I’ve found myself in a vaguely ridiculous situation.
I think it’s a situation of my own construct but I also lay the blame pretty hugely elsewhere. I wouldn’t have created this mess had I thought I had any other logical course of action. So, I have nobody to blame but myself really but I think the situation is endemic of a bigger problem which is not my fault.
I get the feeling that this post is going to be a long and ranty one, I should warn you of that now, I type these stream-of-conscious and my views tend to solidify as I work through them. There are a whole bunch of factors going into the juicer here but I think the smoothie will be a good one. So, you’ve been warned. Turn back now or steel yourself for the journey.
When I write these blogs, they tend to be on a subject I’m passionate or irritated about. I rarely feel the need to share too much of my personal life – that’s a tendency in bloggers that I detest, the mere documenting of how they are ‘feeling’, which is invariably maudlin. I avoid talking about the specifics of my life, family and work because they’re not really anybody’s business and I’m aware that, once written, that information will exist in some form as long as the human race does (this, dear friends, is why you should never email pictures of yourself that you wouldn’t be comfortable with your 8 year old grandchild one day presenting to you and asking what is protruding from your bottom).
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while but have held back because it would be unavoidable to mention certain quite personal (although disappointingly unsalacious) things but this blog is about why modern things are so shit and how they might improve and the subject of this post is undoubtedly the biggest cause of frustration in my life so…. might as well.
I’ll start with a very potted history of my ‘career’. When I was 5, I decided I wanted to be a film director. It took the best part of a decade to work out what a film director actually was but I knew I wanted to make films. If it weren’t for the purity of a child’s wonderment, I’d cringe at what made me realise I wanted make films – like every other thirty-something, white, middle class film-maker the world over it was Star Wars. I’d seen and loved many films before – my dad was and remains a film buff – but Star Wars was the one where I thought ‘I’d like to make people react the way this is making me react’. Actually, that’s probably projection, I imagine I just thought it’d be cool to play with robots and monsters all day. I still think it would, by the way. I held true to my ambition throughout my childhood, making super-8 and camcorder epics with friends and alone. As a teenager, I took practical film-making courses at OFVM. By the time I was 15, I could load and operate a 16mm film camera and edit film on a flatbed steenbeck or video on a 3-machine edit suite. Around that time I started writing screenplays too. I was prodigious in my output, writing feature length huge-scale flights of fancy. After school, I spent 4 years at film school in Edinburgh. The university itself was a complete sham, the film department appeared to be run by crooks and assholes who had no interest in educating. This turned out for the best as we largely educated ourselves. We had a huge stash of free film equipment, great facilities and limitless time and enthusiasm. I made films constantly and with each one, I could see my work improving. At this time I met Andy and we started working together. We’d co-write, I’d direct and he’d produce. Before we even graduated, one of our short films got some attention and we found ourselves thrust into the professional world – mainly as a comedy screenwriting team.
In a short period of time, we were doing well. Although none of our original work ever saw the light of day, we were developing a feature film with Palm Pictures, making money selling options on our comedy series ideas to Thames Television and briefly courted by an enthusiastic BBC. When I re-read the work we were doing then, I’m kind of suprised by how good it still seems to me. In my work as a screenplay editor and screenwriting teacher now, I know that if I saw work of that quality from 22 year olds, I’d be pretty excited about it.
Those three situations all ended fruitlessly and differently. Our point of contact at Palm Pictures was an executive of some sort – I forget her actual title, they always seem vague to me – commisioning executive? development executive? acquisitions executive? She was fast, anyway. The day BEFORE our first short film debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival, she had sneaked in, viewed a VHS of it, called us and told us that we were hers. We rather liked that. She told us that we were going to be the UK version of Kevin Smith’s View Askew set-up. She gave us Manga flick-knives (Palm Pictures owned Manga), Star Wars soundtrack CDs and took us out for dinner a bunch. She told us stories of doing coke in public toilets with rock stars. Neither of us did coke. Maybe that was the problem. We thought she was great, anyway. Palm Pictures had acquired two indie films that they were about to release and she wanted our *honest* opinions on them – sent us off to screenings in London. The first – Six String Samurai – remains one of the most fantastic indie films I’ve ever seen – seriously, hunt it out! The second – Razor Blade Smile was the biggest pile of shit ever made. I’ve seen bad films but this was just below swill. A shitty English ‘erotic’ vampire mistake. We gave her our honest opinions and she was furious with us. Livid. We got a full-on ‘who do you think you fucking are?’ response. This is when we realised that honesty is an incredible faux-pas in the ‘industry’. Everyone is so busy being fake that the second you puncture their insane fantasies, you become an asshole of the highest order. Ultimately they rejected our first draft of the feature film (ingeniously they managed to not actually commission us, but get us to write it, exclusively for them, for free) and she stopped returning our calls. I have no doubt that had we done coke with her and blown smoke up her ass about how cool she – and everything she ever did – was, we’d be making feature films now. The director of Razor Blade Smile still is – his most recent one just got released. It ‘stars’ Danny Dyer. how wretched. Palm Pictures put all of their marketing resources into Razor Blade Smile. I don’t think Six String Samurai ever got any kind of release on any format in the UK. Had we played that game, we would have had a career of sorts.
My best comedy writing ever was for the BBC. A chap called Gareth Carrivick got in touch with us and we spent a fun day with him at the BBC TV Centre – we played about in the TARDIS and hung out in the Blue Peter garden. Time seems to cloud what he actually did there. I have a feeling he was some kind of head of comedy or comedy commissioning. He was a known director and his claim to fame seemed to have been directing the Vicar of Dibley. Recently he directed a feature film called FAQ About Time Travel. It was shit. Anyway, he dug us and wanted us to write a sitcom for a youthful audience. This is what he wanted. I went away and within a week had written a pilot and a couple of extra episodes of a sitcom I called ‘Little Indie’ – a jaded but sweet little sitcom set in a record shop. The BBC apparently loved it, everyone who read it seemed to. But Gareth eventually told us it would not get commissioned. Instead, the BBC made ‘Two Pints of lager and a Packet of Crisps’. He kept emphasizing that it had some ex-Hollyoaks stars ‘attached’ and that the writer was ‘only 21!’ and , this somehow off-set the awfulness of the writing. I was 23 at the time, Andy, 22.
Thames Television were very different. The executives there were intelligent and thoughtful. The notes we received back on our work were invariably smart and insightful and, brilliantly, they gave us money! They were keen to option ideas we came up with that they liked but never managed to get them to production. Thames were always ‘looking for’ something. One week it might be a ‘smart kid’s drama’, the next a ‘studenty comedy’ or ‘high octane thriller’. They liked us and we liked them but it never took off. They’d tell us what they were looking for, we’d develop projects to order, they’d hum and ha, maybe option them but never actually commission.
The situation was becoming desperate. Andy was living with his parents and had a girlfriend who didn’t understand why he couldn’t just grow up and get a real job and actually have some money in his pocket. I was hugely frustrated less on a domestic level but on a creative level. The thing is this; our talent was never in question. As I’ve progressed, I’ve discovered that a good screenwriter (or team) is a very very rare thing and all of these companies saw the potential and ability in us and wanted to work with us but there were these stumbling blocks in the way. The blocks were – from various companies and execs;
1. The fact that we weren’t party animals and couldn’t socially bond with certain execs. I guess this is a security thing – if they’re going to make you famous, they want to be damn sure you’ll take them along with you.
2. We were an untested commodity. The BBC, for the last ten years, has taken few risks on new talent. It’s safer to recommission critically panned shows which have performed acceptably (due to scheduling more than audience loyalty) than put their faith in something new. This is why 2 pints and My Hero lasted so long and why shows like Buzzcocks which have been tired and spent for seasons will drag ever on.
3. Predicting the market. Instead of just trying to commission GOOD projects regardless of industry figures, some companies feel they have to predict the market and give the people what they think the people want. This never works. But look at a company like HBO whose projects are all amazingly diverse and, on paper, often sound like they’d never work but are consistently incredible. It’s because HBO invests in writers, producers and directors they believe in and trust them to do a good job.
There were other jobs I haven’t listed, other companies, projects and opportunities but they were all much of a muchness. The frustration of producing good work – knowing it was good, being told by the right people it was good, but never getting to actually develop one idea through from concept to screen was unbelievable. The pressure was always there. People ask what you do and you tell them ‘I’m a screenwriter’ – which you are, you’re getting paid to do it and working hard – they ask what you’ve done they might have seen and you have to reply ‘nothing’. This gets particularly grating because the people who ask tend to fall into two categories – your supporters who want to hear exciting news and your rivals who want to hear of your failure
The highest profile gig we had was a year spent writing episodes of cult Canadian sci-fi show LEXX. Problem was that it was a genuine cult show; ie, nobody had ever heard of it. Eventually, Andy and I went our separate ways. I felt the quality of work we were producing had dipped horribly and unlike the projects we generated organically between ourselves, these ‘made to order’ ideas were empty and pointless. Had one of them been commissioned and we’d been expected to spend a year of our lives actually producing it, we’d have been miserable. I think we had both grown to resent and hate screenwriting. Any got a series of jobs in production on live digital TV shows, I opened my video shops and started teaching film-making, screenwriting and eventually script editing. It felt very good to have a steady income that didn’t depend on my perceived quality of work or an executive’s whim. Very, very good.
I basically stopped writing all together. I directed music videos and filmed gigs and rediscovered my love of just making films for fun, with friends, with no undertone of ambition or expectation.
I got persuaded once to write and submit a screenplay for the Screen South/UK Film Council production scheme and found it a frustrating and tawdry set-up. It was a good short screenplay and my producer Hank and I were immediately shortlisted and called in for a meeting. This meeting consisted of being sat at a large table full of people who didn’t introduce themselves or tell us their positions or backgrounds who expected us to justify our project to them. I felt the work justified itself and if they wanted to make it they should just pony up some cash rather than spend it all on of these people’s dayrates to sit around the table telling us conflicting views on the script. A couple of people sycophantically told us how great it was, one man kept blathering ‘I DON’T FIND IT FUNNY! IT’S NOT FUNNY’ to which I constantly replied ‘Maybe it’s just not to your taste, maybe you just don’t get it, maybe if we made it, you would!’. The ‘prize’ was that a bunch of the shortlisted films would be given an 8k budget to be made. I don’t think any short film is worth 8k of tax payers or lottery funding. If you gave 8k to a promising filmmaker, they could make a stunning raw debut feature film with that. What I found particularly distasteful was how obviously most of the film funding in this country was being spent on executives and their friends who were hired to deliberate pointlessly. It got worse – we got on the short shortlist and I was excitedly informed that I got to attend – for free – a screenwriters workshop where I would be given ‘skills’ to improve the screenplay. I pointed out that as I was currently teaching the 22 week UK Film Council official screenwriting course, I was actually teaching at a higher level than the woman they’d hired to give the workshop. I was told it was compulsory I attend. Predictably, this woman didn’t have a clue and was just one of the ever-growing legion of unqualified ‘script readers’ who wangled low paid jobs at production companies like Working Title and use that as leverage later on to teach screenwriting or become script editors despite having no formal training, industry experience of actually writing or any actual skill or insight. After all of this, we didn’t make the final list. But amusingly, they offered me a slot producing one of the chosen films and Hank was encouraged to become a screenwriter. Despite neither of us presenting a talent or desire for such roles. It turns out that part of their remit is to be seen to ‘develop’ talent and this was their idea of doing so.
Back in the day of simple arts funding, people who wanted to make films would approach these bodies, display some passion and be given a grant to just go off and make films. No ‘execs’, no ‘experts’, no enforced ‘development’ – no gravy train infected by middle management types.
Hank and I decided to just make a short film ourselves with no outside involvement – he bankrolled it himself. It won a best short film award at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas – the most respected ‘cult’ film festival. Hank did later try his hand at screenwriting for Screen South. They insisted on so many rewrites (his first draft had been almost perfect but far too subtle for the brand of idiot they emply to understand) and beat the project so far beyond recognition that he gave them the money back and decided not to take it into production.
So, finally, I return to the point of this post. The situation I got myself into. A couple of years ago, it was announced here in Oxford that the Zodiac music venue was to close and reopen as a corporate-fuelled Carling Academy. I had been a member of the Oxford music scene for some time – filming gigs, making videos and that was my main social scene, all of my friends in Oxford are somehow a part of the scene. It hit me that the time was right to make a documentary about the scene – this tiny scene which had given the world Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride, Foals, Young Knives, Swervedriver, Talulah Gosh and a huge slew of their peers who were in incredible bands that the world never really got to hear – The Candyskins, Dustball, The Anyways, The Mystics… I knew, despite having no real documentary experience that I was just the right guy to make the film. I was on the inside, I had the knowledge and skills needed but was detached enough to give it perspective and make a point with it. So I just did it. I’ve spent the last two and a half years making this film, it really snowballed, all of the bands (except the Young Knives) totally got into it, participated, gave me long interviews and loads of unseen archival footage and I’m really proud of my work. I rarely am, I’m usually painfully self-critical but I think I’ve made a good film. Those who have seen it seem to agree.
Here’s the problem; How do I get it out there? I have signed a limited distribution/sales contract but it depends on me submitting a finished film – this means it has to be picture graded, sound mixed and have all of the footage and music clearances paid. The film cost me about 7k to make over 2 and a half years and it is finished in so far as it is fully watchable and edit locked. To ‘finish’ it will cost in the region of 8ok. Eighty thousand pounds.
I purposefully didn’t try to get the film funded in advance because I knew from years of painful experiences that the funding bodies wouldn’t just let me make the film I knew I could make – they’d want meetings, to develop it, to pay their friends to come up with stupid changes to justify their fees. I knew I couldn’t take it to production companies as they would have only assessed it on a commercial basis – meaning they would have insisted that Radiohead be more prominent in the edit and marketing. There was no point going to the BBC or Channel 4 because as an unknown quantity myself – with no doc experience – they wouldn’t have had the faith in my ability to just do it. This was obvious at Britdoc – which I spent a lot of money to attend only to have my idea facelessly rejected but be encouraged to attend many parties with horrible development executives drinking copious amounts of some horrible soft drink which was sponsoring the event.
So, now I’m left with a film, possibly a significant music documentary, that I’ve been told is well-made and of great commercial interest, I’ve seen far lesser films in the cinema and the dvd shelves recently, but I’m left skint, outside the industry, weary and unsure of how to progress.
I have no career ambition and have never seen it as a potential moneyspinner (if I broke even on it, I would be ecstatic!) but I desperately want it to reach its audience as I think it says some important things that I have never seen said on film before and it could introduce the world to some of the greatest bands they have never heard along with telling the untold stories of some of the bands they are hugely familiar with.
I think it deserves to get out there. But I have no idea how to do that.
Anyone got a spare £80k kicking around?