Dedalus News & Blog

From writing a novel to writing a screenplay by Maurice Caldera

It was some years ago that I attended a weekend screenwriting course in London’s Soho. I don’t remember much about that course, other than it was held in a small, low ceilinged room, up a long and creaky flight of stairs, and the small matter that all attendees had to prepare a twenty-five word outline of the film that they were going to write. Twenty-five words! At the time it felt like a deal breaker. How could I possibly distil my great idea for a film into a mere twenty-five words? I gave it a go, but scribbling down the bare bones of the story took me to a hundred, then two hundred words, and it just kept expanding. The course came and went, the tutor must have picked on someone else to share their precious twenty-five words, and I had nothing to show for it, other than a few hundred words. I decided that I would keep on writing, turn this into a short story, if all else failed I would at least have that. The short story just kept expanding, until I gave up on the word count and realised that what I was writing was a novel.

To cut a long story short, or indeed a short story, not so short, I did write a novel. I pretty much tricked myself into writing one. A story about a man who is followed by someone who turns out to be his doppelganger, and may be a friend or a foe. It took ages. But I had a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. How much it resembled that embryonic idea is hard to know. I’m sure there must have been a doppelganger in there somewhere, though the rest… who knows? I find the creative process of writing fascinating, how stories evolve, how ideas, often entirely random ideas, beget other ideas, and how they take you on a journey, the dog taking you for a walk so to speak. It’s quite exhilarating, and utterly addictive.

That novel was The Double Life of Daniel Glick and I was lucky enough to have it published by Dedalus Books. It was reviewed, often favourably, as I recall, or perhaps I’ve blanked out the less favourable ones, and amongst those reviews, somebody commented that the novel had a cinematic quality. At least something of that original idea survived even it was a throwaway comment.

So that was it. End of story. I had written a novel, and I was a novelist. Except… not so fast. I did eventually write a screenplay, not of this story, (I’d had enough of Daniel Glick for a while) but something different, and I immediately discovered that there is something liberating about writing for film. You have far fewer choices as a writer, the script is essentially a description of what is seen and what is heard. Yes, you have a style and a tone, and the odd literally flourish here and there, if it survives the ‘kill your darlings’ cull, but it feels much more restrictive, great for someone who takes far too long to make those decisions that number in their hundreds if not thousands and are the real graft of any writing. There are also many other people actively involved in the process of screen writing, who will read your drafts at all stages, and have ideas about your ideas, and share them unsparingly. Whatever ego you had as a writer, you have to put aside because there are a lot of opinions coming your way, other egos to cater to. Though, after a lifetime of slavishly catering to my own ego, it was refreshing to cater to somebody else’s.

It was another few years until one of those screenplays was made into a film, an Italian feature film called Io, Arlecchino (I, Harlequin) co-written with the director Matteo Bini. I sat in the audience at the film’s premiere during the Rome Film Festival, feeling a touch glamorous and more than a touch nervous, wringing my hands as the film played out, watching it on that huge screen along with an audience mostly of complete strangers, sensitive to their every twitch, guffaw and even worse, silence. That shared experience was nevertheless magical, something we miss in these days of enforced small groups, or else. It wasn’t just me wringing my hands in nervousness as the film played out, the director and the co-director and the producers and the cast were all doing the same, all of us invested in this story, all of us willing it to succeed, all those egos parading naked on that screen, there too was a collective experience, which I discovered is also exhilarating.

And so, end of story. It had all come full circle. From an idea for a film, to a short story, to a novel to a screenplay, and then a film. That was the destination after all. But as we all know, quite often it’s the journey rather than the destination. When we write stories, whether for film or for a novel or whatever medium or format, we’re picturing those stories, those characters, those scenes, those nuances, sometimes it’s no more than a sketch, but often there’s a whole movie playing in your head that you get to see and that you get to feel. That’s the movie I like best of all.