Guest-blog: STEPHEN VOLK

It’s more than likely that you’ve seen a lot of today’s guest-blogger’s work on TV and in the cinema but not be familiar with his name, which is a great pity (and something of an injustice). Stephen Volk is a script-writer, whose credits include Ken Russell’s Gothic; William Friedkin’s The Guardian; Superstition; and Octane. His most recent work was as creator/writer for the multi award-winning paranormal television drama Afterlife. He was also responsible for 1992’s (in)famous Halloween hoax ‘live’ broadcast programme Ghostwatch (which even raised questions in Parliament, apparently), which still stands up even today. He has also written short stories, collected in Dark Corners, and a novella, Vardøger (both Grey Friar Press), the latter of which was nominated for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award. Stephen lives in Wiltshire with his wife, the sculptor Patricia Volk.

Here, Stephen relates some of his experiences while on-set, seeing his words become moving images.

—()—

Recently I was invited to visit the set of a feature film I wrote called The Awakening (starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West from The Wire and Imelda Staunton) in South London.  It was all there. Dozens of 1920s vintage cars. Fifty or so extras in period costume.  Urchins, policemen, Chinese opium peddler, rag and bone man, horse. Lights. Rain machine. Grit covering the yellow lines on the road. Crew of about seventy. Catering. Coffee. Endless assistant directors and assorted technicians, grips, and so forth… And I’m palpably hit by the feeling I get whenever I visit a film set of something I’ve written and it’s this.

Everybody’s looking at me thinking: “Who the fuck are you?”

A friend suggested I print the answer on a T-shirt: “I’m the writer. That’s who.”

Still, the producers had the good grace to ask me and I’m not complaining and, hopefully (prime directive) not getting in the way. The director Nick Murphy says hello and admires my “Overlook Hotel” T-shirt then goes straight back to work.  Quite right too. He has other things to worry about, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  Then I meet the BBC lawyer.  She introduces herself, shaking my hand, and I recognise the name.  The same lawyer who gave my agent such grief and bollocks over the contact about eight years ago.  And she’s wearing, wait for it: headphones.  “Quiet please for a rehearsal!” cries the First AD.  Then I realise, slowly.  Oh my shit. She’s listening to the dialogue.  The BBC lawyer is listening to the fucking dialogue, and I’m not.

Welcome to the movies, Part One.

I watch the proceedings. It’s thrilling. No doubt about it. Tracking shot.  Beautiful. I love seeing things come together like this, the moments a director creates from words on the page, the chaos of the crew, the action fleeting then suddenly grasped, and gone. Straight on to the next set-up. There’s something about seeing the actors making the scene move in real time and the camera capturing it that’s intoxicatingly wonderful and I’m smiling, thinking: “The last time I saw this it was in my head.”  Which is when one of the extras, one of the Edwardian coppers in uniform, says to me: “Actually, I’ve written a screenplay.  It’s good, really good, but I’m not sure what to do with it. You could read it if you like.”

Welcome to the movies. Part Two.

I’ve been on quite a few film sets in the last twenty-five years of doing this screenwriting lark. Lots of times, you’ve come off the project long ago and you’re ancient history, actually not even that, because people remember history.

But being on set for the writer always feels like the same thing. Looking through a chain-link fence at a bunch of people playing football with your ball. Or being forced to watch a stranger slap your child around the face.

The first set I visited was Gothic directed by Ken Russell. It was amazing for me to see my candle lit dinner party scene in which Gabriel Byrne is Byron, Natasha Richardson is Mary Shelley and Tim Spall is Dr John Polidori, all in costume.  The last time I saw this it was in my head. You think, how can anybody say being on a film set is boring?  Jesus Christ! This is fucking incredible!

But after five days? I tell you. Boring. Boring. Boring!

Because, get this. As the writer you’re the only one there with no job to do. Nothing to do, in fact, but get anxious they’re doing it right or to fret over a line of dialogue they suddenly want changing. Once, I was there when the actors and Ken suddenly decided to cut a line, and I had to jump in and say the following scene wouldn’t make sense without it. The fact that it would have just happened if I wasn’t there filled me with such horror, I decided to leave the location and never come back. I got a birthday card from the lovely cast saying: “Come back, Stephen! We’re having fun!” but it was too late, my nerves were shot.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1992, when we were making Ghostwatch for its pretend “live” transmission on Hallowe’en of that year.  Mostly what I remember about visiting that location was my car breaking down three times on the way to West London and having to call out repeatedly an AA man, who, by the end of the evening, thought I was taking the piss.

“Maybe our poltergeist, eh, Dr Pascoe?”

The movie Octane was another kettle of fish. My script was originally called Fuel and was about a bunch of scavenging vampires posing as the emergency services on the M4.  The producers demanded it wasn’t the M4 but the American freeway system with a US star, Madeleine Stowe. Then they decided to shoot it in Luxembourg (Tax breaks, duh!). And the director didn’t want them to be vampires any more. So it goes.

Again, they were gracious enough to allow me to visit, but frankly, though my name is the only one credited, after ignominious rewrites, the script wasn’t mine any more. After a while in the US truck-stop set I introduced myself to Madeleine, the star, and she said, “Oh! I thought you were some art director or something.”

I’m the fucking writer. That’s who.

Thinking, I dreamt this up, but it isn’t my dream any more.  It’s everybody else’s.  And they’re changing everything and I want to love it and I want to trust them but I don’t know if I can even like it or bear it any more.  And by that stage you want to run home to the comfort of the keyboard, and dream again, dream better, and hope, hope this time…

But it’s not always like that.

When we shot the ITV paranormal drama series Afterlife a few years ago I made sure I visited the set every single episode. Apart from anything else, I wanted to tell my mum I’d met the actors. No: I wanted to meet the actors. And you know what? I was welcomed with open arms. I never felt there was a creative “battle” between me and the directors: far from it. Because we had a terrific producer in Murray Ferguson we knew before the first day of shooting we had a script we all concurred upon. I’d worked with the stars during rehearsals, and, more often than not, I was called on to do rewrites during the filming, too. And, guess what? It never scared or panicked me, because I knew the producer and script team would support me 100% of the way, or argue their point until I was happy with it. And that made me, I think, do my best work.  It was genuinely inclusive and truly exciting in a way that arriving and merely seeing the costumes isn’t.

My biggest buzz was getting to watch Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp acting, so that by the time I was writing episode five, I’d seen them in episode one. That was tremendously liberating and professionally life-changing. I felt I could talk openly to actors for the first time in twenty years’ of drama writing. When Lesley said: “You know what? I’d love to have a scene where Alison gets really, nasty drunk and tells Robert exactly what she thinks of him.” I thought, right-oh. And it was the most fun I’ve ever had, writing that scene, because I could see them. It was almost like channelling. (Ironic, for a series about a spirit medium.)

So, The Awakening notwithstanding, it doesn’t always have to be clinging to the railings watching them playing with your football.

Sometimes it can be you on the pitch, speeding up the wing, playing in sync with a great team and a great manager. And sometimes, just sometimes, you might even score a goal.

—()—

Many thanks to Stephen for taking the time from his busy schedule to write this fantastic and insightful piece. So you thought being in the TV/film business was all about glamour eh? =)

Stephen’s website can be found here.

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10 Responses to “Guest-blog: STEPHEN VOLK”

  1. Mick Curtis Says:

    A excellent blog – that’s just how I imagined it would be (but secretly hoped it wasn’t)!

    • Well, reading this, one of my ambitions has now been put on the back-burner for a while…. if I turned up on the set of a film for which I wrote the script everyone would think I was a criminal…. LOL

  2. Great blog, Stephen and a great choice of guest, Simon. Another illusion shattered, however 😉

  3. Riju Ganguly Says:

    An extremely interesting and insightful view offered by one of our favourite script-writers. Thanks Simon, for providing us with this guest-blog.

  4. simonkurtunsworth Says:

    I met Steve later in the day after his set visit and can concur – his Overlook T-shirt is excellent! As is the blog, of course.

  5. Cheers, guys. Simon, given your appearance would you like to come to the next script meeting with me and just stand behind me. That’s be great.

  6. Doh. That was for Simon Marshall Jones BTW, not Unsworth. Though, Unsworth, you could look surly and grimace a bit.

  7. I forgot to subscribe. So i have.

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