BLOG 2018

JULY / AUGUST

I spent a few days at the Galway Film Fleadh. I saw several films, met old friends and pitched MY SONGS INSIDE to someone from a big Irish production company, so the trip was worth it. It's 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and this was the trigger for a number of documentaries to be included about "the Troubles." Two of these made tough viewing: I, Dolours about the IRA member Dolours Price, and The Life After about people who lost loved ones, innocent victims from both communities. I also saw Under The Tree, a bizarre but memorable film from Iceland about neighbours falling out with each other. "Spiralling out of control" is one of the tired clichés used to summarise so many movies but, in this case, it's a perfect description.

Again concerning the Troubles, I finally got to watch '71 in August - a riveting film but very much a thriller. Wonderfully portrayed though he was I'd have liked a bit more about the central character and his background, and I'm doubtful about the portrayal of the undercover soldiers; they seemed too mouthy and hyperactive, given they were selected and trained for this kind of work and probably kept well away from uniformed troops.

Good to have two of my films in one festival: this happened, as noted in my blog for JUNE, at the Chichester Film Festival. The Festival Director Roger Gibson sent me the brief text they were proposing to use in their programme for TO THE LIGHTHOUSE: this quoted a review that said the film was "not as good as the novel but wondrously close." This was intended to be a compliment (if a slightly back-handed one!) but the approach is wrong. There are two different experiences involved, reading and viewing: an adaptation makes a new work that requires a different experience from those who make the audience. So criticism needs to accept that: the film might fail to address an aspect of the novel, or it might distort the essence of it, for example. But for better or worse, a new element has come in: the screenwriter doing the adaptation and his/her subjectivity is involved. There is no neutral toolkit to transform prose to screen.

Incidentally, this kind of direct comparison is rarely made in cinema, where the source book is made little of. In TV it is foregrounded: the tendency is to say "we are presenting this novel on screen." And that can set people up to be disappointed! In fact, I try to avoid the term "adaptation" in the credits: "Screenplay by..., based on the novel by..." expresses more accurately the process that has occurred.

Anyway, Roger kindly gave me the opportunity to change the text, so no harm done. This does, though, bring me to another thought about how films originate. I heard someone recently insisting that Nicholas Roeg is an "auteur." He's a wonderful director but must we have that word "auteur"? The "auteur theory" asserts that the director is the true author of the film, but it is only a theory. And yet, while it does not seek to deny the facts of source books and screenwriting, it has led to these elements being largely ignored, and this in turn distorts the truth of how many films come about. Best wishes to Roeg, 90 this August, but he doesn't write his films, he doesn't originate them. He chooses what he wants to work on and brings his vision to the films he directs. But he works with writers - particularly Allan Scott who has been his close collaborator on many of his films.

If we take a look at some of Roeg's best known films: Castaway, for example, along with Don't Look Now, were made from screenplays by Allan, in both cases adapted - from Lucy Irvine's book in the first case and Daphne Du Maurier's short story in the second. Allan has also been a producer in some cases, which doubtless has helped them keep artistic control of their work. As for Performance: Roeg was I believe originally only credited as Director of Photography and, probably rightly, he is now credited as co-director. Donald Cammell wrote the screenplay and it is said he supervised the re-edit to enable the film to be released. Regarding The Man who Fell to Earth: Paul Mayersberg wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Walter Tevis. As for Bad Timing, another example from Roeg's work - the screenplay was by Yale Udoff. In none of these films did Roeg claim a co-writing credit.

The relentless focus on directors is largely a matter of marketing: films are sold on the director and/or the actors. It's not easy for screenwriters like me to be told endlessly that film making is "about collaboration" but then to find their contribution, which may include the very initiation of the film, is so little acknowledged. I have worked amicably and successfully with directors - my gripe is less with them than those who promote and write about the films they are involved in. Everyone loves the singular genius and even films themselves increasingly reflect this: they have to be a single person's "journey" - the protagonist. We live in an age of the selfie!

 

JUNE

A quiet month in terms of things happening, but a lot of interest suddenly surfacing all at once in work of mine from the past. The following are events fixed in June but for later in the year.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE will be screened on August 11 during Chichester Film Festival. There will also be screenings of the other three films made from work by Virginia Woolf to link with an exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery

WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU will be screened on September 21 at Cinema Museum in London by the Max Wall Society: Max plays Tom in the film, one of his last pieces of work before his death in 1990. Inspired casting for that film by Simone Reynolds: alongside Max Wall, we had Frances Barber, Alan Bates, Gary Oldman and Liz Smith.

GIBRALTAR STRAIT: following the successful rehearsed reading in March in Belfast, there are plans for a proper performance of my play during the Belfast International Arts Festival in October.

THE MILL ON THE FLOSS: interest has been expressed by the George Eliot Fellowship in the possibility of a screening of my adaptation. This is still available as a DVD from the BBC but to show it on a bigger screen would be welcome.

My most recent film, WAITING FOR YOU, is nearing the end of its life in film festivals, but will be in the Chichester Festival (August 15) and also in the Norwich Film Festival in November.

Aside from that I spent quite a bit of time working on a significant rewrite of MY SONGS INSIDE, a script that has been "in development" for way too long. Keeping faith is hard!

 

MAY

Couldn't resist a few days in Cannes - a self-indulgence really. Film Bridge International were there with WAITING FOR YOU as one of the films they were hoping to sell but that didn't involve me.

It's becoming the convention in the UK to say the Cannes Festival is passé with its insistence on a dress code for evening screenings and scores nul points re sexism etc - but it's all rather charming to be strolling in the sun and drifting round the Palais, and going to "happy hours" i.e. quaffing rosé whenever allowed. And the silly stuff is rooted in a passion for cinema and I like that. Anyway, I had a good time, hung out with friends, saw some interesting films... The Godard film was incomprehensible but got a special award anyway. Quelle surprise.

Straight after I got back, I was down to Plymouth for a second screening of REMEMBRANCE. The cinema at Peninsula Arts was only half full this time but I'm glad I went anyway - I did an intro and a Q&A afterwards.

Surprised to find that my time at the Medway campus, where I have been on a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship, was already coming to an end. The other tutors, employed by the university, were friendly and helpful as was my manager, but it was a strange place, not really feeling like a university at all. I remain grateful to the RLF for giving me a fourth fellowship.

Speaking of the RLF, I was pleased to be asked last month for ideas for another article to appear in COLLECTED, a strand on their website where RLF writers contribute articles about aspects of what we do. I thought again about the re-discovery of some of my old work and so arrived at the subject for the article. It was uploaded near the end of April, so here's a link to it: www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/old-hat/

And here, while we are on the subject, is a link to my earlier one: www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/what-is-screenwriting/ This draws on the content of many talks I've given. There's so little knowledge about screenwriting and what it involves, I take advantage of any opportunity to speak about it!

Back on the mentoring at the London Film School now, which I've done for some years. I had a first meeting with the MA screenwriting student who's been allocated to me, giving her first draft a gentle but thorough shake-up.

 

APRIL

I've known producer and director David Wilkinson for a long time: he found the money for TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, for which I shall always be very grateful. More recently he has been making documentaries; his feature-length film POSTCARDS FROM THE 48% opposing Brexit was given a screening at the EU Commission through the help of Catherine Bearder, an MEP who is one of the many people interviewed in the film. I went over to Brussels to be in the audience. A thorough rousing evening all in all: following the screening and discussion with a panel of speakers, everyone ended up in an Irish-themed pub (is there a city in the world without one?) for some food and drinks.

Any excuse to be in Europe, as far as I'm concerned: I decided to stay on a few days, travelling to Paris then on to Poitiers and to Bordeaux.

Delighted to be at the screening of WAITING FOR YOU during the East End Film Festival - a sold-out Saturday evening event at the Rich Mix cinema with some cast and crew present and a good Q&A afterwards. Aside from that, other films seen include BEAST, written and directed by Michael Pearce. He achieved what everyone starting out must dream of achieving: a hugely successful first film, liked by both critics and audiences. He's probably gone to Hollywood already. But there's no denying the film's appeal.

Teaching still pops up occasionally (I don't include the RLF as that's not teaching in the sense of drawing on my own work.) I still have my fellowship at Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School, and that means an occasional gig: this month there was a short intensive course in script writing for both stage and screen. I did an afternoon session focusing specifically on the single film / cinema as Anjum Malik was focusing on writing for TV. I moan a bit to myself - frankly, for the time it takes with travel, prep, and so on, the fee so low, it's hardly worth it, etc etc - but the truth is I enjoy these sessions.

 

MARCH

Through the last year or so, partly through my own efforts but certainly helped by other people, there has been quite a bit of activity around my films from a long time back. Re-discovery! I spoke back in Aug/Sept 2017 of this blog about screenings of THE TRESPASSER and TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, and I wrote in November about REMEMBRANCE. That film received another boost, being selected for screening by Channel Four, along with three other early films in which Gary Oldman appeared. This was to mark the occasion of him winning big awards for his portrayal of Winston Churchill.

Another re-discovery was of GIBRALTAR STRAIT, my short theatre play about the killing of three members of the IRA by the British Army. This occurred in March 1988 and there has been a big memorial event (I think every ten years, perhaps yearly) to mark it in Belfast among Republicans there. I suddenly had an email from a lecturer at Queens University and hey presto, I was flown over there for a rehearsed reading by Belfast's very active theatre company BRASSNECK - amazingly, the company's director, Tony Devlin, put the whole event together in about two weeks. It played to a packed house, following a candlelit gathering of remembrance for not only the three dead but also other people who died in the subsequent attack in the cemetery during their burial.

I spoke for a while after the play with a small group of Queens students, but I read out a short intro before it: I wanted to try to be clear why I written the play. Tony is determined to stage the play properly during the International Festival in Belfast in October, but this requires a lot of funds to be found.

 

FEBRUARY

I got back in touch with Peter Ansorge via Facebook early in the month; Peter commissioned THE BIG BATTALIONS for Channel Four when he was head of drama there. He now teaches at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, and he invited me to visit it. Amazing to see how it has grown since I did some teaching there myself in 2002.

Mostly when I read a novel, I start to think whether I could make a film based on it - daft, but I can't help it. I came across an article that was relevant to this. It was in the Guardian in January, and I made a note to comment on it at some point. It's by Tim Lott, read it here.

He puts his head in the lion's mouth by attacking "literary fiction" and, even more risky, he speaks up for screenwriters, which is a rare thing even in the film world, let alone in the world of literature. Specifically, he bemoans the lack of interest in plot among writers of "serious" fiction. He refers to a visit he made to the University of East Anglia, where he was shocked to find the postgraduate students on the creative writing course there knew nothing about plot. Plot, it seems, is for hacks.

I think of myself as a storyteller but my outlet is film drama. Storytellers, using more typically the outlet of live performance, always set out, carefully and deliberately, to hook the audience. It's useful to refer here to David Lodge's dictum, that fiction works by "raising questions and delaying on the answers."

I saw a connection in Lott's piece with my own experience in reading contemporary fiction, which is that the novelist is so often looking backwards. As Lott says, there are novels that are beautifully written but lack any real forward momentum. The "present time" of a novel is more like a situation and events (things happening with consequences) are often placed in the past, typically they lie in the central character's memory. This is not fruitful material to adapt for the screen because to hold an audience, there needs to be that momentum: they want to know what will happen next. This doesn't need to be "edge of the seat" stuff, but there needs to a bit of compulsion. I struggle with this myself, in fact: Charles Garrad and I spent a long time on the screenplay for WAITING FOR YOU building up the story of the present (what is happening) so as to be strong enough, as it were, to carry the weight of the past (what happened before.) The film has to be about the search to find out about the past (which is active) not a study of someone "dealing with" the past (which is passive.)

 

DECEMBER / JANUARY

Interest in my work from way back has continued. Following the live screening of REMEMBRANCE in Plymouth, C4 also screened this film early in the month to celebrate Gary Oldman's award-winning success as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. I'm hopeful of at least another screening in Plymouth and possibly others.

Good to see Danny Leigh mention my other film with Gary (WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU) in an important article for the Guardian He records how we have lost the class mobility that was such a valuable thing for actors of Gary's generation.

I would add that everything has become so rigid now, which makes the situation even more difficult. The universities are the gatekeepers, flogging their creative courses to those who can afford them. And there are so few openings otherwise. I was a middle-class type, but I was broke after university, and if I hadn't been able to move relatively easily out of one kind of field to another I couldn't have succeeded. None of the writers of my generation studied writing - there was nowhere to do that.

WAITING FOR YOU has been selected for several more festivals - most recently a third U.S. one and a debut festival screening in Canada.

My screenplay for MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN is now finished, at least as a revised first draft. This may be as far as my involvement will go.