> GUEST BLOG
Published by Junsui Films | July 2011
Carol Vine blogs exclusively for Junsui films, where she recalls how her first short film script became the bases for not one, but two movies.
This was initially going to be a blog about the making of a short film, Irreparable – something I wrote three years ago, and the experience of having it made by two different people, with two very different approaches.
What I keep coming back to, however, and what I think is far more important to me personally, is how the script actually came about in the first place, and how something that began as a relatively small, introductory project for a University course, ended up being one of the biggest and most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a writer, and something that has informed how I’ve written for screen (and everything else) ever since.
I can attribute this “lesson” to one tutor – Liz Clegg, an experienced screenwriter and script editor (credits simply too numerous to list) I was studying for an MA in Screenwriting, and the first written “project” was a short film. Ten minutes. Ten pages. Not very long.
Here’s where I feel a slightly queasy need to qualify myself. I considered myself a fairly experienced writer when I started the MA. I’d been short-listed for a couple of BBC competitions, but my training and background was mostly in theatre. One of my plays was being performed when I started my MA. I started the MA feeling like a “playwright who wants some more screen knowledge”. I was informed on more than one occasion that TV/film producers love playwrights because the theatre world is all so much more intense and highbrow (not my words).
This is of course, a huge, steaming load of guff …. Screenwriting is a difficult craft, and in spite of the fact that virtually everyone you meet in life has a “film they want to write” – the reality is, not may people can actually do it, let alone do it well. A screen script is an entirely different beast to a theatre script, and being a playwright doesn’t necessarily mean you can write a film, and vice versa. It’s such a different skill. There are more rules for film writing and even if, like me, you feel a compulsion to break them – it’s important to understand what it is you’re breaking.
There is, however, one glaring similarity for me as a writer, one thing that is the same, should be the same, will always be the same, whatever medium I’m writing for. And this is what Liz Clegg reminded me of…
So, this was the first time I’d ever been asked to write a short film. At this point I realised I knew very little about short film. Those I’d stumbled upon had been quite experimental. And quite short. Or not short enough.
I decided that my short film was going to be ‘deep’. Symbolic. Experimental. It’s making me cringe to write this. It’s actually causing me physical pain. I knew I could write. But I thought well, I’ll just do something a little bit ‘different’ here. So I came up with an outline for a short film that was filled with cryptic behaviour and strange yellow objects. God knows why they were yellow. I think I’d blotted it out until now. The first workshop session was, quite rightly, a harsh and bloody exposé of the absolute rubbish that I’d written. Through the haze of my indignation and the yawning fear that I’d failed my MA before I’d even begun, I do remember the tutor (Liz Clegg) clearly saying…
This really annoyed me. I don’t get this thing with the yellow box and the yellow key. What the hell does all that mean? And eventually she said…
I “think” you’re trying to tell a story about a couple who have lost their baby. I think so but I’m not sure because of all this other BUSINESS. And after a deep breath…
I “think” you should just have the courage to tell their story.
The word “courage” doubled me over. It flawed me. I went cold. I thought of all the writers I love and admire, in all their diversity, and they have one thing in common. And that is courage. It was very, very, very good feedback. It was the best and ultimately kindest criticism I’ve ever had. And the reason it affected me so deeply is because I do think I have courage as a writer. But in this instance, fresh on the course and trying to impress, I’d been writing for other people, trying to be clever. And of course it was a pile of…. What else could it be? I’d let myself down.
But still feeling affronted, I went home and thought, fine, she just wants to read about this couple, so that’s what I’ll do. And I wrote the script. Ten simple pages about a couple who arrive home to discover their flat’s been burgled – not much taken, just a laptop, a camera – but these objects contain the only surviving images of their baby, who died shortly after birth.
It’s not supposed to be funny, and it was no longer clever, or yellow. Just a simple story about two people who need to confront the cracks in their lives. It’s a powerful piece because it isso simple, and even as I was writing it the indignation was ebbing away, and I knew it was powerful, and I knew that Liz was right. And when I took it back to her the following week, she liked it, very much. Oddly, her turnaround made me feel very young (I’m not). It made me feel I’d explode with pride. Such a small thing. Such a short script. But I knew I’d been reminded of something enormously valuable that week. Something priceless.
But what I really I learned that week was that I can’t, and never will again, try and hide from my own voice. If it comes out it comes from the heart and gut, or not at all. Stories can be simple, and truth is far more engaging than tricks. People can usually spot a fraud.
And I guess the proof is in the pudding, which brings me back to what to what I was initially going to write about. The film was firstly chosen (by Liz) to be ‘performed’ by actors and discussed in front of the entire course. From the workshop it was chosen by a fellow student – a working director – to be made. Later the film was made again by somebody external to the course, with a far higher budget.
The point is that taking out all the rubbish made it a good script, and one that people wanted. During the MA, and since, it’s the scripts that have meant something to me, where I’ve had genuine passion about the story and had something to say, that have excited interest and made shortlists. I can’t write to please, but if it’s heartfelt, it will please someone. I believe that. I think if I could only ever hold on to one piece of advice, it would be the same piece of advice I’d give to any other writer/artist, over and above anything else. Be honest.
On any level, having somebody say they want your script, that they rate it, want to make it, is the best thing a writer can hear. I believe nothing in this world will ever give me a greater sense of euphoria, of completion, except maybe being in love. It’s funny how close the feelings are.
The process was fascinating, to see a script, ‘my written word’ performed three times by different sets of actors. I trained as an actor myself (many years ago) so even though I don’t perform any more, I understand how an actor might come to a script, the methods, the techniques they might use. And of course I’ve seen plays performed many times by different people. Texts are always open to interpretation and this shouldn’t surprise me.
Perhaps the surprise and interest I felt seeing my film performed differently was because it was a film. Films aren’t usually made more than once. Remakes are unusual (or maybe not, actually, nowadays – but best not to get into that).
By its nature I think screenwriting is a more specific art – and here I’m writing about conventional screen structure – or even unconventional, for that matter. Generally as screenwriters we define a character quite specifically. It’s expected.
In Irreparable, my characters are described in as much detail as any other film script. Cathy and Daniel are early 30s professionals. Home-owners. Cathy, when we first meet her, is beautiful, pale, too thin, tired. Daniel distant. There’s a space between them.
The actors that were brought in for the first workshop of Irreparable didn’t know what scripts they’d be reading. The result was they were older, more working class than the characters described. It was strange to see something so unlike I’d imagined it, but also refreshing. It really does force you to see it, and listen to the words anew. It forces you to question, maybe to wonder whether something so alien to what you had in mind is improving it in some way. And if the script IS being brutalised (which it wasn’t in this case) that’s equally interesting. Seeing something done hideously wrong is often an effective way of reaffirming what’s right with a script. I didn’t feel the first actors were at all suited for this particular script, but they played with it, and pushed the intensity and complexity of the emotions – and this did inform how I approached the rewrite.
The second actors to perform the script were students, for a showcase film, and although they were over a decade younger than the described characters, again, the rawness of their youthful approach enabled me to see the script more simply, the essence of emotion stripped bare.
When the film was made a second time, I felt this time the casting was perfect for what I’d written. The director and I discussed changes, but the rewrites I’d already undergone had been partly shaped by the actors who’d performed it before. The end result was a film that I felt immensely proud of. The director workshopped with the actors for a week before filming began. The result was the actors were not only faithful to the script I’d written, but brought so much more chemistry and intensity and their performances was electric.
I should sum up. Really, I think this is just about the journey of one short piece of work that became unexpectedly important to me as a writer. It’s a personal and constant affirmation of my integrity, and my belief that good stuff gets noticed, and always will. Within the industry minefield I remain an optimist, and true to my voice.
And so, in spite of the title, “if it ain’t broke…”