There. Done. I finished the script and sent it off, but not with grace (as usual). This particular film festival is one of the oldest out there, and they like to do things the old way. They want a printed script, properly punched and held in place with brads, and sent to them by mail. I did as they asked. At the post office I paid my money, handed the package to the clerk, then had a little tug-of-war as she tried to take it from my hands and toss it into the bin for delivery. I had a hard time letting go. What do you mean you want to rip my baby from my hands? No! You can’t have it! There’s something to be said for digital delivery; it saves one from playing the fool.
In my defense, I’ll say that I was exhausted and a bit unstable from what I thought would be an easy task. It was a script my agent had placed at Zoetrope Studios long ago with a “rush green” put on it for quick release. Lauren Bacall had been contacted for the role of the grandmother, our friend Anthony Zerbe (who?) was eager for the role of Abbot, and the agent of that little cutie doing the Pepsi commercials was interested in the property for her client. Zoetrope, then Coppola’s family film division, folded a few weeks before we were to go into production.
Now I know why they collapsed.
If they were buying scripts like the one I just re-wrote to death, then they had no idea what they were doing. I thought once I’d found the script, it was all over but the typing. Holy geez, what a train wreck I found once I got to the first plot point. It’s a high concept story and the architecture was good, but getting through the bare bones was enough junk to qualify for an episode of “Hoarders.” A lot of little darlings were booted during the re-write. A lot of my life disappeared as I dug in and set about fixing a story I felt was worth telling. I also ran into problems with software and printers along the way that kept stalling the process. Every day spent with this script brought at least three declarations of giving up, walking away, and letting this deadline pass.
And every day spent with this script found me refreshing my coffee mug, heading towards bed for a nap, and finding myself at the computer hammering away.
Without drama I can say this has been the most difficult task I’ve undertaken in years. And I loved it.
Most of us have a motto or two we live by, and one of mine is: If It’s not impossible, why bother? Re-writing this script with such a tight deadline felt like an impossibility, but despite my exterior rants and histrionics, it was irresistible. It felt good working hard and reaching beyond my current abilities. It felt good looking at the snarling beast of defeat and saying, “Good morning. How are you today?” then walking past without any thought or fear. It felt good being consumed. It felt good sitting down to write with no clue as to how I’d get over the hurdle of the moment and stepping over it with surprising ease.
That ease has been further conviction of the thought with which I started this blog: Writing is not what we do, it’s who we are. We can be taken away from writing for any number of reasons, but we never stop honing our craft. After a walk around the house cussing like a sailor and eating cookies, I’d sit down and find the answer falling from my fingers. I wrote this script a long time ago, put it away a long time ago, but I don’t think I ever stopped working on it.
It’s unfortunate that the reticular activating system of our brains has fallen into the hands of the New Age group because it is real. It’s part of the so-called reptilian part of our brain at the base of our skull, and it will noodle on problems we’re unaware exist. It never stops working. The New Age movement calls it the Law Of Attraction, and in a sense it is — we’re attracting what we want through actions and thoughts working 24/7 in that part of our brain, with some of those thoughts urging us into action.
But the RAS isn’t a good communicator. It tells no stories. It wakes us up in the middle of the night with the name of that old actor we were trying to remember during a discussion with friends two days earlier, and causes us to yell, “Burt Lancaster!” as we wake those in bed with us and cause them concern about our sanity. David Allen claims the brain has a need to finish things and states that’s why snippets of songs loop through our minds — we’ve heard them in a store or while cruising radio channels, and our brain is determined to finish the song. OK, I’ll buy that, but it doesn’t explain why “My Baby Does The Hanky-Panky” is going through my mind at this moment. I assure you I’ve had no passing contact with that song in months, perhaps years. It has to be involved with something that will reveal itself at some later date.
Even though I could see paths out of the mess I had, it was still a whole bunch of demanding work. Screenwriting is all about communicating the story, the characters, the mood, the genre, the setting, the theme, and all the other elements of good writing, but you’re not allowed to write. It’s an excruciating exercise in show-don’t-tell. Character dialogue has to be so strong and distinct that it can be spoken with no doubt as to which character is saying those words. Narrative is limited to…Well, it’s limited to nothing. You have scene headings, action blocks, and dialogue. Make it work. Make it unique. Make it tell a story loud and clear.
Grab that first gatekeeper by the throat and keep them reading.
Yeah, good luck with that.
And good luck coming back to prose after spending time with a medium so heavily dependent on adverbs. I hadn’t realized how economical and concise adverbs could be until I went back to screenwriting where the demands for white space is huge and all forms of prose writing are forbidden. (This has not always been the case, and some of the best films written by our best screenwriters during the Golden Age of film wrote delicately crafted blocks of prose. I’ll have to test the changes in screenwriting to see if there’s been a return to that lost tradition as we enter a new Golden Age of film.)
There was a touch of self-discovery in this process as well. During this last year of jumping back into writing and reading the current books on the craft and keeping up with the top blogs, I’ve had a very hard time identifying with the most popular topics — fear of failure, fear success, difficulties with productivity, uncertainty, focus, and writers block. In the world of screenwriting, these are not options. You will fail over and over again, you will not stop because you’re blocked or insecure, everything is uncertain, it’s all a huge risk with big bucks attached, and you will stay focused and meet that deadline because those are the rules of the game. You’ll also succeed from time to time, but it means little or nothing. There’s the next assignment you’ve got to hit. That’s my background, my habit of mind, and the way I work. Even if I work myself to a frazzle and produce a finished product above my current ability, it will be changed and re-worked. Everyone from the 10th AD to the bit-part actor will suggest (demand!) changes. Most of those suggestions will be good and make it a better film. That’s just the way it works, and it’s excellent training.
Another thing I like about scripwriting is the lack of instant gratification. You do your best, and then you wait. Then you wait some more. I’ve won a Gold at this festival several years ago with a different script. That script came to me completely fleshed out during a short nap. The next month was spent at the computer writing what was dictated to me in my mind. Easy stuff, yes? No! After that I spent a year re-writing the thing, another year submitting to festival and waiting, and another two years before it was ripped off by the production company that had optioned it. It’s a long, slow process filled with uncertainty. You can’t pay anybody to design anything, you can’t built a name or a platform, you can’t display your craft in bits and pieces to build an audience, and you can’t click a button to upload and wear the title of published author. Again, it’s great training.
I liked it. I’m hooked, and I can’t wait to get going on the next project. For a year I’ve been writing like a maniac and studying and waiting and pushing and grunting to get my internal writing engine going, and this was the kick I’ve needed.
It feels so good to be back with a manuscript in the air, and me flying again.