5 Ways Save the Cat!® Saved Me During the Writing (and Making) of My First Feature
Last Autumn I had the mind-blowing opportunity to direct a script that I had written, a British romantic comedy starring David Tennant, Lucy Punch and many other no-way-really??! type names. I had all these brilliantly skilled actors to direct and a large crew to lead. I literally didn’t sleep. I just lay awake asking myself if this was real, how on earth I was going to pull it off and why no one had yet to realise I was making it all up as I went along. I started praying. Hard. I talked to whoever was up there all the time, a maniacal whisper to the stars as yet another great actor was cast.
I survived. I made a film I’ve now watched roughly 87 times in the edit and still truly love. The film is now complete and “out there.” Out there to be derided, smirked at and for my mother to realise just how many swear words I can fit into a sentence.
This is really the moment for praying. But instead I’m turning to you lot, brilliant and inspiring fellow scribes to talk about just a few STC! nuggets that got me through the writing and the making of the film and all the emotional bedragglement that surrounded it. Hope it helps.
Logline for Life
I was poor, I was desperate, I was a Brit in LA with no other legal means of making money but writing. All I had was this one logline. It had been swimming in my head for about 2 months. Two women who get pregnant at the same time. They’re in a relationship. What would that look like? Who are these women? Polar opposites; a stoner and a dui lawyer. That was funny but I couldn’t rely on one joke for the entire script. There had to be an obstacle – a man. The unwilling father to one of the children? All these thoughts slowly marinated as I did cash-in-hand jobs dressed as a fairy to pay rent and then suddenly, one day, I had my logline.
I was to come back to it time and again. In writing the script – when a good joke would bump me off course and I’d be following a random storyline just to keep the funny line… I came back to it. In filming the movie – when an actor would do a brilliant piece of improv but the logline would shake its head at me, one hand on its jaunty hip and say “what’s that got to do with this story?”… I came back to it yet again.
The logline was my raft in the storm, a calm steadfast sense of reason that made me rethink my moments of “Fuck it. I’ll just take the story this way.” (Can we swear on this blog? Fuck it.)
Rules for Sanity
I had the truly liberating chance to make this film with very few “cooks.” There was no script editor, no studio, just my creative and talented producers giving me notes and keeping me on course. I was happy to have the STC! rules. Sometimes scoffed at by writers for the structure-based, “formulaic” guidelines, I clung to them like Theresa May at No 10 (apologies for the British spellings and references; see also Trump and the White House.) I was so happy to have some structure to my creativity, to have a model that countless, far more experienced writers had used to great effect before me.
Oh no, I was not for scoffing at the rules. I embraced them and with that frame of reference, I really could let my fingers run free across the laptop. I had a map, I had goalposts, I had places to reach and celebrate, I had a simple way of describing a character’s journey to my actors. Like a little toddler reaching towards a naked flame – we all need rules.
Fun and Games Is Everything
I remember when my 1st assistant director delivered that first schedule. I got out my bright yellow highlighter and I coloured in all the scenes that were part of our Fun and Games section. There they were, cloaked in neon yellow sunshine, the most important scenes of the film. Turns out, I was right (actually Blake Snyder was). Those films are now the scenes we’re scouring for poster images, they’re the ones that we packed into the sales trailer and they’re the ones I am extremely thankful I took the greatest care to write.
This really is the seed of that moment when you’re in a supermarket line/walking your dog/scrolling through Twitter and the idea smacks you right in the face – “Oh. That’d be a good idea for a movie.” From there, you take imaginary journeys to all the other narrative possibilities and characters’ histories and relationship happenings. But the idea remains the same – what would make a good film? It’s all right there, encapsulated in the Fun and Games. Use it, exploit it, honour it.
I’d wager that many a cynical soul throw scorn on the idea of grouping your film into one category. But mine is different! This story has never been told! Babes. EVERY story has been told. I learnt this the hard way and spent countless years writing scripts for the bin (trashcan) just because I didn’t know who I was talking to.
In writing this film I finally spoke to one audience member: myself. I wrote a film I would laugh at and love. I looked at my Netflix recommendations, a motley arrangement of Woody Allen and Nancy Myers love children; clearly I liked myself a rom com. So, I wrote one. It doesn’t mean it’s laugh-out-loud funny or syrup-sweet sentiment all the time, there have been as many tears as there have been giggles at our test screenings. But funny stuff happens in it and there is a whole heap of chat about the big L-O-V-E. So, guess what? It’s a Buddy Love, with the sub-genre of Rom-com Love.
Find a genre you love, be part of that audience and then write for them… and you.
Love Your Characters
There was a moment half way through filming when an astute lead actress wrangled with a story moment. A pregnant woman smoking weed? Is that cool? She was right, it wasn’t (but I swear it can happen). I had used it as a short cut to jump to an emotional place so the character could have her meltdown a scene later. I used the crutch of an outside source to accelerate her emotional state. Gah, what an idiot. My lazy writing waved smugly back at me from my past and I cursed it. I had to rewrite bang smack in the middle of shooting. I had a matter of one evening after a long day’s filming to do so. But luckily, a new character motivation and scene flowed right out of me.
That. Never. Happens.
I don’t know about you guys but to me writing is a horrendous, excruciating, tit-ache of a place. I make my working space deliberately uncomfortable so that writing proves more of an enticing proposition to get lost in (oh the “madness and magnetism” of the written word!). Throughout my writing career, I have procrastinated gleefully. It very rarely ever flows. But this scene felt fueled by a hidden source. It is probably my favourite scene of the film and it took me exactly half an hour to write.
When I look back, I’m convinced it was because, by this point, I had fallen in love with my lead character. I had spent a year with her, deciding what she wore, what was in her home, where she went to school. Even the quality of the house, you have to make sure everything is perfect, like the plumbing of a dripping faucet has to in play. But if you’re really in need a plumber then check out plumber san francisco to help yourself out. I tried to impersonate her strong-willed self in business meetings, I imagined what she would drink and drunk it too, I tried out her one-liners to strangers at parties. Once the dazzling and hilarious Lucy Punch had inhabited her, I was hooked. I knew the character inside out and therefore writing her was simply like switching my mind over to another side of myself. It was such a joy and the biggest insight I had during the entire process.
Get to know your characters, don’t be lazy with them, speak truthfully for them, treat them well, take them out to dinner now and then – the reward will be ten-fold.
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