Some of you may recall that back in May 2013 I attended my first BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum and wrote a blog on my experience. As it turned out there were a fair few people interested in hearing what happened that night and my blog itself ended up linked to the official BAFTA Rocliffe page; a slightly surreal experience – although it did explain my sudden upsurge in readers that week.
Following on from that post, I was more than happy to be asked back to attend upcoming Rocliffe events and blog about the goings on, the whys and the wherefores, and that is how come I am here today blogging about the Rocliffe Forum of last Monday.
Unlike last time where the focus was television drama, this forum was focusing on the art of writing for film which is a medium I am less familiar with as a writer but have an endless fascination with as a viewer so I have to say I was more than a little excited. For those of you who have never attended a Rocliffe before, the rules of engagement are as follows:
- Three script extracts are selected from submissions put forward by emerging writers across the UK.
- The extracts are cast and directed as three short theatrical pieces to be performed in front of a live audience on the night itself.
- Each extract is given approximately 30 minutes of time on the night – ten minutes of which is for a performance followed up by a 15-20 minute discussion on the piece. This is moderated by Farah Abushwesha, the Producer of Rocliffe, with the writer and two special guests joining her on stage. Farah leads the panel in discussing the performance, giving feedback on the piece and leading the audience Q&A.
- The event concludes with a thirty minute panel discussion with the two special guests, in this case Michael Kuhn and Andy Harries, looking at their own experience, background and their rules for success in the field concerned.
- There is then the opportunity for post event drinks in the bar, a must for emerging talent in all creative industries as an excellent networking opportunity.
Based on the above, all I can say is if you haven’t attended a Rocliffe yet, make sure you attend the next one. I can’t think of many better ways for new writers to spend an evening than hearing a critical analysis of fellow writers work and having the opportunity to spend time in the company of such a varied group of people from the wider industry.
Anyway, back to the event itself and so I settled down with the rest of the audience – in a relatively packed auditorium at BAFTA on Piccadilly – to experience the three extracts. It was immediately clear to me that the pieces chosen were very different in tone, writing style and genre, and each had strengths that I could identify with, which in its essence is one of the key strengths of the Rocliffe programme and events. I have linked to the programme of the event here for anyone who wishes to obtain further information.
The first piece was “Submerged” by Dan Hall, which was directed by Susan Jacobson, and was a ten minute script extract from the second act. The plot of the film comprised of a plane crashing into the sea and how the surviving small group of passengers battled to stay alive, and we joined the six of them stuck in an air pocket inside the cabin as things began to deteriorate. It was immediately clear that the writer had undertaken a significant amount of research into the piece and the narration given as part of the dramatisation was incredibly visual and descriptive of the events being represented upon a stage – meaning that the extract did not suffer from the lack of film set.
In the panel discussion Dan confirmed his extensive research, looking at medical aspects, aviation (via Easyjet!) and the likely outcome post-crash through discussions with an engineer, and the panel discussed that with such a technical environment, it was important the research was 100% accurate as it would be costly to make amendments post filming. The director explained from the floor that on reading the script, it was clear Dan had a good grasp of both audience and the structure of the genre within film.
The panellists both found the idea positive, with Michael commenting that it was easy to understand and had tension, but felt that there needed to be more of a twist to enable the audience to have sympathy for the protagonist. He was pleased to note that Dan was clear on the genre pattern for structuring such films, citing that only a fool would not follow, but felt that the script would benefit from having something that would “turn it in the light” so that it did not immediately have the appearance of a pure genre film. Michael cited Jaws as a film that does the traditional cabin in the woods style story so well, because it turned it on its head by setting it in daylight in a beach environment. Andy reflected that he had felt engaged by the piece, although the back of his mind had been questioning how expensive it would be to film. He noted that whilst this was not something the writer would need to keep in the forefront of their mind, as writing should come first, they would need to be aware of this. He also cited a fondness for the neatness of the enclosed environment, but agreed with Michael that there was a lack of emotional tension between the main characters within the extract and would have liked to see that embellished more.
The piece itself was humorous, and the audience clearly enjoyed it from their reaction. Dan did give us the ending, but I won’t give away any more details here – because I wouldn’t want to spoil what could one day be a future film blockbuster for you.
The second piece was “Limehouse” by Stuart Black, directed on the day by Paul Cavanagh, which told the story of the founder of London’s Chinatown – Brilliant Chang – and a journalist Jackson Verger. The extract was taken from early in the script, and whilst the settings within the film were recognisable as key London landmarks, the writer provided significant description to assist the audience in travelling to the 1920s. Stuart identified that he had a personal connection to Limehouse, Soho and to China himself, and it was that, plus the identification as Brilliant Chang as a potential subject, that drew him to write the script.
In the panel discussion Andy felt like the world portrayed in the script was great and had a feel of the recent BBC hit Peaky Blinders, however he also commented that some of the characters felt passive and that he was looking for more understanding of a clear protagonist as a driver of the story. Michael agreed that the concept was an interesting one, but surmised that as a writer you need to create a piece where the rubber hits the road straight away. He suggested, and Andy concurred, that the script felt leisurely in pace, which can give people the opportunity to switch over or turn off. Michael suggested that in the final cut, the elements we saw on screen may be scaled back or chopped to give the script more of a starting bang, going right to where the story truly started. It was discussed, with the Godfather cited as an example, that slower films work best when the watcher knows immediately who to follow and who holds their attention.
This led onto a discussion about the two apparent protagonists, Brilliant Chang – a man based very much in fact – and Jackson the journalist – a fictional invention. Stuart explained that he had stuck very close to the truth with Brilliant Chang, but was aware that he may need to take it up to the next level to progress the script, with Andy feeding back that in his experience it is the elements you create around the truth that people recall the most, with him recalling that a scene from “The Queen” with the stag (if you have seen the film, you will know precisely what scene this is) being the most talked about in some audiences despite it being a completely fictional element. Michael also contributed that his viewpoint is that whilst it may be based on true events, the real truth comes out of the invention and as a writer you must look for that in the work – truth is not the same as sticking to the facts. The director also suggested from the floor that Stuart may need to make a call over who is his primary protagonist, in Brilliant or Jackson, but also considered that the script could be a screenplay but also a television drama, with the continuing world that such an environment can create.
The piece had a very different feel to the first, and was clearly designed with an alternative audience in mind. Stuart himself advocated that perhaps now is the time to reintroduce slower movies, and given it is only the second draft, I would look forward to seeing the finished article.
The last piece was “To Hell and Back” by Paul Marx, and directed on the night by Chris Brand, which was a comedy feature film telling the story of the death of a bitchy woman and her subsequent attempts to get herself out of hell. The extract was from near the start of the film, as we followed the main character through her death into her introduction to death, hell, the River Styx and of course a meeting with Satan himself. Paul cited that the film was oddly enough inspired by a Meatloaf song, as well as the film “Heaven can wait”.
In the panel discussion Michael stated that he enjoyed the piece, but was struggling to place it in terms of how it could be best conveyed to an audience. He deliberated that with an imagination so great, it would be difficult to contain it within the budget and capacity of a film. He suggested that the medium of radio may be a great possibility, as it was how the stunning visuality of the scenes could be portrayed to an audience within a film that was causing him difficulty. Andy added that the idea definitely had legs and was a genuinely great idea, but questioned whether one of the supporting characters would follow the lead protagonist and act as the central comedic character for her to interact with.
Michael interjected that when someone ever came to him with a project like this, a completely mad idea, he pondered about saying no to it – otherwise it might just come true in the maddest of ways. He was convinced the dialogue was great but how was concerned about how can you do an idea like that justice. This triggered a group discussion about exploring the option of a theatrical production, as Paul stated when he watched rehearsals of the extract, he considered this as a viable option for the first time with this script. It was discussed with much amusement that the only companies able to deliver an idea of this nature in a high quality film would be Pixar or alike, but in this case they would have to make a significant exemption for the swearing!
The audience really took to the extract, and there was general positive feedback about the concept and strong character with one person commenting in the Q&A session that the lead was very real, in that she was someone we all know, someone who controls our lives and as the audience we would love to see it so that people can realise they may not be mourned when they are deceased!
The piece was both funny and surreal, with comedic moments that did not feel forced and very witty, fast paced dialogue. The possibility of a theatre or radio piece are definitely options I hope the writer explores, and as Paul had two pieces long listed for the Rocliffe event I am sure this is not the last we’ve heard of him.
After the dramatisation extracts and individual panel based discussions were completed, Farah asked Michael Kuhn and Andy Harries, who both have illustrious careers within the industry, to give an insight into how they got into the business and what they are currently working on.
Michael started out by explaining that he trained as a lawyer, which he found most boring, before moving on to work for a client in the music business. After ten years he set up Polygram which was responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Trainspotting amongst others, before setting up Qwerty films. Andy added that he was a journalist before making his way through the realm of jobs within television including presenting, documentary maker and then working as Controller of Drama, Comedy and Film for Granada. He is the co-founder of Left Bank Pictures, who produce Wallander and he is also responsible for The Queen and The Audience. Michael is in post-production on Suite Francoise and Last Days of Mars is out in 2014, whereas Andy is focusing on TV work primarily but also a project based on the story of the school behind the Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” hit. Farah advised that Michael has been a patron of Rocliffe since he chaired a forum ten years ago, and Andy had just agreed to be a patron also.
In looking at his work, Andy said he sees his current role as to find and nurture talent, and by talent he means writers, all of whom are interesting and challenging in their own way. He explained that he tends to work with a writer for the long term, as it is this type of relationship that gives both parties the ability to broaden horizons and become together better than the sum of their individual parts. He joked that in a lot of cases he will speak to his key writers more frequently than his wife, so it is a big commitment, but the benefit is that those writers will trust him with their ideas. He gave an example of the writer behind the stage hit “The Audience”, which he knew was a great idea the moment it was pitched, however the writer, a long term collaborator of his, only wanted to do it if Helen Mirren would be part of it – and Andy had that connection, having worked on The Queen with her.
Michael reflected that what he found frustrating was that so many writers plug away for years on something that was always a bad idea, and he sees his role as being the stone in their shoe reminding them constantly to keep in mind how good the idea is. He advised that he has seen so many people insist on going on with a project, even when everyone has told them it was a bad idea, and that this can be a massive waste of excellent writing talent. He gave the advice that you have to balance between the fact that if you only do what has already has worked before you will fail – you have to take it to the next level – and the fact that if you do something everyone else has already proved won’t work you will be lost. He considered that the key issue for him is that sometimes writers are so caught up in their projects they’ve no idea what the landscape around them looks like and therefore they’ve no concept of being lost until they look up many years later on.
Farah suggested that people should never commit to one screenplay, but instead commit to a career as a screenwriter which was agreed by the panel. Michael added that writers frequently underestimate how much work is required to make a script brilliant, citing that Richard Curtis would not show anyone the script for Notting Hill until he was on draft 38 as an example of that. And as a side note to this, I would be so interested in seeing scripts 1 to 37, just to see how the evolution process on that worked – how much of the film people know and love was in the original idea I wonder?
In closing points Andy explained that the film industry is difficult to get financed, as there is no one central place to go, therefore budding screenplay writers should never rule out television, as there is a real appetite for series production presently. Michael added that absolute determination is what is needed, with the right idea and script coming together and the attitude that faint hearts never won a fair maiden. The conclusion from both panel members was that emerging writers must not give up; there are real avenues out there for work to be made when you have a great script, a strong central idea and a good understanding of your audience, market and genre.
Having listened to the panel discussion and the Q&A from the audience with Michael and Andy, I have to say I found them both willing to offer such honest, insightful advice based on their own experiences within the industry. It was refreshing to hear their thoughtful pointers based in the reality of films or shows they had worked on themselves, with their ability to demonstrate a point by putting it into context of a project the audience have all known and loved over the years. I wondered how relevant their comments would be to me, as someone with a passion for television writing, but found their comments incredibly sincere about wanting to develop writing – the real talent behind the industry from their words – across the board, and how flexible their attitude was to film, television, theatre and radio.
Farah concluded the night by citing that in 2013 over a thousand scripts were submitted to BAFTA Rocliffe, which led to over 120 scheduled meetings between agents, producers and execs with writers. Events and schemes such as this do open doors, but as she advised without writers it wouldn’t work. Therefore the closing point of the evening was that all writers, emerging or otherwise, should make 2014 the year they write plenty of scripts and I for one intend to wholeheartedly live up to that.
To 2014, to writing, to attending more BAFTA Rocliffe events and to try my best not to get lost along the way! Good luck to us all emerging writers, these are such exciting times.