This article may or may not contain instructions on how to write a screenplay. But it does contain the twisted tale of how one of my short stories was adapted into a(n equally short) film.
INT. PUB IN WORTHING
It started January 2021. No wait. Technically, it started before our lives were hit by 21st century black death and we all went into lockdown. My bandmate and I were plying our trade at an open mic in Worthing. Another guitarist asked if I could put some percussion behind his set. We got talking and, like any good self-publicising writer, I mentioned my books. I played cajon to We Are the Champions. A good night was had by all.
Back to January 2021. Chaz – for ‘twas Chaz Parvez who had conscripted me into his Queen tribute – shot me a message on Facebook. He was writing, producing and directing a short film. A horror. I wrote horror stories – would I mind giving the screenplay a critical read? I opened the attachment. “2-5-1 (WORKING TITLE)” by Chaz Parvez. You want the first lines?
INT. CONCERT HALL, BACKSTAGE-EVENING
This was my kind of thing.
I read the screenplay. It had everything: ghosts, guitars, rock and roll. And yet, I thought, there must be something I can bring to the table. I fired a reply to Chaz telling him I loved it and that I’d take a closer look over the next week or so.
I sat on that screenplay for two months. The problem was twofold – firstly, I didn’t want to change it. It was a compact, satisfying horror film. The kind of thing that spoke to my love of ‘twist’ television – Inside Number 9, Hammer House of Horror. You know the score. Secondly, I knew nothing about how to write a screenplay. All the INT and EXT, the SFX, the FADE TO BLACK. I know prose and I can suggest recomposing sentences, changing turns of phrase. But I didn’t know how to write a screenplay. I was out of my element. However, I was also a member of the film crew now, included on the group chat.
Eventually, I came clean to Chaz. Told him I wouldn’t change a thing, that I loved his film and wished him all the best with it. That’s fine, he replied. But you’ll still play drums on the soundtrack? Now that I could do.
This isn’t a music post, so I won’t bore you with how fun it was improvising a 3-minute instrumental to go over the credits of the film. Instead, I’ll tell you how for several months that group chat notification flashed up on my phone and I would see details of a new location scouted, or a costume just put together. As filming started, stills of the movie were shared. Close-ups of gory make-up. Spooky 20-second sequences and jump scares. At time of writing, Psycho Chromatic has shed its working title and is still being edited – something else got in the way…
FADE TO BLACK
In September 2021, Chaz sent me a fresh message. He wanted to enter a film competition with a short movie – 3 minutes or less and showing dynamic range or use of sound. A monologue if possible. Did I have any ideas?
As a matter of fact, I did. I had a flash fiction I’d written but never submitted anywhere, titled Under the Oak. It featured only two characters, and plenty of speech. Chaz loved it. Within a day, he’d started casting.
When I sent Chaz the story, I knew parts would have to change. I resolved not to be the author who insists on maintaining his own vision of his story. Oddly enough, it was quite easy. Editing two novels and cutting your favourite bits from them is great preparation for having an adaptation made of one of your stories. Chaz wanted to switch the roles of the two characters – in Under the Oak, most of the plot is a male character is speaking to a female character. With this came name changes – as we found, a name like Katie with its hard consonants can be spat with more venom than a name like Hannah. Chaz also found a great tree in Worthing to film under – but it wasn’t an oak. We changed the title to Beneath the Cedar.
Beneath the Cedar
I mentioned that this article may not contain instructions on how to write a screenplay. The fact is, I know no more than I did when I read Chaz’s first screenplay back in January. For BTC (as we in the industry call it) Chaz would suggest edits, and I would make them to the prose version, using my experience as a writer to guide word choice and dialogue patterns. He used the prose to inform his treatment (a kind of proto-script laying out the structure of the film) and then translated it into the format of a screenplay. But my advice for ‘writing’ a screenplay? Seize any opportunity to put your writing out there. Speak to anyone who will tolerate you chatting about your stories. You never know where it might lead.
The deadline for Chaz’s competition was in October. We booked in the day’s filming, leaving a mere week and a half for Chaz to piece together the footage and edit the film. He also made a making-of video, featuring he and I poring over a screenplay as I underlined bits, and documenting the difficulties in filming in a public park (primarily, dogs taking an interest in the picnic set. Also, the proximity of nearby Shoreham Airport).
The film is finished now. You can watch it on YouTube:
Who knows how the film will do? It already made it to the semi-finals of the Bratislava International Film Awards (first Bratislava, then the world!). And who knows what our next project will be?