How do you translate a story told with words into a film? When writer Julia Jarman met film maker Julie Laslett discussions about their respective creative processes led to a venture that was to involve Year 5 students from a local school in an exciting new approach to visual literacy. Julia Jarman explains.
When I met Julie Laslett, a new neighbour, I liked her even before she said she made films. Honest!
‘Dramatic Media,’ she said, ‘Not DreamWorks. We make visual resources for education and training.’
We hit it off from the start. We both tell stories; that’s the link. Discussing character, plot and setting – often on long walks – I’d ask. ‘How do you convey a character’s inner thoughts in a film?’ Julie would say ‘How do you structure a plot? Do you storyboard?’
It made me think about how I write in a way I hadn’t done before.
I was inspired by Julie’s films, especially Lee’s Story, a challenging drama for teens about a young offender. So inspired, that I’m currently writing a novel, Inside, about his time in a Young Offender’s Institute. Julie’s films work – as good books work – because they have believable characters and convincing plots.
Julie read my books and particularly liked Ghost Writer, which is about a dyslexic boy, haunted by the ghost of a Victorian schoolboy. Dyslexic herself, Julie said it would make a great children’s film. At last!
I said ‘What does it take to make a film?’
‘Film script, crew, actors, locations,’ said Julie, ‘And er… pots of money.’
The idea was put on hold.
Learning how to make a film
Meanwhile our local school was using Julie’s films and my books. Teachers were getting terrific writing from Y6 pupils using Dramatic Media’s ‘Literacy through Fire Safety Awareness’ and from Y8 pupils using a new interactive resource, ‘English and the Media’. They said using the multi modal texts and visual stimulus was perfect for delivering key aspects of the new Secondary Strategy – whatever that is!
[image:Julia Jarman’s author workshop.jpg:left]
I was Y5’s Significant Author. Head of English, Liz Wickins, asked me to talk to pupils about Ghost Writer. I compared myself to a film director, saying I have to do everything a director does – with actors, set builders, sound effects, costume designers, theme music etc – because I want to show what happens when I tell a story, but I do it with words, just words.
Talking later, we had an ‘Aha!’ moment. Why didn’t we make a film of Ghost Writer with school pupils? ‘Well, just a chapter,’ said Julie, ‘It takes days to make even a few minutes of film. Pupils can learn how to make a film by making a film. I’ll teach them how to write the script, act it out and film it. They’ll learn a fantastic amount about the author’s craft and visual literacy.’
Everyone at school was enthusiastic. Book to Screen was born.
The next few weeks were busy with planning, seeking a location and finding volunteers. No problem! Forty-eight pupils attended the first workshop where I spoke about my aims in Chapter 11 – where the ghost first appears – and the techniques I used to achieve them.
Next week, I listened as Julie ran a session on Script Writing. She said the script would try to be true to my intentions, but achieve them by different means. I watched as my 2,500 words were reduced to a mere 194. My text was mostly descriptive narrative. The script was mostly dialogue. My atmospheric opening paragraphs became three words – interior, classroom, daytime.
There was much discussion as to how to mark the passage of time in the film, easily done by a sentence in the book. Sometimes I was the economical one! But it required pupils to think hard as to how this could be done visually.
Julie led another workshop describing all the jobs on set. Luckily half the pupils wanted to be crew. But twenty-four wanted acting parts.
It was time for auditions and screen tests. Now candidates had to perform in front of the camera for the first time. And not just one camera, for pupils from Sharnbrook Upper school were making a documentary of the project. It would be their entry for BTEC Media Studies.
Understanding the characters
Watching – my role now – I was impressed by how well pupils understood my characters’ motivation. Obviously they’d all read the book, not just the chapter, and they knew the script. They were focused.
One worry – none of them looked like the characters I described in my book. Did this matter I asked myself? It was out of my hands. Julie was director and casting director. She was in charge now.
I was glad I didn’t have to choose the cast. Pupils competed for leading child roles. Teachers competed for the role of the ghastly Miss Bulpit. Inevitably some people were disappointed. But everyone continued to contribute to the project. The team spirit prevailed.
Julie allotted crew roles to the adults. Each adult had to lead a crew of pupils, who had opted to work in departments such as lighting, sound, camera, continuity and props.
Fast learning the language of film, I was made cast supervisor. That meant looking after the actors on set. My husband was put in charge of lighting, health and safety, and holding the boom microphone if it proved too heavy for pupils. Liz [image:Liz Wickins, Head of English, overseeing pupils on the set.jpg:left]Wickins was appointed First Assistant Director. Sheridan Fensham, Head of Music, who thought her work would begin after the film had been edited, found herself in charge of Make-up and Continuity on the day. Later she would work with pupils to create the film score and sound effects.
Shoot Day arrived. Saturday 24 November. It was an early start. By 8.30 everyone was on set. Soon Sheridan was adding wrinkles to Sarah Keenan, who as Miss Bulpit was aging by the minute. Anthony, a parent and Sky TV news cameraman – what a find! – was showing his crew how to lay cables and secure them with gaffer tape so people wouldn’t trip over. Prop makers were placing the props they’d made earlier, transforming a Margaret Beaufort School classroom into the fictional St Olaf’s. The Continuity team were preparing their continuity sheets to record time-codes, shots and director’s comments.
[image:Pupils calling the shots.jpg:left]
Then, make-up was completed. Final checks were carried out. Actors were cued and it was time for ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ Prudence put the clapperboard in front of the camera, called out ‘Shot 1. Take 1’ and slammed the clapper. The director called ‘Action!’
We were making a film!
Eleven hours later, when parents had collected their sons and daughters, I left the set elated. As cast supervisor I’d been told to expect tears and tantrums – Julie had only worked with professional actors before! – but there were none. I saw only commitment and concentration from everyone on set.
Julie was exhausted and anxious. Shooting a film in a day! It was ridiculously ambitious. Had she got the shots she needed? If she hadn’t it was too late. We went to my house for the ‘wrap’, the essential unwinding party after the shoot.
Then for me, it was finished. Julie, also the editor, didn’t let me see how she chose takes and put all the shots together. She wanted the film to be a complete surprise. I had to wait for the glittering premiere.
As glamorous young people – and some older ones! – entered the Civic Theatre, Bedford, on 12 March the atmosphere was electric. Were these the same kids who had toiled for eleven hours on a film set four months earlier? Never have so many scrubbed up so well. Last seen in scruffy jeans or the uniform of the fictional St Olaf’s. Now they sported trendy suits and stunning dresses.
Julie still looked anxious. Would the film live up to expectations? Would I be pleased with the interpretation of my novel? Would everyone think the project had been worthwhile?
Then the lights dimmed, the theme music played, the screen faded from black to the opening classroom scene and the titles scrolled up on the enormous screen. The audience fell silent.
There was a gasp as actors saw themselves twelve foot high, and heard their voices amplified by the sophisticated sound system. This was real cinema and they were part of it. The audience held their breath as Frankie flinched under the terrifying gaze of Miss Bulpit. Why did he keep looking at the cupboard at the back of the classroom? Who wrote the mysterious message on the blackboard? Then, as the music reached a haunting crescendo, the cupboard door slowly opened, and the audience, following Frankie’s gaze, saw the ghost of Alfred Smalley. As he faded back through the closing door and the credits rolled the audience burst into rapturous applause.
I hugged Julie. It was thrilling to see my words made flesh, well digital tape. I couldn’t believe the children were acting, they were so convincing as my characters. I forgot what they originally looked like. Hair colour and build didn’t matter. More importantly the film conveyed my story’s emotional reality.
But has it made children want to read the book I wondered. Yes, I discovered when I recently went back to school. The library has a waiting list for Ghost Writer.
Head of English Liz Wickins was still buzzing:
‘The project has had a huge impact on the school. It has made teachers and pupils more insightful about literature and visual literacy. The ability to compare novel text, film script and film is a powerful learning tool. It leads to in depth textual analyses and understanding of the author’s craft, and it’s adding to the enjoyment of reading. Pupils are becoming keener, better, more confident readers. They want to read.’
Margaret Beaufort School is using the film, the script and my book as part of their permanent scheme of work. Word has spread. Other schools are asking ‘How can our pupils benefit?’
In response Dramatic Media is producing a resource pack, comprising the film, the documentary about making it, the screenplay, author’s analysis, a scheme of work for studying Ghost Writer and a set of the books. It will be available in the autumn term.
What’s more, my publishers are re-printing Ghost Writer!
Ghost Writer is published by Andersen Press (978 1 84270 827 9) at £4.99 pbk.
Julia Jarman’s latest book, Tooth Fairy in Trouble (illustrated by Miriam Latimer), is published by Kingfisher (978 0 7534 1624 2, £4.99 pbk).
Dramatic Media ( www.dramaticmedia.net) makes educational resources and provides training in Visual Literacy. If you would like your school to have the resource pack, email: email@example.com
Julia Jarman ( www.juliajarman.com) gives talks on The Author’s Craft.