happens not to have seen the thing before, it will not give pleasure as an imitation, but because if its execution or colour, or for some other reason”.

I believe this other reason for pleasure is from the mystery and quest for knowledge an unfamiliar imitation creates. The satisfaction of recognising an imitation is such that when we are presented with something that we don’t immediately recognise, it only excites our need to understand it properly. We feel tantalisingly close to achieving the satisfaction of understanding what we are seeing, but are lacking a few key bits of information. It’s the dramatic equivalent of asking “guess what?” only to quickly dismiss it by saying “oh never mind”. Once the question is asked we HAVE to know “what” and our brains immediately begin trying to work out the answer, to fill in the blanks. In any case, Aristotle doesn’t seem to doubt that an unfamiliar imitation can still give pleasure, as he says later on (while discussing Universality) that “what is familiar is familiar to only a few, and yet gives pleasure to everyone”.

The screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton (as quoted in Yorke’s Into the Woods) talks about this phenomenon, saying;

“Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two...Don't give the audience the answer, give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves”

All of the previous examples exhibit sufficient skill and craft that specific details are used to create both a vividly naturalistic and tantalising mysterious experience for an audience, keeping them constantly engaged with the unfolding story.

In my introduction to this post I included references to the world in which I spent my Friday night. Some were vague while others were quite specific. To those in the know the names Satan’s Hollow and Affleck’s will draw a warm satisfaction of understanding, helping to firmly locate the story in the very real world of alternative, goth and metal culture. Hopefully to an audience outside the loop, the detailed descriptions accompanying the specific names are enough to evoke parallels with similar locations they might have experienced. 

As for my night in Satan's Hollow, my own costume drew an intriguing variety of responses, thanks to the specificity of the detail. The small, unusually placed fangs, the bright white pallor, the elongated fingers and nails all provoked knowing nods, smiles and compliments from those who recognised who I was, and amused smiles and questions from those who didn’t. In either case the costume engaged people and got them interested; it prompted the miniature mystery “who am I?” which gave satisfaction to those in the know and curiosity to those out of the know.

The Devil is in the detail.