This 'Tell me how you write' is a little different to the previous guest posts. First off, Miles Watts is a filmmaker, and we haven't had one of them before. Secondly, Miles and I are friends in real real life, we worked together until very recently - Miles left our 'day job' for a very cool reason - his latest film Crimefighters has been accepted into The Edinburgh International Film Festival. I'm ultra proud of him. And I heartily recommend you check out his web series Zomblogalypse, which has a huge online following.
Writing is probably my favourite part of making films. It’s the part where anything is possible and there are no limits but your imagination. One of my childhood heroes, George Lucas, says he absolutely hates writing scripts, whereas Alfred Hitchcock said it was the best part of the process and that making the film was the tedious part because it was already all in his head.
I’m kind of halfway between those two opinions in terms of love for the process; I enjoy the script stage but I also enjoy the practicalities of turning the script into something real. A screenplay is just a blueprint after all, not a finished piece of work like a novel.
It’s a scary and exciting moment, sitting down to write a screenplay because all the flimsy ideas you’ve had now have to get put down in actual words, but before that moment I’ve usually sketched out the idea on copious amounts of paper. Ideas for films have always come to me while doing something else like cycling, being at work or in the pub, so very often the film has been scribbled out on the back of a receipt or napkin by the time I sit down to write.
I’m a big fan of visual aids and I always have a chart or diagram of some kind that lays out the film. That way you can tackle one scene at a time while having an idea of the way everything fits together. Index cards are useful for scribbling individual scenes on, a trick I learned from Syd Field’s book Screenplay. I’ll transfer these to my computer so when I start I can see a list of all the scenes in the film, then fill in the scenes as I go, but most of the time things are scribbled in a notebook or scrap of paper that I can pin up and refer to.
On the rare occasions I write on paper it ends up being a complete illegible mess, so I always write at my computer unless I’m not in front of it so I can make quick changes. I bash out the dialogue really quickly, my fingers moving almost as fast as an actual conversation. That way I can be sure I’m letting my characters talk to me rather than putting words in their mouths, and that’s the most satisfying part of the whole process. I go into a kind of frantic meditative state where I’m just a receptor for these lines coming out of the ether. I literally write the first thing that comes into my head so that the characters are talking to each other. It’s not until later that I’ll tweak and make changes so that the dialogue comes from the characters and doesn’t just serve the plot.
One thing I learned that is very helpful is to take the draft of a script and turn to any page at random. If I can’t find several points or lines of dialogue relevant to character or plot, they get changed. I do this until I can turn to any page of the script and be confident that every page advances the plot and stays true to character. Sometimes I’ll see a line of dialogue and think, ‘He/she wouldn’t say that’ so I give it someone else.
The point of the first draft for me is always to finish the screenplay and get closure before I move onto further drafts. A screenplay is never finished after one draft, rarely after three or four unless you’re some kind of genius. Even then, a screenplay is never set in stone all the way through filming, and should be constantly tweaked and changed all the way to the final edit. The only exceptions I can think of offhand are the Coen Brothers and David Mamet, where you clearly wouldn’t want to change a single word.
Just because you had some good ideas during the writing process doesn’t mean all of them will work for the film; sometimes actors will suggest line changes and the shot will dictate what you can/can’t film. A director has to remain flexible and confident of the overall vision that he/she is comfortable to make changes all the way until the end, so the whole process is an incredibly liberating and exciting creative challenge.
Infected with the film bug at the age of 8 after seeing E.T. in 1982, Miles’ first film was an 8mm, 5 minute epic in which his Indiana Jones went to find some ‘sacred treasure’. Moving to York to study a degree in English Literature in 1995, Miles began writing scripts with a mind to making one of them into a film one day.
Miles honed his writing and editing until in 2006 he wrote, produced, directed and edited his first feature film, The BandWagons, made with no budget, which sold out the local cinema when it premiered. In 2008 Miles wrote his second feature CrimeFighters which he directed in 2009, and began the cult zombie web series Zomblogalypse. CrimeFighters has just been accepted into this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival and picked up for cinema release by the Picturehouses chain, while Zomblogalypse continues to gain fans around the world, with plans for a feature.