100 Cool Things BFilm Micro Already Taught Me About Film.

Nicky-screen-grabI’ve been part of the BFilm Micro Immersion programme since 24th February.  That’s nearly 100 days.  We are about to move into production of the ‘proof of concept’ film for Augumental, and so as we leave the baptism by fire learning stage, I have picked out the following 100 notes from a very fat book of scribbles.

  1. If you want to make money keep asking yourself, “who will watch this film?”  That will determine the size of your audience.
  2. There is a part of Birmingham City Council called Film Birmingham who help filmmakers to close roads, find locations and crew.
  3. It’s pretty simple to register yourself with them and as a result you could be involved in even Hollywood movies like the Kingsman sequel which is currently shooting in Brum.
  4. Filming on or around the Canals is managed by the Canal & River Trust.
  5. The Girl With All The Gifts was shot in Birmingham.  Peaky Blinders was not.
  6. Birmingham is often used to pass as London.
  7. If a tripod is used you’ll probably need a permit to film in public. Handheld is generally OK.
  8. Getting permits is pretty simple.  The Council want movies to be made here.
  9. A film-making career is not generally expected to follow a clean trajectory. It really won’t.
  10. A few people have made a living from the Arts Council or other govt-backed funders but they are rare and any money will come with conditions.  You’re cool with your outback film being set in Wales, right?
  11. Any funder may determine the genre, location or talent.  Get your crowbar out, you’re going to need it.
  12. Funders can get cold feet and disappear right up to the point where you have started filming and have bills to pay on your Welsh Bush Survival Zombie Thriller.
  13. Your Welsh Bush Survival Zombie Thriller probably started off as a Romantic Comedy.
  14. You can upload your screenplay to Amazon Studios and they might buy it.
  15. If Amazon pick it up the option fee isn’t likely to be as high as the average (apparently more like $10,000 as opposed to $25,000 for 18 months).
  16. Amazon don’t seem to pick much up.  But hey.  Who does?
  17. The more independent you are the more control you have over your project.
  18. The more independent you are the less likely to are to be able to gain a wide audience for your project through the traditional routes.
  19. The more independent you are the less money you will make through the traditional routes.
  20. The more independent you are the less money you are likely to make full stop.
  21. The traditional routes suck like a Dyson.
  22. There are ways to make money and get a film seen by playing things the new way.
  23. The new way involves micro-budget innovations and making use of technological advances.
  24. Optimism is permitted when making film.  So is enthusiasm.  It helps.
  25. It still isn’t easy.
  26. Putting your movie where people can consume it, e.g. smartphones and download might just be smarter than putting your movie in a cinema and wondering why no one is coming to see it. Cinemas are struggling.
  27. If your movie has a distribution deal which includes cinema it could still clash with the must-see summer blockbuster and no one will come and see your movie.
  28. If your movie has a distribution deal which includes cinema it could be one showing at half past 2 on Wednesday not automatically three weeks in the evenings and no one will come and see your movie.
  29. Bad marketing can hinder cinematic release more than no marketing.  Genre must be clearly communicated else no one will come and see your movie.
  30. You can make a potentially profitable movie about anything as long as it has a hook to hang the advertising on.
  31. To quote Bianca Del Rio “IT BEARS REPEATING” If you want to make money keep asking yourself “who will watch this film?”  That will determine the size of your audience.
  32. This reminds me of some wisdom I received from Helen Cross, on novel writing.  Consider your plot and ask yourself “what’s the point?”
  33. Some backers will require you to have raised some capital yourself – as much as 15-20%.
  34. Crowdfunding has changed the game with gaining funding for film with fewer strings attached.
  35. Nollywood (Nigerian cinema) is bigger than Hollywood, or even Bollywood come to that.
  36. You can still offset investment in film against tax.  Not as much as in the olden days.  Figuring it out will make your brain hurt but it will be worth the pain.
  37. The olden days sounded fucking bloatedly awesome to be honest. Scripts bought en mass on spec. Investors flinging money around.
  38. It’s a buyer’s market these days.  But the market is always hungry for great ideas for content.
  39. Location can be a character in itself.
  40. Even documentaries can benefit from “the hero’s journey”.
  41. One page pitches are like book blurbs.
  42. Plot is the enemy of elevator pitching.
  43. When pitching don’t be coy about the gruesome aspects or precious about revealing the ending.  They’ll need to know if it sucks or not.
  44. The pitch should reflect the genre.  If it’s a comedy the pitch fucking better be funny.
  45. Be prepared for the question ,”what other scripts do you have?”
  46. Be prepared for the question, “what other ideas have you got?”
  47. Professional Readers look for Premise Characterization Dialogue and Storyline.
  48. Professional Readers mark scripts as Pass, Low Consider, Consider and Recommend.
  49. Those Recommended will move fast.  These scripts are rare.
  50. Feature length scripts should be closer to 90 mins than 120 for the LA market.
  51. Factors to check off: Idea, Plot, Characterisation, Dialogue, Pace, Setting, Structure.
  52. Help your script not suck by ensuring it doesn’t contain shooting directions, crappy presentation, typos, lack of white space, on the nose dialogue.
  53. Producers are looking at theatre for proven storytelling writers and new actors.
  54. The aim is “Something never seen before but understood implicitly” – Matt Wilkinson.
  55. The British Film Council and IMDB Pro have lists of what is currently in production.
  56. Film makers need to consider distribution from the outset of the project.
  57. The most important festivals ate Toronto, Berlin, Venice, and of course Cannes.
  58. But don’t turn up to Cannes unless you have a finished movie.
  59. Chinese investors in particular, are ready to put money into films which reference their cultures.
  60. Moviehouse is a really vibrant movie sales & distribution/co-production/marketing company.
  61. Horror is generally a bigger genre market than anything else.
  62. Adaptation tip: Focus on the Magic (Mike Riddell).
  63. Adaptation tip: Focus on the Beginning Middle and End.
  64. If a theatre company is touring at the time of your shoot with a known name in the cast it might be worth seeing if there is the chance of a cameo or voice-over which will give marketing a massive boost.
  65. Found footage is a fucking ball-ache to write.  As a screenwriter you don’t normally include a point of view.
  66. There is a movement for Frugal Film/ making movies with minimal tech and frequently no lighting effects.
  67. Dogme 95 are famous for this.  I think they’re Danish.  Light bulbs are SO 2012.
  68. You can be a cool cinematographer, deft  but still fail at narrative *cough Field in England JUST MY OPINION.
  69. Then again 2001: A Space Odyssey had no narrative.  That’s my sole exception because it’s so freaking beautiful.
  70. Good producers factor in 12 hours between shoots and ensure decent food.
  71. Good preparation means smooth shoots.
  72. Spend the most of your budget on actors.  An exquisite script will be ruined by shit delivery.
  73. It is common to have your film optioned, unsold, then bundled and resold as a part of a library to distributors and you will never see a penny of those proceeds.
  74. Hollywood film-makers might appear insincere but there is an energy, optimism,and enthusiasm for film-making there which we lack in the UK.
  75. “American Movies are the movies of the world” – Andrew Prendergast, the Commercial Manager of Parkside Mediahouse.
  76. Birmingham has movie-capable studios at Parkside Mediahouse including a vast green screen studio.
  77. BCU  film students get to use these facilities.  Lucky bastards. I always thought BCU kicked ass.
  78. If you change one frame of the film you can reissue it.  This can help if it flopped before but there’s a new opportunity.
  79. In your movie, referencing or including a known band, artist, community, popular sporting or social activity or anything with an existing following can create a ready made market.
  80. A distributor will take 40% of film profits plus expenses. Possibly more.
  81. Red Rock Entertainment & Goldfinch Entertainment are two respected investors of movies.
  82. Redbox are a company who distribute DVDs in vending machines in the US.  They might buy your low budget movie.
  83. Every successful writer or producer normally has a bunch of total flops in their portfolio.
  84. Professional writers tend to bang scripts out quickly.  If one flops there is another on the way.
  85. If you are struggling to find an ending for your script the chances are the plot started out too complex.
  86. Persistence frequently outweighs talent.
  87. WWE have a bunch of movies which solely exist to showcase their wrestlers.  Writing to these specific briefs can result in commissions.
  88. Targeting your script to managers and agents who deal with similar things makes a lot of (obvious) sense.
  89. If you get a subscription to IMDB Pro you can mine into an actor or TV Series or Movie and discover their representation including addresses and emails etc.
  90. Even a straight to DVD movie can net the writer “high five figure” returns.
  91. Budgetary constraints are on a producers mind from the first line.
  92. Location scouting is fun.
  93. Remember to make detailed notes about the photos you take when location  scouting including the addresses.
  94. Poring through google maps to find That Really Cool Metal Staircase again, is not fun.
  95. Location scouting can result in shop owners viewing you and your camera with extreme suspicion.
  96. Finding locations close to each other makes filming on a budget much easier.
  97. It’s often simpler and cheaper to use a real restaurant/bedroom/pub than mocking one up in a studio.
  98. On location shoots a base is needed in addition to the scene locations.  Somewhere for people to wait, store equipment, eat, change, shelter from weather etc.
  99. Ask yourself. Who will watch your film?  What is the audience?

…and 100: I also found out by working with a cohort which includes current undergraduates and recent graduates, that people young enough to be my children can be smarter than I am.  I’m not saying I like this revelation but I like my new Bfilm Buddies and looking forward to the next phase of BFilm Micro.

Thanks to Andy Conway, Pip Piper and Paul Green for all of the above – what’s next?

Here’s what’s next – another public FREE MASTERCLASS on the 8th June with Faye Gilbert, acclaimed UK film*-maker.  Contact BFilm Micro for tickets.  Last time the event was a sell-out so get in quick.

Refresh

who2

This is a short I wrote last year.  I think I was deleting old hotmail accounts and pondering my digital footprint.

Trading pieces of yourself to get through the day is nothing new if you ask me.  You disagree? You never been polite to an asshole just to move a transaction on a little? Well if it wasn’t the case before, it is now, sure as shit.  So I have to get rid of Martin Deepak.

The irritating problem I, and many others have is that that however hard you try, your profile – or your “name” (if you want to get all misty-eyed about it all), well, it congeals.  It’s inevitable.  There’s all the obvious stuff you can do, the sensible shtick, you know; change your lockins real regular, show up for work on time, eat healthy, keep your eyes steady when the pictures are flashing weird shit up.  There’s no law against any of all that really and jeez man it’s hard.  I don’t even know how I got all gummed up this time but Martin Deepak has to go.  Sorry dude, thanks and all but whether it was too much java giving my health insurer the jitters or a stupid two-player game on the tram; who knows.  I’m on the tram right now as it happens and keeping my eyes well and truly out of the window.  Another slip-up and they won’t even let me off at the next stop and I’ll be on a one way ticket to the Pound.

The company already locked me out for once and for all.  Should have known it was coming.  For a tiny moment I thought they had a problem with their lockins or something.  Yeah right. To be perfectly honest with you I haven’t been that careful.

There’s a great feeling you get when you Refresh your profile so even though I am about to be mugged for all the money in my account, I mean Martin’s account, I’m not too unhappy. It’s a chance to go in a shop too, because it’s about the only thing you can’t do online.  Has to be legal and in person, see, with a real lawyer.

I go up to the wide counter which keeps the staff a clear arm’s-reach away, and there’s a young one there, black hair, blank face like all the kids these days.  This lawyer is called Jenny Salter.  She chants the waiver document and I sign, then she spins the menu screen round to me.  I bet she hasn’t refreshed even one time, Jenny Salter.  Probably a family name.  She still isn’t really looking at me.  I restrain myself from saying “enjoy being Jenny Salter whilst it lasts Jenny Salter”, and then I remember that I’m trading Martin in any minute now so it probably doesn’t matter anyway.

I run my arm over the counter, the chip registers and $400 appears on the screen.  Man!  That low?  I can sense that Jenny Salter would laugh if it wouldn’t put a chink in her own profile value.

“Enjoy being Jenny Salter whilst it lasts Jenny Salter”, I snark.  The figure changes to $399.  Jenny winces politely.

“So Mr Deepak you want a Clean Profile?  Prices have come down a lot.  China’s had a fantastic harvest this year.”

Like I have that kind of money.  And no, it isn’t that I don’t want a Chinese name, I’ve had at least three already.  And no it isn’t the ethical aspect either before I break your heart with my humanity.  I’ve just never seen the point of one of them unless you plan to run for the senate or want to work with kids or something.  I clean floors for a living.  It’s low risk.  I just need to get through the company front door so I can get at my bucket, earn the money to buy my java and stare at pretty girls on the tram until that costs me another Profile Refresh.

I shake my head and she checks the exchange rate board.

“Alright then Mr Deepak, Baseline is $1000, you want to go for that?”

“I only got 399 bucks to spend.”

“Well we cannot guarantee any profiles under the baseline.  You could be back in here tomorrow.”

“It’s irrelevant Jenny Salter.  Martin Deepak has 399 bucks and that’s all; I’ll just take a lucky dip and put it through a double sweep would you?  Please?”

The double sweep does a trial run of the new profile over all your accounts, social networks, places of employment and basically everywhere you appear under the old name.  If the sweep is clear then the new profile should work for you.  It’s called a double sweep because it runs the old you through at the same time as a comparison, so you can see where your lockins are currently failing.  That’s as close as you ever get to finding out where and why you got gummed up.

She shrugs, pushes forward another waiver which I’m forced to sign with a signature I’ve hardly had time to perfect and then she directs my eye to the scrolling identities on the screen.

“Take your pick”, she says.

I go for Polonius Jefferson because it’s a fucking funny name.  He’s $380 and with the $10 double sweep I establish that he’s been marginally better behaved than I have.  No surprise that Martin’s purple marks were thanks to the usual overzealousness of Cityline’s Integrated Surveillance, but I am irritated that a red came from drinking a cold caffeinated beverage.  I’d thought they were still OK.  Anyway, pleased to meet you Polonius, I’m PoloniusJenny Salter goes to fetch my complimentary snapback and thermal mug.

There’s a woman at the next counter and she’s causing something of a disturbance.  They can’t read her chip and as the girl keeps telling the dummy in charge it is because she doesn’t have one.  How do I know this?  Well for starters she’s yelling and everyone can hear.

“I don’t have one so get your damn hands off me.”

She’s got papers though.  Plenty of papers.  Slim creamy coloured papers and stiff white ones.  She’s pushed them over the menu now she’s smacked the dummy’s hand off her wrist.  The papers fall on the floor and she snatches them possessively up like she’s dropped her poker hand and bangs them back into view.

“Look at my papers, everything’s there.  You guys can buy a paper profile right?”

“Why do you not have a chip?”

“It isn’t actually a law to have a chip you know.”

The dummy purses her lips, cool and fake.  I mean her demeanour – but her lips look pretty icy too, come to think about it.  I’ll tell you another nice thing about Refreshing is that it takes a little while for everything to straighten out so I can have a good hard stare at those lips and there’s nothing she can do about it.

“Actually yes you do need an electronic chip, it is the law.”

“No it is not.”

“Yes I’m afraid it is the law.  I’m sorry.”

The customer, this woman is so strung out now, it looks like she is getting ready to break a few laws for the hell of it.  She’s not that old but everything about her looks tired enough and I for one would quite like to see a mom like that curse and maybe punch that little robot bitch.  I can tell she is a mom because she’s dressed that way moms do.  Ugly windcheater, big jeans and sneakers.  They dress themselves like children.

“Can you please check with your supervisor?”

The dummy’s insistence and apparent belief appears to waver and she presses a button.

Julian Brown, hi!  It’s Rebecca Oakley.  Yes good thank you.  Can you confirm, it is actually the law to have a chip isn’t it?”

Julian Brown’s voice booms out so everyone can hear.

“Yes that is right.  It’s because of the electoral roll, so you can vote.”

This woman laughs and it’s clear she’s better informed than Rebecca and Julian.

“That’s the biggest pile of bull I’ve ever heard.  It has never been obligatory.”

“Well on a practical note we can’t upload a new profile to you if you don’t have a chip.”

This woman’s standing up now and I’m really hoping she’s gonna upload a punch to that fake bitches fake nose and she’s yelling proper loud now, “I told you before Rebecca Oakley I don’t want to buy I want to sell.  Just give me the money and all on one of those goddamn… credit card things.”

Rebecca Oakley has had better days I can tell.  I smile at the woman without a name.

*

I make it outside the same time as she does.  She’s trying to use her cell and getting frustrated because it isn’t working any more.  I smile again in that way you do when you kind of feel bad for someone.  I hate those dummies too. Also this woman is much younger than I had thought and even though it is going to cost Polonius a few cents one way or another, I ask her if she wants a drink.

I choose a carrot juice, it comes with garnish and will look fantastic in the pictures.  She goes for a beer.  Not even one in a nice bottle.  I move my glass away a little so her drink won’t be in my shots, or the bar shots come to that and she clearly doesn’t even realise there are cameras just about everywhere because she’s picking some crap out of her hair.

“Made such a mess of that.  They took all my papers, you know.  I thought they’d… I don’t know… copy them.”

“Nah, they have to ensure you’re overwritten, proper.  They can’t leave you with anything to sell a second time.  This really your first time?”

She’s nodding and then starts scratching at the label on the beer bottle with chewed fingernails and biting her own lip like consuming herself is gonna help her situation.

“I hope someone enjoys being me then.  Damn!  I only wanted to go one step back, change my name to what it was before… before I was married y’see?  Erase the last miserable ten years and… start fresh.”

It’s making me nervous just watching her and I’m nervous about being nervous because I don’t have the budget for being an antsy fucker.

“Jeez, you sure are one anxious person.  You need to calm down.  So why didn’t you just buy a new name?  Why walk out of there… blank?”

“What do you mean blank? I’ve got a name. I told you. Had it for twenty five years before I got married.  Perfectly good name. I was selling Mrs Attie Evans.  I wanted to go back to being Miss Attie Green”.

I have to laugh.  She glares.  I know that not everyone goes through their life changing profiles like they change their shorts but seriously she must have been living in an Amish community.

“You can’t go back.  It’s like gasoline.  Names get used up.  If you don’t mind me asking, how are you going to manage now? You don’t have a profile at all.”

“I do have a name.  Attie Green.”

“Nu –uh.  Evans… Green… You just sold all of that.  You just sold Attie, you’re not even Attie any more.”

I could have said You’re Anon but I happen to consider that to be offensive.  Shit like that can happen to people for all sorts of reasons although it’s pretty disgusting her sitting there all anonymous when she must have a hundred thousand bucks on that chip card.

Oh man.  Now she’s crying.

“Of course I’m Attie.” she says angrily, and quite loudly too.

She’s freaking me out now because talk like that is fraudulent and although technically she’s the perpetrator here, I’m collateral.  Polinius got enough problems already, Polonius being me.   Polonius doesn’t have another four hundred bucks to buy any more barely functional names right now.  If Polonius gets caught aiding someone using a false identity or if Polonius ends up saying something crass to someone on the tram again with his hands not on show and it spreads over the net like the congealing cancer it is, Polinius is gonna be stuck buying a 20 dollar Avatar and joining the gaming bums begging by Central Station.

I lower my voice a little, hunkering down on the table although I’m gonna be tagged in here with her regardless.

“You were basically a Clean Sheet, right?  They must have given you a lot of money for that.  Just go back.  You could buy any random name. The letters… the words of the name, they’re not important.  It’s what goes with it.”

She smiles and nods.  Drains her beer and stands.

“I couldn’t agree more.  Thanks for the beer Polonius.”

She tosses me the chip card.  I catch it.

I’m about to wave but the Cleaning Truck are pulling up next to her and then a female officer jumps out and comes alongside.  She tries to twist her arm away but the officer has a baton and she uses it.  Old Attie is fighting back, but they’ve got her in the van now.  There’s blood on the pavement and I would have helped her, really I would.  Actually what am I saying, of course I wouldn’t.

The chip card is legitimate and still warm from her hand.  It’s gonna buy me a lot of transactions that chip card. I won’t even need to be polite.  I could start fresh with money like that.  But instead I think I’ll just go take a ride on the tram.

Learning Value.

cropbadgeThere is value in learning about the craft of writing, but I believe you should choose your educators wisely.

From one-day workshops to an MA, I’ve completed or participated in various writing events, courses and schemes; some I paid for, some were free, some free-for-all and some with entry based upon merit.  I’ve had many great experiences and a few horrible ones.  I’ve been inspired and I’ve been ripped-off, variously immersed, bored, encouraged and, (unintentionally I bloody hope) discouraged along the way.

Thus weathered, below are some questions to ask yourself, which might help you get the best value from opportunities to learn:

How much time will be needed?  Really?

The better schemes I have seen tend to lay out a detailed schedule at the outset so that you can be crystal clear about the time investment required, whether it is, for example, one day of eight hours, or one hour a week for three years.  Or whatever.

In the past I’ve not given reasonable consideration to the additional time factors; how much prep would be expected before or after, and basic stuff like how long will it take to get to the venue and back. If it is a regular thing and the venue is a long way away, a morning’s commitment can suddenly transmogrify into a whole day.  What will have to give?  Sanity? Best to find out in advance and not when you are on the M6 having a nervous breakdown. Every. Week. For. Three. Years.

How much will it cost?  Really?

Obviously if the course or scheme has a fee then you’ll be able to see from the receipt. Other schemes are free and/or entry is based on merit.  But free or not, there are still associated costs; work not done during that time, petrol, travel, accommodation, parking, childcare, learning materials and evening events and so forth. I am not suggesting you get a spreadsheet out every time but it is a relevant factor when considering value.

And be honest with yourself.  If it is going to financially stretch you,  you need to be absolutely sure that it is going to creatively stretch you, at the very least an equivalent amount (and how you figure that out is a creative challenge in itself).

Will the scheme/event unrelentingly be implying that they are doing you a massive favour?

In my opinion, the best schemes have a friendly, respectful, and collaborative feel to them.  And that’s probably all I should say about that.

This could be more my failing to be honest; I struggle to maintain a grateful expression for more than about 25 minutes.

Is this a disguised opportunity for someone to flog their own book?

I’ve attended quite a few writer events which are just PR for books or collections and whilst I don’t begrudge anyone flogging a few tomes it is irritating when you were expecting a little more meat in the transaction.  If they charged you on the door for the privilege then so much more the irritation.

There is a corollary here for panels made up of authors who know each other and who share in-jokes for so long that the only hurried question from the floor, squeezed in the last minute is from the batty superfan who’s travelled from Orkney to ask the keynote the crucial query, “WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS FROM?”

What will be required of you in the session – if anything?

You can go in expecting to be mentored and find it is more an opportunity to network.  Or, perhaps you are expecting lots of social stuff and it’s exercises and being talked at. All of these things have worth, but when expectations aren’t met an opportunity can feel like poor value.  Let’s break down the different types of session:

Networking – A great many schemes and groups seem solely concerned with placing people together to network – like some sort of literary Teddy Bear’s Picnic and the onus is on the participants to get on with it, to have a chat and a pot of teddy tea together.

For fundamentally antisocial types like myself this is frequently a bit excruciating and I would want to know in advance at the very least, so I can practice my winning smile and bone up on teddy small talk.

Mentoring – Whereby very important and accomplished teddies will help you become the teddy you always wanted to be.  I personally really like schemes with mentoring. We all want help and this is damn straight help given.  Mentoring rocks.  With a caveat that the person mentoring should at least have a few more writerly experiences to draw upon than the participants.  Else it’s pretty much just networking in a smaller room. With no buffet.

Doing – By this I mean the type of event or course where you undertake exercises, group work, writing challenges and basically putting your brain to work and  being very active in the session.  Brilliant if you want to hone your skills.  Awful if you were hoping for something less formal and more sociable, and if you hadn’t brought a pen.

Lecturing – Where you are clear about the offering in advance this can be brilliant – hearing a favourite author opine on just about anything can be fascinating.  An agent or publisher giving targeted advice about what’s hot and what isn’t would always have my pen scribbling away.  However if you were expecting to be able to ask questions, or to interact more with other particpants or those leading the event, it can be disappointing if it is only one-way.  Again, it’s about expectations.

Study – the academic pursuit of a considerable amount of new knowledge, for example a longer course and things like the MA programme.  These can be utter bliss when you are immersed in a subject which fascinates you or that you need to get good at in order to progress.

It is worth having a think, however, about whether this really is information which will be of practical use- for example, learning about children’s publishing over a six 6 month period may be a great investment if you have several children’s books in draft form, but if your portfolio is all X Rated screenplays then it might be fun, but not be the best use of your time to progress your writing career.

Value or vanity?

Sometimes if entry to the scheme is merit-based and exclusive with only a few places, the opportunity can seem particularly mouthwatering – but stop and consider -is the merit really relevant to what you are working on?  Is the exclusivity interesting?  Can you justify the time and money it will cost?  Will anyone else give a toss?

Be honest because you’ll have to see it through and it might be a high price for one line on your CV.  It might be that it would be the perfect course – but just for someone else.  No big deal – it just might mean your time is better served getting on with the business of writing.

Are you an opportunist or a masochist?

A connected – and cautionary tale to finish: The BBC recently offered a training opportunity for a Birmingham Writer in Residence.  The lucky golden ticket winner would/will get to have input into scripts for various TV and Radio shows including Dr Who and The Archers.  The Archers no less!  Sounded tantalising.  Well, mostly  I was tempted because, let’s be honest once again, it sounded rather grand and impressive. I was all set to apply – and a few years back I would have in a flash – until I recalled one pertinent fact.  One tiny fact which undermined the point of any application from me.

I really really  really…. hate The Archers.  And the only thing that bores me more than The Archers is Dr Who.  So there you go.  Or there I didn’t go.

I’m learning.

Rootle Tootle.

holiday

Thanks to Faber Academy for the special mention.  Here’s my flash fiction prompted by the picture above.

Pa told me he’d got instruction to collect the car. He does jobs for the bailiff, you see? Well it was no surprise.  That family were crazy.  They owed everyone something.  A quiet night for a start.  All the folk on the avenue were sick of those parties, most probably as they never got invited.

So when I hear the horn I think it’s Pa but it’s rootle-tootling like a bugle, and that ‘ain’t Pa’s style.  Mom and me go out to see.

Well!  It’s not my Pa. The whole Clayton family is crammed in that car.  Man! They put on a show!  Mrs C in the front with her glamour girl permanent wave like the Queen of Sheba.  Mr Clayton in some ritzy suit.  He winks at mom and she narrows her eyes at him.  A lot of ladies love Mr Clayton but mom said they were silly geese.

Then, revving the engine Mr Clayton says some very bad words – shouts them at no one in particular, and as they drive away the apple-faced kid’s flipping the bird out the back.

It wasn’t even their damn dog.  It turns out Clayton Jr stole it from the Mexican family by the gas station.

Sure is quieter without them on the avenue although it’s funny but mom started turning the wireless up after dinner.

Just says she likes the big band music now.

Cool new thing.

script

Some good news this week: I am going to be joining a project run by a Birmingham- based new digital film studio in the city. They plan to make eight feature films over the next decade.

The project will be run in in conjunction with Birmingham City University, and led by some local indie film experts, (of which there are quite a few in Birmingham – it’s a brilliant city for film).

I was asked to interview on the basis of participating as a screenwriter and will be one of three.  As far as I understand it at this point I will get mentoring in aspects of the film industry in return for input into the features.

It’s all very new so I don’t have many more details at the moment but it’s an exciting cool new thing, and I’m looking forward to its launch later in February.

Imaginary Boyfriends. From the ’50s.

mendezMendez Bolivar is a fictional Beat Poet who I invented as part of a short story.  This is his fictional biography, as taken from a fictional book of his poetry which was a key item in the story.  Stories within stories within stories are fun.  It’s also fun to create characters who feel real. None of what follows is true.  The picture is a stock photo. Nevertheless Mendez feels entirely real to me.  I have quite the crush on him.

Whilst firmly established in the Latin American poetic tradition alongside poets such as Pablo Neruda and Juan Gelman, Mendez Bolivar is distinguished by his involvement in the US beat scene.

After growing up as an only child in Buenos Aires in the care of a “Tia” or aunt, (most likely no relation), he traveled alone to America in 1944, via Mexico, at the age of 16.  He found work as part of The Bracero Program which for a time welcomed Latin American immigrants to join the US War effort.

In 1949 his studies at The Reed College in San Francisco brought him into contact with Zen enthusiasts and beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg.  They, with others would go on to found Beatitude magazine to which Bolivar became a prolific contributor. He spoke little in public, appearing at live events only to hide in the shadows.  This reticence, perhaps in contrast to the more flamboyant characters on the San Francisco scene, and combined with his documented good looks served to make him irresistible to both sexes.  His most famous (and scandalous) conquest was the wealthy socialite and painter Hester Bettencourt.

His spoken English never matched the precision of his written word and it was frequently assumed that he was embarrassed by his thick accent. In the preface to Manzana however, Bolivar describes himself as merely “socially awkward, bordering on antisocial.” He relates an episode when he was persuaded by Snyder to experiment with LSD in an effort to “loosen him up.”  The experience was not successful and led to his subsequent criticism of artists who used mind altering substances as “weak.”  This served to ostracise him from many of his contemporaries, although the poem The Men suggests he had never felt accepted by the movement, who saw him merely an exotic novelty.

His style was that of the dispossessed outsider; existential questionings frequently took the form of gentle love poems; their accessibility undeniably a key factor in his growing following. Whilst he experimented with surreal and absurdist forms it is for these earlier works, collected in this volume, for which he is best known.

In later years, following his increasing involvement in the Black Arts Movement, Bolivar publicly criticised the adoption of Buddhism and Zen philosophies by the campus students and poets describing it as “juvenile”; this led to public spats with Ginsberg who countered that Bolivar’s poetic themes were “without exception infantile” and the poet was “anal retentive.”  Shortly afterwards Bolivar reverted to writing in Spanish, a decision he explained in New Yorker in 1970, in his last interview.

“As a young man, especially surrounded by these articulate American students my tongue felt like an obstacle.  The older I become its absence becomes the obstacle.  You could say perhaps, you see how it is, when everything is not.”

The success of these poems did not match his earlier work although still considered of high cultural importance.  The full archive of manuscripts and many of Bolivar’s personal effects are held by the Latin American Institute at Columbia University, following Bolivar’s bequest prior to his return to Argentina in 1971.  He intended to lend support to those resisting the encroaching Dirty War. Following the junta in 1972, like thousands of intellectual and liberal-thinkers, Mendez Bolivar became one of the disappeared. Despite the efforts over the next twenty years of many famous and influential aficionados, including Jorge Borges, and Alfonso García Robles, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace prize, no trace of Mendez Bolivar has ever been found.

His legacy continues to resonate; in the handwritten manuscript of Allen Ginsberg’s last poem Thing’s I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias) (1997), where the poet lists regrets, the words “Nor find Bolivar in literary Argentina,” can be discerned.

Looking forward…

shelves
Library Shelves 2011“, an art installation by Jan Kilcoyne at The Eagle Gallery, Luton.

2016 started with drama.  Not the fun kind. My youngest son came out in shingles the same day as a 600 pound car bill arrived.  That was difficult to swerve. But hey.  We dance on.

A very long update on divers projects follows, which may be of limited interest to the passing reader, but the start of a new year is an opportunity to take stock.  So I’m taking stock. Bisto ahoy.

Radio Writing

Inevitably this sucks up most of my creative energy but hey, it pays the bills and we have fun. Last year I wrote all sorts for Fun Kids, from Physics to Pathology and our series about WW1 for the Heritage Lottery Fund.

We’ve already given some thought to the next series of Through a Child’s Eyes and last week I took a trip to Luton’s Wardown Park Museum to learn about the Home Counties’ involvement in Gallipoli – something perhaps we can work into the next installment.

There’s also a little chapter book coming soon, about Hallux & Nanobot, two of our favourite Fun Kids characters.  I wrote it ages ago, to be an e-book download for our young listeners, and it will (no really) – just as soon as we can figure out the stupid aggregation software which is making me want to poke my eyes out with pens.

The current project taking up the lion’s share of brain is a series for The National Gallery, introducing children to famous paintings and encouraging them to use their imaginations when viewing art. I was lucky enough to have a private tour of the Gallery with one of the curators, and have been translating all my notes of wonder into some fun educational pieces which will be broadcast on Fun Kids in the Spring.

Co-Working Space

This time last year I had just moved into my new shared office space and today I’ll be renewing the lease with Mel – Sally’s moving on which is a pity as I really enjoyed our chats and we had such a good laugh, but the set-up was always meant to be flexible.  Mel and I may carry on as a twosome or perhaps we’ll offer the free desk to someone else – let me know if you’re interested in taking it.  Such a beautiful space in a great creative environment. Reasonable terms. Plenty of hot beverage options.

The Challah Tin

My novel manuscript has been stripped down to a third of its size and is being reworked.  Dear God it is a slow process. The second draft is possibly similar to the difficult second album – after the euphoria of creating a complete piece comes the sinking realisation that you have to start all over again.

I am preparing another section for my next Writer’s Group meet in February and it will be terrifying, ahem I mean interesting to get more feedback.

Short Stories

I had resolved to write more of these in 2015 and I did write a few, achieving runner-up status two times in the Faber Quick Fic comp.  Bigger wins were elusive and the story below, “Cups” was a flash/short that didn’t get anywhere.  I can’t be bothered to enter it any more so I thought I’d just be lazy and put it up here. Entering comps is time-consuming.

Room 204

It’s been great to have the support and feedback of the cohort and the group energy is infectious.   I had another 121 with Jonathan Davidson at the end of last year when I talked about some of the frustrations of the previous few months.  One of the things I was able to talk about was a screenwriter’s networking event which was, essentially a scam in which I’d become enmeshed- something that left me feeling stupid and vulnerable.  To say it has knocked my confidence with pitching my screenplays is an understatement.

Collaboration

Luke and I met frequently across the year and spent time playing with our different projects, both having a try at novelising our existing scripts. Luke brought out his beautiful e-book and I was proud to write the foreword for it.  It’s a great collection and I urge you to buy it.

Whilst good fun, our novelisation experiments resulted in a few dead ends and Luke noted that I had reached some universal record for mentions of a dead dog.  Not my finest prose but I was inhabiting the mind of a Texan psychopath who just killed a dog and he really was thinking about that dead dog a lot.

Rubery International Book Award

I’m so very excited to be a Reader for the prize this year, a nice little job sifting entries for the judges.  I think that all kicks off in a month or two and I even get paid for reading. I am looking forward to getting stuck into the entries, and enjoying a fresh challenge.

Definitely more fun, as challenges go than coping with shingles and a car bill.

 

Cups.

cups“For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me; thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; – my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever: Psalm 23.”

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not about to stand here and tell you that I’m a Christian, and not just because I am a coward.  Which I am.  Coward? Yes, tick, sign me up.  Christian?  No.  Those words were on my grandmother’s back door is all.  How that got through the transport I’ll never know but I guess if she could get her six grandkids off a shitty planet on the last shuttle out, then smuggling a crappy old laminated prayer wouldn’t have presented Oma with much of  challenge.

She said it was a comfort, that Psalm; and it was to me too, but not in the same way. I always remember the lines “my cup runneth over.”  It sounds so joyful but it isn’t.  It really isn’t. When your heart is too full it hurts doesn’t it?  Want too much or feel too much and it will rise up into your throat and choke you to death. Contemplating overflowing cups makes me certain that joy doesn’t really exist.  It’s imaginary as our dreams of home.  And that’s comforting because realists live longer on Titan.

I was thinking about these words because there was this new guy at the factory and he wasn’t just overflowing into the room – he exploded.  Like a firework let off in a garage.  A garage with a real thin metal door so every time it collides it makes the room reverberate and sends everyone screaming covering their ears and eyes.  But in a good way I guess.  He made me smile a lot.

I watched him put on a show, and then another.  Next day same thing.  He drew quite the crowd and I pushed to the front, drinking him in but never quite joining the game.  I’m not technically allowed in that room you see. Even watching was making me nervous.

At times his movements were so frenetic he became exhausted.  He’d sit quietly for a while but it always seemed like the fuse was lighting itself again.  Like those novelty candles.  You’d think they’d gone out but the spark would be flickering back on and then the joke was on us, and he’d goad us to join in, harder and faster each time.  I didn’t know what to think but I bought him a beer one time.

“I can’t stop.  Even if I wanted,” he admitted, “Which I don’t” he added, looking at me directly.  “Why don’t you join in?”

So I told him about Oma’s prayer.

Now normally telling a stranger about some religious thing you still have in your house might be reckless.  No, scrub that.  It’s more than reckless.  They’d come and separate you from the things you love, peeling hooked fingers apart, slamming possessions in boxes and clawing the core out of all your days before they incarcerate you – with no hope of release.   Well, they would say, you chose this – you chose it.  This is what you wanted right?  You were prepared to risk this were you not?  Seen it too many times.

So I tried to explain, “the line I like the best is my cup runneth over;  it’s about joy see? Or it’s meant to be.  That’s what everyone thinks.  But if you let yourself feel too much  it is a waste.”

He looks at me and gets it but laughs.

“Don’t you think that’s kind of comforting?”

“So what?  I should pour less in?  Not remotely comforting no.”

The kid swigs his beer and looks at me with contempt.  Maybe he doesn’t get it.  I try again.

“Look High IQ.  Being an adult on this crappy promentary requires almost superhuman levels of self-control and I know you will learn it.  You’ve told everyone how smart you are.”

“You are stupid and silly miss.”

“I’m not stupid or silly you little bastard.”

“Yes you are.  You haven’t thought it through at all.  You’ve fitted that horrible verse to your horrible life to make yourself feel better.”

I think of Oma and how safe she kept us and want to punch him.  I grab his arm as he stands to leave, “All I can think of is the stories of prisoners forced to drink until they burst – if it’s runnething overing then….. stop pouring the damn stuff in.”

“No!” He shouts.

“Yes!  So what’s your solution then, Genius?”

“Get a bigger cup.” He shrugs.

He blows his fingers in a kiss to me and is out the open door.  Bam. Gone in a gunpowder moment.

Why I Love Cringe Comedies.

winceYears ago my other half took me to see the first Harry Potter movie.  It wasn’t until we arrived at the cinema that he said actually Harry Potter sold out so he’d opted for us to see Black Hawk Down instead.  Consequently I was treated to a two-hour panic attack and spent the duration of the movie cursing, with my eyes closed, fingers wedged in my ears so I couldn’t see or hear the violence.

This was not unlike an incident a few years later, involving the Pepsi Max “Big One” Rollercoaster at Blackpool, (LOOK at it for Christ’s sake – I mean LOOK at it!) where I stupidly agreed to go on the ride despite being terrified by moderately high escalators and shunning dodgems because they make my glasses fall off.  It was a hen-do holiday with a crowd I didn’t know so well, so it is likely that drunkenness politeness took over where sanity should have intervened.

The Big One incident resulted in my neck being in spasms of pain for two clear weeks, not from the ride itself, but from my own efforts to will my neck to ingest my own head past my eyeballs, lest I see the awful awful heights to which I was being thrown.  I detest Pepsi to this day, and looking at a bottle of it makes me feel vertiginous.

I tell you this to show how I’m a gentle soul. I don’t like violence.  Or plummeting.  I prefer my entertainment NOT to be visceral.  I had a very interesting conversation a few months back with a client from the US. Our meeting was at a gallery and we were discussing art, as you do; he was of the opinion that pieces which prompted a pure visceral reaction were in fact lazy; relying on instincts of disgust or fear to do the work.  I think he had a point.

There is however an area where my stomach is strong.  Stronger than many.

Yeah.

I am BRILLIANT and I mean BRILLIANT at watching cringe comedies.

You know, the nasty comedies where terrible things happen to or at the hands of terrible people?  My eyes are wide open, my smile hungry.  I soak them up where weaker men wince and skip out of the room squeaking, “HOW CAN YOU WATCH THIS?  IT IS EXCRUTIATING.”

I love an unloveable antihero.  I adore a vile antagonist.  I revel in social cues being missed, or subverted and embarrassment descending, especially when the characters are completely oblivious, or when they just don’t give a fuckity bye.  I love scripts full of spite where the dialogue painfully exposes personal shortcomings or the fragility of social constructs.

And the reason?  It’s not that I love spitefulness or cruelty or stupidity.  I am not a psychopath or any kind of social sadist (although I do take that mild pleasure when someone overtakes you then gets stuck at the traffic lights in front of you – that’s normal right?).

I think it is because they are cerebral as opposed to visceral. Through the use of humour, black comedies permit us to acknowledge the fact that bad behaviour, or merely being a bit of an idiot is part of our human condition. As Steve Coogan sagely opined as the character of Tommy Saxondale, “We’re all a bit of a dick, nothing to be afraid of.”  That’s a minor aspect however.  The characters are not people to whom we wish to aspire.  Twats abound in life – this is fact.  Cringe comedies perhaps offer us the chance to stare at these grotesques, then feel reassured and safe in our abhorrence.

So at this time of love, light and goodwill to all men, (not to mention TV countdowns) here’s a bracing run down of five of the best vintage cringe comedies from UK TV.  N.B. these clips contain bad language and may be offensive or upsetting – and none are “safe for work” except, appropriately the one about work – The Office. 

5. Alan Partridge

Fictitious TV and radio presenter who is obliviously gauche and rude to guests, colleagues, members of the public, girlfriends, children etc.  He also suffers from eczema which results in his pillow resembling a flapjack and has a “rather whiffy” skin complaint on his feet.  What’s not to like?

Best Quote:  “DAN DAN DAN DAN.”

4. The Office

The series which showcases the exquisite ongoing humiliation suffusing the world of work and the endless tension of having to maintain professionalism whilst accepting petty authority from petty authoritarians.  Child-like Brent’s attention-seeking is enabled by this parched dynamic.

BEST QUOTE: “I’ve sort of fused Flashdance with MC Hammer shit.”

3. Peep Show

A weird friendship characterised by inner dialogues, unpleasant behaviour and lying. Tawdry disappointment infuses every scene.  Pure extentialism.  In this pivotal scene they must conceal the remains of a dog which Jeremy accidentally killed.  It’s pretty damn cringy.

BEST QUOTE: “Why did I put her in the bag?  I should have thrown her like a discus.”

2. Nighty Night

This insane TV series followed Jill; essentially she’s a psychopath who is intent on stealing her neighbour’s husband and having his baby. Julia Davis at her beautiful nasty best.  In this clip she tries to artificially inseminate herself by gatecrashing Don’s vasectomy.

BEST QUOTE: “Do you want a bit of Mash with that Jill?”

1. The Thick of It

Textbook satirical black comedy.  So accurate it may as well be a documentary.  And Malcolm Tucker.  He’s Horrible.  Brilliantly horrible.  Too many insults from which to choose so have a selection.

BEST QUOTE: “Who was it that did your media training, Myra Hindley? It’s terrible! All these hands all over the place. You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra. It was like watching John Leslie at work.”

 

And on that happy note, I shall wish you a great 2016 and say F*kity Bye for now!