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.

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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.

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The Beachcomber: ready for screening

Monday night was spent drinking celebratory cocktails with my two favourite film-cutters: Vania Flaccomio (editor at Pink Banana) and Ashley Hughes (whose new portfolio showcases the best of his analogue film talents). Among other things, we were celebrating the fantastic news that The Beachcomber is ready for screening.

The final cut came after a long notes session several weeks ago, and several reviews of the shot list and paper edit over recent days as Ashley and I tried to marry competing themes, tensions and ideas in an order which was perfect. Cutting Super 8 stock is a delicate process: the negatives contained on 3-minute rolls are developed and printed positive onto a spool, which is then sliced into scenes and takes. Those raw slips of film are hung on a frame ready for the assembly process – you can see The Beachcomber uncut in the photo above. Ashley’s 5-hour task was then to identify the best of the shots and assemble them into order, shaving the transitions as he went, using a splicing machine which incorporates a light-box, rollers and a cutting tool. Special tape with sprockets is used to join the pieces together, making the final cut.

Running in tandem with the visual cutting process, I revisited the shoreline of Budleigh Salterton in making the soundscape. One evening after our day of shooting had wrapped, I had headed down to the edge of the waves with a DSLR and recorded seven minutes of rolling waves, which made a captivating sound: a peeling roar as they came in at an angle along the shingle towards where I was sat, and a sucking, rolling grind as they pulled back out to sea against the steep bank of pebbles. Pumped loud through a speaker amidst the audience, this soundscape literally immerses the viewer in the story of the film. The majesty of a Woolf soundtrack was really solidified on Friday night when I had the pleasure of joining Lily at Blenheim Palace to watch Max Richter, Ray Chen and the breathtaking Aurora Orchestra premiere Three Worlds, the soundtrack to ballet Woolf Works. That perfect summer night reminded me of the real power that a soundscape can have; collaborating with Max Richter now tops the list of dream projects.

We are excited to be hosting a preview screening of The Beachcomber at Canary Wharf on Saturday, following which the official premiere – as part of an evening of spoken word, rehearsed readings, excerpts of Woolf’s work, art and cocktails – will be taking place at Turl Street Kitchen in Oxford next Wednesday. This venue, which has relaxed leather-furniture scattered across warped wooden floorboards and beautiful views across historic Oxford, fits our Woolf/Bloomsbury theme well, and I hope The Beachcomber is the first of many screenings we can host there.

In the longer run, following these screenings the film reel will make its way back to the lab in Germany for a high-definition scan, and we look forward to being able to re-open the story with the use of digital editing techniques before launching the film online at the end of the summer. I can’t wait to share it.

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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.

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The Beachcomber: editing begins

Moving an 8mm film projector and its soundproof case across town to Canary Wharf and installing it in my apartment was shown to be well worth the effort, following a fantastic weekend in which Ashley and I watched the rushes and completed the paper edit on The Beachcomber. The next stage of the process is a delicate one, as Ashley returns to the lightbox and splicing tools to produce a first rough cut from our positive prints.

We were lucky and sensible to shoot the project largely in order. Another major advantage came in the form of our limited resources: rather than the gargantuan effort of searching through dozens of takes on Tantamount or over 250 shots to begin putting together James, the assembly process on The Beachcomber is made cleaner by our 1-take rule on set. Moreover, we reversed the workflow that we had applied on previous digital projects: rather than spending little time planning angles and a lot of time in the pre-edit, we spent hours setting up every single frame during our long weekend on location in Budleigh Salterton, and it is paying dividends now.

After the paper edit, in which we watch the entire thing, note the excess shots we intend to cut, re-order any that were captured on spare film, and judged for general quality of each take, the rough assembly involves cutting the reel in the middle of the ‘dead space’ between shots and re-splicing it in order. It is a painstaking task for Ashley, though not as fragile as that coming next weekend: the fine cut involves many re-runs of the rough cut, notebooks in hand, and then the film is physically re-opened on the cutting board and a few frames here and there are moved and discarded.

Simultaneously, digital work is beginning this week on our soundscape. Captured live on location and designed to provide an immersive viewer experience in the very diverse settings of our London, Oxford and online screenings, refining an audio world separately from the visuals is a new and exciting step in exploring a more artistic side to production.

I look forward to posting again next weekend, when The Beachcomber will hopefully be ready for release!

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.

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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.

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Good news, and a new approach

Exciting news has arrived for the London-based production team on The Beachcomber as we received confirmation that our developed film stock is on its way back from the lab in Germany. After a three-week wait in which much has been discussed on the creative front, this has provided a welcome opportunity to give an update, and talk about some other exciting changes happening over the rest of 2017.

Firstly, as you may already have noticed, I have decided to get a bit more involved in my post-writing. Those of you who know me or have worked with me will know that I spend a lot of my days working as a lawyer. Having this space to discuss ideas, debate issues and share our team’s news is an incredibly welcome part of my creative life, and I have decided to make it a little more personal to reflect that. This is the fiftieth post on the blog, which I think offers a perfect opportunity for a change.

By way of an update on The Beachcomber, Ashley and I followed a lovely morning at Columbia Road recently with a long discussion about how we were going to approach the editing process, the best ways to work with the sensitive and organic-feeling raw footage, and what our objectives were in making the cut. This was interesting to consider as a novice to working with film stock; previously, my approach to a digital edit was like a series of ever-tightening concentric circles, each bringing us close to a final concept. We have kept that notion in some respects: our edit plan here will be to treat the first cut as a simple assembly but, while in the digital world that would be an admission that it required relatively less effort, with the ability to physically move around our film stock we are excited to be approaching it as the potential place for a complete retelling of the story. Then will come a finer cut, based on performance, where the cutting table will become the site of more typical directorial decisions. Lastly, the final cut to sharpen and hone the overall aesthetic.

I am really looking forward to screening this film for the first time alongside its soundtrack. Again by virtue of shooting on Super 8, we have an entirely separate sound process and decided to embrace that with a single, all-consuming soundscape running throughout the film. Taken with the footage, this should be mesmerising, and hopefully quite haunting too. While I don’t wish to spoil the surprise, we developed the idea some months ago but its overwhelming effect was pushed home – aptly enough – when Lily and I saw the fantastic Woolf Works at the Royal Opera House. I can’t wait to see its effect on the audiences at our two screenings in London and Oxford this summer.

As well as this film, keep your eyes peeled for news of upcoming film and theatre productions, screenwriting projects, Edinburgh festival talk and the first previews of our new media venture, all coming soon.

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The Producers’ Toolkit

Having worked on numerous student theatre productions, the team knows that effective documentation can be difficult to come by and tricky to navigate. We were lucky to work with several student lawyers on most of our projects, and that the first time we were introduced to a formal loan document – on Endgame in 2013 – it had been drafted for us by a former investment banker who was now looking to back the show. From that point to now, moving from a small 50-seat theatre where all other administration was managed into the 160-seat space at the O’Reilly, which demanded risk assessments and project plans as well as more accurate finance documents, we have been in a constant process of amending and redesigning our agreements.

While none of our documentation is perfect, it presents a potentially useful place for student theatre-makers to start when considering a production. Much of the material is tailored towards Oxford student venues, but there is no reason why it cannot be adapted for any production. Aspiring producers should take their own legal advice where they think it is appropriate.

The Producers’ Toolkit is available here.

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That’s a wrap on The Beachcomber

Shooting on The Beachcomber wrapped on Sunday evening in the Devon village of Budleigh Salterton, as the team completed a busy three-day schedule in time to watch a beautiful sunset over the sea.

Working on Super 8 film, DP/editor Ashley Hughes is now responsible for the processing phase of the project, with the film stock being sent to a lab in Germany for positive prints the team can use on their edit. As well as providing an opportunity to step back from the material before cutting begins, the film process leaves no room for a ‘solve it during post’ attitude on set. As a result, much more time is spent on set choosing the perfect frame and ensuring its content is precisely what is needed to move the story forward, and creative input came from each member of the team. This type of discipline is exactly what was hoped for by the trio, and means that going forward they are working to hone 26 shots, rather than the 260 which made up the library of digital footage from James.

The Beachcomber stars Lily Taylor, with cinematography by Ashley Hughes, and was produced by Andrew Hall. Screening dates in London and Oxford are slated for mid-June.

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