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On The Bench: What makes an award-winning screenplay?

For the first time in the history of the Hammond House competition, we had a winner in two categories – and a well-deserved one at that!

London-based writer and playwright Matt Wixey not only impressed the judges with his brilliant short story Tenacity Penguin (which you can read about here), but he also captured their attention with his screenplay entry On The Bench – an unusual screenplay in that it had absolutely no dialogue.

Hammond House team member and filmmaker Alex Thompson, caught up with Matt to find out more about the award-winning screenplay.

On The Bench captured the judge’s imaginations because it was something very unusual: a screenplay with no dialogue. Why did you write it this way?

I wanted to write a screenplay with no dialogue for a couple of reasons. I think the first was just as a personal challenge – as a playwright, one of the things I've found most difficult is not to rely on dialogue as a crutch for exposition, moving the story forward, and characterisation. It's really easy and tempting to just have characters explain everything, but it doesn't make for a very interesting play! I often rely on a lot of subtext through double-meanings and silences, but I wanted to see if I could communicate a whole story, and characterisation, with just gestures and movement.

The second reason was that silence is a really effective dramatic technique, for both comedy and drama, even horror. I wanted to play with that, and go from silence as a comic thing to something much darker. I also love experimenting with sound and acoustics in my writing, and I thought just having occasional sounds in On The Bench – coins clinking, clapping, something rattling inside a shoebox – might make it very eerie.

What were the unique challenges in writing a screenplay with no dialogue?

I think the biggest challenge was trying to find 'action' substitutes for dialogue. It's easy enough to convey basic emotions through body language and gestures in stage directions, but how do you tell an actor or a director to convey something like "I want a divorce", or someone starting off angry and gradually becoming more interested in something – without any dialogue? Especially in a very short screenplay. So thinking of how to use props combined with action, to convey things like that, was a challenge, and on the other side of the coin, being subtle enough with those props that it didn't feel too gimmicky. It was also quite difficult at first to gauge the pace and momentum of the story without dialogue – most of the traditional guidelines and advice for things like that (1 page = 1 minute; read lines out loud, etc) assume there's dialogue. So a few times, when I was alone in the house, I acted out all the gestures myself, to ensure the action flowed and wasn't dragging or going too fast. Not a sight I would want others to see!

What’s your process of writing a script, whether it’s a screenplay or play?

I usually just start off with a "what if" question, and slowly work that up into a premise. It's always really tempting to start writing straight away, but I try to let it sit for a while. I'll start thinking of particular scenes or lines of dialogue, usually when I'm commuting, and write them down, then at some point when I've got enough, I get some paper out and develop a rough outline, and then a first draft.

My first drafts are always rubbish, although I'm learning to accept that as part of the process! I've actually started using a typewriter for first drafts, because there's no pressure to be perfect – you literally can't backspace, or copy and paste, you can only go forwards, whereas using a computer I found I was taking ages to write anything, because I was trying to edit as I went along. So I bang out a first draft on a typewriter, not really worrying about typos or plot holes or how bad the writing is. Then I either scan it, or re-type it on my computer, and start editing.

The second draft is any big structural changes, massive changes to plot or characters, things like that. The third and fourth drafts are where I do the polishing, and usually a fair bit of cutting too – I always write too much to start with. I can't remember who said it, and I'm paraphrasing horrendously, but writing the first draft is bringing the story to the surface, and subsequent drafts are about burying it again. Once all that's done, then comes the fun of trying to get people with money and equipment to actually produce my script!

You came first in two categories, screenplay and short story. Do you find one form of writing more challenging than the other?

Sometimes I find scripts a bit more challenging, as there's so many things to think about – you're not just writing dialogue and action, you're also thinking about the limitations and opportunities of the medium and how to overcome/use those to the benefit of the story. So with a screenplay, for instance, it's difficult to show a person's innermost thoughts. Of course you can do it with voiceovers and so on, but it's not easy to do it well. Interpretation is also difficult – screenwriters are always told not to go overboard with things like descriptions, and so it ends up being someone else's interpretation of your writing. If you put a sunset in your script, the sunset that actually gets shot won't look anything like the one that was in your head! So that's a big challenge; screenplays are always filtered through multiple people – actors, directors, casting directors, DoPs, producers – before the audience see the results. Whereas with a short story, there is no filter; it's straight from your mind into the reader's, and you have a lot more control over the language and the imagery, and the whole creative process. That being said, some of the best work I've done has been the result of collaborations with script editors, directors, and actors, so there's something to be said for opening up the creative process sometimes.

Find out more about how to enter your screenplay into our 2020 writing competition here.

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