A creative year

As promised in my last post, I spent the last year trying to pursue something of a creative and career reset, and I’m proud and happy to say it seems to have paid off. In addition to rejoining an old client here in London, and starting a Masters degree (goodbye sleep!) in a field that I love, last year gave me the chance to make real progress on some of the creative projects I had been hoping I could deliver for a long time.

I left my Paris-based law firm in February and spent March in Lima, Peru, where I sat on a rooftop for a month and turned my ideas for Robert Armitage into the better part of a novel. Sitting in the sunshine without a care in the world, in a city with amazing food and lovely people, was bliss and I very nearly stayed out there. The change of scene helped my writing, not so much by way of reference (the novel is set in London and Paris), but by giving me some physical distance from the memories of work, commitment, and depressing weather. It is easy to write 3000 words a day when the sun is beaming, you have a cold pitcher of orange cold brew beside you, and you can see the ocean from your perch on the roof.

From one adventure to another, I returned to the UK in April and was immediately off to Snowdonia with Ashley and Lily (Beachcomber) and Alex (Citric Acid) to shoot our latest film. Adapting to the change in climate was a battle but the challenges of the shoot were so rewarding (with hindsight) and it was amazing to see a project that has been two or three years in the writing come to fruition. Over the past few months, we have secretly been squirrelling away on the edit and the score with the amazing Jordan Dobbins (Beachcomber) and I am so proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re starting to launch our material this weekend, so watch this space for more.

I recently started preparatory work on my next script, while also chipping away at the final couple of chapters of Robert Armitage in moments between classes and work. It’s a struggle some days to find the headspace to do creative work, particularly in the hustle of London, but it is always rewarding. So did I succeed in a creative reset? I think I did, and if I ever find myself detached from creativity again in the future (though I really hope I don’t), I’d do the same thing in a heartbeat.


Taking some creative time

Having spent half my life obsessing over lists, plans, ‘what could go wrong’ notes and a small library of just-follow-your-dream books, I always thought about taking the time to read, write and make films properly. Full time, even just for a while. It always seemed fanciful, what other people did. Less successful people, less important people. Not me.

A number of things have changed my mind. One of the more notable was coming across a notebook, probably six or seven years old, in which I had scribbled film concepts and short story plots as a sixth-form student. The imagination, the variety, even the vocabulary was far better than anything I have developed over the past couple of years. I love my job and I have been incredibly privileged to have it, to travel with it, to learn through it, but as with many careers it leaves little room or mental energy for creativity.

In 2019 I will be leaving my current job, leaving my adopted home here in Paris, and for at least some of the year I will be focused full-time on creative ventures. I am absolutely terrified. I do not want to leave my profession behind, and I am already very excited at the prospect of returning to it once I have taken some creative time away. I look forward to learning how to balance all aspects of my life. There is no reason why focus on a non-artistic career should hinder creative endeavours. There is no reason anybody should be too tired to write, too stressed to read. When you are at home in all parts of your life, you are better in all parts of your life.

I am very grateful to be in a financial and professional position to be able to take ‘time off’, especially to spend on the (sometimes frighteningly expensive) pursuit of filmmaking. Many people are not so fortunate. If there is one thing we can do to make society a better place, it probably involves some collective re-focusing on what is important to us all. Our professional lives and what we can achieve as teams, groups, companies are incredibly important. So too are our creative outputs be they musical, artistic, theatrical, literary, as a photographer or a social media journalist, whether your audience is your family or friends or the masses. It wouldn’t be wise for me to say ‘quit your job and be an artist’; I neither believe that nor want to say it. Just take everything you want to do and be in life, and make sure that it all goes into defining you.

Sometimes it takes a hard reset to break old habits and allow you to forge new ones. That is what I am pursuing with this 100% creative interlude between lawyering. I want both roles to be a part of my life. I want to make some great work and return to the professional fold with new energy. A hard reset is just that – hard, scary, a breakdown of your ego. My mental health and I have had an interesting relationship over the past three years and with that I lost some of the energy that a younger me, the student that wrote a whole notebook of ideas in a summer, the ambitious lawyer on his first day, the guy who decided to move to France, once had. Now that I have taken the first leap I can already feel some of that energy returning. I’m really not preaching that everybody should do the same, just asking if the world could be patient while I try.

Summer in Paris

After four months of nonstop glorious weather, my DP Ashley Hughes has finally moved out to Paris. And with perfect timing, as we begin the edit on our short film La robe which we shot in the arrondissement in which I live back in July. The film was a delight to make, working alongside and making new friends with local business owners at beautiful cafe Bleu Olive and boutique Amelie along the way. Editing and scoring are about to commence, and we hope to have something to screen once the cafe re-opens from its summer break and Paris society reconvenes for the autumn.

I am looking forward to getting back to London for a short period in September. As well as the opportunity to catch up with friends I am really missing, find that perfect Old Fashioned (Paris – take note – you need to improve) and move some more of my library out of storage, I am excited to be making a brief return to digital filmmaking with a micro-short planned for the first few days of September.

Back in Paris, Ashley and I have used the break during which our Super8 rolls were in the lab productively, with a number of projects on the go. In terms of writing, I am currently working through drafts of Robert Armitage material I hope to develop into more short films soon, and am working on a TV pilot script at the same time. On the production front, we are starting preparatory work on our most ambitious short film to date, slated for February, and I look forward to having preliminary meetings in early September with our ideal candidates for producer, production designer and cast. Marking our fourth project to be shot on film, and with an almost entirely location-dependent script, this 12-minute project will be a worthwhile challenge and hopefully our best shot at festival places for 2019.

As ever, watch this space.

Every story tells a picture

by director and actor Lily Taylor

Every story tells a picture, every picture tells a story. My literary obsessions seem to work this way, with hard-edged moments glowing out from the pages and insisting that I return to them again and again. Solid objects hover in and around these moments, a pearl dropped and found (or unfound) in pale blades of grass, a smoothed shard of sea glass, ocean-green and softly grained, a gold chain nailed to a tree. More recently – an oval stone, rounded, almond-eyed, a human head, levitating, tapping at the skylight. A man, dead, ancient, lying on a beach and turning slowly into a tree. A leaf, full. A watch, removed from the wrist and flung, sideways, into a canal. The undoneness of the thing. The absolute not-doneness of it.

I chased that vision of sea glass, like John of ‘Solid Objects’, taking his role as he surrendered everything for the pursuit of fragments – the resulting film became another of these fragments, a short 5-minute piece of film, cut and stuck into sequence. Screening The Beachcomber for the first time in Oxford, in the company of my most wonderful friends, was one of the best things of the past year. In November, we screened it again at Picturehouse Central, which was another highlight of the year and of my move to London. With the addition of Jordan’s score – which is perfect – the film was properly whole and complete. (I think, or, at least, hope, that Woolf would have approved.) Thank you so much to all of my friends who came to see it twice!

With that moment deliberated and revised, translated, screened, and concluded, I’m ready to greet the next one. This time, the watch and the collage, the conversation by water. The challenge of dialogue and 16mm film. I’ve been warned of the difficulties of casting and 30-second takes (turns out it’s much easier when the only character is me and the most difficult direction is stepping painfully into pebble-churning, freezing waves in the early morning). I have a week at home to deliberate script cuts and tweaks, to ruminate on the best pictures for this particular story. For now, I don’t want to give away any more. But it is all very exciting – festooned in the additional excitement of Christmas as I travel home through solid, grey, Shropshire fog.


Lily starred in The Beachcomber, as well as directing James, appearing in London Time and acting as marketing director for Plenty. Read more from her blog here.

Scoring The Beachcomber

by composer Jordan Dobbins

I first encountered Andrew, Ashley and Lily’s The Beachcomber in Oxford, performing live pieces based around Woolf’s The Waves at its first screening. As with any creative endeavour, six months on I am both pleased and unsatisfied with the finished soundtrack. I thought I would write something for the blog about how I tried to navigate the subject matter which is at the heart of the film (which is best understood from reading the original Woolf short story). The following is the, probably misguided, methodology I went about in turning those ideas into a score that somehow mirrored Woolf’s prescient ideas and feelings that still speak to our 21st Century culture.

To me the film, and the Woolf material it stemmed from, was about navigating two integral human processes in a capitalist society: the search for meaning and the creation of value. I wanted the music to have a sense of searching at its core (derived from that most Woolfian of symbols – the sound of the waves) which is heard most prominently in the rhythm of the thicker textured sections that accompany the first visuals. This searching is complicated, for me, by the protagonist’s kleptomania: who owns these objects, and who instils them with meaning? That idea is further muddied and confused when overlaid with the concept of nostalgia which is present in the film (and which I was told was on the mind of the film makers as they created the piece) – do we view our understanding of innocence and the past as commodities of consciousness in an age where all things gave a ‘Return on Investment’? I hoped to capture the feeling that these questions left me with in the transitions between the filled out piano to the stripped back, more in focus, sections that are interspersed throughout. These sections were based on the old music hall tune ‘A Little of What you Fancy Does you Good’, which I felt chimed nicely with both Woolf’s context and the film’s subject matter. The manic collecting of the protagonist is mirrored in these sudden changes of tone; just as they cannot force these strange found objects to stand in lieu for intangible parts of our mental processes of remembering, so my appropriation of the music hall tune is unfitting and unwieldy.

Perhaps the thinking that was behind the music is more apt than the final piece itself, but I enjoy hearing people’s opinions and analysing my own feelings about the music (which change on the daily). It was a great project to be involved in and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to stretch my untrained creative muscles.

Developing a script

Ashley and I spent five hours in our favourite bar earlier this week thrashing out the plot and basic shot list for what will be our eighth film project together (more on that very soon). After it was over I saw the symmetry between this scripting session and many, many others before, and thought it would be interesting to talk about how we develop a project, partly as a sanity-checking exercise: I want to know that we’re not alone in working the way that we do.

Every film we have made started with some source material that wasn’t film-related. Tantamount was possibly the closest to being developed in the traditional way, growing out of a screenplay for an online video advert for a printing company that never got made. Red Ribbon | Blue Suit, Beauty and Acceptance and Dare I Say were all born of snippets of short stories I had written, the former based around an article I had read about urban architecture imposing ever more rigidly on the way in which we live our lives, and the others just musings on characters I liked. James, I suppose, was written as a script from the get-go, but drawn in spirit from a deep knowledge of and love for Ian Fleming’s novels. And The Beachcomber grew out of Virginia Woolf’s enchanted vision of the sea.

So every time we sit down with a new project in mind, we tend to have about ten or twenty lines of text at the most, and we are aiming to get to a rough list of scenes – or oftentimes a list of individual shots. It is an intense process – we are hard on each other. I take the view that arguing for or against every shot is important at this stage, when we can be at our most flexible with changes, in order to create a film in which every moment is justified. Doubtless the process would have to be different on a longer production, where I subscribe strongly to Darren Aronofsky’s view that your job as director is to give your creative team the world, and allow them to use their skills to fill it. But on a short film, where every single shot is a piece of story in itself, I like to know that we finish a planning session with complete faith in every frame – if we don’t, it will have been argued about for half an hour, and dropped.

Sometimes I like the idea that we should adopt a different working approach, that preproduction can all be about relaxed cocktails and coffees and that abstract ideas will coalesce into a tight shot list when you are confronted with a set and actors. But I know it isn’t true; Ashley is one of those great people who will fight for his moments just as strongly as I fight for mine, and that is why we enjoy writing together. What I am really excited about, and what I want to change for our next project (which we will be exploring in the spring, after a November shoot on our current film) is working with an outside writer, someone who has given us a complete film’s worth of material, where we can take the energy we currently spend on plotting and inject it all into direction, mood, design and style.

For now, I’m delighted we have pulled together a draft of something new, inspired by the wilderness and our fear of it, and I look forward to announcing it soon.

Take a look at Ashley’s work at www.ashleyhughesfilm.com.


Screening The Beachcomber

by The Beachcomber actor Lily Taylor

Hello. My name has appeared on this site already, as I’ve worked on Plenty and James, and, most recently, The Beachcomber. A few weeks ago I organised a Virginia Woolf-inspired literary evening to accompany the Oxford film screening of The Beachcomber, which I’d like to talk about here.

During the past year I’ve been studying for a Masters degree in English (1900-Present Day) at Oxford. There were moments when I doubted my ability to finish the year (I blame B course – if you know what that is, I’m sorry that you had to suffer through it too). Of course, I did finish the year – I graduated last month, on what felt like the hottest day of the year, and we all enjoyed melting in our thick black embroidered gowns. It was inevitable that I would end up loving the year – bearing in mind that I am certifiably obsessed with Virginia Woolf and the course was (perhaps unfairly) biased towards Woolf and canonical conceptions of Modernism.

However, my time back in Oxford was made all the more unforgettable due to my English group, which was comprised of some of the loveliest and most interesting people I have ever met. We became obsessively good friends in a shockingly short amount of time, and have since started a newsletter, writing group, and podcast – with many more things to come, I’m sure. Another source of inspiration throughout the year was my insistence on punctuating each term with something creative. Even when time was short and deadlines looming, it was motivational and usefully distracting to have a completely different creative project on the horizon. In Michaelmas, this was a play, organised in two weeks with a budget of less than £50. In my final term, I was the assistant producer on another play, Infestation, in London. And in the Easter holiday, I acted in The Beachcomber, which brings me back to the subject of this post.

I don’t need to discuss further the details of the film’s creation – they have been covered here already. But I would like to say that I’d been thinking about this film for several years before it came into being. I read Virginia Woolf’s Solid Objects, on which the film is based, in my first year at university, and was struck by the cinematic qualities of its opening ‘scene’. I didn’t have the means to film it then, but, four years later, here it is, and I was very pleased to be involved in the final product as a windswept beach-wanderer and pebble-collector. Short, soundless, wordless – but it feels to me like a natural reading of the story (I hope Woolf would approve).

The film was not yet digitised, so couldn’t be shared online, which led to my plan to host a screening accompanied by other Woolf-related contributions in Oxford. The deadline for dissertations coincided with the completion of the film (processed, edited, and ready to be shown). I asked/coerced/harried my English group into creating their own pieces to share at the event, and though everyone was worn out after essay submissions, the quality of the contributions was astonishing. Pieces included short stories inspired by objects and the sea, poetry ruminating on spaces, and a musical deconstruction of the opening pages of The Waves. All accompanied by homemade vegan cakes and plenty of wine.

For the purposes of this event, we decided to play ‘Meeting Again’ from Woolf Works (which I could but mustn’t ramble about for many thousands of words). Played alongside the film, the music fit perfectly, mixing in with the sound of the projector. With more time and unlimited funds, it would be wonderful to commission an original soundtrack; that may have to wait for the next film now, or it may emerge during the course of the summer. I very much enjoyed working on The Beachcomber, and I’m so glad that we were able to screen it in Oxford, a place that will always be very important to me. As with any event, things can always run more smoothly, or be more polished. But it was so much fun to present creative work to a group of friends, and to draw thoughts, words, and ideas out of each other. I will certainly continue to organise events like this one, and am already planning another book-inspired project that I’m very excited about. In the meantime, thank you so much to everyone involved. I look forward to seeing you at the next one…

From marketing the successful Plenty to directing James, starring in both London Time and The Beachcomber, Lily is appearing in a special big-screen showing of The Beachcomber this summer before stepping into the role of producer for Radcliffe Camera’s next film project, to be announced soon. Check out Lily’s blog at www.lilyfreeahleoma.com.



People of Everywhere

A recent effort to explain the distinction between political culture, social mentality and voting behaviour in the UK – particularly following the vote to leave the EU last summer that threw disparate attitudes into sharper relief – should serve as a reminder to all in the arts that we need to keep fighting to bring diversity to the eyes and ears of our audiences, even in a hyper-polarised world.

David Goodhart sought to clarify the position of those opposed to the EU in terms of their deeply-rooted cultural subscription to the nation. His book makes for excellent and nuanced reading; Prime Minister Theresa May’s adoption of it slightly less so. Of course, I hope she is correct in her assessment of her peers, and see no evidence to the contrary; further, she showed political astuteness not to describe her camp as patriots, a term prone to misuse. In order to set up this description as a distinction to the opposing group, she describes her clan as People of Somewhere, evoking the idea of Jerusalem (Butterworth, not Blake) that we are all intertwined with England, and the others as People of Anywhere, who lacked such a connection. In doing so she was not trying to be unfair; she was trying to set up an image of localism versus globalism. The nuance of Goodhart’s work has been slightly lost in its digestion, and more so in its application.

For all that it does to pithily capture a previously unexpressed difference in individual outlooks, May’s embracing of the Somewhere/Anywhere distinction mischaracterises those who do not think like her and shows, however unconsciously, the introspection of the Somewheres: the rest of us are not Anywheres, we are children of Everywhere. In other words, the Everywheres are not distinct from the Somewheres because they do not wish to subscribe to one particular identity. No, it is quite the opposite – if you want to find fault in an Everywhere, it is that we want to subscribe to too many.

The introspection of the Somewheres is especially problematic when it comes into contact with the creative industries. The government has recently introduced (and this week pledged to double) a levy on business who employ non-European workers, currently standing at £1000 per head, in an effort to reduce migration. It is unclear whether this will be extended further to EU nationals after 2019, but the rhetoric from those who drafted the policy suggests as much. The rationale is ostensibly clear: encourage those in industry to train locals and reinvest in British talent. But this is fundamentally flawed, not least because it is predicated on the introspective foundation of ‘British’ businesses (often heavy industry) where nationality didn’t matter. Indeed, in 1960 it made more sense to employ a local lad down the pit than to institute a global LinkedIn search. But take film, theatre, literature, publishing, journalism or music. We could (and can) of course encourage a new wave of British talent in those sectors. Yet the real point of the arts – a point that we as a global leader of the arts must uphold – is about exposure to diversity, plurality of ideas. I do not see how any government can claim to encourage such a thing when it charges every film company, publishing house, editing studio and theatre for every ounce of non-European culture it develops. In the interests of plurality and art, we must do everything we can to resist such plans.

This is a call-to-arms for the creatives, the artists, the producers, the presenters and the consumers of art alike. We need to keep working to capture the social, creative, entrepreneurial and cultural benefits of a seamless world, and remind the Somewheres that artistic cohesion is not theirs to hinder.


The writing process

After a long, long time searching London for the perfect writing spot, I think I have found a favourite for the summer. Many cafés have been visited, many wines sipped in bars, many sharing platters sampled, from the quirky Alfie’s rooftop café on Church Street, to the sleek Hoxton in Holborn (confusingly), MaE in Marylebone, and in Villiers at Charing Cross. But they were all beaten by the members’ bar at Picturehouse Central (Piccadilly) with its delicious cocktails, three storeys of seating and views (including a glorious roof terrace), and the not insignificant benefit of seven cinema screens. I came across this hidden gem while seeing Lady Macbeth with Ashley this week as we caught up to discuss the editing process on The Beachcomber. And I’ve decided (much to the delight of my creative senses, and my wallet) to make it my version of Soho House for the summer months. Finally finding my writing spot also made me think more about the entire creative process, as I start work this week on a new novel – the first serious writing I have done in quite a while.

All good writing apparently starts with an idea. Certainly it is true that you need something to fasten on to, something to motivate you through what will undoubtedly be a long process. A single idea also suggests focus, and it is crucial to getting your work read that you can distil it into a single memorable line. However, there can be a danger in over-refining at the outset. I find writing extended fiction much harder if I have put too many hours into planning minute detail; bullet-point lists describing every moment of a scene can sap your energy, and leave you wondering why you even need to put pen to paper now the whole thing has been plotted out. Equally, short work – which often tries to capture the fleetingness or spontaneity of a single moment – can wither in the face of even the shortest of plans.

I think research is important, though I am not a subscriber to the school of thought that you should know every detail about every character in your story. As Aaron Sorkin teaches in his excellent Masterclass on screenwriting, you want to be well versed in the world that your characters inhabit, such that you can inhabit it too, but being able to describe what your protagonist ate for breakfast a decade previously is just too much. For my new book, I am trying to do ‘environment’ research: I’m speaking to doctors about the atmosphere of the hospitals they work in, I’m reading about amnesia, about loneliness and silence. How will that impact my writing style? I’m hoping it will provide a sense of reality without too much baggage – I want this to be an enjoyable, relatively light read, despite its dark moments. I am also midway through rewriting a poem about London, and that has plenty of space for me to get heady, emotional language out of my system.

Where you write is very important for some writers, not so much for others. One thing I admired about the stunningly beautiful Lady Macbeth was its choice of locations. Ashley noted that, though set in the suffocating antiquity of a manor house, the cinematography of Ari Wegner opens up the space, giving the characters room to breathe and live. Whether or not it is so easy to write a novel in such an atmospheric space is another question; personally, my choice of hideout has transitioned from tiny cafés of antique furniture, through commercial coffee chains, to gardens, and now I prefer bustling and modern settings, ideally with some music. I think there’s an interesting tension in both extremes: I was horribly spoiled in being able to write in the prim order of Oxford’s quads for three years, and the quiet does allow you to focus, but at the same time I quite like the way that writing in a busy environment forces you to connect with people, even if they can be distracting.

One thing that also intrigues me is the huge disparity in drafting timeframes between different writers. From those who take years on every story, to those who need to challenge themselves and write a draft in a month or so, and those who are different on every project – starting a novel feels like embarking on a bewildering and sometimes overwhelming journey at the beginning, and I wonder if that ever changes, even for those on their twentieth? Certainly on this project, I have set the remainder of the year as my window, while I juggle The Beachcomber, life as a city lawyer, and a variety of other endeavours as well.

Find out more about Picturehouse Central’s bar here. And I should note, this is not a sponsored post – it really is a writers’ paradise (and Lady Macbeth is truly amazing). Watch this space for novel news throughout the summer.


London as a creative home

On Lily’s recommendation I had the pleasure of watching Tamsin Greig in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night broadcast live from the National a couple of weeks ago. As I was walking to catch the tube home – oddly, from the sweaty but fantastically full cinema into which I’d crammed myself and towards the NT itself – I looked out across the Thames for a moment and realised that London can be brilliant.

London, particularly as the weather gets better throughout the spring, is a city built on bars and cafes. These serve up the lifeblood of a writer: caffeine and alcohol, and also people, characters. Nobody can deny the city is overwhelming at times: I currently work a stone’s throw from Leadenhall Market during the day and oftentimes London just feels like a grey meat-grinder or a grape press, searching for every last drop of energy you have and taking it away. In fact, it’s this side of London – something I see every morning on my backwards-commute from Canary Wharf into town – that is the driving force behind a poem I am writing about my home.

But the sense of never-quite-belonging created by this relentless town is food for the imagination. It’s the upshot of a scary gamble people make when they move from the countryside. In villages, you have everything: tight-knit communities and a steady regularity to the world, which brings you a safety net that allows you to focus on ideas. But creativity can become stale when its creator isn’t forced to change. The grind of London, on the other hand, won’t let you rest, won’t let you engage on your own terms, and that can encourage you to use writing, film, art, dance as a response to what the city hurls at you, and as an attempt to make your mark against its walls. And the city gives you so much material to work with. Some of it can be expensive, but always worthwhile (the National, the Royal Court, the Royal Opera House all show you treasures you will never forget) but an awful lot of it is free too: the British Museum, the Tate, the National Gallery, the parks, the myriad small galleries, antiques shops, bookshops, dance studios and theatre spaces around the city.

London definitely needs better public libraries, and that’s something I would urge our councils to focus on. I was lucky and grew up surrounded by writing, and then I was spoiled rotten in Oxford, a city built out of books. But everyone deserves a good library; they’re like a farm for the soul. But even while that’s being discussed, let’s not forget the wonders that we already have here. I’m looking forward to discovering new places to read and write of my own as we slowly roll into the summer.