CHRIS STEWART ON DEVELOPMENT
I don’t write for a living – I’ve got a day-job that brings me to the brink of petulant tears every Monday morning – but I got serious about writing a couple of years ago, and now I cram it in when and where I can, squeezing it into the narrow cracks between work scrapes and family scuffles.
When all your writing takes place in stolen moments and dark corners, and your feedback comes from people who care too much to burst your bubble, there’s always these big dirty questions in the back of your mind: What if I’m no good? What if all this effort is a laughable waste of time? Or worse, what if it’s a sign that I’m batshit crazy? The clues are certainly there: books full of weird scratchy notes piled up around the house, the pacing and muttering, the remoteness and the thousand-yard stare. It’s the stuff of Channel 5 documentaries. Best not to dwell on it – keep going, and occasionally punt something out into the world and see what happens.
Well, guess what happened …my script got selected for the Collabor8te scheme!
So here I am, feeling smug and excited because a) I might not be wasting my time after all and b) the sexy people at Collabor8te are turning my script, ‘Cold Comfort’, into an actual film. I won’t lie, it’s awesome. Hard work too, but enlightening and rewarding and educational – schemes like this are rare and I’m really lucky to be involved.
Here’s a brief brain-dump of things that have had a particular impact on me:
It’s OK to be a newb.
Early in this whole process, before the final films were selected and green-lit, Collabor8te held a development day. All the short-listed writers got to meet and talk about their stories, listen to clever people and watch loads of short films. There was a lot of knowledge and talent and accomplishment washing around. It was very cool and I felt like a total chancer.
Luckily for me, no-one seemed to mind – in fact, they’ve gone out of their way to baby-step me through the development process. This has been a solid-gold gift, because working with experienced, professional people who really care about what they’re doing is the best way to learn. But you’ve got to bring your best game and you’ve got to be a sponge; learn each lesson fast and keep moving.
Don’t be afraid of development notes.
Getting feedback in the context of a scheme like Collabor8te is different to getting it from your best mate or your girlfriend. There’s pressure to perform – and the weighty implication that your performance could determine whether your film gets made. Happily, the notes I got during the development process were really productive, not at all psychotic, and kept a strong emphasis on my being in control of what did or didn’t change in the script.
To get the most of out the scheme you need to give fair consideration to all feedback – even the points to which your initial response is a knee-jerk ‘No way!’. Having an open mind and looking beneath specific notes can reveal real underlying problems – and often takes your mind down an interesting road it wouldn’t otherwise have travelled. That doesn’t mean you have to act on every note you get, but if you’re going to say ‘no’, be able to demonstrate why.
I found that the best notes often told me things that I already knew but was too chicken-shit or lazy to confront by myself. Of course, these were also the most brutal points to address.
Rewrites are HARD.
You’ve fronted-up to the feedback and wrestled the bastard notes until they’re as yielding and pliable as they’re going to get. You’ve also got your own monstrous list of changes. Now you need to step-up and take action. Notes that seemed tiny at first, ripple through the entire script and change everything – but you deal with it. Whole days disappear to what you thought would be minor edits. You have to somehow squeeze in two extra scenes, pummel the whole thing back into shape, and still drop page count by thirty percent. It takes more time than you’d have thought possible, and leaves you rinsed-out and questioning why you ever wanted to write in the first place.
Then the deadline arrives and there’s nothing more you can do. You hand in your draft, and the sudden pressure-drop brings a wave of relief. For a fleeting moment you feel like a genius … Make the most of it, because next time you read your masterpiece, something will have gone rotten. Clichés, trite dialogue, plot holes, made-up words. You’re not a genius at all, you’re a shaved ape and shouldn’t be trusted with anything so sophisticated as a pencil.
Then the bell rings and the cycle begins again. And it’s all worthwhile, because the script in your hand at the end makes the original seem like a flimsy, shallow mess.
Remember that it’s a collaboration.
Up to this point, the focus of the scheme has been on my script, but now we’ve wrapped-up the bulk of the rewrites and got the magic green-light for production and the focus is changing. I need to step back as a team of hugely talented producers, designers, casting agents, actors, and a kick-ass director, graft away at things I don’t understand – all with their own vision of the words I’ve put on the page. It’s a new test; fantastic, but also scary as hell.
The film that makes it to the screen is going to be different from the one in my imagination. I need to embrace that and enjoy the differences that those other contributors bring. There are inevitably going to be aspects that don’t match up to the pictures in my mind, and others that will blow my socks off. Most importantly, ‘Cold Comfort’ is going to exist as an actual, professionally-produced film – which is more than I’d have dared to hope for when I scribbled it into life in those stolen moments and dark corners last year.