The script. After many months of Rock. Paper. Scissors being open to film-makers, not a sniff. I feared the opportunity was slipping away. Think me as Gollum and my script the ring. So at the end of London Screenwriters Festival 2017 I stood like Wonder Woman (the norm for all delegates), hands on hips, and I pledged.
My script will get made…a few thoughts from a writer turned first time producer.
Connections. Not the ones you happen to swap cards with. The ones you share a beer with. A joke. A passion for film. I met James Skinner (www.skinnerfilms.co.uk) at Encounters short film festival, by the free bar, discussing the films we’d seen that day. Not suspecting for a moment that a couple of years later he would direct RPS and guide me through the film-making process. He’s good friends with Rob Campbell (www.ccsvideo.co.uk), Director of photography on RPS and the guy with all the equipment and eye for a great shot. Another London Screenwriters’ Festival delegate, Andrew Howard, is a writer but Art Director by day.
Unavailable for the shoot but he prepared a breakdown of my script, setting out some of the production stuff I would need. Connections like this, willing to be part of a short film for the love of it, can’t be relied on routinely. But I’m sure all writers wanting one chance to showcase their work will have similar talent available to them, also wanting to showcase their work.
Producing. I thought the best chance of getting a good producer on board would be to make it easy for them. So I also lined up some casting options and possible locations. James pointed out I was kind of already producing it. So I did.
Turning point. I expect for all films there’s a “no going back…it’s really happening” point. A good friend of mine, Alex Cornish (www.alexcornish.com), is a musician whose work I love. Whose music I often play as a backdrop as I write and his “haunting strings” I thought would be perfect. Within a minute of emailing him about the impact project and asking for his help, he responded “Sounds awesome. Count me in”. I believed then it was happening. So I optioned my script for £7, having sold it for £5 (eh?)
Trust. When I suggested we use my daughters and brother in law as the cast and film at my house, I expected alarm bells to ring for the professionals involved. Maybe they did, but James and Rob seemed to trust me which helped my confidence. They didn’t even ask to see their nativity performances though I had the tapes ready. And I trusted them to bring all the stuff and all the knowledge I didn’t even realise we needed.
Team selection. I looked at hiring locations; professional actors and even an Art Director/Set Dresser. Budget didn’t really allow and I personally think it was, to some extent, a blessing. We’d only get access to the professionals and sets for a limited time. Instead, I had weeks to slowly turn my front room into my vision and work with the cast. My daughters (Maya and Janey), then only 9 and 6, had time to adapt to their roles and I had time to adapt the script to them. My brother in law, Ant, had time to grow a beard and study sleeping drunks on you tube. A small team balanced with the experienced and first timers, all equally enthusiastic. It felt right for this project. Rob was mostly focused on finding beautiful shots which was balanced by James focusing on character and how emotions were communicated through the acting, keeping true to the story and theme. He talked the girls through the storyboard and was fantastic at getting them to think about their circumstances.
Writer’s role. James was kind enough to say that the advantage of having the writer involved throughout (breathing down his neck) helped avoid moments being lost in translation. I had done a great deal of the preparation but during the shoot I wanted to give the team space to do what they do best. As writer I’d say my primary role was to keep hold of the heart of the story with both hands whilst all the unknowns rained down. I felt very lucky that the team “got it” and then added to it…in my view.
Budget. Didn’t really plan one and I’ve been very lucky that all involved have done so on an expenses basis only. The sets and costumes are largely made up of things I had (the girls had to tidy their room to make it that messy), donated or I bought from charity shops. Most of it went back to the charity shops after too. I probably spent the same money as some guys may spend on a golfing weekend away. But I don’t get my kicks from golf, I love writing and films. Spending a weekend making a short film I had written with friends and family was pretty priceless (well, about £500).
Sheffield. The city council label Sheffield “A film friendly city” and I certainly found them helpful agreeing to use of the park.
Re-write. Once all was in place it was necessary for James and I to review and re-write. Using girls instead of boys and adding more backstory meant I wanted to soften Dad’s character. Neglectful and angry through grief rather than abusive. Some scenes just developed through practice. The scene in the alleyway was supposed to be the girls standing in a back yard. We didn’t have access to a yard and when the girls practiced their lines walking to school, the scene came to life as I walked behind.
Make a scene. I don’t like to “make a scene” (at least not in public), a weakness my kids exploit to win most arguments. It’s probably why I write. I chose the quietest playground I could for the swing location. But a mild Sunday morning in late January meant we had company. Mums, Dads and their kids. “We’re filming a windy day” was the party line. But we had to go for it and this was no children’s TV shoot. We had the roar of two petrol leaf blowers (did I say by day Ant is a gardener – handy); leaves and rubbish pelted at my children as we shouted at them – “Scream…it’s the end of the world?!”..oh and trees made to dance with fishing wire in time to James crying “BOOM”.
Onlookers were more intrigued than spooked, though the toddlers perhaps bewildered. I guess making a scene is what it’s all about and my self-conscious day to day hang ups melted away. Janey confessed that she was half acting and half terrified – perfect balance. Overall though we had a lot of fun and as Rob said “the kids earned their ice-cream”. I was very proud of them. Now if the kids make a scene in the shops I just pull out an invisible pretend camera and ask “is that all you’ve got?”.
The scream. One of my favourite shots is Dad’s scream. Not even in the original script and when I added it, the scream was to be silent (not to be heard over the blast). James insisted though that Ant actually scream for authenticity even if not heard. Rob framed it beautifully as Ant checked “you sure you want me to scream?”. Only Ant knew what that meant and after five or so takes Ant had lost his voice and I had to re-assure the neighbours I had not finally lost it. It was a real team effort to get that shot which sums up my experience. Everyone fully engaged, giving it their all. For everyone’s efforts I am truly grateful.
It’s been such a valuable experience, allowing the writer in me to peek behind the curtain and gain film-making insights first hand. Reading back, I note I have focused on the positives…what I think went well. It would be wrong to suggest the process was easy. But I was very lucky that the script I had written happened to fall in line with the resources (people, locations, props) available to me. Thinking ahead, if a make another film I may do things in reverse. Look at the resources available and write and make that film.