OUT OF THE FRYING PAN, INTO THE...VOLCANO?
Ok, you may be wondering why any sane person would be cooking on the edge of a volcano.
It seems pretty daft and there are certainly easier ways to fry your eggs (not a euphemism). Fact is though, that’s the only way I can truly sum up how it felt for me to take the plunge and turn my hand to both producing and directing a film for the very first time.
I had never considered becoming a film producer. I managed to stumble my way through directing and producing theatre whilst at university but that seemed so simple in comparison to all the elements a professional film shoot required. I often struggle with organising my thoughts, let alone a production schedule. My plan for being a writer has always been to write my stories down, wrap them in a lovely package with a neat little bow and hand them off to other, more talented people to actually make something from it. That’s all well and good if your grandmother saved Barbara Broccoli’s life and she’s now indebted to your family. For most of us though, this is a very risky strategy for career success and one that very rarely pays off. There are so many people now with both the means and the desire to write a screenplay that if you really want to start a successful, sustainable career in writing you have to start looking at other ways of showing that your work belongs on the screen. What better way to do that than, well, putting it onto a screen yourself?
That’s what I decided to do with my Impact 50 winning script “I’m Afraid It’s Bad News” (or IAIBN as I shall refer to it from now on. I really must give my shorts snappier names). It was a terrifying decision for me to make because I was almost certain that I had no clue what I was doing. For the most part I was right. But the opportunity to have my work in a feature film was too good to pass up, so I decided to leap and I couldn’t be happier that I did!
The process was one of the most enlightening experiences of my career thus far. When you write your scripts, you sometimes get so caught up in the story or the characters that you sometimes forget to stop and think about how it is actually going to make it onto the screen. How are you going to move between that many locations? Do you really need so many extras? How are you going to make that dog talk? I deliberately wrote IAIBN to be an “easy shoot” to make it more appealing to filmmakers but even then, I found elements that simply weren’t going to work on the budget I had available to me. Instead of this being a hinderance though, these obstacles proved to be creatively rewarding too and helped to streamline it into a far more visual story. This is experience that you don’t get from your writing desk but it can be extremely useful if you want to make your work more appealing to the people who are going to film it.
It also reminded me what a fabulous community the filmmaking world is, and the passion that flows through it. The project was crewed by a selection of students from the Global Media Academy in West London, and at first, I was nervous about how that would work out. In a deal not too dissimilar to getting your haircut at a barbers’ school, in return for the use of their equipment and locations I put my faith in the work of untested media students, many of whom were barely eligible to vote! It was a huge gamble but one that paid off immensely, thanks in no small part to their enthusiasm and dedication. Sure, there are some rogue boom shadows in a couple of takes but overall they did a great job and I believe all of them will have a bright future if they continue with the same passion.
I encountered that same camaraderie when casting the film. I approached a number of celebrated actors for both leads in my film, and instead of being dismissed and ignored every single one of them replied to me; grateful to be contacted with such an offer (Oscar-winners included). The actors that I did eventually cast were fantastic – patient with the inexperienced crew (myself included!) and encouraging with the knowledge they had picked up from their time on other, much bigger productions (between them they’ve had a strong presence in Torchwood, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones and Casualty). At the end of the day, everyone involved rallied around to create the best film they could, and when you see people putting that much effort and commitment into a story you’ve created it is unbelievably gratifying and humbling.
As a writer it’s always tempting to think that your work speaks for itself, and that other people will make your films for you. The harsh reality is that now, perhaps more than ever, that is simply not the case. Once you have a reputation and people know your work translates to screen then they might take more of an interest but in those initial stages it really is in your best interests to look into producing your own work. It will show you the challenges that producers/directors face, which in turn will allow you to write scripts that remove these challenges and are therefore more appealing to these gatekeepers of the screen. It allows you to take greater ownership over the project and put forward what you want to put forward, which is especially beneficial when you’re starting out. But almost more importantly, it will remind you what you’re writing for and gives you that enormous sense of pride in seeing other people get so involved in your work. The whole process has reinvigorated a confidence inside of me that, I’ll be honest, had taken a bit of a bashing from years of rejection letters and false dawns.
It might be a long while yet before I make a full-on career change but I will certainly be looking at producing more projects in the future. I would strongly recommend that other writers reading this look into doing the same too.