On a train, shuttling back into the black. It’s late August and I’m drunk. A handful of beers with friend Dave and heading home. The clouds still hang a rime of blue but the summer’s over. Autumn is here. Autumn is the spider time.
Talking with Dave made me feel like a writer again. I often don’t, these days, but we’ve spent our cups in novels and film theory and learning needs and what it is to swim. The pub is beside a river. Fish jumping from below the surface, bats skimming above. All the gnats in a Venn diagram of doom.
I’ve been reading again. The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ — The Penolopiad — All The Pretty Horses — The Man Of The Forest. All of it filling the well. I’m writing a little, too, if seldom. The Potter’s Field is about to step into the world. I hope it will find a path.
The sky has drained to dark while I’ve been writing this. Write drunk, edit sober, right?
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.
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:
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.
I haven’t blogged for a long time, and this post is mostly to acknowledge as much. I am actually writing quite a lot at the moment — busy with redrafts of two short films shooting in the Spring, and almost halfway through my third pass at 100 Days Of Writing. I’m working with friends Ali and Andy to maintain some momentum, and that’s completely rejuvenated my daily practice. I’ve done 100 Days twice before, though not for years — this is now day 48, writing longhand in my notebook, whether it’s a single line or ten pages. Writing by hand has been an immensely positive and creative process, and deserves a post of its own. It’s keeping me focused at a time when it would be easy to drift. Quite honestly, between college, children, my freelance work and these general global pandemic blues, I’m struggling for the time to do anything much.
It’s been six years since The Visitors was published. That feels like a lifetime ago. I don’t think of the book at all anymore, and I haven’t wanted to write another since my last draft of The Hollows. I thought I’d left prose behind. And now, after an entire year of only screenwriting, I’m starting to feel the pull of a novel again. It’s so strange. A stirring of embers in the soul. I can be quite blinkered sometimes, or set myself in particular directions, unwilling to change course — I’ve been thinking of myself as exclusively a screenwriter over these months, and it’s very odd to feel this twitch towards prose after so long away. I’m trying to see myself as a storyteller using different formats for different stories, rather than a writer in one particular discipline. That doesn’t sit especially well with me, but that’s the way it is.
I don’t know why I feel the need to define myself within one format. Existence is manifestly absurd and having reached half of my allotted time on Earth, I’m painfully drawn to the thought of walking a clear road in the second half. But in truth, of course, there are no clear roads, and there never have been. Understanding that is as clear as things get. The function of story is to organise the chaos of this life and turn it into something that makes sense, even if only for a little while. In doing so, stories fool us into believing that there is a purpose to any of this nonsense. Stories are a net that hold us high above the void; a comfort that keeps us from screaming. That’s true for writing them as well as reading them, which is probably why it hurts so much when they go wrong.
I just used a semi-colon and didn’t even notice until reading it back. I thought I was finished with those as well. Times they are a-changin.
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.
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.
Firstly, A Bed For The Boydid 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!
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!