I’ve pretty much finished Through A Vulture Eye now. Spent yesterday mixing the sound and doing a grade (although the lighting, by John Ross and Chris Cooke, was spot on in terms of colour, I just needed to do a couple of tweaks) and now I just need to get the final titles, which Jeanie is doing for me.
I’m really happy with the finished film, although it’s always a bit strange when you finish something and suddenly the story seems revealed – it becomes a whole thing, rather than just a collection of parts. It’s also strange when you’re writing first person narratives (the whole of the film is narrated in voice-over), especially ones that are about knifing women to death – it can’t help but make you feel a bit self-conscious about how it sounds.
If you watch enough horror films, you get attuned to the genre – you figure out how it works (or how it’s supposed to work) and you slip into a way of watching that encompasses your history of viewing horror. What you forget is that for people who don’t watch horror films on a regular basis, that history is missing, and the reasons for showing gore and violence are hard to understand and, potentially, suspiciously motivated.
It goes back to the question ‘Why do you want to make horror films?’ which often comes out of an underlying question ‘What makes you think that knifing/bludgeoning/chainsawing people to death is entertaining?” I think that there’s often a misapprehension that people who like to watch horror films like to get off on violence (and I’m sure there probably are) – they see the horror on screen, the reaction it elicits in a horror audience (maybe a kind of squirming delight) and they conflate that into a supposition that it is the wish to commit those acts, however deeply hidden, which is at the root of the enjoyment.
In fact, for a lot of horror fans, the delight comes not from an identification with the aggresssor, but with the victim – and the things that make horror enjoyably disquieting are the ideas that the violence throws up – look how mutable the body is, see how fragile and yet resilient it is, look at how senseless, evil or insane people can be – it throws up possibilities, fears, dangers that we might not otherwise appreciate.
A lot of films which might be touted as horror, often make an attempt to add another layer of meaning or importance or relevance to what they are doing. Rather than being ‘just’ a horror film, it might be described as being a metaphor about illness, or a satire on consumerism, or a psychological portrait. Obviously, there are horror classics which are each of these things – I’m not saying that horror films can’t do these things, just that a lot of times it seems that people are a little embarassed of making ‘just’ a horror film and try and develop it into something with more ‘meaning’. But the best horror films are often successful because they don’t try too overtly to tack on other meanings – the meanings and themes come out of the horror rather than being layered over the top of it. Horror films can be emotionally resonant, socially critical, psychologically perceptive, but they don’t need to stop being horror films to do this.
It’ll be interesting to see the range of films we get for Mayhem, the horror short film festival I’m helping to organise at Broadway in Nottingham next month. So far (hopefully) we’ve got shorts from Brazil and Germany as well as a load from the region, alongside a special preview screening of the new British feature ‘Wilderness’. There does seem to be a lot more interest in horror at the moment, with short filmmakers from the region beginning to get their horror ideas funded.
I’ve got another few short ideas that I want to get on with, now that TAVE is almost done. I’m still trying to keep them doable with a small cast and crew, using any locations I can get hold of (there’s only so many times I can shoot stuff in our kitchen). So far, I’ve got three or four on the go (at various stages of development), a cabin-in-the-woods film called ‘Awake’, a one-take j-horror style piece called ‘The Unseen’, a so-far-untitled project about someone with a bandaged face (kind of based around bits of ‘Eyes Without A Face’ and a Japanese film called ‘The Face of Another’), as well as wondering whether I might be able to finally get on with making ‘White Light’ which I wrote a couple of years ago (see Unfinished, Unmade Uncinema Undone! post below).
A lot of it depends on people still wanting to do favours for me, and me being able to foot the budget, but hopefully I’ll be able to get started on a least one of these in the next month or so. Cooke’s even talking about trying to get a portmanteau film together, with shorts by him and Gareth Howell coming together with mine to make a longer piece, maybe even with one of those ‘wraparound’ stories, if we can make it not too cheesy. We’ll see…
I’m in the process of making another film, a horror short called Through A Vulture Eye (TAVE for short), which we shot a couple of nights ago in our kitchen. It went smoothly (if slowly), finally wrapping at about half midnight. It’s a very short short, probably only about 2 and a half minutes, and there’s only a handful of shots, but a couple of them were very complicated jib and/or tracking shots, which always take much longer than you anticipate. There’s something really satisfying about them, though – when you’re having to track, jib up, tilt up, pull focus and frame all at the same time (with everybody having to take care of their own separate bits and rely on the others to do the same), it feels really difficult, but also like it’s a real test – and it’s all to make something look effortless and unmechanical.
TAVE is the third film in an unofficial ‘eye’ trilogy, along with my last two films ‘Autopsy’ and ‘Cry’. All three of them feature things going into, or being shown in eyes and each features an ECU of an eye. What this weird fetish says about me, I don’t really want to know. Maybe it’s just a desperate lack of imagination, and I’m just making the same film over and over. Obviously, there’s something about filming eyes that is intrisically tied into filmmkaing – it’s like reflecting the audience back at themselves, making them (consciously or unconsciously) aware of what the act of looking/watching/seeing actually means or implies. In this case, it’s about the fear of an image remaining imprinted, becoming reviewable (like a film).
The idea has a couple of reference points. The paranoid killer as first-person narrator comes from Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (I’ve always liked this story – I remember hearing an audio version of it, played to me by a cousin in America when I was a kid – I also once wrote a version of the story from the heart’s point of view.) The notion of taking the image from an eye is a lift from Argento’s ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ (which I bought recently on a pirate DVD from ebay. It’s a great film, but the print is one of the darkest things I’ve ever seen – there are entire scenes where you can hear action going on, but only see the barest glints of light moving about the frame. Ironic really, considering loads of his work is about what his protagonist thinks he or she has seen.) There’s also a kind of EC comics feel about it, with one of those last frame horror reveals. Hopefully the whole thing comes together and blends into its own thing – I’ll know once I’ve put the edit together, which starts in earnest today.
I get asked quite a lot (usually by people who don’t like them) why I make horror films. I didn’t start out by making horrors – in fact it was only Autopsy which really started me off, and that was more of a psychological ghost story which happened to mutate at the end into a more traditional horror film scenario. Then, with Cry I really went for it, in terms of trying to create something that really looked and felt like a horror. And the thing is, out of all the films I’ve made, the horror ones are by far the most enjoyable to make. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really felt comfortable with realism – it always feels fake when you’re making a film, because it is – it’s based on creating an illusion, no matter whether you’re making a film set on a council estate about barefoot teenage mothers or whether you’re making something set on a spaceship, there’s an artifice about what you’re creating. I think with horror, because it often deals with unhuman or insane characters or entities, you get to fashion points of view (in terms of camera) which are often unnatural, allowing a degree of imagination in the style of what you’re telling which you might not employ in something more naturalistic. The audience going into a horror film knows that it is being told a story, something which happens in another world, parallel to our own, there’s no conceit that this is ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (or if there is, it is formally acknowledged that it is – the opening blurb of ‘The following events are based on a true story’, a device used to amplify the frisson that the audience feels in entering this parallel world). When the audience knows that what they are watching is ‘a story’, they unconsciously allow the themes and images contained within what they are watching to seep in and affect them – this is why horror films often have a very visceral affect, they work in ways that are fundamental to how stories work, kind of like how fairy tales work on children – (not the bowdlerised ‘moral’ versions, but the original, folk-tale versions which are more complex in what they mean and how they work).
This isn’t to say that horror films are the only films which work in this way, or the only genre where you might employ the same techniques of telling, but they seem to be an arena where, because of the subject matter, you can be quite direct in talking about style and effect and how they tie into and spring from the subject. People know what horror films are supposed to do, so maybe there’s less discussion about ‘what do you want the audience to feel?’ People like to be scared and horrified, unsettled and shocked.
Saw the opening ten minutes of Lola Montes the other day, on a DVD I bought for a friend’s birthday (and which I immediately after seeing it wanted to have for myself, which just goes to show what a great film it is and what a fickle and selfish friend I am). It looked amazing – widescreen photography, astonishing lighting, a fantastically theatrical opening. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it, or that no-one had ever said to me “Christ, you should really watch this film.”
It started me thinking about films that I would be passionate about people seeing (and subsequently made me think that maybe there’s an opportunity to write something that isn’t solely made up of moaning, whining, bitching, ranting and ill-thought out prejudices).
Of course, top of the list is Black Narcissus (which I’ve already raved about somewhere down below) – but branching out from that is any film by Powell and Pressburger – A Matter of Life and Death (fantastic opening ten minutes, amazing cinematography, mad ideas (a shot from behind an eyelid as it closes on an operating table, a naked child goatherd on an English coast – wha?) and a black and white Heaven); The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (with the best duel scene ever), A Canterbury Tale (more mad stuff with a mystery man putting glue in girls’ hair), I Know Where I’m Going, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman – honestly, for about 15 years everything they made was just about the most inventive and astonishing thing to be coming out of this country.
Then there’s something like Build My Gallows High (aka Out Of The Past), one of the greatest film noirs starring Robert Mitchum and featuring a complex flashback structure, great dialogue and a fittingly fatalistic ending…Although not as bleak as something like In A Lonely Place by Nicholas Ray, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame which is so bloody pessimistic it hurts….which is probably equalled in that respect by The Wages of Fear by Clouzot, which as well as being as tense and exciting a film as you’re ever likely to see (four desperate men transport highly unstable and hugely explosive nitro glycerine across a succession of the poorest quality roads that Mexico has to offer), is also about how far a man will go into hell for the sake of a bit of profit.
In another world, there’s Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, which is just about one of the most flat-out enjoyable films you could ever watch. I know Russ Meyer gets pigeonholed as That Fella Who’s Obsessed With Big Tits (and quite rightly, really – but then he’s probably not any less fetishistic than any other filmmaker, it’s just that he’s more upfront about his. Yes, that is a terrible pun.), but what gets overlooked a lot of the time is how incredible a filmmaker he can be. He’s a great cinematographer, a really muscular editor, and he has a great eye (and ear) for knowingly absurd dialogue. The party scene in BTVOTD is fantastic and the closing ten minutes or so are just mad. And it’s got a brilliant soundtrack, featuring numerous power-pop classics by the film’s fictional band The Carrie Nations. You honestly can’t have a bad time anywhere near this film.
Also incredible, but in a completely different way, is Dario Argento’s Inferno. I didn’t get into Argento until about 6 or 7 years ago, when I saw a copy of Deep Red round a friend’s house, but since then, I’ve gone out and bought pretty much everything he’s done. It’s not as though every film he’s done has been great, and some of them, especially in the 90s can’t really be unreservedly recommended, but in any film he makes there is always something that you find yourself talking to somebody about the next day – a shot or a sequence or an idea that makes you stop in your tracks. Like the opening of Suspiria, where he uses music, soundtrack and image so brilliantly, it’s like Michael Powell’s idea of ‘the composed film’, or in Four Flies on Grey Velvet where you get a machine that can see the final image from an eyeball, or Two Evil Eyes where Harvey Keitel hilariously, madly, stupidly rigs up a way to avoid suspicion for murdering his girlfriend, featuring a photo of her face, and his arm attached to hers by a bit of string. But it’s Inferno that is maybe the most extraordinary. The whole film is like a dream, from the opening sequence where a young woman finds a pool of water in the floor of a basement, drops her necklace in, then dives in after it, to find a submerged ballroom, to a horrible sequence in Central Park where a blind man is attacked while he tries to drown a cat, to the closing reveal of the witch behind the whole thing, the film has a feel like nothing else. Some people find Argento too much – they see the English dubbing, the often slightly wooden acting and the stylistic excesses and pigeonhole him as just another kitsch Italian horror hack, but Argento’s much more than that – at his best his films have a truly unique atmosphere that can be enormously disquieting.
There are even films that I would recommend on the basis of a scene, or a shot, or a performance, even if the films themselves aren’t great. There’s a horror film from the Philippines from the late Sixties called The Blood Drinkers which is a very low-budget vampire film, shot on 16mm, which is by no means a masterpiece but which has got some fantastic stuff in it – particularly one scene outside a crypt which is beautifully lit (a big light, hidden behind a tree, flares across the whole shot) and totally dreamlike – loads of the film, including this scene, is shot with intense colour filters, particularly blues and, as in this case, an intense deep red. A vampirised woman leads another newly vampirised woman out of the crypt and beckons her to leave the graveyard with the words “Beyond those gates flows a river of blood. Hurry. Hurry!” while a smoke machine works overtime, carpeting the ground with mist. It’s a great moment in a pretty good film, but it’s nothing you would have read about in anything other than the most comprehensive of guides to world horror (although I picked it up in HMV for about a fiver, so it’s not as though it’s the hardest thing in the world to track down). It’s just luck sometimes that you stumble across these things.
It’s great when you find something that you want to tell people about, and the more you watch, the more you start realising what you like in films and what you don’t like – I can see the filaments of connection between Argento and Michael Powell and even Michael Mann (whose Manhunter is another film I love), and the way in which those filaments connect to the way that I want to make films – I know that I’m consciously and subconsciously stealing from these filmmakers every time I start working on a film. And maybe that’s the thing that triggered this off – I saw the opening ten minutes of Lola Montes and got inspired because there was something in it that flicked a switch in my head – “now this is how films should be…”. It’s like we all have our own personal film canons in our heads, which as a whole might only work for us (and often it’s as much the films we don’t like that define this as the ones we do – I’ve had a lot of arguments with people over films like The Shawshank Redemption, which I really can’t be doing with, but which many people love), and which are defined by our own instincts and unspoken tastes and fetishes. (I’m a twin, and I find Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers incredibly affecting, and part of me really doesn’t want to explore why…). For every person who loves Kubrick, you’ll find someone who finds him cold and dull, for everyone who thinks that Kieslowski is the most accomplished European director of the past twenty years, you’ll find someone who finds him affected and pretentious (and that’ll be me).
Film can be incredibly revealing that way – your tastes reflect you, they encompass something of a worldview even, and when you come to make them you realise that the mess of influences and tastes and hidden preoccupations that you are drawing on are showing something of what’s inside you.
So Christ knows what this list says about me. A fetishistic fatalist with an eye for blood. Actually, that’s not too bad…
I came into filmmaking through writing, but it’s taken me ages to get to the point where I even begin to feel like I have an idea about what I’m doing.
The thing with writing for films is that you end up trying to make the film on paper – the further you go in development, the more it seems that you have to know everything about how the final film is going to work.
What is a script supposed to do? On a practical level, it tells the actors what to say and where to go and what to do, and makes the crew aware of all of that too. But it also seems that a script has got to do another job, prior to getting anywhere near a set – it’s got to make the reader (for reader read ‘producer’, ‘exec’, ‘financier’) ‘see’ the film. It’s got to hit the tone, describe the characters, set the pace. It doesn’t seem to matter how many other pieces of writing or development you might do in addition to the script (character studies, treatments, workshops), it still seem that people want all of that in the script as well. All of which is a tall order, and in some ways works against what the script actually is.
The script is not the film. The film is the film. It doesn’t matter if the script ends up being the most remarkable piece of writing, a real experience in itself, a fully-fledged tour de force of scene-setting and mood creation – only a handful of people will ever get to read it. It’s not going to end up being made into hundreds of prints and sent around the country. If the film’s a success, then maybe you’ll end up with one of those Faber screenplay books (which always seem to read as though someone has watched the finished edit and written down exactly what they’ve seen, rather than any kind of working document), but even then it’s only ever acting as a reminder of what the film is.
The script as a piece of writing in itself is only really a selling document. It sells the film to the execs and financiers, maybe also to potential cast. It convinces people (hopefully) that you can see the film, that it’s all mapped out in your head, that you know exactly what you’re doing.
All of which seems to militate against any idea that, as a filmmaker, you might actually want to explore things through the process of filmmaking, a process within which the script is only a part.
This reverence for the script, this idea that the script should be perfect before you start seems to be a recent development – maybe since the Seventies onwards, when there started to emerge a group of ‘name’ Hollywood screenwriters – Schrader, Towne, Milius. Prior to that, it seems that films were made in a different way – there are a lot of stories about Hollywood films starting production with the script only partially completed – with screen writers on set working through the night to write the next day’s pages. The thing that mattered was the story – and as long as the filmmakers were clear about that, then they could put together the other pieces as they went along.
Nowadays it seems that the script is required to be the only place where story can reside. So the script has to be developed and honed and dialogue and character description and action and tone all has to be nailed down before the filmmaker gets anywhere near any of the other tools that they will be using. It seems counter-intuitive, as though the process is demanding that the film be made in one medium and then translated into another, rather than that it be developed simultaneously in all its relevant areas (design, cinematography, casting). It can end up feeling like a filmmaking style is something that is applied to a script rather than developing out of the story and its themes.
This isn’t to say that filmmakers shouldn’t be pushed to define their stories – just that there are more ways of creating stories for film than just writing a script. Maybe it’s just that scripts are relatively cheap to develop, less risky than letting someone develop through working with actors and cameras and designers. But the process means that you may end up with something that only works on the page – and which translated onto the screen feels overwritten and lifeless. Maybe scripts aren’t meant to be perfect – they’re just a part of the process. The story’s the thing – and that is only ever going to exist fully in the film itself.
Cinematic is always a term that’s bothered me, because it implies a notion of the uncinematic – suggesting that there are themes, subjects, treatments, styles which don’t belong on a cinema screen.
To me, the notion that some subjects and styles exist outside of cinema – or at least should be placed outside – is horrendously reductive. Surely cinema is about possibilities, new ways of seeing and representing, new twists on old stories (and there are only old stories)? The idea that a piece of work made for cinema can be criticized on the grounds of it being ‘uncinematic’ seems to me to reveal an inherent belief on the part of the critic that the essence of cinema can be reduced to fit within a certain set of parameters.
But what is ‘cinematic’? What might be these parameters? Does it mean widescreen? (all of the Dogme 95 films were shot in Academy ratio – as were most films up until the 50s) Does it mean expansive in location and action? (His Girl Friday is totally setbound throughout) Does it have to have a film star in it? Does it have to be shot on 35mm? Does it have to have a sense of showing us other worlds/lives to which we might not have access? Or does it just mean ‘not TV’?
I think this idea of the cinematic has evolved through a constant comparison/rivalry between cinema and TV, and has grown in currency (at least in this country) since the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster (and the subsequent rise of the Hollywood arthouse blockbuster.)
From the early 50s days of ever-more widescreen formats, it seems as though cinema has always had a chip on its shoulder about what it can do that TV can’t – emphasizing the differences rather than the similarities. This isn’t to deny that there aren’t differences between TV and cinema – they are obviously experienced differently, one lends itself more towards the episodic, while the other towards the self-contained – but they are both, on a very basic level, composed of image and sound presented on screen. And with technology changing constantly, even the gap between cinema quality and television quality is diminishing, with HD perhaps being the first leveller between them.
But, as the means of presentation have grown ever closer, so the need to come up with something inherent in the medium which sets it apart has also grown. Hence the idea of ‘the cinematic’.
Cinematic is an indefinable, nebulous term – perhaps deliberately kept so. It’s like charisma – it’s only identifiable by its presence or absence in a particular case and is largely subjective.
But it’s also a term that seems to be prevalent in a lot of discussion about films in this country – people define the films they want to fund as being ‘cinematic’ or ‘not TV’.
(In a related note, there are apparently two classes of actors in this country – TV actors and film actors. TV actors won’t be cast as leads in films because they are ‘too TV’ and film actors won’t work on TV unless it’s a prestige, ‘cinematic’ production.)
It’s as though there is a belief that other people can do ‘cinema’, but in this country we’re always attempting (and often failing) to achieve their standard. ‘It’s a bit too much like TV’ is a common criticism. Translated, this often means – it’s got a domestic setting which isn’t an urban wasteland/crack-ridden council estate/aristocratic mansion (which often seem to pass the test by virtue of being ‘cinematically’ grim/luxurious).
British funders seem to be very afraid of using a domestic setting for a film – they see it as inherently ‘uncinematic’, as being what TV does. But do these people watch TV? TV does crime, science-fiction, romance, comedy – often in intensely visual ways – and none of those are off-limits or necessarily uncinematic. Maybe it’s just the idea that a contemporary British drama in the cinema isn’t going to grab an audience – and there aren’t that many examples to disprove it.
But surely if a contemporary drama can attract 5 or 6 million viewers on the BBC or ITV, then what logic would suggest that a large proportion of those people wouldn’t want to see similar dramas at the cinema?
Maybe it comes down to a lack of confidence in film-makers, a lack of belief that a director working to produce something for the cinema will be able to properly utilize the medium without accepting this nebulous notion of ‘the cinematic’. It seems a peculiarly British concern.
Michael Haneke’s recent film Cache (Hidden) has been a big success at the British box office, taking over £1m. Although trailed (at least in this country) as a kind of thriller, the film is really a drama/essay about race, guilt and politics. It takes place almost exclusively in domestic settings – a middle-class apartment, a working-class flat – the only vaguely non-prosaic setting being a TV studio – and even this is modeled after the middle-class apartment. But in execution it shows itself to be about much more – it is an essay on watching, what it does to and means to the watcher, what we as an audience understand to be the meaning of how and what we are shown.
Could this film be made in this country? If you were to pitch something with the same setting and action (even with the same themes and preoccupations) you’d probably be looking at an ITV two-parter (probably starring Martin Kemp and Sarah Lancashire)
Of course, there is an argument to say that the film is inherently cinematic because its being made by an intensely cinematic director. Though the settings and action might be largely prosaic, the treatment and execution are anything but. Would this leeway be applied to a British film-maker, though? In my experience, producers and execs are afraid of a film being ‘too TV’ by virtue of its setting and action (or the volume of its dialogue), and are keen to push the idea of making it, on paper, more ‘cinematic’.
Cinematic how, though? Cinematic like Tarentino (who certainly doesn’t want for dialogue)? Or like Spielberg? Or Welles? Mabye. But cinematic like Renoir? Or Bresson? Or Fassbinder? Maybe not.
And this is where it seems reductive – cinema has a rich and diverse history, encompassing any number of styles and treatments of material, any number of settings and locations, from vast western landscapes to boxy urban interiors. Why, in this country, would we want to set limits on what cinema might be? Is there such a fear (or snobbery) about being ‘too TV’ that the industry has to fight to set itself apart? Or have we fallen for an idea, developed from America, that there is an inherent ‘glamour’ to filmmaking that needs to be upheld? Films need to be ‘sexy’ - in the media version of the term – kind of like cinematic, in that it means something exciting, non-prosaic, something cool. Like cinematic, ‘sexy’ is also, crucially, ultimately indefinable outside of a reference to a set of pre-existing (and often conflicting) examples. Can you make it a bit more Tarentino? Have you seen Wolf Creek – can you make it a little like that? Y’know, a bit more sexy, a bit more cinematic…
In this country, we always seem to look to other places for our sense of what cinema is and where it should be going – we don’t seem to be willing to set an agenda ourselves. It’s hard to think that there are many countries in the world who look to Britain for inspiration in terms of filmmaking, in the same way that British filmmakers look to America or Japan or South America.
Maybe the fact that we appear to have a stronger notion of uncinema than we have of cinema is what causes us to be less adventurous, less forward-thinking, less inspirational than we might be. If we were to break apart the notion of uncinema, then maybe we would start to see the types of films that we value from other countries. Forget about the idea that something might be ‘too TV’ or not ‘sexy’ enough. If it’s made for cinema, it’s cinema, end of story.
As the last couple of posts imply, I’ve had a lot of projects on the go over the years and I never know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. With a lot of them, they’ve been developed for certain schemes, or because an opportunity has come up, while with others, they’ve been hanging around waiting for an opportunity.
Some of them end up being Indevelopments. Like World of Pain, which myself and Cooke have been working on for a couple of years now. Because of Cooke’s other film, WOP is currently just hanging around (I imagine it hovering in some weird office space somewhere, not in anyone’s way, but also not where anyone is likely to bump into it. And whenever anybody looks its way, it moves ever so slightly out of their field of vision). It’s a weird feeling – like it’s alive, but not quite – you can’t think about it, because it will just frustrate you that it’s not moving on, but at the same time you can’t quite forget about it either.
My tactic is to always try and work on something new. But, then that just leaves you open to having more undead projects hovering around.
Like Savage, the horror feature which I’ve been developing for a(nother) couple of years. There’s a producer, Carl, who I’ve been working with and who has been good at getting the project seen. But it’s been circling around for ages now and it hasn’t found a place to land (some people like to think of their scripts as children – I obviously think of them as some kind of bird or flying insect. Weird.) or been shot out of the sky in a cloud of feathers (it’s a duck!).
So, in the meantime, I write a short – Deliver Me – which I get some funding for, and I write another outline – Good Advice – which sits in a drawer at Chris’s agents office for months because the company we were originally pitching it to passed – and I start to think about other feature outlines – a witching story, a giallo, a fucked-up family horror. And then, maybe another short while I’m waiting for the other one to kick off, and then maybe this thing with Chris and Digs and Micaiah…
And all the while, these things hovering around my head (now they’re buzzards or vultures) like flies (or flies). It’s like developing something is the opposite of actually what ‘developing’ means – it actually means stagnating. Or maybe it means developing in the sense of ‘and then this virus developed into a deadly strain’ – it just gets more corrupted and virulent.
Maybe I just need to stop seeing them as being alive. The thing is, it never seems like they die (they’re zombies! zombie birds! – hang on, that’s fucking great…Hitchcock crossed with Romero…), so you can’t bury them. Maybe it’s me that wants to keep them alive though, like a dinner table surrounded by corpses, with me pretending that everything’s normal.
I’ve been working on something with Cooke recently – a new short which we are hoping to do at some point in the near future. It came out of doing the director’s diaries for the BBC website – we’re on our second batch of them at the moment, having done 8 last year (I say we, but they’re all in Cooke’s name – obviously, him being the focal point of the diaries, and the feature film director and all – with me helping to devise them + shooting and co-editing them, and occasionally featuring in a kind of mordant sidekick role). They’re featured at the BBC Film Network site at the moment, in the magazine bit.
Because they are supposed to be all about Cooke’s development of his features, and because at the moment he is working on the road movie Where We Come From, that’s what we initially hoped to make them about. But then we realized that, even though Cooke was doing workshops with a bunch of actors (do actors come in a bunch? Or is it more like a troupe? Or maybe it’s more esoteric – an Insecurity of actors, maybe?) – we couldn’t film the actual workshop contents or the actors due to contractual/legal blah blah blah reasons.
So, for the second diary we decided to illustrate the process by coming up with a new idea which we could develop in a similar way to the way that Cooke has been developing WWCF. We nicked a storyline from a Daily Mirror problem page and developed it into a story about a woman who accidentally and sympathetically sleeps with her boss, but then can’t get rid of him. Then we got Mark Devenport and Micaiah Dring in to workshop for a morning, improvising character one-to-ones from some outlines we drew up, and then a scene – all of which is featured on the video diary. Both Digs and Micaiah were great, and despite the time constraints (we basically had about six hours to do the whole thing, including editing) I think it turned out okay. It was good to work so quickly in a way, and made it seem possible that we could actually turn around a short fairly quickly. Get Digs in a suit, maybe add a couple of other roles and we’d be there.
Of course, Cooke’s tied up with writing at the moment, and I’ve got a load of editing work on, and these things never seem to be as easy as they should be, but I am really keen to get this made, as I think it could be really funny and painful. Anyway, the film’s at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/filmnetwork/magazine if anybody wants to have a look.
Over the past 5 or 6 years, I've been writing and developing projects constantly. Some of these have been made, some of them are Indevelopments and some of them are hiding in folders on various computers. It seems sad that they shouldn't even be recognised. So, here is a brief, selected Unfilmography.
'Colder' (Feature, Outline/Treatment) - with Tim Cunningham and Chris Cooke, shortlisted for BFI New Directors Scheme 2000 This was a feature idea that myself and Cunningham were working on, based on an idea of a man arriving in a city with no identity, who then makes a life for himself by stealing an identity from someone else. It went through a few incarnations, especially when it was suggested that we pitch it to the BFI New Director’s Scheme as a script for Cooke. Went down to BigTown to pitch it, but it was one of those where you can really tell that it’s not flying. Too depresssing, not enough focus on character, not developed enough. Weirdly enough, a Finnish film called Man Without A Past came out a few years later which had a similar set-up. But that was a comedy, not a dry-as-dust existential art-movie.
'Case' (Feature, First Draft) - with Tim Cunningham 2000/01 Another feature idea that myself and Cunningham were working on, except this time we actually got as far as a draft. Based loosely on a character I’d created in a couple of short stories – a guy called Paterson, who thought of himself as a detective – this was a story about an aimless call-centre worker who moves into a new flat which he then finds invaded by a rich middle-aged businessman looking for a missing girl. Paterson – despite having no experience in detection – volunteers to find her. What happens next is a picaresque tale that takes us through Straight-Edge Punk, Over 80s Poker Circles, Orgone Accumulators and bitter ex-Forest footballers.
'Cargo Fleet' (Feature, Outline) - with Tim Cunningham 2001 Blimey we were prolific in the early part of the century. This time it was an idea of Cunningham’s that we worked up – about a recidivist car thief on a journey back to his home in the North East. Again, this went though many incarnations – lightening and darkening the tone, changing the ending, changing the age of the car thief from 18 to 30+. Not even sure I remember where it ended up. Think we had a 15 page outline, which we showed to Peter Carlton, at that time still working for Em-media. Didn’t really get any further than that.
'The Signalmen' (Feature, Outline) - with Tim Cunningham 2002 Our final attempt in this period at putting together a feature outline, this one (with a title inspired by Charles Dickens short story and the Ghost Story for Christmas adaptation ‘The Signalman’) was about two security guards in a big corporate headquarters who are guarding the greatest evil in the world. The script had a surreal, slightly Bunuelian feel to it, with bits of time looping back on each other, some violent Tom and Jerry style slapstick and a good drop of paranoia.
'Provisions For Survival In A World Less Fantastic' - short script, shortlisted for Cinema Extreme, 2002 This short script was written at the same time as Cry – in fact it was pitched at the same time for DV Shorts, but they preferred to go for the horror. I subsequently put this in for Cinema Extreme – and it got through to the second round. It was a story about a bloke who runs away from his life and goes and lives in the woods. Had a good scene at a Sunday league football match and a sequence featuring an emaciated dead squirrel roasting on a twig over a fire.
'The Breaks' - short script, shortlisted for The Slot, 2002 This was planned as a series of 5 minute dramas based around cigarette breaks at work. Got shortlisted, but then no further.
'Touched' - (Feature, Pitch) - longlisted for New Steps Beyond 2002 A feature pitch for a Film Council Sci-Fi scheme, about identity, flesh and contagion. Went down for a meeting in BigTown, seemed to go okay. Never heard from them again.
'They' – short script, submitted for Cinema Extreme 2002 Intended as a slice of Argento-style horror madness, this got rejected at the first hurdle. Starting to think that I hadn’t really got a handle on what this scheme was about…
'White Light' – short script, shortlisted for Cinema Extreme 2003 …which was confirmed when this got shortlisted, then rejected the next year. I really like d this script – based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Devil – but the feedback I got was that they weren’t sure whether it was ‘cinematic’ enough. It was about a girl who takes on a job of sitting with a dying woman while her son runs his ailing pub over a critical weekend. Mostly in one room, only about three characters, but I still thought that I could make something look really good (Cry was only one room and one actor…) The Bureau and the Film Council didn’t agree. Decided against applying this year…
'Everything Dies' – short outline Zombie short. Needs funding to do it properly – it’s set in an office block with a horde of zombies and some graphic effects – but I don’t know where I’d get that from. Besides, Shaun of the Dead came out and the idea of trying to pitch a British zombie film made me feel like a desperate bandwagon-jumping oaf.
'Charlie Why' – website/treatment This is probably the longest-gestating project on here. I wanted to do something about a cursed TV show from the late Sixties (kind of in the ilk of The Prisoner, The Avengers and The Champions). I wrote a whole history for the show and made a website out of it – including episode guides, character profiles, critical articles. I also did a live event, where I got an actor (Michael Craze) to play the part of the former child star actor who’s career had been in the doldrums since finishing in the show. I interviewed him on stage and broadcast it through the Moon Radio site. There was even a painstakingly assembled fanzine called ‘Whys and Wherefours’, with exclusive interviews and articles about the show. The plan was to develop a film/Tv project alongside the website, focusing on the curse of the show and how it had impacted on all those associated with it since the show folded, with kind of a murder mystery aspect (the grown-up child star was going to be the main character). I was going to develop it through Em-media’s Words and Vision scheme, but at the last minute they decided that they wanted only feature ideas, so I had to drop in in favour of Savage. That’s the last I worked on it – and not long after Garth Marenghi’s Dark Side TV show came out, with a similar basic idea – and that seemed to put the kibosh on it. Keep thinking about reviving it, but really need to put aside a block of time to develop it. It takes ages coming up with episode synopses.
There’s a moment towards the end of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, where Kathleen Byron, driven mad by jealousy, desire and rejection, steps out onto the roof of the Himalayan palace where her and her fellow nuns have been fighting a losing battle against the heady sensuality of the place, to confront Deborah Kerr as she rings the bell at the edge of the mountain. She looks like nothing and no-one else in British cinema – alien, possessed, a wraith. The image is one that I’ve loved since the first moment I saw it 10 years ago and probably the one single moment that has influenced me most in wanting to become a filmmaker.
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a director. I never made mini-dramas on my dad’s super8 or clunky old camcorder. I liked films, but then so did every other kid I knew. I watched what was on at the pictures – Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and Eye of the Tiger, Stars Wars, James Bond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I never had the idea that someone could make them. I had no concept that that would even have been possible. No-one I knew made films or wrote, or painted or anything like that. Most people I knew had families who worked at the airport.
The only thing I knew I liked doing was writing. I wrote comics with my brother, Kevin – typical stuff – Mission to Mars, Journey to Jupiter, sci-fi epics where all the characters had the same names as us and our friends. Later, I started to write stories for English classes and got good marks for them. I started to tell myself that I was a writer, and even started to think that that was something I’d like to be. But still had no idea that that was something that could actually happen.
As I got older, went to University, I still told myself that I was going to be a writer. The only problem was, I wasn’t writing anything. So I started to try and have a go – while at the same time studying English and American literature. I ended up being influenced by one thing after another – Hemingway, Faulkner, Raymond Chandleer, Burroughs. Out of all these, it was Chandler I really loved, and the first thing that I wrote that I thought – yeah, that’s all right – was a story called Case – a first person narrative, written in a hard-boiled Marlowe-style voice about a bloke (Paterson, named after William Carlos William’s poem) who worked nights in a supermarket, but saw himself as a Knight Errant Private Investigator. (First line of the stories “Bananas. Lots of them. Like nothing else, their stench stays with you…” ) It was part pastiche, part homage, but the idea was that someone could turn the everydayness of the life they led into a different kind of reality. I wrote another couple of Paterson stories before I left University and moved to Nottingham.
That’s when things really kicked in. I was skint, doing shit temp jobs (filing income tax forms in a giant warehouse by the train station, skinning chickens in an industrial estate works kitchen) or signing on. But I managed to hit a rhythm where I was always writing – short stories (Raymond Carver was the new inspiration) and poetry (WCWilliams was the main influence). I think over the period of a couple of years I probably wrote about 50 short stories and 100 poems. A couple of things got published locally and I even did a couple of nights of poetry readings, but to be honest I still had no idea about how I was ever going to be a writer.
Around this time, some friends of mine had started getting involved in film and video and through them I got involved too. It was another thing to try out. At first it was acting, but then I started writing some stuff too. Still, I never thought “I want to be a filmmaker”.
Around the time that I did Headstart, the Intermedia course, led by Roger Knott-Fayle, that gave me a grounding in the technical aspects of film and video production, I started watching films with more of a critical eye. I started trying to think about what I liked and why. And it was around this time that I saw Black Narcissus, saw Kathleen Byron and knew that something had hit me. Something had sunk in, dug it’s way into my head and the pit of my stomach.
It’s taken me the years since then to work on what it is I want to be as a filmmaker, and it’s still an ongoing process, but even today that moment still ignites a spark in me. I saw a review of Black Narcissus by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian recently where he called the same scene “one of the scariest moments in British cinema history” and I felt like it was an acknowledgement of the power of that film.
So, why does it strike such a chord in me? Taken on paper, the whole story sounds daft, melodramatic – nuns on a mountain? a woman driven by desire for David Farrar (who comes in riding a donkey in a terrible pair of shorts)? a seething undercurrent of repressed sexual urges? But the film itself is extraordinary – and it’s about the intangible. It’s the air, the atmosphere of the place, the palace on the mountains (created in a British studio of painted backdrops) which affects the women so much – it’s something they feel, not something that they can touch or explain. (The Black Narcissus of the title is a perfume, perfectly intangible in cinematic terms). It’s this notion that something can affect you, the innermost part of you, and make you feel something that is at the centre of what the film is about – and it’s also at the centre of what films are and should be. Films should get into the corners of your minds and your guts and affect you, whether you like it or not. They should have that power.
And I think that’s the thing I’ve tried to take from Black Narcissus, and that moment in particular, that sense that you can create a mood, a tone, an atmosphere, something that lives in the film itself, that can transmit a feeling to the audience, that can burrow inside them and live there. It’s what I want my films to do and what I want films to do to me.