Despite the fact that I can be a snarky depressive, it has been remarked by fellow filmmakers over the years that I am rather a cheerful soul. One guy even said I had a ‘Mickey Mouse’ cheerfulness about life. He meant it as a backhanded compliment, I think, because cheerfulness don’t pay the bills, do it.
His veiled point was that I am an optimist. Because when you’re depressive, being anything other than optimistic is a fatal wander down the wrong country lane, if truth be told. But we live and learn. Those close to me will know that the main thing I enjoy moaning and being negative about is negative moaners. After years of being like that myself in my twenties, I’m totally allergic to it now.
Look, a pretty picture I took today. Very keen to see Spring this year… Anyway…
Filmmaking. Optimism and filmmaking, that’s what this blog is about. When we at MilesTone semi-seriously decided to start making films, a few years ago, we had the lofty goal of making one feature and showing it to our mates at the local cinema. Afterwards, I don’t know what we expected to happen but we knew it wouldn’t be a Robert Rodriguez-style storming of Hollywood.
That myth, the ‘I’ll make a feature when I’m 23 (or at least 26 like what Orson Welles did with that Kane film) and it’ll get shown in a major festival and I’ll be off on my film career’ is a persistent one; both ridiculously ambitious and unlikely AND YET strangely more possible now that anyone can make a film. But I’ll come to that.
The main reason it’s unlikely is because MOST filmmakers (and I’m excluding Spielberg, Lucas, Tarantino, Edgar Wright and Rodriguez) aren’t born knowing what they want to do or how to do it, and it takes them a long time to learn how filmmaking works, and more importantly HOW NOT TO SUCK AT IT. I wasn’t an early bloomer in that regard and I of course envy those who are.
Most people’s early efforts are something like this but less hilarious (and this has ended up making Tommy Wiseau a bit of cash, so you never know):
But an important thing I’ve learned is that slow progress, rather than attempting to be some kind of teenage genius (which again I wasn’t), is probably a good approach for most filmmakers; learning technique at the same time as you’re learning about marketing and that kind of stuff.
The films I’ve made have only really progressed in scale and style (I hope) because of the vomitously talented people I’ve surrounded myself with and the things I’ve learned by trial and error.
Bottom line: I know there’s a spark of heartfelt entertainment at the centre of everything we make and a desire to make people laugh and cry, so that we’re always proud of the final film and how hard we worked to make it. Real ‘laughs round the campfire’ type moments. Oh how we’ve comically wiped tears from our eyes…
(THINK that’s the context of this photo)
The reason I bring up filmmaking careers a lot lately is because we’re in the process of learning so much about what it takes to have one. The first time someone asks you to write a script for them feels magical. The first time you charge someone for your screenwriting services is a bit special and then when you start getting paid to make a feature, you can start to see how this whole ‘career’ thing might work.
(This entire documentary should be mandatory viewing for every filmmaker.)
The next step, one which we’re taking with Amber, Whoops! and the Zomblogalypse movie, is to learn what to do with a finished film. Because the most important thing I would advise anyone on concerning making a film is FINISH IT. Finish that screenplay, finish that edit, finish that post production. And while you’re doing that, learn how the indie film market works. Meet Producers. Pitch stuff. Chat. Pick up hints and tips.
This blog about how to maintain an indie film career and this clip more eloquently explain what I’m talking about:
If I had the experience to teach a filmmaking course, I wouldn’t teach all that ‘Long Shot, Mid Shot’ stuff first, I would teach people to learn how to write, draft and finish a screenplay – one that had something to say – and then send them out with a cheap camera to film it. And then I’d make them finish the edit and deliver the film to SOMEONE, be it a tutor or a festival or a Producer or a bunch of mates. And then I’d tell them to take that experience and move on, make something else but do it better. And so forth.
I know a lot of talented young (and some older) filmmakers and I’m genuinely excited to see what we all come up with over the next few years. We’re ALL still learning and I hope that sense of development and improvement never ends. It’s not about who gets there first or who does better than the rest (although we’re a naturally competitive lot), it’s about sharing and improving skills, building film careers AND ENJOYING THE JOURNEY.
It’s about LOVING EACH OTHER, MAAAAAN. Okay I went too far. Shut up and make some films. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 23, 30 or bloody 45. Just get filming.
Having a slow and reflective kind of writing day, which is when the blogs come out like spectral bystanders on a fag break.
I’ve been thinking about when I started properly writing screenplays, which was in 1999. It wasn’t until 2005 that I felt like I hit my stride and liked my writing style, and even now, I have good days full of energy and bad days full of doubt.
One thing I recall from when I started out was that a filmmaking mate of mine was working on a feature screenplay that he was on something like draft 24 of. I thought at the time that seemed like a lot of drafts but I realised that I didn’t know quite what he would describe as a ‘draft’.
I guess it’s subjective. We did about 50 drafts of the Zomblog synopsis before settling on one, and even then we did a further 3 drafts of a feature script that we’re still working on. Hemingway said that ‘the first draft of anything is shit’ and he had a point, but I’ve also heard some writers suggest that the first seven thousand drafts are shit. I’m all for making a script everything that it can be, but unless you consider each ‘draft’ only cosmetically or structurally different from the last, 24 drafts sounds like a passport to psychosis.
Anyway the point is that this guy worked on the same screenplay for about 3 years and then didn’t ever make it into a film. I know a few filmmakers who have done this and we all differ in our methods.
What I’ve found is that the best thing for me is to be working on about 3 or 4 scripts at the same time, to collaborate like hell and to let what Rose Tremain calls ‘your trusted readers’ dig into early drafts with their criticism. I’m lucky to have half a dozen trusted readers who are always spot on with their feedback; encouraging yet serving as the audience with their delights and disappointments.
You can never have too many ideas and you never know when one might take off and one will stall, but for example the other day I had an idea – more of a mood really – which I realised fit perfectly into something I’d started months ago. So instead of starting ANOTHER project, I let it fix a stalled script which is now up and running again. Conversely, some ideas that just don’t fit together can be separated off into other scripts.
Sometimes I have to focus on one script and leave the others alone, but there are very few ‘writer’s block’ incidents because there’s always something I could be writing. Even if it’s noodling around with notes or finding mood board style images or music online to inspire me or kick something off.
So instead of ‘perfecting’ one script for years and years with drafts and drafts into which I try and put every idea ever, I do better from having several scripts open in which to pour the relevant ideas.
How about you, writers?
Taking a short blog break after a morning of working on the Zomblogalypse movie script to reflect on the process of starting one movie while finishing off another.
Tony begins work on the Whoops! edit today and we’re taking it in turns to edit one and write the other; day on, day off. It’s an interesting way to work and should keep things fresh. We’re also looking forward to seeing how another horror script from the MilesTone stable is adapted by a fellow filmmaker we very much admire.
Writing and editing are the two phases of the filmmaking process that some seem to dread. One process involves filling blank pages with words that will have to be analysed to death, the other process involves sitting in a quiet, darkened room for weeks on end, putting all the shots together.
Both processes are vital in making a film because if you don’t have a good script you’ll struggle in the production phase, and if you don’t do a good edit you can undo all the good work that took place on the shoot.
But neither the writing or the editing processes are high stress or pressured situations. It’s just you and occasionally one or two other people, calmly sorting out what will be in the film to make it work. It’s about instinct and story, unlike all other aspects of filmmaking which are about practicality and problem-solving.
And at either end of the process there are some moments of real magic as you figure out how to make it work.
I love writing and I love editing in a different way to how I love shooting. You can’t make a film just by writing it; your cast and crew will make your script better than you imagined when you were sat alone in the dark, and your co-editor(s) will feed back on your work to give you perspective on how the film will feel to an audience.
And that’s the most important part of writing and editing: you have to keep in mind how an audience will react to the jokes, the emotions, the story and the characters. This is why writing and editing are pure, undiluted processes which I love in equal measures. Both stages are not about dozens of people telling you what they want while chaos erupts all around (fun though that can be); they’re filmmaking in its purest form.
People keep asking us what we’re planning to do with Whoops! when it’s finished. Let us edit the film first. After that is a whole other story…
If you’re a human being, chances are you suffer from doubt. If you’re a creative type, you most probably do get that niggling feeling, amidst the euphoria of writing a good sentence or painting a great picture, that you are in fact shit, and all your work is pointless. It’s a FUN feeling.
Today I read this terrific quote by Sarah Waters, author of the sassy, kinky Tipping the Velvet:
‘Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end.’
For me, this is a timely quote as I begin the second half of my novel and plan my next feature. The novel is pure writing, the film is pure directing. I am aware that these are both experiments and both may fail, but I am also aware that they could both be interesting pieces of work, if not to anyone else then to me. And a break from the ‘running a production company’ side of things we’ve had to focus on lately.
I have become very aware of the leaning in the creative industries – and in my own filmmaking poverty – ‘towards the business side of show business and away from the show element’, to misquote Guillermo del Toro’s recent filmmaking essay. We are all as filmmakers now required to be networkers, business minds, strategists, plotters, planners, technical experts… and sometimes this can take us away from the actual reason we got into this in the first place: our calling to write, draw, paint or direct.
There is also a tendency for filmmakers to be called upon to monetize their art, to provide validation as to why it’s worth doing, who will watch it, where the MONEY will come from once it’s made.
After all, why just make art for art’s sake, right? Wouldn’t THAT be pointless…
At times like this, you really have to shut the door and get on with the creative pursuit at the expense of the business.
A surprising item I uncovered recently while sorting out old reams of paperwork was a short letter written to me over ten years ago by a dear, dear friend of mine. She is an artist, and she has also struggled with doubt and insecurity but triumphed again and again. While at Uni together we said when we were older we would be an artist and a filmmaker respectively. And thus we are, and I’m proud of us, even though it is still a struggle as we try to find the next project that will allow us to continue in our chosen vocations.
So here’s the letter, slightly paraphrased. I think it’s perhaps the most spot-on analysis of the doubt inherent in the creative process as well as a glorious view of the joys it contains.
“It’s always a problem with creative pursuits that one either needs blind optimism, despicable arrogance, 24 hour counselling, or a penchant for Class A drugs to be able to be a full-time, long term creator without being struck down by no-confidence-itus.
When you create something, you use yourself, your imagination, memory, experience, passions, beliefs etc. to build it. You take all these very personal things and give them to ‘the public’. Unless you happen to be unfortunate enough to be a hyper-arrogant type, you’re bound to fall into the ‘What if I’m shit’ pit. I’ve always thought that creative things need a certain degree of selfishness because really what you’re doing is giving yourself a million choices and nobody else can say, ‘No. Wrong answer,’ because it’s not theirs. It’s yours. You are the ruler of your creative universe, which is a scary position to be in. It’s also very exciting.
My point is that self-doubt is essential in these things. If you thought you were a genius, you would be happy with everything you did first time, you wouldn’t re-evaluate or improve what you were doing and the finished product wouldn’t be your best. Being a perfectionist involves getting pissed off with yourself but it also involves producing top quality work. Being arrogant and pleased with yourself means thinking you’re just super and therefore arguably never producing the best you’re capable of.
I once received some great advice from a tutor when I was having doubts about an art project I was undertaking. I didn’t think I was up to it and didn’t know where to go with it. I wanted to scrap it and do something simpler, to which she replied, ‘Don’t talk crap. You know you can do it. You’re just too scared of it not going right. Ignore everything anyone negative says from this point on. This is your project, I want to see your ideas and not what you think you should be doing, but what you really want to do. Don’t do anything about it for a week, just think about it until your ideas become concrete’.
The result of this was a project that I not only finished successfully, but one that sold, and I was commissioned to do more work for various clients off the back of it.
So in summary, fuck what everyone else is making. If it’s the honest work of a perfectionist you can’t fail. Sometimes you have to give yourself a break from thinking about it. Most importantly, you have to do what you need to do, not what worked for somebody else.”
I don’t know about you, but I think those are wise, wise words to live by and I shall return to them time and again.
I hope they help some of you out there as well.
I thought this was worth celebrating. Here’s a screengrab from my computer this evening:
So that’s about 1/3 – or possibly 5/8, depending on how it pans out – of my novel written. Getting from 20,000 to 30,000 words was quite tough, but I’m really looking forward to writing the next 10,000 as I feel there’s some real momentum going. Pretty much the whole novel is drafted out in notes and chapters and now just needs to be written.
The process of novel writing is hard to describe, but it’s like a secret little club with several members; me and the characters in the novel. Characters who whisper things to me about their lives.
The best thing I’m learning is that this novel is from me, not about me, because some of the things the characters are telling me are things I didn’t even know.
Like, some really bad things about you. You should be ashamed.