Today, I did something morally reprehensible. Something that I am utterly opposed to and regularly speak out against. Something that would genuinely shock those who know me well. Something that goes not just against my ethics but against my livelihood and that of a lot of people I care about.
I illegally downloaded a film.
Actually, I had to get a friend to do it for me and burn the film onto DVD as I don’t – and have never wanted to – understand all this bit-torrent stuff. I had the film illegally downloaded, I watched it, I have no intention of buying the official DVD, seeing the film in the cinema or recommending the film to anybody. I feel no regret or remorse and rather enjoyed playing a small role in it’s commercial failure.
This doesn’t reflect any shift in my moral balance and, yes, it’s an isolated case. I remain as opposed to illegal download and bootlegging as ever. But not for this film.
This all started last week when I got an email from one of my ex screenwriting students. He sent me a link to this blog….
It’s an interesting read, written by first-time feature film director Phil Hawkins, detailing his recent experiences in which the low-budget feature film he directed – an adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s novel The Butterfly Tattoo had been victim to over 200,000 illegal downloads before even securing a cinema or worldwide DVD release. He remains somewhat chipper about the experience – and seems glad that, despite the entire cast, crew and team of investors being left literally penniless from the experience, at least the film has – in it’s own way – found a wide audience.
The film was a profit-share arrangement. It was made completely independently and it’s commercial failure means that the investors who supported it have lost their investments completely, with no hope of any profit or even remuneration. The cast and crew were apparently completely unpaid but worked for profit points – with the film being so cheap to make and bearing the commercial hallmark of Philip Pullman’s name, they were practically guaranteed a healthy return. But it looks as if that will now never happen.
This was the film I chose to illegally download.
I have a little history with the project.
In 2007, I was told by the guys who run the non-profit film workshop that I teach at here in Oxford that some Dutch film producers were looking for a local screenwriter to adapt one of Philip Pullman’s early novels into a screenplay, which would be shot in Oxford that summer. I was immediately intrigued, although suspicious – these things are rarely as good as they sound. I did a little research and found out the facts behind the project. It was definitely a strange one.
It seemed that a bunch of Pullman fans had managed to get the man himself to give them the film rights to this obscure non-fantasy novel on the basis that the shoot would be a kind of educational experiment – all of the cast and crew would be relative newcomers and young aspiring filmmakers would be invited to participate and ‘shadow’ key crew members. It would be funded entirely by private investors (with Pullman’s best selling books about to undergo huge multi-million dollar Hollywood adaptations, this was a sound commercial venture) and all cast and crew would be paid mainly by profit share once the film was released. I was still a bit skeptical, but began a correspondence with the producer – Rik Visser. He enthused about the project and his passion was infectious.
The director had already been selected and Rik seemed to refer to him exclusively as ‘Award Winning Director Phil Hawkins’. This always raises an eyebrow with me. Once you’ve seen the reality of the film festival circuit, you realise how easy it is to be an ‘award winning filmmaker’. I’ve won awards at film festivals, so technically I can claim this mantle too. But I’ll hold off until I win one at Sundance, the Oscars or the Baftas. (I’m actually friends with Bafta winners and have never heard them referred to as award-winning filmmakers, they’d probably cringe at the prospect). Awards are utterly meaningless. Rik linked me to Phil’s website – http://www.philm.co.uk – and I was disheartened trawling through the competently filmed, uninspired clips. It seems his main source of income now is directing segments for Top gear rip-off ‘Fifth Gear’ and that’s kind of where I would have placed his talents even back then – a competent lower-end TV director.
So, I was kind of skeptical of the project and, having watched shitty TV directors destroy my scripts previously, not too enamoured with the idea of the project as a whole.
But then I read the book.
Oh my god.
I read it cover to cover in a single sitting and then re-read it the following day. You know that song ‘Killing Me Softly’ where, I think it’s, Roberta Flack sings about going to a gig and having the singer onstage’s lyrics strike such a chord with her own life that she felt he had been writing it for her and about her? I have never felt so close to a book as I still do to The Butterfly Tattoo. Set in Oxford in the early 90s, it tells the story of a doomed teenage love. The story was OK, but the rest was sublime. The angry, emotional teenage boy unable to control his rage and burning self-righteousness – that was me. The squats of Cowley Road, the gigs at The Jericho Tavern, the middle class parents, the smug old university, the junkies, student twats and alright blokes. Cowley, Jericho, Summertown. It was youth. It was my youth. I knew that I would get to write this script because I understood this book. I felt I probably understood the world it was set in even more than Pullman. I could do justice to the book but I could also bring something to it. Authenticity. It felt like a convergence – all of my years working to have become a professional screenwriter colliding with my years as a teenage waster dragging myself around the streets of Oxford.
The deal Rik was offering was that prospective writers had to send in an email detailing their vision of the film. The successful few shortlisted writers would then be invited to write a treatment. In return for submitting a 12 page treatment (a document that details the film on a scene-to-scene basis), these writers would each receive a 0.25% share of the film’s profits and one candidate would be chosen to actually be commissioned as the film’s screenwriter.
I made it through to the shortlist. I was sent a contract to sign but alarm bells were going off in my head, The potential financial returns were nowhere near even touching the writer’s guild advised minimum pay levels. I get the feeling the other writers complained too as a group email promised us a change to the contract and that we would be paid a small but fairish amount for the actual writing.
I waited a couple of nervous weeks to find out who would be the lucky writer, then received an email of congratulations from the producers. I’d been…. shortlisted. Again. Apparently they couldn’t decide between myself and one other writer, so they were inviting us to each submit a far more detailed 50 page treatment. Now, with the average screenplay coming in at 90 pages – a 50 page treatment is VERY thorough and detailed. It is also a LOT of work. I was disappointed that they were – firstly – changing the rules and – secondly – expecting so much more work, but I was game, I wanted to adapt this book.
Since we got 0.25% profit share and a contract to protect us legally for the submission of the 12 page treatment, I asked Rik what proft share and contract we would get for the 50 page effort. He told me none. No more ‘money’ is one thing, but a refusal of legal protection is insane. at 50 pages, we’d have written everything but the specific dialogue and, not being a finished screenplay, it would not be protected by the writer’s contracts. This means they could cherrypick from both writers’ 50 page treatments without ever paying or acknowledging us. I couldn’t believe the other writer was tolerating this and asked for his contact details – but was refused. Rik told me that the other writer was working on his 50 page treatment and that if I didn’t remain in the ‘race’, he would win by default.
I said no. Stephen Potts became the screenwriter. He’s 20 years older than me and this was his first attempt at screenwriting.
I took little comfort in knowing how sub-standard the film would be without me. They shot it in Oxford that summer and I got reports that it was a fun shoot but the direction and performances weren’t really up to scratch. The producers pulled a similar ‘competition’ for local bands to appear in the film and on the soundtrack and they wasted a lot of people’s time and effort doing so. One of my ex-students managed to get me a copy of the script.
It was shit.
A straight adaptation. This can sound like the best thing but you might be overlooking the fact that most books are written third person and deal almost exclusively with a characters innermost thoughts, feelings and secrets. Since The Butterfly Tattoo is really all about thoughts, feelings and secrets, a straight adaptation really just presents the scenes to an audience at face value. Potts had cut certain things that didn’t needed cutting but generally had remained faithful and boring. He brought nothing to the table. It utterly depressed me.
I was suspicious recently that the film – shot 2 years ago now – still hadn’t surfaced. Then I read Phil’s blog. I do feel a bit sorry for him. I get the impression he put his mediocre heart and uninteresting soul into that film and the producers have royally fucked it up. The reviews it got were lewk-warm at best and generally disparaging, dismissing it as a badly written piece that at least tries to have some emotional impact. Apparently it has been unable to secure any kind of release in the UK at all – which is very telling considering how popular Pullman is here. In the US, the producers sold the DVD rights and the DVD was released. It was instantly ripped and put online. It amazes me that the producers didn’t work to get it any kind of international profile – film festivals, cinema releases, but no – straight to US dvd. With a marketing/release scheme like that, they deserve this failure.
I just watched my illegal downloaded copy of it.
It was rubbish. The subtleties of the story and theme completely escape Potts and Hawkins, it’s poorly filmed and the pace is slow and boring. The characters are badly cast, although the male lead gives it his best shot (shame he looks and acts a good 5 years older than the hot-headed teenager he should have been). The mysterious female lead (her mystery stemming from an abusive childhood) has no nuance and will, doubtless, end up on Hollyoaks where her vacuous beauty and unengaging presence could truly shine. The role of barry (charismatic philanderer with a criminal past) is almost comically miscast to be played by a rotund end-of-the-pier type of podgy fool.
The film is abhorrently over-scored with annoying, intrusive orchestral music punctuating every single damn moment of emotion.
At the end of the day, I always tell my students that a coherent theme is the most important thing – what are you trying to say? What are you using the medium of film to express to your audience? There is no point to this film. It says nothing, explores nothing, just presents the superficialities of the story of a great book.
So, am I happy it has failed? No, I think some inexperienced people with their hearts in the right place took a solid stab at it. But I am glad it failed to make a mark. As one day, I’ll get my hands on the rights and turn it into the beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful film that it always should have been.