SCREENWRITING AND WRITER’S ROOMS WITH GEMMA HURLEY

Giles Alderson and Andrew Rodger chatted to screenwriter Gemma Hurley on this week’s The Filmmakers Podcast. She was one of the writers of the lockdown hit Host, which was written and filmed using Zoom.

Writing During a Pandemic

Gemma said that she’d done a few writer’s rooms before lockdown, and they were much more social, much less intense experiences than writer’s rooms over Zoom. 

“You can have those kinds of breakout moments, where you have connections. But now they’re all over Zoom, which is just a whole other experience in itself.”

She said that Zoom has certain restrictions – only one person talking at a time and intense session that require a lot of focus. She also said that Zoom (and Zoom etiquette) is something that “we’ve all had to learn, and try and master this year.”

She said that Zoom is weird because you form these strangely close relationships, more than you would in real life. “I’ve found that small talk is a thing that I used to do a lot more back in the day and now I feel like I turn up a little bit more authentically or a bit more vulnerably, with people I’ve never even met in real life.”

Writing Host on Zoom 

Gemma, Jed and Rob – the writers of Host – wrote the film over Zoom, and they have written another film over Zoom too.

Gemma had met Rob on another project. They had a great meeting but she didn’t think that anything would come from it. 

But then “Rob put out this prank video on Twitter, which was the catalyst for Host. He got all of the actors, who were in the film, and he pranked them. 

He said there was some noises in his attic and he went up there with his camera and did a kind of clever switcheroo, a jump scare. All the actors scream, it’s fun.”

Gemma commented on the post and Rob reached out to ask her if she was interested in joining the team.

During the two weeks of writing the script, they focused on making a story, figuring out the characters and the structure. “(Rob and Jed) already had quite a clear idea of what scares they wanted to do and what was possible. So it was really just the three of us working together to make any kind of story that we’re going to connect with.

We ended up with a 17 page outline, the script was done over two weeks – a quite intensive period. I don’t know if I would have done that in real life. So there’s a lot of time that’s been saved to make up for what we’ve lost.”

The best part of making this film for Gemma was that it was fun, there were no “huge expectations all the time to second guess yourself”. She watched a lot of horror movies, laughed a lot “and then it was over. It came out 12 weeks later and I could just watch it like any other person.”

Learning from Writer’s Rooms

“I think, for me, I’m still learning. This is my fourth writer’s room. And it’s really about how to actively listen. Rather than waiting for your turn to speak. I think in writer’s rooms you can get stuck in the weeds a little bit.

And trying to make sure if this idea that I’m clinging onto is really that important. Or am I just obsessed with this thing that isn’t really important in the big scheme of things.”

Dialogue or Story

When writing, Gemma says that she’s more of a story person, focusing on the bigger picture. She didn’t write any of the dialogue in Host because the actors improvised most of it.

“I quite liked the big picture – let’s create a world or a feeling. I’m quite tone-orientated. For Host, that was what most of our conversations were about in the early days: how do we want people to feel when they’re finished seeing this film?”

She said that was what guided them. They wanted the audience to feel like they were on a rollercoaster “taking your time, and then it gets really fast towards the end and you have this adrenaline rush.

We’ve all read those classic books, we all know the rules, and they’re helpful sometimes; but it’s also good to know when to throw that away. And I think that comes back to how you want your film to feel and how you want to surprise your audience.

I think Host is a great example of that because we break a lot of rules structurally – and that’s not what we were taught. I think my first thing would be, depending on the project, what do we want it to feel like? And how can our structure emulate that?”

Gemma’s Words of Advice?

“Get feedback and keep failing until it doesn’t hurt anymore. And then you’re a writer. And you might hopefully be okay at it by that point as well.”

To listen to more of our podcast with Gemma, click here.

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