Guest post today: Adam Cohen, writer of the forthcoming short film Brotherhood, talks about how he got started in writing, writers and dyslexia, handling characters with a disability, and getting his first short produced…
How did you begin writing? What was the first thing you wrote?
I began writing because I had an idea for a novel, it was just sloshing around in my mind taking up space. Eventually I felt like I had to write it down to get it out of my head. About 30 pages in I began to struggle. I am a very visual person and I could picture the things I was writing as scenes rather than chapters.
With the help of a friend I completed the screenplay and sent it off to a few smaller production companies. They informed me that it was missing something. I then purchased a small library of books on screenwriting, structure and on directing to help me gain an understanding of how films were made.
Coincidence and taking advantage of that quirk of fate allowed me to take the next step. Whilst working as a live in tutor (I preferred the term ‘residential director of youth development’ to ‘Manny’) for the children of a pop singer, I wrote a script about my life with them. I was very lucky that she liked the script and was able to get meetings with various production companies. We filmed a pilot for this proposed mockumentary with Tiger Aspect Productions. After that I’d felt the buzz and definitely had the bug
Who are your influences as a writer? Whose work do you enjoy reading and watching?
I think a good writer looks for influence from everywhere, aspects of each person you come in to contact with to pose the question ‘What if’. A great source of inspiration is other writers, having a writing partner to bounce ideas off is when I am most creative and productive. Though it can be difficult to find the right person to trust and who works in the same way that you do.
I love watching films and series with the directors and (not often enough) the writers commentary on, I think it can really help you as a developing writer to get inside the heads of those whom you aspire to be. Sounds simple but I would advocate reading as many screenplays as you can. Most can be found online, try to read at least two or three in the genre you are writing for a week).
Try not to have a singular source of inspiration, the more I read and learn the more I discover that there is no specific magical formula to success, there are styles, boundaries and guidelines to learn. But there is no singular way to do it, the more pointers you can get, the better you will be.
What inspired you to write “Brotherhood”?
Growing up I did a lot of volunteering in youth groups, I was always interested in people with disability. As a youth leader I was part of a program to incorporate those with special needs into the mainstream youth. Funnily enough, the people that gained the most were the ‘normal’ children who learned about responsibility and cast aside the ridiculous fears and prejudices that we have as part of society.
I wanted to tell a story where the character who has Down’s Syndrome is not a victim. In the course of my activities in school I mentored a boy whose older brother had Down’s Syndrome. I empathised with this, and the idea of having an older brother who didn’t live up to the billing. I myself have a younger brother and the responsibility I feel towards him is one of the most powerful drives in my consciousness. This dynamic, as well as that of how it skews the parent-child relationship, forms the emotional epicentre of this story.
I think that the beauty of film is that it allows us to enter a world that we would not have been able to encounter otherwise. People often don’t consider disability unless it affects them or their family directly and this is wrong in my opinion.
Actors with disabilities frequently complain there are few roles for them, and those that exist are passive victims. What do you think about this, and do you have any advice for writers writing characters with disabilities?
Most people write about what they know, it is what’s natural and what’s easiest. That is both a good and bad thing for a developing writer, it allows you to create the most believable and realistic characters, however on the other hand. I find the best way to learn and develop in any way is to stretch your self. Write (and watch) genres and formats of film and TV that are out of your comfort zone. Thank you to Brandon Smith for that piece of valuable advice. It’s the only way to improve yourself and avoid pigeon holing yourself with a big fat label.
People have an image that all disabled people are the same, this is profoundly wrong. Disabled people are as different in terms of ability and personality as you and I. The character of Josh was created here to show that people with Down’s Syndrome are not all victims, and that he as an individual has talents and abilities as well as flaws and insecurities that the audience are not expecting.
A person with a disability for me is simply a character with a certain point of view, so similarly when trying to write any character, give them a point of view and ask your self how and why do they react with their environment.
I would also say; when writing a character do your research, don’t think that you can go the whole way from start to finish in your mind. Try to live in the world you are writing there is no substitute for real experience. If writing about disability, talk to not only those living with that issue, but those who live around and are thus affected by the person or situation. Friends, family anyone who you can get 20 minutes with will help you immensely (be prepared to buy a lot of people coffee)
There are a startling number of dyslexic professional writers. As a writer with dyslexia, do you think there’s any connection between dyslexia and creativity? Has your dyslexia affected your work in any way other than the obvious?
There is a startling percentage of dyslexic people in the arts in general, I think this is because it is a reflection to the school system that we all emerged from. Here individuality and expression is celebrated. Whereas in the school system people are judged on exams and their ability to conform to set answers, it disadvantages those who think in a certain way.
It teaches us (quite literally) that if you are top of the class you are most likely to succeed. False, false, false, false, false. It takes a resolute person to come out of the school system having not excelled and start to believe that they have something of worth to add rather than doing a 9-5. I think that the school system is stifling creativity and that the funding is backwards, but that is a separate rant.
Because I worked hard and was adequately intelligent, producing B’s, the idea that I had a problem that should be addressed (like dyslexia) was laughed at. Consequently, I went through the school system believing that I wouldn’t be good enough. After finding out at 20, during my quantity surveying degree I discovered that I was dyslexic. It allowed me to open my mind and start to believe that it wasn’t that I was not good enough, it was simply that the system of time pressured examinations didn’t suit me.
Apart from that, in my working life until I am able to get an actual editor, spell check is a vital assistant. This is also where having friends to check scripts is very helpful for me.
People tend to think of short films as being a means for directors to ‘break in’, not writers. What has your experience been, as a writer, in development and pre-production? Would you recommend writing a short to a new writer?
Short films for a writer are an excellent way to cut your teeth, it is also the best bet for having something made, which is in turn the best way to take your first steps up the ladder. It will help you with concise story telling.
This has been a huge learning curve for me in terms of writing for film, as a writer you can sometimes forget it is a visual medium. Working with such a talented team has really helped me to get to grips with the concept ‘show don’t tell’.
As a writer, networking can be very difficult, writing is an often lonely profession. Writing a short is a great way to be active in film making, as a new writer the most important thing is to get your things made. A short film is the most likely way for that to happen. It often isn’t glamorous or well paid (if at all) but it is vital experience. Most importantly you never know who you are going to meet and where it’s going to lead. I really believe that the only thing you can regret is something you don’t do… apart from home made bungee jump.
Stay creative, that is the primary concern, take any progress you can get. Don’t think that you can ever predict exactly how something will turn out or where it can lead. Good writing will out eventually. Every NO gets you closer to your YES.
What do you plan to work on next?
Once this has finished filming in December, I have a second short film which will hopefully film next year. I have also just agreed a deal to do an adaptation of a novel and am working on a feature length pet project of my own called ‘Get Gaddafi’. During the next year once I have a visual portfolio to showcase I plan to get an agent.
Over the year I expect that some things completely unpredictable and unexpected will happen so I never get too caught up on making plans.
Some more about the film:
Brotherhood by Adam Cohen
Brotherhood is the story of HARRY WATSON (17) a teenager with a serious attitude problem. His home life is as frayed as his mother’s nerves, from the constant fighting between him and his older brother JOSH who has Downs Syndrome. Harry has always resented his older brother for not acting like an older brother should, and for all the attention his mother lavishes upon him.
Their already difficult relationship is tested when, in order to get what he wants Harry must bring Josh onside. In a drunken adolescent misadventure, when Harry needs help most, it falls to Josh to save his brother. Can they repair their relationship or has it gone too far?
Brotherhood stars Otto Baxter, Bobby Lockwood, Vanessa Bailey and Sophie Coward. The project is being supported by crowd-funding, so if you’d like to donate (and get some fun goodies!), you can go to http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/266174?c=home. Funding closes December 10th.
You can find Adam on Twitter at @ajcohen3 . Many thanks to Adam for sharing his experiences!