screenwriting

On Vulnerability

A few months ago, while in the throes of developing a sales pack for my feature film 'Wilderness' and arranging a series of local screenings in Cornwall to keep momentum going, I was faced with a couple of moments that took nerve to overcome.  I got that nerve largely thanks to my wife who could see that things were getting to me and who helped me send some emails that helped change the course of the film's progress somewhat and helped plant the seeds of this blog (and maybe future writing, who knows?).

Through contacts that our executive producer has we had the chance to screen 'Wilderness' for someone influential enough in film acquisitions and distribution in the UK that their recommendations are taken seriously and this person really liked 'Wilderness' and offered to recommend that a few distributors watch it with a view to buying it. To be honest, this was something I never envisaged for the film. It's super low budget, not easily classifiable in genre terms and has no stars. This person didn't seem to think that really mattered and that the low-budget and unique funding circumstances, plus strong festivals showing, aligned with an improved trailer and new sales deck meant the film could find favour. Before that though, he said we needed the one thing we knew was missing. Quotes from critics, ideally those who write for recognisable publications. Through Filmstock, my day job and the Cinematologists podcast I had made some excellent contacts and indeed had not long published a 6-months in the making episode of the podcast on Film Criticism featuring a number of journalists and writers. This was before Christmas 2017 and so I set about trying to secure a response from critics I knew who write for the likes of The Sunday Times, Film Comment, Sight and Sound and others. 

We'd rinsed the lovely review our friend Ryan Gilbey (The New Statesman, The Guardian) gave us and knew we needed more. So I asked some folks. This was really hard to do in the first place. When Ryan watched the film he said that there was real angst on his part going in. There's always the anxiety of watching work by friends and people you know that it will suck and you won't know what to say. I know this is a critic and programmer. Ryan was relieved he liked it and his review suggests there's no illusion there. 

It was incredibly hard to send the film out to people to ask them to watch and give a quote. Most of the people I sent it to didn't know me as a filmmaker, only through other channels and I could hear in my head that voice saying 'they think you are just a critic who thinks they can do better'. Film critics watch a lot of films and have tight deadlines and the gig isn't well paid. So there's me asking them to watch another film, for no reason other than I need them, if they like it, to say so.

I asked, then chased, then nudged and got the point where I felt I couldn't ask again, anymore. I felt like I had asked and that people's lack of response was down to them not liking it or simply not having time. I respect both those things and was ready to put it to bed.

Around the same time, we were screening the film in Cornwall for local audiences, having been invited by The Poly in Falmouth to screen on DCP in their big room following a disappointing earlier event in November, with Cornwall Film Festival. It wasn't selling well and there was a chance that a prominent critic was going to be there and let us know their thoughts. I hated the idea that our big hometown/local screening for a film written and produced here was going to just fizzle out. I couldn't believe in a school of 600+ students and goodness knows how many staff that no one wanted to see the film that wouldn't have been possible without so many participants from the school. It was all making me pretty miserable. I was ready to throw in the towel regards the film. 

My wife told me to email the critics again. She bugged me and kept nudging me. Saying rightly, what was there to lose. So what if I annoyed them or made them finally say 'yes Neil I watched it and thought it was terrible'. I needed to do it. I couldn't have what ifs, and I'd already laid so much on the line for this film. 

At the same time I thought, the students (and staff) I work with, need to know that the investment in filmmaking (or any art) has emotional tolls on those who make it. 

So I emailed the critics. With a nice little get out in case they had seen it but didn't like it - a short statement they could copy and paste and send back to me reading something like 'I've seen it Neil and wish you the best of luck with it'.

At the same time I emailed staff and students pleading with them to come and see the film. Not for me, but because it's a work in the world that has the imprint of so many people's time and emotional investment, and because I'm proud of it in and of itself as well as how it was made. I told the critics and the students and staff how I was feeling. That I was sorry, but that I needed to pretty much beg at this point, that I couldn't just let it fizzle out into nothing. I had to keep trying. 

The results?

The screening was postponed due to snow and the prominent critic still hasn't been able to see it.

The critics got back to me, all bar one who sent profuse apologies, with incredible quotes and reviews. They really liked it, or liked something about me or it enough to provide words that suddenly filled the gap we wondered if we would ever fill. We made a sales deck that drew together the story of how we made it, the festival awards and screenings and front and centre the incredible reviews. These reviews are on the site and featured in our new trailer

Fragoso Review

The friend in acquisitions couldn't believe the reviews we got and helped us make them really prominent in the trailer. He said that a lot of high profile features would kill for quotes like these from writers at the publications we'd managed to snag. We knew that. Oh we knew that. 

The sales deck and new trailer is now being presented to distributors and you never know, you just never know. 

What matters to me, and why I wrote this blog and may write something more academic in the future, is that we share the emotional cost of our creative labour in productive, meaningful and hopefully productive ways. I think auto-ethnographic approaches to academic and creative labour are valid in the academy. It's also I believe vital to teach those who are starting to embark on creative professional journeys of what happens and what is at stake in terms of wellbeing. It's good to remind people of the humanity behind creative acts. Not everything is done with a dollar goal in mind. It is important to build and retain communities of support for indie film and independent creative practice. I am as guilty as anyone of ploughing my own furrow sometimes. 

As an aside, this summer I have and am continuing to make a point of catching up with the work of friends and peers I have promised to read and watch and haven't got round to. We all need to do our part.

Making work and sharing work makes you vulnerable (if you are a human being) at every stage. It changes and eases the older you get and the more work you do but never disappears completely, I don't think. That vulnerability can be part of what makes the work resonate and life is too short to pretend you don't care and that people's apathy doesn't bother you. Having to put myself out there and pretty much beg for people to engage reminded me of my own responsibilities as much as anything else. It's terrifying to share the fruits of our labour, but in film particularly how can we not? Without an audience for our films, what is the point? We have to do all we can to get people to see work we are proud of and I'm really proud of 'Wilderness'. The amazing reviews we've had made me feel like we made something that really connected and that people wanted to be effusive about. 

And I'm about to embark on it all over again as I start to write a new script and put a new short film out into the world. Once more unto the breach. 

 

Digging To The Bottom Of The Page: An Evening With Simon Armitage

Introduction

I've just returned from a beautiful lecture by the poet Simon Armitage. It was his final address as a visiting professor within the School of Writing & Journalism at Falmouth University, where I work.

His talk was on the importance and increasing loss of place, and the sense of place, in poetry. It had an effect on me that I wanted to record. It made me think about cinema, my own writing and teaching. Some of the 'quotes' may be clumsily paraphrased due to my scribbling as he spoke.

Cinema

He talked about how he feels that the sense of place is being lost in poetry, to something ephemeral. He claims this makes it difficult to grab onto and understand the heart of a poem. This feels relevant in contemporary cinema, or at least mainstream cinema, where so much of what is shown is fantasy, made up worlds with increasingly minimal relation to the real, physical world. Even 'real' places such as Tony Stark's New York feel truly Baudrillardian. 

He alludes to film a lot. He uses filmic references when talking, such as claiming Heaney takes the 'director's chair' in his work. His discussion of playlet poems such as Heaney's A Constable Calls as 'storytelling in reduced allegorical form' echoes the all too often neglected potential and aims of cinema. 

Discussion of James Fenton's Tiananmen brought to mind the power in cinema of (visual and spoken) repetition and the underused (visual) pun.

I loved how he said that British and Irish road movies can only ever be 'an ironic undertaking' compared to their U.S. counterparts. This is something I have always thought and a true, un-ironic British or Irish road movie has always been an ambition.

Teaching

He talked about how it is almost a given that poets teach and normally teach poetry. The idea of earning living from writing poetry, of being a professional poet, is something that is viewed as incredibly difficult so supplementing an income by teaching is considered valid. Increasingly, the idea of creative practitioners not only supplementing their income through teaching but teaching being the primary source of their income is becoming commonplace. Indeed, at universities it is more and more attractive to employ those who work on the financial peripheries of a creative industry. They have that valuable 'real world' experience in a professional context and can share that with aspirational graduates who we are told value employability above all else. Will it ever be valid and commonplace for film professionals to teach film but still consider themselves practitioners foremost? Will students ever see them as anything other than lecturers?

This is something that I think about due to its relation to my own life and career. To me it would seem common sense given the nature of film practice industrially at present that practitioners teach for the benefit of future creative professionals and their own mortgages. But then I am biased.

I see writing and teaching as part of the same core of what I do. As a person I like to learn, and share what I learn. Sometimes I learn by consuming, sometimes by doing and sometimes, like tonight, by listening. 

Simon Armitage also lectures and teaches poetry. He likes it now, later in his life and creative journey, as he feels he has more to say and offer. He seems to draw on a fundamental relationship to poetry that expands far beyond his practitioner status. He seems more interested in what poetry is and can be than how it is done, or how he does it. That was vital, fascinating and liberating. 

He read and talked about Ted Hughes's Full Moon poem. He picked out the line 'cows are going home in the lane there' and picked on the importance of the word 'there'. The way he responded to that simple word in the middle of the poem and drew out its elegance and imagery reminded me of the value of language to a screenwriter. Often, we are told to be simple, direct and refrain from clutter, not to overwrite. However, one word in the right place can do so much to create a true image in the mind. It's craft and skill without ostentation. In the example of the poem the impact comes from one word everyone knows. It can have an unconscious effect that thrills and enthrals, almost unknowingly. It makes it 'local and true'. The specific is universal. We are taken 'there' even though we can't see or know 'there'. The 'there' is here, inside us. 

My own writing

More and more I confront my own work, my limitations and my desire as a writer. A lecture on poetry had more impact than I imagined. That crisp, elemental relationship of word and image is what I am increasingly interested in on the page. Before attending the talk I read Mark Cousins's latest column in Sight & Sound and am reminded that my desire as I've got older is to talk less on the page. To live more in the space of imagery, silence and time. I talk too much in life. I can be nervous of silence for I fear it will betray my secrets. Namely expose my frauds.  I talk for a living, filling hours with oratory. My increasing aim, on the page, is to be more elemental. To do the most with the least. I guess that's everyone's aim but it's taken me a long time to get there and I'm only at the awareness stage, a long way from mastery.

His analysis of the final stanza of Gunn's Epitaph For Anton Schmidt was a masterful dissection of structure, craft and discipline. He broke down how the final four lines work.

Line 1 is location. Line 2 is description. Line 3 is action. Line 4 is implication.

Powerful and elemental and applicable to screenwriting. I may also use it in teaching screenwriting. 

References

A Constable Calls by Seamus Heaney. Full Moon and Little Frieda by Ted Hughes. Thomas Hardy. Charles Simic (the modern Hardy, albeit more filmic and absurd, according to Armitage). An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley. Tiananmen by James Fenton. Duffy's Circus by Paul Muldoon. Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. Dylan Thomas. William Wordsworth. John Cooper Clarke. Terry Street by Douglas Dunn. Epitaph For Anton Schmidt by Thom Gunn. Sight & Sound. Mark Cousins. Road Movies. Jorie Graham. Baudrillard. Tony Stark.