Film & TV

As film and television become more interactive, I’ve become increasingly involved in projects that bring old media and new media together.

When a TV channel commissions and broadcasts a live-streamed interactive detective drama on their Facebook page, is that TV or something entirely new? Whatever you call it, the creative process still drew on my old-fashioned skills as a screenwriter.

I got my first taste of film-making at university. I co-wrote a short film called ‘The Rose,’ which won a Fuji Film Scholarship, and I worked on a few other shorts as a board member of the University Film Foundation.

When Richard Attenborough was the visiting professor of drama for a year, I had the opportunity to shadow him as an apprentice during production of In Love and War, which took me off to Italy and Shepperton. As well as teaching me a great deal about the film business, the experience was also a big influence on Olivia’s Line. In a rather lovely coincidence, Vincenzo Nicoli appeared in both the movie and my radio play.

And Olivia’s Line also gave me a coincidental connection to Sherlock. The play’s two leads were Andrew Scott (who went on to play Jim Moriarty in the BBC series) and Kelly Reilly (who later played Mary Watson in the Guy Richie adaptations). My Sherlock obsession helped me to write Sherlock: The Network, an interactive adventure featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman that raced to the top of the App Store charts.

I’ve taken two of my own original TV series ideas into paid development at Channel 4 – one factual and one drama – and I helped the Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks to tell a very ambitious storyline that bridged TV and the web.

I’ve carried on writing, directing and producing short films, and one of them, Portobello, picked up the JVC Sharp Shooters Award. It also won ITV’s Whose London? competition, leading to a primetime television broadcast and a big-screen premiere in Leicester Square. Not bad for a film with a £100 budget.

My feature-length screenplay Purity was the Best Overseas Entry in the American Screenwriters Association’s Screenwriting for the Soul contest. More recently, I’ve written a feature-length animation script called Laptop, worked on a drama called Commander Nemo based on a true story, and written the screenplay for the steampunk adventure Clockwork Watch.

Right now, I’m working on a VR drama series with Spanish and US production partners; and a TV series set in Sweden, with a Scandinavian production company. More about those projects as they develop.

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The Seed: Facebook Fictions and Immersive Theatre

This piece first appeared on The Literary Platform on 20 August 2012.

 

Making a live, interactive story work across different platforms sounds daunting, but for the creator it can be just as thrilling as going up on stage yourself.

My name is David, and over the summer of 2012, I spent 10 weeks pretending to be a 27-year-old botanist called Helen Furnival. Helen was a fictional character in a project called The Seed, which incorporated four site-specific plays, a treasure hunt, and Helen’s online story, which unfolded in real time on Facebook. It was produced by Goat & Monkey Theatre as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Helen’s Facebook profile clearly marked her as a Fictional Character – Facebook has a specific type of page for such entities – but that didn’t stop her striking up some very strong friendships and attracting a marriage proposal from somebody in Pakistan. The gallant gentleman refused to be put off by Helen’s insistence that she was fictional.

The transmedia writer Maureen McHugh has described this kind of work as “stories that come at you the same way life does” – and so many of our modern friendships are maintained through social media that it’s easy for us to suspend disbelief and engage with a fictional character on Facebook as though we were chatting with a friend. While Helen was portrayed in videos and photos by the actress Tam Dowsett, her words were mine. Almost every day, I would post long diary-style status updates and field comments and messages, replying to them all in character. It was a 10-week live performance.

Online improv

There is a unique joy in this kind of live interaction. Its closest equivalent is performing stand-up comedy, where the audience’s reaction is immediate and there is often an open dialogue with the performer (welcome or otherwise). And as in any part-improvised performance, there is huge pleasure in spontaneous creation.

Creating a realistic life for Helen meant that she was writing and replying to messages at all times of the day and night. Her insomnia mirrored mine, and when she was apparently in Shanghai, the timing of my posts had to suit her time zone. It was a 24-hour job.

Performing on a platform like Facebook has the additional thrill of analytics. There is something oddly addictive about racking up more and more ‘likes,’ seeing where your fans come from, and figuring out which posts have the most impact. By the end of the 10 weeks, Helen’s page had over 5,000 followers from all over the world.

Stretching the truth

This is all the more remarkable because The Seed was a very local and particular project. It was based on the true adventures of four Victorian plant hunters, who risked their lives searching for plants and seeds which they brought back to Britain for profit and the advancement of science. Robert Fortune, George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward and Ernest Wilson all led incredible Indiana Jones lives, but many of their collections are gathered in the stately grounds of four gardens clustered together just outside London. That’s where the site-specific plays about each of their lives were performed. One of the gardens, Wakehurst Place, is also home to the Millennium Seed Bank.

While their biographies are incredible enough, I added a small layer of fiction suggesting that all of them had been looking for one seed in particular – and that Helen, a modern-day researcher at the MSB, had now stumbled on the trail over a century later. And that trail would lead to the resting place of the eponymous seed, which happened to be encased in a rather lovely piece of gold jewellery for whoever found it.

Face to face

This story was literally rooted in the soil of a small corner of England. This limited the likely audience for the plays, but there are some types of interaction that can only happen in person. The one-to-one experience of a really immersive theatre production is hard to match any other way.

The plays were not typical Shakespeare in the Park outdoor productions. These were promenade shows that surrounded the audience. At one point, we had them running across a smoke-filled battlefield at night, dodging snipers and artillery fire.

Taking theatre out of the auditorium helps to break down that barrier between the audience and the actors, which can be extremely powerful if unpredictable. When one audience-member encountered a villainous character in the woods, he was so taken aback that he pushed the actor to the ground and ran away. He was very apologetic afterwards, saying he’d got carried away by the atmosphere. That’s a pretty wonderful compliment.

The surprising audience

This very unpredictability is what makes interactive projects endlessly entertaining to write. During The Seed, the biggest surprise of all came from a French-Canadian audience member named Ginette Racine. After complaining about the quality of Facebook’s automatic translation, she took it upon herself to translate everything Helen wrote into French, within hours or sometimes minutes of it going live. She also translated the scripts of the four plays as they were released, free of charge and in her own time.

Ginette is a playwright and drama teacher, and she is now drawing up plans to write and stage her own adaptation of The Seed for a Quebecois audience. I’m delighted to let her – and anyone else who wants to take it on in any other country or language. The Seed was a one-time-only, site-specific show designed for a particular audience. It was only supposed to live on in memory. But now it seems that it will stay alive far longer than we ever intended.

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