A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Part One
A tip of the paw to Mike Rinaldi, for once again bringing Christopher Riley our way. Chris is best known as the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style. Chris spent 14 years in the script department at Warner Bros. as well as writing for Paramount, Mandalay, and Touchstone Pictures. More recently he produced the thriller Red Line, directed by Robert Kirbyson and starring Nicole Gale Anderson and John Billingsley, and taught in Pepperdine University’s MFA program in Screen and Television Writing. Chris and his wife Kathy wrote the psychological thriller Crawlspace, currently in development at Yellow Line Studio with Amardeep Kaleeka to direct. Chris previously wrote the outstanding blog, “Why Story Structure Matters, Even if You Don’t Want It To.” Here’s part one of this powerful new three-part series:
Back in the late 1970s when documentary filmmaker Errol Morris was struggling to finish his first film, Gates of Heaven, legendary German actor-producer-director Werner Herzog promised to eat his shoe if and when Morris ever completed the film. Why Morris required such an inducement and how Herzog fulfilled his promise tell us nearly everything we need to know about the why and how of completing a feature screenplay.
Why did Morris, a young artist bursting with curiosity, ambition, and creative energy, need one of Europe’s most important directors to push him to finish his work on a film he already yearned to finish? I think the answer is simple enough. Telling cinematic stories well is crushingly hard work. In the face of a task so difficult – and so enormous – we procrastinate. We cower. We despair. We do almost anything but finish our work. If you’ve tried to write a feature screenplay, you know this. How do we overcome such a challenge?
When he ate his shoe, Werner Herzog showed us how. He stuffed the shoe with garlic cloves, boiled it in duck fat, separated it from its melted cheese-like sole, then took a pair of poultry shears and – here’s the key – cut the impossibly tough leather upper into tiny pieces which he chewed and swallowed one by one. He did this after Morris had finished his film in the same way: bit by bit until the difficult and enormous task was done. Anne Lamott’s insightful book on writing, Bird by Bird, points to the same simple and powerful truth. We screenwriters must tackle our impossible work step by step, little by little, wren by wren, until we’ve conceived, developed, structured, written, rewritten, and polished a wise and wrenching, heart-thumping, gut-busting film, pinned to the page one shiny word at a time.
But what exactly are those steps? How does a screenwriter pull together all the know-how from all the books and classes and blogs and podcasts and move in some rational way through the seemingly endless process of writing a movie?
The good news is there is a process. The bad news: the process doesn’t make the shoe easier to chew. It does make it possible. Your emotions will still yo-yo between despair and euphoria. You’ll still exhaust yourself. But if you stick with the process, step by step, bite by bite, bird by bird, you’ll end up after three or six or twelve months with a feature screenplay that begins with fade in and concludes 100 or so pages later with fade out, one that stands a good chance of engaging a reader early and holding him to the end, one that may help readers feel something real and see something new, one that demonstrates the best screenwriting of which you are currently capable.
My writing partner – my wife Kathy – and I have used this process to devour a closetful of shoes. We’ve used this process to write spec scripts in hours we scraped together while working other jobs and caring for a family. At other times we’ve used this process to craft feature screenplays as fulltime WGA-member screenwriters under contract to Hollywood studios. We’ve taught this process to scores of aspiring scribes and seen the vast majority of them finish their scripts. Some of those scripts have won major contests and fellowships. Others have become feature films. Kathy and I did not invent the method I describe. We learned it on the job, from the veteran writers and producers who mentored and employed us, and from our students who helped us see more clearly what we were doing. I do not claim this is the only way to eat a shoe. I do assert, on the basis of many years of experience as a professional writer and a longtime teacher of writers, that this is one way that regularly works. Each step deserves a chapter but for now I can give each a scant paragraph because I’m on deadline and I’m jonesing to get back to writing movies.
Step 1: Generate many, many, many, many, many ideas. Writing a screenplay, you’ll pour yourself for weeks or months or years into one of the most difficult of all human endeavors. Don’t waste all that sweat on a mediocre idea. Brainstorm by writing down every idea that occurs to you, without editing. Every what-if that intrigues you. Every deep question you can’t answer. Every fascinating character you meet on the job or at your wacky family reunion or in your dreams. Every news story. Every rumor. Every fear. Collect these ideas somewhere you won’t lose them: a file folder, a shoe box, a shiny iPad app. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. (If you ever get the chance to hear Déjà Vu screenwriter Bill Marsilii talk about this topic, jump at it.)
Step 2: Sharpen your best ideas. Sift through your mound of hare-brained ideas. A few will set off little explosions in your imagination. Some might stick together, this audacious what-if with that strange uncle in that haunting place. Pull these ideas from the pile. Ponder how far you might take them. Knead them, stretch them, twist them. Try your small-town idea in space. Set your sci-fi epic in a dusty Nebraska town. What if that love story were a thriller? How would your dark tale of heartbreak play as a comedy? Where could this idea take us that we’ve never gone before? Don’t do this for one idea. Do it for several of your best brainchildren. Work them into loglines. (For the best discussion of loglines I’ve encountered, see Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!)
Step 3: Select The One. Time to commit. The cold-blooded, calculating side of your brain needs to ask which of your best ideas looks most like mass entertainment. Which suggests the best movie poster? Which would you buy if you were a studio exec who needed to satisfy his marketing and international distribution departments? Then stop. Because now the sentimental, movie-loving side of your brain needs to ask which of your best ideas appeals to you personally. Which movie do you want to grow old with? Which will you look back on with pride? Which one do you love? Bill Marsilii urges writers to hold out for what he calls a “soul mate” of an idea, one that will draw you again and again to your keyboard with a force that overwhelms a writer’s natural procrastination, doubt, and despair. Then, having indulged both sides of your movie-making brain, put the Michael Bay part of you and the Ethan and Joel Coen part of you in a room together and make them talk to one another. Hear them both out, art and commerce. Then make a decision (writing is all about making definite, bold decisions in the face of infinite possibilities). Choose the movie you will write.
Next week: Part Two