Friday, October 20, 2006

Man in office writing blog

Back in the office at the New Look Broadway this week – all Paul Smith Cinemas and Media Lounges, apart from my bit of the building which is still like a down at heel detective’s office – and I’m feeling a kind of hangover from last week. I feel like I spent so much brain time thinking and talking about Mum and Dad that trying to do anything else this week has felt like trying to operate heavy machinery after glugging down a bottle of night nurse.

I’ve got to get on with “Deliver Me” though - which has definitely suffered from a lack of momentum over the eight months since we got told that we got it. This week I’ve been trying to think about casting. I find this bit really hard – when you come to look for actors it seems like there’s an almost infinite amount of them out there but only a minuscule proportion of them are people who you’ve actually seen at work or heard about. Which makes it tricky – when you look at Spotlight, the actor’s directory, you’re only going off a posey black and white photo and the CV - so you end up judging whether people look right. I know some people have a definite look for characters in their heads, but I find that that rarely happens for me – I’m quite open to suggestion. It’s only when you start looking – and yesterday I must have looked at over 500 actresses – that you realize that you do actually have some pre conceptions. Then you start getting dismissive, “too old”, “too young”, “too sophisticated”, “too harsh”, “too freakishly bug-eyed” – all instant judgements made off one photo, probably taken two or three years ago.

I did find a great thing on Spotlight, though – an actress whose CV featured at the top the role of “thirty something woman unhappy with herself”, which is practically a short film title in itself. She has also played “31-year-old mum listening to radio”, “crisp sales rep” and “girl in a bar”. Christ, it must be hard being an actor.

I’ve always thought that I’m not really an actor’s director – I don’t come from any kind of acting or theatrical background (and I have, in the past, been known to refer to actors as “flesh puppets”) – but it’s something I definitely want to work on. Part of me just finds the whole concept quite weird – “what, you mean you’re going to try and embody this thing that came out of my head. How does that work?” Maybe it’s the thing about trying to explain psychologies of characters you made up, even when you might not fully understand them yourself. Anyway, I find it hard.

I’ve also started on another pass at the script after another script meeting with Paul Welsh. I still feel like we’re communicating through some kind of fog or mush, where at any time one or other of us has the default facial expression of “Eh?” (Or occasionally, “Huh?”). This time we talked about exposition and tension in the script. I think exposition is always really tricky, but especially in a short script. It’s always considered a no-no, but then maybe that’s why you get so many shorts that are all subtext - full of ambiguous looks and drawn out silences. Sometimes I think maybe some really obvious exposition is the way to go – certainly in a lot of genre films they don’t give a fuck.

I was watching something the other night, Nigel Kneale’s 70s TV series for ITV called 'Beasts' – all animal-related horror stories. The first one, 'Baby' – about a couple who move into a cottage in the country and make A Horrifying Discovery in the walls, had a blatant piece of exposition. The pregnant wife, played by Jane Wymark, is on the phone to her dad – who never appears or is mentioned again – and tells him the whole back story – why they’ve moved, the fact that she’s pregnant, what her husband does. It’s a minute long and its pure exposition – but least you know where you are.

The film as a whole is really good, very creepy with some great writing – even if it has got that 70s TV creakiness and staginess. It also features a great example of HusbandDickery (named, by me, in honour of this site. ). Simon MacCorkindale plays the husband, who acts like an absolute arse every time he’s on-screen – his first entrance after his wife has just seen her cat run away from the Obviously Cursed house and is visibly upset and emotional (and pregnant) is to berate her for bothering him when he’s had ‘a rather good day’, than bellow at her to stop fussing “I can’t stand fussing!’. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg – when she begs him to get rid of the mummified unborn mutant animal corpse that they found in the house (which seems to have caused the farm to be totally barren and infertile) he tells her he’s taking it away when in fact he’s hidden it in their unborn child’s nursery. Nice one, MacCorkindale, first class HusbandDickery. If anyone knows of any more examples, please let me know.

Monday, October 16, 2006


I’ve been down in London for a week, at the Film London Microschool, along with my producer on ‘Mum and Dad’ Lisa Trnovski. I didn’t have much of a chance to write anything at the time, so here is a brief synopsis pieced together from my scraggy, doodle-ridden notebook.

Monday – First day of the ‘Microschool’, Lisa’s not there because she’s working. Start off feeling like I’m at a bad party – too self-conscious to introduce myself. Then Sol – the head of the scheme – arrives and immediately introduces me to everyone else in the group. Someone takes a step back when they hear that I’m the writer of ‘Mum and Dad’ – “This guy’s got some dark thoughts” he says. “Better out than in” I say.

First up is a talk by some Sales Agents. We all have to pitch our projects in a couple of lines. I do my spiel – and get told that ‘You’ll never sell a horror film called Mum and Dad. Change the title.’ Feel deflated and defensive – a mixture of ‘what the hell does she know’ and ‘what the hell do I know’. Feel like I should point out that there have been films called ‘Mother’s Day’, ‘Parents’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ and ‘The Stepfather’ – but then realise that no-one’s probably heard of them, so probably not good comparisons. After the talk, Carol, one of the other Microschoolers comes up to tell me that she loves the title and I shouldn’t change it. Feel heartened.

Then we go into our groups and meet our tutor, Phil Hunt. He tells us that we need to operate in a spirit of ‘co-opetition’, which he swears he didn’t make up and is actually a word. Although naturally pessimistic and cynical, I find that Phil’s relentless optimism and postive thinking mantra is actually quite a good thing to have at this point. Either that or he’s brainwashed me. One piece of advice he gives is that we should always be polite and personable when dealing with people. This strikes me as quite a sad state of affairs – that you have to be told not to be a wanker. Phil also advises ‘never give up your primary source of income for filmmaking’. As someone whose primary source of (pitifully small) income has come from filmmaking over the past couple of years this gives me The Fear.

At the end of the day, Lisa arrives and we go for a drink with most of the other Microschoolers. This was the best part of the day, just because we got to talk to each other without feeling like we’re being continually assessed. Later on in the evening, one of the people organising the course says to me “I’ve read your script and I just wanted to ask – where’s the redemption? Where’s the humanity?’ I should say something like “In somebody else’s film” but that would sound glib, so I try to explain – to someone who’s not a horror fan – why a lot of horror fans don’t want redemption at the end of their films. Not sure that he quite agrees, but it’s an interesting discussion and it makes me wary of how my film might be percieved – all the way along we’ve talked about it as a full-on genre film, which has both a plus and minus to it; on the plus side, it’s probably easier to pitch and market, while on the other hand, some people Just Don’t Like Horror Films. I know, I know, it’s hard to credit…

Tuesday: Script and Directing day. Lisa’s here for the day, but locked away with the other producers for most of it, going through the budget and getting told wildly interesting things about insurance and Tax Credits. Also here today is Chris Cooke, who’s the directing tutor for the comedy group. Our tutor is Tom Shankland, who, when he learns that I’m from Nottingham, says ‘Ah, the centre of British filmmaking”. I tell him it’s also probably the centre for British debt as well. It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard people talk about the East Midlands as being a hotbed of creativity – especially when I’m in London. In Nottingham, in never feels like there is the same kind of attitude about it – it always feels a bit like funders look at us like we’re just lucky amateurs - but outside people really envy the community we have up here.

Today is all about looking at the script and how we’re going to translate that to screen. We get some actors to work with, although a lot of times we don’t get much beyond a couple of readthroughs. Luckily, I get to block out a couple of scenes and Tom gives me some advice about restructuring and cutting dialogue which is quite helpful. It’s good to hear the script out loud for the first time – and to start thinking about the type of performances we need. It’s also quite instructive, because a couple of the actors are definitely not into horror, but the one who is gives the best performance. I think it’s really key that, if we get to make this, we cast people who are really going to be into going along with the horror, rather than putting up with it. I kind of want to get people who can add more wrong – who, if I say ‘Can you take the severed head out of the bag”, say “Okay, what about if I licked the blood off it as well’. Y’know, that kind of attitude.

We also have a session with a script editor, which is really good. He likes the script and gives us some good ideas about how to lengthen it (it’s still only about 72 pages at the moment, although I know it’ll play longer) and how to add some further psychological resonances. At the end of the day, everyone else goes out for a drink, but I go home early – after wandering around Charing Cross road for about an hour trying to find a DVD shop that Cooke wanted to show me, only to find out that it’s already closed. Good job probably – if I have to carry any more stuff around with me I’ll have to hire a pack mule.

Wednesday is all about marketing. We have a talk from Mia Bays, which is great, then have to go out a prepare a marketing pitch. We only get about 45 minutes – so me and Lisa go down to the cafĂ© and knock about a basic structure and some selling gimmicks. Then we go back up, and group by group, have to stand up in front of each other and a panel and pitch our films for up to five minutes. Me and Lisa are one of the only teams to go up together (we’re honing a kind of double-act schtick by now) and all is going well until my mobile starts ringing in the middle of it. Aware that this is, at the very least, terribly bad form, I make a joke of it and tell everyone that it’s my Mum and Dad calling. Get a good laugh and plough on – while making a mental note to call Jeanie later and apologize for rejecting her call

After that, we get a final pep talk from Phil about how to prepare for our final pitches on Friday, before we get a talk on pitching by Judy Counihan. Then off to the pub again, to drink too much and talk indiscreetly about film financiers. Everybody is on good form – particularly Vaughan (another Microschooler), who goes off on a very entertaining ten minute rant about what he hates about Michael Haneke’s Hidden. Have a good chat with another director, Vesna, who is shocked to learn that I’ve got a child (although maybe the shock was that I’ve left her with my Mum and Dad, considering the nature of my script…)

Thursday, I go round to Lisa’s and we prepare our final pitch to the Film London panel. Lisa’s got a great flat in Battersea with terrific views and a big open-plan lounge which is good for rehearsing in. It takes us a few hours, but we manage to get our pitch down to a comfortable (i.e. not too breathless and panicked) ten minutes. The whole time we’ve been allotted is twenty, including Q and A’s, so we’ve got to keep it brief. We go over and over the pitch, rehearsing what we’re going to say and making sure we know who’s doing what bit – then we leave it so that it doesn’t sound too overrehearsed. I think the main things with pitching are to know your film and be relaxed. Try to remind myself not to drink any coffee in the morning – caffeine really fucks me up.

So, on to Friday. Get to Film London in Shoreditch for about 11 and meet David and Edwina, one of the other teams. They’ve already been in and tell me it’s nothing to worry about – the panel are all really nice. This is good to hear. We spend about half an hour talking ghost stories and then me and Lisa are up.

The pitch goes well – we manage not to forget anything and to seem relatively natural. I get a few gags in (always helps if you can make them laugh, even when you’re pitching a brutal horror film) and I feel like we’re presenting a good front. I think the key moment is when we’re talking about managing the effects on the budget and I get prompted to talk about Through A Vulture Eye’s fake eyes. I give everyone a breakdown – lychees, nail varnish, rice paper – of the ingredients and the process, and when I get to ‘then parboil the rhubarb’ I get another big laugh. (My advice for pitches – get the word ‘parboil’ in there somewhere.) All in all the whole thing goes really quickly, and then we’re out of there and dissecting the whole thing over lunch. Both of us feel like we’ve done a good job, and that, if we don’t get the money from Film London, we’re in strong position to try and get it somewhere else. Now we just have to wait and see.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Running at doors

It’s Sunday evening, and I’m in my office at Broadway, just finishing off the draft of ‘Mum and Dad’ ready to send off tomorrow. It’s the first time I’ve been in the building for months when I haven’t had to make my way through a corridor of scaffolding, dangling wires and builders to get to the office, or try and work against a backdrop of drilling, banging and impromptu tests of the new PA system.

They’ve been redeveloping Broadway, putting in a couple of new screens and some new offices and I’m sure it’s all going to look great. But it has been pretty difficult to concentrate for a lot of the time. Not that I’ve had the opportunity to let that bother me – since I got back off holiday I’ve been working like a demon to get this script done – averaging something stupid like 9 pages of script a day. Today was the first time I actually got the chance to read the whole thing through (although Lisa, my producer for this project has been great at reading the drafts-so-far). I think it’s turned out okay – yeah, in places it reads like it needs work, but I think the structure and the basic characters are there. I also don’t know how much of a chance we would have to develop the script if we were commissioned – it sounds as though Film London really want to get a move on with these projects and get them shot in the next few months.

It’s a weird thing, having to put so much thought and effort into visualizing the finished film – it’s what always happens, funders want you to make the film as much as possible on paper before they’ll let you actually make it – because at the back of your mind you’re always acutely aware that the more you invest in it – in terms of time and effort and slices of your soul – the bigger a disappointment you are priming yourself for. And yet, to hold back from putting in that amount of effort would only damage your chances more. It’s like running at a door that has a one-in-three chance of being made of paper, with a soft mattress behind it, and a two-in-three chance of having a large boxing glove on a spring at crotch height. The faster you run, the better or worse it’ll be.

Enough daft metaphors – that’s what spending too much time in your head does to you. At least I’ve got another feature script, however rough, which is something I didn’t have a month ago. Think positive.