The Day Thomas Learned To Speak I

I thought I would share on a regular basis progress on my forthcoming film that currently has the working title, The Day Thomas Learned To Speak. I hope to share with you the whole process right through to completion and distribution, whether it fails or succeeds. This is something completely new for me; an experiment and a long journey.

Set mainly in the Lake District of north west England, The Day Thomas Learned To Speak is the intimate story of 8 year old Thomas whose parents divorced when he was 5 years old. He is taken by his mother to visit his reclusive father, who lives on a remote farm, for the first time since the acrimonious split of his parents. As a city boy, he finds himself in a strange and foreboding environment, strung out between the two most important people in the world for him, powerless and alone. Yet, he discovers a vulnerability in his parents and a power in his place as their only child which opens his eyes to a new way of seeing the world. Themes of family bonds, separation and longing lie at the heart of this simple, moving and intimate story. Nothing dramatic happens, in the sense that it is very much an experiential story, one in which we experience with the young boy, Thomas, a shifting of his state of mind. In other words, it is not a classically told story with clear premise, obstacles, aims, climax, resolution and so on. I’m further exploring the notion of transcendental realism, which I have written about elsewhere. In fact, I also want to explore the question of perspective and to try and use the imagery in a slightly different way than most do in terms of what we see and hear. The reason for this is that my subject matter is a very common one: divorce and children caught up in divorce is a very common experience. Not only do I want to tell a story that may give a different, perhaps more spiritual, perspective on the theme, but I also want to play sufficiently with the language of film to try and make my audience look at something they see a lot in a new light.

At this time, I am at the very early stages of the script development. Well, I haven’t started writing the script yet, as I never do this until certain things are in place. I am reminded by something Bresson said about the process of making films. He talked about how the process is a process of living and dying. When the idea first takes form in the mind, it feels like a living thing: the images, the events, the sounds play out in a living form in the mind’s eye. When you write the script, it dies. Then when you have the actors in front of the camera and you’re shooting on location, it comes alive again. Then you look at the rushes, and it dies, again. Finally, as the editing process brings all the pieces together and the whole starts to become more than the sum of its parts, it starts to live again. This is often exactly what I feel. In fact, I believe that the story itself already exists; my job is to see it and give it narrative form.

It is this early part of the process that is important for me. I feel that if I get the seed right, the tree will grow of its own volition and my intervention as I start to give the story form will be minimal. I have seen so many writers spend their time writing draft after draft, slowly killing their idea. The industry often encourages this kind of approach. The more people get involved, the more these drafts go round in circles and then in the end what is arrived at lacks life and is a reconstruction of existing practice and cliches. I work in a different way (and teach my students to work differently). Like Terence Davies, I feel a good script should only come about through two or three drafts – the shooting and editing will, of course, change things further. The key is to get the seed right in the first place and that should happen before a word is ever written.

I spend a lot of time trying to let the imagery of the story come about in my mind’s eye, trying my best not to kill off fragile ideas and imagery with my rational thinking. ‘Rational thinking is the death of poetry’, said Moore and Kipling said about writing: ‘when your demon is in charge, drift, wait, obey’. That is exactly what I try to do. I may write random notes, observations, thoughts. Sometimes, I even have conversations with myself in my notebook, a kind of talking aloud, but in writing. I know the film exists already, because I can see it. Even before seeing it, I can feel it. To begin with it is a hazy picture, but gradually it starts to become more clear. Sometimes, I just feel a scene or sequence, but can’t see it. And then suddenly, a situation or an image, or a juxtaposition of a sound and image, a character trait or whatever emerges, as if from nowhere, and I make a note of it before my rational mind has time to condemn it as rubbish.

Photo of Erik Knudsen's notebook and iPad

Once I start seeing the film more clearly, I start to make notes of specific scenes. I try to identify two key scenes of sequences before I start to commit to anything structured on paper. One is what I call the key moment of departure, the other the key moment of return. These moments in the story are, similarly to a climax in the classic narrative, the moments of the film where the themes are most apparent. I only start committing to a structure and to specific scenes once I have a clear sense of what these key moments are. The remainder of my narrative is going to be built around them. I would do something similar if I were writing a more classically orientated narrative: I would not start writing the script until I had a clear sense of what the climax scene was, as the central plot and its tributaries are leading to this point in the narrative and this point being the point in the film where the theme is most starkly apparent.

I’m now at the point where I have started constructing the scenes for The Day Thomas Learned To Speak. I am progressing from just using my notebook to involving my iPad. I have this wonderful programme on my iPad called IndexCard, which is perfect for the job. I start writing little synopses of every scene and with this programme, I can move them around, elaborate with notes and so on. Using this software, I will gradually build what will in effect be close to a Master Scene Treatment for the whole film; the script without any dialogue. Eventually, I will take all this into a programme such as Celtx, which we will eventually use for production planning purposes. Again, I am not committing to a script until I allow the narrative to evolve and grow as organically as possible. It is very easy to see from a synopsis and the visual layout of this software whether scenes are in the right place, where there are gaps and so on. I don’t write chronologically.

So, this is where I am at this point. More to come.