This is a #PhonePhill I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, even though it was only arranged last week. Darren Goldsmith (this is him, here, go read about him) is someone I’ve followed on Twitter for years and chatted to on and off via email or DM every now and then. I don’t know the bloke and have never met him, but he’s always just sounded so … interesting.
eDarren is a lovely bloke, someone I always have time for. Obviously I’ve no idea who he really is, but thanks to the wonders of technology I now can update that eStatus with a healthy dose of reality.
The truth is Darren’s as lovely over the phone as he seems online.
The conversation began with the usual Skype greeting of “Hello? Can you hear me? Are you there? Hello? Damn it. If you can hear me, hang up and I’ll call you this time. Is that better? I can hear you, can you hear me?”
And so on.
But once I’d worked out the only way to get a decent signal in my hotel room was to press myself against the window (which must have looked great to the office workers opposite), we were away.
Chat was easy from the get go … apart from that weirdly unsettling few minutes at the beginning where we both realise neither of us sounds the same as the version of each other we’d created in our own heads.
We nattered for a good two and a half hours and only really stopped because I was fucking starving and needed something to eat.
Darren and I have a lot in common, we both like Sci-Fi and movies and we’re both bassists – he’s actually a good one.
He’s the general all round arty type who seems to be good at everything he does (or at least the things I’ve seen/heard of his) and has even turned his hand to scriptwriting … before realising it just wasn’t for him because it’s not really an art form in and of itself.
And that is a problem with being a scriptwriter, you’re not really creating art anyone ever sees beyond the cast and crew who make it. Also, it’s not really up to the writer what ends up in the final draft which means it’s much harder to write a script which challenges our notions of what a film can be than it is to, say, paint a picture which challenges concepts of art.
Scriptwriting is a constant loop of feedback and rewriting, perhaps more so than any other art form. This is both good and bad. The good side is that scriptwriting is incredibly complex – the script is not just a story, but a technical document which has to be understood by dozens of people. It’s trying to convey a unity of vision to people who are thinking about costumes and lighting and camera placement and tone and theme and meaning and location and time and … so on.
Whereas a book can leave people with differing opinions as to its contents (as can a film, in some ways), a script can’t. Or shouldn’t. The people reading it need to be on the same page which means certain conventions have to be adhered to.
On top of that you need to entertain and surprise over at least 90 minutes without repeating or contradicting yourself. This is especially difficult when you consider it can take months to write the first draft and years to refine it. Getting constant feedback helps the script evolve.
The downside is constant feedback from multiple sources does tend to homogenise scripts. Some producers or directors will celebrate risky or unusual script behaviour, others just won’t tolerate it. Somebody will be sinking a lot of money into this in the hope of getting it all back and making a profit – risk taking isn’t always a good thing.
A painter trying a new technique which doesn’t work wastes time, canvas and paint. A filmmaker who does the same wastes millions of pounds.
It’s in the interests of most people to make scripts groundbreaking within certain safe parameters.
Darren didn’t really enjoy that process.
We spoke a lot about herd mentality and how we prefer to go our own way. I’m certainly very contrary when it comes to what I do and don’t like. Often if I find I’m fairly neutral about a film everyone else loves, I find myself professing to dislike it in order to provoke debate or just to voice the opposing point of view.
We spoke about this video:
… and how we’d both (like most people, I guess?) like to think we wouldn’t join in, but are aware we probably would.
Perhaps the most interesting topic of conversation was about how people learn an art form. We were talking about bass playing and I mentioned I’d initially learnt to play it ‘wrong’. Bass strings should be plucked with the pad of the finger, a kind of rubbing motion as opposed to the flamenco tip-of-the-finger picking of a six-string guitar.
I was self-taught and I taught myself wrong, which was fine for a while but eventually I reached the limit of where my poor technique could take me. I had to unlearn my crap plucking and relearn it – that was a massive ball ache.
I’m experiencing a similar problem in Kung Fu at the moment – I’ve switched to a different style and am having to slightly alter my foot and hand positions. Slightly altering something you’ve done for twenty years is much harder than learning something completely different; but I have a fantastic teacher (he’s here, if you’re interested?) and he’s indulging my desire to be drowned in criticism and detail.
Not everyone likes learning like this, but I do.
Or rather, I do now. Perhaps when I first began learning Kung Fu I wouldn’t have been able to cope with a deluge of technical details? Maybe back then I needed to find my own way, much like I did with bass playing.
Darren is very definitely of the opinion that artistic form should be discovered first and taught second. He believes (and I agree with him) that if you’re taught the rules of your art you may become very good at following them, but you won’t make the mistakes necessary to break them successfully. Left to your own devices you will wander off into new creative pastures … most of which turn out to be dead ends with no value, but that journey of discovery is invaluable if you’re to create the kind of art which moves people.
Rules can be learnt later, once you’ve figured out most of them for yourself. Then you’re refining your knowledge with that of those who came before you. Learning rules from the beginning is (or can be, there are no absolutes here) really limiting.
The true danger point is what’s happening in scriptwriting at the moment: too much information. Too many people telling you what you should and shouldn’t do before you’ve had the chance to work it out for yourself.
Obviously there’s a happy middle ground between finding your own path and being shown the one which everyone agrees works … but maybe as a community we’re tipping to far towards the latter?
Or is it just two routes to the same place? Learn the rules and then make mistakes trying to apply them or make mistakes and then learn the rules to refine what you’ve taught yourself – is there really a difference?
What I do know is talking to Darren was an absolute delight, one you should try for yourself if you ever get the opportunity.
If you fancy a natter about anything you fancy with a scriptwriter then please get in touch. My email details are in the side bar, drop me a line and we’ll schedule a #PhonePhill.
Whoever you are, whatever you do, I’m really looking forward to hearing from you.