5 things I learned writing a short film


I’ve been through the drama workshops, script meetings a commission round and then the work really began.

I’m now on the other side of the process, with only the relatively undramatic task of form filling for festival left. I’m starting to decompress, the difficult conversations are beginning to shift in my memory to form new lessons which I can take with me to future projects. The team and I were selected for the ‘new talent’ strand of the Scottish Film Talent Network, associated with Creative Scotland and the BFI. So in the spirit of growth I thought I should jot down a few things I’ve learned through the experience.

A little about the film- Grimm Street is a short fantasy drama about a teenager, Rose, who is battling against her physical disability. The story takes place over the course of a day- and starts at the moment a doctor informs Rose and her mother that she needs to go into hospital. Rose has a big imagination and soon the feeling that the wolf is at her door, turns into a terrifying real encounter.

I was inspired by themes of body identity, disability, and twisting the dark lessons of fairy tales. In the subtext it’s a coming of age tale with a difficult relationship between mother and daughter. I could write for days on this, maybe I will one day!

I’ve been working on Grimm Street since before Christmas 2014 when the idea first formed. I was able to sketch it out enough by January to submit to the SFTN scheme and there I was on set in August looking at a bunch of talented people turn it into a reality! The question I was asked most on the 5 day shoot was “how does it feel as a writer to be on set of your story?” I never knew what to say, I was exhausted, and anxious, and happy and terrified all at the same time. I’d lived through the story so many times in my mind, every terrible emotion, every dark dramatic moment that I felt like apologising to everyone, telling them to go home and hug their loved ones.

And yet, from the hard work of the director Siri Rodnes, producer Jill Pryde, the dedicated cast and crew, Grimm Street now exists. And I’m very proud to have it out in the world.

So here’s what I learned through the process, and I post this here in case it helps anyone else.

  1. Face your fears-

This makes it sound like I’m writing just another bullshit internet list. But I really mean it! This is about your idea. Don’t go into writing, especially a short film, without realising you’ll have to dig deep into your psyche and wade through some dark stuff.  For every draft, every meeting, it’s important you know what is driving you onwards. Some wee demon is pushing you to tell this story. It’s likely something you’ve been trying to escape, rolling boulders over for years. Maybe it’s embarrassing, or ugly, it likely makes you out to be an arsehole. It makes you insecure, sad, and it hurts to think about. Get in touch with your sad sack self and exploit it.

You may think, sure, you were writing about a disabled teen with a dark fantasy, of course it’s going to get a bit moody writing the script. But even if it’s a comedy you’re going to have to unpeel your main character and wander around in their skin for a while. Are characters in comedy happy? No, they’re tragic bastards!

So what about my digging? I was thrown back to a time, in my teens trying to deal with the fact that my body had completely betrayed me and was trying to die on me. What an arsehole.

That’s all I’ll say on it because you don’t need to tell anyone about the battles you’re facing while you’re writing. It’s your grist to the mill.

[Charlie Kaufman has spoken beautifully about this kind of thing].

  1. The best note you’ll get is cut it short

You may find yourself in intense battles over whether a character should glance towards a door at a particular point or not, but nothing will give you a clearer answer than being told you need to trim 5 minutes out. Cutting 5 mins out of a short film is intense and painful, everything has to hit its mark. Anything that you have the slightest niggling doubt has to go. All killer no filler.

Once you trim pieces out, and smooth over the transitions, you’ll notice the story has become much stronger. So I’d say, even if nobody gives you the note- do it anyway!

  1. What’s the most import- timing!

Timing the story-

In the beginning I had a story idea that was a broad canvas of characters and scenarios, I knew there was a film in there, but I was having trouble finding it. Once I realised that short films typically span short moments in time- an afternoon, a work shift, a day off, a journey, etc, then I found the frame I was looking for. Rose is told she has to go to hospital, she spends the rest of the day trying to grow up before it’s too late. Everything else fell into place from there.

Timing within scenes.

A small technical note, but I always like to give character something to do, if it’s a dialogue heavy scene. In translation to screen, with physical space and the actors, I realised it takes much longer to actually do things, than I was allowing for.

  1. Stand up for yourself-

After a few rounds of notes you may begin to forget that you’re a writer, and the belief will lodge in your brain that you are the meagre servant of this complex process. You’ll be eager to please, you’ll doth a cap that you didn’t even realise you were wearing. If you just give them what they want, maybe they’ll leave you alone. That’s all you ever wanted anyway, right? Why won’t they leave you alone, in the lovely dark, where you can be happy?!

No, you have to stand up for yourself and your ideas. They wouldn’t be here talking without you. I’m not sure every writer will suffer from this, but I know plenty who do. It doesn’t mean you can’t have critical self-doubt, but it does mean you need to make sure every word, every character is defendable. You may discover, as you reel through the reasons in your mind, that they aren’t as defendable as you’d hoped. In which case, fix it.

Also standing up for yourself doesn’t mean battering everyone else down. You have to be honest with yourself, other people can have better suited ideas.

  1. Know what you want from making a short film

For writer’s it’s tough. As production kicks into gear, the writer’s voice fades away. You have to really want to tell this story as a short film, and no other format.

The shorts industry is wrapped around writer/ directors, and it’s a prejudice that goes from commission rounds to festival catalogues. Short film isn’t a medium for writers to make their name, but it will help. Hopefully you’ll have a beautiful wee film that you can shout about and prove to the world you have what it takes.

Films are very expensive, and money tends to tip the scale to the already established writers in the field. It’s pretty rare for a writer to appear fresh, without some telly or theatre behind them. So as a writer you’ll need to move along quickly, look into ideas you have for other forms. I’m still working this stage out… so I’ll leave this one here.

Come back next year and maybe I’ll tell you the writer’s perspective of the festival circuit!






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