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?

By evening I’ve got a story that fits the bill. The turnaround might seem relatively quick, but the brief suits me down to the ground – narratively I tend to gravitate towards stories with simple, clean-cut (if slightly odd) premises which generate deeper complications. So, a single remarkable image often leads me to a dramatic motor; in this case, I’ve spent a lot of the afternoon in the confines of the BBC Bristol vaults, with its dusty rows of rushes tapes, and there’s an odd series of post-it notes stuck along shelves dedicated to the jolly disaster recreation programme 999.

999 stickers

The blithe summaries of horrible accidents strike me as almost dream-like. I picture every rolling bay in the vault filled with tapes, every one full of recorded dreams, maybe even the odd aisle dedicated entirely to nightmares…

And I’ve got my story. The whole kit and caboodle, start to finish, presents itself almost instantly – characters, complications, gags. I write a 12 page script that evening and send it to George. George likes it. He then goes to China for a year to film fucking gazelles or something.

Over the subsequent months my thoughts occasionally turn to the VHS script, and I do the odd tweak, excising touches of convoluted dialogue here and there (mostly concerning the need or desire for milk in coffee). I apply for funds to make VHS, without success – a bad, hastily written application not helping matters, in which I completely neglect to mention the comic properties of the finished film as I imagine it. Hint: when writing applications, try to write an application that actually applies itself to the project you’re applying with. Duhh.

Fresh from a grueling natural history shoot, George picks the shards of bamboo out of his teeth, drags my script from his email archive and re-reads it; we chat about it some more and to my surprise he asks if I want to DIRECT the film. Somehow I’d imagined it would be passed onto someone with behind-camera experience on a professional film set (my own drama chops being confined to the playing of various hippies, down-and-outs, violent scum and civil-war era prisoners as a ‘background artist’. Oh, and embarrassing cameos on the nascent TV experiments of world-famous comedians.) Sure, I’ve made some shorts – but my directorial experience is strictly of the self-shot variety. So I nod at George in what I hope is a suitably confident manner, before walking back home and immediately pulling all my university text books on film from the shelves.

Even to a rookie like me the major difference between writing and directing seems obvious. Outside of the actual tapping of keys, writing involves some serious, olympic-level cogitation — whereas directing involves constant, multiple decisions, at speed and under pressure. What I don’t quite appreciate until we’re properly under way is that these demands upon your directorial remit begin from the second the green light shows. Where are we filming it (London? Bristol? What are the pros and cons?) — ? What time of day? What are we filming on, with what implications? What do I want it to feel like, look like, what would I prefer it not to smell of, and how? You’re only truly prepared if it feels like you’re over-prepared, for any stage of the process. You can’t afford not to have a take, an opinion, on the smallest detail — the next few months are largely a matter of learning, the hard way, how numinous, precise and constantly changing those details are.

I have a line producer on board, Tanuja, I have George producing, Deep as Exec. We have to find everyone else, on a microbudget. Roughly speaking, we have a couple of grand. Everything else has to be begged, blagged and bartered.

And, of course, I need to find an enormous collection of VHS tapes, and label each and every one with something that suggests a dream you’d want to keep. I start a list immediately, adding to it piecemeal every time an image suggests itself…

VHS black & white

Part two, soon…