I wrote a script a while back (with Jay Sutherland) and the result was … well, pretty good. We like it anyway. We had something we wanted to say, something we wanted to achieve and a story we wanted to tell. After multiple drafts and a lot of head-scratching, we achieved all three.
The end result was a great script … which no one wanted to read.
Not a script no one wanted to option, but one no one wanted to read.
Hmm … why not?
Maybe it was the pitch?
Well, obviously it was the pitch since that was the only thing we could get people to read. Clearly there must be something wrong with it?
But there wasn’t. Or rather there was, but it wasn’t the pitch’s fault. The pitch accurately described the project in an exciting way … but the project itself was fundamentally flawed.
I say fundamentally flawed, but that may not be strictly true. Maybe the problem lies in other people’s perceptions/prejudices? Because, in essence, the fundamental flaw was two words – two words which, unfortunately, describe the arena in which the story takes place.
Those two words were ‘council estate’.%
Okay, so I kind of get this. There are certain kinds of story which get set on a council estate. Often the kinds of story described by adjectives like ‘grim’ and ‘gritty’.
I’m not a fan of grim and gritty.
I recognise these stories have their place and can accurately reflect modern society or even inform people about the kinds of lives people do or have lived in the UK. I even enjoy such stories when I’m in the right mood … but generally I like my films to be escapist. I like to leave a cinema feeling good. Films which make me feel bad or an emotional wreck can be excellent … but for preference, I’d rather be uplifted.
British working class dramas tend not to be uplifting.
Tend. Not ‘are never’, just tend.
Jay and I wanted to follow more in the footsteps of American blue-collar films which tend to be about triumphing over adversity or be somehow more life-affirming.
Again, this is a tendency, not a hard and fast rule.
Maybe these aren’t even tendencies and just the perceptions/prejudices of Jay and I#?
I don’t know.
The problem is, as soom as people read ‘council estate’ they put the pitch down. They weren’t really interested in that kind of grim and gritty story.
Which is a shame, because we’d specifically written a non-grim-and-gritty story.
So what to do? We’d written a genre-busting* script which no one wanted to read because they didn’t like the genre. This is a colossal waste of time.
Thing is, I like the script. I like the story. I think people would like it too if they read it … we just needed to find out how to do that.
It just needed one more thing.
It needed that extra twist which makes the script inherently more interesting.
In the end we settled on two more things.
The first was to change the arena. If people don’t want to read a script set on a council estate (I live on a council estate, by the way. My wife and I own our house, but it’s on a council estate) then we need to change it to a different location without losing the essence of the story.
So … reverse engineering time. What is it about a council estate which made it right for the story? What elements of an estate do we need to keep? Which elements do we need to throw away?
Well, there were two tower blocks and stuff happened involving people looking down from them – is that important?
No. Not really. They can look across. Or up. It doesn’t matter.
We wanted to write an inspirational/aspirational working class story. Does that need to be set on a council estate?
We wanted it to be a self-contained society on the outskirts of a town which was marginalised by the more affluent people in the town and downright ignored by the police. So long as people stayed on the estate, the police didn’t care what they did.
That felt more tricky. I mean, we could have transplanted this story to an off-planet colony. One which was failing and being ignored by Earth … but then that tips it over into science fiction and whereas I love sci-fi, I don’t want it for this story.
Still, that’s not a bad idea because it adds one more thing: an unusual arena.
This, I feel, is important because it automatically piques someone’s interest. The Martian looks like exactly the same (or at least a very similar) story as Cast Away or Robinson Crusoe.
Someone is stuck somewhere on their own, having to survive in ridiculously tough circumstances.
Clearly there are a million ways to tell this story without changing the arena. Cast Away and The Martian may well be exactly the same story (it doesn’t look like it, but I haven’t seen or read The Martian so I can’t be certain) but setting one on a deserted island and the other on Mars makes them instantly feel different.
Changing the arena changes the level of interest. It can make the difference from someone going “Oh for fuck’s sake! Not another stranded on a desert island story!” to “Ooh, stuck on Mars! How’s he going to survive that?”
If people feel they know everything about one arena (even when they probably don’t), then switching it to one they know less about can make the difference between a read and a pass.
So what arenas are like a council estate … but not? What haven’t we seen on screen before? Or recently?
And this is where an eclectic reading habit comes in useful. Hoover up knowledge, you never know when you might need it.
Two things sprang to mind, two things I remember reading and being fascinated by: The Principality of Sealand and Freetown Christiania. Both are small communities set up on the fringes of society, occasionally attacked by the authorities before settling down into an uneasy truce.
Sealand’s story I know was optioned by someone at some point – there may well be a film about that (or inspired by that) in the works.
Freetown Christiania feels uniquely Danish … but maybe there’s a British equivalent? After all, we did have a lot of abandoned Air Force bases after WWII.
A brief spot of googling turned up The Great Sunday Squat of 1946. Turns out there were hundreds (or possibly tens) of these kind of mini-societies set up in the UK. Some of them set up their own councils and laws and schools and existed for over a decade.
So … what if one of them still existed today? What would that look like? How would that fit into modern Britain if it were on the edge of a more affluent town?
In the 1940s squatting was an accepted part of normal life. Nowadays it’s villified. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
We think so anyway. It’s not a council estate, it’s something else. It’s visually interesting to look at and (as far as I know) it’s never been done before.
So that’s the first thing. By changing the arena, we’ve created a much more appealing story. It’s exactly the same story (mostly) but the setting makes it instantly more intriguing.^
The second thing … I’ll talk about next week.
% And the last paragraph of the original pitch. The last paragraph made us sound like egotistical wankers who believed we were the saviours of the British film industry. We don’t and we’re not. Sorry about that.
# The Full Monty is pretty uplifting, for example.
* Okay, maybe not busting. Bending? And not really genre since ‘council estate’ isn’t a genre … it’s just apparently perceived as one.
^ Other options could have been a Model Village which was abandoned by it’s philanthropist owner, or a factory village created to house workers for a factory which then went bust, or railway village whose station was closed by Dr Beeching, something like The Epcot Centre (which was designed to be lived in but never was, imagine if it had?) … and so on.