So, I had my rules in place for writing a microbudget feature:
1) Keep it entertaining.
2) Keep it to locations you know.
3) Keep it lean and microbudget ready.
Origins of the plot
The plot came fairly easily. A few years previously I’d gone for a long walk up to the Quantock Hills, trying to keep to footpaths and off the roads as much as possible.
After around 20 miles of meandering across the Somerset countryside, I finally lay down – rain-soaked and dog-tired – and slept on among the pine needles on the slopes of Ramscombe. My bivvy bag was freezing, and I spent much of the night wishing I’d taken a tent. Or a roll-mat. Or a sleeping bag.
If you hear a series of high-pitch screams in the middle of the night in the city, it’s quite unsettling – and while not impossible to get back to sleep, it certainly makes it more difficult.
When you’re in a forest in the middle of nowhere, you react entirely differently. That noise? - It’s fine. It’s foxes, getting jiggy. That snuffling sound near your head? Badger. Fine. The staccato screech that just passed overhead? Probably an owl. Back to sleep. Things which would be terrifying anywhere else don’t have that effect when you’re in a different context – in this case, the wilderness.
In the city, the idea that there’s someone else asleep in your building – nearby – doesn’t keep you awake at night.
The discovery of some rubbish on your doorstep is annoying, but doesn’t make your insides turn to chill water.
And yet there I was, having woken up (again), frozen and stiff (again), realising that I’d laid down for the night very close to someone else’s temporary accommodation.
It was already getting dark by the time I’d finally settled on an somewhere to sleep – the sun was low and already behind the trees, and the shadows were growing. I found a fairly flat spot at the base of a tree – no painful looking roots – and decided I’d stay there for the night. What I hadn’t see – what I didn’t notice until the middle of the night – was that a few metres away was a simple A-Frame shelter, built from branches and covered in bracken.
It’s fine, you tell yourself – someone has made it for an exercise, a bit of fun. They probably made it in an afternoon and then never used it.
I rolled onto whichever side wasn’t currently cramping and tried to go back to sleep – hoping that whoever made the shelter wasn’t currently in there. They’re probably lovely, but that moment – in the deepest dark – didn’t feel like the best time to be making friends.
And then I saw it – some litter nearby, including (most memorably) a firework.
In my cold-addled brain, this amounted to one thing – I was no longer an intrepid adventurer, alone in the wilderness – I was, instead, a man lying on the floor in a gore-tex bin-bag, inches away from what was clearly the temporary accommodation of a firework wielding maniac.
The rest of the night passed slowly.
The walk home was slow – my boots were still full of rainwater, and my back had settled into a position roughly 45 degrees from usual. This gave me plenty of time to think – and to wonder what it was that had so unsettled me the previous night. There’s a Freudian concept, ‘unheimlich’ – usually translated as ‘the uncanny’ – which sums it up quite neatly. What would have been fine in certain circumstances became – in that context – deeply unsettling. The things that were familiar – countryside, wildlife, weird noises – had been disrupted and distorted by the presence of something new and unexpected.
I hobbled across the countryside and looked back over my shoulder towards the hills, still mulling over that feeling. ‘Imagine seeing someone now, following’, I thought… ‘Imagine the effect that would have’.
And there it was – the basic idea for a film. The uncanny experience of being alone, in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly a stranger appears. Following you. Always there.
That in itself isn’t a plot – and it’s fine to have a basic idea, but without a story that actually weaves that into something satisfying it’s worthless. You still need fully-rounded characters who are experiencing that situation. You still need them to develop in some way – to learn, to grow, to get worse…
The idea seemed to lend itself, easily, to the horror genre – probably the most popular (and profitable) genre for low-budget filmmakers. I sat down and fleshed out several ideas and soon discovered… I didn’t want to make a horror film. I love the genre, but the story I was grasping for just didn’t seem to fit... Not that I knew what that story was yet, but I figured that if I kept writing enough things down one of them would look right.
And eventually one of them did. This is the basic synopsis of the final script:
DON’T. STOP. RUNNING is a British action adventure movie about two estranged brothers – thrown together for a treasure hunt – who soon find that they are the ones being hunted.
As they race across a harsh and unforgiving landscape, they realise that if they want to survive they’ll have to work together.
Of course, it didn’t start like that. In the first draft, I wanted the brothers to have the cocky swagger of Malcolm McDowell playing Alex DeLarge in ‘A Clockwork Orange’. This changed when I realised that what I’d written amounted to two people bickering or being snidey for 90 minutes. There was nothing behind what they were saying –no reasons, no desires – other than, ‘that sounds cool and punchy’. It was crap.
I changed it. Now one character was Malcolm McDowell. The other character was…
I didn’t know.
This finally changed when I went back to my notes, made some scribbles, and made sure that I gave my characters more tangible desires – things they want and things they need, things we all want/need.
My biggest fault when writing is that I’m often trying to be too clever – particularly on the early drafts. I’m now more convinced than ever that one of the biggest skills of a screenwriter is the ability to keep it simple. Complex needs and wants don’t necessarily translate into complex characters – in fact, they tend to obscure and dilute, as it’s difficult to convey what’s making them tick. Take something simple as the base, and then enrich it by the way your character reacts to it. At his simplest, our main character – Nugget – needs to be part of a family again. This dictates almost everything he does, and is in the back of his mind throughout. Once I knew that, everything became easier. Not easy, just easier. For Nugget, that desire for family is represented by home. He wants to get his home back.
Clay – the rogueish older brother – has the same basic need. But what he wants is money – and the safety it can offer him (he’s in trouble…).
So we’ve got two characters with the same basic need – family – but their wants diverge. What they think they’re after – home / money – is often diametrically opposed to what they’re actually after. It regularly gets in the way of what they need. Great – that’s conflict and drama. When they finally realise where they’re going wrong and act in a way they will get them to what they need – rather than what they think they want – we’ll have told a story.
So simple, that from first draft to shooting draft, almost everything in my script has changed at least once. It’s always been about siblings (though the two brothers became two sisters for a while, when months of casting had drawn a blank). ‘The Figure’ has always been far more interesting and potent when kept at a distance (the force driving the brothers on, forcing them to make huge choices). The location has always been ‘An island wilderness’…
But everything else has come and gone at least once:
- Eyepatch? Not in the first draft. Bit of a homage to John Carpenter.
- Wooden leg? Arrived in draft P1, and then became an integral part of the film. Came from some script feedback.
- Nugget, scared of the dark? Not even sure when this first appeared – but it came from a feedback meeting with a very experienced director friend.
- The title – DON’T. STOP. RUNNING. (This was either loved or loathed. I stuck to my guns on this one).
The list is endless, and many of the big developments have come from feedback on various drafts. This feedback has been incredibly useful – and its come from friends, family, other writers and directors, professional script editors (paid), all sorts.
I’ve got a dozen or so people that I know and trust to read a script and give useful and objective feedback. I know which ones are more likely than others to go easy on me, I know which ones are likely to be able to pinpoint structural problems (probably the most difficult task), and which ones can easily identify bullshit dialogue. They get sent a script marked with that day’s date – for example, “DON'T. STOP. RUNNING - 18th July 2014 DRAFT” (the shooting script).
I don’t send scripts marked with ‘Draft Ten’ etc. I think it immediately predisposes people to a certain reaction – not least ‘Oh god, this is shit – but it says draft 10 on the front, so he must have spent ages on it… I can’t tell him’.
The first draft of the script is marked ‘A1’, and the shooting draft is marked ‘T7’. Now, that doesn’t mean that the script has gone through hundreds of drafts – It just means that I’m not very well-organised on my numbering of drafts. When I sit down to write some new stuff on the script, I give it a new number – so A1 becomes A2, etc. When I sit down to make some major changes to the script, I change the letter – so A becomes B, etc.
I might not do an entire pass through the whole script each time I sit down (though I often do, and will work on one scene in-depth, then read through the rest and tinker here and there), but I’ll still keep going up through the letters of the alphabet with haphazard regularity. If nothing else, it makes you feel like you’re being incredibly hardworking.
I’ve had MANY drafts come back with the feedback ‘Not bad for a first draft’. It’s crushing every time, particularly if you’ve spent 18 months on the script by that point. But you’ve got to take it and move on – at least you’re getting some honest feedback.
Equally, you’ll get feedback that will absolutely eviscerate you… that can make you think the whole thing is an embarrassing fiasco… Which you must ignore. Most negative feedback will be useful and helps you make the script better – but every so often you get some feedback that you have to recognise is going to sink your battleship if you let it. In those cases you just have to get on with it and accept the fact that the giver of feedback in this case is an unremitting idiot.
In my case, around the time I was making the decision to go for it and make the film myself, I got some feedback that utterly deflated me. They hated it. Everything about it. It was an absolute mess.
I took it well. I kicked some things. Swore a bit. Planned the perfect murder. Calmed down. Figured out if anything they’d said was useful or rang true…
Decided it wasn’t. They could bugger off.
That evening I got the email that the script was through to the next round of the BBC Writers Room programme. It eventually got down to the last 1% or so out of 3,000 entries. This, in itself, didn’t mean anything – but it gave me confidence that I was vaguely on the right track.