Monday, 30 May 2011

The Italian Blog - Part 1...

Back in April a director I've been working with took me to Morbegno in northern Italy to show me locations for a film he wants me to write. I kept a diary while I was there, just haven't had the time to write it up until now...
Monday 11th April 2011

It's 5.30am and I'm at Gatwick airport about to take a flight to Milan. It's a journey that actually started around 9 years ago when I replied to an ad in Shooting People from a director looking for a screenwriter. It still feels weird using real names of people I'm going to be talking about in great detail so for now I'll call him Jeff...Jeff Director. Jeff had come out of film school with a very well shot horror short that he wanted to adapt into a feature. I had just come out of university with a scriptwriting MA and was starting to adjust to the fact that the highly paid job offers weren't flooding in as a result of my newly gained qualification. I also hadn't written anything in months. I had an office job (the first of many) and was struggling to fit writing around the 9-5 schedule. I'd been writing on a full-time basis for a year during the MA, mostly in the daytime. I had yet to make the transition to Writer by Night. Yes, this is also a bit of an origin story.

Jeff's film was kind of Rosemary's Baby without the baby. An out of work actor moves into an apartment block and discovers the residents are all part of a Satanic cult. It was well shot and referenced a lot of films I loved. So I agreed to do it and went ahead with a draft.

Working on that script taught me how to manage writing with a day job - basically scrap any romantic notion of WRITING and just go ahead and do it, wherever and whenever you can. Having a deadline and someone to write for made that possible. It was a terrible script but it had its moments and Jeff liked it. When we met for the first time in London I found that he'd actually commissioned 3 writers from those who responded to the Shooting People ad. They'd all written a version of the script. I felt bad for the other writers who had put the same amount of work in for nothing - an early indicator of how writers are generally regarded as disposable in this industry. But at the time I was just glad he liked mine more than the others.

I worked on the script a bit more and met Jeff a couple more times to discuss it. Later I started working on another film for him - a biopic about two fictional actresses; a kind of reworking of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? At some point a producer got involved, Mark. Mark is a whole other story. Jeff had a third project, a semi-autobiographical piece he'd written himself, that Mark wanted to produce. They asked me to rewrite it and the idea was that after this one they would make the other two. Mark passed some other work my way - he had the rights to a couple of books by infamous underworld figures that he wanted me to adapt. Like his work on Jeff's projects, these projects would eventually be abandoned. But I did get a couple of nights out drinking in London at Mark's expense so it wasn't a complete waste of time.

I gave up on Mark before Jeff did. He was someone who wanted to try everything and film producing was a passing phase; a phase I sensed was coming to an end because things hadn't immediately gone his way. By the end he had failed to accomplish anything at all towards getting any of the films made. I have met many more producers like Mark since.

Jeff had a couple more projects he wanted to work on and I feigned interest, but I was making new contacts by then and I felt I'd put more than enough time in for free. I let those last few projects go and moved on.

The next time I heard from Jeff was when Ten Dead Men had been released. I was e-mailing everyone in my contacts list to tell them about it - half 'please support my film and British indie film in general by buying my DVD' and half 'Look what I did!'. Jeff replied and said he'd been working on a feature in Italy, where his parents were from. He mentioned another project he was thinking of doing and asked if I had any ideas. I said I'd think about it, which was my polite way of saying I wasn't interested.

Then last October Jeff got in touch again. His feature had been finished and got a release in Italy. He wanted to do the same again, only he hadn't been happy with the script of his previous film so he wanted a different writer. I agreed to meet to talk about it, although I was sceptical. This was, after all, just a few months before I decided never to work for free again and I was already thinking along those lines.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Jenny Ringo update...

This has been a long time coming. I reached a point where I stopped posting updates because I would've just been listing the number of phone calls I'd made that week to get things moving. Then I promised to do more video diaries but I got busy with writing and couldn't really justify spending three hours on a Saturday filming, editing then uploading a daft video when I was being paid for actual work. But I've made a bit of progress over the last few weeks and hopefully I can say we're close to finishing without having to retract that statement in the next post.

Warning! Incoming tenuous train analogy!

So every morning I get a train from Worthing to Brighton which involves changing trains at Hove. A few weeks ago there were some problems on the line and the connecting train from Hove was delayed. Hove is about 25 minutes walk from where I work and about 10-15 minutes on a bus. But it's only 5 minutes away by train and the next train was only delayed by a couple of minutes. So the most sensible option appeared to be to wait for the train. Only when the couple of minutes was up the train was then delayed by a further 2 minutes. This continued to happen and the whole time I'm thinking maybe I should walk or get a bus.  In the end I waited for the train and ended up being half an hour late. If I'd known the train was going to be delayed by that much when I'd arrived then I would've walked or taken a bus, therefore not being as late. But I didn't know because the train was perpetually 2 minutes away.

Still with me? That's what the last few months of working on my short film have been like. Since January it has seemed like we've been perpetually a couple of weeks away from finishing. But things come up, people get busy, and it gets put off. I know what it's like working on creative projects for free. Those projects will always be the ones that get put to the back of the queue when paid work comes up. Back in March I told a production company who weren't paying me I would get a rewrite finished by the end of that month, but then I got a paid assignment and ended up only finishing the unpaid rewrite last week. Other things get in the way too - personal problems, family crises, medical issues; things that you would maybe work through if you were being paid but put a definite stop to unpaid work. Without getting into specifics, that's why it's taken so long.

Getting back to my train analogy, had I known it was going to take this long back in August I would have looked at other, possibly less convenient options. I don't think walking was ever an option - this would be the equivalent of me buying my own Mac, learning how to use Final Cut and doing the whole thing myself which would a) take ten times as long b) not be anywhere near as good and c) be unfeasibly expensive. That said, I certainly wouldn't attempt something like this again without being able to review the footage on my own system. One of the things that's made this whole process incredibly difficult for me is not being able to see the film or tinker with it myself. Maybe it wouldn't have helped, but at the moment it doesn't feel like it really belongs to me and I would've like to have felt like I at least had a little more control.

I could have taken a bus. I knew other people who could help and was going to use someone else initially for the editing, but working with them would have been a lot less convenient in terms of location. I've always had the option of looking for other people as the process has slowed down but the idea of transferring all the files and explaining what I want to someone I've maybe never met before seems like it would take forever. Plus I've seen people try this before and what inevitably happens is that the new person hates what the first person did so suggests changing the whole thing, stressing that it will only take a couple of weeks. 6 months later and you're in the same position again.

It's not taken forever really. A friend recently finished a film of similar length and scope which took two years to be completed. I know shorts that have taken longer. We're only just past the 1 year mark, but even then that's 1 year since I decided to start making it. We didn't start filming until late June. But it feels like it's taken a long time. I think this is partly because of the momentum we had at the beginning. A film shoot always carries its own momentum - there are always reasons to get it done quickly, like the changing weather, or locations that are only available for a short time, or actors having to go do other things. But for a few months at least we managed to carry that momentum through to post-production. The film was edited in record time and I honestly thought at that stage we were only a week or two away from completion. Then people started to get busy, meetings with the key crew became more sporadic and most of my work on the film became about phoning people constantly to sort out the next meeting. Which gets a bit repetitive after a while.

The other thing that makes it seem to me like it's taken forever is the projects that have been started and finished since I started this one. Mark Moynihan started blogging about his film Little Things back in August 2010 and finished the film in March 2011 (you can watch it here). Perhaps more ridiculously, another friend started shooting an actual feature while I was filming the short and managed to have the film finished for Cannes. Features are a bit different though, especially when there's money behind them. There's a definite deadline with features, hence the saying that films are never finished, just abandoned.

On a related sidenote, I've recently been working my way through the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels (which wasn't a particularly satisfying use of my time) and found a really interesting documentary on the DVD for the third film. The best DVD extras are the ones where films have gone wrong and those responsible are honest about why it went wrong. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 is not a good film, and arguably would never have been a good film even if it had gone to plan, but the documentary did make me feel for the director Jeff Burr. He wanted his own way and he wanted to do something a bit different but every available creative whim was blocked by the executive producers who wanted the film to come out on time, within budget and with an 'R' rating. And yes these things are all reasonable requests, but they hired a director who wanted to experiment then denied him the opportunity. Plus Burr comes across as a genuinely nice bloke while the executive producer on the doc seems like Satan himself. Ultimately Burr was fired, only to be re-hired when they couldn't find anyone to finish the film.

This is one of the good things about short films. There is room to experiment. There is no real pressure. There aren't usually any serious disagreements. But at the same time with no definite end point (other than me saying when I want it finished by) you can get into situations like this where the process is ongoing for longer than seems necessary.

So to get to the point, earlier this week I did manage to meet up with the sound designer and sorted out where we are. Everything is done apart from recording around 70 sound effects which then need to be edited into the soundtrack. That sounds like a lot but most of them are small domestic things that should be pretty easy to record. We've agreed a deadline of mid-June. After that everything just needs to be synced-up to the film and we should be actually finished, ideally by the end of June. Unfortunately I have now reached the stage where if someone suggests some worthwhile but time-consuming tweak that will improve something that 90% of people won't even notice I'm saying no. I really just want to get it finished now and I am really hoping I don't have to write another post like this in the next couple of months.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Feed the Birds... a forum for screenwriters set up by Piers Beckley back in February 2010. You can find it here. There are lots of screenwriting forums/facebook groups/twitter cults (should that be 'trends' or something?) around, but I find them all a bit overwhelming. They usually consist of a huge number of writers talking about what great work they are doing and occasionally telling everyone else how to write. Sometimes someone will ask a question like 'Can I use camera directions in the script?' and will be treated to a flurry of patronising responses.

Feed the Birds feels a lot more civilised than that. It feels like a few writers kicking back after a hard day of writing to chat about whether certain writing schemes and opportunities are worthwhile, their concerns with an upcoming meeting, even what they saw on TV last night. Yes, these are things discussed on other forums but here it feels a lot more intimate, much less imposing and has a collaborative spirit rather than a ruthlessly competitive one.

Only it's a bit too intimate at the moment. There are over 100 members but only a handful of those seem to be active on the site. I have to admit I'm somewhat guilty here myself, having chosen to observe the chatter on the site from a distance without actually participating for some time. But I've started to appreciate the need for forums like this one, not to get advice or to promote my own work, but to feel part of a wider community in what is generally a very lonely business.

Piers recently hinted that he may close the forum due to a lack of activity. I think this would be a mistake, because in a few months someone else (possibly me) will come along and say 'You know what the internet really needs? A new screenwriting forum!'

People are forever coming up with new things on the internet, but sometimes I think we should just make better use of what we already have.

So if you are a writer or interested in writing then I seriously recommend you sign up to Feed the Birds. I'll see you there.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Bishop of Battle...

My Mass Effect addiction culminated in me scouring the galaxy to find one remaining rare item to complete a side-mission that had no bearing on the actual plot of the game. And as I punched the air in celebration of finally achieving nothing of any real importance I was reminded of this sequence from the 1983 film Nightmares in which Emilio Estevez has a similar problem. Someone has helpfully posted the whole thing on YouTube so you can watch it below. I haven't seen it since I was a kid, but I was surprised to find that despite it looking very 80s the story hasn't dated too badly. For the first half it kind of plays like an educational video on the dangers of over-indulgence in video games before it goes crazy with some pretty awesome Tron-esque effects. I never saw the rest of the film (I was always told this was the best story so never bothered) but I'm kind of curious now.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Some stuff what people I know are doing...

First of all if you are involved in any kind of creative pursuit at all you should watch this immediately...

Ira Glass = awesome. For more awesomeness you should listen to This American Life. Especially if you're a writer.

So MovieBar was on Monday and Rich Badley has posted the write-up on the website here along with a few of the films and some photos of me in a hat talking to people who aren't wearing hats:

With the exception of a few glitches during the clip from Cyborg everything ran pretty smoothly. The pub even has a better sound system now so the speakers don't cut out anymore which is a huge improvement. It was a quiet one due to the bank holiday but there were still about 20 people in total which is enough to justify doing it outside of my living room (it's not very entrepreneurial of me but secretly I prefer doing it for 20 people. Lord Sugar would not be impressed). This did make the unintentionally hilarious post-apocalyptic trailers we screened seem rather self-indulgent but they added some humour to a night of predominantly serious films. Plus I like the juxtaposition of showing these trailers for epic ridiculous exploitation films against thought-provoking, micro-budget short films that are often on the whole much better-produced. It's all art at the end of the day, but I like to remind everyone that sometimes art features robots and dinosaurs.

I've forgotten what my point was, but on the subject of robots and dinosaurs I also spent an excellent evening with the MovieBar crew watching a double-bill of Yor, the Hunter from the Future and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn projected onto my living room wall. Yor was excellent and everything you would want from a film that features robots and dinosaurs. Metalstorm was not good. It was a low budget take on 80s 3D classic Spacehunter: Aventures in the Forbidden Zone - which is a good film. Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn was also shot in 3D but the filmmakers used this technology to strap a camera to the front of a tiny car to film lots of desert roads and to have inexplicable close-ups of trees. The hero spent most of his time squashed into the cockpit of the tiny future car with Tim Thomerson, occasionally stopping to have surreal naked dreams. And Jared-Syn wasn't even destructed. The best thing about that film was definitely the trailer:

So onto cool people doing cool stuff - Simon Messingham's play Disco is on at the Fringe Festival in Brighton next week. Simon has been blogging about the production occasionally here. Also my wife is stage managing so it will be an incredibly slick production with awesome props. It's on at the Funky Fish on the 11th, 12th and 13th next week, then the 19th and 20th the following week. You can find further details and buy tickets here.

Also next week actor and MovieBar regular Nick Bartlett will be playing the title character in a stage version of Get Carter which will be on at The Hove Centre (at Hove Town Hall) on the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th. You can find out more and buy tickets here.

I am still writing the dead ninja script. Normal service will resume once that's done. Possibly. I am also addicted to Mass Effect so normal service may need to wait until the window between me finishing the first game and getting hold of the second one...