An awful lot of whiney bollocks is talked about writing. Here’s the truth of it, courtesy of Jason Aaron at CBR:
Thanks for all your emails and comments. You’ve all been really nice and overwhelmingly supportive of my decision to leave Twitter. When I say “all”, I’m obviously not including @misterdevans, whose comments on the subject have marked him out as the kind of twisted shitbag I’ll be very glad to see the back of. Not that people like this don’t exist in real life but social networks do tend to amplify them, which is unfortunate.
I didn’t quit Twitter because it was nasty or because I didn’t like the people or because Stephen Fry said he was going to(!). I left purely and simply because I have a heap of deadlines coming up between now and Christmas and I needed to get rid of as many distractions as possible. I like Twitter, maybe too much, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist spending time on there if the option still existed.
I hope everyone understands and that no one feels slighted or abandoned. I was one of millions of people on Twitter. I had 1500 followers and I followed about 150 people. I’m sure the loss won’t be felt too badly. As I’ve said previously, I’ll still be talking to people via email and in person – it’s not as if I fucking died, people! If you want to get hold of me but don’t have an e-mail address, just leave a comment on here – they come straight through to my email account so I will see them.
Now, pull yourselves together. There’ll be no more blubbing and wailing and renting of clothes; there’s coffee to be drunk, cigarettes to be smoked and words to be written…
So I’ve been gone from Twitter for an hour or so now and it is weird. Something came on the TV and I opened Tweetie, without thinking, to let people know about it. Tweetie told me my account no longer existed. A strange feeling.
I think it will work out though. The half of me that writes needs to live more in my own head. I need to interact with the world to get inspiration but I need to take that stimulus and internalise it. I need to chew it over for a while so that I can spit it out as something else. I think the problem with Twitter was that I wasn’t letting anything gestate; if something occurred to me, I could just throw it out there instantly. Consequently, I was starting to feel like I had no ideas in my head. The well was leaking badly. Hopefully it will start to fill up again now.
You’ll notice the design of this blog has changed. This is not necessarily a permanent new design but I think I’ll be posting on here much more frequently and writing shorter pieces, so I wanted a layout that was a little more conducive to that. I’m hoping that, rather than tweeting 50 bits of nonsense a day, I might instead be able to put my thoughts down here in a more coherent fashion. We’ll see.
I’m going back to 1994 or thereabouts. I can’t be more specific. I have no record of this; no paperwork, no tapes, nothing.
I was 22 years old. I’d just finished the last in a succession of crappy jobs selling advertising space for magazines you never heard of and it was time to do something with my life. I’m already editorialising with the benefit of hindsight; time to do something with my life? Probably not then, more likely I was looking for an excuse not to wear a suit and go to an office everyday. Maybe I’m still doing that.
I decided I was going to make a film. That was what I wanted to do, I wanted to make films. I’d wanted to make films since I was about eleven years old. Go to film school? I couldn’t afford it and I didn’t really believe in it. I didn’t think I could learn anything in a classroom that I couldn’t learn better and faster by doing. I still believe that about pretty much everything (although, if you’re about to operate on me, I’d love you to have passed some exams).
I was going to make a film. A short film, obviously, let’s not run before we can crawl. I’d directed a couple of plays in school but I knew that really didn’t count for anything. I’d never written a script, I’d never been on a film set, much less worked on one and I’d never even met anyone who worked in the film industry. I didn’t have a single thing going for me. Okay, maybe one thing; I was 22 years old and I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I had no idea what I wasn’t supposed to be able to do.
Films cost money. Even short films. Even if you don’t pay anyone and you beg, borrow or steal as much as you can, some things still need to be paid for. I didn’t have any money. None. I’d been earning well but spending better; I’d quit my job on a Friday and by Monday I was in overdraft. This continues to be the story of my life.
I enrolled on the film and theatre studies course at the University of North London (the film and theatre department is now a Pizza Express and certainly far more useful for that). By enrolling I automatically received a grant, which I could live on, and became eligible for a student loan which I could use to fund my magnum opus. (By now you may be wondering how I got accepted into university so fast and you may be starting to suspect that the timeframe doesn’t quite work… Let’s not you and I allow the facts to get in the way of a good story.)
The grant was roughly a thousand pounds and the student loan was about the same amount. I signed the papers and got the money. I think I attended two lectures; one film, one theatre studies. I went along more out of guilt than interest; they’d given me this money, I should at least show willing. Waste of time. Don’t let anyone tell you different. If you’re reading this and you’re currently studying for a BA in film and theatre studies, walk away. Those people have nothing useful to tell you. This is three years of your life you’re not getting back. Run while you still can.
So now I had the money. I didn’t have a script, actors, crew, equipment or even an idea for a story but I had the money. At this stage I was therefore incompetent as an artist but brilliant as a producer.
So what did I have? I was sharing a house with a friend of mine in Chelsea. If the friend went away for a weekend, I would have an empty house. An empty house is a location, a location I’m already paying a paltry amount of rent for. The film should therefore be set in a house in Chelsea that looked remarkably similar to this one. Tick that box and move on.
The aforementioned housemate was a brilliant cook and she used to like to organise dinner parties at our place to which I was, unavoidably, invited. One of these happened while I was still trying to come up with a story. I happened to mention over the starter that I had quit my job and was going to make a short film and the consensus amongst the City workers and trustafarians at the table was that I had just made a huge mistake and was about to fall flat on my face and who the fuck did I think I was? Quentin Tarantino? As I stared down at the untouched wild mushroom risotto on my plate, Lloyd was born…
Lloyd was my feelings at that moment made corporeal. Lloyd finds himself at a dinner party in Chelsea with a bunch of smug, self-regarding yahoos and he fantasises about killing each one of them in the most brutal manner imaginable. He snaps out of his reverie to find that the guests have indeed all been killed, exactly as he imagined. Did he do it, or is someone else responsible?
I know, it’s a pretty shitty premise but it was something and it could probably sustain fifteen minutes of screen time. More to the point, it was a framework that allowed for some decent dialogue and some good set pieces in various parts of the house as Lloyd isolates and kills each guest in turn.
All I had to do was to turn this idea into a fifteen page screenplay. I had no idea how to do that. The obvious solution was to trot down to Waterstones and buy one of the too-numerous books on the ‘art’ of screenplay writing. But even back then it seemed screamingly obvious to me that anyone who had the time to write a book about how to write screenplays wasn’t making a great success of a screenwriting career. I knew what a play script should look like and could therefore make a decent guess at what a film script might need. I set up a Word template and started to bash out my story. I can’t remember how long it took but I suspect I was slower writing those fifteen pages than I would be writing an hour of TV today. And this was pre-Twitter.
The script complete (not good, you understand, but complete – someone recently told me that the mark of the professional writer is the ability to say “that’ll do”), I now needed to assemble a cast and crew. I had a few friends at drama school so I made some calls and got them and some of their mates to give up a weekend. I put a notice up at the National Film and Television School and got a Director of Photography from there who then helped me to assemble a student crew who wanted experience and free sandwiches more than they wanted actual money.
I tinkered with the script, held production meetings where I asked more questions than any of the crew and worked out a schedule.
The film, which was now called “Any Dream Will Do” was shot on 16mm film over the course of an exhausting but exhilarating weekend. Midway through the first day, a gunshot effect went wrong and an actress ended up in A&E with burns on her arm. She made it back a couple of hours later but now had a bandage on her arm which screwed continuity quite badly, necessitating a major change to the plot and a last minute re-write. We battled time and budgetary constraints on every shot of every scene for two days but we got it done after a fashion and wrapped about ten minutes before my housemate got home from her weekend away.
I made a bunch of calls and managed to get the rushes graded for free in the middle of the night at a Soho post-house. While I was there, I met an editor who agreed to cut the picture for nothing, again in the middle of the night. I don’t recall mixing the sound so I’m guessing we probably never did that properly.
Over those few months of writing, shooting and editing I learned more than I would have learned in three years at film school.
I learned that the script is not an absolute, it is a blueprint that evolves through the shooting and editing as smart people have good ideas and that, as a writer and director, it’s your job to assess those ideas and use the ones that will make the finished product better. Also, that good ideas don’t respect hierarchy; they’re as likely to come from the runner as from the producer.
I learned that it’s easy to be a good director in the morning but that what really separates the men from the boys is how you deal with the last half hour of the day when you’re running out of time and you still have important shots to make. The old film industry adage “Ben Hur in the morning, Benny Hill in the afternoon” is always true.
I learned that directing is about management as well as creativity, that the director is responsible for the atmosphere on a set and therefore the pace and quality of the work. For me, at least, a fun atmosphere produces better results than an atmosphere of tension and oppression. Praise produces better results than censure.
Nowadays, with the ready availability of decent domestic cameras and editing software, conventional wisdom has it that anyone has the means to make a film and that this democratisation of the process will produce a new generation of Spielbergs and Scorceses. This is largely bullshit. Yes, it’s possible to pick up a cheap HD camera, go shoot a movie with your friends and edit it on Final Cut on your laptop. If the technology had been available at the time, that’s probably how I would have made “Any Dream Will Do”. And I would have learned almost nothing useful. Yes, I might have figured out which shots cut together best or when to use a close-up, when to use a wide shot. But really, if I didn’t already have an idea of that I shouldn’t be making a film in the first place. I would have learned nothing that would equip me for a career making films and television; I would have no idea of the responsibilities of the various departments, the subtleties of managing a crew, the evolution of ideas through process and necessity, the trade-off between those ideas and the time available to execute them. In short, I would have collected none of the skills required to do this job in the real world. Just as, I contest, the film school graduate can learn none of these skills until the safety net of the institution has been removed and he or she is required to do the job in a professional capacity.
And as for the film itself? Was “Any Dream Will Do” any good? I doubt it but I can’t really answer that question now as I haven’t seen the film for at least ten years. I don’t have a copy of the film and I’ve no idea if anyone does. I’m pretty sure it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever made because I directed “Hotel Babylon” a few years back and there is no pile of crap bigger or stinkier than the two episodes that bear my name.
So “Any Dream Will Do” is long lost and I have no interest in watching it again. The film was about the process; the journey, not the destination. If I’m proud of any aspect of it it’s that I did it at all. It would have been so easy to accept that making a film was too high a mountain to climb, that my ignorance was insurmountable and that I’d be better off turning my back on the idea and heading instead to another dull office job. Only I know how easy it would have been to walk away, how tempting that was on how many occasions. But I didn’t.
However bad the end product, I made it. I made a film and now I get paid to make them. There’s isn’t a better job in the world.
More exposure to excellence here (it’s good for you, suck it up). Very few people understand the possibilities of cinema like David Lynch. He’s just started David Lynch Foundation Television. Here are some clips from that, loosely themed around the desire for ideas. There’s a lot more where these came from; go see…
Ideas are like fish:
Checking Ideas with the Air:
The Meaning of His Films:
The Language of Cinema:
I thought it might be interesting to journal a day in the life of a writer-director (me!) during the last days of a TV edit. It turns out it wasn’t interesting at all but I’ve written it now, so you can damn well read it…
07.00 – What? What time is it? Who am I?
07.15 – Coffee. Toast. E-mail. Twitter. RSS feeds. Plenty of time…
08.01 – Crap, now I’m running late!
08.03 – Jana and Edie wake up. I change Edie’s nappy.
08.15 – Bath. Try not to fall asleep again.
09.00 – Into car, hoping there won’t be any traffic as I have to be at Pinewood for ten for a music-spotting session on two episodes of “New Tricks”.
09.15 – A406 is a car park. Crap. Listening to Amanda Palmer album and smoking.
09.55 – Don’t know how this happened, but I’m actually at Pinewood on time!
10.00 – Composer not here yet. Bloody musicians.
10.15ish – Music spotting session starts. This is where we show our composer, Warren Bennett, the two edited episodes and discuss where music should go and what kind of music it should be.
13.15 – Spotting finished. Warren had already seen one of the episodes so, mercifully, we didn’t have to watch both in their entirety. I think they’re both good eps, but I have an appallingly short attention span and there’s only so many times I can watch the same episode before my eyes start bleeding.
13.30 – In the car, heading home. Nothing more to be done in the edit until we know what the executive producers thought of the latest cut and what changes we need to make or argue against.
14.00 – Arrive home. Jana and Edie are out, so I fire up the desktop and start making notes for an outline of another New Tricks episode for the next season.
15.00 – E-mail flurry from exec producers. They love the episode. No changes. We’re “locked”. I call Ben, the editor and tell him the good news. I’m not out of contract until the end of the week so I’m now being paid to sit at home for a few days. That would be great but I suspect the production will try to squeeze in a few post-production meetings to save having to pay me extra to go to them when I’m out of contract.
17.00 – Still making notes for new New Tricks episode.
17.45 – Read “Each Peach Pear Plum” to Edie TWICE! (She insisted on an encore)
Now – Taking a break from writing (I won’t officially down tools until about 8pm). Sitting on the sofa in front of the news, with laptop. Will post this now so I can get back to work.
I’m sometimes asked my advice on what screenwriting software to use, so I thought I’d jot down a list of my faves…
- Pad and pen – never underestimate the usefulness of the simple pad and pen for ideas/dialogue etc. No one has so far invented any software that allows for as much creative freedom. Also, it beats sitting in a cafe with a laptop in front of you; no one wants to be that guy/girl!
- Evernote – This is really handy for jotting down an idea, or clipping something off the web, and having it sync across desktop, laptop and iPhone instantly.
- Scrivener – A truly brilliant (and cheap) bit of kit. I use Scrivener to outline all my ideas in as much detail as is required. It’s really easy to then turn that outline into a treatment or pitch if you need to get your idea approved before starting the first draft. Everything goes in here; characters, plot points, ideas for sequences/scenes/beats etc. The software also allows you to write in screenplay format but for that I prefer…
- Movie Magic Screenwriter – For years and years I put up with the poor presentation and usability of Final Draft because it was the industry standard. Now, with Screenwriter 6, that is starting to change. The software is infinitely better and more adaptable than FD and the industry is starting to use it more and more. I still have to deliver most TV scripts in FD format, but I tend to at least write the first draft in Screenwriter and then port it across for revisions.
Lastly, I want to mention a new site I found recently that is BRILLIANT for dealing with those moments where inspiration seems elusive and we’re just staring at a blank page. Write Or Die provides the ultimate stimulus to get writing; you set a target time or number of words, hit “Go” and start writing. If you pause for more than a few seconds, the site plays horrific noises at you or, on a higher setting, actually starts to delete what you’ve already written. I didn’t think it would work, then cranked out 1000 words in just a few minutes on my first try. Highly recommended!
I’m always keen to try new writing software out, so if you have any recommendations, let me know.
Been meaning to link to these for a while. Neil Gaiman wrote them to accompany two Tori Amos albums; “Strange Little Girls” and “Scarlet’s Walk”. The first is some of the best character sketches I’ve ever read. The second is a really neat short story entitled “Pages from a Journal found in a shoebox left in a Grayhound Bus somewhere between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Louisville, Kentucky.“
Both are also available in the collection “Fragile Things” (Neil Gaiman)
I realise that I have jumped into journalling my day-to-day experiences making “New Tricks” with no “backstory” whatsoever. For those who require some context, or mistakenly believe that it might somehow render this journal more interesting, here’s the story so far:
I directed two episodes of New Tricks earlier this year (Season 5). I really enjoyed working with the regular cast and crew so, when the powers that be asked me to write an episode for Season 6, I jumped at the chance. Having handed in a first draft (a story about UFO hunters and government/military conspiracies), the same powers that be asked if I’d like to direct my episode and one other (all directors on New Tricks work on a “block” of two episodes each). Almost no one gets to write and direct an episode of series television in the UK so I couldn’t pass up the chance. I’ve done it once before, on Spooks (Season 5, Episode 8 if anyone cares) and it offers a lot more creative freedom than doing either job in isolation.
So, we are now just a few weeks from beginning the shoot. I have handed in six drafts of the script, which seem to have gone down pretty well, and have found the majority of the locations and cast most of the parts.
That should bring us up to the present day.
I’m writing this journal simply because I personally enjoy reading other filmmakers accounts of their working practices. I have no idea how useful or interesting this journal will turn out to be because I obviously have no idea of what the coming weeks will bring. I’d appreciate any and all comments/criticism from readers, so please don’t be shy.
(THIS POST HAS BEEN IMPORTED FROM AN OLDER BLOG)