Buzzard: wake

Call for Buzzard

Here’s a thing. You know what the collective noun for buzzards is? A wake. Yep. That’s right. A wake of buzzards. Appropriate, don’t you think?

Beats the crap out of owls, at any rate. A “parliament”? Oooh, get you. Laa dee dah. Yeeeaahh, let’s get together and form a “parliament”! Typical bloody owls. Admittedly, ravens and crows have got pretty awesome-sounding congregational nouns (“unkindness” and “murder”, respectively, it’s like an episode of Prime Suspect up in that gaff) but “wake” is the coolest, no? A wake of Buzzards. Trumps it for me. Who else comes close? A bevy of quail? A tidings of magpies? Come on. Useless. And what about rooks? A “building”? A BUILDING? A “building of rooks?” Fuck off, that’s just silly.

Enough of this avian gainsaying.

So. Now that BUZZARD has finished its first run, and the snarling beaky head is temporarily at rest, hung up on a claw-like coat peg somewhere deep in the recesses of Bristol Old Vic, the questions remain: what just happened? Was it any good? Where next? What have I learned? What have I, alternatively, not? And if not, why not? All this and more shall be mulled over unsatisfactorily in the following post.

A few observational snippets first:

1. Number of people who have said “You know, that costume isn’t what I’d call a buzzard, it’s more like a vulture”: 5 million.

2. This production’s preferred song for vocal warm-up, appearing, as usual, from out of nowhere: You Still Believe In Me by The Beach Boys.

3. Stars out of 5 granted Buzzard by The Guardian in their lovely review: 3. Not bad for a rookie solo show. (Remarkably, I agree with almmmmmooooost everything that the Grauniad’s reviewer wrote, and even intend to act upon a cooooouuuple of the points she raises. Proper truth. So, you see, criticism works. Thanks, Elisabeth!)


Buzzard: backstage

Buzzard fitting

You might be interested to know that the first ever rehearsal room was designed by an obscure character named Tarquin The Rotational in approximately 420 BC. Sure, the ancient Greeks had developed something resembling a rehearsal space (including basic coffee making facilities and a bad piano) but it was open air, and not nearly dirty enough. So ultimately it was the Romans – and specifically Tarquin – who landed upon the idea of putting random right-angled markings all over the floor in electrical tape of different colours, and installing low-hanging piping upon which taller actors could repeatedly smash their foreheads.


Buzzard: yak yak yak

Boring picture of script

Luckily, summer has been awful so far. I say that because even if the isobars had smiled upon the South West, bringing sunshine, picnics and gambols in the hay, I’d have spent the entire time stuck indoors with a laptop, channelling an incorrigible curmudgeon of a protagonist whilst the birds sang and the rest of the world stuffed its fat face with ice-cream and cider. Bollocks to that. Let it rain whilst I draft.


Buzzard: out and about

So I’m 15 years old and drawing a birthday card for my best friend. I decide it will feature a grumpy cartoon Buzzard, berating the recipient for his advanced years (16 of them in all. Just imagine.) My friend is called Chung.

“Where does the time go, eh, Chung?” asks the frowning bird, at the end of a long, bitter tirade jammed into a page-long speech bubble, “Where does it go? Eh Chung? Eh? EH CHUNG? You old bastard.”

Twenty years later and I’m walking down the street in a Birthday Buzzard outfit.

Buzzard Crossing

Some yuppy on a mobile says: “A big chicken just walked past me.”

Ornithology FAIL.


VHS: diary four, the post-production


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.


VHS: diary three, the shoot


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.


SIFF: Seattle


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.


Unwanted water: lazy wizards


Hey hey. Above, a photo from the production of and the line goes dead at Battersea Arts Centre. Apologies if you were in the audience either night, and were unlucky enough to get ‘rained’ on. The NY-based artist Ann Liv Young was taking a post-show shower upstairs, and… what can I say? — apparently the sealant wasn’t up to much.

A shame, as I got the feeling that much like Astronaut, my show last year at Burst Festival, this was a story which you had to watch uninterrupted. It’s a quiet, ominous sort of piece and I can’t imagine that the pitter patter of someone’s ill-sluiced ablutions did much for the atmosphere. Given that rehearsals had been extensive and emotionally draining, I spent a few hours immediately after the show feeling pissed off and / or upset in a sort of see-saw motion. Then I went back to Bristol and calmed the fuck down. Hooray!


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.”