When The Haar Rolls In

Strange days for us all. It’s hard to know what to say. The inhuman incompetence of the government, and then the superhuman efforts of the NHS. The selfishness of stockpiling and the smiles of strangers. Desperate for downtime but craving productivity. Loving the days with my children, even as we drive each other crackers. The air feels cleaner, the water cleaner — the planet breathing properly, right down into the dirt and the stones. I haven’t seen a plane for days.

Mon’s growing vegetables and baking the best bread I’ve ever tasted. We made a little greenhouse out of pallet wood and old windows. All the jobs that stacked up over the year we’ve lived here, finally put to bed. Chopping up the woodpile. Building the shelves. Hanging the gate. Moving the beech hedge. Fixing the bench. Our world returned to the work of hands: hammers and nails, sowing seeds. These things sing because they are true.

The first few weeks of lockdown brought a wave of creative energy. I wrote three short films in four weeks. That surge has gone now — I started blocking out a feature film, but found it impossible to concentrate on bigger ideas, and now the wave has washed back to wherever they come from. I’m trying to write my way back into it, figuring that short scripts are better than no scripts, and I’ve been applying for a few things — bursaries, courses, development labs. The world of film, like everything else, will change, but I need to feel like I’m doing something — I hadn’t realised how bad I am at doing nothing.

It’s coming to an end now. Too soon, certainly, but the gravity of life will pull us on.

A brood of sparrows has fledged nearby. They’re outside the window right now, five or maybe six of them, skittering all over the place, alive with restless curiosity. Exploring their new world. With every stuttering flight across the garden, they get stronger.

When the haar rolls in, it’s just a question of waiting it out…

The world will be there afterwards, but it will not be the same.

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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:

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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.

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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…

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Limes

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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

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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.