It’s mid-March and I’m in a cold shed, (re)writing the screenplay for Tilo in Real Life, a story I’ve carried in my head for seven years or so. I’m reflecting too on why I write the kind of stories I write. I can’t say whether I had a uniquely cruel or deprived upbringing, but I do admit a tendency towards the dark side, thanks to my late mother, whose death twenty years ago resonated with me as Mother’s Day came and left, uncelebrated.
Perhaps in another life I was a Victorian author of horror tales, given my talent for creating films with strange, disquieting auras, judging by the effect they have on others. When a plasterer came to do some work in the house recently, on seeing the posters for my films hanging in the hall he remarked on how they looked ‘ominous’; he’s not the first.
On another occasion, while showing a rough cut to a friend, he turned to me, ashen-faced, insisting I switch off immediately, so convinced was he that ‘something terrible was about to happen.’ Even my hairdresser commented on The Devil’s Plantation, and how she ‘expected a dead body turn up.’ I’ve had joiners, council workers and marketing pros report similar feelings, causing me to wonder – if I can elicit that kind of response from such a broad demographic then how come I’m not rich?
In two of my films the normal visual cues are absent. There’s no on-camera presence – i.e. no actors in rooms delivering lines. The sound design is so nuanced it’s subliminal, recalling what Alfred Hitchcock termed ‘electronic silence.’ For pragmatic reasons the images I use are static, shot in ordinary locations that – apparently – evoke dread. How this foreboding occurs even I don’t understand since it’s not explicit in the script. My only intention is to create a catalyst that kindles the mind of the viewer who, by joining the narrative dots according to whim, experience and memory, is rewarded for their engagement.
As I write this, I feel a familiar self-consciousness because I dislike explaining how I work, despite my husband’s repeated request for me to describe the process of writing/directing from a practical perspective. Somehow I doubt its value to others – even I switch off whenever I’m faced with technical practice, Aristotelian story structure, the 10-part sequential screenplay form or the method by which actors understand their roles. Besides, who wants to know what’s behind the green curtain, or how sausages get made?
Attending various screenwriting courses over the years, I used to think my fellow students wanted to hone their skills until I realised I was making a category error. No one I met on a course ever completed a script. The purpose wasn’t to write, it was to attend courses, presumably for the social life and dating opportunities they afforded. Lines such as, ‘How did you find Peter Parker’s Intermediate course?’ or ‘I’m thinking of doing that Robert McKee thing in London’ – were regularly overheard. If any actual drafts resulted from it, I’m none the wiser.
By far the best screenwriting tutor I know is accessible, free and doesn’t require taking a long bus ride on a rainy night – as I once did over an entire course, travelling from Edinburgh to Glasgow. That is, to read scripts – thousands of which are available on sites such as Drew’s Script-O-Rama. I’ve lost count of the number of scripts I’ve read, but one thing I know is that the good ones are rarer than unicorn horns. So it’s disappointing to learn how even the most bankable writers get it wrong. The other week I began reading the script for Tod Field’s Tár, and was confounded by an egregious example of what’s known as ‘the black stuff.’ It only took me until page 3 of his 94-page draft to see it; a slab of descriptive text so dense you could insulate your loft with it.
I’m sure Field, who reputedly wrote the script in three months, had his reasons; perhaps he didn’t want to break the ‘flow’ of his words and the actions described. That said, the received wisdom dictates that for the sake of readability no paragraph should exceed twelve lines. As a rule I never use more than three lines in a paragraph of BS. Moreover, it’s best practice to be concise unless, of course, you’re Tod Field or his peers. No unknown writer would get away with it. As it was, he didn’t win Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Oscars.
As a spelling demon, I also looked down on Greta Gerwig’s script for Lady Bird – nominated for the 2017 Oscars but losing out to Jordan Peele’s Get Out – possibly due to the number of typos it contained. Ditto Eric Roth’s script for The Good Shepherd. Not only is he rather too fond of the black stuff but for a script twelve years in gestation, Eric should perhaps have acquainted himself with Spellchecker.
In an age when offence is so easily taken and at the risk of triggering those of a fragile complexion, in my experience I’ve found an unfeasible number of actors are dyslexic. Similarly many individuals I know working in production suffer ADHD, bi-polar disorder and other neuro-divergent conditions. That’s in addition to mental health challenges arising from identity and diversity issues. Having reached the point where social contagion means individuals are distressed by the use of a full stop, it’s surprising that films get made at all.
Bad spelling and lazy formatting aside, I often feel aggrieved for the talented but overlooked writers with immaculate content and style who experience serial rejection for want of provenance or repute. Indeed, I would put money on Samuel D. Hunter, writer of both the play and screen adaptation of The Whale, never being asked to ‘take the script outdoors,’ as I once was advised by someone barely qualified to know what a script is. As the screenwriter, William Goldman famously said, ‘Nobody knows anything,’ which at best offers a kind of solace to those who can’t catch a break, at worse it’s a disincentive.
Of course, what matters most in any script is whether the story’s worth telling at all. With Tilo I’ve struggled with its underlying premise and operative question, the who and the what of it. Everything else I hold to because its themes: redundancy, fear of change, regret, loss of faith and innocence – matter to me, though at times I’m paralysed by anxiety, lest I make the wrong call. All I can do is persevere because I need to trust my own instincts, indeed – to keep the faith.
Unlike novel writing, screenwriting’s comparable with model-making. It’s not the thing itself, but rather it’s a facsimile, a blueprint for a creation that one day may or may not exist. In that event, as I’ve learned along the way, even the most bulletproof script doesn’t always end up on screen in the way the makers intended. It’s said that one can’t make a good film out of a bad script, but one can certainly make a great film out of a good one, assuming it gets written in the first place.
As John Cooper Clarke said, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,’ a piece of advice I’ll nail to the inside of my head until further notice.
The above image is of a blank sheet of paper, the writer’s greatest fear. Those paying attention might notice my Muji pen is out of ink.