Script Lab Longlist

Just a quick note to share the news that I’ve made the longlist for a BFI Film Hub North scheme called the Northern Exposure Short Film Script Lab, offering professional development for northern writers. It’s a long longlist of 60 hopeful writers, from which ten ideas will be taken into development.

My story has a working title of A Whisper Of Wrens — it’s about a squabbling couple visiting a huge northern marsh, only to find that it isn’t as empty as it was supposed to be. It’s very much in the tradition of modern gothic, or folk horror, or urban fairytale, or low fantasy — whatever you choose to call it. This thread runs through almost all my work, drawing on contemporary things like The Loney or Midsommar or the music of The Antlers, way back to some of my earliest and biggest influences — Roald Dahl’s short stories, Link’s Awakening, the soundscapes of Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Will write more as I have it — I’m throwing lots of things into the aether at the moment, hoping some of them come back. Fingers crossed!

The Pitch

Around feeding these children, working in the garden and pondering the existential tangles brought on by coronavirus lockdown, I’ve finally found fifteen minutes to talk about The Pitch. At the time of my last update, I’d just reached the final ten of a £35,000 short film fund based on adapting Bible stories. Mine was a Western take on Christ’s temptations in the desert, with a pioneer called Merrily harried by two malicious drifters.

The finals were a two-day event at the National Film & Television School in Beaconsfield way back in January, when life felt normal. Remember that? In the run-up I spent weeks practising my 10-minute pitch for the live panel, presenting the story to my wife, my friends, family, colleagues and even my students (most nerve-wracking of the lot). By the point I travelled south for the first day of the finals, I’d memorised the whole thing and made my peace with the material. No more changes. Just a line here… a paragraph there. No more changes.

The first day of the pitch was bright, clear and cold. I arrived at NFTS early and drank coffee until my fellow contestants arrived. After saying some hellos, there was a tour and a talk and other things I barely noticed for nerves — throat tight, stomach in knots. And then, in no time at all, it was time…

I was first into the boardroom, pitching to five industry judges: director Frances Annan, script guru Justine Hart, film critic Linda Marric, director and games/VFX giant Rob McLellan and Jon Wardle, director of the NFTS. There were a dozen or so others in the room — funders, partners, friends of the competition — a much bigger crowd than I’d expected, but it didn’t trouble me. I don’t know what happened, but the moment I stepped into the room, my nerves melted away. I found the place I needed to be. The words flowed. It was definitely the best I’d done the presentation, but more than that — I loved it. I loved every second. I wanted to stay.

Then it was done. I walked out of the boardroom in a state of total calm, knowing I couldn’t have done more. Whether or not I made the cut and returned for day two, I was at total peace with what came next. I was honestly in a state of something like euphoria — walking on clouds.

I spent the rest of the day bouncing off my fellow finalists and dipping into some illuminating industry seminars — one with agent Andrew Mills and another with writer/director Stuart Hazeldine, both hosted by the excellent Nev Pierce — and drinking more coffee. Here’s me and that Gromit in between times:

IMG_20200118_154938_534

Near the end of the day, the judges went off to deliberate on which three finalists they wanted to pitch again on day two. While they battled it out, we watched White Gold, the film from previous winner Luke Bradford, which was tremendous, and then they made the announcement:

Paul

Anderson

…and me…

…!!!?!!¡¡!?

Astonished doesn’t come close. I’d been ready to go home with my head held high, and it was truly flabbergasting to be asked to pitch again. Judges Rob and Linda gave me some great notes — I grabbed some food and some fizz at the 10-year celebration of The Pitch — and then I got back to work. Between 9pm and 2am, I rewrote the first two-thirds of the film, adjusting a host of things along the way, and prepared another slideshow. I woke at 5am, had a shower, edited my ideas, grabbed some breakfast and practiced again and again.

Back to the boardroom. Back to the panel. My final pitch was 20 minutes or so, and once again, I knew I couldn’t have done it any better. The questions were much sharper this time, and I fought my corner with all faith in my film. When it was done, I walked out with that same sense of rightness and completeness. It felt like where I needed to be — a validation for the massive shake-up I’d given myself. I hadn’t realised how badly I’d needed that.

Paul pitched second. Anderson pitched third. At each stage in between, we talked, joked, hugged. These are friends now. The competition has never felt like a competition. At every stage, it’s felt collaborative and collegiate and incredibly supportive.

Time to announce the winner. After the thanks, the acknowledgements, the good wishes, first prize went to…

Paul Holbrook!

…and honestly, I couldn’t have been happier. It was a brilliant decision for a brilliant guy and a brilliant film, and I’m so excited to see what he does with it. It was such a privilege to run him and Anderson so close, to spend so long in their company and in the competition. This has been such an opportunity and I’ve learned so much. Even now, I’m thrilled with every part of taking part.

I brought home a wicked trophy and a head full of ideas. On the train I outlined another short film, and I haven’t really stopped since. I’ve now finished eight shorts and I’m beginning to outline a feature. I’m talking through a couple of TV shows with my friend Banks. This may not be my path forever, but right now? It’ll do fine.

.

Coda

Last week, Luke from The Pitch gave me a ring — now the dust has settled, they’ve found a little bit of budget for developing my idea further. For the next 18 months, I remain part of The Pitch, seeing where Merrily takes me next. I have a few ideas, big and small.

We haven’t reached the end of the road just yet…

.

Limes

OFFICIALSELECTION-CKFInternationalFilmFestival-March2020

I have a lot of things to catch up, including how I got on with The Pitch, but this is just to say that my short script Limes has been selected by the CKF International Film Festival, which is lovely. It’s an experimental piece — I wanted to see how much atmosphere I could pack into a very short space, and consciously limited myself to two pages. Been having some quiet discussion with the good people at Shunk Films to see if we can do something with it.

Trying to write, but lockdown’s gonna lockdown. Stay home, stay safe, stay sane.

Grim North

OFFICIAL SELECTION - Grim North Screenplay Festival - 2019.png

Just a quick note to share the news that my screenplay A Bed For The Boy — the second piece I started and first I actually finished — has somehow won the ‘Northern Exposure’ category of the Grim North Screenplay Festival. I’m absolutely thrilled — hot on the heels of A Sure & Godly Beauty reaching the finals of The Pitch, it feels like some quiet affirmation of this change I’ve made in my writing, and I really needed that. So — thank you, universe. I will keep going.

The boy

We were sitting in the market square, waiting, talking about the things around us —  he was sitting on my knee.

“I like clouds, Daddy,” he said.

“What’s your favourite thing about clouds?” I said.

“They’re fluffy. And I like shops.”

“And why do you like shops?”

“Because they sell food and things. And I like Daddy.”

“Oh? And why do you like Daddy?”

“Because he reads bedtime stories that stay in my heart.”

I tell you this: if I manage nothing else in my life, that’ll do.

Pitcher’s Progress

An update on The Pitch! Since my last post, I’ve completed a fantastic residential weekend, which both introduced me to my fellow competitors and put me through a developmental mangle with my story. Both of these things were tremendous.

Shout out to the other contestants first — it’s been an absolute blast meeting Paul, James, Jamie, Anderson, Cordelia, Nicholas, Dominik, Daniel and David. They’re awesome. Their ideas are consistently excellent, and it’s been a huge privilege to share this journey with them. I’ve been in plenty of competitions before, but this is the first time I’ve actually worked with the other contestants, and the spirit of camaraderie and support has been a revelation. It’s been incredibly inspiring, too, to share our ideas, processes, thoughts and fears on the process. To do so with other professionals felt transformational. This is what I want to be doing.

And then came the feedback. I was first to get notes, and they felt fairly savage — though in the end everyone was pushed pretty hard. The project mentors, including Laurie Hutzler and Jackie Sheppard, want the best for these stories, and they want us to do well — to push our skills, improve our pitches. Most of the notes were extremely helpful — with feedback of any sort, I always think of Neil Gaiman’s canny observation — when someone points out where they think you’ve gone wrong, they’re almost always right — and when they point out how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong. I fought my corner when I had to. I came here to learn, and I’m learning.

As for the feedback itself — The Pitch is an adaptation challenge, looking for contemporary readings and interpretations of Bible texts. I came away with the sense that my film story was fairly solid, but they thought my adaptation was flimsy, and that’s sent me back to re-read my original source material. My story is a Western based on Christ’s temptations in the desert, with a pioneer woman called Merrily battling two malicious drifters through 1800s badlands. Spending sustained time with the text has transformed how I thought about it, and I’ve carried that understanding into my own script. The story of Jesus in the desert is much braver than I first thought — it’s about the certainty of death, and fighting on regardless.

…I think?

Writing for the screen has transformed how I process stories. The ideas are still rattling around in my skull — cyclists, rabbits, detectives, ghosts, babies — but now I pass everything through a filter, a mesh, asking the same thing over and over again:

Is this visual? Is there an action? Can I see the action on the page? 

Cinema is an empathy engine. Film is the art of turning internal things — emotions, ideas, thoughts, decisions — into external actions that the audience can share. I’m discovering that’s really, really difficult to do. I’m also discovering that when stories are externalised, they become mostly about endings, and that’s another challenge: I’m fairly good at world-building, at situations, at set-ups. But stories don’t care about those things as much as pay-offs and resolutions, both narrative and emotional: stories are about how you feel when they finish.

Even having taught film for so many years, this is next-level learning for me, and I’m loving every moment. The actual process of writing a screenplay feels so open and full of possibility — I’ve now done eight distinct drafts with countless tweaks along the way, and I’m buzzing every time I get back to the story.

What next for The Pitch? In January I’m off to Beaconsfield for day one of the finals: a 10-minute presentation and a 10-minute Q&A with five industry judges. Three of us will be invited back for a second day on Sunday and another, extended presentation, based on feedback from day one. Having seen the quality of the ideas on show, I certainly don’t expect to be in that final three, but I’ve taken so much from this experience already, and I’m going to keep on learning everything I can.

Blooms

Since becoming so suddenly single, I’ve picked my roses with care — the delicate Life Begins At Forty, perfectly porcelain white — the convalescent You Only Live Once, pink as pink could be — the melancholy Absent Friend, flushing so sweetly into yellow — and Celebration Time, of course, visceral and rich, wetly crimson.

They grow so prettily around my husband’s grave. They flourish and curl, they sing with colour. But alas, I think I’ll have to cut them down…

My neighbours are getting suspicious.

Belly

We argued about everything, we argued about nothing. When he finally decided to leave me, I couldn’t bear to see him go, and I had to drop the bombshell — that I was pregnant. He’s a good man, so he stayed, and now we shop for prams and cots. We still argue, more than ever, but he bites his tongue. Like I said, he’s a good man. But the weeks are racing by, and he won’t stop looking at my flat flat stomach.

Daylight

I’m trying to be more honest about my mental health, and wanted to say, despite some bits of good news, that I’ve not been feeling great lately. My job is getting me down and I’ve had a chest infection for weeks and weeks. I’m sick of being sick and sick of moaning about it. Some years the winters lay me low. Need a drink of daylight. I’ve been thinking a lot about Scott Hutchison, about the worth of work, about the world, about time, about all those tiny changes, each and every day. Doing what we can, I suppose, and trying to do that little bit of living along the way.

The Pitch

Posting with the happy news that I’ve been extremely lucky in the competition I mentioned here — somehow my film idea has trickled all the way through the longlist onto the shortlist, and is now one of ten finalists. The next stage is a residential masterclass — three days of workshops and training with industry professionals, all pointed towards the final in January. I’m both thrilled and humbled to have made it this far, not least as this is the first film competition I’ve entered. Talk about luck!

The main reason for entering the contest was to make myself share some film ideas in public — it was a line I had to cross at some point, and this was a good way to make it happen. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to get this far, and grateful for the training opportunities it brings. The goal was always to work with other professionals and build my skills as best I can. For a while, at least, this is the way I’m going, and little triumphs like this feel like milestones — yes lad, this is the way.