26 Apr writer/ski-bum
as many of you know – the last couple weeks I spent up in Mammoth Lakes, snowboarding, editing and writing. it was a really great and refreshing trip – not unlike my Sheep Ranch trip last year. the main difference here was instead of working on a house I was going snowboarding..and I actually had some real “client” work to throw into the mix. which I was very happy for, as gas to Mammoth isn’t cheap.
today I wanted to talk a little about my writing process. each time I start a new type of project it’s always a bit different – I like to keep it loose and adaptable to whatever I’m working on. in this case my eventual goal is a feature screenplay that fits with the “Luke aesthetic” and has a limited location and cast. basically, I’m trying to develop a project that will be to a feature film like CERTIFIED was to a short.
so in developing a new project, where to start? well for me, I generally like to start with the end goal in mind. believe me when I say I’ve done a lot a thinking about the sorts of films I want to make. some of it’s written down in sketch pads, some in the stickies app on my laptop (where I’m writing now actually), and some of it has never made it outside my head. as I set out to brainstorm new film ideas, I went back to these lists of inspiration.
I won’t bore you with ALL the bits and pieces I collected for this project, but I will share a few with you.
several years ago after making a list of films that I “wish I could have made” I noticed the following themes reoccured in many of them. here is that old list:
• The Quest
• Freedom/Choice vs. Duty
taking those themes I imagined compelling limited locations where thos themes could play out. some of those were:
• an interstellar space ship
• a mining colony on astroid / planet
• a post apocalyptic bunker
• a research station in the arctic / on the polar ice
• a train
• at a sleep clinic / drug testing facility
now many of these would not be budget appropriate, so I examined the list and thought about WHAT compelled me about those locations. I got this list:
• the edge of society
• the frontier
• fights for survival
• man rising above his potential
• sacrifice for the greater good
• the distinction/blurring between realities
as you can see, it’s similar to the list that I made years ago…which I think is a good thing. it means there are issues and ideas that are stuck in my head. things that won’t go away…and I should pay attention to them because that is where my passion & inspiration will reside.
so at this point I’ve got themes and ideas that interest me, some locations I won’t be able to afford… and no stories. what next? how do I take these disparate elements and make them into a screenplay?
once of the things I’ve learned about dramatic storytelling is that it needs to contain DRAMA. specifically that there needs to be a strong “Dramatic Dilemma.” what is a dramatic dilemma? well, in the simplest terms it’s the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation that a character is placed in. the harder the decision – the more compelling the drama and the more the audience will care. as a storyteller you want to put your protagonist in the toughest possible position. force them to make HARD decisions and you’ll make interesting media. let them sail by easily and you’ll be making ENTOURAGE(1).
it’s important that there not be an obvious solution to the problem they are facing.
ex: the protagonist has to decide between staying with the love of his life, or heading out on the road to do something dangerous.
that’s a weak dilemma. why would he not stay w/ the love of his life? what compells him to go out and “do something dangerous?”
I went back to my sketch books and looked for a list of dramatic dilemmas that I’d brainstormed last year. here are some of them:
• Family vs. Duty to Nation
• True Love vs. Marriage
• The Life of an Innocent Stranger vs. The Life of a Guilty Loved One
• Freewill vs. Security
• Wealth vs. Love
• Life of a Child vs. Life of a Spouse
none of these choices should be easy. if it’s easy, it isn’t good drama! and since I’m not interested in making films without compelling and engaging drama it was important that I consider the sorts of hard choices I could force my characters to make.
I was getting close to actually start to writing…but a little more brainstorming was in order. I made lists of things in our modern society that bothered me and a list of things that excited me. this could lead into a really big topic on the importance & cultural relevance of cinema and perhaps sometime in the future I’ll come back and write on it. But for now, let’s just cut it short and simply say that I want my films, especially fantasy or sci-fi projects to address real issues and real struggles that face people and society today.
after all that pre-brainstorming I went snowboarding and for a few hours forgot about the world.
then I brewed some French press coffee, put on some good music, and let my mind wander.
I didn’t try to edit myself – I wrote down whatever ideas, scenarios, and random thoughts popped into my head. it wasn’t important that the ideas were good (although I hoped they would be). it was more important that I got the the ideas OUT there. I’ve found that often a bad first idea will inspire a good idea later, or you’ll realize what you liked about that first idea, riff off of it and come up with something actually workable.
the trick for me is to let the writing flow, get as much on ‘paper’ as possible, then when there is a LOT of it, look at it and refine, revise, and rewrite.
after multiple brainstorming sessions, revisions, and weeding I had a solid 20+ loglines/ideas for potential projects. I sent these to some of my trusted friends/advisors for feedback and worked on narrowing the list down to 10. once I was settled on that smaller number I expanded the ideas from a sentence or two into 1-page treatments.
once finished, these treatments will be submitted to my producer Kimberley. together she and I will pick the best ones and I’ll work on further expanding the ideas. if there’s one that seems to be a good fit for the sort of feature screenplay we are looking for, only then will I sit down and write it.
it might seem like a lot of work, and I guess it is, but I’ve found that they better I know what I’m trying to say, write, film, or edit – the smoother the process goes. so even if this work doesn’t yield a finished screenplay, it is still worth it because I’ve tuned and refined my ideas as a storyteller. and hey, if someone ever says that they are looking for a project that is GREMLINS meets SNAKES ON A PLANE, well now I’ve got something for them.
who knows, maybe in a month or two I’ll be back Sheep Ranch again. there’s some chainsawing that needs to be done.
what about y’all? I’d love to learn about some of your creative processes!
(1) ENTOURAGE is a show notorious for letting its characters off easy.