Writing, Rewriting, Refining

Over the birthday of an actor who is to be the lead in a feature I cancelled in 2017, I did another scroll through the draft and also went through the simplified alternate draft I wrote that year to generate a 2020 output of it.  You never know whether a script will ever only be a script.  I had done some similar cherry picking for the novelization, which is now being copy edited or proof read, with the same concern that it may be the final product that conveys my vision.  But I still had to go back and pick through the screenplay itself in case opportunity opens up again to shoot it.  At least that aspect – the script – can be in a state of readiness.

In practical terms, this has meant introducing a trio of supporting characters earlier and letting us be invested in them so that they are more than an idea and we feel their absence in other scenes and appreciate their return.  That was the biggest adjustment. The Devil is in the details as they say. If someone were to make everything more colloquial and shoot it handheld, the unreality of this universe would be undermined as there are runs of dialogue that must be a unit and the subject matter was chosen for its visual potential and my own preference for a cartoonish formality.  If something sticks out as not being the right fit, I have to refine it.  I have a sense of relief again that now I can hand someone this draft and say I absolutely intend to shoot this.  It is not an idea or a stem cell; form follows function and it knows what it is. Ready to print. Ready to shoot.

The downside could arguably be that the more specific and clear your screenplay, the more resistant you will be to variations offered by others.  But that may be the trade-off. I know I will not be vindicated as a writer unless I have followed my own writing, for good or ill.  If someone likes it, they like my writing.  If I were to trade it out for improvisation or someone else’s rewrite (either more chaotic or more sanitized), even if it finds an audience and is popular it will not feel like my own work.  So as this final draft is presented to potential collaborators, it all still comes back to making sure they want to make the same movie. The script will decide which actors are appropriate, not the other way around.

Some people thrive on chaos and I don’t.  Had I shot the 2017 draft that represents most of the novelization, it would have been true to my intentions.  The current version also is, with the benefit of three more years of distance and contemplation.  It might be a good idea to scare off anyone who doesn’t want to commit to reading and learning the script at this point.  The story – as I often say – is just a container for the stuff I care about, specific dialogue and specific shots in my directorial plan.  If that sounds like tunnel vision, consider this:  The main character first appeared in a 2007 short, and was a name on a piece of paper since the early Nineties.  In 2008, I cobbled together what might have been called the first draft, and then on the advice of a prospective producer spent a year submitting possible outlines I would be willing to expand.  After settling on the final premise, many drafts lived their lives as submissions to the Canadian Film Center, and table readings and CineCoup.   There were many opportunities over more than a decade where drafts or corrected outputs would be sent around for feedback.  I went through the process of simplifying stages of the ending and “killing my darlings” that might have been amusing bits which had no function or detracted from the big picture.  There is a point where it has to become a closed system, as John Cleese would say.  Now it is a matter of getting competent and committed production infrastructure.

I have been told it might be too logistically complex for a first feature.  It won’t be my first feature by the time it is shot.  It is actually also fairly contained.  There are a couple of scenes that do involve a number of people but much of it is manageable.  Safety has always been a concern and more so in the current climate.  But watching the movie will not be a “safe space” which seems to be something that chokes out and smothers anything with the reckless charm of an Eighties movie or a Chappelle monologue. It will be fun and also frankly may have something to offend everybody.  It may offend or trigger the extreme right or extreme left, both of which are fair targets of ridicule.

A writer can only have faith that there will be a percentage of the creative community and potential audience that will share the same sense of mischief or sensitivity and edge and might appreciate a movie that represents an uncompromising blah bity blah, blah. I don’t feel comfortable saying “vision,” because it sounds pompous and in fact writing or directing are more a risk and a state of vulnerability than a god-like power position. I have gone through several stages of imperfection, so it does not arrive full blown but is fuzzy and has become more clear as placeholders and distractions have been improved and thumbnail sketches have been redrawn.  The only thing you can count on is honoring your own impulses and your gut as to what seems to spice and season a script and get it all effectively across. Wish me luck.

Finding Old Writing

Spending so much time at home during the pandemic, I’ve finally opened some storage boxes and plastic bins of odds and ends with mixed results.  Listening to an audio book or a commentary track, I’ve been able to get into the groove of this tedious task of deciding what can be thrown out and what is a great forgotten find and what might have been too damaged from a flood a few years back.  It reminds me to more urgently find a place that can extract digital files like scripts from a floppy disc.  I keep finding more of those as well.

Along the way, I can’t help but scan my eyes over any documents or partial drafts or full stories and scripts that can still be salvaged or that might even read as better than the drafts that followed.  I can see some attention to detail and manic energy that went into some decent output.  It may have been a mistake to participate in some screenwriting groups that threw off my own process.  Material that would have said what I meant fifteen or twenty years ago might still ring true but would also be in conflict with the temper of the times.

A love for cinema itself motivated most of my writing. I would say storytelling but story is a container for the stuff that I would care about.  I might find the unrequited love story or any variation of it and think it is cringe-worthy and overly personal.  Maybe it isn’t quite me anymore, and I could still honor it by combing through it for craft clean-up but would I even be brave enough to maintain the original intent for the sake of others who might still identify with it?  Or would I fall prey to the same process that so many notorious IP follow-ups do, the ret-con or the revisionist approach to a story or character that undermines it with false modern spin?

I’ve also found some strange visual support for one of my scripts, where I had cut out groups and individuals whose pose or expression could be imitated by actors for a montage of alienation at a party.  It is like found storyboards.  I know I have to do that sequence one way or another.  Even if a bland, politically correct story thread supports it.  Along with writings and magazines and excessive books weighing down so many storage bins, I’m reminded how many cameras I have and some gear I rarely use that has to stop going to waste.  Minding manuals that make me sleepy to even think of studying, but that is a process I have to go through. It feels like excavating someone else’s life.  It forces a gentle personal inventory.


Grinding Your Gears

In the past, each completed project gave me a morale boost to fuel the next.  If something goes off track or I’ve been given (and naively accepted) a false resource that collapses, it can be difficult to just transfer energy to something else.  I think people talking to themselves may be re-living conversations where they could have anticipated the worst and come away with dignity and saved some time.  I can grind my psychological gears in a quiet moment wasting energy on a “would-could-shoulda.”  Things may have gone the same way ultimately sooner or later.  Maybe sooner if you put a fine point on it.

If it feels like there is some Faustian embargo in the air, you might be making the wrong deal.  If someone wants to be the creative power behind the throne, they can get their own throne.  And as I’ve said before, if someone doesn’t have faith in you as a director or doesn’t like the script, you’ve got no leg to stand on with that person and why walk into that burning house?  If on the other hand they want to impose something on the film – random shtick, improvisation, ideology – it will negate or compromise your sense of authorship.  It is one thing to improve a script, kicking the tires, questioning logic or continuity. These are things the writer can answer and figure out without losing the sense of authentic authorship.  A full range of talents have clung to a credit even if it meant arbitration and even if it meant that everybody knew the best lines came from someone else.  But if what motivates you is the work itself and seeing your own ideas vindicated (or giving them every chance to be vindicated), it is worth remembering that Jim Jarmush claims that he writes a screenplay in longhand, one draft, and gives it to a typist and then just makes his movie. I suspect there are many critical darlings who do that and if something seems unclear in the movie it is taken as artistic ambiguity.  It is not unlikely that a first draft and final draft will have the same percentage of people who like or dislike the resulting movie.  Se7en famously had many drafts generated in the development phase, only to have its original shocking draft by Andrew Kevin Walker find its way to David Fincher’s attention so he could insist on reverting to that. The Verdict was adapted by David Mamet and then compromised by others until director Sidney Lumet insisted on discarding the development and reverting to Mamet.  Those seem like no-brainer choices, but it took a good cook insisted that not everybody had to piss in the soup.  Especially if you are a writer-director, you are gong to take the heat for a mediocre movie so you may as well be gambling on your own taste and your own work rather than someone else.

Discussion of movies from a fan perspective can generate some of the worst ideas for how it “could have been better.” One guy re-edited The Last Jedi just to make sure that in his version Admiral Ackbar is still alive. There are many things wrong with that movie, and that character should have had an on-screen death and one with nobility (maybe securing an oxygen mask onto Princess Leia before floating off dead in the vacuum of space). But even with a Lucasfilm Story Group and producers looking at the script, and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they went with Rian Johnson’s whims and took their chances.  Each writer has to take his or her own chances.  You might even be satisfied just writing character descriptions and an outline of scenes and letting others expand on that. But however long the process, you arrive at a point where you say THIS is the script I want to translate into storyboard drawings and finally stage for the camera.  Not a hundred other variations which you have considered and discarded.

The internet has accelerated the question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” and also the consequences of answering with honesty.   People can insist on being called something they are not. It may be personally vital to know that a writer-director credit reflects your actual writing and your direction. I would feel false if I did not plan my own shots and the progression of images. That is where my satisfaction comes from.  Simply gathering people together to shoot something is not in itself cathartic. It is kind of a necessary evil.  Most of the anxiety will come from just how the house of cards will fall. Some people thrive on chaos, but I don’t.  I wouldn’t invest in chaos.

There are people who push to destroy the auteur theory of direction, where “A film by” credits are seen as giving too much importance to the role of director. I don’t really come down on either side of those false binary options.  The designation of director – let alone writer – can be given to anyone from a fraud who shows up and takes credit for everyone else to someone coming from a Hitchcock perspective where film grammar and psychology motivate the shot choices and the audience is being directed by the person they have been told is doing so.  None of us has to be a genius or feel like one to achieve the latter description.  It might help to be obsessed with finding the best shot for a moment or an interesting and appropriate way to transition between scenes. I’ve done short films that people hated and written screenplays that some people did not get, but I honored my impulses in any case and that is a big part of it.

So many processes appear to be about stripping the finger prints from a work. The issue celebrated might be the subject matter or a sociopolitical bent and not the WAY something was written or the WAY it was directed.  Style may be stripped away, and for me style is a big part of what makes me love cinema.

Does this blog make me look fat?