Between the years of 2008 and 2011, I did some screenwriting work for the Mountview Film Academy; a filmic extension of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Based in London, they would produce a number of student acting projects including many low budget short films. Writers would be shuttled in and given a remit to create short films using specified actors, locations and length of film. Some work better than others and here are three I wrote in 2010.
What an interesting year. Personally, I had my fortieth birthday, changed jobs and my son turned ten years old. I am still at that current job and my son is now eighteen! Yikes: time is a relentless bastard!
In the world of culture, society, news and media there were some fascinating stories in 2010. Snow and ice dominated headlines in the beginning and end of the year. Tony Blair gave evidence to the Iraq enquiry while Dennis Hopper and Alexander McQueen sadly passed away. Ash from Iceland burst the air and disrupted flights all over Europe, as the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded off the Gulf of Mexico.
Later, Labour would lose the election to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition; while Rauol Moat went on a kill crazy rampage in the North-East of England. Chilean miners got trapped underground, while Julian Assange and Wikileaks also hit the headlines. Finally, most importantly of all, Matt Cardle won The X Factor.
DYING AND KILLING (2010)
This short comedy drama centres on a stand-up comedian who wreaks revenge on a heckler who verbally destroys her set.
I would have to say this is close to being my favourite student short film of the lot. It has a great premise and is very funny. The student actors involved are brilliant and it is directed with style by Jonathan Wolff. As a semi-pro comedian myself I know what it’s like to fail on stage and the film captures that emotion well.
A GOOD CAUSE (2010)
This short romantic comedy-drama centres on a romance between a businessmen and a charity worker that takes a twisted turn.
While the actors do their best with this idea I don’t think the story is particularly sharp. Indeed, the premise feels unfocussed and the direction cannot mask the faults in the script. Having said that the actors are pleasant and the twist is funny, if a little bizarre. Overall, a bit more rehearsal and a re-write may have tightened the film a tad.
This short sci-fi drama centres on a ‘Reaper’ (a person who transfers souls to the ‘other side’), having to make a life and death choice.
I basically wrote this in an afternoon as an emergency script was required by Mountview, after another one fell down at the last minute. Clearly riffing on The Matrix, the film looks and feels too generic and the script is pretty weak. However, there is a decent idea in here which could be worth building on. The actors do well with the formulaic material but not one of my better scripts.
MOUNTVIEW FILM ACADEMY SHORT FILM RETROSPECTIVE #2 – 2009!
Continuing my indulgent posts looking back at some of the writing I did for the Mountview Film Academy years ago.
The year is 2009. Matt Smith was made the new Doctor Who. Cristiano Ronaldo wrote off his new Ferrari. The UK had the worst snowfall for twenty years and Natasha Richardson tragically died in a skiing accident. Swine flu spread across the UK and Michael Jackson passed away too. Alistair Darling was taking a political battering as the Chancellor, while Rage Against the Machine surprisingly hit number one in the pop charts at Christmas.
While these were some of the most read stories of the year, I was doing a lowly-paid temp job in Canary Wharf while following my hollow dream of becoming a paid writer. I took a small step toward that by being shuttled into the Mountview Film Academy to provide two short scripts for their students to act in. These are the said films.
THE DAMASCUS ROAD (2009)
This drama concerns two car thieves out on a job with very different agendas.
Looking back I think this is one of the best scripts I wrote for them. The characters have very different personalities and clash both dramatically and comedically. The pay-off at the end is also very satisfying and the dialogue pings along nicely. It was written with two male leads in mind but switched to female protagonists and overall it works due to excellent acting and direction.
THE CUT (2009)
This short dramatic scene concerns a relationship breakdown and love triangle during a power cut.
Looking back this is one of the worst scripts I wrote for Mountview. The idea of a lover attempting to creep out during a power-cut when the husband returns is a solid premise. However, the writing is weak and ponderous throughout. In the end the scene fizzles out to nothing despite the best work of the actors and director.
by: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
by: M. Night Shyamalan
James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson
Music by: West Dylan Thordson
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SHYAMALAN’S PRIOR FILMS**
M. Night Shyamalan is arguably one of the most critically divisive directors working today. Not because his films are particularly controversial, but mainly because he is a risk-taker that tests the boundaries of genre expectations. He has so many different ideas and concepts that quite often his movies have back-fired spectacularly, however, when he gets it right his genre films are highly entertaining and compelling. Films such as: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), were for me, brilliant genre films full of invention, suspense and wicked twists. Many people felt The Village stretched the limits of suspending disbelief, but it was a masterpiece compared to his filmic failures like: The Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010).
I missed seeing the apparent disaster that was After Earth (2013), yet it was opined that Shyamalan returned to some essence of form with the horror film The Visit (2015). However, I still felt there were some dodgy creative decisions in that, such as the story-filler-white-middle-class-rapping kid in amidst a creepy thriller. Yet, with Split (2016), Shyamalan was back to his best, weaving an exploitational B-movie kidnap-plot with a searing psycho-performance from James McAvoy. The ending, which found Anya Taylor-Joy’s ultra resilient Casey fighting back against McAvoy’s twenty-plus split-personality maniac, then brilliantly linked the film to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000). Therefore Glass (2019), becomes the third part of an unlikely trilogy; three films where Shyamalan strives to create his own universe and mythology within a more realistic superhero and super-villain world.
Glass starts three weeks after the end of Split and opens with a terrific and bruising encounter between McEvoy’s dominant “Beast” personality and David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) vigilante, daubed “The Overseer” by the media. Captured by authorities, the two are locked up and analyzed by Sarah Paulson’s seemingly sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Ellie Staple. Enter Samuel L. Jackon’s Elijah Price, who is ALSO being held at the same mental health facility. I mean what could go wrong? Does the catatonic Price have villainous plans for The Horde and The Overseer? What do you think?
What I love about Shyamalan’s screenwriting, and this is something which he could equally be criticized for, is you can hear the cogs of contrivance creaking with every plot turn. Yet his ideas really capture your imagination and you genuinely want to know what happens next. Personally, as a fan of say Agatha Christie, I love theatrical exposition and clear “rules-of-the-world” mechanics. Shyamalan gets his three big-hitters in the same place and cinematic fireworks, however unlikely and full of plot-holes it may be, ensue. Woven within the fights, monologues and narrative misdirections are very clever meta-textual references to comic-book structures. This adds a welcome context to the denouement, which contains at least two incredible revealing twists.
Ultimately, I feel, unlike certain critics, that Glass is a fun and entertaining end to the trilogy. Yes, it tests the believability grid but Shyamalan must be applauded for striving, once again, toward some form of originality within his chosen genre. It arguably goes down a deep rabbit hole at the end which is hard to get out of; but the impressive cast keep you in the light for the most part. James McAvoy is simply, once again, outstanding. Why hasn’t he been nominated for an Oscar? Who knows! Jackson and Willis are always solid performers, although I felt that Dunn’s character was slightly thrown away at the end. Anya Taylor-Joy also stood out and she is going to be a big star if she carries on delivering wide-eyed and steely performances such as these. Thus, Shyamalan gives us another big hit and something very different from the Marvel and DC superhero universes; something altogether more human.
Samuel “Billy” Wilder is arguably one of the finest screenwriters that ever put fingers to typewriter; and certainly one of the best writer-directors of all time. Indeed, until Woody Allen surpassed him he was nominated for best screenwriter at the Academy Awards TWELVE times! Overall, he would win six Oscars plus a special Academy Award.
Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria Hungary; in an area which is now part of Poland. Having moved to Berlin in his twenties, Wilder served an apprenticeship as a writer on a newspaper. However, he soon got work as a screenwriter in the German film industry and a star was born. The rise of the Nazis caused Wilder to move again, to Paris and then latterly to Hollywood. There he would have an incredible career in movie-making spanning over thirty years, writing, producing and directing over thirty-odd films, many of the classics of cinema.
So, in keeping with the remit of this occasional series I have decided to pick out six of Wilder’s best films and explain why they are just brilliant. To be honest I could probably pick out twenty of the best where Wilder is concerned, but will stick to six!
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Double Indemnity (1944)
For any screenwriters out there Wilder’s work is often a technical and intricate joy. Character, dialogue, plot and twists are all combined to create an incredibly deep texture within the work. Double Indemnity was adapted from James M. Cain’s devious noir novella and found Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money. Wilder worked on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler and while the two didn’t hit it off their collaboration produced one of the classic film noirs of the period. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and confirmed the star status of both Stanwyck and MacMurray. As MacMurray’s desperate voiceover reveals the events of the story we are pulled into a web on deceit and murder which show human nature as greedy, vicious and unforgiving.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
It is worth noting that Wilder’s success would perhaps not been as successful if not for his partnership with producer and writer Charles Brackett. They worked on many successful films together and The Lost Weekend was one such triumph. Based on Charles Jackson’ novel about an alcoholic writer teetering on the edge of self-destruction, Ray Milland’s character found himself awash in an existential and drunken haze. Wilder’s work as a screenwriter is again brilliant as he takes a very unsympathetic character and makes him both human and empathetic. This is down to both Milland’s fine performance and Wilder’s key direction; both would win Academy Awards. Overall, it’s a tragic struggle which reflects those individuals who constantly battle against the booze. Many see alcohol as a friend but it can quickly turn into an enemy without warning or notice.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Working from an original story Wilder and Brackett turned the eyes and ears inward toward the Hollywood machine; asking the question: what happens to the Hollywood legends after their star has crashed and burned. The answer was the character of Norma Desmond, a silent movie star craving a comeback and refusing to accept her career is over. Gloria Swanson is absolutely terrifying as the ageing screen goddess, as she spits out famous lines such as: “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small!” Meanwhile, William Holden is also superb as the cynical writer beaten down by his own world weariness within the Hollywood system. The classic opening scene of his limp dead body lying face down in a swimming pool as he recounts how he came to be there is one of the most iconic images in all cinema.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
I probably could have gone for a number of Wilder’s movies including: Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954) or The Fortune Cookie (1966), which was the first film to place Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon on screen together; however, I’m a sucker for a good Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution features two stunning acting turns from Marlene Dietrich as the wife of the murder suspect, and Charles Laughton as the barrister charged with defending him. In his final film Tyrone Power plays the accused Leonard Vole, who is on trial for murdering a wealthy widow. Laughton’s eccentric barrister defends him but he has help on the way from an unexpected source. Wilder directs his cast with wit and suspense, making the most of Agatha Christie’s dynamite plot which has two grand and unexpected twists at the end.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Arguably the best film comedy ever and also one of the best films of all time, Some Like It Hot, on paper, shouldn’t really work. Two male musicians dress up as women to go on the run from the mob is as silly an idea as you could get. However, with Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s intricate script, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon so good in the leads, plus an effervescent Marilyn Monroe at the height of her star power you get all-round cinematic gold. Combining gangster, comedy, musical and romance elements the film fizzes with style, humour and song, as the complex plot involves hilarious identity and gender switches. At one point Curtis’ Joe has split himself into three parts. Ultimately, Wilder and his collaborators have created almost a perfect movie featuring one of the finest end lines in cinema history.
The Apartment (1960)
While Some Like It Hot veered toward comedic farce, The Apartment is a somewhat more mature and darker-themed comedy. Once again starring Jack Lemmon, he portrays C.C. Baxter, a downtrodden office worker whose apartment is used by executives for their extra-marital dalliances. While these liaisons see him gain promotion he begins to doubt his actions and his conscience gets the better of him. The guilt is especially heightened when he begins to fall for Shirley MacLaine’s elevator operator, Fran. Fighting back against the corporate bosses does him no favours but it does bring him closer to Fran. Both a satire against odious men and their sexist practices, plus a touching romance, Jack Lemmon illuminates the screen all hang-dog expressions and nagging angst. MacLaine too shines in a sympathetic role as a woman treated like a perpetual door-mat. The film won five Oscars and once again proved the genius of Billy Wilder.
RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2017 – BEST OF BRITISH SHORTS SCREENING
Just a quick heads up or shout out to the brilliant independent film festival that occurs in the UK every year called the Raindance Film Festival. Raindance are a terrific organisation who run film courses and support filmmakers from all backgrounds, as well as running their annual film festival – now in its 25th year!
If you are seriously interested in filmmaking and have no clue where to start you should definitely check out their website here. Filmmaking is bloody hard work and having made a number of short films myself — which can be viewed at my website here — I can safely say it is easier to review them than make a good one.
Anyway, given my love of cinema and short films I checked out the ‘Best of British’ short film programme at the Raindance Film Festival this weekend. There were eight original productions, all of which were very well produced, written and acted. The programme included: low, middle and upper budgeted productions ranging from purely independent filmmakers to films backed by the BBC, BFI, National Film and Television School and Film 4.
Short films are a fascinating format and can be very challenging to make. They can encompass traditional linear and genre narratives but can also present character pieces dependent on a mood or a theme. Short films can of course experiment with form and be represented as documentaries as well as narratives. They can also act as calling cards for filmmakers cutting their teeth before they move onto feature or TV productions.
Making films or, short or otherwise, is nowhere near as romantic as one would think. They are bloody hard work. So, I have much respect for anyone embarking on short film productions. Often, you will have NO money as funding is limited in the UK, but that should not stop you if you have an idea you are passionate about. Film on your phone if you have or if you need help get in touch with an organisation such as Raindance.
I watched eight films of varying length at the Vue Cinema on Saturday and they included: a brilliant comedy thriller about the threat of gentrification called CLA’AMdirected by Nathaniel Martello-White. The hilarious horror shortSMEAR had me chuckling, while the harsh drama 46.0, about a friendship that goes awry, unsettled me greatly. The short dramas CLEARED, WORK and SKIPPEDpresented fascinating short journeys from diverse perspectives.
Meanwhile, WILD HORSES presented an off-centre mix of live action and animation concerning a young girl suffering fatigue-inducing condition M.E. Finally, the film DIAGNOSIS arguably featured (along with Joel Fry in CLA’AM) the finest performance of the night from actress Charlotte Spencer. In the film she brilliant portrayed an actor working on medical role-play whose emotions are slowly coming apart from the inside.
Overall, it was a short film programme of the highest quality and I can certainly recommend taking a break from the Hollywood productions and supporting independent filmmaking. Many well-known writers and directors today cut their teeth making short films, using the terrific resources places like Raindance offer. So, if you get a chance do check out such nights as they are very much worth your while.
FIX FILMS RETROSPECTIVE #5 – ELEPHANT TRUNK (2008)
“Matt’s about to have a night he wishes he could forget!”
TITLE: ELEPHANT TRUNK (2008) – short film (15 mins)
DIRECTOR: GARY O’BRIEN
PRODUCERS:ROBERT WARD, PAUL LAIGHT, GARY O’BRIEN
WRITER: PAUL LAIGHT
CAST: TOM FREDERIC, LUCIA GIANNECHINI, CHRIS CROCKER, MIA AUSTEN, HARRIET JEFFREY
If you didn’t know, as well as writing reviews of films, TV, Tottenham Hotspur FC, South Park and Doctor Who, I also write and produce short films that will one day be watched by at least sixty-four people on YouTube! Hopefully anyway! Although having said that my last Star Trek fan film called Chance Encounter has over 30,000 views and counting! Not quite that cat playing Gangnam Style on a piano but not too bad. Anyhow, the 5th film I wrote and produced was a dark, romantic comedy called Elephant Trunk.
Elephant Trunk – which if you didn’t know is cockney rhyming slang for drunk – came into production before The Hangover (2009) was released in the cinemas the following year. While not precisely the same story it still involves varieties of drunken mishaps as all manner of chaos ensues that destroys our hero Matt Sherry’s life as he attempts to get home while pissed. It’s a work of fiction but grounded in the many drunken nights I attempted to get home while hammered and follows the basic comedy rule that what can go wrong – WILL GO WRONG!!
I, and director Gary, could not have made this film without the help of my very good school friend Robert Ward, who for some kind reason, offered to put up the budget for the film; which as I recall was around £1000. As is usually the case myself and Gary smashed the script around building the protagonists’ journey as he lurches from one disaster to another; and looking back it remains a fun film to watch. We were also assisted by friends and family who got involved in the production and lent their time, bodies and properties throughout.
Again, we cast the film very well with some excellent talent and much praise to everyone involved. I think Tom Frederic in the lead was absolutely brilliant! His young executive “everyman” has a simple arc in terms of the story. Tom brings a fantastic bemusement and physical commitment to the role, as his character falls, flails and fails over the course of the night. Amidst the slapstick there is some romance too as this story was an attempt to demonstrate our range in terms of writing and directing. Indeed, much of the production was shot guerrilla style (without permission) on the streets of London and on public transport. The urgency in the handheld camerawork and fast paced editing really enhances the “drunken” state of the hero during his plight.
My two major regrets for this very entertaining short film was we had to cut (due to budget constraints) one very strange and creepy scene where Matt found his way into a house where a “sex party” was taking place involving a Gimp-like character. Also, that my distribution skills were absolutely terrible and, asides from one riotous screening night back in 2008 at the Exhibit Bar in Balham, I did not get Elephant Trunk the festival screenings I think it deserved. Anyway, maybe you think differently – here’s the film:
The world is full of confusion, heartache and misery but also joy, wonder and invention. I think it is important to remind ourselves of the things we love so as not to get too down. Existentially, life is tricky and I personally always question the reasons I am here and wonder what the point in everything is? But sometimes it pays not to think too much. Just take some time for reflection and enjoy the moment.
With this in mind, in 2016, I took a break from my usual reviews and took a serious and irreverent look at ten things about life I love. Indeed, the link to my prior list can be found hereand looking back it’s an indulgent but pleasing list, so I decided to do it again.
Perhaps an afternoon nap is historically the preference of a retired person but I love them. Whether it’s a quick half-hour on a day off or a couple of hours sleeping off a hangover they can really re-charge the batteries. My current favourite is to have a nap with Sky Sports Soccer Saturday on in the background and drift in and out of consciousness with Jeff Stelling rattling off scores and stats with joyous abandon on the TV.
When I say nothing I don’t mean a complete void or emptiness like say the famous existential philosophers would have us believe life is. No, I mean I love it when I have nothing to do. I am free to choose what I want to do with my time. I have completed all family, work and household commitments and have freedom in the relative sense of the word. My brain is full of nothing and life is just allowing me to simply be.
I love to run. I’m not an Olympic athlete, far from it in fact. But when I am jogging around the London streets or on Wimbledon, Clapham or Wandsworth Commons respectively I feel very relaxed. I also listen to music or the radio and just shut the world out. Despite the physical strain I definitely feel a natural chemical high and the satisfaction of combining mental and bodily exertion really frees the mind. A few years ago I even managed to run up to ten miles in one go but now I stick to 3-5 mile distances as it keeps me pretty fit and creates a clear mental state.
SITTING IN A CAR EATING CRISPS
I love eating crisps. I know they are unhealthy for me but there’s something amazing about processed thinly cut potatoes fried in oil and covered in salt and flavourings. And for some reason my favourite place to eat them is sitting in my car while it’s not moving. If I’m not in a rush I will open the packet and eat the crisps while listening to the radio. I especially like the false “bonus” ones which collect on the front of your sweatshirt or hoodie after you’ve scoffed the packet.
For the last eight years I have been writing and performing, to various levels, stand-up comedy. When I started I was really, really terrible at it. Today I’ve reached a level of steady mediocrity but remain confident in handling any kind of crowd from small open mic nights to professional venues. It is a fantastic craft to attempt to master and you’re always one gig away from success or disaster. As a massive fan of stand-up in general — comedians such as Stewart Lee, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Steven Wright, Bill Hicks, Paul Foot and many more I consider to be proper artists — I am happy I had a good go and even got paid a few times in my “career”. I’ve met some fantastic characters and great friends performing and while I will never reach the top billing it’s something I will not regret doing. I have performed on some wonderful nights and had some horrifically bad gigs too but paradoxically those gigs are the ones you remember the best. I have also been up and down the country performing too so comedy has given me some fine geographical endeavours too. Of course, the characters, nutter and eccentrics you meet are the ones that stand out more than anything else. I will never be successful in a financial sense and be enabled to give up the day job but I have so many good, bad and ugly memories it’s made the journey totally worthwhile.
TOO MUCH BUTTER
Too much butter on toast, bread, crumpets and anything really is heaven to me; especially if it is Lurpak. Lurpak butter is the tastiest butter ever and I could eat it all day. Obviously if I did that I probably wouldn’t last too many days as I would have so much fat in my arteries my heart would explode. Nonetheless, the creamy taste of butter melting over hot toast is a small but delightful taste sensation.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR FOOTBALL CLUB
I have written a number of times about my support for THFC or Spurs as they are colloquially known. Indeed here are some of my fondest memories. I’ve had many ups and downs with the team having supported them since I was around ten years old and over the last few years I have been attending more and more games. Loving Spurs is a true passion and they have been at times very, very good and at others not so. But the highs and lows of supporting a football team are part of the fun and victory and defeat should be dealt with accordingly. It’s an irrational passion because if the team wins or loses it actually makes no material difference to my life, however, I love belonging to the club and I guess it’s a tribal and prideful thing. Thankfully, Spurs are pretty decent at the moment and while our European record is poor recently, on the domestic front we have an exciting young team and brilliant manager. Come on you SPURS!
While I live near Clapham Common, which is fantastic, Wimbledon Common holds a special place in my mind. It’s more natural than many of the other green spaces in London and just huge as it expands from Wimbledon to Putney, along the A3 and almost to Kingston. It is an incredible area of natural beauty which is inhabited my people of all ages and their dogs too. I have run and walked many a mile on Wimbledon Common and best of all – IT IS FREE! The car park has loads of spaces and there is nowhere better in the summer to go if you just want to get away from the hubbub of the city and not actually go too far. The Windmill Café serves ice cream, coffees and cakes so provides a fine place for a pit-stop too if you need a break.
WATERLOO BRIDGE AT NIGHT
Many people consider the mountains of Switzerland or the falls of Niagara or the plains of the Serengeti as beautiful vistas to enjoy. I myself am a city person and thus very much love the look of the Thames at night. The buildings, bridges, office blocks, the London Eye and the lights shimmering off the dark water create a wonderful view from Waterloo Bridge. I’ve walked over it many times and it never gets boring.
Obvious to say it but I love writing stuff; whether it’s film scripts, stories, jokes, reviews, blogs, songs and just general ephemera. I love the process of telling a story or working out what makes a story work or not work. I think creating something is a fine challenge and immersing oneself in a fictional world is a brilliant diversion to everyday life. More than anything the sense of accomplishment in completing or continuing a specific writing project is highly pleasing. Finishing a feature film screenplay is probably the hardest and most thrilling accomplishment. To be honest I’m not even bothered if people even read my stuff but it’s great to get positive feedback on the short films I have made and the jokes I have told. You can find much of my work here on this blog and my film website: Thanks for reading.