feature film

Wilderness (Post 4)

It's not mine for much longer. The actors and locations are set. The schedule is 90% done. It's all happening, soon it will be time to get it done and once that process is underway I have less of an important creative role. I don't mind. I can't wait to see what happens. Plus I know that I will need to be ready to make key action and dialogue decisions in the thick of it, such is the collaborative nature of the work I do with Justin, the director.

For now though, it is still mine, barely. And that is a nice feeling. 

I wonder what will come of the story and the characters once they exist of the page. It's quietly terrifying and exhilarating. I have a lot of pride for this piece of work. It has moved from something I did for a project I was developing to something that I feel ready to stand behind artistically and emotionally. The response to it from Justin, from the actors, from Steve Maclean who I trust implicitly with my work, has seen to that. 

Justin has a Steve he trusts in the same way. His name is Stephen Keep Mills and he's a brilliant filmmaker and old friend of ours. Knowing that he loves it and that he sees it as I see it, and as Justin sees it, is so invigorating.


Here's what he said about the script:

Hey, Justin and Neil—I enjoyed being in The Wilderness! You have a very viable story and I was always wondering what would happen next—not to them, but between them. You have really caught the dilemma and brought the story within the tension of the two main players and that’s a great accomplishment. I don’t think you need to worry about John’s like-ability. We understand that they both are fighting for their lives and constantly recalibrating what’s real against what has been pre-wished. All emotions are strategic arrows in their separate quivers and they use as many as they think they need to keep from being slaughtered by the other. In playing this, don’t be afraid to let silences come in and banalities blow around like dandelions—we know a cloud is lurking, darkening, and on its way to breaking. The actors need to carry all the weight with them even when they seem least concerned, so that confrontations can come in strong and out of the blue. It’s kind of a Dance of Death wrapped up in the everyday—even when “normal” we can’t escape the always-near possibility of domestic rawness. When John and Alice start using crude language vs. each other—that’s a release of violence for them and marks an effort to break down walls that have become dangerous—so let the actors really get on fire with the fight which at that point needs that kind of weapon-talk. I like their isolation filled as it is with bucolic lures as well as the kindling of danger. Something is going to happen to them—each other! Find ways the characters of John and Alice have mastered confidence and find ways they are so vulnerable and far away. A great take on relationships and I like that you get to experiment and find out things you don’t know now. Good bones! And the best thing is that you will do it. That’s everything. Keep me posted. And let all those questions further you and not give you too much pause. The answer is in the action. Find it there. Steve


When people write things like this about your work it refocuses the energy on what's important, which is the work. Questions of what happens beyond the finished thing start to pale because the work has already touched people and if we can capture that on screen then it will touch people, and that is what counts. How many people seems irrelevant. 

The past couple of weeks I have been fortunate enough to talk with filmmakers including Kim Longinotto, Mark Jenkin and John Maclean and I've been invigorated and inspired by their approach to the form. They echo my sincerest beliefs - in the form, in being uncompromising, in searching for something honest - and have provided really key reminders of what matters as we get close to zero hour. 

I'm enjoying the words on the page, feeling satisfied and honoured and excited. 

Wilderness (Post 3)

Justin suggested we play around with the formatting of the screenplay. The script at present is 60 pages. Standard thinking suggests that equals 60 minutes. The film will be longer and there are things I've left out of the script that I want the actors to bring to the process.

Justin suggested putting those questions into the script. I've done that, alongside some thoughts and some ellipses that denote the slow passing of time that again, will be filled by the actors and the physical ideas they bring to the work.

I've done something I tell my students never to do. I tell them they have to earn the right to mess around with standardised formatting. However I'm messing around with standardised formatting. Have I earned it? I hope so. I know the script will be read by sympathetic readers (and there is a standard format version too) and that's why it felt like something could be done. Part of me enjoyed the rebellion, and I think that is partly why Justin suggested it. Everything about Wilderness feels like a fuck you. In a good way.

I'm also breaking the rules with my 'drafts'. Every time I change something of note I call that a draft. It doesn't have to be big, only significant. This is for teaching and for when I disseminate the project through research. To be fair, there will probably only be two drafts before we do final development with actors. 

People will say that's a bad thing, that you need more drafts than that. But we don't have time and it's not that kind of project. We have never worked that way. 

Justin and I have always been instinctual. We've always gone with our gut and it's rarely led us wrong. We can look back at the times it did with criticality and distance. 

We believe in this story and this telling and for now that's enough. There's a lot of work to do - some significant changes, some tinkering. We are ready for it.

The script has gone to the actors who are auditioning. The whole script. We know this is unusual but we are asking a lot of the actors we bring on board in terms of intimate scenes and also the level of improvisational development they will bring to the project. 

The script has also gone out to the students working on the project. I'm curious to see how they respond to it. Both emotionally, and as a tool.

I've compiled a list of films for students to watch for reference - Faces, Opening Night and Too Late Blues by Cassavetes, 45 Years, All Night Long, The Broken Circle Breakdown. Justin mentioned the party scene in Listen Up Philip which is a great call. It also made me think that Queen of Earth, also directed by our friend Alex Ross Perry, is a great reference point. One of the actresses auditioning said the script reminded her of this short film, Actresses

I watched it and think she is spot on. Tonally and in terms of the content it feels like a close relative of what we are doing, in a good way.

I've been listening to a lot of jazz. Justin recommended an 8-disc CD set of New Wave and 1960s films with jazz scores. I picked up Vols 1 and 2 and have been devouring them. They have been great at contextualising the tone and period we are going for. There's something about that era of jazz scores that elevates the films emotionally and gives them a complex resonance. 

I also compiled (for the students) a Spotify playlist with the songs that captured my mood and imagination as I was writing and developing the script. You can listen here.

When I told my girlfriend what the story was she told me it sounded like Ian McEwan's novel On Chesil Beach. When I told a colleague the story he said the same thing.  I was reminded of what my girlfriend said and ordered it. I'm starting it tonight

And I have put it on the reference list. I trust my love that much.

One strangely resonant piece of content is Louis C.K.'s latest endeavour Horace and Pete. I don't know if it's because I just adore it. It is full of space, of quiet, of silence. It takes its time and delivers raw, human emotion. It's funny, of course, but it's so much more. It aches and it's confused and it's sad and it's angry and it just wants it all to be over. It's a delicate thing that is overwhelming. So it's on the list. 

Wilderness (Post 2)

The script is done. It's 61 pages and I am proud of it. 

It has been a real challenge to write this alongside life and work but one that I have relished and where the necessity of distilling and crystallising my process has helped me harness writing spurts into incredibly rewarding sessions. The nature and format of this project and screenplay, writing something that is designed to be further developed in collaboration with actors, has allowed me to leave a lot of space that I know will be filled. The truth is also that this space will probably be filled by people better placed to fill those gaps than I am.

What is left is the story and the core, the themes and the essence. These are the things that are mine and that I want to protect. It's actually easier to know that big, key changes will occur when you willingly leave space for them. I relinquish so much control in advance that I can't be hurt. If only my characters could be that strong. 

Justin has seen it and really likes it, as has the other person I trust with my work. Now it goes out into the world. It goes to those funding it, those crewing it, the students, the actors. I wonder what they will make of it.

Justin and I talked and agreed that it feels like an 'us' project now. After so long wondering what we would do for our first feature film and then drifting through the fog of finding this idea and settling on it just to get something made we have emerged excited about this idea and story in itself. It feels very much like an emotional sequel to our last short It's Natural To Be AfraidThat was a film that went through a similarly conflicted gestation journey as a creative entity.

Justin also discussed producing a version of the screenplay that included some strange formatting elements and moments of direct address (from me as the writer) that will help those who read it understand that what is on the page is just part of it and that we know that, and that many of the emotional gaps are intentional at this stage. That we are just at the beginning. 

It's made me think about what I do as a writer and how I'd like to work moving forward. As someone who has always been staunchly and stubbornly indie it's exciting to find a positive way of creating projects that can be created with the sadly necessary compromises that comprise my professional life as I approach the middle of my life. I am fully aware that these compromises have had to have been made due to a particularly cavalier approach to my life up until the last few years.

If we pull this off, it's a decent template and one that feels true and represents an exciting and collaborative way of working, not just a compromise presented this way as a veiled excuse. 

It's exciting to see what some of the actors whose tapes we've been watching will do with it. And soon down the line, what the world will make of it.

Wilderness (Post 1)

Introductory Update

The feature film I am writing for the School of Film & Television at Falmouth University's inaugural Filmmaker in Residence pilot has a title. It's called Wilderness.

I am writing a 60+ page screenplay that will be expanded through actor improvisations in a rehearsal period prior to shooting around Easter 2016. So far I have written 30+ pages.

I have given these to the filmmaker in residence, my long-time collaborator Justin Doherty and we have discussed them. It was really daunting to give the pages to Justin. Apart from Barbed Wire Heron these were the first pages I had given him in a long time. They were also pages that had to be good, and feel right, and work because we are up against the clock and this was the only idea that really worked. It was also an idea that was picked because of logistics such as time, budget etc. We have other screenplays burning holes in our pockets that have for years, but they will have to wait.

It was also daunting because again, apart from Barbed Wire Heron, this was the first screenwriting I had done for 4 years. Could I still do it? Could I get across what I wanted to say. Would it excite, and inspire? Would it work?

I was ecstatic that Justin liked it and wanted to make it. However, more than that I was pleased that he read it and understood the spaces that would be filled by performers and how he would approach shooting it so that the intention would remain even if logistically what was on the page was not possible. 

It has made planning writing the remaining 30+ pages a much easier task.

We've mapped it out and agreed on a central section that the story hangs on, that works in terms of achievability and story logic. It's exciting. 

Themes & Acceptance

Part of my process is sharing my work with someone else I trust beyond Justin. I can rely on this person to tell me whether something works or not. He gets me, and my work.

I gave him a very brief overview of the story, characters, when it is set. From this he drew out themes that Justin and I had discussed, and he drilled down into what he felt the resonances could be from that. That was encouraging because it meant that our thinking about those contexts were in the right place. So I sent him the 30+ pages. The conversation we had then excited me because he got it. He got exactly what I was aiming for and he understood where I wanted to take it, without me having to tell him. He also scared me when he said that

'she is trying to accept him but he won't accept himself for being an arsehole'

This hit me because it's true but I didn't realise it, and I didn't realise that I had written myself into the character to that degree. 

I hope it doesn't impact the way I write the rest of the script but I don't think it will. It's all been so clearly mapped out prior to that conversation but it's heartwarming and encouraging to know that I am on the right track when the two people I trust the most regarding my writing feel what I have done is good. After four years out of the game, that's a wonderful feeling, but I shall not get complacent.