Sunday, November 25, 2007

THE ERLKING

This week has been spent attempting to get to grips with the script for the proposed film of The Erlking. I've never attempted a script before, and it's been a frustrating task at times, largely because my way of writing isn't easily compatible with the process of putting together a script, and a film.

Initially, I wrote an outline set in England shortly after WW I, a period that I find fascinating, as someone on the discussion forum pointed out recently. As I
said in my reply to that posting, I think my interest may be due in part to the sense that this was a country in shock, trying to come to terms with a loss of innocence, perhaps, as well as the more immediate loss of a generation of young men. Anyway, the outline incorporated a number of the other stories from the Nocturnes collection, told as tales within tales.

That version didn't quite work. I'm not sure why. It was interesting, but it wasn't The Erlking, and something of that story's mood was lost in the translation.

The second version returned the original short story to its fairy tale
roots. Essentially, it took up the tale two generations' later, and again included some of the other stories from Nocturnes, but this time they were integrated a little more smoothly into the overall narrative. The outline was 16 or 17 pages long, and included snatches of dialogue, mainly for my own benefit as they allowed me to move the story forward. I sent it off to the various parties involved in the film, and then the problems started.

When I write a novel, or a short story, it is an essentially solitary exercise. I write alone, with no input from others along the way. I slowly write a first
draft, usually over a period of six months or more, and then go back to the beginning and start rewriting. I do this, over and over, until the agreed deadline for the book is imminent, and then I deliver it to my agent and my British and American editors. They are the first people to read it, and only then will anyone else start to have any input into the book.

Other writers approach the process of writing, and delivering, a book
differently. Some will deliver a manuscript after only one or two drafts, trusting in the editing process to sort out any problems at an early stage. I know of one very famous writer who finishes a chapter and sends it out to his editor the following day, so that the novel arrives in bits and pieces, and is edited along the way. Another writer of my acquaintance will deliver very rough, even incomplete, chapters to her editor, so that a strong degree of intimate collaboration between writer and editor occurs.

The difficulty with scriptwriting, or any other aspect of film making, is that it is merely one part of a whole, and a whole that is very much dependent upon
co-operation and collaboration between a number of different people, each with his or her own views on what the finished artefact should resemble. Basically, the writer isn't the sole creative arbiter right from the start. There are a lot of creative people involved, and creative people have opinions. Thus, scriptwriting invites 'notes', which are suggestions from the producers or others about how the script should proceed.

So, shortly after I sent out the initial outline, the notes began to arrive. I was a bit bewildered, to be honest. I hadn't even written the script yet, merely suggested an outline, and already that outline was being tugged in all sorts of (sometimes contradictory, I felt) directions. It was like being presented with editor's suggestions based on a first draft, but that, as I've already said, isn't the way I write. It wasn't that the notes were bad. It was just that the whole idea of being guided at such an early stage, however well-meant that guidance might have been, was utterly alien to me.

Okay. Hand on heart, I also didn't really understand the notes. My bad. I tend to respond better to very specific suggestions, like the notes my editors, or copy editors, scribble in the margins of my manuscript: 'What does this mean?' ; 'Should this be mentioned earlier?'; or, my particular favourite, courtesy of an older American copy editor: 'What is a Siouxsie and the Banshee?' By contrast, the notes on the script were very general. They also, when I tried to think about them, appeared capable of being summarised as: 'We like this, but why don't you do something completely different instead?', which wasn't entirely helpful.

I made an executive decision. I decided to ignore the notes. That sounds more arrogant than it is meant to be, but the notes had caused me to freeze up.
All work on the script ceased as a consequence. I returned, instead, to The Reapers, and a writing process that I understood and with which I was comfortable.

But with The Reapers delivered, I decided to return to the script, but not to the notes. Over the last week, I've worked on it in assorted coffee shops (and here I should give a hearty round of applause to KC & Peaches, which is a very lovely coffee shop/ wine bar/ restaurant at the top of Pearse Street in Dublin, close to the canal. If you happen to be passing that way, be sure to drop by.) and the first draft proper is almost complete. On Monday, I'll probably send it off to Lawrence, a bastion of goodness in a harsh world, who is destined to direct the film should the script find approval (Lawrence directed the short film on Sedlec that appears on my website). We'll meet on Wednesday evening to discuss it (oh, and to watch the Liverpool game) and, with luck, he will have liked the direction in which I've gone.

Mind you, then the notes will start again. Oh dear. And it was all going so well . . .

This week John read:

Fawlty Towers by Graham McCann
Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

and listened to:

Tacks, The Boy Disaster by Tacks, The Boy Disaster
Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
Mirrored by Battles

5 comments:

spyscribbler said...

Yum ... I spent a whole summer listening to and playing Schubert's rendition over and over and over. So few things can remain fascinating under such repetition.

Good luck with the script!

Josephine Damian said...

I heard in Hollywood they follow the "Rule of Three" when it comes to notes:

1/3 of their suggestions are total crap, so toss them out.
1/3 of their suggestions are not halfway bad, so make those changes just to keep them happy.
1/3 of the changes are right and will improve the story, so make them.

Seems to me Hollywood's just a game you gotta learn how to play.

Have you read Syd Field's books on screenwriting?

hrh said...

Know anyone with a copy of of Gaiman's Smoke & Mirrors? If so, there's a story called The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories that might make you feel better--after all, it could be...worse? And it's good that you have a director you trust, right? He did a good job on the doc.

(Oh, the story of the fallen angel in Smoke is called Murder Mysteries.)

ciaran.i said...

However the notes go, I loved The Erlking, not only for its premise but for its tone. The air of creeping dread and horror of a child's fear of that which it cannot comprehend was translated perfectly through the medium of a book (especially when read alone, late at night, with the window open). I know that by now, you're probably swamped by notes and tidbits of advice, but my own contribution would be this: there's nothing wrong with the story, and how it's told. My only concern would be losing its feel in the translation to the screen, which is as much another language as another medium. So long as you keep that in mind, the story should survive the process relatively unscathed. Best of luck.

ciaran.i said...

However the notes go, I loved The Erlking, not only for its premise but for its tone. The air of creeping dread and horror of a child's fear of that which it cannot comprehend was translated perfectly through the medium of a book (especially when read alone, late at night, with the window open). I know that by now, you're probably swamped by notes and tidbits of advice, but my own contribution would be this: there's nothing wrong with the story, and how it's told. My only concern would be losing its feel in the translation to the screen, which is as much another language as another medium. So long as you keep that in mind, the story should survive the process relatively unscathed. Best of luck.