Writer and director Matt Cruse talks about the origins of the idea which eventually became the script for ‘The Watcher Self’.
The Watcher Self is a film which has been through a number of generations of ideas over many years. To discover its roots we need to go way back to 1993 when I was still a young probationer at the BBC. In those days it was possible to harness the excellent, and sometimes beautifully hidden, resources and facilities and get some kind of personal film project off the ground without anyone caring. This is exactly what I did. I was living in Leytonstone in East London at the time and I spent many late nights working on a 10-minute script which ended up being a half-hour film.
I knew nothing about filmmaking in those days and was making it up as I went along. So I pinned up some notices (no email or blogs in those days) and pulled together a crew comprising of both BBC professionals and enthusiastic ‘non-professionals’ (I refuse to use the term ‘amateur’). I funded it myself, we shot it on something called ‘film’, and the genius Production Designer secured the loan of a standing set at BBC Elstree studios, transforming it into a dark, ominous basement which the cast accessed through the magic of cinema via an under-stairs cupboard in South London.
It was a lot of fun but also a case of trying to play permanent catch-up. I had scheduled seven days to shoot a picture which, by rights, should’ve taken eleven. But somehow, through the cliché of blood, sweat, and a knackered grips van, it all came together and we eventually finished the film.
Nearly 20 years on, I can barely bring myself to watch it anymore. I see it as my own personal ‘film school’ where I made lots of mistakes. It ended up being a case of two rock-solid actors straight out of drama school, and a quite excellent and dedicated crew, making the best of what I now realise was a rather naff script. But the idea was good. And the film’s production values were stunning, thanks to the DoP and her lighting team. But I’d learned a very valuable lesson: the script sucked, and I realised that that was something I needed to work on if I was ever going to make a feature film.
We jump ahead a few years. I’d messed around with a few short film scripts, tried a couple of unfinished feature scripts, and then began writing a film which I felt was the one I wanted to make. It was some cock-and-bull story about a guy at work who had a nervous breakdown. It was a load of rather self-indulgent twaddle and not very good (I was having a bad time at work back then), and I didn’t take it any further than a treatment.
Some of the themes in the script were interesting, though, and they stayed with me. I became fascinated with exploring the state of the human psychological condition and soon enough started to write another feature. I preferred this one and even became quite excited at one point. This was going to be the one to turn me into an established filmmaker. It was some cock-and-bull story about a housewife who, for implausible reasons I’ve forgotten, became addicted to television soap operas and ended up having a nervous breakdown. I did a couple of drafts of the treatment and wrote the first third of the film. It wasn’t very good and I abandoned that one too. Another story better off dead.
And yet I was still fascinated by all this ‘psychological’ stuff and why the people I was writing about were behaving in such extraordinary ways. Yet again I found myself developing another script around these ideas. This one was centred around the controversial subject of domestic violence. Now this was going to be the film that would launch me into the big time. I was sure of it. I wrote the treatment — several times, in fact. I completed a full first draft screenplay — things were looking good. I even took the script to a second draft — things were looking better all the time. I was convinced I had my first feature film project in hand. But then I read it. And I read it again. And it all just felt a bit ‘meh’. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The characters were fine. The story was — well, okay-ish. But there was just nothing that really lifted it above everything else you’ve seen about domestic violence. And so the files on my writing computer were moved across to the ‘Abandoned Projects’ folder where I keep everything I’ve ever written.
It was around that time that I started what has probably been the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. I joined the script unit in the BBC’s entertainment department. Eventually, due to lots of comings and goings with the script editors, I found myself running the thing single-handed and soon harnessed the rather swanky job title of ‘Script Associate’ which I’ve always been very proud of. It’s here where I started to have a bit of a revelation.
It’s a sad industry fact that the bulk of material received via the ‘spec’ script inlet is pretty unusable. You get the odd spark of genius from time to time, a promising ‘voice’ here and there which is worth following up on, but on the whole the writing quality of unsolicited scripts is like reading a manual on how not to write. I was primarily dealing with spec sitcoms for television and radio, but that’s not really important. A good script is a good script in the same way that a bad script is a bad script — comedy, drama, factual, or otherwise. The more I read the scripts being submitted, the more I started to understand my own weaknesses and why the short film and subsequent screenplays hadn’t really worked. I continued to write during this time, but it was more about developing the craft rather than penning ‘the big feature film project.’ And I could feel myself getting better and better. I owe an awful lot to those thousands of writers who sent their masterpieces via my office only to have them returned with the standard ‘thanks but no thanks’ letter.
It was inevitable that, at some point, the idea that had already been through a number of generations would pop up again. And it did. I started developing the script and could see straightaway that it was the best execution of the idea so far. By now it was 2004 and my time at the BBC was drawing to a close. I felt more confident than I’d ever felt about the film, and so I told myself that this would be the script to make into that feature film I’d been promising to make all these years.
So I left the BBC around Christmas 2004 and at the beginning of 2005 began writing the first draft of The Watcher Self (although it was called something else at the time — more on that in a minute). I was feeling rather good. I knew the beginning. I knew the ending. I sort of knew what happened in the middle. So I wrote the first 25 pages… and then it all suddenly stopped.
An horrendous personal family crisis happened and it was something that I had to deal with. I tried to juggle this with writing the script, but after about a year I realised that balancing the two was completely impossible. So the script — and the whole idea of making a feature film — had to go on the back burner, and I made the terribly hard decision to withdraw from the industry entirely until the situation had settled down. It ended up dragging on for six long years, and I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that the whole filmmaking thing was now a pipe dream, and so started concentrating on other things.
I’d felt very low and deflated for an awfully long time but, gradually, the crisis began to sort itself out and the pressure began to lift. Then, in 2010, I was sitting in one of the cinemas at the BFI Southbank during the London Film Festival when, completely out of the blue, I told myself I was going to make this damn film. It’s as though I’d been plugged back in or my batteries had now fully recharged. So in January this year I began working on the script again.
The first thing I noticed was that my attitude had changed. Something had happened to me during those ‘dark years’ which meant I needed to approach the script from a different angle. Not so much change the idea, but just come at it from an alternative perspective. That’s when the title changed, and the philosophy behind the script changed too. It still went through a monumental amount of work — and it’s still not fully ready to shoot while I write this. But I was exploring different ways I could take the story, bringing new characters in, sending them out; that’s how I write — slowly!
The state of the human mental condition is still in there. It’s very different to that first generation idea. And over the last few months I’ve come to realise that, in some ways, I am — to use an industry buzz word which I absolutely hate — ‘reimagining’ that short film from 1993. It’s almost as if the idea has matured; it’s become what it should’ve been all along, the irony being that I had to go through that very dark period of six years for the film to be the one I want you to see. I’m convinced that the reason none of those other scripts worked is because I simply wasn’t ready to write them.
So here we are. We’ve come full circle. It’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here writing the first entry of a ‘production diary’ of a big grown-up film that I hope you will be watching in the not too distant future at a cinema, on a DVD or Blu-ray, or even using that young persons’ format: streaming media. At this stage there is only myself and one other confirmed crew member on this project — the stills photographer — and pre-production is feeling frighteningly close as it is due to start in January 2012. It’s a very tight budget and I’ll be working with a small crew, but that’s how I like it. I also like to share the behind-the-scenes process, hence this blog, and I’ll be posting about it over the course of the production (I promise future articles won’t be as long as this one!). We also have a Facebook page, Twitter feed, and even a YouTube channel! How far we have come since that short film in 1993.
The Watcher Self isn’t autobiographical or based on anything specific I went through during those bad times, but it certainly draws upon some of the feelings and emotions I experienced. I survived and came out the other side. I wouldn’t say it was a happy ending, but that chapter of the story resolved itself. Cora, the woman who is the main focus of The Watcher Self, is a survivor too, but in a very different way. Whether or not her story has a happy ending is a question I will be raising in the film, and one to which I hope you will bring your own conclusions.