So. Here we go with a little detour into the writing of Delirious. This one delves a bit deeper and may be a great big yawn to some of you. If so, just skip this blog and wait until my medication from Dr. Owen wears off and I go kkkrrraaaassscccszzzzyyyyy again.
Let’s sum up; as of 5 ½ years ago all I had were two characters. I didn’t have any specific scenes. I didn’t have a beginning, a middle or an end. Nor did I have a writing or production deal. Like all my scripts I started and finished this one alone. What I did have was a real interest in these two characters and a genuine excitement about creating their world.
RULE #1. If your script idea doesn’t truly excite you don’t write it.
Writing a screenplay is difficult. It is lonely. It takes a long, long time with no guarantee of any usable results. The only thing that will help you through the journey is this excitement. It has to be real. You cannot fake it. Part of the development as an artist and as a human being is discovering the true source of that excitement within yourself. The idea may not at first totally grip you. Feed it, sharpen and enrich it until you literally ache to write it. It is this excitement that makes the terror of the blank page almost bearable.
Even with my two lead characters sitting in the room staring at me I didn’t immediately sit down and start writing. I probably had the first idea about a paparazzo a full year before actually starting to work. But, I did start a notebook in 2002. In it I put down every single thought or idea I had no matter how vague or unclear.
RULE # 2. Never censor yourself.
Writing is a mysterious and unexplainable phenomenon. Do not discount, dismiss or over-analyze any of your ideas (believe me, there will be plenty of people to do that later). Write your ideas down. Welcome them. Don’t judge them. Don’t ever say, “Oh, that’s a stupid idea.” Just write it down.
Over the course of that year the accumulation of notes lead me to a clearer view of Les Galantine and what excited me about him. That in turn helped me to discover what kind of character would work the most effectively opposite him. So, I started the same process for Toby; writing down notes, thoughts, ideas, fragments of dialogue, possibilities of scenes.
At a certain point the bucket of ideas got so full it overflowed and I got the first real glimpse of the film’s structure; Les and Toby would meet by accident. They would form a relationship where each got something from the other. Then Toby would realize he needed to leave in order to save himself but in doing so would betray Les. That betrayal would set in motion the end of the film.
Seeing this vague, shadowy path inspired me to start writing. Don’t get me wrong; that moment of sitting down and actually starting the screenplay is never easy. But, if I know anything from the 9 scripts I’ve written it is this; once you get past that first day you have a chance. Some people fear the solitude; I actually enjoy it. The pleasure comes for two reasons. One, I’m in the crazy, unpredictable world of my imagination. I’ve heard it can be pretty entertaining in there.
Two, for a director, writing the screenplay is one of the most delicious, protected and exhilarating periods in making the film. In your imagination you can do whatever you want. Plus you never have a car alarm go off in the middle of a shot. It never rains unless you want it to. The actors never complain, they never say, “My character wouldn’t do that.” You get access to any location your imagination can afford. The shots are always spectacular, the music sublime and your lead actor always has that amazing look in her eyes that no one has ever seen before.
Sometimes an entire day will go by without my even realizing it. I’ve learned to cherish these moments because they are completely unpredictable. For that reason I like to set myself a regular time during the day to write; from around 8 am to 3 pm. I close the door, I turn off the phone; I make sure that I will not be interrupted. I can’t stress this enough. Create an environment for yourself where you feel the most comfortable, the most open and the least distracted. This is where the discipline comes in; it is a strange combination of wanting to do it and making yourself do it.
Once I get started I write about 6 hours a day 5 days a week. I have a large bulletin board on the wall in my room. I divide it into three sections corresponding roughly with a 3-act structure. I write scene ideas on cards which I tack to the board. With Delirious I looked again at my basic story idea and started to play around with where in those three sections some of my developing scenes would go.
RULE # 3. Every script has to be driven by a central conflict.
I’ve never read a book on screenwriting. Three of my films have won screenwriting awards so I do feel that I am stumbling in the right direction. But one thing I know these books tell you is that you need to have Conflict and Tension. I agree. I just don’t believe there is a formula for it, for where and on what page it should occur.
Without conflict the script becomes like the endless monologue of some stoned stranger you meet on the subway. As they talk and talk it is at first somewhat interesting. But as they go on and you realize the story is never going to change you first get bored and then you get pissed off. The same thing happens in a movie. When audiences sense the film is going nowhere they get angry and annoyed and worst of all, they stop caring. As the writer you may not always know where the script is going but you should always know what the main conflict is. You should be able to describe it clearly and actively.
After several months of compiling notes and ideas I determined the central conflict of Delirious was this: Les needs Toby because the kid treats him as an equal, giving him value and respect for the first time in his life. But that need turns destructive and despite his real affection for Les, Toby realizes he must leave him in order to survive.
Once I know the main conflict the bulletin board helps me keep an eye on it. It provides an instant visual image of how the film is flowing. You can see it right in front of you. You can change it. You can slow it down, you can speed it up; you can adjust the flow of tension like the tempo in a piece of music. You can sharpen it simply by moving two scenes or by writing two new ones that keep the spark of conflict building.
With Delirious, I knew that a big turning point in the film would be Toby’s moment of decision. I sensed this scene should come roughly in the middle of the film. I sketched out the scene. Les would take Toby to a huge, glittering function—something with a lot of celebrities—a music awards show. Toby would bump into this girl, a young pop star who despite her outward confidence and success is inwardly lost and confused. She sees something of herself in Toby. In a split second she takes his arm and he gets swept backstage with her. Les returns just in time to see his trusted assistant disappearing behind the velvet ropes, a place he himself has longed to enter his whole life.
What excited me about this scene was that both characters were right. Anyone could identify with Toby’s desire to attain something beautiful for himself. At the same time, it would be easy to understand how Les could only see Toby’s going in without him as a betrayal. That’s what I mean about exciting yourself. When all your characters have real, understandable motivations you’re in an arena of great energy and surprise. Predictability is both your enemy and the audiences’.
Once I wrote that scene I started at the beginning and worked my way towards it. But, it wasn’t a straightforward journey. As I was writing unexpected things came up, prompting some interesting detours. This is a crucial element of the writing process; allowing yourself to not know where you are going. If you do it a few times the fear eases off and you’ll find it pretty exciting. You’ll see that no matter what, you will find your way somewhere. Maybe it will be a dead end. So what? Maybe it will lead you to a place of great mystery and beauty. Either way, you will know something new.
Sometimes I’ve sat at my desk for two or three hours slogging away at a scene before realizing I’m half asleep. Usually it is because the ideas are not exciting me or that I’m treading water dramatically. At these moments I try to re-excite myself by waking the script up. Sometimes it takes the form of making an abrupt shift. Instead of explaining and building a well-reasoned transition where two people talk through a problem, I try jumping right to the raw, driving emotion that is directly under the surface.
RULE #4: Film is a visual medium.
You’re telling a story with pictures. It is not only what people say but also what they do. Equally important is how you show what they do. There is a reason why before every shot the director yells, “Action!” Screenwriting in its purest form is really nothing but a building, flowing succession of images.
Be careful of having your actors talk their way into and out of every scene. See if there is a way that a moment of behavior can supercharge the same interaction. Good observation of human behavior can help you with this. So can a real understanding of acting. It helps a lot writing for a specific actor like I did with Steve Buscemi in Delirious. Knowing him, and knowing his work, enabled me to just use him, his face, his eyes, his body, to present dramatic information—to tell the story.
I like to write dialogue. I especially liked writing dialogue for Steve. In general what I do is walk around acting out each of the characters, discovering lines and speaking them out loud. I’ll do this over and over until the passage has the flow of real human conversation. The next time you’re in a public place sit and listen to people talking. No one ever waits until the other finishes. The words are in constant flux, moving forward, backward, jumping ahead and at some times making no sense whatsoever. People don’t always say what they mean. People don’t always know what they mean. As a writer though, you know that and you can use it to further define a character.
If you’d seen me channeling Buscemi to write his dialogue you would have thought I was insane. Some of you are convinced of that already. As I walked around ranting, raving and pontificating I quickly discovered Les Galantine was really Don Knotts on acid. And I have to tell you I really enjoyed it. Thanks Steve. Thanks Don.
RULE # 5: Screenplays are strange animals.
A script is not a novel. It is not a movie. It is not a play. It is some strange hybrid that at its best exists in only some uneasy, transitory moment on the page until it is made into a film.
If you think writing a screenplay is hard try reading one. All the block letters and the clunky Night/Day/Interior/Exterior bullshit really do nothing to encourage emotional entrance into the script. It is very hard to see and feel the film. I am absolutely convinced that every agent, studio head, financier and producer actually hates reading scripts. They’re terrified of them because it is so difficult to get immersed in the visual and emotional flow; to get any real sense of what the movie will be. And then if these people are supposed to make some kind of decision on a script...? Wow, that would make anybody cranky.
This is why I try to make my scripts as visual as possible. But I do it economically. No one wants to waste time reading about the hundreds of flittering leaves fluttering outside the fly-flecked window while Jimbo loads his shotgun. However, a well-placed adjective about your main character’s face as you introduce her can give the reader a subtle visual hook into why you should care about her. I described Les Galantine when I first introduced him as “having the wary caution of a stray dog.”
I also try to create with as few words as possible a real sense of place. For example here is the description in the screenplay for the first time we see inside Les’ apartment:
INT. LES' APT. -- LATER
It is obvious Les has not had a visitor, female or otherwise, for a long time. The place is so filled with junk there is no place to sit. Toby stands looking around as Les makes up the couch for him using a grimy photo backdrop for a blanket. A few pictures of minor celebrities hang on the bare walls. Toby steps around a broken exercise bike to look closer and bumps into a rickety table.
Easy! That's a Collector's Item.
RULE # 6: Get the First Draft done.
Do not worry about making the First Draft the ultimate finished perfection of your every waking dream. Determine an ending and work your way all the way to it.
I’m not saying just write drivel. I’m saying stay focused, work hard and get it done. Just by finishing it you will be in an infinitely more advantageous position than 42 million other screenwriters. At times you will find yourself genuinely stuck. It has happened to me on every script. The first thing I do is get up, walk around, come back and give the scene another nudge. And then another. And if it still won’t move I’ll stop. You can’t force it.
The best thing to do is take a little break. Get away from it. Go do something else for a couple of hours. Or even for a few days. That too has happened to me. There were moments in working through the last 30 pages of Delirious where I struggled hard and still couldn’t see my way forward. Yes, at these times a certain panic sets in. You realize you’re lost. You start wondering, what the fuck am I doing? What is this screenplay about anyway? Why don’t I have a real job?
Well, those are exactly the questions you should be asking at that moment. But, you should not berate yourself as you ask them. It is OK to be lost. It is OK to not know where you are going. Go outside. Walk around the block. Lie on the floor and listen to some music. Take the pressure and the panic away and just be where you are.
The imagination does not like to be whipped or kicked with a heavy boot. It responds much better to a gentle touch, a kiss or a playful tug. In every instance I have found my way out of the densest tangle of hopelessness and confusion by calming down and rediscovering what it is that truly excites me about the script.
Get it done. Get it out of the computer. Print it out. Wait a couple of days. Read it. Don’t contemplate suicide. Or, if you do, go see some crappy movie and see just how much fucking garbage is out there. Believe me, garbage can be very inspiring.
Anybody getting anything out of this? Lemme know.
First, your comment is not off-topic. I may not get into that stuff in every blog but I can tell you it is on my mind every second of the day–and night lately. So, thanks for the info. Maybe you can let me know how it goes there. I’d appreciate it. I hope people get a chance to see the film.
Thanks very much for writing.
Sounds like you’ve got your thing down. Good advice all the way around. Fresh eyes. That’s what we want. Because, what is fresh? To me it is looking again with the hope and joyful excitement of the child.
I am writing more. This one is actually going deeper into criticism–things that it appears you and your friend already have worked out.
I’ll try to post it tomorrow.
Hmm… How do I get through the halfway points? Sometimes I just move on to something else I’m writing, for a bit, so I can kind of clear my head. Most of the time I call up a good friend of mine (my toughest critic, actually) and moan and groan about what I think is wrong. Eventually this leads to me talking my way out of whatever problems I was having. And when all else fails I take my English professor’s advice. I put it away for a week. I don’t look at it. I don’t think about it (ok, well, I try to not think about it). That way when I pull it back out again I’m looking at it with fresh eyes. Everything is usually a lot clearer then.
Anyway, you planning on adding more to this? I hope you are.
Nice to hear from you. I’m glad the remarks had some resonance for you.
Listen, any kind of artistic endeavor is inherently difficult. 99% of the time it is not a paying gig. So, how do you motivate yourself to work on something that has no real tangible rewards or results?
Faith and discipline.
Oh, yeah–a little fear and anger also help.
I got your book. Thank you. I’ll read it when things lighten up a bit.
Thanks so much for your comment. I do like writing and I’m glad some of that excitement made it onto the page for you. I really do mean it when I suggest that just somehow finishing the piece is a huge accomplishment, creatively and emotionally.
The 42 million figure is yet another of my maniacal exaggerations of course but, doesn’t it feel that way sometimes? It also helps to keep in mind there are many, many other screenplays clogging the mailrooms these days. It forces me to work harder to make sure mine is as specific to me, as unique to my own sensibility as possible.
By the way, how do you deal with these halfway points you mention? I’m curious how you get through them.
As usual, great to hear from you.
Great to hear from you. Yes, the Collector’s Item made it into the film. The rickety table didn’t. I replaced it with a ratty stuffed squirrel.
Sorry for the delay. Got a bit preoccupied shall we say. Man, I’m glad you liked the piece. It sounds like you’ve made some hard-earned discoveries and developments of your own. Congratulations on the first book. Let me know when it comes out.
You should have seen me when I took my first script Johnny Suede to the 1990 Sundance Director’s Lab. Although very well intentioned all the advisors kept saying to me was, “You can’t make this movie because Plot Point A does not come on the right page and Plot Point B has no Major Surprise.”
I said, “Here’s a major surprise–what the fuck is a Plot Point?” I’d really never heard of one. Buck Henry actually gave me the best advice; he simply said, “I like it. Do you have any questions?”
In all honesty I do think the script could have benefited from a sharper structure but that was the movie I wanted to make.
Again, thanks for the comments. They are encouraging and enjoyable to read.
And echoing other comments, I’ve read a few manuels on writing/screenwriting and you just summed it all up in a much more efficient entertaining way. The only thing that made me wonder was the validity of your 42 million screenwriters statistic. 😉
You just made me laugh for the first time in a week. Something about seeing the words LOONY BIN in print set me off. Thanky.
Oh, what I’ve put Jane through. It sure ain’t been a walk in the park but I guess something’s working–we’ve been together for over 25 years.
A booke? Perchance. I’d need a 2 million dollar advance though.
Also, you should write a book on this. I mean, after you’re all done with the Biz and are resting full-time in some resort somewhere (and hopefully not the loony bin).