Q&A with… Gary Thomas

Gary ThomasGary Thomas is a writer and film-maker from Epsom in Surrey. His film “The Dog and the Palace”, funded by Arts Council England, won the Inspire Mark award from the London 2012 Inspire Programme for innovative and exceptional projects directly inspired by the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He’s currently working on his autobiography.

Can you briefly describe your career to date? How did it start? What are the projects you’re most proud of leading or being a part of?

Sure. I really started properly in 2003, I saw an exhibition at The Tate Modern Gallery by Finnish Film & Video artist Eija Liisa Ahtila. They were split screen films about different aspects of mental health, and she had interviewed people about their own experiences and made very abstract dramas about them, but with actors, so not too abstract. I remember leaving thinking ‘if that’s art, then I want to do that.’ So that’s where I started looking at arts council funding and being an artist rather than ‘just’ a filmmaker. It’s taken 10 years and 10 films to figure out I’m passionate about writing and working with actors, and that’s what it boils down to for me. I’m proud of all of my projects for different reasons, but the biggest project to date has been The Dog & The Palace, which had the biggest budget (funded by Arts Council) and looks amazing and has had really good feedback. It was about the Paralympics so had quite a specific theme and time frame but it was great to be a part of the whole Olympics / Paralympics and it was awarded an Inspire Mark from London 2012.

Does your work tend to have a general theme? Why is this theme close to you? Does that theme seem to permeate your work so pervasively?

The Dog & The Palace was an interesting one because it was a specific dream I had about the Olympics, I dreamt it in split screen! Nearly all my other work focus’ on sexuality or mental health, and is quite often from personal experience, as the best writing should be. When I saw Eija Liisa Ahtila’s work and that she interviewed people with experiences of mental illness, I was like ‘woah, I can do that kind of work… and I don’t even have to interview anyone else!’ I think its important to tell stories about mental health as well as sexuality, because not everyone gets how important they are. Recently, I was reading a few comments on Ellen Page speech where she came out as gay, and people were still saying ‘why is this a big deal’. It’s still a big deal because there aren’t enough role models out there for people growing up. I left high school in 1988, and had no decent role models who were openly gay, and no one really spoke about teenage mental health issues either.
Its changing, but change has been slow.

Along with that there’s the comedy stuff which I love, (so its not all doom and gloom!) and that’s just about finding a good story that can sustain interest in a feature or short film. The short films are nearly always a way to practice an idea, sometimes they’re linked to a feature film or other idea, sometimes they’re not.

Who are your biggest artistic influences and why? What examples of their work stand out to you as key pieces that have inspired you in some way?

Have I mentioned Eija Liisa Ahtila? (lols). I loved her film Consolation Service. Following seeing this I made my short ‘Coming Out’, (my 2nd film) and stared Jean Rogers (of Emmerdale fame) and was a split screen film. My favourite Cinema (narrative) films is largely influenced by the first three films I ever saw including Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis), Star Wars (Return of the Jedi (George Luca) and ET (Steven Spielberg). BTTF I thought was amazing, and so funny, and I wanted to be Marty McFly (I was never going to be, but still!) I was amazed at how emotional I got when I was so young seeing those films, especially E.T. The Never Ending Story was another, I cried when Atreyu horse died, but loved how they told that story.

How did you come to write your autobiography? What made this project worth tacking now?

Essentially I’ve been writing since I was 14. I’ve tried before numerous times to write my autobiography and its always been hard and too painful. I saw Marianne Williamson give a talk in London in 2012, she’s a spiritual teacher and there was a lot about ‘being who you’re meant to be’. I remember thinking and feeling so strongly that I MUST write my autobiography. It was like something eating away at me and I had to give it another go or I’d literally suffocate.

At the time I was thinking about theatre projects, which I knew the arts council would fund (perhaps easier than film) so I was working on a sort of proposal for the writing and theatre, and then I though it HAS to be the autobiography, and then had the idea of the one man show (which became ‘Hidden’) to go along with it.

You’ve worked heavily with the Arts Council in many projects. How did you get involved with them initially, and how has your relationship with them been fruitful?

The Arts Council are great in that they don’t get heavily involved in a project, they give you the funding to get on with it. I’ve been very lucky to have been funded by them in 2003, 2005, and then recently with The Dog & The Palace, which had two successful applications, and the writing award in 2013. I’ve always gone to meet them before an application, so it takes a bit of time. The first proper application in 2005 took a year to write the proposal, as they suggested whom I should work with, so Abbie Norris, a visual artist who I ended up working with, were going back and forth with ideas. But I also spent that time looking at the differences between narrative (cinema) film and artist film and video.

Recently I heard that Surrey Arts, where I premiered ‘Hidden’, has been successful at its Grant for Disability Arts In Surrey Festival, so I’ll get to show case the one man show again at Glive in June, as part of that festival. That’s great because its not me managing a big festival, but I can showcase my work with in it.

What role did the Arts Council have with your book project? Have they been a constraining factor at all in your creative process? And what role will they have with the post-writing process?

For the most recent funding application, I was thinking originally about theatre, and then I decided to combine the idea of writing the first 30,000 words of my autobiography and the one man show (with an actor) about my own experiences. I went to meet the relationship manager for literature, and the biggest question he had about autobiographical writing is ‘how will it be creative’. So I thought about this and came up with the idea of letter writing, so the book will be written in letters from my mother. In the writing of the proposal, I also went to a New Writing South event where I met my now editor, and I was able to put her name in the proposal. The main criteria for arts council are audience engagement, quality of work, and will it be done in time given and on budget. You just need to persuade them in the proposal how you’ll cover these. Audience engagement in writing is a bit difficult, but I said I’d use Twitter to talk about the book and use the one man show as point to talk about the mental health aspect of it. When I was concerned about the letter writing aspect of the book, I wrote to the relationship manager and asked if this would be a problem if I changed it, and he said no, as they know that projects can change, and as long as the project is completed that’s fine. I think ultimately they want to see that you can deliver a project, and its of a high quality.

I’m not sure about post writing, I may do another application but I’m doing fairly well writing the rest of the book. Working with my editor she may be able to take it places, and I can send it to agents to see what they think. I applied to the Great Writing Conference this year and to my surprise my proposal to make a presentation has been accepted, so hopefully that will be a good opportunity to meet some people who might publishers / agents.

How did you go about planning this project? What was your starting point, and how did it evolve into the work that it is today?

For the Arts Council proposal, part of the additional material was a 10 page outline of the whole book. And that’s been really useful, although it has changed, as I get new ideas of the order things should go in. Its interesting and great to work with an editor, Clare Christian, as originally I had a list of about 40 memories that I thought were the important ones, (and to be honest, the few I could remember in any detail!) So that was the first ‘plan’, and out of that and discussions with Clare, I wrote and rewrote the outline. I think while I was writing the proposal the idea in my head was to do so much planning work during that period that I had to start it even if I didn’t get the funding, but thankfully I did. Once I made a start on the actual book it was surprisingly easy. The one man show was scheduled for April, so I wrote the monologue for that first, then started on the book. I wrote 11,000 words in about a week, then holed myself up in Manchester for another week were I wrote the nearly 30,000 words (I think I got to about 26,000 or something). Then on the 30,000, they went to Clare who made loads of comments, told me what wasn’t clear, and I took all of them on board and have hopefully done the right things by adding chapters, moving sections around and making things clearer. For example to even the book up one suggestion was I needed more memories / stories from my high school, so I added a whole chapter on my time in high school, and it does bridge that gap nicely as you’re reading about me growing up. I’m carrying on with the book, so I’m now up to 50,000 words, but the first section of 30,000 words is now 37,000 words (approx.) and they’ve gone back to Clare for a proof read and her over all comments on it. At around 60/70,000 words I’ll send the whole thing back to Clare for comments on structure, and will take it from there. My script writing background has helped too in that certain words were quite numerous, like the word remember was originally in there 57 times, but I got it down to about 3.

What is the ‘target market’ for your autobiography? Who is it aimed at, and what do you hope for them to gain by reading it? What impact do you intend for it to have on a reader?

One of the things I’m very interested in is the whole spiritual growth market, which I think is slightly different from self help but is sometimes part of it. I love what Hay House Publishing do, and see myself I guess as someone who can comment on growth, and especially human suffering and pain, as I’ve experienced my fair share. So I guess it’s a similar audience to Gary Zukav, Wayne Dyer, but also ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ is a really interesting read especially as that is a straight forward autobiography.

If I could have 3 books, the first would be my autobiography, the next my diary writings along with my medical notes, with comments on them as I’ve grown up and what I’ve learned since then. The 3rd would be letters I answer from the general public about life, humanity, and painful experiences, so I hope the impact of the autobiography would be to teach people about pain and how we can over come things, and how much stronger we are as people than we actually think.

Has the writing process been an easy one? Were there parts you really enjoyed writing, and some you loathed considering writing?

Surprisingly, this time around its been fairly easy. I think I wrote the first part so fast because I didn’t want to stop and dwell on it too long. I enjoyed staying in Manchester and writing, and I haven’t really loathed any of it. I’m getting to the point now I think were I understand how writers can write way too many words, and will need to cut some down. One particular sequence is 16 pages, although it deals with a very difficult part of my life, I think I can probably write it in 10. Its funny that as soon as I finished that part I instantly thought it was too long and knew I needed to look at it again rather than crying and screaming and wanting to keep every word.

What do you aim to achieve with your autobiography? What feelings are you intending to evoke in the reader as they discover the journey you’ve taken?

Ultimately I want to use my life story to help others, that’s what it comes down to. I’d like the reader to feel inspired and triumphant in my journey. And feel that what ever hardships they’ve faced, they can face them in a positive way.

As primarily a film-maker, how does writing in an autobiographical prose format differ from a screenplay? What have you learned from this change? And have you enjoyed it?

I’ve found prose really great to write, and am wondering if this is where I’ve gone wrong, and my writing should have nothing to do with screenplays! Which is a little scary. I still see scenes and sequences in the book just as with screenplays. Once I got my head round breaking chapters up, and its about a suitable place in the book to start a new section, that was fine. Because originally I had no idea about how to organise chapters or what would be the end of a chapter but actually its quite an organic process like most creative process’. I was obsessed with structure of the book and still am a little bit, but its far better to see it all there and then go through it rather than aiming for specific page breaks. Once you have the bulk of the work you can make it fit. The outline has changed even as I’m writing, as I just realised writing the latest sections that I’m only writing about work. Which although that was going on and taking up most of my life, there was nothing about my personal life in there, so as I was writing I just started adding other stuff about my life. I’m at the point now where I’ll do another outline and probably send it to my editor to make sure its OK, but I’ll carry on with what I think works in the meantime. I think I can actually feel when I’m bored of writing a specific section, and I don’t think its much different for a reader.

In terms of storytelling both in film form and through your autobiography, what do you think are the key concepts needed for evoking an emotional reaction with the audience?

It’s about honesty, even more so in books. Myself , ‘Gary’ is actually just a character in a story, and as long as I can see it that way I can take him on a journey. Everything that happens just happens to be true. But despite everything I’ve been through, ‘Gary’ still needs to be relatable to the majority of people. He needs to go on this journey and have people rooting for him every step of the way, and they should want him to succeed. I love how the 37,000 words have turned out, because it’s almost the perfect ‘midpoint’. I didn’t really plan it that way, that’s just how it wrote itself! I’ve also been reading about ‘clones’ recently, there’s a great book called Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald. One example he uses is Of Mice & Men, and how every additional character in that book is a ‘clone’ of either George or Lennie. For some reason that idea has it home a lot and I’d like to go back when I’ve finished the book and see how I can use that idea. It maybe partly be there already, as people have come into my life and I relate how they help me over come certain situations.

What is your plan for your autobiography once you’ve finished writing it? How will it be published? Do you have a definite plan to distribute it?

I have no plan at the moment, apart from having it at a good stage by the Great Writing Conference in June. I’d like to send it to agents and I maybe able to do this through my editor, as Clare has a number of advisory services, but I don’t know if that’s one of them. That’s the worrying thing, that I could send it to mainstream agents or even people that know publishers, and it just gets rejected or not read, and I’ll be like, ‘yep, welcome to the real world of writing…’

But I’m more than happy to take advice and something else I’ve been listening to is Michael Hyatt’s 21 step publishing course, which goes through in loads of detail what it was like when he got his book published. So, if I can learn from that and do things right then I may have a fair chance than most. There’s also the option of doing courses which lead to getting your work seen, and of course writing competitions.

On a broader note, how has writing an autobiography had an impact on you? Has the reflection brought about by the writing process changed your outlook for future projects? Maybe writing your book has inspired you to approach themes and events in terms of new projects?

I’m really surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed writing prose, and I think I’d like to write more. I think I’ve also got that the best writing is personal, which I’m sure I’ve heard but never really fully understood before. I’ve had such great comments from the one man show, and in terms of writing its definitely been my most successful script having been selected for various showcases already. This was also my first work in theatre as well, so it was great to do that and not worry about camera crews. It was literally just me and one other actor in the rehearsals. Slightly daunting but a great experience. Selling tickets will always be the biggest problem for live shows, so I’ve no idea how to over come that.

I want to make my screenplays more personal too, and more relatable, but its always going to be hard. It was weird doing research on myself. I read my medical notes and now have exact dates that things happened, but for some reason I remembered them differently. But it was good to have actual research to look at.

Finally, what’s new on the horizon for you? Are there exciting things in store for us?

Well, yes! I’ll be staging ‘Hidden’, the one man show again at Glive in June which will be great.
I’ve just completed a massive funding application for the Arts Council’s ‘Unlimited’ strand, which if successful will be a great opportunity to show the work too. I should hear around end of March if that’s been successful.

I’ll be asking a select few people to read the first 37,000 words of the book, to get feedback.
And I’d like to do another big application for two large scale artist film works towards the end of the year, so we’ll see what happens with those. I want to work more with a team on all this which I guess is another way my work has changed, and its exciting to bring other people on board and have them support me. When I was making The Dog & The Palace it was ‘Team Gary’, and I really liked the sound of that!

A massive thank you to Gary for agreeing to take part! If you want to learn more about Gary and his projects, head over to his website or follow him on Facebook and Twitter!

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