Wednesday, 9 December 2020

In Development in Lockdown - 2020 Review

2020 has been a brutal year, with every industry and every individual dealing with the pandemic in their own way. Many hard-won work leads, or well thought out plans were swiftly overturned in the face of new fear for our collective lives. The entertainment industry took a huge hit with all traditional film and TV productions postponed or cancelled. Meanwhile screenwriting and development could, at least in theory, continue unabated. Yet falling ill, additional caring responsibilities, or anxiety about the danger/isolation, are just a few of the things that could get in the way of that. It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs for the In Development members, but perhaps we can agree to hope for better days to come in 2021! As we prepare for a Covid Christmas here’s a few hellos from the lockdown lives of the In Development crowd.

Additional care for parents and children has been a prime factor of 2020, whether arranging for loved ones far away, or moving right in. Development producer Janet Awe has stayed with her elderly mother over lockdown and beyond, which has made working from home, developing film & TV projects ‘interesting’ - the key word for the year. TV and theatre writer Sumerah Srivastava got back from abroad just before lockdown. She says, I ‘lost my mind home schooling my kid, walked more, shopped less, but still put on weight’. Film-maker Justin Edgar, (a previous featured member), has been running 104 Films from home and spending more time with his two small children, which inevitably has its up and downs. 

The company are gearing up to run BFI Academy training early next year (partly remote/partly outside), casting a feature and developing TV projects, with short VERISIMILITUDE (part of  BFIs Uncertain Kingdom), receiving four-star reviews and in 9 BAFTA qualifying festivals.

Many of us started new hobbies or diversified. After reorganising a short film shoot, for post-lockdown Janet says she ‘attended a lot of online masterclasses, workshops and training sessions – there’s been loads of great free stuff and I’ve been getting my fill! Additionally, I was asked to write a horror short (not my usual genre at all, but I’ve given it a good go….)’. Comedy Writer/Director Andy Wooding was not feeling the funny during lockdown so focused, at first, on a music project. 

Screenwriter of feature film THE FLOOD, and previous featured member, Helen Kingston says ‘Like a lot of people, I found a ridiculous new hobby this year. I bought the pink suede roller skates of my childhood dreams and have spent many happy hours trying very hard not to fall over.’ 

Writing has been a lifeline for many in lockdown. Sumerah Srivastava says, ‘For my sanity I kept writing - I have written in anger (#846Live a response piece to the killing of George Floyd) I have written for joy (one of #12tinyplays for children at Christmas), I have written for another language’, French crime series LUPIN, for Netflix, coming in January.

Helen Kingston says ‘I was in a zoom writers’ room for a YA show this summer and although it was a shame not to be in an actual room together, bonding over pret sandwiches and after work drinks, I enjoyed every minute and felt very grateful to be working with a group of great writers. I don't think I'd realised before this year how lonely this job can be, and from now on I will choose projects that involve co-writing or collaboration’.

I’ve also recently been busy developing a comedy drama series with a company in Amsterdam, with regular team writing online, (In Development host Sarah Olley). I’m used to the online writers’ room after working on a 13-part series with a company in Mumbai! But it would be nice one day to get to meet the Amsterdam team in person. (photo: EXPAT series, left)

Some members have been isolated in lockdown alone, others getting on top of each, working full time from a flat. Despite a little overcrowding, Head of Development at Corestar Media, Ross Murray, (another previous featured member), is grateful to have his health and to be busy. ‘I’m working with the brilliant Paul Andrew Williams and we’re in development on a number of fronts so whilst the days of lockdown all seem to seep into the other at least there’s plenty to fill them!’

Writer Lynn Robertson Hay had all work disappear, without furlough or grant but wanted to turn the enforced isolation into something positive by having some time to write. ‘I got a table for my tiny balcony and bought mysterious seeds to deck the window boxes’..‘I spent many hours cherishing my mental health by writing 'outdoors' - screenplay outlines and rewrites, plus nearly up to the halfway point of book 3 in my YOUNG TESTAMENT series’.

Getting outdoors was certainly a big theme. Actress and Writer Shobu Kapoor returned from a work trip to India and marvelled at the quiet skies with planes now grounded. With on-set assignments now shelved, I also thought, like many others, that lockdown would be the perfect time to get my house in order, do my tax, write a play, get my first collection of poetry sorted.’ But instead, it became a time of contemplation and conservation at her home near the Thames. ‘I only left my house to go for walks and to the supermarket. I walked a lot.’ ‘I can only hope that we pull out of this better, greener, more together in real ways. Meanwhile, I’ll try and keep my carbon footprint as small as my size 3 shoes, by walking whenever and wherever I can and not taking up smoking again (now 3 and a half month smoke free, yay!)’ And hopefully that’s many more months by now.

Director/Writer Annabel Vine saw several good leads on directing work close down due to the pandemic. ‘For a writer confinement could be a productive time, but I found writing hard. I was like a boat adrift at sea, I didn’t have the capacity to break new stories'. Then there was chance to engage with a familiar project, ‘The 3rd draft of my commissioned screenplay SKYWARD got the go ahead and that proved a great escape. An imaginary world that I knew so well, one that I had complete control over.’

Creativity has gradually found a way around the need for social distancing. Writer Mark Lindow had his play ESTIMATED WAITING TIME, which is set in a playground, staged in a park in Wandsworth. Local residents sat to watch at 2 metre distances. Staying engaged with the world, Sumerah’s monologue SAY THEIR NAMES was one of a handful featured in the 846Live event in September, part of the Greenwich & Docklands Festival in conjunction with Stratford East Theatre, (picture right).

Lynn Robertson Hay realised there could be no public readings of her preteen books, so threw herself into the world of internet broadcasting. ‘With so many children confined to home, I took my readings online with live Zooms and a YouTube channel. I've never done anything like that before and have no equipment beyond a laptop! But they seemed to go down well; my Zoomers demanded a quiz on the books and dressing up as the characters for the last session’.

Screenwriter & Director Darren Rapier had a zoom reading for a new sitcom pilot, ‘We then ended up inviting an audience to give some feedback and had a great after show chat, involving about 50 people. It was a really nice way of putting something out there and reconnecting.’. Comedy writer, (and previous featured member), Paul Mendelson, (pictured), has also just had a zoom reading for DLT Entertainment of a new sit-com pilot based on his BBC Radio 4 series ‘Snap!’. Keeping up momentum amid the chaos, Paul says, ‘My sixth novel MUST HAVE GSOH is out in February and I’ve just finished number seven’.. ‘And happily, I’ve just been taken on by Zero Gravity Management in LA and London for my movie and TV work’. 

There’s been socially distanced short film making. As well as getting into her old vinyl collection for fun (picture), Annabel Vine says, I wrote and directed a micro short film as part of a BFI Network BAFTA Crew challenge. It’s a Sci-fi called THE LAST OAK and stars my son Angus who wants to be an actor. I have not met any of the crew yet as we shot it during the height of lockdown, remotely, using what we had. It was zero budget and I needed a severed prosthetic hand as a prop….so I put a shout out on Facebook’. Moments later a friend responded with just the thing. ‘Two days later, said hand was left in our woodshed. Life can be so surreal’. The film’s been doing well in festivals and you can check out via Annabel’s website if they got away with the hand. 

Andy Wooding got down to writing and directing (remotely or socially distanced) a short mockumentary COPING WITH COVID 19: LIFE DURING THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC. Darren Rapier rearranged his short pilot SECTIONS (#sectionsfilm) for September, shooting in a closed building on a covid safe set (picture right).Those three days on set were a real breath of fresh air and a real reminder of that collaboration and human contact that makes what we do so great’..'For me the lockdown’s highlighted that we need to be resourceful and adaptable, but then as filmmakers that’s what we do most of the time’. 

Film Producer Jessie Mangum says ‘Our Microwave feature LOOTED was supposed to release theatrically in April, and then was pushed to November 6, when we all thought cinemas would surely be open again (hello Lockdown #2…), so like so many others, after waiting so long we ended on going straight to VOD anyway. However, in retrospect, this may be the best thing for the film. We had so much more press and review attention that we were expecting, and the viewing numbers are stronger than predicted for theatrical. Our little low-budget indie has found an audience despite all the upheaval!'

This resourcefulness was the hallmark of zoom séance horror HOST, written and produced during the first lockdown. Recent featured member, Gemma Hurley, co-wrote the hit low budget movie and has seen it rocket to success this year, now included in Empire’s top 20 movies of 2020, and placing her and co-writer Jed Shepherd onto the BIFA longlist for Debut Screenwriter. HOST has been a beacon of light in a terrible year and an example of how creativity can adapt and thrive.  

2020 also saw some members start companies! Sumerah says I have launched an arts company in a pandemic (@kahaniarts)’.  Longstanding member Chamoun Issa has helped found new production company Factual Fiction and is enjoying his role as Development Executive. He said in October, I fell ill at the beginning of March. At the time it didn’t even cross my mind that I had the virus, just that I was tired and had a cold. But when I became unable to walk unaided, that’s when fear gripped me. 7 months later, I have improved tremendously but am still suffering from some of the symptoms the virus triggered.

Work-wise, launching a company during lockdown was a challenge but despite it, we managed to adapt and prosper: we have already had one programme broadcast, two more are in post and several in development. One of our aims with the company is to bring fresh and rarely heard voices to tv: those of minorities, from the regions, and from different social backgrounds. Finding and connecting with that talent was made much more difficult by lockdown.’ But now this has eased, socially distanced meetings are proving rewarding and he looks forward to more.  

In the autumn, TV shoots have been back up and running again, with many new restrictions to ensure Covid safety. Actress Shobu Kapoor (pictured left with Sarah for an outdoor, summer meet up.) has been back on several shoots and has wracked up a hefty number of covid-19 tests as there are multiple required leading up to every on-set appearance. Directors and producers in our ranks are back gearing up and dealing with these considerable extra issues. There's a lot going on out there, with many of our members busy with projects they’re not allowed to talk about yet, of course. 

All in all, we find ways to cope and ways around new restrictions, we gradually emerge and if we’re lucky find ways to keep working, however small or large. We also look forward with hope to safer, freer, healthier, and happier times in 2021.

Let’s hope there are some good legacies from this disaster, such as greater acceptance of the viability of flexible/remote/homeworking, which would increase opportunities for many in this work-all-hours business, also greater awareness of our impact on the environment, and greater connectedness with those distant or isolated. Annabel says, I did a weekly shop for a vulnerable neighbour whose husband was dying and I remember thinking that old, vulnerable people should be looked after regardless of pandemics. This simple act of helping someone out was something that pulled me though the hardest moments of my own situation. This year showed me what to be thankful for and it tested my resourcefulness. It reminded me that helping people makes me feel good’.   

I leave you with a very 2020-style bauble from Sumerah’s Christmas tree. Stay safe and well and connected. And maybe we can meet up in person some time in 2021! Merry Christmas!

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