It’s been a challenging brief, aiming to strike several balances — reflective but not sanctimonious — sincere but not depressing — hopeful while acknowledging the damage done by coronavirus. I hope we succeeded.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Grabbing the chance to share some really good news — absolutely thrilled that I’ve been awarded an industry bursary by the excellent people at ScreenSkills, which allows me to attend the John Yorke Story Advanced Structure screenwriting course later this month.
When I started screenwriting last year, I read as widely as I could on story forms, and first discovered John through his excellent book Into The Woods, which offers extended analysis of five-act structure. Having read and loved the book, I’m now delighted to have a place on the course, and really excited about the opportunity to learn from his team. It’s a 16-week course, with fortnightly assignments and lots of peer review. I’m juggling several long-form ideas at the moment, and particularly as I start thinking more about writing features and TV spec scripts, this is a real boost.
I can’t sign off here without a particular thanks to ScreenSkills, who do invaluable work for the British screen industries. I’m humbled they found enough in my application to fund the course fees, as there’s no way I could have afforded it otherwise. Thanks also to Dom and Luke for providing my references. I’m grateful and I’ll remember.
Worth noting that ups like this always come hand-in-hand with the downs — having made the longlist for the Northern Exposure Short Film Lab last month, I didn’t make the final cut — but that’s okay. My background in prose writing (and especially flash fiction!) has hardwired an acceptance of rejection into my workflow. It’s part of all creative industries, and really important to own it — think on Heaney’s tenet to ‘fail again, fail better’.
It’s always swings and roundabouts with these things. Along with a squillion other people, I wrote Lanternlight for the BBC’s Interconnected commission, and didn’t even make the shortlist — but here’s the lovely news that it just won best Short Script at the Lockdown Film Festival. Hey ho!
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.
The world will be there afterwards, but it will not be the same.
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!
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:
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:
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…
…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.
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…