Struggling with his latest screenplay, filmmaker Oscar Sharp took a leftfield approach to solving his writer’s block: he co-created an AI to do the writing for him. The Brit had moved to LA to cut his teeth as a Hollywood screenwriter in 2016, only to fall into a depressed funk. At a low ebb, he heard from a friend, ‘tech-wizard’ Ross Goodwin, who’d pioneered a machine – then known as ‘Jetson’ – that could write poetry. Could it turn out a script too, Sharp wondered?
The pair fed it hundreds of science-fiction scripts, including ‘Alien’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, turning the screenplay that emerged into a nine-minute short called ‘Sunspring’. It debuted at the Sci-Fi London film festival, with ‘Jetson’ surprising audience members during a Q&A by spontaneously announcing that its name was actually Benjamin.
‘Machines desperately need us to connect with each other emotionally in order to exist’
Benjamin, née Jetson, is a computer code that operates a bit like your phone’s predictive text. To start writing, it needs ‘seed data’: a first few words to set it going. From there, it comes up with letter-by-letter guesses informed by the most commonly used letter formations in the input data. Sharp and Goodwin could increase the randomness of these guesses by ‘turning up the temperature’ of Benjamin’s output code.
So what’s it like watching a film written by Benjamin? Two minutes into ‘Sunspring’ my brain starts to ache from the effort of trying to make sense of dialogue (Woman: ‘I don’t want to be honest with you.’ Man: ‘You don’t have to be a doctor.’) It’s a brain-bending soup of non-sequiturs – and not in the good, David Lynch way where someone eventually turns out to be a mysterious cowboy. Dressed in shiny space-wear, the actors muster enough gravitas to almost transcend the gibberish, but it’s still a slightly baffling watch.
So, should screenwriters pack up their typewriters in anticipation of a wave of genius AI scripts flooding Hollywood? Well, no. ‘Machines desperately need us to connect with each other emotionally in order to exist,’ says Sharp, adding that the main application of AI in Hollywood is as a data-crunching tool on movies’ profitability.
A further Benjamin upgrade is in the works, but it’s hard to foresee a near-future of killer screenplays written this way. It’ll be some time before an AI needs to write an Oscar acceptance speech.
Sci-Fi London Film Festival runs Wed May 15-May 22 at the Prince Charles Cinema and Stratford Picturehouse. For tickets and full screening listings visit sci-fi-london.com.
For more on Benjamin, visit the Therefore Films website.