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Johnny Ferguson

Ode to Debt


I don’t know about you poets, but I am sick to death of other writers telling me about some great screenplay idea or other that they’ve had that they are having the good grace to tell me about so I can give them a million quids for it.

Does that happen to poets? Does it?

Either way, any weisenheimer who thinks this business is easy was either, dropped on their head as a small child, or – as Clint observes in Unforgiven – has got it comin.

Did I mention that I am a screenwriter?

I’m a screenwriter. If you meet me in a bar or whatever, please don’t tell me about your great movie ideas. And I won’t tell you about the sure-fire doozie of a sonnet I came up with while on the can.

Now look, I’m very fond of poets as a whole. I recognise that ye occupy – as Aye do – a harde, olde station. So for the benefit of those of you who might be thinking of penning a filmic dramaturge, I am going to describe a part of the process as I have experienced it and then you may decide for yourselves how you like – as the man carrying the smoking widowmaker says – them apples.

So here we go, for those of you who have no clue how this business works, let me give you AN ANATOMIE (that’s how you poets spell it rite?) OF A PROJECT.
Let’s say it’s a film based on a significant period in the life of a poet who, on becoming a father, goes through a crisis of confidence and loses his voice, his poetic voice. This, in the middle of – I dunno – strife torn Belfast. It is only through the love of a good woman (his wife) and the needful cries of his young child that he rediscovers that voice, and the end credits find him singing more sweetly and powerfully than before. Let’s call it…why not…let’s call it SEAMAS.

Right, let’s assume you’ve written your treatment for SEAMAS – which is the basic story from soup to – and this is often le mot juste I can tell you – nuts. You’ve gotten off your arse and applied yourself to character descriptions and back-stories. You have slaved over the 25-words-or-less log line. And late one night, drunk with fatigue but powered by filmic ambition, you completed the one page synopsis. With the sweat of honest toil pouring off of you, in such volume as to make laptop electrocution a distinct possibility, you pressed the ‘send’ button. Two months later you are called into a meeting to discuss the possibility of being paid to write a script (90-120 pages).

This is the kind of carry-on you might expect.



YT: Up until this point the words have just come to him. He is afraid the child will suck all his youthful energies…you know…like Cyril Connolly says ‘the enemy of promise is the pram in the hall’ yeah? Anyway, ‘Seamas’ abandons his beloved sonnet form and starts to write in blank verse. And he loses it. In his own words he drowns…
PAAA: In drink?
YT: No.
MP: All poets drink.
YT: Not this one.
PAAA: Does he do heroin?
YT. God…no. He…he smokes the odd pipe.
MP: A crackhead poet. It’s edgy. I like it.
YT: No it’s a tobacco pipe.
MP: Sorry no. We can’t have smoking.
YT: Oh come on, it’s just a little shag…
PAAA: He has sex with tobacco?
YT: Let’s forget the pipe.
PAAA: He could suck a pen. A vintage pen.
MP: Shut up. Ok ‘blank verse’. ‘Drowns.’ What next?
YT: He um…he goes back to the sonnet.
PAAA: Is that like a mistress?
YT: It’s a form.
MP: A farm? Farms don’t play these days.
YT: Form. A poetic FORM. It is structured. The irony is, he rediscovers his voice in structure and in the harmony of the family.
MP: Family good. And then he sings?
YT: Sings?
MP: Like it says in the treatment – this ‘sweeter, more powerful voice’ right?
PAAA: We could get Bono to do a song. He loves poetry things.
YT: Bono? Bono isn’t in it.
PAAA: You could write him in. A cabaret scene. Seamas could mime to Bono.
YT: There is no f**king Bono and no f**king singing. The voice…it’s it’s his poetic voice. Seamas-
MP: See that’s going to be a problem.
YT: What is?
MP: The name. Seamas. No one in America will know how to pronounce it – ‘See Muss. What kind of a name is Sea Muss?’ No
YT: You could spell it out – Shaymus.
MP: Shame us? SHAME US?
PAAA: Or S.H.A.M.U.S. Like a gumshoe. We could make him a private detective.
YT: A private detective?
PAAA: A private detective poet. On the side like. To make some extra money. To pay for his car. His vintage car.
MP: With a gun instead of a pipe. Heinous Shamus.
PAAA: Shameless.
MP: Shameless Heinous Shamus. The Private Detective Poet and his sidekick Bono.
PAAA: That’s brilliant.

YT leaves. Walks into traffic.

Okay, I may be exaggerating, but not much. And we haven’t got into trying to find someone who will attract money to the project, and the endless re-writes and the waiting and waiting and the terrible, terrible money. That’s the worst thing. It looks like a lot when you agree the terms but by the time you’re through you’ve been earning less than that guy serving you from MacDonald’s one euro menu.

You know what. To hell with this job. Move over lads and pass the rhyming dictionary.

Johnny Ferguson is a full-time screenwriter whose only fear – like the tribal chief in the Asterix books – is that the sky might fall on his/our head. (He has stopped listening to the Joe Duffy Show). You may know Johnny from such films as Gangster No. 1 and…er…that’s it. He is currently working on 3 novel adaptations, one short story adaptation, 3 original screenplays and his abs (kidding). He hopes to, one day, have the money to re-sole his left shoe. He thinks pomes is easy peasy and, if he had the time, he could knock off a load of dead good ones in an afternoon and give that Heaney a run for his money.