Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Neither Up Nor Down

The marvellous Mr Beanphoto, who works at Litfest with me and does the photography for us, made this lovely photo for a writing workshop we're organising for the Bowland Arts Festival, using a poem of mine.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Rough Cut

Maya sent me a link to the rough cut of the film today. After having talked me through what a rough cut entails: no sound mixes, ungraded colour, a compressed file, and a bunch of other stuff I didn't really get my head around except not to expect a super slick production.

It's on Vimeo, but private so you'll have to wait. I switched on nervously. Maya had also told me she'd seen each shot so many times she'd lost sight of what they added up to and how they fitted together, but I was check for pacing or anything wierd visually.

I watched the film, approximately a minute and a half, about five consecutive times, gobsmacked. It was almost exactly as I'd envisioned, with some shots even more beautiful or striking than I'd imagined. Beth's voice is absolutely perfect, tying with and straining against the film, creating this hollowness that is curiously empathetic. (Hollowness is good. It's the essence of the poem)

Yes, there are some pacing tweaks needed. It does feel a bit fast - there's a lot to absorb with both audio and visual images not always sitting comfortably together (which is what we wanted), and it is a tightly wrought poem. But that's easily sorted. Especially since once again Maya and I are in agreement - the shots she felt needed more work, were the ones I felt were weaker.

I will now have to resist watching it over and over until satiated, and wait until after the holidays to come back to it with a more analytical eye and make notes scene by scene to pass on Maya.

Best to leave alone, then, and go make a snowman.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In Conversation with Bernardine Evaristo

Another in my infrequent series of conversations.

This time, with dynamic writer, Bernardine Evaristo, who has recently reissued her verse novel Lara with Bloodaxe.

I love this novel for the deep exploration into family lineage. And the new edition spreads this theme even more widely.

Sarah Hymas: After slowly moving away from writing verse through verse-novels and novels with verse to a straight prose novel I wondered how you found the return to verse with this new edition of Lara?

Benardine Evaristo: I wasn't sure at first that I could get back into the spirit and craft of a verse novel having spent a few years writing prose fiction. But reading through the original text was a good way to get back into the flow of it. I did discover that my narrative voice is more cohesive and pronounced than it was in the original LARA. When I originally wrote LARA I was firmly rooted as a poet, now I see myself as a storyteller using whatever genre suits a particular book. It was also a bit of a challenge initially to not write sweeping great paragraphs instead of short, concise lines of poetry and to return to building up the story through small units.

SH: I imagine this return to writing poetry having an influence on how you tell your next story. How much does one idea develop as you're finishing the previous one?

BE: It varies. I'm working on a new novel now which will be a prose novel, but I love the idea of making it a very poetic prose novel. I do love writing the verse novel form and I enjoyed returning to the snapshot sequences of LARA having written my first prose novel BLONDE ROOTS. I don't usually know what I'm going to write next until I've finished a particular work and then, when the manuscript has been delivered, my head is clear to embark on the next project. Although, having said that, sometimes I do get a sense of the territory I'm going to explore next but I don't think too deeply about it.

SH: What prompted you to include the Irish side of the family in this new edition of Lara?

BE: I was never that curious about the Irish side of my family initially, my mother's relatives. I think that when I began writing LARA I was much more interested in discovering the unknown side of my family history, the Nigerian and Brazilian ancestry. An academic once approached me at a reading and asked me why I hadn't written more about my Irish heritage, especially because of the colonial experience of Ireland and how that would draw comparisons with, for example, the Nigerian colonial experience. I was shocked to realise that I hadn't really thought about it and decided then and there that should I ever re-issue LARA, I would add the Irish past. The German side of my family history, also on my mothers side, is also a new addition to the book. So whereas the novel initially spanned 150 years into my father's history, it now spans 150 years into my mother's history too.

SH: You switch narrators (including an omnisicient narrator) a lot. What is your starting point for finding the right voice for each character?

BE: It varies. Some of the characters are based on people I know well, like myself - so I just have to be true to my voice. Not as easy as it sounds, I think. Others are based on my parents and grandmother - all of whom I also knew/know well so I tried to hear their voices in my head - their vocabulary, intonation, the ways in which they expressed themselves verbally. It was a listening job - to my parents voices as they materialised inside my head, and to my grandmother's voice as she was when she was alive. It also helped that I interviewed both parents at length on tape recorder, so I could play their voices back and listen to them with some degree of objectivity. My father's English was quite broken and I was not aware of this until I heard him on tape. With the unknown characters - the family members I never knew - then I used photographs where possible to try and imagine character - once I got a sense of who they were I began to write and then magic takes over - they start to speak through me.....whooooo.....bit spooky, huh?

SH: And to end with, a short roll call of some of the people who influenced the writing of Lara:

Thank you, Bernardine, for your time and permssion to use the photos.

If you're interested in booking Bernardine for a reading then this where to go

Saturday, 12 December 2009

On Set

So we started the day's filming by getting up 7am. Neither Maya nor myself are particularly good in the mornings, so it was a slow and quiet ticking off of the check list: gaffer tape, lights, tripods, moss, coffee, cushion, pegs, still camera, moving camera, six packs of video tape and a thousand assorted elements into bags and boxes then loaded into Maya's car.

Impressively we got there on time. Unfortunately Mark (the Director of Photography/
cameraman) was stuck in traffic and almost an hour late. With my watch on - as production assistant - I'd switched into skipper mode and was counting seconds for each activity of moving furniture and unpacking the teaset etc etc until Maya told me to stop it. It had all felt amusing and lighthearted until Mark arrived. Then I got nervous.

This had nothing to do with Mark. He was all slippers and smiles. Very chilled out and friendly. No, I'd suddenly woken up (two supremo coffees later). This was it. We were now officially making a film of my poem and we had one day to get the shots right.

Mark had some massive (to my eye) kino lights which I'd have called florescent tubes, but obviously threw off a far better light than their glare, which while still took three quarters of an hour to set up, both he and Maya were seemingly pleased with the speed of progress. The gear's not in this shoot - but that lovely sunlight from the window is his fab lighting rig.

After an hour and ten minutes we had recorded five lines of poetry. I'm not used to wearing a watch and kept checking it. I was beginning to fret. We had another twenty lines to go, another four different locations and it was almost lunchtime.

I'd obviously had too much coffee. Fortunately Mark and Maya don't touch the stuff. Plus they'd discussed the storyboard its timings and had made films before. They nodded and hmmm occasionally to each other.

This is Maya pointing purposefully and Mark agreeing with her competance in angling. As you can see by the januty angle of the pic, it's a good job I wasn't being director of photography.

Of course the budget being what it was, we couldn't have the equivalent of fancy lighting gear for everything, and for the second stanza Maya demonstrated the 'towel cam'. This was for the tracking shot through three lines of the poem. And involved the camera set on a towel and slid across the floor for a single smooth motion. Nifty.

It was in the third stanza when I realised the strength of my vision and how it veered from both logistics and Maya's idea. I won't go into details of the particular shot but we couldn't get what we had originaly planned so were talking around alternatives. I was shocked at how strongly I wanted a different idea from theirs and how disappointed I felt when it became obvious I wasn't going to get it.

But this is collaboration. You have to get over the ego business pretty quickly, or you don't get anywhere. Besides we were moving into the hallway and into one of my fave sections of the film.
There's a clue in the picture to the right, but you'll just have to wait for the film to enjoy it. The difference in set up time in the bright hallway compared to the panneled room was incredible. Within minutes we were ready to go for the shot.

And suddenly by 1pm we were halfway through the poem and ready for lunch.

By 2.30 the light was already fading so we had to jump back to the opening shot, outside, and then forward to a line from stanza five. This all had the terribly satisfying feeling of filming everything backwards, like a proper film shedule.

Then my big moment. We needed a shadow. I had my off-screen walk-on part. Walking smoothly, not spookily, is much harder than it sounds. Seven takes later I was really getting into character. I know I'm not going to get an Oscar, or even a Bafta, but not since I was the Little Red Hen had I felt so stage struck.

Maybe it was all the chocckie bics I had for lunch, or doing the washing up, but I missed the filming at the top of the house and suddenly we were in stanza six. The last one. And the bathroom. It was all going to be over too soon and I'd barely got started.

Mark managed to squeeze himself, the lights, leads and camera into the tiny bathroom, as well as the crucial props. We had more mucking about with shadows and movement, but because of the size of the room I didn't get a chance to peek into the viewfinder. I think this was good. While it's my poem, it is ultimately Maya's film and will have her stamp over it.

With all the shots shot, Mark was off to Blackpool, leaving me and Maya to record some of the sounds of the house, the silence of each room we'd filmed in, as well other housie noises: door latches and branch scratchings. Again there was a sense of over larding the narrative, but then better to have stuff we don't use than wish we had it.

I was absoutely pooped. And I'm not too sure why. There was a huge amount of concentration into each shot, although of course worry eats up a lot of energy.

We had just short of an hour's worth of film to condense down into two minutes. I can only hope we got the right shots, or that Maya has a plan as to what to do with what she has got. I won't see the first edit until the new year now. But she kept assuring me that it'd be lush. Lush.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Nothing as Quiet as a House

This time last year I worked with poet Maya Chowdhry on her first collection, The Seamstress and the Global Garment. I had crossed paths with Maya for years, this being the north west and us both being literature passionistas, but it was when Flax published her work that I began to get to know her properly. She's fiercely ethical and open-minded and someone I find highly inspirational in how she views her work as a poet and artist. More about that another time.

The editing I undertook for The Seamstress was one side of a trade. It took me a while to work out what I'd like in return, but as Maya talked more and more about her work for a degree in art, I got to thinking how a film of a poem in Host might be a very lovely thing to have. I had seen a couple of Maya's film and liked their richness and simplicity. And I love the possibility of poetry films. Flax had commissioned one last year, Finding a Language, which was a great merging of two extremely different creative people and a joy (if a little frustrating) to be witness and manager of.

So I presented Maya with four different poems from my forthcoming book, and we talked about the images within them and which we'd be most excited to work with. We settled eventually with Nothing as Quiet as a House, which is a calmer version of a rant about an abandoned house, the first in a sequence of poems spanning a hundred years of a family, its home and business.

Last week we story-boarded the film (far more pleasant than waterboarding). And did I get excited. I did. I did.

Maya had located a house - offered to us by a kindred spirit - and taken some pics to show me. And after some playing about with completely unrelated images we started talking about the potential thrown up by her images. I love the geometric play in this one.

What was so great about our day was that as we worked and discussed the translation of the poem's narrative, we moved seamlessly and energetically from one idea to another, from one brain to another (although there were only the two in the room, it felt like more). There was no huge discrepancy of vision, or even of how we might go about structuring the day or the the film, and when plans were dropped or changed, I can't honestly remember who suggested to do so. It felt like a wonderful expansion of experience.

I was given blank squares in which to sketch (badly) what we decided to include in each scene, how the pace panned out, and how to evoke and suggest echoes rather than literally work off line by line or word by word.

This picture threw up the idea of entrances and exits, mirrors being portals (reminding me of Jonathan Strange and Mr Morrell), and since the poem is about ghosts, or at least memories, this seemed totally apt. I was running with it.

The trick will be to translate the still images of these pictures and others and my badly sketched storyboard into a pacy (or slow) motion picture. But I don't have to worry about that too much. That's Maya's job.

I just have to find all the props we've agreed on: moss, a tea set, a vase, an old chair, a custom molded cushion cover.

And remember to bring my watch next week. I've be given the grand title of Production Assistant. It sounds terribly responsible. Hope I'm up for the job and don't get too giddy.