Before I began university, I was certain I wanted to write and direct – though I was unsure which I preferred and if there was another area in filmmaking I might enjoy. Over the years at Middlesex University, I have definitely determined I do not want to further my experience in the production department – unless it’s assistant directing. However, I discovered more about the directing side and how much I loved it, despite its stresses, and learnt more about my style and aesthetic for writing and directing; especially in my final year.
Previously I used to write short stories, and stopped but the MDA1800 storytelling classes reminded me of my love for writing. It was a struggle at first to write stories based off fables, myths and biblical tales, but it was an experience I relished. The strongest advice I absorbed were the questions you always have to ask yourself: what does the story REALLY mean and narrow it down to a word. Always think about the audience and three things between them and the protagonist. Do they know more than the protagonist, the same or less than them? The film theory lessons were useful and gave a helping hand in discovering Wong Kar-wai’s filmography and Breaking Bad, but these only scraped the surface of theory. Though, it brought about an important aspect of filmmaking – know your audience. Our first actual film project for the course was a disaster, and only highlighted my abhorrence towards producing; it being a small group, many of us were forced to fulfil 2-3 roles. Thus, I was producing, directing, shooting, and acting at times, and ended up editing the film. Mostly, it showed the importance of teamwork and professionalism. After this, I avoided producing for the rest of the year and pushed to direct the next few projects.
Between year 1 and year 2, I worked on my first feature film; this also led me to working in a production company for almost a year throughout 2nd year – whilst there I learnt invaluable information about film festivals and distribution. The shoot, the cast and crew were awesome, and it gave me an insight into the world of professional filmmaking. Although, I ended up in the production department as a production coordinator, being in that environment taught me that it’s better to think about all of the aspects involved in making a film, than not at all. It’ll make me a better director for it, at least.
The filming of (what I believe to be) my first short ‘RAW’ was the most memorable part of 2nd year. The production taught me an incredible amount about filmmaking from development to distribution. It especially challenged me through principal photography; having to think fast under a time deadline, trying to achieve the shot I wanted and working closely with my crew. I certainly learnt getting the right crew is everything – you’ll be working long hours for several days, you will basically know the bad and good sides to them, and still must have complete trust in them doing their job, whilst remaining civil. The film art and innovation classes were interesting but I believe ultimately not worthwhile in terms of actual film production. The module was more experimental than I initially thought, but creating the Vitamin X project was a refreshing change to constantly working on RAW. Of course, MDA2100, the screenwriting module was my favourite, and I was disappointed for it to end in term 1. Directing throughout this year, as I mentioned before completely challenged me, for one I contacted the band Black City Lights about using one of their songs for my film. Emailing them led me to directing a music video of theirs, wherein a common collaborator, Samara Addai and I pieced the production together in under a month and faced numerous problems – to paraphrase one of my lectures, and filmmaking is literally a battlefield.
Throughout the summer, Sam and I continued to work on Black City Light’s music video, editing and colour grading. At the same time, I was writing the script for Nothing Good Happens on a Tuesday, when I still intended to direct it for my third year dissertation but greatly struggled with putting the story together. I researched films that inspired me or I delved into the filmography of directors such as Wong Kar-wai; his work led me onto Tsai Ming-liang and the Taiwanese New Wave Cinema. However, I worked as a production assistant on a feature film throughout August, thus interrupting my writing. Working on that film broke me and really showed me that I need to be particular on what I work on and who with; spending a whole month with people and living in an unknown place being the hardest adjustment.
Between finishing my job on the feature film and starting 3rd year, two friends and I shot a little comedy short called ‘My Henry’. This was the first time I’d collaborated properly in the same role. Anna Burkholder was the writer, co-director, and executive producer whilst starring in the main role. Samara was the cinematographer, director, producer and editor. Whereas, I was the director, producer and editor: I was apprehensive about going back into filming straight away after my PA job. I’m thankful I did, because the longer I avoided it, the harder it would have been to get back into the production mode. Post-production and ADR continued into the first term of year 3, Anna setting us a deadline to complete the film for the BFI Future Raw Festival in November. As of April 2015, we are still in the process of submitting the film to festivals; this has been delayed due to all of us being busy with life or university.
Later on in term 1, Sam and I began developing the short film ‘Monster, I’, planning it to be a surrealist neo-noir film shot in black and white. Though, because of our busy university schedule we had to arrange times to sit down and work on the story. The structure of the story is complex and needs to be worked on extensively to get it to where we want it to be. Once we’ve finished university we’ll have more time to work on the story and slowly contact industry people about producing it. I feel this film, would be a huge stepping stone for both of us, and would truly showcase our talents, eventually benefiting us in claiming paid work or getting more shorts or a feature made.
I was excited about the film theory and research/context modules this last year; it had been over a year since we’d done anything theory related and I was intrigued about the different sides to the industry, respectively. At the beginning of our theory lessons, I felt they were on the same level as our 1st year communication/theory lessons and failed to go in depth with different ideas and concepts. After January though, the lessons became more informative and we were strongly encouraged to always think about our work in relation to theory. Such as what theories go in and what come out of our work. Luckily, in terms of representation and film movements I’d been researching and thinking about since the summer. My understanding of the complexity of film theory is much stronger – it relates to cultural, psychological, societal etc. However, these classes would have been better if they’d been taught in 2nd year instead of the film innovation classes, and they would’ve been less of a shock in the second term – learning a vast amount of information in a condensed time period.
The research and context module would have been more beneficial, if again, it was taught in 2nd year. I feel as if most of us learnt the outcomes whilst doing the distribution for our 2nd year films, and from my time with Hyde Hill Productions. There was too much focus on a producer’s perspective and the documentary narrative – for me this was more a hindrance than helpful during term 1. After the New Year, the module utilised ‘talks’ with directors, tours, BFI trips and workshops on various areas. The talks, or the ones I managed to attend when I wasn’t filming, gave solid advice about directing, such as with Michael Pearce. Though, I wish I’d attended Destiny Ekaragha’s talk, as she had a different route than the classic ‘film school to industry’ background and had to break through the glass ceiling issue that he didn’t face. Furthermore, the article about Ava DuVernay’s tips to filmmakers and the decolonising filmmaking talk with Cecile Emeke were better resources than Pearce’s talk. Nonetheless, the lessons on treatments, pitching and our film resume were something I struggled to either complete or write. The formers I had researched extensively on the Internet for a general guideline, specifically the treatment – this crucial for my writing development. The end result was a vast improvement from my previous treatments, our lecturer giving us an outline of what was needed. The film resume writing again, was an issue I’ve had since I started university. Our lecturer advised us to make a LinkedIn account: a stepping-stone to eventually writing an actual resume. One thing, I was determined about was the design of my CV; I wanted it to stand out amongst other film CVs and thus I went through a variety of concepts before settling on my finalised one shown below.
Although, I was doing the screenwriting module and wasn’t required to work on any films, I ended up working on four: Siobhan, Silver and two of Pierre Jermaine’s music videos. On both ‘Siobhan’ and ‘Silver’ I worked as the boom pole operator, but on ‘Silver’ project I doubled as a 1st Assistant Director, though this wasn’t my first time working as a 1st AD, I didn’t feel I accomplished much in the role. On the ‘Up & Away’ and ‘Proud’ music videos I gained more valuable experiences as an AD, a 1st and 2nd, respectively. The first music video, we shot four scenes and had roughly 8-9 hours to capture them. The beginning of the day started off well but ran over, thus we had to rush to get out of the location on time. It was an incredibly stressful day, with the added pressure of intimidating music industry people appearing out of thin air, but we managed to do it. This was the first time I felt I did any AD work; previously it felt I was the smallest parts whereas the work from Empire Creatives was an invigorating task. For ‘Proud’ I was initially supposed to be the 1st AD, but I didn’t feel I was experienced enough to work on a project of that scale yet. Instead, I became the 2nd AD, and I was answering to Pierre Jermaine, the director and Jack Woodhams, the 1st AD. The start of the shoot was a success but ran over unfortunately; nevertheless, I enjoyed the opportunity to observe and study Pierre in his directing element and Jack’s assistant directing skills – these I believe aided me in honing my own directing skills.
Dissertation Project: ‘Nothing Good Happens on a Tuesday‘ Script
Originally, I was going to direct for my dissertation project, however as mentioned in a previous post I choose to go down the screenwriting pathway instead of the filmmaking one. During term 1, I failed to achieve a solid storyline, telling myself that I needed to write it down and see where it goes. This was a ridiculous notion, even though it is a character story, the structure was vital to my concept and ‘winging it’ would be destructive and wasteful. Christmas break was the turning point in my writing; I took out library books for the representation of the characters and for story inspiration. Unfortunately, no matter what story I came up felt right, and didn’t entirely work. Firstly, I changed the location, as this was a major issue with writing, thus it was set in America’s East Coast (New York City & Charlotte, NC). However, the original story of Hana coming down from New York to Charlotte, NC, again didn’t feel right. Essentially, how I’d developed Hana was boring and unoriginal, with Arielle’s character as the interesting one. Thus, I altered numerous things; Arielle to be suffering from depression rather than Hana, to have her travel to see Hana in NYC and running away from her husband, Drew. Drew was supposed to be the antagonist, but their relationship became a supportive one instead, as the jealous husband trope is hardly new. By the second term the story was stripped back to its bare bones about two friends ‘reconnecting’, and I began to rebuild the story.
It took me from January to March to complete a first draft, the first act being the best, and the second and third acts failing to succeed as much as the first. The first draft is just about putting the basic story onto paper; it is honestly always the worst draft. Whilst writing the second revision, I was similarly stripping the story back; in the first version the last two acts lost their grounding and didn’t make much sense. The opening act remained roughly the same, apart from adding a few more touches to be built up in the later acts. How I developed Hana’s character arc in this version wasn’t working for the script, though I wanted it to involve drugs in her downfall, it ultimately led to her falling into an addiction of sorts – leaving it ambiguous if she went to rehab. Furthermore, a glaring issue with the middle and closing acts were the climatic scenes happened all at once and the dénouement was too quick. Thus, I rearranged the structure – bringing scenes forward and including more surrealist elements to enhance and strengthen the character development of the leads.
The final version of the script is the closest to how I envisioned it – aside from lengthening it into a feature length. The research I did over last summer was essential in evolving the screenplay, the tone and aesthetic from the films inspiring me to employ them in the final screenplay. I hoped the page count could have been lengthened to forty pages or better yet, allow the story to not be a self-contained one, alas this would have caused us screenwriting students to struggle even more. Ultimately, I plan to adapt the short into a feature length, in hopes to direct it as my first feature film. The other writing projects I am currently working on, hopefully will garner traction, furthering my writer-director/filmmaker career. Then again, this traditional route into the industry may become defunct in future years, with many creatives resorting to releasing their work online to gain an audience. Finally, using fundraising platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter to produce the their film. Therefore, this may end up being my own eventual path – hypothetically, saving up money or applying to grants to make the short films, gaining my audience online and using the fundraising platforms to produce my first feature.
As my three years at Middlesex are coming to a close, looking back at my time here, I’ve come out with the similar mentality going in, in that I set out to be a writer director. Starting out I was unsure as to whether I wanted to venture down any other pathways, but these questions were mostly resolved in the first year. I still continue to occasionally produce and edit but my passion truly lies with writing and directing – more so screenwriting. The films and projects I’ve worked on over these years considerably contributed to my growth as a filmmaker and how I saw the industry, as well as my outside work either on my own projects or in professional work. My directing skills, I feel, I am less confidant with than my scriptwriting. The only ways I can see to improve this would be to continue to make films or music videos; to work on film sets and observe the director’s style or to take workshops and classes that specialise in directing aspects. An option I have considered before is to continue my education at a film school; it is unlikely I will apply to a master or postgraduate course, though I am genuinely contemplating applying to the New York Film Academy. I swayed towards the screenwriting 8-week workshop more, but the director’s 4 or 8-week workshops would be more beneficial towards to my development. Alas, with these possibilities I would need to save a sizeable amount of money, so my future remains a mystery.