Fossils: From Competition to Crowdfund Part 1

I’d discovered @create50 through The London Screenwriters Festival and watched their first feature, ‘50 Kisses.’ It was an exciting and original initiative that resulted in a unique feature film with a diverse range of stories and genres. Among them, some truly exceptional films. 

So when Impact50 came around, I knew I had to be part of it. But, pun intended, I had no idea of the impact it would have on me, and my journey as a screenwriter/filmmaker.

The competition went like this, submit a draft, review a few scripts from other writers, then wait while your fellow writers and competitors would rate & review yours.

Of course the critique would range from very insightful, to that which was less so. By the latter I mean that it pulled the story away from its original intent. Sometimes it was just a compliment or support. Sometimes it cut deep. Always, it was helpful.

The effect of this process was transformative for me. Screenwriting is a solitary business. Anyone who knows or has worked with me, knows that I thrive in a team. Isolation, has been one of the toughest aspects of this journey. Often, you’re working in a vacuum, with only a couple of (very patient) friends to give you critique and support. With Create50, there were hundreds.

Each script in the competition could have a maximum of three drafts. That’s three rounds of notes, with the final round for you to take or leave, depending on the final outcome of the judging. There were hundreds of writers in competition, contributing over 2000 scripts. Lots of online friendships were made as a result.

It was energising and thrilling to be part of something so productive and special. I found myself developing dozens of ideas and discarding many more, effectively becoming  a producer to my own work - a critical function I’ve brought to every story idea since.

At two pages per script, I found myself thinking about characters, stories and genres I’d never considered before. Quiet drama, violent thriller, black comedy, comedy - a bit of everything. I even managed a sci-fi piece about A.I., one that I’d still love to make.

I ended up with 8 submissions in total, each receiving the full 3 rounds of notes and revisions. I gave around 300  sets of notes and read many more.

I gave everything I had to my own scripts as well as the entries I read and reviewed. Sometimes, I spent upwards of half an hour on a single set of notes - just to be sure I’d expressed it correctly and remained supportive of the writer.

There were some who contributed over 1000 sets of notes and more just shy of that! That’s how amazing this group of people are.

Out of necessity, I figured out a way to take the notes on each draft and wrangle them into a plan of action. A method I still use on feature length drafts today. 

Then, one day, we had to step away from our keyboards as the deadline came and went...

Judged by industry veterans, it was a nail-biting time awaiting the shortlist announcement. Entering competitions is a part of the journey and I’d entered quite a few by this point, but without any success. 

I told myself, none of those competitions were like this one. I felt good about the process, about the critiques, the writer I had become and the writers I’d befriended along the way. Nonetheless, I was stunned and overwhelmed when 4 of my submissions made that list.

Many of the writers and scripts I had grown to love over the course of the preceding months were also there. That was an incredible feeling - we were doing this together.

The final 50 still had to be determined. Time passed and I got on with other projects. My heart was in my throat when the announcement was emailed out. Hands shaking I scrolled down and had to read several times to ensure that I wasn’t imagining it.

Prior to this moment, I had practiced and coached myself in how to take the bad news. To embrace the fact that I had improved as a screenwriter, had got a better sense of the kind of stories I wanted to tell, further honed my ‘voice’ and made some friends. All things you have to remember, when dealing with the inevitable, crushing disappointment of not being chosen.

But Fossils had been chosen.

And after the waves of excitement had abated. Text messages to my partner were feverishly sent. My next thought was who else? I wasn’t prepared for the range of feelings that came from taking his journey  with others. Stories I’d grown to love, writers I’d come to know and admire, whom I hoped I might join with my own. With 50 scripts now selected, I wanted to know  - ‘what kind of film were we making?’ 

So I read all the winning scripts and something unexpected  happened. Beyond the basic premise, I discovered a very clear tone and thematic character that connected them all. And this was perhaps the greatest lesson learned on this filmmaking journey so far. 

How to take rejection. 

Several of the other writers had posted to the site about this very subject. They were supportive, insightful and very helpful. There was one aspect that wasn’t captured by those gracious posts.  

How can I talk about learning about rejection, when my script wasn’t? Well, keep in mind, seven of mine were also rejected. But the painful truth, is that the rejections have kept coming since then, and always will. Among the bright flashes of progress and success, you have to make friends with hearing, ‘no,’ and find the courage to keep moving forward. As the saying goes, it doesn’t matter how many no’s you get, it only takes one ‘yes,’ to make the difference.

What reading the 50 final scripts showed me, was that the producers and judges of the competition had a vision for what kind of film they wanted to put out into the world. It became crystal clear that half of my entries, were never going to make the list. It wasn’t a question of quality, but of content and tone. Reflecting on the stories and writers whose work I’d admired in the competition, I realised that some truly great work would also not fit that list. 

Every competition, submission, pitch etc. is subject to this invisible filter. No individual, producer, competition judge can ever be completely free of their subjective preferences. 

This is liberating.

Gleaning that understanding first hand, of how subjective the world of ideas is, has strengthened me, helped me make friends with the ‘no thank-yous’ and keep my eyes open for those ‘yeses’ that make all the difference.

The final film will be a work that speaks with a particular voice,  quite an achievement for 50+ different writers and and production teams.

In part two, I’ll be talking about the decision to crowdfund this project.

You can check out the crowdfund below. Please stop by and consider helping out - for the price of a beer or coffee you will make a difference!


Magic Mike (Ehrmantraut)

Better Call Saul S3 ‘Mabel’  Withholding information SPOILERS Ahead.

Mike Ehrmantraut.jpg

There are many great things about Better Call Saul, but in the 3rd Season Opener, ‘Mabel,’ there is a great sequence that begins with someone getting the drop on the guy who gets the drop on everyone. The one and only, MikeEhrmantraut.

Just as he’s preparing himself to execute a Mexican gang boss, his car horn goes off. He returns to find a branch braced between the steering wheel and seat.  A hand-written note tucked into the wiper blade of his car, parked, it must be said, in the middle of nowhere. This may be the first time we’ve seen Mike on the back-foot. Someone just out-Miked Mike. With any other character, this would be intriguing, because it’s Mike, someone who is as meticulous as he is wise, we’re hooked.

The question that gets answered over the course of the show is, ‘Who put it there,’ and it’s answered with another question, ‘What does he do about it?’
So begins a journey into the mind and world of Mike, a journey that relies almost exclusively on visual storytelling and a great use of withholding information.

Instead of going home, Mike drives off, stops somewhere and checks over the car. He finds nothing and while that might be good news to others, to Mike that’s a red-light. So he tears off to a scrapyard, rents some tools and strips the car down. After hours of this, he finds nothing. Dejected, he waits in the scrap-yard office for a cab to pick him up (he still doesn’t trust the car and besides it’s ruined). He spots some replacement gas tank caps and somewhere far behind his inscrutable gaze, a penny drops. Mike goes back out, locates and dismantles his previously discarded gas-tank cap and finds something. We don’t see what it is, but we understand that it’s what Mike was looking for.

Throughout all of this, almost nothing is said. It’s all show and no tell. We don’t know what he’s looking for, but damn if we’re not going to watch him do it. We also know that the whoever he’s up against is very smart.

Mike arrives home and removes the cap from his own car. Inside, he takes it apart and finds a chewing-gum sized object. This is the first time we’ve seen it.  Mike writes it down on a note pad. There’s just enough time to read ‘MTSAR Transmitter.’ Mike replaces the transmitter, reassembles the cap and returns it to his car.

There’s a couple of things going on here that are worth noting. Everything is shown, nothing is said. We learn that whoever tracked him to the hit also knows where he lives. Since his first car was knowingly compromised to both Mike and his stalker, he lets that tracker go. It’s a sacrificial unit, they would expect him to ditch the car. The second unit shows that whoever is looking for him, has major interest in Mike. We’re discovering his adversary through the negative space of their absence and the actions they’ve taken.

At the parking lot where he works, Mike removes the cap from his car, places it above his booth, so now we see that Mike’s using his adversary’s methods against them. Hegoes to meet his Vet, his connection to the underworld. He hands over the the hand-written piece of paper, asks if it can be done. It’s 3.30am, so instead of five hundred it’ll be a grand. Mike pays it, cash.

It’s a simple transaction but the Vet’s irritation with the time and the increased price underscores how outside of ‘normal’ life Mike lives.

Later on, we’re straight back into Mike’s mission, back at his table with the package. Before him, a military style pelican case. Side note, props to Mike for RTFM-ing that thing. He takes out an object - another of the trackers, same as the one in his petrol cap. He turns on the tracking receiver, we see it boot up and lock on to the transmitter. He removes the battery from it and we see how the transmitter responds - NO SIGNAL.

So now Mike swaps the rogue tracker in his petrol-cap with his new one - coded to *his* tracking device. Then we see Mike wire up the adversary’s tracker battery to a radio - while still powering the tracker. Mike leaves it and waits, long into the night and ensuingdarkness, when the radio runs the tracker’s battery down.

So here we see Mike’s patience and wisdom at work. He knows that a battery suddenly losing power would be suspicious, so he plays a longer game. A growing pile of discarded pistachio shells and time-lapse to show just how long that is and how tenacious he is. By now, we’re surethat Mike’s going to catch his adversary, with their own hook.

Eventually, Mike’s patience is rewarded. In the dead of night, a car turns up, a guy gets out and removes the petrol cap. He replaces it with a new cap and takes the old one away with him - along with Mike’s tracker.

And just like that, Mike’s got him. He turns on the tracking device and we see the blip moving away from the house. Mike gets going to a meeting that will ultimately lead to one of Breaking Bad’s most important characters.

What I got from this.
In other shows or films, this might have felt long or be dispensed with exposition. But the writers of this show, chose to put us in Mike’s POV. Layer by layer they give us insight not just into what’s going on, but into Mike’s world. We love to watch him get the drop on people by outsmarting them by always being several steps ahead of them. He’s the tortoise who beats the hare every time. When someone gets ahead of Mike, that tells us they are at least as smart as he is. When this happened, he didn’t react, he responded. He didn’t panic, he took action. He thought like the people who were tracking him. He can think like a criminal.

Throughout, we’re getting a front seat into Mike’s life. Gleaning, bit by bit, the details of a solitary man, who keeps a low profile; who has vast sums of cash secreted in his home, but who lives minimally. He’s an individual who’s appropriated the highest functions of his brain to evolve his instincts of survival. Like an, octopus, so smart it doesn’t need a hard shell for protection. But emotionally and socially, his life is almost as barren as his house.  The only light in his life, and also his Achilles’ heel, are his daughter in law and grand-daughter.

None of this information is laid on with a shovel, the previous seasons and the confidence of the writers has salted these details throughout. This time we get to see it up close and sustained for an entire episode. This is a man who can keep odd hours, vanish for days and yet no-one notices. These aspects of Mike’s life, the man in the box, are told indirectly, so that the loneliness and isolation, permeates the story and our minds.

While it’s true that television series have the scope to explore and develop characters more deeply than film, it’s not the rule, and Better Call Saul remains exceptional in this regard. That said, great film can do this to almost the same degree and the answer lies always in the rich visual language of the medium.