A couple of years ago, I set some time aside to write. To write properly, not just thrash out a half thought through treatment or list of ideas or blog or thesis or paper or one of a hundred other types of writing I have been doing over the years. I sat with all the film ideas I had put together and done nothing with. Most my career has been in film, I've Exec Produced half a dozen low budget films and stood around on more sets than I'd like to remember. Naturally, I thought, I'll write film. I didn't.
I ended up throwing out everything I thought I knew about writing. Structure, plot, turning points, inciting incidents, themes, cinematic moments, a dozen books on structure and film writing course bit the dust. Sorry Robert McKee.
When I stripped it all down and threw it all out, what I was left with, was a couple of characters chatting. I half knew them, and their situation seemed opaquely familiar, and I really liked them. They wittered away to each other, they were funny and friendly, they had history together and with me, we quickly became mates. They did and said surprising and sometimes extraordinary things, even when I was yelling at them not to, they made mistakes, said things they shouldn't and did things they would regret. I cared about them, I even fell in love a bit.
It was at that point I realized I was writing a play.
It came from a place that was profound and simple and real. It didn't have cuts, dissolves, INT and EXT, DAY and NIGHT, slow track, CU or long shot anywhere in it. I wasn't thinking in scenes, plot points or progressions. I was just sitting, chatting with some half invented characters that I really liked. It's not for everyone, but for me, it worked, it really worked.
I'd managed to strip away the weight of the industrial nature of film and it's plot munching appetite and leave myself with just people talking, just character. This process of course, just gets a first draft, it has trajectory rather than direction, and intent rather than purpose. In the words attributed to the Royal Court 'don't get it right get it written.' The honing, crafting, shaping, cutting, shifting bit comes later. As has been said by many writers 'writing is rewriting.'
Writing a first draft like this is like swimming a length underwater. It's beginning is rather beautiful and somewhat surreal, as the colours and sounds bounce around, you're not really sure how far you've gone or how far you have still to swim, but you're enjoying being there, in a lovely vacuum. As you swim on, and breath starts to run out, your strokes become more frantic, even though you know you should stay calm, you claw your way toward the end, with a desperate need to finish and to breath again, just making it to finger tip touch the wall as you burst up out of writing, gulping in the air.
It would be impossible to write a film this way, at least for me. Writing a film is like swimming the Channel, it needs training and preparation, a support team and the right weather and currents, all aligned on the right maps and charts.
Peter Straughen said 'writing an original film is like having your heart ripped out'. Jeremy Brock said 'film is where a bunch of actors improvise around what was once your script' and I think it was Scorsese who said 'films are not finished they're abandoned'. Film is extraordinary, but it is a vicious war and a struggle of huge industrial proportion to get a film to be good. When you've made one, you chance of anyone seeing it and you ever making another one is tiny.
I've since done writing courses with LIVE Theatre and Duncan Macmillan at Soho Theatre and had great support from Gez Casey and Michael Chaplin, amongst others. It was like coming home. Real creative people, talking about what they do everyday, a ton of practical hints and tips on what works for them and what works for friends of theirs who do the same.
It also feels far more possible that someone will get to see the work. There are more theatres in the UK than cinemas, and many of them commission the work they put on. In fact during the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe the number of theatre venues operating is half the number of total cinemas in the UK! Plays can be put on for a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of pounds it takes to make even a micro budget film.
As creative people we want our work seen, we want to be heard, and we also want a rewarding process that connects us with others. For me currently that's theatre.
But watch this space.