London Headshots

Posted June 5th, 2019 by dorothy

Much has been said about first impressions. High quality self tapes and headshots are crucial in landing a casting or audition.

So what makes a good headshot? John Godwin, the owner of London Headshots and internationally published advertising and advertorial photographer pins it down to appealing to the casting director on a personal level, i.e. simply looking friendly. The right lighting, individual character, presenting the range are all components of the photograph’s evocative character. 

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John brings out the confidence, the beauty and the unique characteristics of each actor, irrespective of how comfortable they are in front of a stills camera.

Whether you’re in need of new headshots or simply considering refreshing your current portfolio, John has a special offer for all Shooting People members of 20% off the Full Actors Headshot Package (fully priced at £250). The package includes a 90 minute studio session in South West London and a link to 4 x retouched hi-res images.

Launching New Shoots: Actors, our new competition designed specifically for actors to aid them in their career, we have teamed up with John to offer a headshot package as one of the prizes for our winner. Head over to New Shoots for more information. 

Now, Then.

Posted February 27th, 2019 by Ben

For many, if British cinema isn’t found on a Council estate then its only other residence will be a country estate sometime in the past… 

We look back on the whale bone tightened summers gone by through two alternate lenses. One familiarises, the other estranges. The past is either a foreign country, unreachable and unknowable, full of strict social rules and buried passions or instead it is delightfully just like now full of sexy messy people just unbuttoning better dresses. Neither view is truer. Both can be used to surprise, to refresh, to question or to comfort, to smooth and to simplify. 

For instance the first season of “The Crown” highlights Elizabeth’s transformation into a person not normal. It is vital as a result. However I found the second eventually falls back on the comforting idea that despite the sheer preposterousness of their existence, the royals of then are really just ordinary like you now. But whilst that idea diminishes their story, the same theme becomes livid and compelling in “Lady Macbeth” which details how a teenage girl in the 18th century would have been not so very unlike a teenage girl now. 

Of course both conceits are actually always true, simultaneously. If you really want to understand the actions of people from the past you have to constantly remember that they are always the same and not the same as you are today, all at once. A rare film that draws its energy from attempting to balance both ideas is the favourite historical movie of the moment. The personal and political politics of Queen Anne’s court are often presented in “The Favourite” as both unfathomably archaic and startlingly modern. Lanthimos grotesques both, the characters are more modern and their problems more arcane than any audience would believe as pure fact but he juggles both ideas to underpin the film’s queasy insanity. 

“The Favourite” is also a story of imprisonments. It presents a claustrophobic world full of traps. Again the tension between the foreign and native is key. The social strictures that bind the characters together are arcane but expressed as modern agonies. This gets to the heart of how historical story telling works. The dichotomy of such stories is that whether you wish to escape from the past or to it, you can’t. This cannot be your life but neither can you live a life disconnected from these stories, these people.

But the real choice for a filmmaker is whether to comfort or confront. Hilary Mantel, who knows something of writing about the past, once noted how often we infantilise historical characters. She suggests rendering Henry VIII as a messy eating toddler chucking bones over his shoulder is to comfort ourselves with our contemporary maturity. “The Favourite”, for all its monstrous rabbits, is not a film about grief or about women in power. It is not a film driven by mature emotions. Instead it is a morality tale about the corruptions of power in which its powerful women are always bound up in affairs of the heart rather than those of state. As is so often the case in successful British films about the past, the problems remain other people’s.

Sound & Fury.

Posted February 12th, 2019 by Ben

There are many false truisms about making films. Usually pithy, tough sounding aphorisms that reek of machismo and defy challenge like “No one knows anything” (obviously not true) or “Kill your darlings” (speaking as a father this is definitely questionable). Perhaps the most bankrupt is “If you want to send a message use Western Union”. 

Attributed to, amongst others, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and Samuel Goldwyn, it’s a dictum used to warn against explicit sermonising in art (which makes Bernard Shaw and Brando unlikely originators). Whilst usually employed in the noble task of encouraging writers to avoid being monotonously didactic it nevertheless makes my teeth ache. Stories have a message. It can be simple, obvious, incoherent, unwitting or contradictory but all films eventually implore the audience to reach some conclusion about their events. Films are also an astonishingly powerful delivery mechanism. I mean despite the best rhetorical efforts of Voltaire, Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill and both Presidents Roosevelt, to date it is definitely the Spider-man movie franchise that has been the most successful method of promulgating the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility”.

I have though recently noticed a seam of nearly apolitical films. This is especially surprising since many at first glance appear to be the heirs of British cinema’s long tradition of very overtly political social realist cinema. I am not going to call out specific films or filmmakers because I’m less interested individual cases than considering the general cause. However, I’m referring to a number of films from recent years that use all the genre trappings of the films of Loach or Leigh but that elegantly avoid ever actually meaning anything.

Present are the struggling working class families, the kids who slip through the cracks, the remorselessly downbeat stories. Often present too are the towering performances from both freshly discovered untrained actors and our country’s finest character performers. They howl and crumble, haunted by demons of hard real life; these are often genuinely great performances captured in grainy film or tangy cheap video, usually beneath dirty strip lights or bathed in a saintly lens flare. Every frame assures you that you are watching some urgent message from real Britain now. Yet, unlike Ken Loach, who never once forgets to show both the actual cause and potential solution to the problems he puts on screen, these films exist in a universe without cause or effect.

All too often I watch these films and they tell me that it’s hard being poor because poor people drink and gamble and take drugs and fight and cry and sleep around and abuse their kids and it’s probably ok because wild animals exist as well and that’s beautiful. These films seem angry about the lives they depict but their fury is unanchored, as if these problems were just a big awful fact we can do nothing about. With the divisions in our society more starkly and dangerously exposed than any time in the last two hundred years, our political cinema is as posturing and vacuous as our political class.

By contrast American cinema is seeing a wellspring in films that are fun, populist, artistically bold and built fundamentally around social and political positions that are genuinely provocative. “Get Out”, “Sorry To Bother You”, “Blackkklansman”, all leap to mind as films that delight in entertaining whilst simultaneously grabbing the audience by the shoulders and trying to shake them awake.

All films have a message and no medium is better than film at sharing one. Voltaire and Spider-man are both on the money, with great power comes great responsibility – you see, the message you send isn’t necessarily the one you intend. For many people these kitchen-sink-estate movies are still what they think of when they say “British movies”. For many the message given is that these aren’t films for you – they are films about you. The message is not that we care, but that we like to watch.

Some Notes.

Posted February 6th, 2019 by Ben

“The customer is always right”. What could be more British than this shopkeeper’s battle cry which quietly means nearly the opposite of what it seems. The hidden wisdom here is not that customers possess a perfect understanding of their needs or how best to fulfil them, but that it benefits the vendor to indulge any belief that they might. The privilege of feeling right, or rather of remaining unchallenged in our errors, is part of the power we gain when we agree to foot the bill.

For filmmakers this should simply remind us that debating the merits or coherence of, say, “Venom” or “The Greatest Showman”, is a matter for the pub. If audiences want to pay to spend time with a film then that in some way benefits all of us, and trying to dissuade them in no way benefits any of us. That said, when it comes to art both high and entertaining, the joy of remaining unchallenged in our beliefs is wrongly felt more as a right of birth than a benefit of purchase. Within the industry there is also often a very genuine confusion over who the customer actually is.

For a screenwriter the ineffable customer isn’t the cinema going public. They pay their ticket money to a cinema, who in turn give a portion to a distributor who, through a series of baroque accounting measures will eventually share a portion not necessarily related to their actual profit margin with the film’s sales company who will have usually already paid some sort of up front fee to the film’s production company who will then be bound to repay the investors who have, hopefully, long since paid the screenwriter what will most likely be the only financial reward they will see for their work. For screenwriters the consequence of this is very simple, the customer is whoever authorises payments to your producer. You have an idea, they give you notes, you makes those notes work, they pay you.

In this process the most complicated position is actually held by anyone giving notes. If you are giving notes you usually feel like a member of the audience (infallibility intact). However, in strict economic terms you’re in resales. Your financial responsibility is not to yourself but your customers, the sales agents or the distributors who you hope will purchase the film from you. As much as you may want to sit in the privileged seat of the audience member, unchallenged in your responses to the work, that is not your chair.

Since returning to this blog I’ve written exclusively about the culture of filmmaking in the light of #metoo and all that went with it. This theme normally maps out the territory of urgent contemporary issues like representation and abuse. So it may seem odd to end with something as banal as bad notes. However all these posts address the nature of power in the creative process, its abuse, its imbalance and its illegitimate hoarding. Notes are the basic way we communicate the creative and commercial force of our ideas and nothing is more expressive of the lazy bias and blinkered self delusion that still plagues us. From this soil grow the obstacles to us all telling better and more interesting stories. Bad notes may only be plankton but they still feed whales. 

The English abroad are famous for bridging a language gap by simply repeating themselves slowly and loudly, as if the failure of comprehension was purely on the part of the poor fool who didn’t speak the language of Shakespeare. I find myself doing the same thing when I give bad notes.

It’s an empathy failure, I’m thinking only of my own responses, rather than looking for what I might have missed. Having noticed this failure in others, I try now to start by establishing what the author of the work, the writer, the editor, the actor, thinks they themselves are trying to achieve. This helps shine a light on what I missed. Of course I probably missed it because they expressed it badly but suddenly the notes are addressing the core problems of their communication, rather than simply listing all the reasons why I’m feeling let down or underlining all the ways in which I feel I’m better than them.

Notes should expose the shortcomings of the work (be that first draft, fourth take, or nearly picture locked edit), notes need to be critical and they don’t need to be polite (though this costs nothing). Bad notes are not the ones that hurt but the ones that don’t seek to help. Any that attempt to reserve the power of not being challenged in turn. Any note of the sort “I just don’t like it”. Any that either refuses a “because” or offers only “because that’s what I wrote” or “that’s not how it’s done”. Any note that demands things shorter without suggesting cuts or cheaper without sharing the budget. To return to the economic view, any note that attempts to speak purely as a customer without accepting that by giving a note you are rolling up your sleeves and joining the creative process as a worker.

It’s All Your Fault.

Posted January 25th, 2019 by Ben

The contrast has increased. We live through screens and in 4k resolution issues that used to be black and white now howl their outrage in super whites and deepest blacks. Your opinions are not just wrong, they make you wrong. You are wrong and I hate you. 

Believe it or not dear reader, I used to use Shooting People to shoot my mouth off. But arguments stop being fun when every position is instantly reduced to outrage and offence. Collectively we have forgotten that to explain is not to excuse. To understand is not to justify. And to make no attempt to do either is to perpetuate problems, not to solve them.

I’ve written a lot recently about examples of directors abusing their power, both on set and in auditions. These are, of course, not the only ways the artistic authority granted to a cinematic auteur can create tyrants of even the sweetest of us. Film crews endure the black moods, the sharp tongued put downs, the open humiliations and the occasionally life threatening working conditions that are so often justified as the inevitable fall out from the quest for perfection. But for most directors bad behaviour has a simpler cause than the extravagant myopia of their own creative vision. Like children being cruel to their pets, directors are often dish out shit because they’ve spent too long taking it from everyone else.

Remember, to explain is not to excuse, to understand is not to justify… For many, for most, a director’s life is one of pure precariousness. A choice between sacrificing any financial security to create your own work in obscurity or becoming the paid scapegoat for the dull and unworkable ideas of other people. Making a film is a slow, intransigent, capricious process and unlike cast or crew who move from project to project within months, a director will carry a film for years, often decades before shooting and will never escape it once completed. Those demands and mistakes you took reluctant possession of are ghosts that will never be exorcised. If you’re really lucky, millions will take to twitter to call you a failed human just because you made Luke Skywalker milk a space cow.

Possibly a metaphor.

Besides a few notable exceptions, producers take less public blame for the failures of their work, even those springing directly from their own lunacy. However they also struggle to ever get anything like the due recognition for their work’s success, even when almost entirely down to their own sublime insight. As a result producers and directors are caught in a ghastly mirror dance, each performing an authority neither has. When powerless people who act like Gods are given a moment’s real control over, say, the employment opportunities of a group of emotionally vulnerable but very attractive young people, the results can be appalling, but not unpredictably so.

To explain is not to excuse, to understand is not to justify. The illegal and abusive behaviours of producers and directors that caused a landslide within our industry, within our culture, are individual acts of personal monstrousness. It is worth reflecting though that they issue from a creative culture where the authors of the work are often as powerless as the audience sat at screens pouring their rage into social media timelines because SOMEONE MADE A MOVIE AND I DIDN’T ENJOY IT AND NOW I AM STILL ALIVE AND IT’S AWFUL SO FUCK YOU YOU FUCKS.

Despite the hashtags, the making of movies remains a process formulated on dividing the creative act into two distinct and competing roles where each trades responsibility for their own mistakes for the task of coping with the consequences of the other’s failure. What better environment for monstrous personalities to remain unaccountable for their behaviour?

We’ll Call You…

Posted January 9th, 2019 by Ben

We all know how auditions work, right? A desk, a group of poker faced creatives and an actor who will do anything to impress them. Quite possibly anything at all…

Like dodgy scoutmasters before Jimi Saville, the casting couch was a joke before it was an outrage, a normalised nightmare hidden in plain sight. But then the culture changed and everything is ok now, right?

Arguably the series of cultural detonations that became the #metoo movement were sparked by the election Donald Trump as President of the US. Buffeted by irrefutable evidence of his misogyny, bullying and actual sexual assault, his victorious campaign was a final insult to a long buried fury that needed to be expressed. Ironically, before he became the global face of brand Patriarchy™, Trump had a possibly more pernicious cultural impact as the symbolic boss in the reality TV contest The Apprentice. Here he first found a multi-million audience, pantomiming the leadership skills required to run a large organisation with a single catchphrase – “you’re fired.” 

Not that he invented the management style that revels in the simple power of bestowing employment and takes egotistical delight in keeping a pack of hopefuls hanging on his every word. Before the Donald, if you wanted to caricature the nightmare job interview then it was the audition with the defeated candidate heading for the door, their ears ringing to the tune  “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

I’ve heard many justifications for auditioning as if you are Donald Trump. You want an actor with that x-factor that makes them stand out from the crowd. You want to see how they perform under pressure. You want to be sure they can learn the lines. You want someone who just “is” the part. So you demand your candidates turn up in costume and off book. You sit behind your desk, perhaps you decide not to talk, to keep them on edge – after all they’ll be nervous when you’re filming, so best make them nervous now. Best of all you get someone else to film them and you’ll watch it later without meeting them. Ideally getting them to hold their name on a piece of card and look front and profile like they’ve just been arrested.

All I’ve described is a perfectly normal audition process –  nothing here would warrant a hashtag. But even though no one is naked, if this is your approach you’re still a complete and total Donald.

This is a process designed to make a director feel powerful, it has nothing to do with finding the right cast. Rather than a process designed to make actors fail, if you want to find the right cast – audition to help people succeed.

Yes, you need an actor who can deal with the pressure of a shoot, but more than that you need the actor you can best support through that shoot. Yes, you need an actor who can give a mesmerising and award winning performance, but that means finding the actor you can best guide towards that performance.

An audition is not be a process where a director judges an actor’s ability, their professionalism or their reading skills. It’s not even really a process where you judge their suitability for the part. Fundamentally it’s an experiment to find the actors you communicate most interestingly with. Who inspires you? Who takes your nudge and gives it back as a definitive choice? Who understands you? Who stretches you? Who brings the depth or insight that you lack? It should be the first act of a beautiful relationship, not just a one night stand…

Putting The Man In Manipulation.

Posted December 19th, 2018 by Ben

Most of last year’s Weinstein inspired fury focused on abhorrent and often criminal behaviour off camera. However the revolt against filmmaking’s abusive culture also resurrected the grim controversy surrounding Bertolucci’s “Last Tango In Paris” and Maria Schneider’s story of how the famous sex scene between her and Marlon Brando was sprung on her unscripted and left her feeling humiliated. Bertolucci later defended himself by saying “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act” a statement that sits uncomfortably besides Schneider’s claim that “…even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.”

Later, after Schneider and Brando had both died, Bertolucci, who himself passed away last month, claimed that the only unscripted element was the infamous use of butter and that Schneider had been aware of the scene’s inherent violence. Whatever the lived or remembered truth might have been, the joining together of a fictional rape and a performer’s lack of consent makes the ethics of the situation horribly clear.

But what of the story of Ridley Scott surprising the cast of “Alien” by hurling animal guts at them when filming the chest burster scene? Or Kubrick’s intransigent bullying of Shelley Duvall in making “The Shining”?

I’ve avoided names in these recent posts as I’m not looking to apportion blame. I don’t know how true any of these stories are and neither do you. My intention is to question the behaviours we all share, or aspire to. Behaviours that have come to seem inherent in the act of filmmaking. As ever though, what matters in film is the legend. These legends are just some of the directorial exploits that have been cited to me (and occasionally by me) to explain how great directors get great performances by artfully manipulating their cast into giving something more real, more truthful than mere performance. So deep runs this idea that I’ve had inexperienced actors ask me to withhold aspects of a scene so they can be genuinely startled. I’ve also made this mistake myself, making films as a teenager and assuming that making a performer angry was the best way to capture her character’s fury. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Bad acting is easy to define as that which doesn’t seem real. Therefore, good acting must be that which does seem real. Therefore, the best acting must be reality itself? It’s easy to see how you get there but its nonsense. Good acting, like good dialogue, like all good art, is about truth, not reality. Many of cinema’s greatest performances have no reality to them at all. No one has ever really been like Brando in “The Godfather” but that performance expresses a truth about a certain type of total bastard that we do recognise. Truth offers us insight whilst realism simply extends our incomprehension.

Filmmaking naturally attracts messy personalities. Vulnerable, controlling, anxious, scared, needy, uncalm, these are often amongst the best qualities of both directors and actors, the livid source of their most compelling and inquiring work. But this can have a downside. The common misunderstanding of the relationship between truth and reality offers such personalities a dangerous excuse. The myth of the genius director moulding, goading and tricking their cast into delivering is artistically barren and morally reprehensible.

Rather than celebrating those moments of reality caught on camera, like Duvall’s screams or Veronica Cartwright’s blood splattered revulsion, we should instead see these as a director’s failures. Unable to help their cast create anything more powerful they instead had to fall back on flat reality. These events break the illusion of the story just like a bad effect or wobbly set might. Schneider’s tears are only ever hers, they belong not Jeanne and are not expressive of her fear or pain, they are only the tears of a scared and humiliated actress having a horrible day at work. Bullying is not a necessary part of filmmaking and whilst many of us choose to suffer for our art, no one has the right to make their art out of your suffering.

Patriarchy Of The Page.

Posted December 12th, 2018 by Ben

I’ve long been troubled by the assumption that men struggle to write women. Don’t get me wrong, I know why this attitude exists, a review of primary evidence makes a compelling case. Many of our most lauded writers have a womb based blind spot. But why? And why does no one expect women to struggle with their fictional men? Again a purely evidence based approach shows why that’s not a question commonly asked. So rare is it to find a male character badly written by a women that when it happens I get genuinely excited, it’s like getting that rare rogue kit-kat finger that’s got no biscuit…

Of course it’s worth looking at how male characters benefit from bad writing. Speaking only in cliché, incoherent in motivation, lacking in depth and expressing an idealised traditional form of sexuality, the lantern jawed butt kicking hero is just as badly written as his supportively vulnerable bikini wearing girlfriend. That bad writing for men is largely aspirational should not obscure the fact that it is still bad writing.

Even so, men who write human women still garner weird admiring glances of the kind usually preserved for women who write good action. Both men and women have told me this disparity is because women are more sensitive, or emotionally intuitive. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “all black people can dance.”

Page, stage and screen have long been mastered by men who make great show of their sensitivity to the emotions of men. So does a writer’s dick just get in his way? Do claims of equality founder on man’s inability to conquer his genes? Are we actually just the weaker sex? Or do women just get more practice. Still. Even now. Why?

Now we must accept our sample is skewed. The massive under representation of women as screenwriters means there mathematically has to be more bad male writers than female ones. It’s also unlikely that talent is as evenly spread across the female writers we do have. The few that make it are probably amongst the better ones, appalling gender bias robbing us of generations of journeywoman hacks who think all guys only talk about sports. However whilst it’s comforting to think that this disparity is because evil powerful men are blocking women’s way, it’s worth remembering that in the UK most debut writer’s first films aren’t made within the industry. For 70% of the films I watched for BIFA this year no evil powerful anybody was interested enough to be involved. In this context the most powerful voice stopping a woman progressing is an internal one.

Our visual culture has for centuries been defined by the male gaze. This is often thought of merely as disempowering and bad. However it means not that a woman grows used to passively being defined by men, but to actively defining herself through the eyes of others. There is an enforced fluidity to most female identities that is not dissimilar to good writing, to the inhabiting of multiple characters. Women are taught early the need to think like men, to be bilingual in her dealings with the world but writing as a man is cultural English. We are all so steeped in it that for writers of any gender it remains the instinctive first response.

Our screens now are full of women. Some of them even written by women. But it’s fascinating how so many still struggle to truly be protagonist in their own story. How often men have flaws that feel universal but women have failings that are relentlessly personal. How male characters act but women react. If women usually write men as well as men do, the bigger surprise is that they can also write women as badly. Because writing isn’t a genetic act, but a cultural one.

In our culture she is still expected to be constantly alert to other’s thoughts whilst her brother is supposed to shape them. This is the force behind the statistics. Why were only 16% of UK screenwriting debuts from women? Because men are taught not to take no for an answer, even when that’s the right answer. (A theme our industry has played out in very dark ways).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad news.

The Stink.

Posted December 5th, 2018 by Ben

BIFA, which handed out all its trophies last Sunday night, is now the first awards organisation in the world to insist its membership undergo cognitive bias training before voting. Considering some of the numbers I discussed last week, that seems entirely laudable. Nevertheless in the session I attended the mood ranged from nervousness to outright cynicism, and that was just me.

The BIFA effort is not just around the much campaigned against wrongs of sexism, racism, homophobia, religious discrimination or blunt gender binaries. The concern extends to the favouring of big studios, higher budgets, famous faces and all the other quiet ways our industry unlevels its playing field. All the things no one admits to doing but that everyone can see are being done.

Prejudice in this form is an uncomfortable subject because the essence of an unconscious bias is that the owner is necessarily unaware of it. Like appalling body odour you cannot smell, even when painfully aware of everyone else’s.

Patriarchy is another term that causes both buttocks and teeth to clench. As with your unconscious bias, your relationship to the patriarchy, positive or negative, is something you are born into. It wraps around you invisibly from your first interactions. Many men I know feel stung by accusations of bad behaviour, bad thought or unearned advantage based purely on their entirely unwitting possession of one set of genitals. I’ll assume you’ve pegged the irony of that and move on.

I’ve been on a break from this blog and in my absence our industry has been struck by a long over due realisation of a deep running stink. The dust has settled, the scapegoats safely tethered and it’s easy now for us all to sink back into the comforting knowledge that however bad the smell still is, it’s definitely someone else creating it. However the appalling behaviour of a few men within our industry depended upon the quiescence of a far greater number of people who were in turn supported in their silence by a culture that each of us has played a part in propagating.

Cinema remains one of popular culture’s essential compost heaps, but whilst most films trumpet self-respect or the care of a community, these are not the values that fertilise our industry. Rather it is the onscreen gangsters and cowboys who best reflect the culture behind the camera.

www.cognitiveBiasParade.com

www.cognitiveBiasParade.com

Forget the colourful monsters of Hollywood legend or the despicable hate figures of yesterday’s tweets. The everyday art and craft of moving pictures remains riddled with practices, beliefs and bad habits that when challenged get explained just as “that’s how proper films do it”. Much of this pervasive culture of manipulation, condescension and bullying is rooted in the Patriarchy but I don’t want to give a free pass to the 18% of us who aren’t dicks biologically. So I prefer the term my brother coined for the various unthinking systems that govern our creative industry – “The Machine”.

Where better to start a conversation about The Machine and how to dismantle it then here on Shooting People, the shouty, contradictory but brilliant beating heart of the truly independent cinema maker? Over the next few weeks I’m going to look at a few of the areas where I think The Machine operates and I hope you’re going to argue with me about all of them. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s a conversation.

Before we start that though, I wanted to underline the most important and heartening lesson I learnt when BIFA made me dissect my own dark heart: we all have unconscious bias. Our expectations for ourselves and of others are all framed by the society we are a part of. But though we are the products of our history we are not its prisoners. Simply by being aware you have a bias, by consciously allowing for it, you will find your actions change. A moments’ self awareness is deodorant for your soul.

The Artist, His Mother And The Run Down Seaside Town…

Posted November 28th, 2018 by Ben

If you are reading on Shooting People the chances are you are currently writing your debut feature film. Let’s face it, everyone is, so no matter if you’re reading this in the front of your cab or on a break before serving more flat whites, you’re still probably writing your debut feature film (or hope you are).

You are not alone. Or to make the same point less comfortingly, you are not unique. So how do you make your first script stand out from the crowd? Well, it helps if you know where the crowd is standing… (or sitting staring at a laptop).

An awful image.

Isn’t it just fucking awful what happens when type “writer” into google image search? When did “writer” become a synonym for “prick”?

I recently had the privilege of voting in the British Independent Film Awards’ Debut Screenwriting category. The BIFAs are committed to diversity and championing new talent; the entrants vary wildly in budget, ambition and quality and so offer a fantastic snap shot of our industry. Between us, my brother and I watched all of the 44 films from first time writers that came out in the last year (and that someone involved thought might be worthy of a prize…) So before you return to your unfinished draft you should be aware of some fascinating trends both on the debut writer’s page and beyond it…

Of those writers whose first full feature scripts became films in the past year, 95% were white, 84% were men and 78% were both. 25% wrote in partnerships (55 writers were credited), 73% were writer directors and perhaps more surprisingly 18% were writer actors. If this year was notable for anything it was the number of name-actors making their writer/director debuts.

With such a homogeneity of author, it’s no surprise that creative trends emerge. Just under a third of the films focussed on a young man, nearly two thirds of those a young man pursuing an artistic ambition. “Write what you know” was surely never meant to be taken quite so literally.

30% were set in London. More surprisingly 14% were set by the seaside, though I suspect that’s a quirk, like last year’s spike of films set on farms.

23% made the lead character question their sanity. 20% featured troubled violent men. 18% involved suicide. 11% involved women who are unexpectedly violent and an almost non-contingent 11% feature child abuse (mainly historic). 9% revolved around some sort of revenge for war crimes.

Lumping films together like this always sounds critical. To be clear, many tackle these themes with subtlety, eloquence and power. If you have to choose between originality and quality, always pick quality. However even truth sounds tired when repeated. The more a theme is worked the harder it becomes to make the material evoke a response and the easier it becomes to slip into cliché. This was especially clear in the 41% of films to feature terrible parenting. For every three-dimensional adult struggling to come good on their responsibilities, there were many more monstrous caricatures only there to justify the lead character’s own failings.

If the preponderance of bad parents felt lazy, what felt shocking was that of those there were two dads, two uncles and then 14 films about some truly awful mothers. This goes alongside 11 films (25%) where a father was shown in a positive light, either solving problems or quietly understanding in a way no one else did. All versus a single film that went out of its way to give us a positive view of a mum.

In the wake of #metoo it is notable that just under a quarter of debuting screenwriters are men writing about the negative influence of a mother (half of those in a run down British costal resort). And before we all throw up our hands and say how broken our system is, it’s worth repeating that the I in BIFA stands for Independent and only 30% of these films were made with any support from the British film industry establishment (broadcasters, state, mini-studios etc).

It is also worth realising that because of the turnaround time for most projects, I expect we have yet to see the impact of #metoo on the screen. These scripts are likely to have been amongst the last green lit before that tide burst. Even so, as you settle down to crack your difficult third act this morning, take a look at your own first screenplay. Does it have to be set by the sea? Is she really to blame?