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Team writing and the “Big Society”

The UK, 2011 and the financial crisis: cuts in just about every area of life were beginning to bite and more were on the horizon. In May that year I was asked to be part of a writing team to make a film about the effects of those cuts – the title – “Big Society” taken from a speech by David Cameron. But this wasn’t just any old drama – this was a Musical. How could I say No?

The film was a community project – everyone gave their time and skills for free. There were six writers on the outline script, not all of us there all the time – people had jobs, commitments, responsibilities as well as their own projects but from May to July, one day a week, the story grew on the wall, scenes shuffled about, the structure solidified and the characters became real until a detailed scene by scene had been hammered out.

We wanted to get this film made as quickly as possible, while it was of the moment, not history, so there was no time for drafting and redrafting. Instead the director took the scene by scene and went into production with the actors improvising the dialogue. A method that’s used by some famous directors.

Team writing has disadvantages – you never fully own the final product but whether it’s film or anything else that needs a writer, sooner or later you’ve got to hand it over for someone else to put their stamp on it, even if it’s only a magazine editor cutting your 2000 word story by 1000 words to accommodate a full page advert!

The advantages probably outweigh the disadvantages: when you run up against a brick wall, there will always be at least one person who can find a way round it even though sometimes your fellow writers will have you climbing it. Yes, there’ll be arguments about motivations and reactions but objectivity and a week’s distance will always show whether you’ve made the right choice; climb downs and humble pie eating can be good for the soul.

But how do you know that the end product is better than all the other possible products that were discarded along the way? If that quirky, vibrant, funny scene you wrote had been included instead of getting the thumbs down from your fellow writers, who knows what a difference it would have made. Well, so what? Accept the fact it didn’t and move on. If it was that good a scene, it will metamorphose in another story – you can’t keep a good scene down.

I’ve written with a partner on comedy drama, with five men and a woman on comedy sketches, with script editors on television series and a script consultant on a film. To know there’s someone dozing on a sofa at Elstree, waiting for your next scene at 3 am, when you’re working to a deadline, or just a friendly face in the pub at the end of the day to give you feedback can make the difference between failure and success.

At the beginning of your career when you’re writing for the love of it, team writing offers support but teams are like committees, there’s always someone who doesn’t pull their weight when there’s no financial incentive. Whatever the reason they don’t is neither here nor there. Whatever you’re doing, you’re either committed 100% or you won’t get anything out of it. You’ve got to give it everything. And your reward? At 3 am when no one’s there to help you, you’ll have learnt what to do.

Big Society – the Musical is now in post production. Film London has revealed it is to be one of the 12 projects participating in Audience on Demand, the training and mentorship programme addressing the changing face of feature film distribution. For full details visit Screen Daily http://www.screendaily.com/news/film-london-selects-audience-on-demand-projects/5057669.article

Visit the Big Society web page: http://www.firsttake.org/bigsocietythemusical‎
Watch the trailer on:www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiXHmR0F2Ws

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Filed under Film writing, Team Writing

Character, character, character

It was ten years ago and I was sitting in the doctor’s waiting room with one other person ahead of me. I can remember how dark it was and the time, early evening on a rainy summer’s day but not the reason why I’d gone there. Maybe it was because of what happened afterwards. I was flicking idly through a magazine with true life features when I turned a page and read something that hooked me.

“She took over my life like she’d stepped into my clothes”.

I always know when a story’s got legs, because the main character keeps stalking me like some cerebral troll and that one line kept repeating in my head like a refrain. When she appeared in my short story, “Dolls”, she became Carol Jones, a wife who’d been deserted by her husband and seen the new woman in his life do exactly what the woman in the magazine feature described. However, this is where fiction departed from fact as the market I was aiming for preferred endings that offered some hope.

When “Dolls” was published in UK magazine, Essentials, the editor changed the title to “Paul’s Playthings”, which suits the story better for it’s written from the perspective of Paul’s two wives. In my story Carol makes a Plasticine voodoo doll of the new woman in her ex’s life. Whatever caught my attention in that feature and made me write that character also caught the attention of readers and “Paul’s Playthings” was syndicated all over the world. As one editor said, “It’s got something that people connect with.”

That something that reaches out and grabs you can happen anywhere and it doesn’t even have to be a character you like. You can be caught off guard and assaulted by some fictitious creature you’d cross the road to avoid. Six months ago, I was tucking into the best cheese cake in Liverpool at the Walker Art Gallery cafe when a generously proportioned and quite aggressive female character invaded my imagination and refused to leave. She stalked me on a tour of my favourite paintings and all the way home on the bus. Why she’d chosen to suddenly appear then might have something to do with the cake I was eating for it figures large in her story.

Eventually I gave up trying to ignore her and left her to rummage and ruminate in my imagination. By the time I put my key in the front door, her narrative was taking shape. It’ll be a while before Maddie’s ready to step out into the world in “The Pudding Club” but I’m having a lot of fun making her acquaintance.

There was another reason though why I remember that rainy summer evening in the doctor’s surgery. Having found Carol Jones, I had no pen or paper to jot down the idea, so I waited until the buzzer went and I was alone and tore the page out of the magazine. I wouldn’t have done it to a book but I still felt guilty enough to remember it years later. I’ve kept that yellowed magazine page. When you find a character you connect with, don’t let them go.

To find out what happens to Carol and the voodoo doll in “Paul’s Playthings” get my e-book anthology – “Love, Life and Holidays”. It’s free on Amazon for 5 days from 20th May 2013 to 24th May 2013 or if you miss the offer, only $2.00 or £1.28.

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Filed under Characters, Short stories