28 July 2009
In the time I’ve been working on my screenplay, I’ve written — well, it depends on how you count it. I’ve written at least 35 “official” 100-110 page drafts, meaning that they are considered “finished” enough to send to a wide circle of readers for comments, or to submit to the co-producers, agencies, directors, etc. I’ve probably written another
7 million couple thousand pages of script either as part of my private writing process (get something down on paper, hate it, delete it, write something else…) or as part of my collaborative process with my executive producer: we often like to work out ideas together, so there’s a lot of trading pages/ideas/notes back and forth as a scene or a sequence takes shape. This approach can/does drive many people straight over the edge (waves through the internet to the director, the executive producer’s girlfriend, and the world’s most patient sweetie). But it works for us; and more importantly, it works for the script.
However, I’ve got to also learn to work in a more traditional Hollywood model: the spec script, and the assignment. In an assignment, execs throw a bunch of story requests/ideas/notions at the writer; the writer goes off in a room and writes the requested movie; she sends it to the execs, who love it except can the protagonist be a man instead, or if she has to be a woman can she just be a little more likable, and oh by the way can we change the setting from a space station to an ancient Mayan temple, that won’t be hard, right? The writer blinks and argues and tries to accommodate, and at the next draft the execs decide the writer Just Doesn’t Get It At All, fire her, and get some “fresh eyes” (another writer) on her movie.
Okay, it doesn’t always happen this way every time, but it does happen to everyone — as far as I can tell, there is no career screenwriter who has escaped it. I’ve already been through it once in a minor key, and it was no fucking fun; as you may imagine, I’m not so much looking forward to the full orchestra version.
So how do screenwriters keep from going full-on fruit bat crazy? They write spec scripts — their own stories, characters, settings, plot, etc. Spec scripts are also the way that most new writers break into the system: an agent or manager or producer sees promise and talent in a script they’ve written. Sometimes that spec script will get optioned; sometimes it will simply be a writer’s ticket into one of those assignment meetings. So no matter how you slice the pie, spec scripts are part of the mix.
It’s very much like me to learn by jumping in the deep end. Did you learn to swim as a kid? Remember the instructor giving you his most trustworthy smile and holding out his arms and saying Swim to me, just swim to me!, and then once you committed yourself, he just kept stepping backwards? Yep, that’s my life. I’ve spent three years screenwriting under a particular set of professional circumstances — an assignment structure, a writing contract, an intensive collaborative relationship with an executive, constant notes, agency coverage, studio interest, studio rejection, casting submissions, refocusing the script through the lens of a director’s vision, yadda yadda. It’s been exactly the right way for me to learn. It’s been amazing. But now it’s time for adult swim: see the pool, decide where to enter, decide where to swim to. See my own movie as opposed to paddling enthusiastically toward someone else’s vision.
This post is much longer than I intended, which is also very much like me, and I am always grateful for the patience of any readers who follow these long, wandering trails of words to their originally-scheduled destination. Which in this case is to report that I’ve started learning how to write screenplays a little more formally (grin): I am reading a book. Actually, I’ve read a long list of books these last years, but my hands-down favorite right now is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder. I’m finding it enormously useful as a doorway into this next part of my screenwriting adventure: Kelley writes a spec script.
Snyder’s first step in his recommended writing process is the (dreaded) logline — the one-sentence precis of the film that makes everyone want to hear your pitch/read your script/see the movie. This is million-dollar advice for someone like me, who is more temperamentally inclined to write a whole script and then try to puzzle out the logline, as if it were a marketing tagline. But Snyder’s point, and he’s right, is that figuring out the logline first, and really nailing it, helps your script be better from word one: spend the time to get the logline right, and as a writer you can unpack the structure, key characters, tone and setting of the script in a way that keeps everything consistent and integrated. I’ve heard so many stories of screenwriters pouring their hearts into a script, and then being unable to frame an interesting or cogent logline from the result; and discovering that in fact, it’s because the script wasn’t coherent enough to hang off of a single sentence.
So here’s what I did yesterday. I took myself off to Beth’s Cafe, my favorite Seattle diner and the spiritual home of Noir, for my own private Logfest. It was hot and the air conditioning was broken, so the front and back doors were open. The place was packed. I got lucky — people eating alone have to sit at the counter when the rush is on, but the little table-for-one (which is really half a booth right next to the cash register) had just opened up, so I had space to spread out. I had coffee (it’s a diner, dude, gotta have coffee!) and a patty melt and fries and lots of water, and I wrote loglines. A lot of them. Instead of wandering around in the depths of emotional moments of cool characters, I tried to see the spine of a movie in my head and write it down in the most specific and interesting way I could. The goal was to have lots of ideas, not to write the perfect logline (that’s real work), and to see if I could in fact make a leap from “having random ideas” to seeing the skeleton of a possible movie.
Beth’s was full of all the people of the world: employees from the local gun shop and auto repair place and hair salon; dewy-faced college girls wearing sundresses and the excited air of living dangerously (I am not at all sure why Beth’s should feel dangerous, but you can always tell that vibe when it walks in the door…); a couple of guys who had clearly been up all night drinking; a traveling businessman whose now-40-year-old daughter worked at Beth’s back in the day. A family in the booth behind me had one of Beth’s infamous 12-egg omelettes, which are served on a giant pizza pan. There was much chatter-banter between the cook and the servers and the guy who was trying to keep the ice machine working (Hey, the bread is melting! Honey, you take a counter seat, we only let the best people sit there. Oh, don’t listen to him, he likes Madonna!)
After my food, I ordered a chocolate milkshake and ate it with a spoon while the grill sizzled and the cook called Order up! and the speakers played Creedence and Jimi and Van Halen: and I believe there is no other restaurant in Seattle where I can dance in my seat with a chocolate milkshake and a faraway look in my eye without drawing a single second of notice.
I sat for two hours, ate about two thousand calories, had twenty ideas and a really, really good time. And came away feeling focused for the first time in ages: as if I’ve been knocking around in a huge dark room and finally found a slightly open door. So Logfest was a success. One of these ideas will become my first spec script: several of the rest will become alternate pitches, things that I could write with a few weeks’ prep work. There’s still a ton of work to do, but I no longer feel as though there’s only the old way to do it.
Beth’s Cafe and Save The Cat may have saved my ass yesterday. It was a good day.