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.
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