Shooting a line in film

17th November 2006 at 00:00
the scene: Morley College, downtown London. Time: 7.30pm, Thursday. I'm a reporter (no trilby, no raincoat, just The TES issue scepticism). It's a job. Someone has to do it.

The opening shot is of 15 students around three large tables. From an adjoining room the strains of a student singing can be heard.

action: Teacher Mike Harris gets the Screenwriting Stage 1 class underway.

He speaks for only a few minutes. Tonight is about the students. They have been told to come up with their own feature film outlines so their colleagues can dissect them.

cut: Jenny (dark haired, vivacious, in her prime) is presenting Arresting Angela, a romantic comedy. Rick is a policeman who pretends to Angela he is an Elvis impersonator. Angela is a cleaner who pretends to Rick she's a beauty consultant. Rick lives at home with his mum, but has an interesting past. His fiancee left him for a dwarf.

The other group members are impressed. So am I. There is a debate about the ending. As it stands, it involves an Elvis song, a pair of handcuffs and an arrest.

cut: Now it's Tunde's turn. He has a big smile but a small outline. He says it's in need of development. Tunde reveals that recently he got caught up in a scam involving the London Nigerian mob, luxury cars and stolen identities. He was entirely the innocent party but now he wants to set his urban gangster tale in the murky underworld he has been unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of.

scene one: Tunde's protagonist stands outside the jail from where he has just been released. He must find pound;40,000 in a hurry or he is going back down again for a long stretch.

Maybe, Tunde suggests, he could start a legitimate business. There is pandemonium as one of his colleagues falls upon him. Jenny does not mince her words. "Tunde," she says, "no one's going to pay their pound;10 admission money to see a criminal set up a legitimate business deal."

cut: Katerina (blonde, 30s, bespectacled) rattles through her outline with me. It's about a conman who stays at posh hotels but never pays his bills.

"It's a story with a moral", she says, pointing out that the world of big money is just as corrupt as the confidence trickster himself. Then she tells a real story that is more bizarre than all the evening's fictional outlines put together.

In another class she attends, a fellow student habitually wears nothing else but a brief bikini. What strikes Katerina, who is from Germany, as particularly strange is that all the other people are too English to say anything.

cut: Another group, another outline. This time it is Peter (silver hair, slightly uncertain manner) who is in the hot seat. Peter has presented a one-page outline of a film called Tyger which he says is "set in Arthurian Britain". I missed the bit where Peter explains how a big cat of Indian origin comes to be roaming the English countryside in the first millennium.

Alan, the class elder statesman, is making a pedantic point about Peter's use of the word decimated in his outline. He does not like "all this rushing on and off the screen" that Peter seems to be serving up either. Peter sheepishly consults one of Mike's handouts, which, among other cinematic verities, points out: "A story always has a beginning, middle and end."

cut: Scarlett's piece is that good old cinematic standby, a slice of life.

It's Scarlett's own life in a semi-autobiographical tale.

We are in a squat in Brixton in the early 1990s. There is a great cast of characters, or at least it's a distinctive one. First up is Bruce. Yes, he's Australian. Bruce is a cross-dressing chef and best mates with Matteo, an Italian punk-rock drummer whose occupation appears to be "toy boy".

To complete the wacky trio, Scarlett introduces us to an exiled Polish prince who just happens to be an expert ballroom dancer.

"It's character driven," says Scarlett, who is in search of a plot.

cut: The class is coming to an end. Donal is telling me about a film he is actually making.

He relates that he has been on a journey, both literal and metaphorical, into the Amazonian jungles of Peru. Shamanism, he says, has changed his life, and now he has spent a lot of time and quite a lot of his own money on scripting and shooting a documentary about the experience.

I ask if he had managed to find any funding.

"Funny you should say that," says Donal, "because I could really use 10 grand."

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