Tuesday, May 18, 2010

New Thing: Workplace Bully

In the last ten years, both at work and in my flats, I've had the misfortune of running into four enormous arseholes. One of them very nearly broke me.

Confronting and defeating bullies isn't something that comes naturally to me. Or to a lot of people, I suspect. But it's totally necessary for our survival. Bullying is high-stakes. It can drive a person to a nervous breakdown or to suicide. And a lot of people share this experienceaccording to this Stuff article, one in five New Zealanders may experience bullying.

In the process of learning a little bit of verbal self-defence, I realised there's a great story in here. I'm interested in watching a story about someone who's driven right down to the breaking point, and who fights their way back up.

Workplace Bully is a web-series.

There are two main characters - the bully and the woman he's bullying (a new arrival to the office).

There are two halves to the story - her slowly realising she's being bullied as her self-esteem gets driven down to breaking point, and then her learning how to fight back against the bully, which will require her to push herself, her workmates, the bully and her workplace as far as she possibly can.

I have a very clear vision for this show. It's funny (in the sense that watching a witty bully is entertaining), but the first half is mostly about tension and slowly-mounting disaster. There's no physical violence in it; the only violence in this story is verbal and bureaucratic.

In the second half, as she learns how to fight back, I'd hope that the story starts to feel archetypal - a hero's (sic)journey about a woman nearly destroyed by a monster. And then fighting back against him.

As a show, I think it's going for something very real. Plausible. Realistic. And, I think, really dramatically satisfying. But not a drama; it's almost like a constructed documentary

Episodes are very short - one or two minutes. In fact, each episode is basically a scene focusing on a single situation - a morning tea, a power-point presentation, a single moment of insight into the woman or the bully's personal life. And the episodes don't follow on directly from each other: this isn't a cliffhanger-type show; it's more a gentle observing of incidents from two peoples' lives that add up to a bigger story.

I have two actors in mind, and I'm keen to try and shoot it Lone Gun style. So far it's been an easy show to outline and come up with episodes for (and it has the added bonus that doing the research benefits me). I suspect that rather than scripts, Workplace Bully would semi-improvised from an outline.

What I'd like to do in the next three to six months is:

1. Outline and research a bunch of episodes, to make sure that there's enough material there.
2. Shoot a Season Zero: three to six easy to achieve episodes over one or two days, Lone Gun style.

The Big, Wild Success for this project would be that I film the whole arc and that there's an audience for it. It'd also be great if it helped people (but maybe that's just a little too sincere).

So, if you're interested in this project or you have some thoughts on it, let's have a conversation about it. Because I'd like to try and get the most out of this, I've implemented a few rules:
  • Interview me (and each other). Ask questions, rather than posting monologues about what you think.
  • Be nice. Make people feel safe to post, and try and critique constructively. Although, if you absolutely must tell me why this idea is not damn good, go for it ... but - you know - 'constructively', and we'll sort out how that works.
  • I will try and engage heavily with this conversation, here, on Twitter and on Facebook. Let's see how that works.


Luke said...

Cool idea, Steve.

Simon said...

*starts tape recorder*

So, Steve. Bullying in the workplace is a pretty serious topic, and especially man-on-woman bullying has particular connotations that seem especially troubling. Given this serious, and potentially very grim subject material, how do you intend to maintain a humourous tone and an engaging mood?

Debbie Cowens said...

Sounds like an interesting concept.

I'm likewise intrgued about how you're planning to balance the humour with the seriousness of the subject material.

You hint that the bully may be witty in his bullying? Is the idea to make him likeable enough that the audience at times find themselves laughing at his taunts/enoying his jibes despite sympathising with the woman?

I'm imaging a tone similiar to 'The Office' where it's both funny and uncomfortable to watch, is that in keeping with the sort of tone you're intending or are you going for a different feel and tone?

Steve Hickey said...

@Simon: First up, I'd like to interview you a little. I know what you mean, but could you expand on the troubling connotations of man-on-woman bullying?

I want to split your question into a couple of posts, actually. First up: on maintaining an engaging mood.

For me, the hardest thing with this idea will be maintaining audience sympathy for the bully's target.

I feel like she'll be someone we're fascinated by - because we'll be watching her slowly (and almost without her knowledge or awareness) slip into a situation where she's being victimised.

I also feel like we'll be totally behind her when she starts to fight back against the bully.

The primary source of 'engagement' is that she stands in for us. I want to pull this off in such a way that we watch it and say, "I can see how someone could get into that situation." And then I'd like them to say, "I can see how *I* could get into that situation."

The danger is that there's a phase of this story (that I haven't defined to my own satisfaction yet) where she is being bullied and is on the back-foot and being driven into depression. I think the target has to go that low in order for the story to work, but maintaining audience sympathy for a protagonist who isn't acting like a protagonist is tough.

I guess I've realised through writing this that she will constantly have to be struggling to get out of this situation; it's just that in the early stages, her struggles won't be using the right sort of efforts.

Up next: answering you and Debbie about tone.

Pearce said...

I love this idea. Debbie already sort of asked the question I was going to ask, but I'll ask my version of it anyway.

Do you imagine there being any problems with the bully becoming the Cartman of the show? Perhaps seizing on something he says that amuses them, and then using it as a catchphrase?

(I'm going into this assuming you will create a smash success.)

Matt said...

Steve - Having watched The Thick of It recently, Malcolm Tucker is a workplace bully who leaps to mind. I wonder whether you're going to go for inventive, elaborate insults, undermining the victim's position and worth (in a we're-all-joking-together but at-your-expense way), or whether you have an alternate or multifarious means of bullying in mind.

Also - are you planning to be the lone gunman? are there any technical skills you're planning to acquire in the buildup to season zero?

Also - are you going to record a video diary of your exploits to release as a DVD bonus feature or as related posts on youtube?

Lastly - if your bully could be any kind of animal, eating any kind of food, what would it/they be?

Karen said...

"her slowly realising she's being bullied"
It seems to me that this kind of gradual internal thought process might be hard to portray dramatically... Will she talk to a third party? To herself? Will her behaviour change?... and as we see her losing self esteem will it be evident that she realises the cause, or will it seem to those watching that she is having an epiphany?

Also wondering whether you will deal at all with "great guy" syndrome (i.e. "he's a great guy"... *once you get to know him*... *he just likes to wind people up*...) and the way this attitude can undermine the person who's being bullied and strengthen the bully

Karen said...

oops "will it seem to those watching that she is having an epiphany?" at the point when she does start to fight back...

Emma said...

Steve I am commenting! It is a bit scary!

In any case I am interested in your ideas about how this story will function because of the way that you say you think it will be hard for the audience to identify with a protagonist who is not acting like one.

What makes you think that an emotional crisis is not something that is engaging to an audience? Is it because it's ostensibly a very internal or private thing or because it's not so much an action that draws the story forward?

Steve Hickey said...





Steve Hickey said...

Emma, your comment holds the key to Simon and Debbie's questions about tone. You said:

"What makes you think that an emotional crisis is not something that is engaging to an audience? Is it because it's ostensibly a very internal or private thing or because it's not so much an action that draws the story forward?"

I hope that her emotional crisis will be engaging to the audience. I hope that I can write it in a way that maintains audience sympathy. I'm pretty sure that's possible.

It's our fascination with her emotional crisis (how she realises it's happening, deals with it and how she gets out of it) that I'm hoping is the main thing that keeps people coming back to watch more of it. What this implies is that the show has an even more serious (not 'grim' but 'serious') tone than any of us have been talking about so far. Rather than laughing with the characters, or at the characters, ... but we're watching the characters and they're occasionally saying something funny.

Imagine it's a documentary instead of a sit-com: the characters aren't there with the sole purpose of making us laugh, but they can still say things that are funny. Even if they're mean or soul-erodingly funny.

Does that make sense? It's the second time I've tried to explain the tone to someone, so I'm happy to try it again.

Steve Hickey said...

Karen, just a quick answer before addressing some of your other points. I can see three methods of getting inside her head:

1. She has a partner who she lives with and can talk to. I have a couple of those scenes in mind.

2. She will try to talk to her workmates about it. In a serious bullying situation, lots of people (at first) try to dismiss those concerns, or minimise them. Or ignore them.

3. Performance. Actors are awesome at bringing out pain and confusion. Again, I have a couple of scenes in mind that I think will dramatise her thought processes.

Don't think there will be any 'narration'. There might be a little bit of muttering to herself under stress. I hadn't thought of that!

Steve Hickey said...

Pearce, you asked if I imagined any problems with the bully becoming the Cartman of the show? Wildly popular, imitated - perhaps providing a role model for a bunch of jerks.

Man, I hope not. My intuition says that won't happen, for two reasons:

1. I created a character in the vein (Richard in hopeless) and this guy feels different in my head. I don't think he'll have quite the same effect or capture people's imaginations in quite the way you're thinking.
2. I suspect this show will appeals to a different audience - my guess would be that they'll be less likely to imitate him, and more likely to watch to see what shit he does next.

Following on from that: Matt, I haven't seen much of The Thick of It yet but there are elements of Tucker that sound like what I'm going for - undermining the victim's position and worth (in a we're-all-joking-together but at-your-expense way). The character I have in mind is way less flayboyantly a dick that Tucker is though. From what I've seen of him, you know that he's a jerk, whereas with the Bully I have in mind you might not be quite sure whether he meant to insult you or not. I have a person in mind that I'm going to model him on - a good first step would be for me to start thinking about the different ways that the Bully operates.

Steve Hickey said...

Matt, I'm going to have to build up a bunch of technical skills. The main ones:

Borrowing a camera to refresh myself on how to do all the basics (white balancing, composition, pretty much everything).

Investigating how to get good sound.

Making my computer actually accept and digitise footage so I can use the editing software. In fact, I'm also keen to get a copy of some Jenni's Angels 48 hours footage to practice my Adobe Premiere skills.

... and I love your 'extras/behind-the-scenes' idea.

Steve Hickey said...

Emma, on reflection I think there's more to say about your question - but I'll have to have a think about it.

Steve Hickey said...

Hi Karen. I'm definitely going to apply a mix of 'great guy syndrome' with the 'we're too afraid to stand up to him' defence.

The Target's behaviour is definitely going to change, but I don't think she'll have an epiphany. I'll have to write it to find out exactly how it works, but I think there's going to be a combination of her dawning realisation + reaching a breaking point.

Steve Hickey said...

Debbie, I'm actually not sure about the answer to your 'How likeable is the Bully' question. This feels like another case where I'm going to have to write him to find out how that particular aspect of his personality plays.

I reckon he will have likeable moments, and that he's the sort of guy that characters in the story want approval from.

Steve Hickey said...



Emma said...

I don't think you quite answered my question. :)

It may have been an off the cuff remark but I'm interested in why you thought that would be a hard thing about writing this.

I certainly get the tone that you're going for and that definitely makes sense. As someone who has recently been on the receiving end of emotional abuse akin to bullying I can certainly see what is compelling in the story and what will get people to come back to it. Just the first few lines of your description had me watching to understand the "why", both in this story and in myself.

Perhaps my question is difficult because it connects with why this will be hard to write, because it will inevitably be personal? Personal for you?

Do you think that this will be the case? I know that in my writing I claim that not everything is autobiographical, but there are kernels and pieces and IMO it's really hard to write that because it is pushing something so personal out into the world so I'm interested to hear more on that.

I also don't want to distract you from the reflection that's going on in any case! This is a very interesting discussion.

Helen Rickerby said...

Steve, I have no questions for you because it is 11.25 at night and I need to go to bed, but yay you! And this seems to be going rather well. I may have questions tomorrow.

Steve Hickey said...

Hi Emma.An excellent and penetrating follow-up.

One of the best script-writing lessons I ever received came during my first viewing of Face-Off. There's a sequence where Nic Cage is trapped in prison for what seems like an interminable period of time - he wants to escape but doesn't appear to be doing anything about it.

When I watched the film a second time, my frustration with this sequence mostly disappeared as I realised there were a few plot elements being established during these scenes, ... but I've never forgotten my frustration and sense of boredom with watching a character who wanted something but wasn't doing anything about it.

So, you asked what makes me think that an emotional crisis is not something that is engaging to an audience? It's not because it's internal or private. I'm with you: I'm hoping that will be compelling to people.

Speaking for myself, it's because Western media and script-writing books have trained my expectations about protagonists so that I expect them to 'do something' rather than 'be reflective'. I expect them to "draw the story forward", in your words.

Experiencing emotions and being reflective are not typically what I look for in a protagonist. But it can totally work if:

+ there's enough at stake for the protagonist
+ the performance is good
+ we have empathy for them
+ the writing has provided a context that makes us want to see the protagonist go through this stuff.

Some of the stuff I most want to film are the reflective scenes, the aftermath scenes, the emotional crisis scenes. But they need to be presented in a way that makes them feel like they're the next beat of the story.

Aha! They need to be presented like they're the truth of the situation. We, the audience, need to feel like we need to see these moments in order to stay connected with the characters.

Emma said...

Excellent! That's a very good answer.

I have been thinking a lot about Deadwood and Treme recently. These are both shows that I like a lot but where the action doesn't proceed as per normal, they are glacial and I like that about them. Tt seems to key into this particular challenge. How to connect to an audience with particular expectations of storytelling?

I will very much enjoy seeing how you deal with this. It's not such a big deal in poetry so my enjoyment will be based on curiosity rather than professional interest as you know!

Thank you for answering my questions and being interesting!

Steve Hickey said...

Thanks for making me think. (And I'm still formulating an answer to your 'How personal is it' question.)

I've been working on outlining this today and have decided that I need to find out if the second half of the story is as interesting to me as the first half. More research and thinking are required!

Stephanie said...

So I've got a couple of comments/questions to make, one general, one specific.

- With bullying, there's this kind of tension between isolation and voyeurism.

The victim is made to feel really isolated - often specifically by the bully, who may confine the abuse to 'private' methods and explicitly threaten the victim if they tell anyone, often by the victims themselves who feel ashamed that this thing is happening to them and feel pressure not to talk about it because to admit that there's a problem makes them look weak, but also by the bystanders who will very often not intervene even though they're highly aware of what's going on. If you call the bystanders on it, they'll usually mumble something about "It's not my fight" and still not help.

There's also the voyeurism angle, where an act of bullying is specifically supposed to be public and entertaining to onlookers - those vile children who use cellphone cameras on staged fights, and forms of hazing that are about public embarrassment. You could argue that many 'reality shows' are about legitimising public bullying for our viewing pleasure, with people volunteering to be ripped into by authorised judges because there's some prize they want - but they're still being emotionally abused, and the tv programmes that get made out of this really emphasise the being ripped into part as a show highlight.

- The specific question is about tone - what kind of tone do you want for this? The thing I remember about Hopeless when it came out was how close it walked to cringe humour - and that's another kind of legitimised bullying, where the actors explicitly humiliate themselves with the viewers as vicarious bullies.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Steve. I'm blown away by the quality of the comments here. Three questions for you:

Storytelling is about simplification. There's also a tendency for people to define themselves in simple terms - a gamer, a nerd, a victim of abuse. How are you going to ensure that the victim isn't just a victim?

Where does the energy go? How are people around her affected by the tension or stress she's under?

You mention Western media and characters who move forward relentlessly. I've been enjoying a lot of comics and anime recently, with veeeery slow pacing and lots of gaps and pauses. Might there be techniques in other media that would allow you to explore passivity or just a slow pace?

(Perhaps some of the story happens outwith video).

And finally, why did you pick a woman as the victim and a man as the bully?

Sean_Molloy said...

How do you want viewers to feel while watching this? Do you want them to really feel the experience of being bullied?

If so, what does that feel like to you? Very personal question I know but goes to the heart of the project I think...

I have thoughts but want to hear yours first.

Cheers, Sean

Steve Hickey said...