What a year: humbled institutions; uncontrolled weather; successful Olympics… and me quite ill. It’s good to be nearly 100 per cent healthy by the new year; I hope to be off the last of my medication soon. In the meantime writing has continued, regularly, with a goal in sight… but no deadline. This is going to change.
I remember when in higher education writing a couple of thousand words per week for my college magazine. I remember resenting having to do it sometimes as well as enjoying it, but week in, week out, I presented those words to the editor for printing. Looking back, I think of that as a terrific experience.
More recently, I’ve had that experience with NaNoWriMo: 1600+ words per day, every day, for a month. Result? A 50,000 word novel, ready for rewriting. Another great experience. In fact, the experience of having to produce every day, every week, every month is a great spur to creativity. Sure, some product may not be that good and the work often may need redoing, but it’s a great way to start: the work exists; it can be improved. Much more useful than a dozen unfulfilled and unmade creative ideas.
So, I have a new resolution. Last year, I wanted to do stuff and not be boring. (I’ve done a lot; as for the boring thing, you’d be better off asking those who know me.) This year, in addition to both of this, I want to do more. I want to create more, write more, photograph more, draw more, edit more; regularly and to deadlines.
Let’s see what I can do.
I’ve been ill.
Nothing too serious, more an annoying sequence of illnesses resulting from being worn down over a particularly busy Summer. I’m slowly getting my appetite back; I hope that physical energy will follow.
The recent weeks had me thinking back to a no to low budget film making course that I took with the Raindance foundation. Towards the end of the fascinating two day course, the instructor Elliot Grove talked of the aspects needed to push a film through production to release. One of the most important things, he said, was bottom.
Bottom? I wondered. He went on. In his rural upbringing, when buying a horse, the customer would try to divine the horse’s bottom; it’s energy, it’s stamina. It began to make sense to me. Would this horse last the distance and do what was wanted of it, or would it tire out and give up?
As film makers, Grove said, we needed bottom. That stamina would get us through a production, large or small; through post production, through selling and distribution. We would need it: stay healthy; look after yourselves. Amid a sea of technical advice, such thinking was refreshing.
I need to build up my energy right now. I’ve been writing steadily and have arrived at story lining the next drafts of my scripts. It’s taken longer than I’d hoped, but I haven’t given up. As this year draws to a close, in addition to doing stuff and not being boring, I’ll be looking after myself, too.
I’ve spent the past week devising and shooting a short film. The process has been piecemeal: I wanted to make a film; I had a vague idea; I put down as many ideas as I could; I went out and shot it. I hope that when the edit is complete that it will make some kind of sense, but for now the whole process has shown me the need to know a film’s subject inside out.
One of the many things I love about writing is creating worlds. Each story has its own individual topography, buildings, people and history, as well as the events that the story depicts. As rewrites continue, I find that I’ve been researching characters’ pasts, the places that they live in, their institutions’ histories. In this work, I’m aiming to discover new events and plot lines to write; most of which, I imagine, won’t make the slightest explicit reference to the background work I will have done. But the background will be there.
I see this at work as I analyse the screenplay of Margin Call, one of my favourite recent films. The story, concerning the stock market fall of 2008, is told by a lissom screenplay that touches on all the essential aspects of the crash without bogging down the viewer in too much detail: we know all that we need to know. Writer-director JC Chandor’s ability to do this comes from him knowing his subject inside out.
This work is hard, but worth it: building a world that convinces is worth more than smart dialogue or great photography; without reader or audience belief - or suspension of disbelief - the screenplay is nothing. A lot of my screenplays’ Power of Three comments I received had a lot to do with belief: I’ll be working on these stories’ worlds in order to make these screenplays work.
This week, I finally put together a short video I shot some weeks ago in Epping Forest. While cutting, I noticed how each image went further into the forest, leaving the streets further away, although I could hear the traffic noise throughout. I reflected on this aspect of getting deeper into something familiar while I read a blog post on reading screenplays.
I read a lot of screenplays. I find them both entertaining and instructive, but although I had been instructed to read them by practically every writer and writers’ blog of repute, and cribbed something new about screenplay presentation from practically every new script, I wasn’t too sure exactly what I was learning from reading them.
As the blog post pointed out, just reading screenplays wasn’t enough. One had to go deeper to see how they worked, or in some cases, didn’t work. It reminded me of an interview with the writer Aaron Sorkin; in addition to reading a lot, writing a lot, seeing a lot, reading Aristotle’s Poetics and working on discovering one’s own voice, he advised new writers to be good diagnosticians, both of what they liked and what they didn’t like. This Screenwriting Goldmine blog post showed how this could be done methodically.
By following this method of analysis, one could see how much work could go into something so deceptively “simple”: a well-written screenplay, to me, looks effortless; there’s a minimum of description, yet every word is chosen well. The writing is always clear: anyone reading could understand where they were in the story. That takes a lot of hard work.
As I move into planning new drafts of my screenplays, I’m keeping this in mind. The screenplays that I admire didn’t just “appear”. They had been sweated over by their writers in order to make then read clearly and entertainingly: a lot of hard, deep work is ahead before I can walk out of this particular forest into the light.
The view from my desk: where will I go today?
As I’ve worked through coming up with at least one new idea per day this month, I have been surprised by the various ideas’ subject matter.
Looking through them, I see stories that cover business, science, work and politics, among others. This shouldn’t surprise me; I do read a lot on these topics because they interest me greatly, even though I’m no expert on them.
This isn’t false modesty; I wasn’t terribly good at economics or sciences at school, but for some reason, I have been examining them in story form. Maybe it’s because I don’t think I should be limited to writing only about things that I am an expert in… which would probably result in my writing about nothing at all.
This got me thinking about the limits that I have placed upon myself, in education, interest and ambition, and about how I’m trying to fight through them now. This writing exercise is, in a way, saying, “to hell with your boundaries, let your imagination fly!” As I’ve sat at my desk, be it at work or at home, trying to come up with a new idea for the day, I’ve realised that absolutely anything goes: just write…
So, I read about science and business. The day job is big in my life. Politics controls most of us. But what else interests me? What else do I want to learn about, what else do I enjoy? I can write about anything I like: writing is limitless.
Fifteen minutes early… for an early shift.
There are no excuses. I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot recently as I work through a number of writing and film making projects; considering the amount of time I have to do them against the the amount of time I spend doing the day job. As if by magic, I came across a couple of blog links that weighed up the very question of time spent doing creative work versus time spent working for a living.
One blog pointed to the importance, which can’t be emphasised enough, of writing every day. It was contrasted with the view that some writers think that they would only get their written work done with lots of free time, and of course they don’t have that much free time, because they’re in a full time job and oh! Woe is us…
The related blog pointed out that this was a feeble excuse for not writing. Not having enough time to write cannot be remedied even by giving up one’s day job, because if the want-to-write-so-shall-write attitude is not there, then it won’t come with a change in circumstance. It must come from within.
So, how to start? By taking easy steps. The blogs suggest that for one week, one should write for 15 minutes per day. That’s easy enough. Can’t find an extra 15 minutes? The set you’re alarm to get up 15 minutes early (hence the photo of my alarm, set to wake me up 15 minutes earlier for my early shift. One gets used to it… after a while.)
But what to write? Well, anything. Another blog gave that same answer in a slightly less dismissive way by pointing out the importance of always coming up with ideas. It suggested that one try this by coming up with one new story premise per day. For source material, one could read news papers, listen to conversation, talk to someone, or just daydream and make something up: ideas could be found anywhere.
It’s the middle of the month and I’ve been doing both techniques for over two weeks: I have made good progress on my screenplays with another 18 or so ideas to work from when they’re done. I’ll be keeping up both these methods for good.
Yesterday I finished a competition screenplay entry. I learned a lot from writing it, although it needed more development in character, story, tone and theme. It was lacking in almost every department, yet I enjoyed the experience of writing it immensely.
What made it enjoyable was the realisation of what was needed to make it better: normally, I’ve looked at a completed screenplay and thought of sending it to readers to help me think about what to do next. While this practise will continue, my writing will have greatly benefitted from this knowledge before making that first step towards readers.
Fundamental to this improvement is constant writing: this screenplay brought my first real understanding of the importance of writing every day, something that I’ve repeatedly read and heard about. Some writers have talked of the importance of writing everyday, others have emphasised the importance of writing only when one has an idea. For me, now, I will be writing every day to develop ideas, create characters, start screenplays; for me, it is the only way to write effectively.
This was shown to me in the writing of this most recent screenplay: I story-lined it, worked on characters and wrote it from the moment I first heard of the competition a little over a week ago… not enough time. Imagine if I’d been working on a character that interested me for months before, or a story that could fit into the brief, or having a fully developed story treatment that was ready to write as soon as a competition required it… That would come from constant writing.
This constant creative work doesn’t just apply to writing, but also to photography, film making, drawing: practising these every day isn’t just enjoyable, it is the only effective way to improvement. I have threatened to put examples of such work on this blog: every blog so far has been illustrated by an original photo; maybe I’ll be putting up the odd drawing or video here too.
The way ahead. (Image from my website).
One of the best bits of feedback that I received on my scripts regarded presentation. I use my Mac’s screenplay template, which can be exported as a word or .pdf file for readers. It didn’t cut it: “get Final Draft,” I was advised.
On acquiring a demo copy from its website, I’ve so far used Final Draft on two short scripts. It is a JOY to use: intuitive; easy to use; adaptable. I can’t believe that I hadn’t used it until now. I dare say many screenwriters reading this would say the same.
This brings me to something I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks. Recently, the Olympics have led to my working longer hours more often, which is wonderful for overtime payments, but terrible for my social life. I have hardly seen friends or family, with only an odd phone call here and there. But I have had time to think.
I’ve heard of Final Draft for some years now. I’ve read many a recommendation for it. A Channel 4 commissioner at last year’s London Screenwriters Festival pointed out that he wouldn’t look at scripts written on anything else. However, I’ve only made the leap to using it now.
I wonder how many other pieces of advice that I’ve been handed over the years, only to ignore them and continue working in a way that was familiar to me. Advice from writers on writing, producers on production, photographers on photography. All listened to, all filed away, none acted upon.
Currently, the feedback I’ve received on my scripts is, as a good friend of mine says, “nuggets.” I keep harping on about the terrific instruction Adrian Mead gives in his “Making it as a Screenwriter” book. Very good advice on how to improve my work. All I have to do is listen to it. All I have to do is act on it.
I want to make films.
I’m going to make a number of short films over the coming months in order to improve as a film maker. I’m not sure if I will upload any of the results anywhere; I want to make sure that I have something good before I put it out there, but I’ll be making a number of films nonetheless.
Over the years, I’ve worked on a number of short films, as a writer-director, as a producer, as an art director, assistant art director, as a camera and lighting assistant. Any experience on a set is terrific; I learn a lot, it’s exciting, I enjoy working with crew members. I want to get into that situation again.
Why not show films until they are good? It’s important to get work out there, but it has to be good work to make an impression. The only way to getting to that good work is through experience and mistakes.
Recently, I approached a work colleague and friend with a script idea and a request: “do you want to make a mistake with me? It’s a short script; maybe two pages at the most…” We’re going to work hard at it, look at the results and think about what we’re going to do next. Actually, I don’t need to think about it.
I’ll make another film.
Information and opinion
Some years ago at film school, a friend and I chanced by a box of old Sight and Sound magazines that were due to be thrown away. We promptly took the box, placed it in my friend’s car and drove it to my place, where we divided the magazines between us.
At the time, I was subscribing to Sight and Sound, along with Screen International, so the find was a delight. I had a plan: go through them in chronological order, watching films discussed along the way. It didn’t work out like that.
I continued to watch and make the odd film and read the odd article, but mostly the magazines remained untouched, even as I added to the pile with new issues or when a friend passed her old issues of Films and Filming onto me. Until now.
Recently, in addition to writing a number of screenplays, I’ve spent a lot of time at the British Film Institute watching films in the cinemas, reading about them in the library, listening to interviews about them in the audiotheque and watching rarities in the mediatheque. All of this has been enormously helpful in expanding my knowledge of and enthusiasm in film: I could spend whole days there, just learning. I thought about all the magazines I possessed.
What was in these magazines? Interviews with writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and designers. Criticism. Opinion. More insight and information to learn from or to disagree with. I took them out and put them into chronological order. The first I’m reading is from the mid-60s, containing an article on the film I’ve seen most recently: Antonioni’s The Red Desert.
I find the best films to be immersive; what the actress Juliet Stevenson described as, “an imaginative bath.” These magazines add to that sense of immersion; the insights therein both expand and enrich the experience of seeing a film. Over the past few years, I’ve been seeing a lot more, mainly in repertory cinemas and on DVD: there should be a lot of articles for me to catch up on, adding to the “lifestyle” of film.
That said, there’s no greater method to learning about film than actually making them. I hope to look into this over the coming week.