Shaping a screenplay

Scene from the film 'The Arbor'

I’ve been reading up on the distribution end of filmmaking, it started with an exercise given to us through the Drafted scheme to pick a film that’s about to be released that resonates with the screenplay you are writing and to then guess its opening weekend box office, screen average and number of screens the film will be released on. All these stats are available on the UK Film Council website. Of course my scientist mind wants to go in and figure out what factors help determine those outputs.  Focussing in on just one of those factors led me to look at the distributors of different films and where films that I am writing might resonate. My first stop has been Verve Pictures. I was thrilled to discover that they distributed my favourite film of last year, The Arbor. The film is brilliant on two fronts – the compelling story of playwright Andrea Dunbar as told through her family and the way in which the film has been constructed through hours of audio footage of interviews of the family shaped into an audio screenplay which actors then lip synced to as the filmmaker, Clio Barnard, shot footage of the actors. In a Bafta interview she says:

“Having gathered all the interviews, I worked with editor Daniel Goddard cutting the audio which was when the narrative shape was determined. The ‘audio screenplay’ had a more circular structure than the final cut of the film because the structure changed again in the second stage of the edit, once the images had been shot, when I worked with editor Nick Fenton.

The structure then became more linear, although it still weaves between the interviews and the scenes from the play, and we had to cut quite a lot to get the pacing right and to maintain the focus.

It reminded me of how we made Cote D’Azur and the notion that we were trying to create a fictionalised live archive (the audio of the voices of the cyclists) intercut with cycling footage from the past. Sometimes we were uncomfortable with this and trying to stay true to the experiences of the cyclists with the footage that we were selecting and the impression it might create in the mind of the viewer – a kind of disjuncture between the audio and the footage that we had introduced as filmmakers/ artists. But the film, The Arbor addresses this head on by adopting actors to lip sync. Clio Barnard says in the same interview:

I want the technique to raise questions about the relationship between fiction and documentary – to acknowledge that documentaries, more often than not, have the same narrative structure as fiction.

I want the audience to be aware that they are watching material that has been mediated. It is a distancing technique, a form of direct address. I think that it is important to be reminded of this, particularly when the subject matter is so emotive.

I have been thinking a lot about my technique as a writer, especially now having worked with an artist filmmaker and currently working with a director on a feature idea that is being shaped collaboratively. My job is listening, listening, then structuring, asking questions, moving things about, visualising and really listening to my instincts. Its difficult when lots of people are involved in the creating of the vision of a film – ultimately for me it all starts with trust with director. Last week we’d reached a block on a feature idea that we were developing as a team and then we had a breakthrough. I asked the director what he thought of the 1 pager, what could he see when he read it and he was really honest and said ‘i can’t see anything at the moment, i feel we’ve gone away from what we originally liked’ and that was the start of a series of fruitful conversations. Who wants the generic bullshit that might seem commercially viable on paper. Write what you believe in, what you’re passionate about – listen but don’t try to please anyone.

So – thankfully we are back to listening, talking and shaping the film as it emerges from a strange collective consciousness, one scene at a time. I love this more emergent way of working – its kind of exhausting but really creative – there are moments when you see elements of the film playing out in your mind and you just have to write that down. In the end you serve the film and it reveals itself to you. Its the weirdest, most incredible thing.


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