First, a follow up on my comments regarding I, DANIEL BLAKE: Toby Young referred to Katie "having a fainting fit." Firstly, this is an error of fact - she didn't faint, she forced open a can of baked beans in the food bank and started eating them. So one possibility is he wasn't paying attention, as he was probably infuriated by the film by this point. Or perhaps he instinctively reached for words that were insulting and sexist - high born ladies used to have "fainting fits." It's a ridiculous term to use about this character and reveals more about Young than he might have intended.
Charles Garrad and I attended an invited screening of WAITING FOR YOU at the London Film School early in the month – I do a bit of mentoring there. It was arranged at rather short notice, but the attendance by students was quite good and several friends were able to come too. The film looked and sounded excellent, projected from a DCP. There was a longish Q&A afterwards, the first we'd done: we were both feeling our way a bit but I think we were lucid!
Also this month, Dean Anderson and I went on a recce in Ireland for MY SONGS INSIDE. We haven't yet sought funding for the film, the purpose of this trip was more to help Dean see the places I’ve had in mind and, with the help of Michael Parle (Dark Window Media), to find a lot more possible locations. Another purpose is to compile materials strengthening our case for the film and adding evidence to the budget. We were lucky to have three days of fine weather - cold, admittedly, but far preferable to rain.
Some live events this month: a short play by John Foster in a London pub theatre was fun to see. John was a colleague some years back when I was teaching at Bournemouth University on the Screenwriting BA and MA. He’s still based in Bournemouth and has been very active there as a playwright. This was a rare chance to see his work, conveniently close to where I live.
And a concert (during one of my times in Hastings). I'm rather more into classical music these days and big choral works I find a treat - Schubert and Fauré. And as I've said before, the live sound of real instruments I find rather thrilling. The event was held in a church with no amplification or sound control, just the raw tones of voice and instrument: for the second half I sat myself in the front row near the cellos and double bass, the resonance audible from all that wood - gorgeous.
A recent film I saw, at the local Odeon: ARRIVAL. Sumptuously shot and really rather weird. I read a very sniffy review subsequently and I did think the film was a bit bonkers, but there was a lot of playing with time, which I like. Incidentally, the critic got it wrong as to which events actually occurred in which order, so he clearly got bored and wasn’t paying attention.
Not a lot to report this month as I was away on holiday for part of it. Back in time to attend the second screening of WAITING FOR YOU at Soho Screening Rooms, where the film looked and sounded fabulous (DOP was David Raedeker, and the composer Adrian Corker.)
The past was summoned up by a long Skype call with Ella Simpson during the month. Ella was for a time on the board of NOT SHUT UP magazine and now, as a research student, is gathering material about writers who have worked in prisons. It was a shock to realise my time working in HMP Brixton was at the start of the current century! It's particularly interesting to re-visit that time as it has a direct bearing on my current project MY SONGS INSIDE. Ella has already helped me by putting me in touch with an offender manager (erstwhile known as a probation officer) who could advise me about certain aspects of my story. My next step is to try to set up a visit to a women's prison for the director.
As the month draws to an end, Ken Loach's new film I, DANIEL BLAKE is attracting a great deal of interest. It's not always so with his films – but he's caught the moment wonderfully with this one. The evening screening I went to at my local was sold out. The film carries a shocking sense of truth, and yes, I cried. That people have rushed to condemn the film, e.g. Toby Young in the Daily Mail, is a good sign. He, of course, refuses to believe it is a true portrayal of the benefits system. As with Loach's film about the Irish war of independence, it is not about the quality of the drama but about the affront to what people want to believe. Young specifically mis-describes a key event of the film, a mistake he may not be conscious of. I won't do a spoiler, but such errors are always revealing. More on this next month – if you haven't see it by then, too bad!
As promised in my last blog entry, we have a new title for the film previously called Beginning in D: MY SONGS INSIDE.
As I may have conveyed in earlier blogs as well, most of the people I've been in touch with about it have been in Ireland but my final realisation was that it would be necessary to generate interest first in the UK. This came with the decision to bring in a director rather than persist in the idea of directing it myself. I'm delighted that director Dean Anderson and producer Carl Schoenfeld are so committed to helping to achieve it, both willing to meet and discuss every aspect of the project.
Dean's latest short film CLASS 15 was shown at the recent Encounters Film Festival in Bristol and it was nice that all three of us were there. Abigail Davies, the script editor who has been so helpful as I worked on my screenplay, lives and works in Bristol and she was able to be there too.
It's taken a long time to get it right, but MY SONGS INSIDE feels well balanced now between being on the one hand a story that will interest audiences and on the other hand being a kind of testimony. It addresses the nature of time passing, how the past exists in our minds and how we convey that past to other people – and, most importantly, how it informs the future. I do believe it's the best original piece I've written.
And I don't have that feeling with every new screenplay! Each one exists as a unique thing in my mind: the questions are always "Is this the best it can be? Has something been lost from an earlier draft that needs to go back in? Is there a problem with the script that I've not seen?" You could say I'm a worrier...
JULY / AUGUST
I enjoy travelling. Quite why I love wandering in a town or city that's unknown to me prior to my arrival, or grappling with train and bus timetables in a foreign country - I'm unable to explain. With most of the films I've written, there is the "research trip" that happens while I'm beginning to get to grips with the project. This involves the same activity – and lots of sitting around in cafes and bars, oddly enough - but then there are specific problems I'm setting out to solve. Even now, I hesitate to go somewhere with no aim in mind at all. A few connectors are useful – something or someone connects me to the place I want to go to. For example, I'm just back from a trip to Hannover, from there I went on to spend some time walking and travelling in the Harz mountains (steam trains!), then back again to Hannover. But for that final day on trains, I opted to go via Erfurt, a place name that had been emerging from my memory all the while. Fifty years ago, I spent about three weeks staying with a school teacher in a village not far from Erfurt. The Cold War was at its height, nuclear bomb tests, Berlin divided... It's an interesting story – how I was invited to be there, the experience, and what the consequences were. My host took me round Buchenwald concentration camp, preserved as a museum by the East German government because it was initially a prison for the Nazis' political enemies. But all the school children wanted to talk about was the Beatles.
WAITING FOR YOU
The film is now being submitted to film festivals and the producer is seeking interest from sales agents with a view to distribution. I've updated the front page of this site with a still from the film.
BEGINNING IN D
There's now both a director and producer attached to the project, and they have been joined by a casting director. Everyone is enthused by the screenplay; I am making a few useful changes in the light of conversations with these good folk, aiming to arrive soon at a script that we are all confident is ready to submit to actors. Casting will be very important with a project like this. Oh, and we want to arrive at a better title. The one we have is, in fact, the title of the final story: there are six in the film, and each title is given a different "key" - G, D Minor, C, E Flat, C Minor, then D. Puzzled? Don't worry, it's explained early in the film!
LONDON FILM SCHOOL
My annual work as a mentor comes round at this time of the year: I am brought into the final weeks of the Screenwriting MA in order to offer some reactions to a student's screenplay. He or she will be between their first and second drafts; it's always an interesting experience, though a little alarming, as I wonder whether my reactions to the script might be utterly out of step with their tutor. But hopefully not - instead, it's about bringing some fresh insights when the student is both pushed for time, needing to complete all assignments, and perhaps feeling a wee bit bogged down. We mentors then come galloping over the hill to the rescue.
There was some discussion recently on Facebook about how screenwriting should be taught: it's worth noting that the emphasis at the LFS is on practitioners, but that's possible because it operates to a considerable degree outside the normal constraints of universities. There (at least this is my impression) the door has been closed against them, in favour of people who have academic qualifications in the subject. Job details sometimes don't even specify the applicant must have written a screenplay as such, much less seen it made into a film.
It's interesting to compare this with how fine art has evolved: the art colleges (or rather fine art departments of universities) have a total hold over the whole sector of fine art in so far as it is shown in publicly funded galleries or, indeed, commercial galleries that operate in an overlapping way with these galleries: you will rarely see the work of any artist who has not been through fine art training, and that means first degree and, mostly, post-graduate. In effect, practice was fused with academia when the old diploma art schools, where the emphasis was heavily on practice, were subsumed into the degree-awarding universities in the 1970s / 80s.
Anyone (is there?) who reads this blog regularly will see that sometimes a project I've talked about for a while kind of fades from view. I'm afraid that is the nature of the business I'm in - it's not uncommon for a producer to express enthusiasm for a script and then just go quiet, ignore further emails... Often people don't want to say they've changed their minds, they don't want to say no - so they don't say anything. In this game, you just have to learn to live with disappointment, or you get all bitter, and that's no use to anybody!
First, some good news: I went to a screening for WAITING FOR YOU on the 8th. It's finally finished and I'm very happy with it!
It was good to have a reunion, on the 22nd, with many of the people who, like me, have worked in prisons as writers. The occasion was a one day seminar organised by Ella Simpson at Bath Spa University to focus attention on the value of this work.
The day after I was back in Manchester as one of the writers running a short session as part of the Metropolitan University's Summer School for their MA students.
I was up most of that night, 23rd - like many people, I kept waking up to check on the referendum vote.
This is the bad news. I and so many friends have been plunged into deep gloom by what has happened. My experiences are doubtless common enough in film and TV: I've recently written a film set mainly in France, worked with a French director and producer on a Scottish project set in France, a few months back I was commissioned by an Italian producer to write a treatment for a film set there, and currently I'm working on my next film set partly in England, partly Ireland, with an Irish producer and German producer who has lived in the UK for much of his life. This is how it's meant to be in the modern world, isn't it?
We can only watch to see how things unfold but everything went crazy within days and carried on being crazy into the next month. Without getting into the politics (you can find my views on Facebook!) the referendum result won't help British films in Europe.
APRIL / MAY
My, where does the time go?
Much of APRIL I spent working on that TREATMENT (see FEB 2016). It was commissioned by a producer I worked with some years back. The task is to set out how a film might be shaped from the material in a novel. It turned out to be a very hard novel to adapt, mainly because of the richness of that material and the extent of it. The aim is to find a focus: in this particular novel there wasn't one that I could see that clearly. Rather like an abstract painting where (as is sometimes the case) the artist specifically doesn't want there to be a focus - the aim is to hold the whole surface in a kind of balance where the eye has no obvious place to rest. Whereas with a film, the classic approach remains for most of us - you must focus down to what the piece is about that can be expressed in a sentence. Then you build from that, it's your cornerstone.
MAY involved some travelling. And meetings.
3rd: meeting with DoP Sarah Cunningham and Dean Anderson, who will direct my next film, BEGINNING IN D, to discuss the ways and means of achieving the film from my script.
4th: meeting with someone who works in the criminal law to advise me on how things would be in a real case scenario similar to the imagined one in my script (which is about a woman in prison).
6th: flight to Dublin. The plan is to shoot BEGINNING in Ireland.
7th: meeting with Lilla Nurie, who has been working for a while to help us arrive at a realistic design budget.
8th: meeting with DoP Colum O'Dwyer to take a second look at issues / budgetting around camera and lighting. Another meeting later that day with costume designer Lisa McCarroll to help budget for that aspect of the film
9th - 11th: flight out to Kerry to spend some time talking over the project with Kathy Horgan, Irish producer for the film and also looking for possible locations out there in the west.
14th: train to Cannes. WAITING FOR YOU didn't, at the time of the festival, have a distributor so the film wasn't really "present", though the producers were there talking up the film. Aside from a few encounters within the "international village", including a brief but useful talk with someone from the Irish Film Board, time there turned into a bit of a holiday really. But I hadn't been to Cannes for a few years and it's always fun to dip into the madness of it all. Made a trip to Monaco as well - a wonderful visit to the Oceanographic Museum there. Elsewhere, preparations visible for the Grand Prix. It occurs to me suddenly that haven is a notably self-righteous word to use for a place where people avoid paying tax on their riches.
18th – 25th: more holiday - a few days in Paris then a few in Bordeaux.
26th: home to find interest from an independent producer to whom I pitched an idea some weeks back. Good news!
Rather pleased with myself this month, to have taken in a concert, an opera and a theatre play all within about a week.
THE DOCTOR'S ORCHESTRA at Cadogan Hall made an evening of music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, as a fundraiser for Freedom from Torture. I'm rather into classical music these days: with two short films built round Bach's music complete and a feature planned that will be the same, it's come into my own work. What interests me is the idea that the music pre-exists and in part dictates of the film's structure, rather than being added afterwards.
I love hearing music live, and in this instance I think it was unmodulated by a sound system. And when you watch an orchestra live (as opposed to on TV, where the edits mostly obscure this) you can see musicians getting ready to play their part during the piece, so you have that rather odd feeling of being ahead of the musical curve - "ah, the french horns are on in a sec."
Then on to AKHNATEN by Philip Glass, at the E.N.O. This was a lesson is knowing where to sit and whether the cost is tolerable. My ticket cost £75 and I was so far away I couldn't see any details at all of what were obviously stupendous costumes, so I felt somewhat frustrated. The staging was beautiful though and I could see that. As for the music - well, I'm a fan but there were moments when I felt, how can I put it, the invention was stretching a bit thin. And thinking about the enormous chorus and the cost of the whole thing evoked faint memories from my days in arts subsidy, distributing peanuts to the visual arts, when the grants given to this particular art form caused much gnashing of teeth. There again, there have been disputes at the E.N.O. over pay so how the cake is divided up is clearly also an issue.
I caught a programme on the TV the other day - Antonio Pappano attempting to explain to us the means by which operatic singers have such power in their voices. I'm not sure he did quite explain it, but it was interesting to be taken into a world I know so little about. All the singers make it seem effortless.
Finally, there was WASTE at the National. In truth I rarely go to the theatre. I've rarely written for it either. The visits I have made being mostly to quite small theatres, it was something of a shock to go to a really BIG theatre (the Lyttelton) and realise that the actors do actually need to speak very loudly indeed and with immense clarity to be sure of being heard right to the back of the auditorium. Unlike opera, where that volume is sort of built in to the art form, it sounds a wee bit unnatural when the characters are meant to be in a room having a conversation. I think the director's choice to go for quite artificial staging (matched by minimalist sets) reflected that strangeness. I envy Roger Michell's ability to shift so successfully between theatre and film.
WASTE felt like a welter of words sometimes and, to someone steeped in screen drama, very static – but Granville Barker's grip of the emotions fuelling his characters, and his ability to express them, were stunning. I was struck too by the way the big events were off stage, between scenes - impossible in a film, and perhaps in a play too nowadays. But the message of the play - mainly, the brutalities of politics - could hardly have been more topical. Only days later, Iain Duncan Smith resigned and I imagined (think Luis Buñuel!) blood seeping from the letter boxes of those immaculate doors in Downing Street.
Janet was a visual artist who I met quite a while back at the house of mutual friends. She discovered I was a writer and worked on the kind of films that artists usually keep well away from – films with "plot" and "drama" in them, actors even... But finally she asked me to help her with a film she was struggling to shape, and also she wanted it to have a 'voice over' monologue. It came from a residency among archaeologists working at Stonehenge. All I did was sit with her and suggest how the various sequences she had shot might fit together and then I distilled her ideas about the monologue into a text she could give an actor to read. I really liked the film that resulted (MY PASSAGE THROUGH A BRIEF UNITY IN TIME) - perhaps the monologue is too crafted for an artist's film, but that’s what I do! The film is suffused with a sense of time lost, of mortality: I think its significance for Janet was that she was looking back at herself before she became ill, but typically, she kept that to herself.. At present there's only an excerpt accessible via this site, but I'd like to be able to put the whole film here.
She later asked me to help her with her public art project about Eisenstein – a fabulous idea, and I wrote a short comic film script about Eisenstein being brought back to life. It was to be published rather than filmed. The whole thing was killed off, a crying shame, but more of that another time.
Diagnosed with cancer, she went through operations and then more operations, and endured a great deal of pain over several years. Yet she kept going, making work, continuing with her lecturing at more than one art college. And she remained full of laughter and mockery at the world that she knew full well she would leave too soon. Janet died on March 16 and I miss her.
Things are happening but details can wait till next month.
WAITING FOR YOU
Delighted to see that Colin Morgan seems to be increasingly busy! He was seen recently in the cinema in LEGEND and soon to be seen on TV, in THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. His fans are often on to me via twitter wanting to see WAITING. I'm looking forward to seeing it too, when finally finished with everything as it should be. Meanwhile, Fanny Ardant has written and directed a film LE DIVAN DE STALINE, which I think will be released this year as well.
My film from 2011 has been accepted by the website Fliqio Early days but an interesting idea to try to generate viewing and share income for the makers of short films.
I'm delighted to have a commission to write one, for a feature film. A curious word to use, with its medical overtones, but it's the normal one.
Of course, all screenwriters moan about them, particularly when (as if often the case) there's no certainty we will get to the next stage - the screenplay. Which is what we really want to write. We moan because it requires us to do the spadework but at the risk not getting the chance to plant up the flowerbed (if that's the right metaphor.)
Or putting it another way, we face the possibility of failing before we've really done what we think we do best - and so many changes will happen anyway between treatment and first draft. Never mind, it's something new and as such to be welcomed. You can only do your best, know what I mean?
PESKY STUFF ABOUT CREDITS
I was watching LONDON SPY on TV before Christmas and I saw Tom Rob Smith secured a credit "Created and written by." Abi Morgan secured a similar credit for THE HOUR. I imagine it is often assumed that writers are hired in by broadcasters to do their bidding so asking for such credits is understandable and right.
In the case of features, such a credit would probably never be granted – and this tempts me to lift the lid a little on these matters. It's interesting to speculate... HUNGER for example – at what point did Steve McQueen get involved, I wonder? The gossip was widespread that he was angry that the writer on 12 YEARS A SLAVE (John Ridley) declined to give him a co-writing credit. Enda Walsh (writer on HUNGER) gave McQueen one, but was he happy to?
Let's assume he was: believing everything is always a fight is not a good way to regard these things. Yet this business about credits can be fraught. The possessory credit (A film by...) is now widespread, mainly driven by the assertion of authorship of a film, as this has financial value to directors via royalties. We’re always being told that film is a collaborative process, so there will be grumbles.
It's often a matter of marketing: getting people to come to see a film is one big challenge and of course the more you can say to audiences “It’'s by the person who made...” the better. But this obscures the often organic and indeed fascinating way that films come about. It also obscures the power wielded by the producer - who, effectively, has the final cut. Of course, doubtless in most cases the input from someone who comes to the film relatively fresh can be useful to a director just emerged from the intense involvement of a shoot and edit – this is where the notion of collaboration comes in. But in the end, the producer is answerable to those who have invested in the film whether using public or private funds.