Heading East

This is the second part of my series of posts telling the story of how this film came to be. If you missed it, you may want to begin over at Part 1.

Practical Education

When we last left our intrepid hero (me), I was on my way to Los Angeles, having abandoned my plans to produce a movie in my college town of Winona Lake. You may remember me mentioning a stack of index cards with all my ideas for the script, possibly the world’s worst cliffhanger image.

I’ll skip pretty lightly over the two years my wife and I spent in LA. Here are the two things you need to know:

  1. The number of feature movie scripts I’d written increased to nine. Looking back over the progress I made as a writer during those two years, it turned out to be a very good thing that I didn’t write Murder! A Love Story in 2008. When I finally did write it (more on that later), it was much better than it would have been two years earlier.
  2. All the money I made in LA came from working in production, mostly as a Production Assistant, although I also worked quite a few gigs for an Art Director and three or four as an editor. The vast majority of my jobs were for non-union companies, where they let the PAs join in the work of any department that happens to need help at the moment, so I picked up experience in nearly every aspect of production.

As Sally neared her last few quarters of fashion school, we started to talk about the transition back to Indiana. We had always intended to return home once she was done with her education, and the plan hadn’t changed.

Since we would be moving back in the fall of 2010, the summer of 2011 seemed like a great time to shoot a movie. If you remember, I needed production to happen in the summer because at any other time, the building I wanted to use would be full of college students. Also, warm weather is easier to shoot in, and summer is a time when you’re more likely to persuade people to take a week off to act in and crew your production.

But before you can do any of those things, you need a script.

Picking a Genre

Remember that stack of index cards? In November of 2009, almost a year in advance of our return to Winona Lake, I dug them out of their box.

Now, just because I’d been writing other things and working on other shows this whole time doesn’t mean I hadn’t spent any time thinking about this script. I’d been bouncing ideas around in my head for two years, trying to find the right way into the story. All I really had as my starting point was a location and a character. The story itself could be pretty flexible, as long as it all took place in a hotel and the main character was a high school girl who loved photography. I wanted it to be a mystery because the thriller genre is a good one for independent films, being easier to market overseas than comedies, which don’t translate well into foreign languages.

Unfortunately, one of the things I had learned in the last two years was that I very definitely write comedies, and pretty dialogue-heavy comedies at that.

In fact, the thing I write best is romantic comedy in which the humor is largely based on wordplay between intelligent characters with lots of spare time to stand around and impress each other with their wit. You can begin rolling your eyes whenever you like.

The more I thought about this, though, the more it made sense. Thrillers are pretty low on dialogue and heavy on action, but this actually makes them longer to shoot. Dialogue is the way to go if you want to shoot 12 pages a day, because once you get the scene lit you can let the actors crank through the lines over and over, just moving the camera every few takes to get a different angle. In this way you can shoot several pages in the space of just a couple hours.

Also, doing a light-hearted, dialogue- and character-driven mystery played not only to my strengths as a writer but to my tastes and references as a film lover. I grew up watching lots of ’30s and ’40s movies, and I still love movies like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep, which rely heavily on dialogue to push the story forward.

All these words just foreshorten a process that took place in my brain over the course of several months. By the time I actually sat down to start writing the script, I’d already decided: I was writing a romantic-comedy/murder-mystery hybrid, heavy on the rom-com.

Writing

I’ll spare you several paragraphs of writing about writing and note just a few things that will be totally boring and irrelevant to non-writers. Feel free to skip to the next heading if you’re not interested.

Thing One: During the course of writing this movie, I switched from being the kind of screenwriter who uses lots of neatly-marked-up index cards to being the kind who scrawls illegibly in notebooks. I’d always had cheap spirals lying around and used them to do mind-mapping and general note-taking about my ideas, but while I was writing Murder! I also churned out pages and pages of plot points, dialogue scraps, character ideas and structure maps. I write multiple directions on each page to separate the various types of notes from each other. I also write upside-down on alternating pages to keep the spiral binding on the right side (I’m left-handed). You can see an example here, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Thing Two: I use a character worksheet to create personalities, histories and specific traits for the major characters in my scripts. This is the kind of thing that I shunned when I was a beginning screenwriter, thinking that such mechanics were artificial and unnecessary. Of course, the real reason I wanted to believe that was laziness. Who wants to actually do all this thinking and work before actually getting to the fun part: writing the script? Me, if I want my stories to be good, that’s who. If you’re reading this and you’re a writer who doesn’t use such a thing, think about it again.

Thing Three: After I had a first draft of this screenplay done I sent it off to a couple friends of mine for notes. Every writer should have note-givers in his or her life. Mine are David O’Donnell and Greg Francis. Also, my mother, who is by far my severest critic. They’ve suffered through quite a few of my scripts, and they always come up with something valuable to say about them, even when I secretly wish they wouldn’t because I want to be done with that particular project. And that’s the point of good note-givers: they push you to be better even when you’d be ready to let something be less than excellent.

Up Anchor

Anyway, the point is: I wrote the screenplay. It took a couple months (work was pretty sporadic at the time, so I had plenty of empty days) to knock out the first draft, and another few days to do rewrites once my trusted readers had given me their notes. I would ultimately do other small adjustments and polishes later, but two drafts got me to the point where I was sure that I had a movie on my hands and could start pre-production as soon as I returned to Indiana.

Which, a few months later, is what I did. Sally graduated cum laude from FIDM, and we packed up a truck to transport our now-larger quantity of personal possessions across the country. Then we saddled up with the cats (oh, yeah… we have two cats) and started the three-day drive to the Midwest.

Next Time: Securing the Location, and How Nothing is Ever as Easy as you Hope.