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.

A clear road

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.

Only Weather

I’m exceptionally proud to share ‘Only Weather’ — the trailer for Kendal Mountain Festival 2020. I wrote and edited the piece, which was produced by Land & Sky and spoken by Keme Nzerem.

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.

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!

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.

John Yorke Story

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’.

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

Limes

OFFICIALSELECTION-CKFInternationalFilmFestival-March2020

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

OFFICIAL SELECTION - Grim North Screenplay Festival - 2019.png

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.

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.