#35 – The Cult of Nigel: The Story

Let’s start at the beginning.

This idea must have dropped into my lap around November 2016. I remember being at work (restaurant jobs are great for creative thinking time) and writing the title on my arm, and instantly messaging Neil James that I had just had an idea for a new film. Up to that point, I had set my focus on making (newly retitled) Brick Wall as my first feature film – but that idea required a budget, and I had grown sceptical over whether I’d be able to raise the funds needed via Kickstarter. The entire point of this new idea is that I could make it with little money that I would (again) self fund – a dire prospect for any jobbing creative as we all need money to live! So, no money for another year or two. Yay! But luckily for me, Neil, Matt and Phil (= the lead actor, DOP and co-producer), have all agreed to do it with me for the “love”. I can’t remember how easily, or how quickly, they all agreed, and I’m sure there was a need for a script first, after all, this project would hinge pretty much entirely on a decent yarn. Also, I guess at the very least, it shows they have a bit more confidence in me as a filmmaker than I do myself (but I do feel like we’re making this ‘no-budget’ feature about ten years too late – we all should be living at home with our folks so we don’t have to worry about bills, rent or who is paying for the food).

So I set about writing a script. The basic idea was: “A man believes he was abducted by aliens”. An interesting and quirky scenario to start with, which is typical by my standards. Unlike most of the ideas I pursue, I immediately thought that there was enough scope to push the scenario into many different directions, thus making it worthy of feature film. But the one thing I was certain of going into that process, was that it needed desperately to be a comedy. A dark-comedy, in fact! Brick Wall is much more serious in tone, and weighty in subject-matter, and whilst tackling something that way inclined is fine with me, if the project was going to be long and drawn out without much financial backing or reward, we needed to have a few laughs along the way – perhaps making this a dark-comedy has been the most sensible decision I’ve made so far. We’ll see how I feel about that when it starts getting entered into festivals.

I’m not sure how much I can tell you about the script at this stage (would it ruin the surprise?), but one thing I can definitely attest too, is how hard I’m finding it! Which is a  little more than annoying because the first draft flew out of me. But I’m starting to slowly realise that the redrafting is what takes so much time (and so it should if you want it to be any good!). I finished the first draft, sent it out to Neil, Phil and Matt and they all seemed to like it (agreeing to the project, which was a good sign), although they all had different opinions on what the second draft should focus more on – Neil liked the comedy, Phil liked the heart-ache, and Matt liked the sub-text. But on reflection, I knew that so much still needed to change. The whole third act was a big problem. Upon reading it before I sat down to figure out the second draft, I could tell the ending was rushed. It had very little dramatic weight, and didn’t at all conclusive to what my story was otherwise setting up to do. It felt like I had just found a way to finish my story, and I ran to the exit sign – but wouldn’t it be more interesting if I shimmied, or danced, or jigged there?

I guess the biggest hurdle I’ve faced so far during this process (and I’m not at all ungrateful for it), is that I had to stop writing for a while because I got offered a job on a feature film which took me away from my desk for a whole month. This obviously stopped me from working on redrafting the script immediately after I’d finished the first attempt, which can perhaps be seen as both a good and bad thing – bad because I lost any momentum that I’d built up and I was bound to forget a lot of the story, and good because after the month was over, I came back to the first draft completely afresh and had a clearer eye for what was and wasn’t working with it. In fact, I pretty much abandoned the first draft when I restarted work on The Cult of Nigel second time around. Is that an unusual thing to do? I actually found it quite a refreshing, even thought it felt like I had wasted a lot of time on the first abandoned draft. But then, if it helped me during the second draft, then how can I argue that it wasn’t beneficial? But basically, I had to go through the whole first draft process again – even taking notes, working out the structure, thinking about character etc. and then wrote a second draft without hardly ever looking at the first. However, this meant I remembered all the important parts of my story and discarded all the unnecessary filler. In other words, what I remembered of the first draft was the gold I needed to focus on in the second. Perhaps if I had written the second draft straight after the first, all the filler would still be in there. As it is, the second draft is much leaner than the first. Winner.

So understandably, writing the second draft has been much, much harder than the first. I’ve never suffered from writers block, from what I can tell, but this process has probably been the closest I’ve come and I can honestly say, it hasn’t been that enjoyable. I think there reason being is that I knew all the downfalls and structural problems of the first, I couldn’t make those same mistakes again and had to concentrate on making sure the second draft actually improved on the first. This sounds logical, but I find writing often to be loose and freewheeling, you go where the characters take you, and trying to keep your imagination on a set of invisible tracks is much easier said than done – especially when it’s a feature script! Phil actually asked me about my writing process the other day, and how do I cope when things are going badly (badly is definitely the wrong word), and my response was: I sit down everyday for three hours, and try to write something. If it’s bad, I’ll delete it later. If it’s good, I’ll keep it. The most important thing is that I sit there for that time frame. The rest is up to me. But you can be assured, if you’re sat anywhere for three hours, eventually your imagination will kick in.

I wish I could tell you more about the actual story, but I’m sure that will come in time. I have been thinking a lot recently about some of themes The Cult of Nigel tackles, and the one I like most (and currently have pinned to my whiteboard) is: alone in a world full of people. Now, obviously this isn’t a tagline or anything too telling of the story, but it does inform my writing throughout, and I keep referring back to it as it’s a theme I am trying to explore both narrative and visually.

As things stand, I have reached my target of finishing (almost) a second draft by the end of May (it’s the 31st). Time to send it out to the team then… well, maybe I should check for grammar and spelling errors first.

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