Over the last couple of weeks I have been making my annual visit to the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL and have seen many extremely good films.
From a story telling POV it was quite inspiring to reflect on how different the 9 films I saw were in tone and subject matter; and it’s been a real education watching so many good films at the same time as reading so many scripts for the C4 course – seeing so many excellent, inspiring films has been a touchstone for the quality and originality we’re looking for in the 4screenwriting scripts.
On the way out of one of the films, CLEMENCY, I happened to be exiting next to Mike Leigh. Weirdly I’d walked into the TV room at home the evening before to find my wife watching NUTS IN MAY which she’d chanced upon on BBC iplayer. I wasn’t intending to watch but after a minute I was once again hooked and stayed for the rest of the film. Even though I’d seen it when it was first transmitted (a very long time ago!) and a few times since, I was still absolutely engrossed by its brilliantly uncomfortable comedy and by the wonderfully vivid characters played by Roger Sloman and Alison Steadman. It’s barely conceivable that Abigail in Abigail’s Party and Candace-Marie in Nuts In May are played by the same actor – they seem to have an entirely different physicality.
What really brings NUTS IN MAY to life is the colour of the characterisations – and the wonderful dynamics of the relationships.
It felt too much like fate for me not to button-hole Mike Leigh and come on like a slightly crazed fan-boy, tell him that I’d watched NUTS IN MAY the night before and on original TX and loved it just as much both times. ‘Oh that’s an old chestnut’ he said self-deprecatingly and in an effort to rid himself of this odd stranger.
But back to the LFF – CLEMENCY is a really powerful film about the black, female warden of a US prison who has to oversee state executions – and about the personal cost for her. The story is told simply but effectively and the film’s power is undeniable. There are a couple of sequences, seen from the POV of this lead character, that are almost unbearably intense.
GREED, written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, and starring Steve Coogan (leading a brilliant ensemble cast) is big, brash, vulgar and simplistic – and I absolutely loved it. It’s the film that at this particular time, I needed to see – a satirical critique of much that is sick about contemporary capitalist society. It’s thought-provoking, shocking – but also very funny – and has real flair as a piece of film-making and story-telling.
OFFICIAL SECRETS. Based on a true story, this is a detailed, minutely-observed and engrossing story about one woman’s act of conscience – and the ripples it causes (I’m trying to avoid spoilers so please excuse the vagueness!) Suffice to say, it’s an extraordinary story told with real skill and integrity.
One of the common themes of the Q&A’s that followed some of these films (one of the real pluses of seeing films at the LFF) was the difficulty in trying to raise funding for lower / mid-range budget films like GREED, OUR GIRLS, OFFICIAL SECRETS, HOPE GAP, etc. Both William Nicholson (writer/director of HOPE GAP) and OFFICIAL SECRETS producer Ged Doherty stressed how hard it is getting mid-range budget films like this made in the current market.
As Gavin Hood, director of OFFICIAL SECRETS said, ‘Audiences worldwide are going through a massive transformation’.
As an illustration of this – one of my favourite films this year was Noah Baumbach’s MARRIAGE STORY. The film works brilliantly on the big screen – it feels cinematic but, like Baumbach’s previous and equally excellent film, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES, MARRIAGE STORY is a Netflix film.
And it seems extraordinary that Martin Scorsese’s already very well-received epic three hour film THE IRISHMAN is also a Netflix film.
One thing that stands out about the good films is the strength of the idea / premise/ story / agenda underlying them. When as a writer you’re thinking about developing new ideas, one of the things you absolutely have to do is really cut through, make a statement with your idea. There are so many producers and writers out there battling for commissions and funding, that the most basic requirement is that you believe passionately in your idea and can articulate that passion. Another of the striking things about the Q&A’s I’ve been to is how long some of these projects have been in development – ‘Our Ladies’ writer / director Michael Caton-Jones had the option on the book for 20 years before finally getting it made. Guardian journalist Martin Bright had been trying to get a film of Catherine Gun’s story (OFFICIAL SECRETS) made for ten years.
Another thing that struck me anew was just how many of the best projects come from another source – a true story, a novel, a newspaper article etc. The brilliant realisation of a true story was there to see in OFFICIAL SECRETS AND Jack Thorne’s THE AERONAUTS.
And other films – like CLEMENCY, GREED, MARRIAGE STORY, HOPE GAP – the latter two both apparently using very particular autobiographical elements – tapped into the zeitgeist or used true stories as an inspiration for their fictionalised versions.
OFFICIAL SECRETS is in many ways a straightforward political thriller. But like all of the best of these films, it has real assurance and consistency of tone. You know exactly where you are with it but it has real tension, momentum and an admirable attention to detail that gives you a real confidence in the story’s integrity (reinforced by what director Gavin Hood said in the Q&A afterwards about the level of research they did).
So many of the best films are under-pinned by a compelling, specific, but universal question that the audience asks of the story eg OFFICAL SECRETS – would I have had the courage to do what Catherine Gun did? A simple compelling dramatic question that is at the heart of your story.
MARRIAGE STORY. Perhaps my favourite of the 9 films I saw. Quite a familiar cinema story – it has many narrative similarities to KRAMER VS KRAMER – but it was nonetheless a delight. I loved the confidence and flair of the story telling, also the way it played with form / genre – from the brilliant extended voiceover montage sequence at the start that pulls you straight into the story – to the two Company / Sondheim songs at the end – when the film suddenly almost becomes a musical. I loved the unexpected detail of the story – the little, weird, surprising details that made this feel real. I loved the messy lack of resolution to the story. And there were so many wonderful standout scenes – not least the long, climactic argument scene. This was an argument that felt real – painful and hurtful. I loved the emotional use of objects to elevate the story, eg the couples’ written positive statements about each other for their first meeting with a mediator, that popped up at key moments of the story. For my money Noah Baumbach gets better and better as screenwriter / director. MARRIAGE STORY comes to Netflix in December alongside THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES. It’s really worth watching both several times to enjoy the screenwriting craft.
2 DAY SCREENWRITING COURSE October 12-13
Last weekend saw the latest of my semi-regular 2 day London weekend screenwriting courses. These courses are limited to a maximum of 20 writers. It’s a very packed, quite intensive two days – but it’s always a delight for me to meet 20 fired-up, passionate dramatic writers and to hear their wonderful ideas – so many of the ideas they pitched are still reverberating in my brain. The mix of people I have on the courses is mind-boggling – on this particular course we had three lawyers, a female police officer from Newcastle, an actress based in LA, a Scottish historian, a hypnotherapist, a documentary film-maker, a TV drama development executive etc etc – and one of the things I try to engineer / encourage is that the writers spend a lot of time talking to and bouncing ideas off each other. Writing is difficult because it’s so solitary and I hope one of the things these courses do is encourage the writers who come on them to make new writing contacts that last – and to keep encouraging and motivating each other in the years that follow. (There are already plans initiated by the writers on this course to start a new writing group).
I’m now looking forward to the next of these courses in mid-November (already fully booked I’m afraid). And I will be organising more of these courses for early in 2020.
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 1st.
All the best
October 18th 2019