False Start

I’m deep into post-production now, and there’s not much to say about the progress of the movie, so instead I’m going to go back to the beginning and do a series of posts about how Murder! A Love Story came to be.

Some people would probably use lots of video to do this, and they would do interviews with their cast and crew, and it’d be flashy and bite-sized and easy to consume.

But that’s not how I operate. I like the words.

So this is not going to be a “Behind the Scenes” or “Making Of”; it’s going to be me telling you the story of this movie. With words. Some of these posts might get really long. There will be sections. With sub-heads. It probably won’t be for everyone, so if you’re not into this sort of thing, feel free to duck out now; I won’t judge.

Still here? Settle in.

Taking Charge of My Own Destiny

Back in 2008, I was getting tired of writing screenplays no one wanted to read. I had four under my belt, which I considered a pretty good number, but I wasn’t having any luck finding an agent or getting produced. Since I lived in Northern Indiana and knew literally no one in Los Angeles, this should not have been very surprising, and it wasn’t, really. I knew the odds were long when I got into this business, but that didn’t make it any easier to keep sending my work out into the cosmos unacknowledged.

At this point I reminded myself that I only got into this screenwriting business so I could have good scripts to direct. In other words, Self, now that you’ve gotten pretty good at the writing, maybe it’s time to turn your attention back to what you really want to do.

I couldn’t help but agree with myself. If you’re a would-be screenwriter who has any interest at all in directing, writing something to direct on your own is a great way to take control of your career. The only gatekeeper is yourself, and you want you to succeed.

Now, the thing to do when you want to make your scrappy little ultra-indie movie with no budget is to figure out what you can get for free and build your story around that. And I had a fantastic free location already in mind.

Pre-Pre-Production

I live in a town called Winona Lake, home to a small Christian college called Grace, my alma mater. The college owns an old hotel called Westminster, which they use as a women’s dormitory. Consequently, it stands empty for much of the summer, and I figured persuading them to let me shoot there for free would be pretty easy.

I called up the office of the Vice President of Operations and ran the idea by his assistant (hereafter known as Assistant). If I’d had then even the tiny amount of small-town-producing savvy I have now, I would have just asked for a meeting with the VP and pitched the idea to him in person, but I at the time that sounded too formal and, quite frankly, terrifying. Instead, I got a promise that Assistant would talk to her boss and get back to me; I then didn’t hear from her for two weeks. That was OK, though, because I had to script the movie first. I got out my trusty spiral-bound notebook and went to work.

Having decided to do a single-location movie set entirely in a hotel, I thought it would be cool to do a contained murder-mystery. The movie-biz way to say this is: “It’s Murder on the Orient Express in a hotel!” I also had a character I’d been saving for this story: a high-school girl who solves mysteries using photography as her primary investigative tool. Putting these two ideas together would allow me to combine two powerfully non-commercial elements: mystery stories and female leads. I couldn’t resist.

I spent several hours over the next week making notes about the story, sitting across the room from my wife Sally while she taught herself patterndrafting in one of our empty bedrooms. I batted around different characters and plot points, and after a while I even got out the screenwriter’s favorite tool: index cards. I started writing down the different beats of the story on the cards, rearranging or discarding them as I changed the story.

By the time Assistant called me back, I had a glorious, disorganized mess of story ideas swimming around in my head. But that didn’t matter much, because something else had happened in the interim.

Leaving the Aquarium to Swim with the Big Sharks

Sally and I had talked off and on for some time about moving to Los Angeles so she could go to fashion school, a lifelong dream of hers. I wasn’t wild about the idea, as I had no interest in leaving our tiny little town where our families and all our friends lived. Sally, being the generous, supportive person that she is, decided that she could do without a formal education and teach herself how to design and make clothes.

We’d bought her a dress form and a number of supplies, and she was spending all her spare time wrestling with paper and scissors, trying to turn some of her sketches into real live garments. Unfortunately, just as I started to dive into pre-production, she realized she’d hit a wall.

We re-opened the question of moving to the West Coast, and this time we decided to do it.

She applied to The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, and they accepted her for the Fall Term. My friend Greg, who at the time was Executive Producing for the production company that does all the Proactiv Skin Care Commercials, told me if we could make it out by August he would hire me as a production assistant on a three-day shoot he had scheduled.

I took a slightly sheepish phone call from Assistant which went something like: “Ohhh, thanks for looking into that. Yeah, um… I’m not doing it any more.” We found renters for our house so we wouldn’t have to sell it, packed up our most vital belongings and put the rest into storage, loaded up a trailer, said good-bye to all our friends and family, and headed for the horizon.

In one box, buried under empty spirals and printouts of some of my scripts, was the small stack of 3x5 cards with the beats of my murder mystery.

I wouldn’t touch them again for nearly two years.