A game of change

I’ve recently taken up chess again, years after learning the rules as a kid, and wanted to take a moment to share a quick observation:

Chess speaks the language of story. 

This was an idle thought at first, but the more I unpacked it, the more connections I discovered. Like screenwriting, chess is a constant balance of multiple conflicts. Like all good antagonists, the opponent can’t be passive. They force the story, constantly shift the sway of the game, forcing plans to adapt or collapse under pressure. Chess is a game of change, of assimilated knowledge, of action and reaction. Like screenwriting, it demands sacrifices to reach the ending — the bigger the sacrifice, the greater the risk and the reward. Chess fosters courage. Like a good screenplay, chess strips away and resolves minor skirmishes as the bigger heft of story emerges. Like a good screenplay, all the pieces are on the board at the beginning. Like a good screenplay, every piece is important — a minor piece played early holds a crucial role at the end. Like a good screenplay, the final outcome comes down to one or two pieces, finely balanced at the end of the attrition. A seesaw of movements, each outdoing the last, building momentum or shoring up defence. Planning. Problem-solving. Acceptance. Final stands. Last gasp attacks. Forced to find and take the least-worst option. Simple mistakes — or opportunities seized and squandered. A lot of thinking and plenty of gut instinct. The ambiguous ending of a stalemate, or the binary of triumph and despair.

Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of an extended metaphor, but come on: there’s a lot there, right? The engines of chess are the engines of drama. There are questions over whether chess can actually change the cognitive function of the brain, but at the very least it’s teaching me conscious patterns of behaviour I find useful in my writing.

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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

Hungry Ghosts

Thanks to FilmHub North (again) I’ve taken advantage of a 6-week trial of the mighty BFI Player to broaden my watching a little, and last night Mon and I sat down with Island Of The Hungry Ghosts — an incredibly powerful and profound feature documentary that ties together three stories set on Christmas Island.

The first thread belongs to Pho Lin, a torture and trauma counsellor trying to provide therapy to the asylum seekers and refugees held indefinitely in an Australian detention centre. Here she soaks up their stories of persecution and the inhuman torment of their non-determined status, as well as battling the Kafkaesque systems of Australia’s migration system. The second strand concerns the island’s billions of red crabs and their annual migration through the jungles, and the conservation team helping them cross the roads to reach the sea. The final story belongs to the anonymous Chinese migrants who died in the early years of the island’s discovery, and the modern-day immigrants who pray for their ghosts.

Those threads may sound disparate, but in truth they are all about the transition of the soul and the threshold between two places, and one of the films’s great triumphs is how the different strands are cut to show the audience the depths and complexities of the issue.

The cinematography is stunning, the edit sensational, and the atmosphere a running balance of compassion and dread — cruelty and kindness. It’s a profound statement of being.

 

Genre in focus: Horror

Thanks to more excellent work from the good people at FilmHub North, I’ve just enjoyed an excellent online seminar from director Prano Bailey-Bond and producer Oliver Kassman, moderated by Anna Bogutskaya. It was a genuinely enlightening session on the warts-and-all experiencing of producing and selling contemporary horror, and I’m glad I was able to watch the discussion. Also really positive to see so many filmmakers in the chat window reaching out to network. I’m starting to understand that although there’s not a huge amount in Cumbria, the north has a thriving community of filmmakers.

I’m not good with horror as a genre — I get terrified at even moderately scary scenes — but at the same time I’m totally compelled to the genre and what it does… the way it reaches into that caveman part of our brain and gives it a squeeze. I’m drawn to writing horror, and one of the projects I’m currently developing is just that — a short film about a poltergeist. In particular, I find the resurgence of folk horror really fascinating — films like Midsommar and The Witch, Possum and A Field In England.

Oliver has just produced his debut feature with director Rose Glass, which I think I’ll give a go… if I can summon courage. It’s called Saint Maud, and it looks ace:

It was reassuring to hear both Oliver and Prano reiterate that the strength of a story is still and always of paramount importance. It gives me plenty to think about and focus on as I start outlining features.

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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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.

Screen Play

Shakubukun. — a swift, spiritual kick to the head.

I’ve been needing one for a long time. I’ve needed a change of direction.

Writers have different reasons to write — callings that send them back to those keyboards day after day. For some it’s character — others write for the love of language — some write with a message, or to exorcise a ghost. And all these things are connected, of course, but I suspect each writer has a particular theme or mission that drives them more than the others. I write for the story. Stories are a purely human magic. They fascinate me and have always fascinated me. I don’t know of anything in art as satisfying as a complete and perfect story, completely and perfectly told. That’s the compulsion that drove me to writing and filmmaking and editing, and it’s story that keeps me working despite the reasons not to.

I teach film production. Each year, I work as something like a producer/story supervisor on many dozens of student films, contributing anything from gentle advice to full rewrites  — I’ve overseen literally hundreds of student shorts in the seven or eight years I’ve run the course. During the final projects, I invest a huge amount of creative energy in making sure my learners are heading in the right direction, and that’s fine — that’s part of the job, and I certainly don’t begrudge the students, who are awesome. But I need to start conserving more of that energy for myself. Last year, I spent so much time writing with students that I didn’t manage any of my own — not a word of it, not for months. I was drained. As the college workload has increased, year on year, my ability to sustain a novel has declined. I’m sad about that, but I’m not going to drown in it.

I’ve been brewing for a while on trying something new, and maybe writing some film scripts of my own — it’s a medium I love, a process I know, and I wondered whether I’d find a script easier to pick up and put down than a novel. After months of doldrums, I did something about it. I started writing.

It’s true that a change is as good as a rest.

I’ve now finished three short films, coming in at variously 3, 11 and 23 pages. I’ve written and submitted a pitch to this competition, booked myself onto this short film workshop and started organising my ideas. At the moment I can envisage another half-dozen shorts and a couple of feature films. Not to say that I’ll write them all, or even start them all, but I have plenty to think about, to be getting on with. I’ve loved the exchange of dialogue, of honing lines, of stripping a story back to the bones. I’ve thrived on the blocking of scenes and the problem-solving, unravelling snags in the story. I’ve even loved learning new software. Finding my way in a new medium has been a joy, and I’ve enjoyed these steps in screenwriting more than I can say.

In tandem with this, I’ve been reading some classic works on story structure and writing for film. I’ve worked my way through Syd Field‘s Definitive Guide To Screenwriting and his excellent collection of analysis, Four Screenplays; Blake Snyder‘s cynical but efficacious model of conventional film structure, Save The Cat; Darren Aronofsky‘s blistering Guerrilla Diaries; John Yorke‘s sublime study of storytelling, Into The Woods, and am currently reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. After that, I’m heading into the bible of storytelling, Story by Robert McKee. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to be learning again — it’s been too long since I threw myself into something new, and I’m really enjoying the knowledge I’m gaining.

None of this means I’m giving up on writing novels or surrendering my short stories. Indeed, I’ve been writing lots of flash fiction lately, if you’d like to have a read. But for the good of my mental health, I need to do something different, even if it’s only for a little while.

Here’s a thing: a long time ago, I studied English Literature at Lancaster University. In the last weeks, after the exams, one of my tutors asked me a question that completely disarmed me — why, he wondered, had I written all my final year essays about films? At first, I was puzzled, but when I checked — he was right. Unconsciously I’d been exploring cinema, rather than literature. It was his observation that sent me off to study film in depth, and from there to work in television.

I’ve been thinking about some of the things people have been kind enough to say about my work. The single comment I hear most often is that my stories are ‘atmospheric‘. I’ve taken that to mean that readers have enjoyed the emotions and tensions of the worlds I’ve tried to make — that they’ve shared a feeling of empathy for the world — that they’ve been convinced by the places and feelings I’ve tried to create. But any richness I’ve managed to capture in my prose has come from my film training — imagining those locations as though composed through a camera lens, then layered with sound, light, weather, the bustle of background detail.

As with my university essays, all those years ago — maybe I’ve been writing the wrong way round.

Shakubuku, peeps.

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Lost in the woods

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My reading time is pretty precious these days, and these three are monsters — but I’ve finally finished Brian Catling‘s epic Vorrh trilogy. It’s been quite the trip.

I could say I’ve never read anything like the first book, but that wouldn’t be true, because there are other stories that are as sublimely transporting and otherworldly as The Vorrh, and all of them are titans of their type: Gormenghast, Dune, Earthsea. I’m not exaggerating to place Catling in the company of Peake, Herbert and Le Guin. The Vorrh is a titanic work of imagination, simply sensational in its scope and reach. Essenwald and the forest make for a hypnotic kaleidoscope of the real, the surreal and the metaphysical, while the supporting characters simply sing, a chorus of humanity adrift in a world both wonderful and godless. 

Sequels The Erstwhile and The Cloven round off the trilogy, and they are narratively compelling, but flawed. Modern publishing hasn’t done Catling any favours, as both books are littered with typos and read as an edit short of finished — rushed to market, I suspect, when they needed the craft and care of the first one. The big ideas are undercooked and confusing. The trilogy consistently considers questions of being and belonging, but where The Vorrh explored the boundaries of human consciousness in a sort of careful, measured ambiguity, The Erstwhile and The Cloven crash through them in bouts of confusing exposition.

As works of speculative fiction, they’re essential. As works of literature, they offer diminishing returns on a staggering beginning — the sequels still brilliant, but bound to fall short of the first. Frustrating, inspiring, bewildering, mesmerising, sincere — completely crucial to all writers and readers of speculative fiction. I’ll carry The Vorrh with me for a long time.

If all you have is a hammer

As demanded of me by precisely no one, I thought I’d share my current writing jams. I haven’t written much of anything while we’ve been working on the house, but now we’re finally out the other side of it, I’m trying to remember what words feel like. If all you have is a hammer, indeed.

Anyway — writing to music is important to me. I need music to get myself into a place of focus, and most especially to maintain it. Focus is pretty hard to come by at the moment, but I’m working on it, little by little, as my brain starts to process stories again after a year without them.

I recently caught the astounding film Arrival. First of all, it’s extraordinary, and secondly the soundtrack is exactly the sort of thing I look for when I’m working. I’ve known of Johann Johannsson for several years, and his album IBM 1401: A User’s Manual is a longstanding favourite of mine — but his work on Arrival is even better. Nuanced, complex, curious, cohesive, entirely otherworldly, always evolving — it’s perfect for the film, and perfect to write to. Johannsson was a mighty talent gone too soon.

I’ve also been listening a lot to Thomas Was Alone by David Housden, and added another computer game soundtrack in Disasterpiece’s tremendous music for Fez. The palette of instruments from both games is ideal — all bloops and synths and fuzz and chimes and the sound of the sea.

Special mention to Roni Size and Reprazent, too — I haven’t been story-writing to this, but it’s been the soundtrack to the last month of college marking. I think it was in 1998 or 1999 when my friend Bob and I caught the first train out of Aberdeen and danced all night at Homelands, where Reprazent played a set much like this. Sobering to think of that being more than half my lifetime ago. Roni Size is still banging though.

That’s me for now. I’m finding it very hard to write at the moment. I’m missing the fizz of being fully immersed in a story, but I’m trying to give myself a break for the physical and emotional toll of renovating the house, plus running two film courses, plus this fucking toxic Brexit bullshit, plus the colossal existential horror of environmental collapse in our lifetime, all of which I soak up, constantly. There’s sometimes not much left for writing. But without it, I’m not sure who I am.