‘iLL Manors’ [Ben Drew]

Back in 2008, Ben Drew [Plan B] used his own cash to make ‘Michelle’, a hybrid short film, part music video/part drama, which tells the story of a crack whore who gets pimped out to pay a drug dealer for the theft of his mobile phone. The episode turns up again as a pivotal sequence in his debut feature, ‘iLL Manors’. The setting remains the same, but evident that Drew’s filmmaking skills have developed in the interim.

In ‘Michelle’, he’s trying too hard, from the edgy hand-held camera, the noisy actors, to the intrusive and repetitive presence of Drew himself spitting out the rap/narrative. Two years on, he has developed the confidence to hold back, keep still, let the editing keep things sharp, including some nice crossings of the so-called line. His ear for dialogue has matured. I can’t testify to the authenticity of phrases like “off-key” and “it’s not the one”, but they sound less forced. The actors aren’t fighting for attention with the quantity, volume, and vulgarity of their (probably) improvised dialogue. Riz Ahmed will have been a factor here. A charismatic and generous actor, he brings out the best in his inexperienced co-star, Ed Skrein. You get a relationship, a sense that Ahmed’s character has always been the more cautious of the two, but has benefited from his friend’s lack of scruples.

‘iLL Manors’ may push the rapper/narrator out of the frame and onto the soundtrack, but the film still seems led by the music and in these sequences it retains some of the artistic limitations of music video:

 ~ The visuals illustrate the lyrics. They correspond with what we’re being told. When we’re given some back story, we get back story visuals (the usual half-glimpsed clips of faded home videos). When the rap describes a scene in the present, the scene plays out as described. There is an upside to these sequences as they spare us the full weight of some all-too-familiar histrionics: Chris’ gun-point interrogation of murder witness Terry, for example.

 ~ The visuals sell the product. They show off. Extra cash was pumped into the project during post-production* and, as a result, we get some second unit urban landscapes and indiscriminate access to the full box of visual tricks: fast and slow-motion, time-lapse, freeze-frame and split-screen, even animation – the tiny figures of architectural models are seen perpetrating indecent and criminal acts. All very cool, but they add nothing of substance.

To its credit the film doesn’t posture or play-act like so many other British crime dramas. It may not be half as “real” as Drew seems to think it is, but it is a sincere film – Drew is telling it straight – and this is what makes it worthwhile.

This, and the music.

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*’iLL Manors’ was made as part of Film London’s Microwave scheme, but post-production was financed through a deal with Revolver Entertainment. Its budget thereby significantly exceeded the oft-quoted £100000 associated with the scheme. It’s not yet apparent whether Film London intends to venture further along the path of commissioning projects with demonstrable co-financing potential.

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“Nobody Likes Treatments”

“Nobody likes writing treatments.”

Apparently. So I’m told. And I’m inclined to believe it – though in this case I am that nobody: I like treatments.

But I do wonder where this aversion comes from? What have treatments ever done to us (or for us)? And what does this reveal about our current attitude to the creation of a film? I have a few complementary theories:

– The treatment as a selling document: subsequent to the screenplay, exterior to the creative process. Or in other words, a chore.

– The treatment as a vulgarisation of the true work, which is the screenplay. Reducing one hundred pages of screenplay to three pages of stilted prose, or fifteen, or one half, is an offence to your finely-tuned dialogue and concise yet vivid description of the pertinent action.

– the treatment as plan for the screenplay, a dry, mechanical catalogue of plot points

The answer is, I believe, to approach the treatment as a unique act of storytelling. Tell the story as if for the first time. Make it interesting. Forget about the screenplay (for a few moments).

This is an age where everyone in the industry talks of story as if it had a capital ‘S’ and yet so many screenwriters are unwilling to tell their stories in simple narrative prose. Simple narrative prose is good for telling stories, but we have chosen to hide inside the screenplay with its peculiar format, as if screenwriting could only begin with the words: FADE IN.

A screenplay is not a film. Unlike a novel or a poem, or even a theatre script, the screenplay does not function as a work of art. It does not satisfy like a work of art. (I enjoy reading them, but that pleasure it related to the promise of what the screenplay might become, as well as a professional appreciation of technical skill.) It is merely a proposal for a film, a promise, a map – a map of a city yet to be built.

Films don’t need screenplays at all. Once a film has been made, the screenplay is redundant. And they can be made without them. Take a look at the ‘scenarios’ written in the silent era. These aren’t screenplays: they are treatments. Great films came from these documents. However, with the advent of synchronous sound-recording, screenwriting placed increasing emphasis on dialogue – playwrights were hired to provide it – and the format of the modern screenplay began to emerge. Great films have been made with these documents too, but they are not essential.

Admittedly, these days, it’s very difficult to finance a film without one. In this respect, the screenplay is a selling document no less than a treatment. They are both nothing more than promises.

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This article was prompted by the tips offered by Charles Harris when promoting his workshop on writing treatments. His advice strikes me as very sensible; his methods supportive. From what I’ve read, I’d recommend the workshop.

I’ve gone off at a tangent, but I would like to make one particular comment regarding these tips.

As a means of getting into the storytelling mode, Harris suggests you begin the treatment with “Once upon a time …”. I’d agree with that. This implies the past tense and there is nothing wrong with using this tense to tell a story in prose. In fact, it is quite natural. However, elsewhere Harris stipulates the use of the present tense. Yes and no. This is the convention in the film industry. Everything on the screen happens in the present tense, or so the argument goes. If your treatment is for industry use, you’ll have to switch to the present. If not, the past tense is better for storytelling (before the story reaches the screen, or before the action is staged in front of a camera). Stick with it.