London Lift-Off Film Festival 2012

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Last week I attended the 2012 London Lift Off Festival at the Curzon Cinema. I was great to head back to a festival that means so much to me personally and this time I had the honour of being a judge. What I love about this festival is its ethos; story is king. It’s not about style, or getting a famous face in somewhere to heighten your publicity (although if you have these skills or contacts, good luck to you), its about the story staying with you no matter how it was produced.

Reviewing the films I received was an incredibly enjoyable process. I’ve been banging on about films for years and finally my opinion was being used for a purpose.

On the night I attended, Killing Anna by Paul Gallasch was screening. When Paul broke up from his long term girlfriend he found himself unable to move on.

After several months of trying, he decides to put on a funeral service for her in an attempt to get over his heartbreak, documenting the whole thing. It’s quite a brilliant, strange and yet incredibly truthful film. Paul lets us into his deepest thoughts and feelings and is so honest about the raw nature of his heartbreak that, although we might have all been there at some point and cringe as he goes through every stage of getting over someone, we can’t help but feel the upmost sympathy for him (and his ex girlfriend).

I also watched the feature Without by Mark Jackson which starts in tedium as Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen) becomes the live-in carer for the vegetative Frank whilst his anally retentive family go on holiday. Between the isolation of a house without TV (apart from the fishing channel), phone signal or internet, Joslyn is left to her own devices – making friends and enemies with the neighbours and never quite trusting the ever looming Frank (is he just putting it on?). Jackson allows us to slowly become acquainted with Jocelyn, her secrets, her loves, the way she and I guess we all behave when nobody is watching, stripping her down one piece at a time until we get to the truth about who she is and why.

The story pulls you in like a black hole; slowly at first, but always tugging, until your entirely sucked into it. This is helped hugely by the cinematography (Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia) especially inside the house where shadows seem to grip the edge of everything and only that which is in close focus is apparent. It simply looks beautiful.

There is also a lovely, if unusual cover.

I really love the experience of seeing quality films at festivals, purely because the chances of ever having the opportunity of finding out about them is remote otherwise.

I was also lucky enough to find a few really strong contenders whilst and one in particular that I wanted to talk about here – since horror is my genre of choice. The Hole by AHN Joon-seong, despite being about the 59th film to carry that title, is the story of a young man who whilst trying desperately to stay out of trouble only manages to dig (excuse the pun) himself deeper and deeper into it with his good intentions. For its 20 minute duration I was on tenderhooks as this poor guy just ends up in the most hideous of situations, paying the price for not acting quickly enough to help a woman in distress. It looks and plays out brilliantly and only didn’t make the Lift Off Festival because of programming constraints. It deserves to be championed and AHN Joon-seong certainly seems like a film maker to watch out for. The Hole by AHN Joon-seong.

Being a judge has been a great experience and it all came from getting my short around the festival circuit. It is vital that if you are making shorts that you get them seen by as many as possible. London Lift Off and it’s subsequent festivals is a great opportunity to do so.

Life, Business, and on with the Feature

Summer came, and went. Autumn is packing it’s suitcase and as I write this from a warm tube train my hands are currently defrosting from the oncoming winter winds. The fact that I am writing this post however is a good one. Draft five of the script is finished.The story has been tightened. I look down upon my script (I have to imagine this as its written in Celtx on my iPhone) and it feels good! But there’s one problem. My script is sprawling! It’s currently 139 pages long. I was aiming for an 80 pager! The nature of the the production and cost mean I’d probably be able to shoot all 139 pages and make those all important cuts in the edit. But I want to be more disciplined than that. So on the script side of things – I’m pretty much happy with everything but its ability to keep a door ajar (again, I have to think outside the iPhone).
This is the first post in a long time and that’s been down to a number of things. Mainly, LIFE! Since my last post, I’ve moved (twice), started a business, been hired free lance, and most brilliantly got engaged to the woman of my dreams. I’ve been busy. But the film must go on, and it has been. Re-drafting, location scouting, and budget raising have all been on-going and I will discuss each one in more detail in up coming posts.
But I shall leave this one with a fantastic short by Patrick Jean (although I’m a little slow to this one as its been around for a few years already). ‘Pixels’ shows the world under attack from… well, you guessed it, and has come to my attention at a time when I’m reading ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline (All 80’s themed and gaming related) and have taken up a role as Story Content provider for a gaming company (Research Through Gaming), so it really struck a chord. It’s such a brilliantly simple idea that makes me want to lock myself in a room for 6 months and learn the kind of software fx programmes that allow you to create things as marvellous as this. BUT NO MORE DISTRACTIONS NOW! ON WITH PRODUCTION!

P.S. speaking of game themed videos – this too is a work of genius for anyone of the mortal kombat generation. If I can just find out how they made it… NO! THE FILM IS THE THING!

Film Crew… Assemble!

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Crew mates… Producers Matt Pearson, Ellen Wishart and myself (left to right)

It’s been a couple of months now since I took a critical look at my feature script. This for the most part has been on purpose – I felt very much neck deep in the story and now, browsing through it, feel I can really start hacking away with the red sharpie to get the concise story I want to tell. It’s also been a period in which I’ve invited others to read and share their thoughts on the story. The feedback I’ve received has been highly encouraging. Of course some of it was probably biast – I don’t expect my mother to tear It down Kermode-style, but I did get something from the friends I offered it out to. “I sat there, and was scared to leave my room.” “I went for a smoke in the garden and kept thinking about your bloody script – it freaked me out.”
Clearly at this point I donned my best Vincent Price cackle and returned to the laboratory whaling “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

Of course, the most important people to get the script to were the crew. And so last night in a pub just off of Oxford Circus, the first production meeting for our “untitled” feature got underway. Those in attendance included myself, Matt Pearson, my co-producer and editor and producer Ellen Wishart.

Story was discussed, locations were drawn up and a timeframe for production was sketched out. Shooting will take place on weekends from late September through to early December.

Weekends seem to be the best approach The team around me is one I have worked with before and one I trust and so finding an approach which makes it easier for them to be involved is essential – we all have bills to pay and roofs to keep over our heads – as low budget filmmakers, Mon-Fri 9-5 covers this like it does for everyone else.

The same is true for some of the other integral people that couldn’t attend our first meeting. Director of Photography, Chris Omand (Down Terrace) is away on a shoot and my writing partner Chris Shaw was also unable to make it. This kind of thing is only a problem if you make it one. These people have good careers, I’m not out to make a film at the expense of these careers and quite frankly, I’d be an arse to think they’d follow me if that was my ethic. Hell, Chris Nolan filmed his debut feature over a year’s worth of weekends and if it’s good enough for the most sort after director in Hollywood, I’m sure I can cope with it.

So here we are. An initial and most valuable crew assembled (with additions on the way), and a target for the next few weeks. Stay tuned, as I hope to record all my recee experiences and show you the world in which our story can be found.

Film Update – The Readable Draft

I seem to remember the first post I made on this blog promising something like ‘a post daily’ The word ‘Pah!’ springs to mind.

This is my first post in several weeks for which I am sorry – there have been things worth writing about on my journey to feature film director, but all of my writing time and most of the hours between eating, sleeping and the day job, have been taken up by the screenwriting process itself.

I have attempted to keep an account of how this process has gone and over the next few weeks, a number of posts will be about some of the things I have discovered along the way.

So, where am I with the script? I am proud to say that as of Thursday, 10th May 2012, at approximately 7:30 pm GMT, after 9 months, countless ‘how to’ books, several workshops, over 300 index cards, 4 notepads and the purchase of a giant cork board (you can tell I’ve been writing drama, can’t you), and four drafts, I HAVE A READABLE SCRIPT!

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Me, under laptop.

The experience itself?

In all honesty, it has so far been the most all consuming, exuberant, fearful, joyous, self deflating, self realising, unrelenting, mind boggling, task I have ever undertaken.

How good does it feel to hold a copy in my hands? The temptation to remake Lionel Richie’s ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ springs to mind. Except instead of dancers, they’d be printers shooting reams of paper up into the air like giant pieces of confetti… maybe a giant typewriter as the set piece to with me tap dancing over the keys…

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“We’re gonna need a bigger board.” (For scale, that’s a 40″ TV)

‘Hang on’, you might well say, scrolling back a couple of paragraphs. What do you mean by ‘READABLE’ script?

What I mean is I have a version of the script that I feel comfortably tells the entire story and that I can show to the rest I my production team so we can start to plan for shooting.

Are there too many ideas within it? Probably, but since the logistics require a home-made approach we will probably be able to shoot all these ideas and edit them down in post production.

Is the dialogue clunky in places? It better be or I bought a red Sharpie for nothing – and I love throwing things out. Editing is by far the most enjoyable moment of the process.

To loosely paraphrase Robert McKee – the writer must first use his imagination to write actions and spoken words, and then step back and look at what he/she has done and ask ‘Does it work?’ ‘Can it be improved?’ ‘Is there a better way?’ This is honing the craft of screenwriting.

This is where I am and it feels great to have come this far.

Tis the season to flake out.

I know this all depends on where in the globe you are, but right now in the UK it’s a very grim time of year. It’s dark when you leave for the day job, it’s dark when you begin to journey home, my body is still recovering from Christmas food and drink, a few injuries incurred through the drinking season, and in the first week back to the day job, the fight to go to bed at a reasonable hour is still on. In a nutshell; I’m tired.

But I am writing. On the train to work, on the train home, several hours of an evening. The script is shaping up. It’s still early days and as of today I’m approaching the half way point of the first ‘words to paper’ draft. This is the point where I just have to write and get everything down. It’s like how a painter can’t really paint until he or she has constructed the canvas to paint on – and this is going to be a hundred and fifty page canvas.

Since I am spending so much time writing, it’s become difficult to know what to post here. But over the last week I have read some interesting things to aid not so much my writing, but getting over that post-Christmas exhaustion/back to work blues and hopefully find myself not feeling so sleepy and tired – after all I have got a film to make and that might take more than a can of red bull to get through.

So… Your body is as important a tool as your brain – terribleminds.com has a great article on things you should be doing as a writer. All the tips are encouraging, positive and helpful, but at a time of year when everyone has eaten and drank too much of the wrong things and you are too busy writing (or whatever you are doing) to think about much else, the tip that has stuck in my mind the most is Stop Treating Your Body Like A Dumpster which I am entirely guilty of.

Unrelated from the writing process but equally as important, I have discovered a few good blogs and videos this week I thought were worth a mention.

Seventeen Evergreen’s video for ‘Polarity Song’ has a wonderful ‘wish I’d thought of that’ concept and is worth a look.

I found this video on Laura Evers Johns blog, a Virgin Media Short’s shortlister with her film ‘By Hook’, also worth a watch.

And finally, another film that caught my attention was this wonderful animation by The Theory entitled ‘Address Is Approximate’. ‘Ace’ is the only word to describe it.

 

14 Index Cards

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“You need fourteen cards per thirty pages of screenplay. More then fourteen…too much material…less then fourteen…you may be too thin… Why fourteen? Because it works… It’s just one of those odd things I’ve discovered out of my experience of teaching and writing screenplays…”
– Syd Field, Screenplay

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Screenwriting Tip #2, Catfish and Short Success

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It’s been an incredible week and notably a very busy one. First the good news (it’s all good news anyway), after a few false starts and a real close look at my character essays, the first slug line of our screenplay was finally put to paper (Word2007) this week. I felt comfortable enough having been reading Syd Field’s marvellous words that the first 10 pages were achievable. However, as dialogue and action got underway, I did begin to worry whether I could establish the main character, the story and the dramatic action in the amount of pages I had been set. My biggest problem was when I began writing the dialogue it was never tight enough. But through my readings, I’m beginning to tackle that issue and hone those skills. As I did so with page one, I decided to write a list or plan to help me. I wrote the page number and what I needed to have happen on that page – the dramatic action coming on page 10. Writing this first gave me an overall view of where everything else should go and how much white space I had to put it down in. Once I had completed this, I was so pleased with the outcome, I did it for the entire rest of the script. I knew plot point 1 had to happen around page 20 and plot point 2 at roughly page 60 and with these in place it became much easier to judge where everything else should go.

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It also showed me the problems I still have with the story in terms of pacing. There are definitely still things to iron out, but it is a hugely fun, challenging and creative process.

I would say the biggest obstacle to overcome is how to use ‘found footage’ in an original way. The three most effective films in this genre (not including Cloverfield because it had a huge budget) to my mind are Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity and [Rec] and it’s tough to see what other basis to cover using this medium. The footage of those who never returned – done. A haunted house – done twice and about to be done again, and zombie panic in an apartment block – done twice, remade twice and two more on the way!

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Recently, I watched Catfish and was inspired by how it had used the found footage (not so ‘found’, more documentary of events) device to tell a story of melodrama. Ok, so there’s obviously scope for more, these aren’t the only horror premises in the world – we just have to look a little deeper.

My second piece of news this week concerns my latest short film. ‘All Pinatas go to Heaven’. I’m proud to say it won top prize this week at The London Lift-Off Festival; an achievement that couldn’t make me any prouder or happier. Having a film of mine recognised by film fans and industry insiders is the crowning moment in my journey as a film maker so far. But most importantly it’s made me even more determined and inspired to keep going, to keep doing it and to make a my feature and my dreams a reality.

For those involved in the production and in supporting the film, thank you so much!

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Have a great weekend!

Writing Tips #1 Start Talking to Yourself

Last night I attempted to talk to my characters. This might sound odd. It might even sound as if I’m going a bit mad. If you had been there, you’d probably think I was a stark raving lunatic.

The story goes, I was writing more character essay notes and really trying to understand and know as much about my characters as possible. But I kept getting stuck. The questions weren’t difficult: what’s your favourite book? etc, but I was managing to over think these things. It’s a bit like Sir Galahad in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who wants to cross the bridge and has to answer three questions to do so, but when asked what his favourite colour is says ‘blue… no wait… argh!’ and is ejected into the abyss below.
It’s the indecisive part of my brain that would probably have me flying off that bridge too when it comes to making simple, but definitive choices about my characters.

So last night I tried something new. I took the character out of my head (which after all, is where he is going to end up anyway – and the sooner the better!) and sat him down on the sofa opposite me. Having built up my knowledge of this character already by three or so pages, I then began asking him questions. Not only were his answers quick, they were decisive and I was even surprised by some of them.

So yes, this was mildly bizarre because obviously on some level I was taking to myself. But by seeing my character in front of me and asking him questions – out loud I should add, it forced me to define him outside of myself and thus create someone who wasn’t just an aspect of my own personality, but someone i could see as an individual – and this is a truly fun part of the writing process.

As I typed the answers down, there were no indecisive moments because I’d found a way to let go of controlling my character. He was on his own, his answers were fresh and not contrived and hopefully this will make him far more believable.

Here’s some pictures for demonstration purposes…

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What… is your name?

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Sir Galahad of Camelot

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What… is your quest?

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To seek the Holy Grail.

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What… Is your favourite colour?

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Blue… No! Yelarghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!