Fail Better. / by Karl Dixon

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better”.
- Samuel Beckett

 

Beckett's advice to "fail better" applies perfectly to filmmaking, particularly the gruelling process of screenwriting. What I love about it is the cold brutal truth that the final step is still a failure of sorts, but a “better” failure. We are only human; we will never write a perfect script, make a perfect play or a perfect film. We will inevitably fail, but we can at least fail better.

I have co-written a feature, a sitcom pilot, a dozen shorts and am currently co-writing the second draft of my second feature. I have also co-written two full-length plays and one one-act play. I would have done more but I have a problem: I am terrified of the inevitable failure of the first draft.

I am excited by screenwriting because I find it an incredibly engaging and colourful form of storytelling, one which allows me to bring to the table every scrap of experience from the time I have spent directing, acting, shooting, editing and more. However I am terrified by it because, in the words of Ernest Hemingway:

“The first draft of anything is shit”.

Over the past 10 years I have collected a treasure trove of half-formed ideas. Some are scribbled in a collection of notebooks and folders, some typed into documents clogging up my laptop but most just float around in my head, where they feel like fantastic gems of genius. They nag at me day and night and on one hand they demand that I do something with them, yet on the other my protective fear doesn't want me to ruin them with a shoddy first draft. I love my ideas and I know that as soon as I commit them to paper they will shrivel and die, their bloodied carcasses staining the page and stinking of utter failure. So all-too-often I freeze and let the idea stay in the safe warm nest that is my imagination.

I remember seeing a tweet from the Theatre Director and Filmmaker Marcus Romer a few years ago which summed up the creative process brilliantly:

 

For me the process of writing the first draft spans all of the first four points. There is no way to avoid it, you just have to hold your head up and power through, knowing that you will fail but that it’s not only ok to do so, it’s also essential. 

Funnily enough, as I read through the first draft a few weeks later with a clearer mind, those gems of genius that I felt the need to protect were usually small individual fragments; an emotional beat, an opening or closing image, a heartstring-jerking sound cue. As such they were not strong enough to carry a whole story and shouldn’t have commanded so much of my respect. 

I once wrote a short film about an injured female soldier returning from Afghanistan for her wedding, having lost the use of her legs. Originally I was utterly convinced that the best way to tell this story would be through the found-footage medium, the story seen through the eavesdropping eye of a wedding videographer’s camera. I wrote a couple of drafts along this route before realising that this “genius” idea (the one thing that drew me to the project in the first place) was actually restricting the story and stifling the interesting characters I had developed. I dropped the idea and wrote a draft in a more “normal” style and suddenly the piece was infinitely better for it.

It is quite common for these gems to slowly fall by the wayside as the stories they have inspired don’t require them anymore. It is very hard to spot and incredibly painful once you have. It’s where the phrase “kill your darlings” comes from and seems to be truer in filmmaking than any other art form I’ve experienced.

In the summer of 2011 I attended filmmaker Chris Jones’ Guerrilla Filmmaker’s Masterclass. Over the course of the weekend he imparted many pearls of wisdom accrued from his experience in filmmaking, as well as the advice he himself had received. One that remains with me very clearly is the idea that most people are not motivated by thirst for success, but rather by fear of failure. A method for utilising this fear and making it work for you is to make a bold statement of intention and then let the fear of reneging fuel your subsequent efforts. It was a technique Chris himself used when boldly declaring that he was making a short film that would become Oscar shortlisted. This is the reason that boxers like Muhammed Ali would smack-talk their opponents so publicly; it raises the stakes and the likelihood of embarrassment, forcing them train at a higher intensity before the fight.

So, along similar lines I am going to make the following commitments:

ECHO SPACE

...is a feature film about a young, lovestruck and nostalgic nightclub photographer who finds a mysterious polaroid camera that takes photographs of the past and uses it to stalk his ex-girlfriend. 

RADIO VERA

...is a feature film set in the tower blocks and canals of Birmingham. An old woman and her streetwise neighbours join forces to form a pirate radio station in their tower block, broadcasting 1960s pop music to her sickly husband’s bedside in hospital.

TILL I DIE

...is a feature film set over the course of one night in Coventry. In an attempt to control rising immigration, a new right-wing government carries out a strict census of all the UK’s citizens, forcing them to return to their place of birth to collect ID cards. The night before registration Coventry is a fiery cauldron of tension and angst as Coventry devotees and escapees are thrown together.

 

By the end of 2016 I will have got all three of these feature films to good first draft stage (that is, the first draft I would be willing to show to people).

 

Now according to Entrepreneur Derek Sivers' Ted Talk I should keep these goals to myself so my brain doesn't get tricked into feeling like it has already achieved something just by talking about them. However I think I can dodge this effect as looking back over those ideas I am already filled with disappointment and a certain feeling of "is that it?". I don't take a lot of joy in sharing these amoeba ideas and part of me wants to delete this blog post before it's even published. In my head these ideas were fantastic, but now their vague loglines expose the struggle that is ahead to get them up to scratch. But struggle I shall!

If you are reading this and you see me at any point over the next 15 months then you have absolute permission to ask me about these projects and berate me if it sounds like I haven’t done much work. I am going to fail. But I will fail better each time.


THIS WEEK...

(A brief roundup of the media I'm currently consuming).

...I’M WATCHING: 

Exile

Another brilliant drama from the minds of Paul Abbott and Danny Brocklehurst, this mini-series starring John Simm, Jim Broadbent and Olivia Coleman was broadcast in 2011 and I've only just got round to watching it now. What starts out as a melancholic domestic prodigal-son drama quickly becomes a conspiracy thriller where the only person with the answers is an old man whose mind is a mess through Alzheimer's. It's only three episodes long so well worth a watch spread over a couple of evenings.

 

...I’M LISTENING TO: 

Guns n' Roses - Chinese Democracy

The much-maligned return from Axl Rose & Friends in 2008 was 14 years in the making and as a result was never going to fulfil expectations. Those who wanted the same dirty, punky, sleazy rock n roll groove of the old GnR were always going to be left unsatisfied after the departure of the edgier members of the band and instead Axl was left to his own devices to create an album filled with over-produced epic ballads, often toeing the line between rock and showtune. Key tracks from this album were being played live from 2002 so you can't help but wonder if they should have released a dirtier, rawer version far sooner, instead of spending a further 6 years tinkering, but despite its shortcomings I do still have a big affection for it. The song Better is as good as any song on the Use Your Illusion records.

 

...I'M READING:

Leading - Sir Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz

I don't normally buy books as soon as they are published and my finger isn't usually on any particular literary pulse, but I bought this last week, only days after publication. Now I'm not a Manchester United fan but as a football fan I do have a deep respect for and fascination of Sir Alex Ferguson and the way he demanded such excellence from his teams throughout his career. I have read both of his previous autobiographies and found them to be very inspiring; I'm three chapters into this one and while it is much broader and less detailed, his nevertheless fascinating anecdotes are organised neatly into chapters and sub-chapters (Becoming Yourself splits into Listening, Watching and Reading) that will make it a handy reference text in future.