Paul Ashton talks about trusting instincts in talent development.
Bear with me while I set a scene. I’ve just started a new job, and inherited a feature project in development – an off-kilter, female-perspective comedy by Rachel Tunnard, an experienced film editor transitioning to writing-directing. I’m under pressure to spend money, but spend it wisely. Rachel needs to make a short pilot film, not just to nail the tone and performances, but because she hasn’t made anything with a cast and crew bigger than herself and her thumbs. I really like her feature script, but I’m unsure about the short script. It’s October and there is a tight window in January with her lead actress (and old friend) Jodie Whittaker. So, no pressure then. I meet with Rachel for the first time, and I drop the bombshell – the very seasonal setting and the physical comedy means it might end up a bit like one of those TV Christmas sitcom specials that fall a bit flat (plus it didn’t feature one of her star characters). So - was there another option? Rachel went away, panicked, but had the instant nous to steal an idea from her mum, and thus was hastily born the script that made the pilot Emotional Fusebox – which helped directly to finance the feature, went on to be selected for various festivals, and was nominated for a BIFA and then a BAFTA.
All this is important for a few things it told us:
1. I knew I had to make a decision and act on my instinct about someone I hadn’t yet worked with
2. Rachel knew she had to act on her instincts to come up with a complete rewrite for an exec she hadn’t yet worked with either
3. A calibration of working instincts became our method all the way through to the finished feature which has just hit cinemas
Script development is notoriously unscientific and messy. But on the feature script development, and on the edit of the film, we had a benchmark of trust and instinct by which questions could be asked, and (hopefully) resolved. Could it be set in Yorkshire/the Peaks rather than the Lakes? (answer: yes) Does the gran need to be a retired NASA scientist? (answer: no) Does it need a talking otter? (answer: sadly, no) Does it need a David Hasselhoff cameo? (answer: even more sadly, no) Would any song other than Whitesnake’s Here I Go Again do? (answer: duh) And what does Anna REALLY want?
We didn’t get a nutshell answer to that last question until the second full cut screening, a good few years since people had started asking it in deadly earnest. If we’d paused to wait for a simple answer to that complex character question, the film would never have got made. Literally. But I knew that Rachel knew the answer instinctively - and she knew that I knew that she knew. Which meant that I could make some truly terrible suggestions, and she could try out some truly questionable things (like Brendan being in a rock covers band) and it wouldn’t matter because we had a good ear for one another’s instincts.
Something must have gone right about all of that, because the finished film won the Nora Ephron prize at Tribeca, and will go on UK release in far more cinemas than you might expect for a little low-budget British indie movie about a grieving twin hiding in her mum’s shed. A lot of brilliant people can and should lay claim to all kinds of credit for helping realise Adult Life Skills. I’d like to lay claim to one key thing among that – which is that when you’re making decisions about funding new and emerging talent, there is no benefit of hindsight – you just have to trust your instincts, and then act on them every single time. I hope I can call that my own adult life skill.
Adult Life Skills was released at UK cinemas on 24 June.