This week is the Fisheye Film Festival. Most of you won’t have heard of it – it’s a relatively new festival that is open to all globally and originates locally to where I live. You can check it out at fisheyefilmfest.uk
The festival comprises of various events throughout the week, culminating in the showing of the shortlisted short films, both documentaries and fiction, and announcing the winners. For the last few years I’ve been on the panel of judges, which I’ve really enjoyed. For me it’s a great opportunity to look at work from the future of filming making.
And this year I have an added role. In the afternoon of Saturday 7th March, in The Drama Studio at Bucks Uni I’m part of a discussion panel, the topic – Imagine the Future! Storytelling and New Media. Anyone who has read my previous blogs will, I think, have worked out I’m pretty big on storytelling. What this brave new world has done has enabled storytellers to commit their tales to the screen as soon as they or their parents can afford an iPhone.
The big question is … Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I suppose time alone will tell. What I do know is that putting together a good story, hence a good script, is something that happens through practice. By turning an idea immediately into a film, does it throw the focus onto production and not the story?
I cut my teeth writing for the stage, which is what everybody used to do. Theatre was the route into the business. Drama schools didn’t really touch on what was required for acting on screen, TV or film. We did some radio technique, but the rest of the time was devoted to performing on stage.
We all knew that we would have to do a stint in theatre, because you had to do 40 weeks in rep to gain your Full Equity card, which enabled you to work anywhere. But the first hurdle was to acquire a Provisional Equity card and this was far from easy. The majority were doled out by reps, they were allowed to issue 2 per year. But there were other ways of ‘earning’ your admission into that much sought-after closed shop union. It was possible to get a card by having a contract in with a variety club, or another way was to do a TV commercial. As luck would have it, I happened to land a commercial – a Guinness commercial, my first job out of college.
To this day I don’t remember how I came to go up for the job. All I can assume is that the casting director, who I still have no idea who it was, had seen me in something and thought I looked right for sitting at a bar, chatting up a girl and downing a pint of Guinness. So there I was in a pub in Belsize Park, not having a clue what I was doing, but I think, bluffing rather well. I did learn quite a bit that day. Firstly, to work in film or TV, you have to be patient. I honestly thought we’d go along to the pub, sit at the bar, do it and be home for lunch. Not so. Hours later we were still there as I started to realise, for the first time, what shooting just a 40 second commercial entailed. The second thing I learnt was that advertising was the life blood of commercial TV. Companies need to put their wares out there for all to see and there’s no better way than TV, or at least there wasn’t until video recorders came along, which were fairly quickly out done by Sky and their natty recording box. (I’m the generation that witnessed the emergence of the video store, it grew from odd little tucked away shops into the big Blockbuster stores, to the demise of the whole system.) Advertisements were big business, as I found out six or seven years later, acting in dozens of commercials. The third thing I learnt on that day was that on commercials they use real beer – we were drinking the real McCoy Guinness, and I happened to be the guy knocking it back. Along with being patient, you had to know how to pace yourself; I learnt later on in my career this maxim also applied to food commercials. But perhaps the most important thing I learnt that day was that I loved the perfection of filming. Working on stage and working in front of a camera were two completely different things. One you had to make sure the people in the gods were getting the performance as much as the people in the stalls and the other you had to play the truth game and every twitch of the eyebrow or scratch of the head must mean something, if not, don’t do it. I still love working in both mediums, because they both offer two completely different experiences. A stage production should be like witnessing an F1 grand prix, you’re never quite sure when the whole thing is going to spin out of control and career off the track, while a film production is about a search for perfection. The viewer knows nobody will fall over or forget their lines, they just want to be totally sucked into the experience and believe every action and every word that’s said.
After the Guinness experience I went straight into theatre and started my ‘apprenticeship,’ playing lots of different roles and trying to persuade the other actors to do my one act plays in the bar after the main show.
But quite soon I was put up for a film role. They were looking for an unknown Northern actor to play the lead in the movie. I was unknown and I was Northern, so off I went to audition. I didn’t get the part, but I was offered a smaller part in the movie. It was shot on the Isle of Wight and if I thought the commercial was confusing, this was really confusing, I didn’t know what anybody did, or indeed who they were. Even more confusing was the fact everyone was talking in off London/Cockney accents. When I enquired about this fact, I was quickly told the actor they’d employed for the lead only did one accent, so everybody had to do it. The film was called That’ll Be The Day and the lead actor was David Essex. But the real irony was I’d spent 3 years training with voice specialists teaching me to speak standard English, only to get a job because I was Northern and then was asked to do Cockney.
It was a few years later before I stepped out in front of a camera again. By this time I’d written and directed various projects for the stage, but it wasn’t until I started acting on TV that I thought about writing for TV. I still wasn’t considering writing as a career, I just liked writing … telling stories. I would write whole serials, all 6 episodes and send them into whichever TV station I thought might like to do that particular project. They’d come winging back to me, with polite rejection letters. I just assumed because they were rejected, they were shit. Of course they may very well have been, but also they might have landed on the wrong desk at the wrong moment – just because something’s good, it doesn’t mean it will automatically get produced. The company has to want it. You might create the best cop show ever seen in the UK, knocks CSI into touch, but if nobody’s looking for a cop show, because the airways are full of them, then it’s not going to be snapped up.
But the more I worked in the medium, the more I understood it. I still have all those rejected scripts stored in the loft and I realise now that the work I put into creating those stories, wasn’t wasted, it was part of an essential learning curve. If you have a basic talent, the more you write – the better you become.
Eventually I got a break. At the time I was loading lorries through the night, a perfect job for me, I could attend auditions in the day and if there were no auditions then I could write. Way before mobiles I was called to take a phone call in the office and my wife informed me someone at the BBC wanted to talk about a script I’d submitted called Dog In The Dark.
And that was the start of my writing career.
It didn’t happen overnight, it was quite a long haul and looking back I believe, for me, that was the way to do it. If I’d have been able to film my early scripts would I have concentrated on how the story worked – I’m not sure I would. I would have been more interested in the camera angles, the set design, or whether it was in focus.
It seems to me I’m rarely impressed with the storytelling on terrestrial TV these days. Most it is very predictable and a lot of it not that well filmed. Directors are very good at coming up with unusual shots, but to achieve this the storytelling often suffers. HBO shows which are mainly on C4 or Sky Atlantic are usually in the range of interesting to brilliant. Netflix is leading the way with some of the most innovative dramas and films available. But generally with our domestic product I worry the art of storytelling has now become secondary to the need to get into production.
So I think Saturday’s discussion panel at the Fisheye Festival should at least prove interesting – what does the future hold and how will it accommodate the process of storytelling. Indeed, do stories even matter – just create a video game where the aim is to aimlessly kill as many people as possible and it will sell millions. Blockbuster movies seem to rely on massive effectives and CGI and the story seems to pale into insignificance – some superhero or heroes fight some super supposedly invincible foe … end of story. Doesn’t do it for me I’m afraid.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, for me … STORY IS GOD!