Duvet Development - Jane McGee (February 2015)
We were 6 writer/directors who had never met, huddled under duvets in the living room of a house in York, hanging on the every word of mega-mind script editor, Kate Leys. That was Day 1 of the Script & Screen residential of RISE.
The house was pretty cold when we arrived and it soon transpired that the boiler was on the blink. We stood in the kitchen, getting to know each other over tea and pastries: the 6 of us, and the lovely Jen from Northern Film & Media. Day 1 was all about story. I’d heard of Kate Leys, and the idea that I was going to get time with her to work on my treatment filled me with adrenaline, which I think was 2 parts excitement and 1 part dread (what if the story didn’t work?).
Kate is obviously quite used to this sort of thing. Within moments of arrival she was chatting away, putting us all at ease, and declaring how ridiculously cold it was. Within 10 minutes she had us all snuggled under duvets in the living room. It was like some kind of bizarre slumber party and frankly you couldn't have planned it better. The unexpected intimacy of our situation made it really easy to get to know each other, share our projects and talk about our ambitions.
Kate shared some brilliant theories on story. She talked about how stories are about change and that most are organized around a character’s journey. She talked about the importance of creating trouble for our characters and about our responsibilities as storytellers.
In the afternoon we worked specifically on our projects. The word 'pitch' was swept aside as a useless stress-inducer, and we were asked to simply tell our stories. That’s where the pain started. It sounds easy enough, but it transpires that the act of speaking the stories out loud exposes their problems very quickly. I’m a numpty so had volunteered to go first. Once I told my story (which seemed to me to come out of my mouth inside out and back to front), Kate invited the rest of the group to say what they had understood, not understood, and how the story had generally impressed them. A very great challenge for me was keeping my trap shut during this (Kate had given specific instructions not to jump in and explain our stories further). This was revealing and very valuable. A couple of people put their finger on something that had been nagging me but that I'd unconsciously swept under the carpet. Then Kate had her say, and I think that her direct prodding and questioning of my story was probably one of the most useful half hours of my pursuits as a writer. Some of what she said I knew, so I felt reassured that I'd already identified a problem area. Much of it I hadn't realised and made me want to kick myself because it immediately clicked and I couldn’t understand how I’d missed it. The niggling stuff is where she posed questions I couldn’t answer, or where things seemed to start unraveling and I haven’t been able to put them back together yet. That bit was tough, but it’s a necessary part of the process and is where a lot of the work lays going forward. It was gold dust. Then it was everyone else’s turn, so I did my best to regain my equilibrium and tried to be as useful as possible.
Day 2 was the directing workshop with Josh Appignanesi. This was something of a tonic for me. I've taught directing at universities and film schools and it's been a long time since someone has put me through my paces. The absolute highlight for me was when he analysed some of our past work. My short film A CAKE FOR MABEL is 15 minutes long, which was a bit too long for the workshop. So I had selected the last 7 minutes of the film to show, since that’s my favourite part. After I explained this to Josh, he very politely asked if I would instead show the first 7 minutes, because that’s all about setting up story and tone, and establishing the character's wants. I think the beginning of the film is weaker than the end, but fortunately I quickly realised that this would therefore be a much more useful section to have analysed. Josh immediately put his finger on what worked well and what wasn’t working hard enough. I’ve often had the vague idea that it would be interesting to get another director to analyse my work in this way, but I really had no idea how useful it would be. It’s definitely something I’ll be looking to do more.
It’s been over a week now since I got back from the Script & Screen residential, and I feel a bit like I’ve come back down to Earth. Except that now I’m in the midst of tackling the two-page story document that Kate Leys has asked each of us to produce. Next on the agenda is a one to one session with her. I’m sure it’s going to be challenging. I can’t wait!