Write: different

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A bunch of barely connected thoughts on writing for different media. Warning: broad terms.

When I write for screen, I use Final Draft. When I write for the stage or performance, I write in Word. Why do I do that?

When I write for the screen, I write for a frame. When I write for the stage, I write for an amount of time.

Time is different on screen, different in live performance.

In writing of any kind there’s one rule, just one: don’t be boring (sometimes you even stumble upon a good reason to break that rule.)

I write in linear narrative order for screen, beginning to end. I write a ‘play’ the same way.

I write a piece of performance in whatever way necessary. Cut and paste / too much of it / too little / poetic / technical / the end of it first, the middle of it first / anything.

A feature film is an album. A 30 minute TV show is an EP. A short film is a song.

Stage or screen, image drives both. Not words. Dialogue is an illumination.

For radio, I hear the sound image first, before the words.

Interactive = unfinished. I finish the writing itself but I don’t finish what it contains – because the audience choose whether or not to do that.

Sometimes theatre is unfinished.

It’s more difficult to make the screen unfinished, to make its aims unfinished. It’s a frame, wherever it appears.

Music is always unfinished.

When I write music, there’s always a story. And it’s always unfinished.

Radio drama: a peculiar type of finished music.

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Grammar is important to me, especially in an unfamiliar language.

How do you tell someone the sentence you’ve begun isn’t going to end? What’s the best way? Is it even possible?

Many pop songs used to fade out at the end. Not as often now.

When I write, I hope to be transported.

When I’m in an audience, I need to be transported.

I used to write as a promise. Now I write as an invitation.

An announcement isn’t an invitation.

Sometimes when I play a musical instrument, I do so knowing that later, a digital plug-in or process will make it sound older or further away or angrier, etc. It’s the same feeling when writing for stage or screen.

The text for a stage play, especially, is like a set of stems for remixers.

In a process, there’s the seeds of the visible result. So I never expect producers to treat my writing with ‘respect’ by default. Because ‘respectful’ is just one possible result.

Audiences, especially, have no obligation to be respectful of the writer’s intentions. That’s academic.

Every new show or film or experience is an invitation to an audience, to pick up and play a new kind of instrument. Sometimes slightly unfamiliar. Sometimes completely alien.

What can you do with this instrument? What tunes can it play? The writer’s, the readers’, the makers’, the audiences’.

Give an audience a fish. Etc.

Increasingly I have to write in the world. I’m falling out of love with romantic writerly seclusion. Why isolate yourself? Pull focus.

If you’re writing for unfinished, maybe you have to write it in an unfinished place.

Cities are good for unfinished.

Journeys are good for unfinished.

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Pictures:

1. Scripts on set during performance of The Morpeth Carol, December 2011. By Paul Blakemore. 2. Index cards from the depths of time. Can't remember what most of them were for. 3. Lyrics to a song by angeltech. Written on a train.

Collaborate: or die

Herewith, a blogburp about collaboration, and being cross-disciplinary an’ that. In the last year or so I’ve been involved in screenwriting, making music, theatre, audio drama, film and pervasive media. So this is a wander around all of those, and the alleyways in between.

If you’re enough of a glutton for punishment to read the whole thing, I suggest you make a cup of tea first.

Angel Tech Bedminster

Probably the longest and most involved collaboration of my creative life has been with the band Angel Tech. We formed in 1995, influenced by Warp Records, The Cure, Bjork, New Order, Seefeel, Talk Talk and Stina Nordenstam. We played gigs, recorded an (unreleased) first album in Germany, composed film soundtracks, got signed to a major label, recorded another (unreleased) first album at Real World studios, toured relentlessly, got unsigned to a major label, made performances with a theatre company, formed our own indie label and self-released a debut album some 10 years after we first got together. We’ve toured all over the world, won awards, hung out with the stars and played gigs with every kind of band from Sparklehorse to Right Said Fred (long story, promoter in Austin TX, “British Bands” theme night.) I once met an A-level art student in Germany who told me that, as a final-year project, she’d painted the lyrics to our song Freiburg in massive seven-foot high letters across the facade of her school.

Anyway, you won’t have heard of us.

Or at least, no, maybe that’s not fair – I’m always very surprised when people actually have heard of us. Let’s put it this way: we’ve always made music we believe to be accessible, yet at the same time we’ve only ever followed our curiosity, our instinct, our desire to hear something different. If I think back on all my creative collaborations over the years I reckon the ones that worked best were with people who, given the option, would rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 10 seconds. At any rate, that’s certainly true of my bandmates Neil and Doug.

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VHS: diary four, the post-production

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So it seems that film production is a sandwich. A flavoursome all-action filling (the shoot) with two hefty slices of staring at computer screens slapped either side of it: the writing, and the cut. The mac-bashing bit goes double for yours truly on all my dreams on VHS, as I co-write the soundtrack with angel tech.

I’ve got this pet theory about film music, holding that it has to sound as if it’s in the same ‘space’ as the images. This isn’t to say it literally has to sound as if it’s being bugled from the toilet bowl… but I feel a huge orchestral score, strings, horns and sodding harpsichords, is not really going to suit a drama which barely moves beyond the living room. “VHS” is a light-hearted, uncomplicated sort of film. Never really a work of intense depth. So laying a cooly abstract electronic score around the action would be a bit like constructing something with tact and rigour, then putting an enormously silly hat on top.

Bottom line? When it comes to the music, I’m picky as hell.

Creatively, this translates as: deliberately avoiding the issue for as long as possible. Whilst pulling together various cuts of VHS, editor Stuart Davies and I drop different pieces of music in as placeholders. It helps Mr Davies no end in terms of rhythm and dynamic, but I constantly ask to watch the edit back without the temp tracks. It distracts me too much.

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VHS: diary three, the shoot

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All my dreams on VHS is eventually shot in two 12-hour working days, although most people get onto set earlier and leave considerably later. I’m still vacuuming our location’s living room floor at 10 am the day after we’ve wrapped, whilst the line producer washes up in the kitchen. The budget we’re working to means that we find ourselves scuttling around Tesco the day before the shoot, buying crisps and biscuits. The costumes for our actors are a combination of clothes borrowed from friends of appropriate dimensions, supermarket own-brand special offers and “model’s own.” So as not to blow the electrics of the location provided by White Rabbit Media we knock on the neighbour’s door and they kindly allow us to siphon mains power away to a big ol’ light rigged outside the house: they give us the sun. The 1,600 VHS tapes (cast-offs from a famous Broadcasting Corporation) have been hand-labeled in a marathon session two weekends prior to the shoot. Production designer Jodie Harris has rushed around her own home, nicking off with boyfriend’s socks and wilting pot plants, to dress the set in convincing bachelor-pad mode. She’s also been to the printers to run off a few copies of a major prop: a mocked-up manual for the imaginary, unseen device which records all our protagonist’s dreams. Jodie has spent hours on the faux-tech diagrams, I’ve spent the best part of an afternoon writing impenetrable jargon for the thing (read it here) and ultimately it’s going to be on screen for 3 seconds.

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SIFF: Seattle

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No photoshop trickery in the above picture. That’s a genuine Seattle sunset, making like a mile-wide CGI graphic across Puget Sound. You can tell the tourists in and around the city at a glance: they’re the ones craning their necks up at the sky with mouths wide open, whilst regular Seattle townfolk just stroll around, going about their business as if this sort of shit is normal. You might not believe a sky should get like that. Apparently it’s something to do with science.

We were in the US to watch my short film all my dreams on VHS taking its first tentative steps in the New World. SIFF is a multi-limbed monster of a film fest, showing more flicks over its length than seems humanly possible… and trying to see it all would be like, oooh, I dunno, trying to snog the entirety of China in one go: most likely doomed to failure, even if planned in advance.

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NexT: Bucharest

Bucharest wooden church

So, we took all my dreams on VHS out to sunny Bucharest; a city that in terms of its vibe sits somewhere between the austere granite charms of the major eastern European capitals and the dusty bustle of a Mediterranean hub (stitch that, Lonely Planet! That’s proper travelogue writing, right there.)

We were in competition at the NexT International Film Festival, dedicated to short and medium-length movies. It’s a wonderful event and I’d recommend it without reservation to anyone wanting to show their film in Romania. For the most part the audiences were young (around student age,) very engaged and open towards the films on show, whatever their style or content. I was worried beforehand that a film with as many textual ‘asides’ as VHS might not travel all that well, and was nervous as hell before our first competition screening; but the audience was laughing along with the film almost instantly, and various bits of comic business along the way (hello O-T, hello Gugu) even got impromptu rounds of applause.

Tanuja (VHS line producer) and I spent most of our time in the cinema, seeing all of the competition screenings and some off-competition ones where possible. Favourites? Vestido by Jairo Boisier, an understated and touching story of unrequited love; Le mort n’entend pas sonner les cloches by Benjamin Mirguet, a hushed, poetic treatise on the pitfalls of blind faith, reminiscent of Tarkovsky or Herzog; and Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s Nunta lui Oli, a fly-on-the-wall style drama where a father ‘attends’ his son’s USA wedding via webcam… proper heartbreaking stuff that deservedly won the Best Romanian Film award. Continue…

VHS: diary two, the pre-production

VHS on set 1

(On-set photos by George Chan)

Between greenlighting in January and the shoot in July, the task of labeling 1, 200 VHS tapes forms a sort of constant background noise to the business proper of making a short film. Every now and then I retreat into it, conjuring up 50 or so titles as a ‘reward’ for progress on more concrete matters like the location, or casting, or prospective crew. I soon learn that the role of film director involves answering unending questions from all angles with as little hesitation as possible, never procrastinating. It’s not quite like directing theatre, which operates at a very different speed. As a creative endeavor it’s also very, very different from writing; if screenwriting is mostly a process of cogitation, quietly piecing together a puzzle, then directing is the equivalent of walking into a room and bawling, from the top of your lungs, “HELLO EVERYONE. HERE I AM. COME RIGHT OVER AND ASK ME ABOUT MY AMAZING IDEA.”

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VHS: diary one, the script

With the first European screening of all my dreams on VHS due in Romania this April, I thought I’d jot down a quick diary of its production for anyone remotely interested.

Erica watches TV

Come with me now to the heady, giddy days of November 2006, when you could still buy a pint for less than a limb, and the speedy collapse of civilisation appeared slightly less likely.

It’s sometime during those halcyon days that I first chat to George Chan. Along with Deep Sehgal and David Olusoga, George is a founder of BBC Film Lab, an organisation run by BBC staff in their spare time and dedicated to producing short dramas. To date Film Lab has been making “short shorts”, 90 seconds long for the most part, within the parameters set by the annual Depict competition. George mentions that they’re looking for slightly longer, script-led works. He gives me the brief: around 10 minutes in length; minimal cast and locations; no car chases, werewolves, or daisy-chain-explosions of the minor moons of Jupiter that subsequently knock the Earth off its orbit thereby sending our fragile planet spiraling, screaming, into the sun. That sort of deal. Have I got any ideas that might do the trick?

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Encounters: lists

Auf der strecke

Above: an image from Auf Der Strecke (On The Line), director Reto Caffi, and undoubtedly the best film I saw at this year’s Encounters short film festival. A testament to the magic that can happen when excellent performances are shot impeccably in the service of an engaging story, and nothing else gets in the bloody way. Looking at the programme afterwards I was astonished to read that its runtime clocked in at 30 minutes. It felt like half as long.

Anyway, the significant other and I spent two full days at Encounters, and saw 81 films (one of them twice, as a result of a free screening leaping upon us unexpectedly after lunch.) Alongside Auf Der Strecke, I’d say the standout films were Pop Art by Amanda Boyle and Love You More by Sam Taylor Wood. There was, of course, some appalling shite as well, but that goes with the territory.

So what, if anything, have 81 short films taught me? As a film maker you can’t help but watch some things with an eye on your own work… although the best stuff had me wide-eyed and slack-jawed, ignoring my preoccupations completely (I remember Richard Dreyfuss describing how, when he watched Jaws for the first time, he completely forgot he was one of the actors on screen.) Here’s a quick list of some STUFF I noticed, and the odd resolution arising.

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