Different Ways Of Making Films
I basically never write public blogs about the process of my making stuff. I write little essays for myself about it in my notebook quite a bit, but I never make them public. I have friends who are theatre-makers or performance artists and the like who quite regularly publish blogs about their process of making their work, and I always enjoy reading them, but I never do it myself, I think largely because the process of making a comedy show is already a very public one - if an audience wants to better understand the process by which a bunch of nascent ideas get transformed into a finished stand-up show, they can attend any number of gigs or work-in-progress performances all through the year and see how ideas come together and coalesce, so I usually keep my thoughts on my own process to myself.
I've recently been thinking about filmmaking, however, which isn't a public process in the same way, only its end results are, and on balance I felt like my musings on the subject might be vaguely interesting to people who like to follow my work, so here they are. Essentially, over the last year-and-a-bit I've gradually shifted my way of approaching my own ideas from always trying to make them work onstage as comedy routines, to trying to find ways of making them work onscreen. At the end of 2015 I released the first series of The Girl Whisperer and I was told that in some way the essence of how my ideas worked and what made me a funny or interesting person came through sharper and clearer in that series of shorts than in my stage shows. Since then, I've written (or co-written), produced and acted in six further episodes of The Girl Whisperer and five short films (Double Act; Robert Johnson & The Devil Man; Feed The Baby; In Search Of Something and World's Worst Ghost Walk) and I think have got much more comfortable with translating my ideas to screen rather than stage. I still really love performing live and making live comedy shows, and am making a more concerted effort to gig more and consider myself a gigging comedian once again after a year of focusing mostly on festival shows and scripted film work. It also wouldn't quite be right to call myself a "filmmaker" as my own technical know-how and directorial skills are severely lacking, and my editing skills are fairly basic, so I'm always reliant on excellent directors and editors to help me realise my own ideas, but I think I've trained myself to get better at understanding how to make an idea work onscreen and how to make an idea work onstage, and to know the difference between those sorts of ideas.
The reason I'm writing this is because the film projects I've undertaken in the last six weeks have unfolded very differently from the film projects I worked on over the previous year, and it's made me reflect on different ways of making films, and the respective advantages and disadvantages of different methods. Essentially, my usual way of realising an idea as a film is built very much around the script - I'm a writer first and foremost, and with The Girl Whisperer, Double Act and Robert Johnson & The Devil Man I was very keen to have a fairly tight, solid screenplay in place that I found really funny and interesting and that explored the idea in all the ways I wanted it to before handing control over to the director to work out how to turn that script into a film. With all of them the people I was collaborating with made suggestions on the scripts, which I would incorporate, but my rule for myself was that I had to be totally happy with what I'd written before we started filming, so then I could feel comfortable knowing that the director and editor could exercise their full creativity over how the thing was filmed and how it would look and play out onscreen, and I'd know it was still going to be a good representation of my idea because we were working around a screenplay I was very happy with.
That changed completely with the three films I've made in March and April. First there was Feed The Baby, a genuinely bizarre little art-horror short which I wrote with Lucy Pearman. Considering there's almost no dialogue in the film, the "script" we wrote was basically just a list of images we wanted to put together in the finished film, or a set of instructions, more or less, setting out what we were going to see. Just as important as the actual instructions were the words and images we used to express them - it was very important to us that we described one bit of action with the word "sploshing" in order to try and get across how we imagined it, and just as important as the document of instructions itself were the other images and sounds we used to support it to create a sense of tone and mood around the film - screenshots from Nosferatu, ASMR videos of a man eating crisps, a Simple Minds music video, and so on. It all meant that we had a very palpable sense of how we wanted our film to feel, but no idea really what it was going to be, so when we handed all that information over to director Sam Nicoresti and lighting and sound designer Lottie Bowater, none of us had much of a plan, we just let our imaginations collide over the project and see how we could turn all of these starting points into a finished product.
The next project was In Search Of Something, the documentary film I developed with Ed Aczel. Similarly to Feed The Baby, neither of us really knew what it was we were going to make. We wrote various long documents of what the premise was, what documentary-makers we wanted to homage and how we were going to do it, what the vague structure and visual style of the idea was going to be, and so on. When it came to actually filming a 10-minute taster for this idea, we realised we were going to need something more concrete than that in order to have a hope of shooting it, so we wrote a very unusual screenplay in that what we wrote was NOT planned to be used as an actual guideline for dialogue, but only to tell us where each scene was happening and what needed to happen in each scene. The screenplay DID have dialogue in it, but it was only there as an example of things that might be said in each scene, but we wanted to keep a loose, uncertain feel to the film, so we let ourselves and the actors feel free to improvise as much as possible, and to lapse back into the specifics of the script as and when we ran out of inspiration. As such, it meant none of us knew what was going to happen in each scene or how it would end or where any of the comedy beats might be, we just knew one version of what could happen and, by and large, we managed to never fall back on these scripted versions of the scenes and ended up with a series of conversations that went to very strange, unexpected and very funny places.
Finally, there was World's Worst Ghost Walk, which I filmed last week and is just a little self-produced Youtube skit/short, really, so has been less of a full-on undertaking than the two mentioned above. But, due to the fact that all the ideas for Ghost Walk were things I threw together over the last couple of weeks, it had a similar sense of uncertain urgency to it as those two, of working on an idea whose final shape wouldn't quite be apparent until I saw a finished edit. With this one, I had a script which outlined a few short scenarios I wanted to film, but each of them was open to be led in uncertain directions by the rest of the cast or by Aniruddh Ojha, the sketch's director, with what I'd written being a sort of bare minimum we wanted to film that invited embellishment and improvisation over the top of it. More specifically, the fact that what I'd written wasn't a scripted sketch with a structure and a beginning, middle and end but was just a series of short scenes that would follow on one from the other, with the contrasts or links or transitions between the scenes being things I wasn't really sure about until I saw them in the edit, it meant the entire shape and tone and feel of the short were things I had no idea about while I was filming it, and I've only understood exactly what sort of thing it is we've made on seeing the rough cut yesterday.
I've found it really fascinating working on three films in a row that have worked entirely against my usual mantra of needing to know I've expressed my ideas in a satisfactory way before we film. Instead, I've worked on three things in a row where, rather than having the writers 100% satisfied of their own creative contribution before letting the director take over the creative responsibilities of the shoot itself, we've had writers, directors, actors and editors all equally unsure of the specifics of what they're making, and therefore equally responsible for steering it in unexpected directions. It's made for incredibly exciting, creative shoots on all three and has made watching the rough cuts a creative exercise in itself - rather than seeing how the edit matches up against what we all imagined it to be, we've instead been actually discovering what it is we hoped we'd make while watching the edit itself, which is a far more unusual experience. Ultimately, I don't think one way of working is inherently superior or inferior to the other - I think projects like The Girl Whisperer and Robert Johnson were inherently very character-driven and therefore very script-driven in their intentions, and wouldn't have benefited from a loose, uncertain script, it would've been entirely to their detriment. But I think the opposite is also true of Feed The Baby and In Search Of Something - if we'd set out as writers with a clear, prescribed vision of what we wanted and the filmmaking process had been a case of achieving that to as high a standard as possible, rather than discovering what we were doing while we were doing it, then we'd have cut ourselves off from a number of really interesting creative avenues we discovered in the shoots.
That's all my ramblings for today, I think. Ironically, my current big project is a sitcom script called Please Be Normal which I've been developing for a while and, much like The Girl Whisperer, it's a very character-driven, narrative-driven project and is built around a very carefully constructed script, and almost certainly wouldn't benefit from the sort of free-form approach I've been using this month, so I'm not saying it's something I'd like to adopt for all my future projects - different things require different methods. But it's exciting to now have a better sense of the different ways ideas can feel as they occur to you, and to get a better handle on which approach is the best for each individual film project. Hopefully it'll open me up to many other interesting things in the future.