The way it usually works is you get your first job on a low-budget horror, or maybe on one of the BBC TV shows like Doctors, and you struggle for years before getting a break. Or, if it is a ambitious movie, you – the inexperienced writer – are eventually fired by nervous producers and replaced by someone with a better CV.
None of these happened. Well, I’ve certainly done the struggling bit. I’ve been writing for years and failing quietly. But with each dead end, every trip to development hell, and with every new draft, my writing improved and I made new friends in the film community. I have that low-budget horror movie on my CV, it just never got made (yet).
Then, once the film went into production, my day job employers at Orion Publishing were gracious enough to allow me to take a six month leave of absence to concentrate on working on the film. Again, that never happens! Employers might understandably be wary of extracurricular activities, some might even back you into a corner and ask you choose between the security of a regular paycheque, or the risky world of a the freelance writer. Not these guys. They were incredibly supportive, and have kept the door open for my return. I could not have asked for more.
Those six months allowed me to be on set during production, to be readily available for rewrites, to work solidly on [redacted], and that script about [redacted], and to really get my teeth into [redacted]. All top-secret eggs, laid in 2013 and hopefully all hatching in 2014.
I also got to live the freelance writer life for six months. Writing in solid chunks 9-to-5, instead of sporadically on the train/lunch breaks/nights/weekends. I did not waste a second, and this has been the most productive year of my writing life.
So, tomorrow, I return to the day job. Some friends have asked if I’m dreading it. Not at all. It’s a pretty cool job, it’s not working in a salt mine or anything, and I work with some fantastic people that I’ve missed very much. I will go to work tomorrow with a skip in my step.
But I’ve had a taste of another life these past six months, and I liked it. It’s a world where the work and money is precarious, and there’s no more failing quietly once the general public get their teeth into what you’ve written, but it’s the thing I love to do most, and in 2014 I’ll be working harder than ever to make it a reality again.
Thanks to everyone for their good wishes and support and I hope you have a fantastic 2014.
Yesterday I had a call from Jon, who kindly took time from his one day off this week (and I know that a director never really has a day off – he’ll be getting calls and emails all day) to give me an update on the first week of shooting for OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS.
The crew are working like a well-oiled machine, up against a tight schedule that leaves little room for error. The young cast – Callan, Ella, James and Milo – have bonded brilliantly and are delivering outstanding performances. Our headliners – Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley – are just knocking it out of the park, and our army of extras on Twitter have decreed that Tamer Hassan may have delivered one of the best headbutts in screen history.
It’s fantastic to hear that it’s going so well, and my first instinct is to jump on a plane and see them in action first thing tomorrow, but being a writer on set can feel like being a stranger at your own birthday party.
I was delighted to be present at the very first shot of the shoot on Friday 31st May, giggling like a loon to see the story that Jon and I had worked so hard on finally coming to life. But after an entire morning of shuffling to one side, apologising to make room for various crew members who hustle by with big cables and lenses, you soon realise that you’re just in the bloody way.
The previous week of rehearsals was a different matter entirely. Working with Jon, Callan, Ella, James and Milo to get the scenes on their feet – spotting the bits that work and the bits that don’t, and then tweaking the script to play to everyone’s strengths – that was an incredibly productive time. I felt energised in a way that I’ve not been since running my own theatre company back in the day.
But on set, I’m a fanboy, watching the cool director and cast, buzzing around them a focussed and hardworking crew – this is the kind of stuff you see on DVD extras, and yet here I was in the thick of it… with bugger-all to do, but stand and watch and admire and be first in the queue for the catering (I heartily recommend the chili!).
Would it be different if Jon and I hadn’t co-written the script together? Possibly. Writers are a paranoid bunch, constantly convinced that we’re about to be screwed over (because we often are!). But Jon’s the guardian of the script on set, and I have complete faith in him, and I know that if there’s any kind of problem with it, he’ll be on the phone to me straight away. I am completely relaxed that the show is in very good hands, and I can’t wait to see the first rushes.
I’m hoping to be on set in about ten days’ time, so maybe another update then! In the meantime do follow us on Twitter @Robot_Overlords
PS. Also check out some of our tweeting extras – all wonderful people:
Is there really any more you can say about Star Wars? Type those two words into Google and you get “About” 1,110,000,000 results. That’s roughly a third of the number of stars in our galaxy. And I’ve already written about how it changed me when I first saw it, so what’s new?
This Robot Occupation Movies thread is, let’s be honest, a thinly-veiled rip-off of Desert Island Discs. A radio show where you tell your life story through 8 pieces of music. And I couldn’t tell my life story without referring to Star Wars. Slice me in two and you’ll see this logo running through me like a stick of rock:
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of RETURN OF THE JEDI, which made me think back to when I first saw it at the Odeon in Hastings. I was on holiday, it was quite late in the summer, I still hadn’t seen it, and was panicking that I might never. My mum was more of a Coronation Street fan and didn’t want to watch it, so, after checking with the lady at the box office that someone could keep an eye on me (oh, mum!), she paid for my ticket and I went in alone. The cinema was far from full; just a handful of people scattered around the auditorium, and so I found a quiet row and settled in. The sense memory from that first screening is still with me now, the thrills I got from watching Luke and Vader duke it out still resonate, and I have to confess that there were a few tears. It was over. Oh, there were rumours of more films to come, but I somehow knew that this would be it.
Of course, now we know that it wasn’t the end. But here’s a quick timeline of my Star Wars experience. Starting before the dark times… before the Jar-Jar…
My fifth birthday. Dad taking me to see it for the first time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Odeon in Woolwich.
The next film I went to see was a re-release of Disney’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. As queued to get in, we stood by lobby cards showing scenes from Star Wars. It was still showing! I remember being annoyed that we couldn’t go and see it again.
So, I begged and begged until mum took me to see it again. I remember boasting to a lady on the bus that I was going to see it for the second time.
For my next birthday I got the film score: Star Wars highlights on one side, and Holst’s Planets suite on the other.
Collecting the trading cards, playing flicksies and winning more, chewing on the rock-hard pink, powder-dusted gum.
Being friends with Gregory, the kid next door, because he had a cool Stormtrooper gun.
Going to the Brent Cross shopping centre to blow my birthday money on figures and an X-Wing. Reading the Marvel comics every week and loving that Han was fighting alongside a giant green rabbit called Jaxxon…
Feeling betrayed and disappointed that suddenly everyone in my class was now into this Superman film! I thought we all loved Star Wars!
Buying a second-hand hardback copy of the Star Wars novel at the school jumble sale (which I still have!) and reading it again and again and wondering why it wasn’t exactly the same as the film – Luke is Blue Five?!
Watching the Star Wars Holiday Special at Christmas in Ireland and getting cross with my granddad who kept switching over to the horse racing (of course, I now realise he was doing me a huge favour).
Mum and dad calling me downstairs to see a clip from the new film THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on TV – it was the “I love you… I know” bit, and I recall welling-up and being terrified that Han was going to die.
Dad taking me to see TESB at the Odeon Leicester Square. We were in the front row of the balcony, and he ripped my bag of popcorn open, spilling it on the poor people below. Sorry if you were one of them.
Being in a daze afterwards, wondering if Darth Vader was lying out of his arse, or if Ben was the fibber.
More comics, though of course, they didn’t have Han in them any more. People moan about Ewoks, but we had Hoojibs…
The longest wait between films ever.
Trying to use the Force one day. Didn’t work. The day I discovered disillusionment.
Watching a trailer for Return of the Jedi on the Jonathan King‘s show Entertainment USA and nearly exploding with excitement.
That screening of Jedi in Hastings and thinking it was over forever.
Years of keeping the faith, reading and re-reading the comics and the books. Watching the movies on VHS again and again and again.
Reading the Timothy Zahn novels and liking that the franchise had grown-up a bit. The characters still felt alive.
Thinking about having the Throne Room and Finale cue for our wedding march music, deciding against it and later regretting it.
Working at Unity Theatre with the wonderful Declan Mulholland – the original Jabba the Hutt! – and learning that Harrison Ford loved a pint with the cast and crew.
Hearing rumours of a new movie. Maybe episodes 7-9!
A prequel, you say? Hmm… interesting…
Hearing the title THE PHANTOM MENACE for the first time, and not being too worried that it was silly. All the titles are a bit silly if you think about it, aren’t they (the years of denial began here).
I wouldn’t go that far, but for a movie about knights, scoundrels, droids, princesses and dark lords, it’s had a pretty profound affect on my life. I didn’t name my kids Luke, or Leia, but I did become obsessed with its making, and through it discovered how movies were created. I started reading Science Fiction and Fantasy literature, I fell in love with film scores and classical music. Through its contemporaries I found Coppola, Spielberg, Hammer Horror, David Lean, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, Kurosawa and so many other artistic avenues that I might never have found without it nudging me in their direction.
So, thank you Star Wars. It’s been and up and down relationship, but I wouldn’t be the same without you.
My son is at an age where rating things is all-important. The most common question I get from him after we watch a movie is, ‘How many stars would you give that?’ This in turn has led to an extended ‘What’s your favourite movie?’ conversation.
Well, he’s got me thinking. Just what are my favourite movies? And why? So, over the next few blog posts I’ll be putting these thoughts into some kind of order. So, imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?
These have to be the movies you simply couldn’t live without. They don’t have to be the best films ever, just the ones that mean the most to you. The ones that tell your own story.
So that’s what I’m going to do. And I’m going to start, as all good stories should, in the middle somewhere…
I first saw Blade Runner at my friend Kristian’s place. It was his birthday, and I’m guessing we were 11/12 years old. The room was full of boys expecting a kind-of Indiana Jones in the future. That’s what the VHS cover art promised, and that never lies, right?
What we got was something that split the room. Most of the group found it boring. Just me, Kris, and another kid called David Snell thought it was cool, though if you asked any of us to explain it, I doubt we could have managed anything more articulate than “There’s this bloke who has to hunt these robots – no, replicants! – and there’s a cool bit where this guy gets his eyes gouged out, and it was all very dark…”
Too late for my GCSE English (and probably just as well) I found a film tie-in copy of Blade Runner in my local second hand bookshop. Only it wasn’t a mere tie-in, this was an original book by some guy called Philip K Dick (snigger). This would surely answer all my outstanding questions! Oh boy, was I wrong. Dick’s incredible book, with its meditation on identity and reality, just brought a million more questions flooding to my brain.
Then, on my 18th birthday, I went alone to the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue to see the legendary director’s cut (yeah, I know how to party!). To see that grand opening on the big screen with Vangelis’s score turned up to 11 was just amazing, though – to be honest – I missed the much-maligned voice-over. And to fully understand the whole meaning of the unicorn footage, I had to read Paul M Sammon’s excellent book FUTURE NOIR.
Since then, I’ve bought various VHS and DVD special editions and box sets. It’s bloody exhausting trying to make sense of this film. I’m now not convinced that Deckard is a replicant. That whole backstory now feels like Ridley retconning, and I still miss that voiceover.
My wife has yet to see the film all the way through without falling asleep. I have younger colleagues who can admire the film, but wouldn’t rate it as a classic, and I firmly believe that this is because you had to make the journey with this film for it to have its full impact. From first viewing, to comic, to book, to more books, director’s cuts and final cuts, to box sets with little dinky toy Spinners in them.
It is imperfect, but its riddles will never fully be resolved, and that’s one reason why I love it.
Here’s the orignal trailer. In keeping with the film’s history, it’s terrible:
PS. My friend Kristian also introduced me to Mad Max 1 & 2, various horror movies, and Firefox, and for that I shall always be grateful.
I’m on hols in sunny Spain, relaxing at my in-laws’ place halfway up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, the perfect place to work on script revisions between important sessions of poolside vegging…
I’m currently working on a project with director Jon Wright. We’re on a deadline to deliver our latest draft by the end of the month and we’re swapping revisions while I’m out here. This is nothing unusual; this script has been written in locations as varied as the Royal Festival Hall, the Sundance Festival, a friend’s flat in Whitstable, and assorted trains from Waterloo. We’ll write together, one of us pacing as the other types, or solo, swapping rewrites over email.
More recently, as the script nears the final furlong, the rewrites have become more focused. I’ll often open Jon’s latest Final Draft file to find it in 150% mega-large print as he scrutinizes the script line-by-line, and this perfectly illustrates the advantage of co-writing with a director. Jon is the guy who has to make this work. He’s the one who’ll be standing there on location with the day’s pages, surrounded by an eager cast and crew, each with a million questions for him, and if he has a script that doesn’t work then he’s stuck, and that’s no fun when the clock’s ticking and each second represents a fistful of dollars.
So he will take some of my more fanciful stuff and give it a reality-check, turning something that looks cool on the page into something that can actually be shot. The running gag while writing this has been me turning in an awesome action sequence and then reassuring Jon that it’ll be a doddle to film. He somehow resists the urge to thump me and we then work together on knocking it into shape, breaking it down into set-ups, and trimming the dialogue down as far as it will go.
I love co-writing. Movie-making is a collaborative process and any screenwriter who wails about actors and directors changing their script should perhaps consider writing novels instead. But more than anything I would recommend writing with an experienced director; it’s an incredible learning curve, rooted in the realities of day-to-day film-making. If you get the chance take it!
PS. Bear in mind that Jon has been writing this during the post-production and release of his latest film GRABBERS. It has a wicked script by the mighty Kevin Lehane and is on release in Ireland on Aug 10th, at Frightfest later this month and in the UK later this year.