The Madcap’s Last Laugh, Syd Barrett tribute concert – May 10th, 2007

I’ve been trawling through my diary from ten years ago, chronicling my trials as a writer, but every now and then I find something very special that has nothing to do with my scribblings. Ten years ago today I was lucky enough to go to a gig with my nephew Chris which exceeded all expectations…

Last night Chris and I drove to the Barbican to attend The Madcap’s Last Laugh, a tribute concert to Syd Barrett. I had been looking forward to this since it was first announced. All sorts of rumours had been flying around about who might show up, but when names like Robyn Hitchcock, Chrissie Hynde and Martha Wainwright were officially announced I realised that it would be a sincere tribute from people genuinely influenced by Syd. I had wondered if anyone from Pink Floyd might show up. Guy (Pratt) told me that David Gilmour had been approached and had politely declined. I guess he felt that he had made his tribute already with his very moving rendition of Dark Globe on his last tour. David saying no effectively ruled out Nick and Rick, too, and as for Roger… I knew that he was in the country on tour, but who knows if he had the time?

Anyway, the traffic was terrible and we were fifteen minutes late but, thankfully, the show was late starting and we were in our excellent seats (second row, just right of centre!) in plenty of time for the start. The show was wonderful in a very English and slightly shambolic way. Everyone was just a little under-rehearsed, singers had scraps of paper with the lyrics, roadies wrestled with mic stands to ready them for the next artistes, all of varying heights. The line-up was great. Captain Sensible (looking alarmingly like Paul O’Grady), Nick Laird-Clowes, Damon Albarn, The Bees, and then, to finish the first half, on strode Roger Waters.

Well, Chris and I jumped to our feet as did the rest of the audience. He looked very nervous – he was shaking like a leaf even when he was playing – and he played Flickering Flame on an acoustic guitar accompanied by Jon Carin on keyboards.

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Roger Waters – Flickering Flame

What a great first half. I even saw Storm Thorgerson queueing for the loo in the break.

The second half was even better. Vashti Bunyan, more Damon Albarn and Captain Sensible, Robyn Hitchcock, John Paul Jones, and Chrissie Hynde. Then Joe Boyd came on and told us he couldn’t think of a better way to round off the evening than to ask David, Nick and Rick onto the stage… Well, we were blown away. I had totally convinced myself that this was not going to happen and here we were. There were shouts of ‘Roger Waters!’ from the crowd, to which David replied, ‘Yes, he was here, too…’ So where was he now? Never mind… They played Arnold Layne – it wasn’t the greatest rendition, there were problems with Rick’s keyboard and mic, but it was just terrific to see them playing again.

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From L-R: Richard Wright, Andy Bell, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Jon Carin

And that was it. There were cries for more, not least from me, and they did join everyone else for the final Singalonga Bike. An amazing evening and Chris and I left on a real high.

I later learned from Guy that David had called him at 2pm that day asking what he was up to that night. Guy had a Bryan Ferry gig in Cambridge and couldn’t attend. He was gutted. He also explained Roger’s no-show with the band: apparently he had to get back to his hotel to meet his girlfriend. I hate to think that I missed my one opportunity to see the classic Floyd line-up because Rog’ fancied a quickie with his bit of stuff*…

Anyway, it was a great evening, a worthy tribute to Syd and I got some good photos. I had hoped to meet Matt Johns from the Brain Damage website, but I couldn’t get a signal on my phone in the Barbican. Turns out he was sitting about four seats down from us.

*I realise I’m being very uncharitable here!

For a full setlist, the wonderful Brain Damage site has it all here.

All photos by Mark Stay

Just say No, kids! My Writing Diary, Ten Years On: Monday 8th – Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Thanks to my Odeon Limitless card, I’ve seen more movies than ever before in the last twelve months, but I still haven’t got around to seeing this…

And there’s a very specific reason for that. I just can’t bring myself to see it. To do so would be like revisiting a very bad toothache. Let’s go back to my diary entries for ten years ago today, when I had a meeting with Dean Fisher, who was producing Waiting For Eddie, which I hoped would be my debut film (it wasn’t)

 

Monday 8th January, 2007

Dean asked if I was interested in another project he’s developing. It’s called ‘The Office Christmas Party’, and comes from a party witnessed by his brother. So far it’s just a series of ‘It really happened’ events. There’s no story or even a rough outline, but in some ways that’s best if it gives me more of a free reign. Anyway, I’ll look at what he’s got and see if it’s do-able.

Tuesday 9th January, 2007

I read the notes for Dean’s ‘Office Christmas Party’ idea… Yikes. There’s really nothing to work with. It’s basically what happens when you give people a free bar and too much coke. The concept is a good one, but I’d have to start from scratch and I have a nagging doubt that Dean doesn’t have the money to pay me for that.

Wednesday 10th January, 2007

Agreed with Dean to put together a two-page treatment for his April deadline…

The more observant of you might be asking, ‘What the hell? You clearly didn’t like the idea, so why are you writing a treatment for it?’ Indeed, and you’d be right to be confused. But I was inexperienced, eager to please a producer who was developing another project of mine, and I had the writer’s hubris to think that I could mould this idea into a personal statement. How wrong was I? Well, let’s say this led to a further three and a half years of working on a film that would never happen. Three and half years! I know this because I looked it up in my diary…

 

Wednesday 8th September, 2010

Dean called yesterday and I think I’ve finally laid the ghost of The Christmas Office Party to rest. I simply told him I’d run cold on the idea. He was disappointed, but seemed resigned to it.

You’ll note the slight title change there (because we didn’t anyone thinking it was anything to do with Ricky Gervais’s The Office… how times have changed). It’s not a question of the time taken, or not being paid – I’ve worked longer and for less on other projects – but the difference here is I was completely wrong for the project. I didn’t believe in it, I didn’t like the tone they wanted, nor had I any experience in writing a raucous comedy, but I still said yes. It was an interesting concept, and I thought it could get made, and when you’re an un-produced screenwriter, all you really want in life is to get something  made.

The lesson I had yet to learn is the most powerful thing a writer can do is say No.

Seriously, try it.

Saying no means you can move and find something new and follow your passions. Saying no means you still have all the power. Saying no means they might even consider paying you for the project.

Saying yes means you’re suddenly obliged to deliver writing, for little or no money, and with no end in sight.

This isn’t to disparage Dean as a producer. Like all indie producers, he’s building a slate and simply doesn’t have the money to pay writers for endless drafts. The mistake was all mine, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So, it was with very mixed feelings when I first saw the trailer for ‘The Office Christmas Party’. It was a good idea, and Dean had beaten Hollywood to it by ten years… he just needed the right writer. Trouble is, it wasn’t me.

 

Film London Microschool, My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Thursday 12th & Friday 13th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k.

After three days of intense workshopping (see previous blog entries), we were given a day away to prepare our pitches for the real thing on Friday…

Thursday 12th October, 2006

A blissful day at home working on the pitch and the script for Eddie. Got lots done. Had a conference call with Dean and Jon. I was confident then, but nerves are starting already.

Friday 13th October, 2006

Dean, Jon and I pitched to Film London this morning. As pitches go, it was textbook stuff and we covered everything. However, Dean called a little after to nine to say that we didn’t get the green light. No reason was offered and he didn’t ask. The positive spin is that we can now go and raise a proper budget instead rather than be constrained by the strict £100k that Film London insisted on. Dean’s right: at least this way we get to make it on our terms. Still, I can’t help but feel really disappointed. The green light from Film London could have meant that the film would be in cinemas next year and would have got us all some quick recognition.

Dean also reminded me that Film London’s remit is to support independent/arthouse film, and our script is very much mainstream and commercial and much more likely to get funding elsewhere than some of the other projects on the Microwave scheme. There’s no news yet on who actually did get through. Apparently an announcement will be made in the next ten days.

Aah, can you hear it? The post-disappointment rationalisation? There is some truth in our reasoning: the script is a ghost story, with a far more substantial VFX budget than any other script on the scheme (a habit I can’t seem to shake!), and it would have been nigh-on impossible to make effectively on such a small budget. All that fluff about arthouse versus commercial is balls, though. Looking back at my script ten years on, it’s far too idiosyncratic to be commercial, and the films that were selected by Film London were both eminently marketable and, while not runaway box offices successes, earned their money back, were highly acclaimed, and successfully launched careers.

The first I saw was Eran Creevy’s Shifty, which is a fantastic debut with terrific performances from Riz Ahmed and Daniel Mays. The second was Mum and Dad, a nicely twisted horror directed by Steven Shiel.

We eventually learned that we were ultimately rejected because my script was “too TV”, which burned at the time (and felt a bit of a flannely excuse), though now it’s got my cogs whirring and wondering if there’s mileage in a London-set TV series about a haunted house and guy called Eddie trying to figure out who murdered him. TV execs: you know where to find me!

Film London Microschool: Day Three. My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Wednesday 11th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k.

Wednesday 11th October, 2006

Last full day of Microschool. First of all, I have to tip my hat to our fellow filmmakers… a thoroughly nice bunch. An awful word was coined by a producer (who shall remain anonymous): “co-opetition”. A mash of co-operation and competition that he felt summed-up the spirit in which he wanted us to work. We ignored his banal wittering and just got on with each other anyway. Special mention should go to Rani Creevy, writer/director of Shifty, and Carol Morley, writer/director of Hotel Deadly – she was a straight-talking breath of fresh air, as was her producer Cairo Cannon.

Producer Christine Alderson was really helpful, too. She basically guided our group through the sessions with plenty of wise and practical advice. Judy Counihan, co-writer of the excellent Faber book The Pitch, came along to talk for an hour on pitching and I made nearly three pages of notes.

Dean (Fisher) is still wary of the restrictions on the budget, but Jon (Wright) is still confident that we can pull it off. I’ll work on our pitch script at home tomorrow and Friday is the day we pitch to the Film London panel!

What’s fascinating about looking back on this entry is the wealth of talent at this first Microschool. I didn’t know it at the time, but Eran (Rani) Creevy would win the first Microwave and go on to make Shifty, and then Welcome To The Punch, and Carol Morley, who, like us, would not win, but went on to make some of my favourite films of the last decade including Dreams Of Life and The Falling. What’s doubly fascinating is I recall their passion and no-nonsense approach to their filmmaking. No “co-opetition” for them, they just wanted to get their fucking films made…

Oh, and Faber books have somehow let The Pitch go out of print! Boo, Faber, boo! Simply the best book on pitching your film ever written. Totally essential, and grab a copy if you can.

More on how turned out soon (though I guess if you’ve been paying attention you already know the ending)…

Film London Microschool: Day Two. My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Tuesday 10th October, 2006

Ten years ago, my horror-comedy script Waiting For Eddie had a producera director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. And day two saw the script get some serious interrogation from some industry professionals. Would it be knocked out in the first round, or would it pick itself up, battered and bruised, and ask for more…?

Tuesday 10th October, 2006

Day two of Microschool. Jon (Wright) and I had a meeting with script editor Toby Rushton that was so good it gave me goosebumps. He started by saying some very nice things about the script, we then all agreed on some of the problems. He liked the suggestion in the script that the house has something to do with its murderous history. Jon and I were initially wary: we didn’t want to go down the Amityville Horror route, but then I latched on to the slaughtered Victorian family in the Fleetwood sequence and we now have a new character called Cassandra and an ending that is ten times better.

Poor Dean (Fisher) was stuck in the basement at the Institute Francais, poring over the budget with all the other producers. He’s still wary of making of making Eddie for £100k, but Jon is more optimistic.

This was the first time the script had been read by anyone not directly associated with the film, and it was something of a relief to be told that it wasn’t a steaming turd, and how dare I call myself a writer? I remember the goosebumps came when Toby took a tiny part of the script — a throwaway line about previous murders in this haunted house — and started talking about how we could extrapolate that into something bigger, and by the time our session was over we had a new character and a better ending (and I had a ton of revisions ahead of me… years of them, in fact).

Getting feedback and notes can be a traumatic experience, but this was such a thrill to be given permission almost to dig deeper and explore these characters and situations all the more. At the end of day two I was certain of one thing: our film would get the £100k and would be made within the year (spoiler alert: nah).

For more on Day Three of Microschool, tune in tomorrow!

Film London Microschool, My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Monday 9th October, 2006

My script Waiting For Eddie had a producer, a director and had been chosen for the first ever Film London Microwave scheme, which was designed to produce at least two debut films with a budget of £100k. But we weren’t the only ones, of course, and first had to survive a week of Microschool: a kind of Bake Off for filmmakers. Jon and I were treated to masterclasses from producers, writers and sales agents, while our poor producer Dean was sent to a dark basement for a week of budget school (some people get all the luck). Reading this ten years on I feel like I come across as a cocky little know-it-all. Don’t worry, dear reader, the next ten years of trying to get scripts off the ground will knock that out of me…

Monday 9th October, 2006

Day one of Microschool. An up and down sort of day. It started with some sales agents telling us exactly what sort of things they were looking for in a film. A lot of what they said could be filed under “The Bleeding Obvious”, but it was surprising just how few of our fellow filmmakers have twigged to the basic tenets of writing for a market. Some just want to experiment at the artistic end of the spectrum and that’s great, but I think Film London are looking for a hit to come out of this scheme and, as far as the comedy films are concerned, we’re the only one of this scheme that comes close. That said, there’s a lot of work to do this week: budgets need a rethink and the script will need to be knocked into a practical shape. Dean is torn: he’s still totally convinced that he can get £400k for Eddie, but Jon and I feel that we should really get our teeth into this week and go for a win!

This was my first time surrounded by other filmmakers in a hotbed of talent and competition, and it was pretty intimidating at first, but you soon discover that they’re just as terrified (or as full of shit) as you are, and you start to realise that you might actually deserve a place at the table here.

You hear people talking about breaking into the film industry like you just need to kick down one door and suddenly you’re a filmmaker. It’s nothing like that at all. More a series of incremental inch-like shuffles in a never-ending post office queue, but while you’re in the queue you get talking to others who have just as far to go as you and before you know it you have a peer group and a sense of belonging. I’ll always be grateful to the Microwave scheme and Dean and Jon for getting me a place at the back of the line, and I’ll stop now before this metaphor completely exhausts itself.

More on day two of Microwave tomorrow!

 

 

You Are Not Your Software – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Monday 18th September 2006

There’s a lot of fetishisation* around the writing process. Articles and books on screenwriting would tell you about George Lucas only writing on yellow legal pads in pencil, attributing part of the mystique of Star Wars’ success to this arcane ritual.

Then he went and wrote the prequels the same way.

And perhaps you’ve heard the quote about Hemingway writing drunk and editing sober (though he probably never said it)? Or of Anthony Trollope getting up at the crack of dawn to write for three hours before going to work at the post office? Or of the many authors renowned for writing in bed?

Everyone seems to have their rituals, and accompanying magic talismanic devices to ensure that the muse is welcomed into their aura and the magic can begin. If the modern screenwriter is a knight valiantly overcoming the onslaught of movie execs and development notes, then our hero’s sword and shield are Final Draft and a Macbook. In September, 2006, I came into a bit of money thanks to a defunct pension scheme. I had two grand spare! My wife wanted a new kitchen. Guess what I got instead…?

Monday 18th September, 2006

The Mac came with me on the commute to work. Progress on the script was slower than I would have liked as I’m still getting used to the peculiarities of Final Draft. It was distracting, too, as I spent more time worrying about formatting than the script itself. I’ll get used to it though**

Final Draft touts itself as the industry standard, with the inference being that you simply can’t call yourself a screenwriter unless you have a copy. It’s expensive and brimming with features that you probably won’t ever use, even if you go into production. In my experience it’s been fairly well behaved, but like Microsoft Word it has to be all things to all screenwriters and as a result it feels very top-heavy… Oh, and every now and then they update it in a way that means you can’t open old versions of your script (at least, not without a huge hassle) and they charge you more dosh for the privilege. That’s always fun. For a very entertaining debate on the vagaries of FD, do check out the transcript of this episode of Scriptnotes. These days I keep it simple. Slugline is favourite, though I also dabble with Highland and Fade-In, all of which are based on Fountain, a plain text markup language.

But back in 2006 I felt like I had joined a secret club. Until now I had been writing in MS Word and formatting everything manually. Final Draft did all the formatting as I typed, which was very nifty, and I had a MacBook! Surely a Hollywood movie deal was just around the corner?

Not exactly. I still had to write. Once I got used to all the keyboard shortcuts, I was still just a writer trying to make words on a page jump into the reader’s head and screen a movie. There’s no software for that.

A ritual does not make you a writer, Final Draft and a Macbook does not make you a screenwriter, a Fender Stratocaster does not make you Eric Clapton. You are not your software. I should have bought a kitchen.

Just get words on a page. Pen on paper, pencil on a yellow legal pad, words on a screen. Build a story. You can worry about the formatting shizzle later.

By the way, MacBooks are also expensive and brimming with features you will never use. But they’re bloody awesome, and the software updates are free.

*A word I can type, but simply cannot say aloud without sounding like a drunk.

**Sort of did… eventually…

Eager or hopelessly naive? – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Wednesday 6th September 2006

I was at the London Screenwriters’ Festival last weekend, and it was delightful to meet so many writers, young and old, starting out on their writing careers. Their optimism, energy and determination made me feel very old invigorated me… and they reminded me of myself ten years ago. My script, Waiting For Eddie, had a producer in Dean Fisher, a director in Jon Wright, and we were waiting for news on our submission to London Film’s inaugural Microwave film scheme…

 

Wednesday 6th September, 2006

A most excellent day. Dean called to confirm that we’re through to the final stage of the Microwave scheme! A week of intensive script development awaits me in October and, with any luck, we’ll start production.

Told my agent and she was very excited. She also let slip that Working Title have agreed to read The Last Time Machine – they’ll reject it, of course, but it’ll be interesting to hear what they say.

I also bought my Apple MacBook today. It’s gorgeous, though I’ve spent most of the evening trying to figure out how it works.

 

Cos you can’t be a writer unless you have a MacBook, people!* And Final Draft. Can’t call yourself a screenwriter unless you have Final Draft!**

Before you go rushing off to IMDb, I should warn you that (spoiler alert) neither Waiting For Eddie or The Last Time Machine were made into films, so all that talk of ‘Going into production’ was fuelled by the same kind of optimism, energy and determination those new writers had at the London SWF. Okay, you might call it hopeless naivety, and some days that’s all you’ve got, but when someone else shows interest in your work I would encourage every writer to enjoy and revel in the moment… then put it aside and get on with writing the next thing. Because, even if it your script is picked up and made into a movie, they’ll want something new right away, and if they don’t, you’ll need something new for the next round of crashing disappointments submissions.

Keep writing!

 

*Not true.

**Even less true.

Old Ideas Never Die – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Friday 23rd June, 2006

One of the most fascinating things about looking back at an old diary is the sheer tonnage of stuff that I would otherwise have completely forgotten: people I’ve met, places I’ve been, and ideas for stories that never got beyond the scribble-on-a-scrap-of-paper stage. Some turn out to be complete duffers, but some still linger, and that includes an idea for a story that occurred to me exactly ten years ago today.

It started with an exercise where I jotted down various movie sub-genres on a page and drew random lines between them. The world isn’t quite ready for my superhero-slapstick-kung-fu musical, but there might be something in a Western Ghost Story…

Friday 23rd June, 2006

I’ve been scribbling ideas down for a Western Ghost story. I’ve talked to Steve, who can’t recall seeing that combination before, and he knows more about westerns than anyone I know. I sent him an email asking if he wants to work on this one with me.

Spent most of the afternoon researching ghost towns on the net. Got some great stuff, including the story of Henry Plummer. History still hasn’t decided if he was a fine, upstanding lawman or the worst kind of lowlife, but he was once the sheriff of Bannack, Montana, most of which is still standing, even though it’s totally deserted. How does a town get like that?

Monday 26th June, 2006

Did some work on the Western Ghost Story. Synopsis coming along nicely.

Wednesday 28th June, 2006

Found plenty of time to finish the Western Ghost Story synopsis, which Steve likes, so hopefully we can work on it together.

Thursday 29th June, 2006

Steve’s given me Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy to read. He says I’ll find inspiration in its pages.

I did indeed. Lordy, that’s one hell of a book. Relentless and truly shocking.

The Western Ghost Story idea became something called The Ghost of Little Shiloh, which never really got beyond the treatment stage. One reason is that my friend Steve Mayhew started his doctorate in John Ford movies and that combined with a full-time job didn’t give him much spare time to write. And, as you’ll see in future diary entries, I was about to become quite busy myself.

But I still have a folder on my laptop labelled ‘Western’ (it was last modified 17th September, 2006), and every now and then the idea gives me a nudge and wonders why I don’t call anymore, and I entertain the notion. However, the sad truth is I’ve learned a lot about the business in the last ten years, and no one’s looking for original Western ghost stories these days (or superhero-slapstick-kung-fu musicals). Plus, Doctor Steve’s busy with his own books and sharing his substantial knowledge with the world. But you never know… old story ideas never die, but they might just become ghosts.

Coping With A Non-Ringing Phone – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, 21st June 2006

It’s been about a month since my last 2006 diary entry. Why? Because when you’re a writer, and especially when you’re starting out, there are long periods where precisely sod-all happens. The phone doesn’t ring, your agent seems to have disappeared off the face of the planet, you’re beginning to think that pitch/script/treatment you sent out two weeks ago has ended up in a development exec’s junk folder, and because you’re cursed with an imagination you begin to imagine a future where you’re stopping strangers in the street offering to knock-up series bibles for food.

So, how do you cope with these lulls? First of all you have to stop thinking that your career is in the hands of other people, that some magical career fairy will appear in a puff of smoke dispensing commissions and making you a showrunner overnight. Yes, you might be lucky enough to have an agent, but you can’t sit back, twiddling your thumbs hoping that he or she will call to announce out of the blue that you’re writing Star Wars IX.

I try and do two things every day:

I write every day, seven days a week. Even if it’s only a few words, they’re words that weren’t there yesterday.

And I try and do a little business every day. Because this is a business. I try and create work by making contact with people in the industry, reminding them that I’m here, letting them know what I’m up to and what I want.

By creating and touting for work, you can vastly increase the odds of actually getting work, and when the odds are stacked against you the way they are in this business, that’s no bad thing at all. Of course, there’s a fine line between being pushy and assertive, cockiness and confidence, and being able to discern the difference between these is a skill in itself. And you can’t afford to sound too desperate either… I still don’t think I’ve mastered that one.

The following diary entry came after I nudged a producer called Dean Fisher, a splendid chap who had optioned my script Waiting For Eddie and took it to Cannes as part of slate he was developing. I had marked his return on my calendar, and dropped him an eager “How did it go?” email the day after…

Wednesday 14th June, 2006

Got an reply from Dean at Scanner Rhodes – Cannes went well, plenty of promises on funding, but he needs people to put their money where their mouths are. He mentioned a new Film London project called Microwave: you get £100k to make a movie in London (plus all sorts of facilities and services for free). He’s thinking of putting Waiting For Eddie up for this. Sounds good to me, and I’ve asked my agent for advice.

Wednesday 21st June, 2006

Received an email from Dean today; he’s definitely entering ‘Waiting For Eddie’ in the Film London Microwave scheme and, even better, he’s meeting a director next week with a view to getting him on board. His name is Jon Wright and if his website/showreel is anything to go by he is perfect for the job. His short films are nothing short of brilliant; they look great, are well written (he wrote them himself) and they have terrific sound design. Apparently he’s keen to work with Dean, so hopefully this could be very fruitful.

Friday 23rd June, 2006

Good news – Jon Wright loved Waiting For Eddie! Dean’s going to enter us in the Film London thing and we should hear if we’re in by the end of July.

Yes! The first appearance in the diaries from one Mr. Jon Wright, who would turn out to be somewhat significant in my own career. A Magical Career Fairy, if you will? Or not… More on him soon…