Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Anatomy of a Scene

I’m nearing completion on my feature (the first draft going out for review, any way) and I thought it might be time to do a quick run down of what exactly has transpired to bring it to this point. My Fair Lady has a tendency to underestimate the massive amount of work that goes into a feature screenplay, and my parents (good natured though they are) remain baffled that someone, let alone their eldest son, would voluntarily want to write for a living.

In hindsight, I think it may have been easier on them if I’d said I was gay. Instead, they’re stuck with a writer as their eldest, and an actress as their middle child. Brother G being the youngest seems to be the only responsible one since he went to work in The Vault.

I began the script back in my college days. It was my second semester as a Junior and my writing class was supposed to write a series of short scripts every week or so. No problem. I showcased how I could switch genres with each new script, regardless of what the topic was. Then the big semester grade hit – Write a short film, or a feature. Either way, it was due at the beginning of May (I think that’s when it was. This is 10 years removed.)

Naturally, I opted for the challenge of writing the feature. Why? Because I was an idiot.

So it gets to the Friday before it’s due. The table read for the two features was Monday starting at 7 p.m. I get back to my dorm from the house at around 8 p.m. I look up my script. Page 3. The blinking cursor flashed about halfway down the page.


So I started writing. And writing. And writing some more. I think I managed to get 15 to 20 pages written that night. By the time I blacked out it was around 5 a.m. I woke up about 8 a.m. and realized exactly what I was going to be doing for the rest of the weekend. I phoned my girlfriend telling her not to call me. I contacted friends explaining to them that all trips and distractions were postponed through that weekend. Then I started writing.

I don’t recall much beyond that, and that’s not because it’s been 10 years. Well, partly it’s not. Primarily, it’s because I was on such a Coca-Cola-fueled bender of caffeine, terror, and creative energy for those 72 hours that a literal black spot exists in my memory where that weekend was. I get flashes every now and then, but nothing substantial. Oh, and I didn’t sleep again until some time Sunday night when I blacked out again for a few hours. My girlfriend told me I walked into the school cafeteria wearing my pajama pants at one point. I do recall talking briefly to her and her friend but do not remember wearing pajamas. That’s as specific a memory of the weekend I have.

I wrote the script (which clocked in around 120 pages), printed it, raced to Office Max and had several copies made and bound. Then I raced straight from there to the film school where I sat down as everyone else entered the room for the table read. That’s how close I cut it.

The read went okay and everyone seemed to like it. My professor even gave me an A on the project, but I think that was more on account of the size of the project I endured than on the quality of the script. From my point of view, I thought it nailed the skeleton of what I wanted to do and say with it but that was all. I put the excess copies in a bin and put it aside with the understanding that one day I’d rewrite it into something better.

Fast forward 10 years and I run into my professor at Brother G’s graduation. The professor recalled the script and the general subject matter, praised it, and was disappointed I never did anything with it. I sat there next to My Fair Lady and in front of my parents slack-jawed. How the hell did he recall that? Do you realize how many of these things he’s read over the years? What made mine stand out? HOLY CRAP!!!

We came home and I pulled out an old copy. I got three pages in before throwing it out. “Awful” would be a charitable way to describe it. My guess was the idea behind the script is what stuck out. You know how when something good happens to you and you kinda think you recall it well years later but are, in truth, romanticizing what happened? Yeah, something like that is what I chalk up to regarding his memory of my script.

But I thought about it. Then I thought about it some more.

I fired up my screenwriter program and started writing. I wrote an entirely new opening scene that not only nicely segued into the meat of the story, but established everything I wanted to say in the film. I have a knack for writing killer openers, then flailing about in the middle and the end. Which is why I’ve worked for years to hone my technique.

But you know what? In four months, I’ve turned out what I think is a pretty dang solid script. Not perfect, but a dang good read. It’s commercial as hell while still being funny and scary and entertaining and surprising. Ten years later I still recalled the basic story and with a lot of changes to it, I think it works. I think it really works now.

I’m even happier with it as I’m re-writing it now for essentially the third time. I wrote 15 pages in my screenwriter software, and then exported to Word to do notes in my spare time. I wound up writing the rest of it on the fly here and there even though I kept meaning to go back to my specialty software. Around page 65 I said screw it and just kept writing in Word. Once it was done, I figured I would transcribe it all back into my other software so as to accomplish both proper formatting along with another re-write to smooth out transitions, gaffes, plot holes, etc.

It worked. For example, I wasn’t satisfied with how the bad guy and the good guy met in the Word draft, but I rewrote the scene as I got to it and it works better now. Not great, but better. I’m still reworking that scene in my head because I know there are better ways to do it. I think, however, I’m going to let that go for right now and get another opinion once it’s done. See what notes I get, then apply those to the scene. I have another idea on how to do the scene but it would take far more research than I have time for.

The goal of this was to bang it out in the span of a month or so. It’s now gone over four. But the end is in sight. Honestly. I’m in the mid-40s on the re-re-write now and I’m going to blaze through as much as I can in the next few days. If I can finish it by the weekend and get it to my former professor before heading out on a road trip for the weekend, I’ll be one seriously happy camper. Even if he comes back with “this sucks” it will at least be more feedback on my script writing than I’ve had in the last few years. Not to mention it’ll be a solid monster movie script right around Halloween which is as good a time as any to bombard Hollywood agents with it.

I don’t know if this will sell. That’s less the point for me right now, to be honest. I want to have this completed and sent to my prof for review, then hopefully he’ll send it to his agent with a disclaimer of “Read this now!” at the top. That’s what I want: My work in front of an agent’s eyes for the first time ever.

Regarding money, let me state exactly why every writer in Hollywood is a bullshit artist. To a one, all of them say the same thing: “Write what you want. If it’s good enough, it’ll sell. Don’t write with money in mind. Never do that. Write from your heart.”

Meanwhile, you’re slogging through your personal life story in script form which they know will never sell and they’re cranking out “John Tucker Must Die 2.” Never, ever, ever listen to one of these clowns when they tell you not to worry about the sale. It’s ALL about the sale. This is a business that involves art. It may have been reversed at some point, but not anymore. Thank you, “Star Wars.”

Writing “The Godfather” today will get you no where unless your name is Steven Spielberg, Jerry Bruckheimer, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, or now Christopher Nolan. If you’re established with a proven track record, you can get anything you want done (for the most part). If, however, you’re an outsider like me that no one has ever heard of then your tragic tale of woe and redemption ain’t gonna cut it. Not at all. Hell, it may not even make the festival circuit. If you have personal visions, and I have plenty, write them but do not lead with them.

Hollywood wants what will make them plenty of money, first and foremost. Awards are nice too, but between an Oscar and the grosses of “The Dark Knight,” which do you think studio executives are going to choose every single time?

Is that a deeply cynical view? Nope. It’s a realistic one. Hollywood is a business. It invariably learns the wrong lessons from success but this is where people can capitalize. If a script is rock solid and appeals to a broad demographic, then it will sell. I genuinely believe that. And will continue to believe that until my script gets shot down by every studio in town. At which point my tune shall change.

To that end, what I’m writing should ultimately be pretty solid. Maybe even “Lost Boys” solid if I’m lucky. I’ll settle for “Transylvania 6-5000.”

I’ll let everyone know if it sells. That sound of someone screaming at the top of their lungs will be me. I will likely also be jumping up and down at that time. Worst case scenario, I get feedback on a script my professor enjoyed when he first read it. Hopefully this time he’ll genuinely have something worth loving.

Stay tuned...