Where do films begin?
Is it the first day of shooting? On set when the cameras roll for that initial breathless take? Is it when your actors sign on? Perhaps when a big name star joins the cast?
Is it when your producers finally secure that last fingertip of finance, and you’re green-lit? Is it when the writer has the first glimmer of an idea?
My first feature film – the first I’ve written which has been produced – is finished, give or take a few tucks, cleaning its nose and making sure it doesn’t have anything stuck between its teeth.
AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS, directed by Johnny Kevorkian (‘The Disappeared’), produced by Alan Latham and Jack Tarling (‘God’s Own Country’), and written by, well, me (‘?’) is finally complete and will soon be flying out into the world to play at Film Festivals throughout 2018.
It’s been a long road. Ten years, to be precise.
Where do ideas for films begin? Ideas for any story, in fact? How do they spark into life?
The mundane truth is, for many, their genesis is lost in the mists of time. This is either because the project has gone through so many snaking, ouroboros-looping, transformations over the years, starting as one thing, briefly becoming five or six others, before transitioning back into a funfair mirror version of the original.
With AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS, however, I know EXACTLY when the idea came to me, almost down to the minute.
It began with melancholy-yet-fantastic U.S. indie rock band, THE NATIONAL.
The year was 2008 – just.
I was travelling back from a New Years Eve party with my then-partner. She was driving. It was snowy, I think (in my memory it’s snowy at least, though memories are tricksy things, but this fits the story much better, so let’s just say it was…), and I was reflecting on Christmas, an intense period of spending time with friends and relatives. I was thinking about the potential flashpoints for arguments, the many tensions these fraught times of year inevitably excite.
For Christmas I’d bought my partner the National’s most recent album, BOXER, and we put it on for the first time during the ride back to my place. I was a big fan of their previous release, ALLIGATOR, and thought it would be a great fit for her sensibility.
So, we trundled along through the snowy night, the new year fresh and crisp, and my mind drifted and dreamed i.e. didn’t pay attention to the outside world (as writer brains are wont to do). I was really getting into the music, slowly realising that I might grow to love this album (the opening piano riff to FAKE EMPIRE still gives me The Chills…)
Then, out of nowhere, one line spilled out of the speakers, and it was like hearing a sharp bell tone…
Writer minds – all creative minds, I think – are great at making connections, and that’s the root of inspiration. You hear one phrase, one word, one concept even, and possibilities suddenly unfurl, lighting up like branches in your mind, wider and wider as the shine spreads.
It’s like you hear a musical “Ting” echoing at the back of your skull, that pure struck chord, a “hey, wait…” moment. A spark that grows and fans.
The National lyric came from the song, APARTMENT STORY, and it goes like this…
“Do… whatever… the TV… tells… us.”
It’s incredibly rare for a whole feature plot to unfold from a single moment, like an origami flower (in fact, interestingly, the first image in the script used to be a bloody tissue flower slowly opening), but that’s pretty much what happened with AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
Often stories have ugly, convoluted births, stitched together in a Frankensteinian fashion from different bits of other ideas. They are shaped – carved! – into something which is designed to fit a brief from a producer or broadcaster or any number of other imperatives which trump a pure story-telling urge.
Ideas this singular, sudden, and simple, are not common.
I knew instantly this was perfect. Knew all about what the film should be. It was horror. It was psychological. It was people trapped inside a house… and the TV was giving them orders. Why?
Who knows? Doesn’t matter for now…
But what the trapped people would choose to do with the instructions they were given?
THAT was the important bit.
Definitely, they’d argue about whether to follow the orders, or not, and that would generate A LOT of conflict, the engine of any good story… The people would fight… They’d make and then break alliances…
Eventually – of course – they would kill!
Furthermore it would all, very conveniently, play out within one single self-contained space… Which was a) an excellent arena to build a pressure cooker environment and b) perfect for a low budget film.
The wider context is this: I’m a writer who is lucky to get a lot of ideas, and my first love is genre film – science fiction, fantasy, horror – but my stories tend to be, well, let’s say… expansive in scale. As my first agent once archly observed, “… then your imagination goes off where budgets may not follow…”
I’ve got much better now, especially since I’ve started to direct myself, but at that time, in the Autumn of 2007, I’d been striving to come up with a grabby genre concept which was also achievable i.e. practical, small-scale, with a single location, low budget yet dramatic.
Something up-and-coming film makers could actually make!
AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS fit that goal to a tee: an incredibly simple high-concept pitch which, as a bonus, also offered all manner of rich thematic possibilities. For a very brief period, since I knew it had to be a horror film (they were TRAPPED! you see…), I considered the possibly that the Trapped People might be teens – because, hey, horror! – but then I quickly realised…
It had to be a family.
This was an idea about Authority, about hierarchy, about power relationships and trust.
There needed to be parents and children, a father, a grandfather, a mother, a son and a daughter, and their seething resentments, their decades of insecurities and sibling paranoia and/or entitlement, should be bubbling under even before they became imprisoned.
Furthermore, as the story grew from that first seed in my mind, other external events guided my thinking, and weaved their way into those spreading branches. This is always the case, since films are contingent on the precise time they are written in and what is going on in the culture at the time. You’re writing one story, but then you’re reminded of a story someone told you years ago – another note struck, another echoing bell tone – and that sets the narrative rocketing off in a completely different direction, almost by accident.
At the time the Financial Crash was just looming over us, the shadow of a tidal wave about to fall. In the Autumn of 2007 you had story after story on BBC News 24 about the run on Northern Rock. Endless images of worried people queuing round the block outside bank branches… and these reports in turn drove more people to go and queue up at the banks, in a catastrophic feedback loop. Northern Rock collapsed and had to be nationalised! It was insane.
AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS clearly also needed to be about the power of an all-pervasive media. We are a society cursed with both too much information and yet, simultaneously, somehow too little: if an expert on the news tells you that mobile phones give you brain cancer, but then another expert violently disagrees, who do you believe?
I don’t know? Do you? How can you tell?
Yet it’s of crucial, life-or-freaking-death import… It’s BRAIN CANCER, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!!!!
If the TV gives you orders do you follow them because you believe it has your best interests at heart, or do you stall for time to search for more clarity?
Do you rebel and refuse, hang the consequences?
The story of AFI grew as I fed it news, and before long others became involved, creative partners, and they provided their own perspectives: producer Jack Tarling and development producer, Michelle Fox, then director, Johnny Kervorkian, all helping, spreading that tree of ideas, of light, wider and further as the years ran on, and the script was written, and we tried, then failed, then tried AGAIN (and again and again) to raise the money to make the film. All those connections…
But that tree, those channels, all the subsequent work by so many people – set builders, camera team, costume, make-up, on and on – flow back to that one single moment on the 1st of January 2008, and it’s incredible to think of something that has, over the last decade, consumed a large portion of my time, and proved such a huge leap forward for my career, comes back to twelve words in that one moment on that specific night:
“… stay inside till somebody finds us/ Do whatever the TV tells us…”
So, thank you to The National and Apartment Story.
There’s not much longer to wait now. It’s time for the Instructions to begin…