When I’m planning scripts one of the main things I get paranoid about is making sure something is happening in each scene. It might be my lack of confidence in just having conversations between each character but there’s always the nagging need to have some kind of threat. I’m currently looking at the complete scene by scene of Parallel and getting worried that some parts are just conversation. Act one is establish paradigm, act two is breaking it and act three is resolving it but making it different to the start. That’s the classic Hollywood way.
I was watching the Studio Ghibli classic ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ for the first time last week and I loved it (as did my nine year old son). What struck me was that not a great deal actually happens in the hour and a half long film. There’s also a lot of plot points that aren’t explained fully in any way.
Two girls move into a new family home alongside their father. Their mother is absent as she’s sick in hospital. What disease has struck her down remains a mystery for the entire film. The house they now live in looks haunted and they discover soot sprites almost as soon as they arrive.
Whilst the older girl is at school the younger discovers two small creatures in the garden. One is like a small rodent and the other is a smaller, ghostly version of the same thing. Why one of them is a spirit is not explained. She follows these creatures into woodland when she discovers Totoro, a much bigger version of the creature who doesn’t talk and seems to like sleeping.
Usually, if this were a Western film, there would be some form of danger straight away. Totoro would be under threat somehow, the local village would see him as some kind of ghostly monster. The family would stand in front of the tree defending their friend. Instead, not much really happens until they receive a telegram from the hospital and the family all try to make it there in time. Totoro conjures an imaginary bus which is shaped like a cat to get the girls there in time to they can deliver corn on the cob (no, really). You never find out of the Mother recovers or if she manages to join the rest of her family in the new home.
Totoro seems like a wistful dream in which events move along at a steady pace only really to pick up for the last fifteen minutes. I imagine a scenario if them doing a Western remake and a producer tearing his hair out asking where the danger is and how all this resolves. As stated before, this doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film but it does make me think about how I lay out my scripts. Do I, as a writer, back away from the power of human relationships?
Parallel currently sits at about twenty pages and I’ve looked at it a couple of times now. I would have loved to have just pressed on with it and I always tell others about the need to forget about how bad you might think your script is and just finish it. The current incarnation though has enabled me to see how the idea would play out and it isn’t that great. I’m tempted to rip it up and start again. Writing anymore right now in this current state would seem to be like building on dodgy foundations just to get a house finished. Pretty soon it’ll fall down completely, probably before you’ve moved in.
I had a substantial email exchange with Jsquared who had a look over what I had so far. She came up with a fantastic point by mentioning she wasn’t too hot on the setting being space. Most science fiction films she’d had seen had featured outer space and she was pretty tired of it. Perhaps she’s right.
So maybe I’ll change the setting to underwater. This group have been placed deep down in the ocean (for reasons I have yet to work out). The shuttle of this version is replaced by a mini submarine which doesn’t cause any great trouble in rewrites. Also, the visual of water slowly dripping in through cracks in the station as it slowly disintegrates is far better than it just losing air.
This also means I’m getting a Bioshock vibe off it and it’s fine by me.
I’ve spoken about Robotics almost endlessly during the two year span of this blog, I detailed the process of getting people to read it and then going through rewrites with producers and directors and yet I couldn’t show you it. It felt odd talking about the film when you, my dear reader, could not look at it.
That ends tonight…
Click play to watch.
I’d like to thank Jasper Bazuin and all at Alphabet Pictures for making this a reality and helping this Scotsman’s crazy idea he had in 2007 get on screen. I’d also like to thank Horace Cohen and Janna Fassaert for their brilliant performances which truly come across exactly as I’d have wanted. It’s crazy to think we’ve never met and yet you’ve done so much for me.
Please share this, tweet about it and generally shout from the rooftops. The festival run on Robotics isn’t quite finished yet either, it’ll play in Rome this September which is incredible news.
It hasn’t quite fully clicked yet, the story for ‘Order For Burning’ remains a little bit incomplete but I think I’ve got the characters down at least. This is good step forward for now at least. Hopefully by the end of today (if I can actually stop writing this) I’ll blaze the first five pages. As explained in previous entries of Howling In The Dark I usually set about writing the first five pages of any feature script before I’ve planned most of the long term stuff out. That way, when you finally do finish planning you’re not looking at a blank screen because you’ll have already got a head start. Also, the start of any project usually means the anxiety of where to go with this scene or how a character would say that line hasn’t yet kicked in. I go in dumb just wanting the first five minutes to be brilliant. If it grips me and wants me to write the rest then, in theory, the audience will be griped and want to know the rest.
Mind you, I’m speaking as a guy who has never had a feature script made. Bear that in mind before taking any of my advice seriously.
One major dilemma I’ve faced in the run up to getting ‘Order Of Burning’ off the ground has been the battle between sticking to historical detail and getting a good story. In the actual events as far as I can tell there were originally eleven women found guilty of witchcraft around Dumfries at the time. One killed herself in her cell and another, Helen Tait, somehow got away with it. She was never executed, only sentenced to fifty ‘merks’ and banished from the region never to return. The main question I would have is how she achieved this. How exactly did she defy the usual crowd mentality and live to tell the tale (assuming she’d want to go around telling people she was accused of being a witch after that, I’d probably assume she’d want to keep her head down)? The records are not greatly clear in giving any detail on what happened so I could use artistic license to fill in the blanks or strive to find out.
Helen is one of my main characters, simply on account of her surviving all this makes her very valuable to our story in that it won’t be just a case of everybody going to die. She is the hope, she is the exception to the rule and as such she is front and centre in the current plan. I’m picking another one of the group to concentrate on and stopping there as any more would be a major headache to keep balanced.
If that’s the story based most in the reality of the situation then I’m also writing my own characters into a parallel story concerning a young man being trained by the Church as a ‘prodder’ to extract confessions from suspects, usually by the means of torture. Obviously, at one point these two strands will almost certainly cross over.
If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start a document file entitled ‘Order For Burning’ and stare at the screen for a few minutes.
The new draft of The Salesman’s Gamble went across to Holland a few nights ago. It’s reading much better, more rounded, better reasoned which means the ending is a genuine confrontation and not just a chance conversation. By making Ian a complete bastard who is willing to steal anything for money it’s given him more reason to go through with the coin toss at the end. Ian thinks in his arrogance that it’s easy picking, that he’s dealing with the ramblings of a old eccentric whom he’ll rob anyway. It ends up being nothing quite like that. We’ll see what they think of it especially as I have received no word back from Option 1 after the last email saying they had ideas for the story but wanted to know if anybody else was reading it before they continued. Despite sending one back saying ‘Okay, let’s go’ there’s been not a word uttered for a month.
Whilst this is being considered my mind goes to other projects, including one which might still only be in the very early planning stages but is gaining pace. You might remember me blogging a short while ago about the Dumfries Ghost Walk with Mostly Ghostly. The conclusion of the tour takes place by the banks of the River Nith, detailing the 1659 Witch Trials of Dumfries in which nine women were killed due to being accused of practising witchcraft. Although the evidence for this was fairly non-existent the people were encouraged by the Church to bring these people to their attention regardless. There were actually people trained to use instruments of torture to extract confessions from those the Church suspected, it was taken that seriously. I thought to myself, whilst I listen to the team describe this event in all the gory detail, that it would make a good film if it was done right.
A couple of years pass and the group put out a tweet a couple of months ago to commemorate the anniversary. I reply by reiterating that it would indeed make a good film if somebody was to write it. It would be a hard sell however as historical movies I thought more about it at the time and came to the conclusion that perhaps that somebody should be me. Historical movies are a hard sell to begin with, even more so with a historical event which very few people know about and I was on the verge of thinking it wasn’t going to be a great idea. Then I started thinking it could be a good story and does represent something of a challenge in that I’ve never tackled real life events at all, only ever making stories from scratch. I’m also scratching my head about how to tackle the dialogue itself. It’s painfully problematic to fall into the ‘lo’ and ‘art thou?’ samples of speech so it’s something that I’ll need to research a heck of a lot to get right.
These are all good problems to have though and it’s the solving of these that makes me enjoy writing scripts so much (as much as I might sometimes be chewing walls trying to find an answer sometimes). The first thing I require however is an ‘in point’ and somewhere to start the story from. Having nine main characters would be a slight case of storyline suicide so it may well be a case or narrowing it down slightly. In order to find this entrance to the story I shall enlist the help of my good friends at Mostly Ghostly, another coffee order at Barbours of Dumfries is very probably on the way.
Having more than one option open to you to take a script forward is a very strange situation to be in as a writer. Usually I feel grateful that one person is reading something I’ve written and considering it worthwhile of their attention but to have three people in the running for The Salesman’s Gamble has left me in the rather strange set of circumstances of choosing one and rejecting the other two.
I receive an email from Option 1 the other night basically saying that he wants to take it further, has some ideas that he wants to suggest, wants to still retain my vision of the story but feels he needs a commitment from me to move it forward. I can see his side of the deal perfectly and how this represents the make or break time. I’ve stalled him enough but I had a good reason. Option 3 on the list was Alphabet Pictures based in Holland, the company who made ‘Robotics’. Obviously this felt like a natural fit as I’ve worked with them before with fantastic results but the last email I had from them contained feedback about the script and a link to a short film made with a similar story. It didn’t feel like they were for taking this one on and, as I said before, I have another young director wanting to take the project on but needing an answer either way very soon.
Option 2 was another first time director who had to be prompted to ask if she had read the first version of the script. The reply mention she had been busy but,upon waiting for two weeks after the second version was sent, I have yet to hear anything else from her. Whilst it may well be the case that she is busy it’s still an annoyance to have a sudden cut in communication. If it truly is the case that she doesn’t like it and doesn’t want to make it then a simple email back stating as such would work wonders. I’ve sent her a message thanking her for her time so far.
With all this taken into consideration I’ve gone with Option 1 because he was the only one with a concrete idea on moving forward. It’s a vex to have to write back to Alphabet and wish them well, especially with Cannes just round the corner. The gut feeling I have though is that I need to expand my horizons as a writer by working with different people and gaining different perspectives. It’s taken many years to actually get to the point when I can show my writing to producers and directors with some level of confidence, now it’s time to concentrate on working with these people to improve.
Half an hour is all it took to beat The Salesman’s Gamble into slightly better shape last night. A whole new scene added at the top with Ian failing to convince a first customer to buy anything and a clean up of the dialogue to give a much better reason as to why he would go for this coin flip deal and not just leave the house.
The newer version has been sent out to all three prospective collaborators over the last 24 hours. The one who had yet to get back to me did indeed respond to the email I sent asking if they still wanted to read a newer version, an apology was given for taking so long as she was on a shoot. It’s no big deal but I’ve had plenty of previous director and producers just never bother to get back in touch, hoping you ‘get the hint’.
At the moment it’s a happy thing to have three possibles.