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September 8 at 8:30am

James Fair On The 72-Hour Movie Project – The Script (Pt.3 of 5)

By Ted Hope

By James Fair.

On a number of occasions, people have said to me that the success of ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was the strength of the script. I am naturally flattered, because I wrote it, but I am also a little embarrassed, because I do not view it with the same reverence and respect as others seem to. I’m not saying that the success wasn’t due to the script, I am saying that the script was part of the process.

Honestly speaking, I would never waste a developed idea for a film upon the 72 Hour Movie project. I cherish some of my script ideas too much to use them in such a hurried production circumstance. So I deliberately wrote a script that would suit the purpose of making it in 72 hours, using the process as a catalyst for the script.

I started with 40 cells in a Microsoft Word document. These cells would roughly translate to two-minute scenes of screen time, so an 80-minute film. I sat in a cafe with my assistant Irune Gurtubai and filled each cell out, not necessarily in consequential order. The only rule was that each cell should have a significant plot point that carried the story forward. From there, we sat for two hours and drank copious amounts of coffee until we had filled it out. That was the structure of the script. I then spent three weeks writing the actual scenes and dialogue, sticking as close to the structure as possible. It ended up being 46 scenes, which is deliberately one third less than ‘Watching & Waiting’, the film we shot in Galway. I decided to have longer scenes with more dialogue because the RED camera having interchangeable lenses would be a slower set-up than the fixed lenses of the Panasonic HPX500 that we used upon ‘Watching & Waiting’.

The first draft was then sent to a series of different script editors of varying experience for them to compile notes and return them to me. These editors were recruited through a variety of sources; previous colleagues, loved ones, friends and Facebook followers. They were spread worldwide – Finland, U.S.A., Australia, Germany, Ireland and England, which ensured the script would be universal. This municipal process also acted as an accelerant to my script editing, which can usually take far too long between drafts. Taking the notes into consideration, I would rework the script until I was happy with it; five drafts. My first film Peppermint had fifteen drafts!

It was the fifth draft that I sent Kate O’Toole after I had approached her informally through Facebook. I noticed that she was following us in our group so messaged her and she asked to see the script. We went through one more draft, where the character motivations and necessities were tightened up, and this became our shooting script. The shooting script was then amended in rehearsal if the actors offered ideas to strengthen their characterisation. I would act as a sounding board and was by no means precious. So when people commend the script, they are really commending the work of around ten people. This is not script writing by committee, as I wrote it all, but it was the functional product of a methodical process, created in direct relation to the process of filming it in 72 hours.

I have written scripts before and I have studied scriptwriting in two university modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I think I may be good at it, but I genuinely believe that we delivered ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’ along very formulaic lines. It is a generic romantic comedy, but an audience still love stories that are told well, regardless of their genre. I wrote it faster than any other script I have ever written and I did fewer drafts than normal. I believe that the script followed the ideals of necessity and dilemma very closely, and that meant that it connected well with audiences.

The story follows a middle-aged Irish couple that arrive in Melbourne on their second honeymoon, yet their luggage doesn’t arrive with them. The premise meant the characters losing their luggage in the first scene removed the problems of wardrobe changes. Their flight from Ireland to Australia meant the two protagonists could look tired and bedraggled as part of their jetlag (regardless of whether it was a result of shooting a feature in 72 hours). This premise also considers the demographic of the MIFF audience. Whilst there is a great deal of younger people who would’ve been interested in our process, we wanted to have a story that identified with the festival audience. I find it a little strange that studios are so fixated with the 15-30 demographic when they are the exact audiences that are most likely to pirate material and most likely to be out drinking or partying instead of watching movies. I thought of my parents – they have no idea how to pirate, they wouldn’t agree with it ethically and they hate going out to bars because the noise is too loud and they are filled with pissed kids. Have we explored all audiences fully? Are we blind to the potential of other audiences because we are so fixated with the system the way it is now?

Whilst the script was critical in securing our star, Kate O’Toole, it was the process that had particular impact. She’d joke that actors get paid big money for the inconvenience of sitting around and being bored. But in all seriousness, if you are an actor, isn’t there an appeal in spending a high ratio of time on-set actually acting instead of waiting around?! Organising a shoot to be faster means it can be cheaper for producers and more rewarding for actors, but it requires the maximisation of effectiveness from the effort inputted, something I’ll explore further tomorrow.

James Fair is a lecturer in Film Technology at Staffordshire University, UK. He has directed two features in 72 hours. The first film, ‘Watching & Waiting’, was shot in Galway, Ireland, as part of the 20th Film Fleadh in July 2008. The second film, ‘The Ballad of Des & Mo’, was shot in Melbourne, Australia, as part of the 59th International Film Festival in 2010.

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93 Comments

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  1. Pauline / Sep 8 at 8:30am

    Some of my best scripts were written on a whim in less than a week.

  2. Georgina / Sep 8 at 8:30am

    Awesome! So practical and communal and sounds like it went down well. Should we all be this pragmatic about films and write what we know we can shoot?

  3. James Fair / Sep 8 at 8:30am

    I'm not sure whether we should all be so pragmatic about it, but it does work in this circumstance. I guess I've always wanted to write a script on the certainty that it will be made. If you write things speculatively and they don't end up on screen then there has been a failure in the process in my opinion. I don't believe a script by itself is a product, it is a component in the filmmaking process.

  4. Adam Daniel Mezei / Sep 8 at 8:30am

    I can't agree with you more, Pauline. The best stuff I've ever done has been in a mad white heat at the drop of a hat. The best things in life are impromptu and fast. Hear, hear for that!

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