From Shorts to Features: An Interview with Chris and Ben Blaine

Chris and Ben Blaine (also known as The Blaine Brothers) are an award winning English writer-director duo who have garnered much praise for their short films and sketches for Film Four and the BBC. In 2015, they released their debut feature film, Nina Forever– a darkly comic, twisted and genre defying tale of love, death and un-dead exes.

Ben and Chris recently spoke at the ‘Shorts to Features: Journey of the Award -Winning ‘Nina Forever’ event hosted by IMIS on Monday 25th of September to talk about the transition from short film to feature film and the journey of their first feature from conception to premiering at SXSW.

I caught up with Chris for a chat following IMIS’s event:

 

LD: So, you’re professionally known as The Blaine Brothers, yourself and Ben, as film making siblings who write and direct all your projects together. Could you tell us a bit about how this came to be? When did you start the collaboration?

CB: We obviously used to play together a lot, but then I fell in love with animation and wanted to do some animation. Ben was always writing from a really early age and I was always doing art. So, I bought a camera to do animation and Ben had written a script with his mate Keith and said ‘Do you want to make this film with us?’ We spent the whole summer holiday making a feature length version of the Bible, like a piss take. But you know we’d not actually ever watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian at that point and there were jokes in there that were quite similar and obviously there’s a little bit of animation from me to complete it. But yeah, we had a good time arsing around in the woods with our school friends and putting on fake beards and playing around with fake blood and gore and doing stupid jokes. We sold it to the kids at school and it got banned by the school for being blasphemous which was great because it meant that it was something that everybody wanted because the school said they shouldn’t have it and we actually sold a lot more copies. We thought this is easy, we can make money from this! So, we started making short films and didn’t make any money from those for a very long time.

 

LD: Quite ambitious beginnings then!

CB: Well, sort of, it was just arsing around with a VHS camcorder. We didn’t have any idea about film making or where to place the camera or anything like that and we slowly learnt that by making short film after short film.

 

LD: So, moving on to screenwriting. What would you say are the benefits of having a writing partner?

CB: Well the enemy so often is the blank page and when there are two of you it’s a lot easier to not face yourself with a blank page because it might not be that you’re writing but you’re always talking. One of you is going to be helping the other one think through exactly what it is that you are trying to do. So, we rarely have the writers’ block thing that most have to struggle with and that I do terribly if I’m on my own. But together certainly it is a real joy.

 

LD: Does it present any challenges that you didn’t expect?

CB: It did early on. Ben always did the writing and I was always doing the camera work. Then I’d written a script for the first time and by swapping those roles it suddenly became really clear that we weren’t necessarily making the same film when we were shooting it. In one film, there was one character that one of us thought was alive and one of us thought was dead and was a ghost. But we didn’t figure that out until the edit and one of us was sitting there going ‘Sorry, you think what?’ We’d both been intending to make a completely different film, that was actually a good step to find that out and to start properly interrogating each other. And that film then Ben started to really rip apart as a script and we hugely improved it and rewrote it and reshot it as a short. Then after that it was kind of no holds barred, we were always just ready to rip into each other and try and make stuff better but mainly to be going ‘What is it that you’re actually trying to do?’ rather than what it says on the page. So often with a script the intention is actually not in the scene so it can be easy to misread the intention of what that particular scene, or what the film as a whole is trying to say. You can go off on tangents really easily so we just always keep talking about what it is we’re trying to do so when you’re writing it comes out from that.

 

LD: How do the two of you set about co-writing a script, do you have a specific method that you use or is it a bit more spontaneous?

CB: It’s a fairly regular routine of ideally writing every day but basically we share a screen so we’ve got two laptops but they’re both seeing the same thing. We write in Scrivener which is an application which has organisation so you can do each scene as its own little card and you can put those scenes within a folder for a sequence and you can put that sequence as a folder of an act so you can get the structure of your film and see it really clearly and write a whole bunch of notes. Usually when we’re writing we will talk and write notes and figure out what it is we’re supposed to be writing. We usually beat out a film using Scrivener and taking a while to actually get into writing it on the page because so often when you put a thing on the page you get really attached to the formulation of the words. That can be a really delightful thing but it can also be really that it doesn’t matter the way that those words are put together because an actor will come along and do it in a certain way and is it actually getting to the point of the intention of the scene, it can really get in the way. A lot of the time now we take a while to get around to writing and have talked it through so much that it becomes quicker to write and is a lot more liquid and fluid and easier to keep changing it.

 

LD: 2015 saw the release of your debut feature ‘Nina Forever’. What did you find you find where the challenges of going from writing short scripts to your first feature script?

CB: Definitely not our first feature script! Ben had been writing them since god knows when. I started writing features not long after I started writing short films and Ben had already written some by that point. The biggest thing for us with Nina was that we got to the point that we’d been writing films and slowly but surely trying harder and harder to fit in the model that everybody expects of 3 acts and a down point here, that sort of stuff. It kind of kept taking the life out of the scripts that we were writing as we don’t naturally write in 3 acts, it just doesn’t really fit us. With Nina we basically just went ‘f*** it’- we’re not going to write in a genre, we’re not going to try and write anything that we expect anyone will like, we’re just going to write for ourselves. Literally the weirdest, darkest s**t we could think of that felt right and was making us laugh was all going in there. We fully expected the script to horrify most people in terms of them wanting to work with us because up to that point pretty much all the short films we’d been making were comedies and Nina is blackly comic but isn’t really a comedy and it’s quite horrific in many ways. We were kind of expecting people to say ‘Don’t make that movie! Why? Why would you do that?’ which was almost the point. In terms of the difference between the shorts and the features, a short always feels like you’re trying to express a single idea really simply and perfectly and a lot of the time it either comes out all in one go and it works or you keep going back to it and reworking it to the point that you’re not sure that it does what you want it to. With features it is all about the reworking of it. We always find it hard with a short, you feel like either it comes out and you’re like ‘yeah let’s do it’ or you get into development hell. It’s weird, it’s almost easier to get into development hell on a short film than it is on a feature, I guess because it’s so few words to be talking about compared to a feature where there is so much that you are able to change. I suppose a lot of that is the juxtaposition of one scene after another, as soon as you just move some scenes that’s changed the whole film, with a short you’ve probably only got about 3 scenes. You don’t have as many options available in order to see how it can work, it either does or it doesn’t.

 

LD: Bearing in mind the quite shocking subject matter, did you find that that made securing funding for the film quite difficult? Did people not really understand what genre you were trying to place yourselves in?

CB: Our attention was always that we were never going to go to the industry with it. We raised money privately, we’d actually saved up some money ourselves. We were doing editing for tv- working all hours means that we’re not spending the money so we had this chunk of money in the account and we thought ok we can use that to make the film and we can maybe double it and go and make it with as many friendly people as possible and with as small a crew as possible. The producer that we work with Cassandra (Sigsgaard) said she thought we could make it a slightly bigger movie using FDA scheme. So, we went to a lot of different people to raise the money but it actually came together quite quickly. I think if we’d gone to the usual industry sources we probably would’ve gotten ourselves stuck in the quagmire of ‘yeah but what genre is it?’ and all of those usual questions that you get. Because we were avoiding it we just got to talk to people who either really believed in us as film makers and were willing to come on board due to that or they actually read the script and because there was a real honesty to it and a real freshness to it, because it is a really different film, they could see how it could be a cool, interesting movie. So, we didn’t fall into those pitfalls and the money came together really quickly.

 

LD: Did you find that by getting financing by other means other than fully funding it yourself that anyone wanted to make any adjustments to the script or change the kind of vision you had for it?

When Cassandra came on board she gave us a bunch of notes and we definitely re-wrote with those in mind but it was still very much the film that we’d wanted to write. The biggest thing for her that sells us as film makers is our voice, so she was really on point in terms of going ‘yeah that doesn’t really feel like you guys’ and actually a lot of the time was pushing us to be weirder which was fun. We were really quick in going into shooting it and possibly could’ve developed it for longer but actually I think that’s part of the reason why we raised the money quickly because we were basically just set on the idea of ‘yup we’re going to go ahead and make this and we’re going to shoot it for whatever money we’ve raised and you can either be a part of it or you don’t have to be a part of it.’ We weren’t really beholden to anyone which was a really liberating feeling. But then in the edit we definitely got some feedback from our execs and they weren’t ordering us to do anything, they were very much like, ‘these are my thoughts but it’s entirely up to you’. It was actually really nice and again, they were actually encouraging us to go further and be more daring with what we were doing, so it was really positive.

 

LD: So, what advice would you give to film makers who perhaps have experience making their own shorts but are finding it difficult to progress from that onto making a feature film? 

If you can think of something that you can make really small as a feature film and to be able to do it with no pressure, go do it! It’s the tricky thing of ‘you’re not a feature film maker until you’ve made a feature film’ you’ve always got that catch 22. So, Nina Forever for us was 3 people in a bedroom, and ok, there’s the two parents so there’s a little bit of stuff around their house but essentially we were thinking it’s kind of just two locations, it ended up being like 26. We were thinking this could be a really simple film, it’s something we could shoot on a DSLR, and it could just be me and Ben- I can do camera, he can do sound and just the 3 actors. It just felt like the kind of film we were totally ready to go and make and felt perfect for us at the time. When we were starting out and writing it we were thinking we were going to be making this for 20 grand, and it doesn’t matter if we fail miserably and if the film doesn’t work it’s just a chance for us to try and make something, and make something longer and learn all the stuff from that. That no pressure way of making a film can be really good because you can really get the pressure put on you as soon as you start getting money involved. A lot of the time you want your film making to feel free and to not have that pressure. There are so many good films being made now for pretty much f*** all. Actually, it’s almost like the film funders are waiting for you to make a film for not very much because they want you to prove that you can do a full-length feature. So, the starting point is no longer making a short for a certain amount of money, it’s making a feature film for nothing, following the Ben Wheatley kind of model. There is a real freedom in being able to do that and just going ahead and making something. There are feature films that people are making on iPhones that are winning awards and getting into Sundance. So, you can shoot on anything now and it looks great. So, you’re not going ‘we need to afford 35m film’, it’s more ‘Na I just need to edit it on my laptop- oh, I’ve already got that. I’ve already got some sort of a camera, away we go.’ But I think that’s kind of the way we always try to think about it- it’s just trying to be film makers so just making and not waiting and asking for permission.

 

Approaching Genre & Subgenre in your Scripts

A little bit about Genre

Genres pretty much define anything from the type of writer you are to the way your characters speak. You’ve a message to write, and genre determines the way in which your message is delivered.

After all, what you do with genre is create a niche which ultimately determines your audience; you’ve got your Western buffs, your Tarantino fanatics, your drama queens, the J-horror aficionados and your rom-com devotees. But whether you’re a noir intellectual who likes to sip warm wine and compare Kafka’s Village Schoolmaster to Haneke’s White Ribbon, or you’re just in it for Borat’s snappy but catchy one-liners, everyone’s tastes fit into a specific genre.

As a scriptwriter, when you begin to break down genre like this, you’ll see that it goes a long way in terms of it defining your characters and settings. You’re obviously going to need dusty towns for a Western or a futuristic spaceship for a dystopian. And let’s face it, a sociopath with a tangent for spilling blood isn’t going to be popping up in the Love Actually sequel anytime soon… and with good reason. We choose different genres because we like to fit films into boxes. We like to be amused, or horrified, or ultimately saddened. It’s how we categorize entertainment, and how we cope with the emotions they inspire.

 

So how do you categorize your script?

This first part’s easy. Even if you’re on the initial story stage, you can pretty much break down your script into one category, even if you’ve only developed your main characters. Do your main characters share undeniable chemistry? You might be leaning towards a romantic journey of self-discovery. But then let’s take a step further. Is it set in harsh Victorian times and there’s a social imbalance between the pair, making it a drama? Or are your characters fighting for their survival and have no time for romance?

Do you want to make your audience laugh? Do you want to pull a Stephen King and do nothing but inspire horror? Defining your script is also about the emotions you want your audience to experience.

There are so many twists and turns that influence the way you choose your genre, so the best advice is to simply experiment, and most importantly of all, don’t chase trends and fads just because they’re all the rage in that moment, but write the sort of thing you like to watch, regardless of popularity. If you do this, you’ll unconsciously be gathering enough research to know what works and what doesn’t (yep, watching the films you enjoy is legitimate research, I promise).

This doesn’t mean that you have to feel pigeonholed as a writer, but it is a smart move to determine one you like and write lots and lots of pieces in that specific genre. This is because practice makes perfect, and there are lots of different elements and story beats you need to know before you can dominate any one kind.

Which story beats fit which genre?

Genre establishes mood. Tone. Style. It’s a selling tool for studios and determines the demographics of the film’s audience. Knowing which genre you’re writing in will also help sell your script or acquire funding because it’s the first thing you’ll need to include in your synopsis, logline or elevator pitch. It immediately helps set the most important scene about your film’s setting and even helps shed light on what sort of budget you’ll be requiring. It is vital.

Down below we’ve helped outline the most common genres, and some of their unconventional sub genres, alongside a list of examples to help you visualise. Whether yours is a noir film, psychological thriller or a western sci-fi, there are certain elements you’ll want to include.

Drama

Dramas rely on exploring real-life issues through realistic and flawed characters, triggering an emotional response in the audience. If you’ve chosen drama, you’ll need to incorporate the ability to tell an honest story of human struggle and perseverance. When developing your character arc, you’ll need to take this into account.

Drama Subgenres:

Biography (Gandhi, the Sea Inside)

Courtroom (Erin Brockovich, 12 Angry Men)

Dramady (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s Kind of a Funny Story)

Historical (Schindler’s List, The King’s Speech)

Melodrama (Brief Encounter)

Period Piece (Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice)

Political (The Ides of March)

Romance (Brokeback Mountain)

Tragedy (Titanic)

Comedy

Comedy films are designed to make the audience laugh, using humour as its staple. An element you’ll need to include in script-writing is reversing the audience’s expectations, by creating scenarios that are the opposite of what they think will happen.

By subverting expectations with amusing–and often ridiculous–situations, the audience will find the humour.

Comedy Subgenres:

Action (Hot Fuzz, 21 Jump Street)

Black-Dark (Burn after Reading)

Parody/Spoof (Scary Movie, Austin Powers)

Rom-Com (Bridget Jones’s Diary)

Slapstick (The Jerk)

Action

Action films are designed to represent the spirit of physical action through chases, stunts, fights, battles and races. In the action genre, the protagonist will find it incredibly difficult to achieve his or her goal, as the action makes up the bulk of the stakes.

Action subgenres:

Adventure (Indiana Jones, The Mummy)

War (Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan)

Disaster Film (Deep Impact, The Day after Tomorrow)

Science Fiction  

Sci-fi films need several elements to make them work, but most importantly you’ll need an advanced, authentic universe, one that is supported by technology and science combined. Science fiction will explore how this world affects the protagonists’ lives.

Science Fiction subgenres:

Fantasy (Blade Runner, The Hunger Games)

Alien (Alien, Prometheus)

Apocalyptic (The Road)

Dystopian (Brave New World)

Time-Travel (Back to the Future)

Horror  

Horror depends on stimulating fear in the audience, so if you’re writing a horror script, make sure to exploit people’s fear of the unknown. The antagonist will often represent protagonists’ fears. You’ll also need to include suspense and the surprise factor. Think about horror films you’ve watched, and how the pacing is often slow before it reaches its climax for maximum impact.

Horror Subgenres:

Comedy (Shaun of the Dead, Gremlins)

Teen (Scream, I know what you did last summer)

Monster (Jaws, Cloverfield)

Slasher (Psycho, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre)

Supernatural (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring)

Zombie (28 Days Later)

Thriller

Thrillers aim to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by intertwining suspense and tension into the plotline. If you’re going to write a thriller, you’ll need to focus entirely on plot and your character will be proactive, working to unravel the mysteries of the thriller.

Thriller Subgenres:

Action (The Departed)

Film-Noir (Pulp Fiction)

Psychological (Memento, Shutter Island)

Crime/Heist

Crimes are all about focussing on the antagonist and the makings of a criminal. If you’re writing a crime film, you’ll need to have a real psychological passion for understanding the inner workings of a criminal mastermind.

Crime Subgenres:

Mob/Gangsters (The Godfather)

Neo-Noir (Mulholland Drive)

Crime-Thriller (No Country for Old Men)

Western

Western films portray fictional life in Western settings, and will often explore the lives of cowboys. Main elements will include horseback races, gun shootings, train robberies and sheriffs.

Western Subgenres:

Contemporary (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Revisionist (Dances with Wolves)

Spaghetti (For a few dollars more)

 

This doesn’t mean you need to religiously stick to one genre or the other. You can be original and start mixing genres to make your very own hybrid–like HBO’s Westworld, for example, a series that mixes contemporary science fiction within a classic Western setting, by making this setting a virtual game. Whatever you choose, however, just be aware of your genre requisites when it comes to character arcs and setting, particularly as they all form part of an effective selling tool.