drowners - further reflections on the script

My previous post on ideas behind Drowners, the script I’m currently writing, ended up longer than I intended. Because I didn’t want to spend any longer on the post, and because I was worried about over-explaining I didn’t get into anything beyond the technical considerations. But the original intention had been to also acknowledge the art, and the more personal and direct influences at play.

Despite abandoning that plan in the first post the idea didn’t go away. Through the last week I found myself gathering the influences I wanted to acknowledge in emails and  notebook. So now I’m bringing them together.

The writing
Drowners was originally planned to be about a non-binary protagonist called Cal. But within two scenes I realised I had nothing useful to say on the subject. However, I felt there was something worth preserving, and carried on with the script. The character names and the broad elements of the first two scenes remain unchanged.

The script has largely been written in short bursts, mostly while walking. Sometimes out on walks around Manchester, but mostly on the way to and from work, and during lunchtimes.

As it currently stands, structurally I start by gathering a number of threads and colliding them. Then I explore some in greater depth; not in a linear way, but interspersing scenes from each of these threads together. The intention is that these scenes build in intensity. That is, they drift further away from the everyday, and plunge more deeply into strange, elevated and abstract language.

My intention at present is that rather than reaching a climax, the script will allow the energy and tension to dissipate. Perhaps by exploring some of the thematic threads in a calmer way. And along the way drawing some connections between these threads.

This is closely related to a structure I often find myself using in my writing and sound improvisations, whether live or recorded (and also crops up in my abstract comic Shrewsbury). It's a structure where I start with a single idea or theme, drag in a number of other themes, and begin to explore them. Then after a while I try to draw together and reconcile these disparate elements.

It doesn't always work, but it's a process I very much enjoy. It usually leads to at least one moment, anything from a third to three-quarters of the way through, where I have a mess of unrelated elements that don't seem to make any sense, or have any relationship to one another.

The central image around which the script came together was that of flooding the atrium of Cal’s workplace. This certainly has influences of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World in it, but more directly of the office building I work in - especially the atrium and main stairs. These are open to the third storey, and between the second and third floors cantilever out over dead space. The image combined this architecture with my fear of heights and the swimming lessons I was taking, and fitted well with a story that begins with Cal discovered sleeping on the bottom of a lake.

My meditation (both at ease, and while running), and the process of obtaining a diagnosis of autism also fed into the script. Especially the ideas of altered mental states, and the sense of Cal, in particular, being slightly alien and out of place.

Slightly further in the background are my interest in physical theatre; more traditionally in the plays of Sarah Kane and Samuel Beckett; and going further back, the first production of Shakespeare I saw, a modern-dress Hamlet in the round.

In my previous post I talked about how the characters in Drowners are minimally differentiated. Honestly my justification was a little unconvincing and defensive. And I don’t think any artistic decision necessarily needs justification.

But in re-reading the blog it occurred to me, that if justification is required, then Derek Jarman is an example of a filmmaker who made several films I love without much in the way of characters. And having noticed that, a bunch of other films, plays and novels with minimally differentiated or wholly undifferentiated characters began to occur to me.

However, the main filmic influences on Drowners are a range of 1960s/70s art films. Particularly for the dialogue in this instance, though there are many many more reasons to watch them. At the top of the list are films I watched as the script was beginning to get underway, especially Riddles of The Sphinx, The Other Side of The Underneath and Anti-Clock. But further back in my memory films like Funeral Parade of Roses, most of Tarkovsky, The Gold Diggers, and others I can’t remember the names of right now.

The main feature I have in mind with regard to Drowners is dialogue that’s indirect, baffling, and seemingly drives neither the plot nor any character development. I enjoy art that I don’t immediately understand, but which demands my attention and some effort on my part. The dialogue I’m writing doesn’t really reach into those places, but it takes them as a jumping-off point.

More directly than any of these films, a couple of books have informed some of the imagery and some of the ideas behind Drowners. The central water imagery has grown from my swimming lessons, and from Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain by Roger Deakin. The themes of altered mental states have grown from my meditation, and from Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

A lifetime of long walks, and in particular my two circuits of the M60 have influenced my thinking. Especially my perception of time, and how it can be affected by these durational activities. I find it easy to adjust, such that walks of two hours, five hours, ten hours don’t feel like a long time.

Two specific walks are important above any others: a walk up Pen-y-ghent in late winter this year, and a walk many years ago near where I grew up (towards Wash Dubs, if you're interested) on which I remember first formulating my idea of time as a series of recurrent moments.

Personal change
I also wrote about my distaste for the concept of the character arc, and the spurious notion of change it promotes. But, in a spirit of honesty I should acknowledge my own periods of change - in particular the period 2008-2011 which saw me abandon writing in favour of sound and visual art with some initial success, and a temporary broadening of my social circle.

This was then followed by a trip to China - only the second time I left the UK, and the first time I lived abroad for any significant time (three months). Then on my return a prolonged depression and consequent shrinking of my social horizons.  While there have been many profound changes in this period, I don't think there has been the kind of personal growth and change the conventional wisdom tells you scripts need to include.


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