Production Diary No. 1 – banging away at it

It’s Sunday afternoon. The sky is cloudy, but it’s hoped the sun will break through eventually. A breeze brushes the trees and bushes. The air is warm but not hot, not too humid, just comfortable. It might be a day such as this that Donna finds herself driving through the countryside, trying to reach someone, trying to escape someone else.

We haven’t shot a frame of the film so far, yet we’ve been working on the production for the best part of a year. It was last October, just before Hallowe’en, that Sheena and I first sat down and talked through the idea she’d had in her head for ages. I remember we were in the Royal Festival Hall, a handy meeting place for media and entertainment types who can’t actually afford their own office. As we drank coffee she described two ideas she’d had for films, ideas which were really strong and intriguing. One of them will become The Ditch. The other… well, we’re still hoping that’ll see the light of day before long.

Sheena talked to me about a man who was driving through the countryside on a lonely road at night, when out of nowhere another man appeared in his headlights. Too late to stop, the first man ran over the second. Instead of stopping and helping him, he threw his body over a bridge, because he knew no one would ever know it was him. Why he did this, she didn’t know. But she did know that the man who was thrown over the bridge wasn’t dead…

We talked some more. We met again, and pushed the story still further. What were the driver’s motivations? Where was he driving to? Why did the story have to take place at night? What was the other man doing there? Did there have to be a bridge involved? Did they have to be men at all? What happened afterwards? We knew we had to probe every one of these questions and more, we had to cover all the ground surrounding the story. Every plot is a chain of events, causes and consequences, nothing happens by chance. Every link in the chain had to be secure; every plot point had to be rigorously examined.

Prior to going into the film industry, I worked for ten years in market research, focusing particularly on media research. I worked for clients such as the BBC, SKY, Channel 4, Film 4, the UK Film Council (RIP), several magazine publishers. One of the things I learnt in that time is that it’s no good writing a presentation which just says what the audience thinks about the client’s output. You have to go further – you have to explore the client’s strategy and draw conclusions about how the audience reaction fits into that strategy. You have to keep interrogating those conclusions, examining each one, holding it up to the light, and asking yourself, “does this point work? Does it hold together? Is it clear? Does it communicate well? Is it helpful to my client?”

We brought the same approach to the development of The Ditch. Every point in the story was examined thoroughly. Every motivation was explored. The backstory of each character was written out, as if we were going to include it in the final script. We knew exactly where Donna was coming from, why she was doing the things she did, why one event in the story led logically and plausibly to the next. We didn’t want her to walk into the scary woods on her own – like happens in so many horror films – if it was more likely that she would run (or drive) away.

For six months we didn’t write a word of the script, we just kept revising the story over and over again so that it made sense, was water-tight. And when we thought it was ready to go, we ran it past some people to check they found it as compelling as we did. Only at that stage did we begin a screenplay. And even that’s been through seven drafts.

We’ve tried to bring the same approach to every aspect of the production – checking that the location we found was exactly right, for example. Did it light well? Was it accessible? Would there be room for the action to unfold? Did it feel like a plausible location for the events to take place? If the answer to any question was ‘no’, we asked ourselves if we could live with it (this is a low-budget production, you can’t have everything), or did we have to rewrite the story to accommodate it?

It’s been an exhausting process, lying in bed every night with my brain ticking over, thinking through the logistics of filming, how we would explain the story in one line, in a paragraph, in a press pack, testing the dialogue in my head to check it was plausible, thinking how we might shoot the horrifying climax so as to get the maximum effect. This is what all film-makers go through (or what they should go through). How much value those sleepless nights have been will be revealed in this production diary as the days pass and the shoot grows nearer… and the sleepless nights turn into sleepless weeks…

(Photo of the Royal Festival Hall © copyright-free-pictures.org.uk)

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