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Writer/Director Duncan Nicoll reveals why you should be applying to a funded screenwriting scheme

Lee Hamilton met up with long time writer/director Duncan Nicoll, who’s short film ‘Crowman’ premiered at this years Edinburgh International Film Festival to discus his career, his film, and how applying to talent schemes can benefit aspiring screenwriters.
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How long have you been writing and directing?

Erm, embarrassingly long. The first short film I wrote and directed was an animated film, which was called ‘Block’ and it was in the Edinburgh Festival, I think in 1995? Beyond that I moved into doing live action with a film. First live action film I wrote and directed was called ‘Horsehair’, which was on here [EIFF] in 1998 and then I did another couple of shorts about 2003, 2004. One called ‘feetsteps’, which I’d wrote and directed and one called ‘Paw’, which I just directed from someone else’s script and then I continued trying to get more funding for shorts with the goal of getting into a longer form but kept just hitting that shortlist stage and never quite getting funded so by about 2005/06, I had a couple of young children by that time and thought I can’t keep banging my head on these doors so basically stopped and had just had to sort of earn a living. And about a year and a half ago, Scottish Film Talent Network had launched their Short Scheme again and I’d been dabbling, I’d written a first draft of ‘Crowman’ by that point but didn’t really know what to do with it and then when the scheme arrived I thought well, why the hell not, I’ll just go for it again, and went through the shortlisting development process with that and it was commissioned about a year past April I think, we shot last summer, finished it sort of November last year and then eh, yes, its world premiere in Edinburgh this year.

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Have you had any formal training? How did you get into screenwriting?

The first sort of screenwriting thing I did was a course here in Edinburgh and I graduated from Art School in Dundee with a degree in Sculpture. But I’d always wanted to get into films. I’d worked on special effects for a bit before going to college. I guess growing up in the 80’s with video nasties and being kind of into horror movies, I wanted to do special effects, so monsters and gore and all that sort of stuff and [I] worked in London for a bit, but then erm, yeah, I got laid off with the company I was working with and moved back up to Scotland, went back to college, thought sculpture’s a good thing to do, but by the end of the degree, I realized I didn’t really want to be a sculptor and did want indeed to do film in some way. I moved through to Edinburgh, and while sort of working in bars and stuff, I started doing kind of any sort of night class or weekend course or whatever I could just to [get] involved, y’know, whether it was video production… and one of them was in screenwriting at a place called Edinburgh Video Training Company, which I don’t even know if it exists any more, but it was really good, there was a guy called Jimmy Gardner who had written for TV and stuff and he was a really good teacher and through that course you basically came with an idea and learned how to sort of format a screenplay and he helped develop the story. That ended up being ‘Horsehair’ but several years later. And since then, yeah, I haven’t really had any other formal training in screenwriting, but erm, just through sort of development processes of various schemes I’ve been involved with.

In that case, how do you self edit your scripts?

I guess anything that I’ve written [that] has been actually produced, has always been through a funding scheme of one sort or another so, I mean ‘Crowman’ went through a development process with Scottish Film Talent Network, so within that process, yeah, again, you apply with your basic idea and although I’d already written a first draft of it and then stripped that back to a basic synopsis, applied, and got it. And then it allowed it to sort of redevelop if you want, y’know, so it ended up staying quite similar, but I think it sort of broadened and deepened what was going on in the story but through that development.

Thinking about the different schemes you’ve been involved with, did they all have a specific remit or type of film they were looking for? Did the Talent Lab push you in a specific direction?

I mean with ‘Crowman’ it didn’t really, and I hope that’s cos what they thought I was doing was right, so there was little pointers about maybe looking at developing this aspect or “we don’t think you need to go that far with such and such” but generally, you know there was feedback and suggestions but I certainly never felt pressured into going anywhere with it that I didn’t feel that it shouldn’t be going anyway. I mean with an older film that I did, there was more of that aspect, where y’know, “we think that this such and such minor character needs more backstory so why don’t you think about bringing in scenes like this” and I was thinking no because that totally detracts from the thrust of the film, y’know. So I guess it’s one of these things that will depend entirely on the execs within these schemes you’re working with.

Did the SFTN fund the entire film?

Yes, it was a budget of 10,000 and as far as I’m aware, that was the allotted amount for each of the six films that they commissioned after the development process. I think it was twelve shortlisted, six went forward.

Were you able to take a writers fee from that?

No. [laughs] No there wasn’t enough money for a writer or a director fee, but again that was my own fault. If I’d written a script that was a conversation between two people in a booth in a bar, perhaps everyone would have got paid well for it then, but because we were filming in the countryside for five days… [Did you use all off the allocated budget?] Yeah, it was all used. It will always all get used but we had quite a few locations out in the countryside, not a big cast by any means, but y’know, a sort of principal cast of say three, four perhaps, and a few minor characters and we had some tanks in there and some special effects.

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Would you describe ‘Crowman’ as a genre piece?

I guess it is, I mean, it’s referenced in the brochure as post apocalyptic, and it’s not. Y’know, I’d never have said that but it’s kind of meant to be on the way to that I guess.The environment it’s set in is certainly an environment that’s starting to collapse socially, [Dystopian?] Yeah, more dystopian than post apocalyptic I think. Things haven’t gotten so bad for it to be post apocalyptic. Someone said it must be pre-apocalypse, and it’s well, maybe on the cusp of the slide down to post apocalypse I guess.

Is that one of your favourite genres?

Certainly no. I’ve always enjoyed genre films in that broad sense, whether that’s horror or thrillers, crime, sci-fi, and obviously these have many subgenres within them. I think everything I’ve done has got genre elements to them although none of them have been fully. I mean I haven’t done a horror film but I’ve done a film with elements of horror in them. Again, I like genre films but perhaps ones that maybe begin with some root in the real world and then kind of skew that and whether that’s in a way of maybe imagining or extrapolating elements of the real world we live in into something else or whether that’s bringing an element of the surreal into some of the other films I’ve done. So I like to sort of twist reality I guess. That’s what interests me most.

How many rewrites did you go through and were there many deadlines you had to adhere to in the scheme?

There was set points yeah, because I mean from shortlisting to final pitch, I think was three months, so in each moth there was a two day workshop in each month, obviously, January, February, March last year, yeah, so I think I probably did two more passes on it from the script. I mean I had written a version of it [before hand] then as the workshops developed, kind of revisited that and gave them that as a sense of the first draft. And then I think two more passes on that basically. Structurally it remained the same but it was just a bit of trimming and originally the first idea of it, y’know, it doesn’t all happen in one day. There wasn’t the sort of scene out in the farm with the farmer and his cattle initially and there wasn’t the scene with the NEDS, for a better word, at their hangout, it was just very linear, on the road with Crowman and the boy and the other characters sort of intercepted them on that road, if you know what I mean.

This is the world premier here in Edinburgh, is it going anywhere else?

Yeah, it’s been submitted to a lot of festivals and so far we’ve been accepted to Screamfest in LA, which is good, and also Fantasiafest in Montreal [Did you target which festivals to submit to?] Well again, one of the good things with the Scottish Film Talent Network is that they target all the sort of BAFTA and Oscar qualifying festivals like Berlin, Sundance, Palm Springs and submitted to them and yeah [laughs] we’ve had no luck with them but we seem to be getting more luck with the genre orientated festivals, so that’s great we’ve gotten into those two. The other thing was, even though it was finished you know, six months ago, or longer I guess now, because we had to hold off because of Edinburgh, y’know, because Edinburgh has to be a world premier if you want to be in competition basically, so hopefully we’ll get a few more on the back of this.

Duncan2 What’s the hardest obstacle to getting into the industry at the moment?

Getting your work seen, or if you’re a writer, getting your work read. Execs always say “Yeah, we’re always looking for new talent and looking for great new writers” But I’m not sure how easy it is to get your script to that exec unless you’ve got an agent. And then obviously it’s difficult to get an agent unless you’ve got something, I guess published or [produced].

Is that the reason you’ve gone out and made your own films rather than waiting for someone to knock on the door?

I guess so, but then, y’know, everything I’ve done has been through a scheme or some sort and on the one hand that’s really good because you will encounter other people at the same stage as you and to a degree you have that assistance to get you through those hurdles, but at the same time, I kind of wish, I mean, other people who’re on the talent lab have sort of said “Well I just went and made a film myself” y’know and I’m very envious of that [laughs] because I kind of think well, why haven’t I just done that. Just gone and made the film but well, it was the money. I think it depends on what kind of film you want to make because if you’re doing a really, y’know, say a character driven social realist piece, I mean, I’m not saying that’s easy but it’s perhaps more easily achieved with no money.

Was ‘Crowman’ intended to please an audience, impress industry professionals, or to satisfy the execs running the scheme?

In terms of the first question, who did I do it for, I think ultimately, I wanted to do it just as a story I wanted to tell. Obviously there’s no point making a film without an audience to see them, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be sort of prescriptive about what I write for a specific audience. Anything I’ve done is the kind of film I’d like to watch, [which] I think is the ideal, and you hopefully communicate certain ideas through that process to an audience who’d be receptive to that. And that may not always be the broad multiplex audience I guess.

Is ‘Crowman’ a precursor to a longer piece?

I’m developing it just now, well hopefully into a feature length film but it was always envisioned as a short. When I came up with the idea and started writing I’d never considered going beyond the short sort of length. Even then, I mean, the first draft I’d written, as I said before, even before submitting to SFTN was I think about eight pages long… it was about ten actually, so it fleshed out a bit with the additional scenes to sort of show the other characters [What was the final page count?] It was fifteen pages. It’s fifteen minutes so it does adhere to that one page a minute thing, which was totally accidental, I didn’t do any margin changing or anything. Yes, so going through the later stages of the rewrites, when I was coming up with other ideas of things that could happen but not realistically happen within a short, so it was really while working on developing it and even while we were starting to scout out locations and things I was thinking, y’know, this could make a bigger piece with a sort of broader scope.