The 4 AM Blind Panic Just Keep Swimming Blues

The Abyss
The Abyss. Perfect metaphor.

I knew that SOLITAIRE-the-script would be different from the book, although during the first year that the script was in development, I (predictably) indulged in the fantasy that the differences would be superficial. I wanted Ko. I wanted Solitaire-the-club. I wanted Jackal and Snow and Estar and Crichton and Scully and Razorboy and pink-haired Drake. Just writing their names here evokes them for me; all these years later, they are so real to me. But none of them were in the draft of SOLITAIRE that I read, or in the OTHERLIFE that you’ll see on screen. I’m truly good with that. They live in my heart and head (and also, I hope, in some of yours). And it turns out film scripts are difficult enough without putting them under the impossible burden of an un-filmable story.

If I had known how hard screenwriting is, I’m not sure I would have given Tommaso such a strong pitch to let me do the rewrite. And yet, one of the patterns of my life has been that sometimes the universe opens an unexpected door and invites me to walk through. I get to choose, but it’s a real choice: no door stays open forever, and they all lead to places of change that are not predictable in outcome. Those doors have led to my greatest joys, and my greatest failures, and my greatest tests. They have been the making of me.

I think this happens to a lot of people. I think most lives are tales of what happened when we were expecting other things. It’s not the door itself that is the story: it’s whether we walk through, and what we find. I don’t know about you, but often my initial thoughts are Oh wow this is going to be so cool WAIT WAIT SHIT what’s that over there? OMG that thing I’ve been so scared of for so long? That thing is what I just signed up for. I am SO FUCKED. It’s like walking out your front door and dropping into the Mariana Trench. Time to swim like hell.

I’m a good prose writer. My particular skills are in character, relationship, psychological nuance, the big impact of small choices. I can parse those things and write them down in 1,000 or 25,000 or 100,000 words. I basically swim in character soup when I’m writing. And characters are the heart of a good script: but making their stories come alive demands a different kind of writing excellence. I didn’t know this when I started the rewrite. I didn’t know how to construct a screen story. I didn’t know how to build visual narrative grammar. I didn’t yet know that Act 2 would long be a vast desert of Okay, Now What? I wasn’t just ignorant: I had the special self-assured ignorance of the expert who thinks that her tools will fit any situation.

The self-assurance lasted one day and one page into the rewrite. The second morning, I got up at 4 AM, made tea, put on my headphones, stared in blind panic at the terrible awfulness of the previous day’s work, and started swimming like hell. I worked every day for six weeks from 4AM to 6PM, stopping only when Nicola made highly unreasonable demands on my time and energy (you know, things like We should eat lunch now.) I was exhausted and scared and the only thing I knew how to do was keep going.

And you know what? I also had so much fun. I wrote things that I thought were pretty good. They weren’t, not really, but they were on the path to good. The experience of that script was like the swimming lessons I had when I was little, where the Nice Teacher opens her arms and says Swim to me! The terror when she steps back farther every time and you know you will never close the distance. The exhilaration when you do.

I met my deadline. I sent the script to Tommaso. He responded with a very polite version of What an interesting mess you’ve made! Which I was rationally expecting, and which still gutted me. He gave me notes. I made changes. Notes. Changes. Notes. Changes. The baby writer out in the deep, swimming like hell for an unseen shore.

The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.

4 thoughts on “The 4 AM Blind Panic Just Keep Swimming Blues”

  1. I’m embarrassed to say that I have not yet read “Solitaire”, Kelley – but now, for many reasons, especially after reading this post, I know I must. (Of course we both know what the road to Hell is paved with, but that is another story – or rather, many other stories.) Incidentally, I still have strong and remarkable memories of both your original text of ‘Alien Jane’ and the adaptation which was done of it, lo these many years ago, on that strange television series on which I was a co-head-writer. I think that was when I began reading you and it’s funny (not the right adjective) how some words and some stories and some characters live on in one’s brain (my brain at least) many years after first ‘meeting’ them (reading them – but it is a form of meeting). Anyway, sorry for the rambling preamble but I just wanted to say that, for too many reasons to say here, I love this post of yours – your references to character soup – to things that happen at 4 a.m. – and especially to the truth of the universe opening unexpected doors at times, and tendering those invitations….to walk through.

    Thank you for posting this and sharing it. And for (though you didn’t know it at the time) reminding me why I haven’t forgotten some of your words, and need to read more of them.

    1. Miguel, it’s wonderful to hear from you and I hope all is well. The adaptation of ‘Alien Jane’ was very special for me and I’ll always be grateful. I hope you enjoy Solitaire!

  2. Someone once said, ” The journey not the arrival matters.” It,s partly true, but I think the arrival matters a hell of a lot. Here’s to your journey and your arrival.

  3. Thank you, Barbara! I appreciate it. I have to say that I’m still on the journey, but yes it does feel good to reach a destination :). And of course it wasn’t at all the destination I thought it would be. Go figure!

    Hope all is well with you.

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