The Potter’s Field pt.1

According to the good people at WordPress dot com, this is my 300th post, which I see simultaneously as an amazing thing and also an awful lot of words that no one’s ever going to read. As ever, though, I write this mostly for myself; it helps me to clarify my thoughts.

I’ve written before about my experiences with The Pitch. As one of the runner-ups, I was awarded a small production fund to do something with. After spending much of the last year not really knowing what to do with the budget, I’ve moved increasingly to the thought of making a short film myself; in and around Kendal, working with the talented people who live here, keeping the whole thing as local as could be. Without having a clear idea of what to work on, I started mulling on single images and scraps of ideas:

A hanging tree high above a valley.

A stack of flat stones on a riverbank.

A kite, bobbing, soaring, sliding on the wind.

A man with an axe, walking towards a small house.

This was an experiment in free-writing as much as anything else, letting ideas move through association. And there was no story and there was no story and then suddenly there was a story: The Potter’s Field.

Potter’s Field in Hart Island, New York, c.1890

In the Bible, after Judas betrayed Jesus, he tried to return the 30 pieces of silver, but the Priests wouldn’t take back the blood money. Instead they used it to buy a potter’s field for the poor of Jerusalem. A potter’s field is an area of land where all the seams of workable clay have been extracted, leaving a chaos of rocky trenches and holes. These fields are no good for farming, but all over the world they’ve been turned into pauper’s graveyards; burial grounds for strangers and destitutes. After hanging himself, Judas was buried in the same field his blood money paid for.

I found this utterly extraordinary. There’s a circularity to it, a Zenlike completeness, a sweeping up, a recycling of something wasted. It shapes a terrible betrayal into a coherent future: not righting a wrong, but filling a void: what’s broken can always be fixed, and what’s fixed will always be broken. I couldn’t find a moral in it, and that ambiguity sung to me. The ideas began to tumble, spilling like dominoes: a woman betrayed. A guilty man. A child. Two children. A river, a farm. Chickens and eggs. And a kite… the joy of flying a kite.

After months of chewing through images like puzzle pieces, suddenly and sharply the whole picture hung together. I wrote my first draft of the screenplay in about an hour, and was on my tenth draft in a week. It’s probably the most personal story I’ve written, and though I’m not in it, I’m also in every single line. Ultimately, the story is really simple: it’s about someone trying to say sorry, and someone else who isn’t quite ready to forgive.

Now I need to make it. I want to make it. That means producing and directing: the organising, galvanising, driving and delivery of a project from first idea to final edit. Finding a crew, casting actors, sourcing locations and kit, props and music. Insurance. Catering. Scheduling. There’s so much to do, it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin, and so I’ve built myself an armour of spreadsheets and lists. Spreadsheets for each of the schedule, shot list, budget, props list, costumes, research sources. There’s safety in those numbers. Making sense of the mountain; single steps on a journey.

I’ve surprised myself with how much satisfaction I’ve discovered in the budgeting, in the planning. At the moment I’m working out menus for a three-day shoot. How can I feed fifteen people with healthy food and snacks and teas and coffees and keep it on budget? These challenges are testing different parts of my brain, and I’m really enjoying the new processes. It’s good for me to learn. And I love cooking. Just like this guy:

Delicatessen

Along with the pragmatic work, I’m constantly divining a creative language for the story, thinking and feeling my way through how I want it to look. I’m lucky to have the gifted Dom Bush as my Director of Photography, and I’m already so excited at what we’re going to cook up. Dom has such an eye for a face, for a moment. The story is very intimate and I’m looking for emotional spontaneity in the scenes; I’ve been studying Normal People and Sound Of Metal and Beasts Of The Southern Wild, trying to better understand how those moments have been captured so wonderfully.

I’m still a writer, or trying to be. I’ve never wanted to be a director, but I want to direct this. There’s magic in film. It does things no other medium can do. This story is personal, and there are truths in it I want to tease out. In so much of my work, all of that happens in my head, my notebook. It’s a new experience for me to open it up, to share the process with others. I’m learning a lot. It’s good.


I’ve called this pt.1 because I’ll wrote more about this along the way. Same Bat time, folks, same Bat channel.

Script to Screen(ed)

Writing with an update on my shortlisting for the IMDB/FilmBath Script To Screen award — thrilled to say that although I didn’t win, I was awarded an Honourable Mention for my work, and the judges identified my storytelling as a strength. I’ll dine out on that for a while. I’m equally pleased to say that the best script won — I was blown away by Katie McNeice’s short ‘Lambing’, about an intersex baby born to a farming family in rural Ireland. It was sparse, powerful, elegant and disarming, and I’m glad it won the award. I’m genuinely honoured to come second to such a brilliant story, and can’t wait to see the finished film.

I was looking forward to seeing the actors read my work, and here they are, with thanks — six students from the Bath Spa University acting degree with a live performance of A Bed For The Boy:

Equally and wonderfully nerve-wracking, the judges then gave live feedback on the stories — here’s the excellent Andrea Gibb talking about my work.

Thanks to Andrea, Amma, Col and Holly — it’s been so brilliant to be involved with FilmBath and the award, and I couldn’t ask for more.

HONOURABLE MENTION - FilmBath - IMDb Script to Screen Award - 2020

FilmBath/IMDB Script To Screen

Buzzing to share the news that my script A Bed For The Boy has been shortlisted for the FilmBath / IMDB Script To Screen Award. This is great for several reasons:

Firstly, A Bed For The Boy did okay at the Grim North Screenplay Festival, and it’s nice to know it wasn’t a fluke — imposter syndrome is always drinking alone somewhere at the back of my brain, giving me evil grins whenever I look over.

Secondly, there are only five of us on the shortlist, and I’m thrilled to have made such a small cut from such strong competition. That’s really grounding.

Third, in the incredibly unlikely event that I win, there’s a £5,000 production fund for the prize. The story is about a man trying to move a sofa across an estate by himself, and that would be enough to do it justice.

Fourth, the judges are absolute badasses, including Col Needham, the founder and CEO of yer actual IMDb.com.

Fifth — perhaps finest of all — the shortlisted entries will be performed live by actors. Normally this would take place onstage at the awards ceremony, but with the Covid-19 lockdown, the event has moved online this year, and the readings will be streamed live instead. This is a really big deal for me — it’s the first time I’ll see one of my stories performed by actors. Regardless of the rest of it, that’s an incredible thing, and I’m humbled.

I’m also really looking forward to seeing the other final pieces, all written by some staggeringly accomplished filmmakers — there’s Lambing by Katie McNeice, How to Hire an Escort by Werner Vivier, The Influencer by Rachel S. Thomas-Medwid and Out of Sight by Jesse D. Lawrence. I count myself incredibly lucky to be sharing a shortlist with writers of their experience and quality. Best luck to them all!

Finally, a big big thanks to Paul Holbrook of Shunk Films for giving me a heads-up about the competition. Thanks comrade!

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.

southampton-docks.jpg.gallery

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.

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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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