A recipe for disaster…and what makes a film.
If you love Screenwriting, then you love films. It’s a given. From page to screen is as natural a progression as from plate to mouth. If you deem yourself a Screenwriter, then at least part of you is a film maker.
Screenwriting is a very visual way of writing. The characters you create and the world you put them in is all written down specifically to be shown on a screen. That’s the ultimate aim and the format of the screenplay relates to this. Whatever you may have written, in your mind- you are seeing it on the screen, you are seeing it as a film.
So what makes a good film?
I like Pizza. It’s without a doubt, my favourite food (bear with me!), but there is something incomparable about sitting down to eat a well stacked Roast Beef dinner. I probably like my Beef a little less pink in the middle than most, but nonetheless I have to admit that if I am good at anything, cooking a Roast Dinner is it. I love the plate full of crispy Roast Potatoes- fluffy inside and seasoned with salt. I adore the honey drizzled Roasted Parsnips and Carrots and the mixture of Gravy, English Mustard, Horseradish and of course the meat soaked in it all. The textures and flavours are unlike anything else and the whole ritual of cooking and sitting down to eat it is quite possibly my favourite thing about England. The thing that makes the Roast Dinner is all of it. There are many different components all mixed together working in perfect harmony and it is this collaboration between ingredients that creates one of the worlds all time great meals. The key word there is collaboration.
At the end of any film, the credits list is usually extensive. Big budget films can have credit lists that seem to go on and on and on, but even smaller films seem to have a huge cast and crew. I still don’t know what some of the job roles are and if I’m being brutally honest with myself, part of me still thinks (or hopes) that there is no real need for such a huge group of assistance in film creation but the fact remains, that no film is ever created by one person. It is always a collaborative effort, a combination of ingredients, all overseen (directed) by you.
When you first cook a meal, especially a meal such as a roast dinner, the chances are you will have a grand picture in your head of what it will look and taste like, but certain elements of the preparation, or the cooking, will be less than perfect. It might be a disaster the first time round but gradually, you will refine the process, you will discover what works and what doesn’t and you will have your timings down to perfection. In short, practice makes perfect. It is the same with film making…I hope.
My first film was Losing Innocence. I had an overly long, convoluted and fragmented script but at the time, I thought it had everything that a good film should have. It had tragic characters that we could follow and feel empathy and sympathy for despite them suffering tremendously. It had shocking twists and events- all of which were perfectly motivated. It had passionate yet subtle dialogue and it swayed from conventional narrative. At least that’s what I thought at the time. I was swept up in the excitement of finishing my first real screenplay and even more swept up in the excitement of turning it into a film. Gradually, things started to come together. I auditioned people from all over the U.K. on numerous days and held rehearsals with some members of the finalised cast. I bought props, I sourced locations and I put together a small team of people to help me make it.
And after I screened the finished film at the Custard Factory cinema to a full theatre of friends, family, cast and crew…I had never felt so deflated, so down and so embarrassed.
The whole thing was wrong. Watching it in the company of others was like watching it for the very first time and it was glaringly obvious how flawed the film was. The story, while relatively simple, was told in an overly complicated manner. The pacing of the film was all over the place and inconsistent. The sound mixing was terrible. The ending was drab and unclear. The only aspects of the film that worked were some of the performances by the actors, the camerawork by Daniel Alexander and the artwork for the poster! In summary, everything that I was responsible for had been awful. I had overcooked some of the ingredients and when that happens, you risk spoiling the whole dish.
I’m not afraid to say that I went away from the experience doubting myself. It was (and is) never enough for me to simply put out a film or write a story, it has to be as near to the best I can do every time. Each time I cook a roast dinner, at leats one part of it has to better each time. Losing Innocence was my first attempt at film making and in hindsight I tried too much, too soon. I compromised on everything just to make something. I’ve read that- although I can’t remember where- that necessity to be mother of creativity. I kind of believe that but back then, I was just comprising my story and vision. I guess I was swept up in the excitement of it all and I didn’t give myself any time to reflect and step back and look at what was happening. I honestly believed- for a time- that I could film a feature film and it would be good enough for mainstream festivals- on my first attempt! Stupid I know, but on the flip side- if I hadn’t had that blind self-belief, I maybe wouldn’t be making anything at all right now.
The mistake that was Losing Innocence the feature film eventually became Losing Innocence the short film and the re-edited picture suddenly started getting some attention. It was selected for two independent Hollywood Film Festivals (the L.A. Indie Film Festival and the SoCal CIIF Festival) and earned Faye Winter – the lead actress in the film- a Best Actress Nomination at the former. I had tried again, altering the ingredients and suddenly, things started tasting a lot better.
There were still massive issues with the film but I was able too look at them more positively now. I was able to look at them knowing that what I had started upon was a learning curve and I have always been the kind of person who learns by doing.
After Losing Innocence I- alongside Daniel- used projects that we were working on alongside Recre8 as Viewfinder to further hone our film making craft. Scripts got better and more concise. Edits were better paced. Sound and dialogue were mixed much better and I developed a much better understanding as to the whole process and the importance of preparation beforehand. When it was time to film Redundant, I felt that I had enough about me to navigate the challenge with results that would dramatically improve upon Losing Innocence 4 years earlier.
Although it was a totally different type of film (it only had two characters and took place in one location and was 27 minutes long) I prepared for it twice as much as I had done for Losing Innocence, which was originally based on a script of 204 pages.
We had shooting scripts, shot lists, we had read throughs, a checklist of props, better equipment and even things like contracts for cast members. True, the nature of the film allowed us to be a little more relaxed in terms of time etc. but the pre-production of the film also contributed to this. The result was a short film I was actually pretty happy with…for the most part. The actors were superb and really grasped the sub-text of the film and I felt that some of that at least was down to the clarity of writing and direction. The sound- for the most part was clear and non-distracting and the use of music did what I wanted it to. There was still a lot I would improve and change if we went back…and despite all my preparation I still missed one shot that, in my opinion, would’ve made a huge difference to the ending, but I was happy. I was happy because there was a noticeable improvement in technique all round.
Now I am prepping for Climbing Trees after working with Daniel on Sylvester and we have already planned a further two productions this year. Without the series of mistakes behind me, I would never be in a place where I was confident enough to attempt more. Without the burnt dinners, there would never be the Masterchef entry.
Much like these blog posts…I hope eventually that they will get better and better and more concise and, as a result, perhaps be read and shared by more and more people, but who knows. The main thing is to keep trying and to keep writing and to keep making shit until something happens that isn’t quite as shit. I can’t wait to get started on Climbing Trees and I can’t wait to see how much things have moved on from Redundant. I can’t wait to see how all the ingredients come together.
That is the only way I can measure my own progress and the only way to make a film…a little better each time.