Reflections on | Reflections of a Private Eye by Andrew Gunn
Part 1: Script Development (May–December 2014)
May 2014. Itchy. Career plans. Screenwriter, director.
Glasgow Film Crew is a little hub of potential. The actual filmmaking is ebb-and-flow. The first half of 2014 is very much ebb. I root around in drawers for some flow.
Reflections of a Private Eye – a 17-page script I wrote in 2005 for a friend to direct. A tongue-in-cheek film noir, an homage, a period piece, ambitious but not impossible to make on a low budget.
I'm committed to a day job at a university and a part time job at a film festival. No time to direct – but I can squeeze in two or three writing hours per day.
Do it. Polish the script. Take it to GFC. Find a director. Get it made.
The GFC's third anniversary party, February 2016. Picture: Omiros Vazos.
I wrote my first screenplay longhand, aged twelve – on holiday, too sullen for the beach, the Smashing Pumpkins and My Bloody Valentine on the Walkman.
The script was god-awful. I persisted. By 17 my writing was merely poor. I worked on film and TV sets and learned how the words were translated to the screen. By 19 I was readable.
By 23, and my first draft of Reflections, I showed promise. I worked on local indie shorts, features and music videos. Running, script editing, camera, grip, art department, special effects, editing, sound editing, producing. Directed a few things, all very small-scale. Never made enough money to call it a job. Wasn't good enough to make it my career.
The original intended director of Reflections had the same problem. Couldn't commit enough time to the project. Enter the drawer.
Nine years passed.
Cycle Path, directed by Andrew Gunn in 2009.
I lived in France. I lived in England. Worked in offices, shops, warehouses, call centres, universities. Kept writing, kept getting better, kept procrastinating. Moved back to Glasgow in November 2013, aged 31. Decided that if I wanted to make films it was now or never.
Now, then. A day job keeps a roof over my head. The festival job inspires me. I seek opportunity. I discover GFC.
Graeme Cassels has just directed Team-Up, a GFC project about superheroes. Superheroes leave me cold – but I like the ambition and offer him Reflections of a Private Eye. He accepts. Ryan Pasi, who founded GFC, and Myke Hall, writer/producer of Team-Up, agree to produce.
Green light. Cassels and I start to develop the script.
My career plan accords with the Mamet/Sayles/Milius model – always writing, often directing. Well, as screenwriter-for-hire I'll need to know how to collaborate with a director. See the work through someone else's eyes, rewrite, spitball, compromise, understand their strengths and insights. Here's an opportunity to learn.
Cassels and I talk period settings. The script is not specific but we'll need a reference for our costume designer – Elizabeth Brown, the first crew member on board. We decide on the late 1940s, an unnamed US city, presumably Chicaco/Pittsburg/Philadelphia.
We jettison some Airplane!-style gags – a film-studenty hangover from my 23 year-old self.
We develop the femme fatale character a little – not enough.
I give Cassels a list of films to watch – The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, Chinatown, The Grifters, Miller's Crossing.
The title's full acronym, ROAPE, looks like a dog trying to say "rape". So we call it ROPE.
Mary Astor as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon (1941), an inspiration for our femme fatale in more than just name.
Here are some things I learned in two decades of teach-yourself screenwriting:
Structure is the most basic, most effective tool of a screenplay. Structure communicates to the audience whether you want it to or not – so you must understand it and use it to your advantage.
Write in the present tense. Avoid the gerund. Active verbs push the story forward. "She crosses the street" – not "She is crossing the street".
Don't specify angles or camera movements. You can infer them without breaking the flow of the text. The script is principally a point of reference for the director and actors. The director won't be told how to shoot the scene, and the actors don't care.
The best way to write dialogue is to write without it. Make sure the meaning of each scene is clear. Then put the dialogue in – but only what you need. (Nobody ever complained that a film didn't have enough dialogue.)
Dialogue can be good or bad, poetic or clunky, but it is fundamentally a sound effect. If you need it to tell the story, what you're writing might be a lovely piece of work but it's not a screenplay. If you're in any doubt about this, sit with an editor for a few hours while they cut a talky drama. You'll be ready to write a silent film.
The audience is faster than you. Don't tell them the same thing twice – when you tell them once, tell it fast. And by "tell" of course I mean "show".
July 2014. Second draft. 20 pages now. The story is this:
Dick Nicely is gunned down in the comfort of his own home. As he lies there bleeding all over his floorboards, his voiceover tells us the story of his final case – a tail job for a classy dame named Brigid Astor, who thinks her husband is stepping out on her. Turns out the husband ain't the adulterous type, the dame ain't so classy, and everybody's after a mysterious briefcase – but what's inside, and more importantly what's it worth?
The script isn't there yet. But it's good enough to put out a casting call. Audition space is booked. Slots fill up.
We aim to shoot in September. I take a back seat – a new theatre company asks me to write them a play, the film festival sends me a pile of screeners. I'm busy.
Cassels and Myke handle the auditions. I watch the videos. Our unanimous choices are Karl J. Claridge for Nicely, the private eye, and Nima Séne for Brigid, the femme fatale. Karl lives in Northamptonshire, which might be tricky for logistics later on, but he's worth the effort.
Karl's video audish.
Nima auditions with Myke.
The quality of the cast demands quality of production. There's a lot to do and there aren't many people to do it. We need to crew up. Shooting is pushed from September to some vague date later in the year.
The character of Brigid needs work. We talk about why she walks into Nicely's office. We talk about what might be in the briefcase – our McGuffin. I'm not sure it matters; the classic McGuffin is never precisely defined. Still, Brigid is underwritten.
We spitball for a few weeks. Come up with a lot of good stuff, but it's all background. Story isn't where a character comes from but what they do. What does Brigid do? What does Brigid want?
My first play, Corner Table, is quite successful. Wee Theatres ask me to write another and direct it, too.
Don't Wake the Baby is about a couple on the brink of collapse. The play comprises two monologues – husband and wife take turns watching over their sleeping son, and confess to him the truths they can't tell each other. It's a play split in two.
At least once a week I re-attack ROPE. Spitball, plot. Spitball, plot.
I rewatch Dressed to Kill – that great set-piece in the elevator, the switch in perspective from one character to another. I think about my play – husband's monologue/wife's monologue.
I know how to tell Brigid's story. Split the film in two. One half for the private eye, one half for the femme fatale. Gender equality. Narrative equality. The script gains pages but also depth. Brigid, now present in more scenes, emerges as the protagonist.
Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.
Go through every word of every line, re-assess relevance, re-assess necessity. Cut cut cut. I know the lead actors' voices by now. I rework the dialogue. I've seen pictures from location recces. I write for the geography.
Extract from the screenplay.
Third draft. Notes from Cassels. All good shit. Now some tweaks.
Three days later, the fourth and final draft. 31 pages. 47 scenes. 36 locations. Nine main characters. 30-40 extras. God knows how many props – easily 400. I'm glad I don't have to direct this fucking thing.
September 2014. Eddy MacKenzie stars in Don't Wake the Baby. His co-star gets the jitters and runs away 45 minutes before the first show. Eddy has invited the head of a theatre company to see his performance. I've invited friends and family.
Eddy and I persuade Effie Scott to step in and save our necks. She's in another play the same night. She agrees anyway. She has 15 minutes to prepare. Eddy is magnificent. Effie is magnificent. Effie plays the show with the script in her hands. It doesn't matter. It's theatrical trial by fire, but we survive.
Joe McKenna, Effie, Eddy and Andrew Gunn backstage. Picture: Kieran Harris.
Career plans. Minor success agitates the itch. My aim for 2014 was to write a script and see it filmed. My aim for 2015 was to direct a short film.
My last short was completed five years prior. We shot on DV tapes. I edited on a 2003 eMac weighing roughly the same as an adult horse. I've reeled 16mm in a black bag and sent the negative to be processed in a lab. I'm an anachronism. I need to know how the kids do it these days.
October. GFC enters the 48 Hour Film competition and I campaign successfully to be in the director's chair. It's a 48 Hour Film School. We shoot on a DSLR. The footage is captured on SD cards. The first scene is edited before we've finished shooting the third.
Gunn directing the GFC's 48 Hour Film on 11 October 2014, with David White and Ailsa Lonsdale. Picture: Sean McInally.
November. The French Film Festival. Ten months' preparation comes to a head. I host the short film programme and interview guest directors. That night they come to see my third play at Wee Theatres – second as director, second with Eddy. I'm already writing my fourth, for the Christmas show.
Hey, remember ROPE? I'm no longer in the back seat, I'm in the boot.
December. Festival dust settles. GFC veteran Ailsa Lonsdale directs the Christmas play. I crawl out of the boot and realise ROPE has made little progress in the last three months. Shooting has been pushed back to I-don't-know-when.
The actors got together for a read-through in November. Elizabeth has been researching, designing, buying and custom-manufacturing costumes. GFC regular Giles Meredith has agreed to compose the score. But we have no cinematographer, no art director, no assistant director, no production manager.
Cast table read, 23 November 2014. Clockwise from left: producer Myke Hall, Iain Malone, Eddy MacKenzie, Nima Séne, Karl J. Claridge, Tim Harley, Miranda Langley. Picture: Graeme Cassels.
Cassels’ schedule has exploded. He no longer has time to commit to the project. We’ve lost a couple of locations. Other films are piling up on the GFC slate: cast and crew are booked up months in advance.
I flashback to 2005, the first time the film was put on the shelf.
I flashforward to 2025, imagine trying this again aged 42. I’ll be old enough to play Nicely.
Flashforward to the immediate future. In two weeks it’ll be 2015.
Cassels and I meet and talk about our options. For Reflections of a Private Eye, it’s now or never. Cassels can’t commit to “now”. I can’t bear “never”.
I come to the slow and certain realisation that I will direct this thing after all.
Originally published 1 July 2016.
Reflections on | Reflections of a Private Eye