There is a great deal of newness to my life right now. I think this is one of the most remarkable components of this stage of my artistic career, how the past two years have catapulted me into a completely new direction. I worked very hard to make this happen, so I can’t say the overall result is unexpected. But so much of what makes up this transition is revolutionary.
A New Set of Tools
In many ways, working as a screenwriter is like a skilled surgeon learning a new field of medicine, say, pediatrics. A great deal of what I know can be directly applied. But at the same time, there is a very real danger in assuming I know what I need to. This is a crucial issue.
I have often worked with successful pastors who are finding it extremely hard to say what they want in a non-fiction book. Because they are successful at the pulpit, they assume they will be successful on the page. This is totally not true. In fact, it is often necessary for them to unlearn certain aspects of their work in order to write a solid book. The success they know as a pastor does not translate. They must learn a new set of tools.
Much of the unexpected newness comes from learning this same lesson. Which is ironic. Because I have said it so often to others, you might think I would already know this myself. But it is not true.
I will talk about two specific new items here. The first is the collaborative nature of screenwork.
When I write a novel, I am one of many. Most novelists prefer to ignore this fact. But it is true. I write the story, and then it goes through a very detailed and technical editorial process. Then it is taken by the marketing team, who often will re-title the book. Less than half my books carry the title I have lived with for the year or more that it took to write it.
Then there is the sales campaign, and the interviews, and the PR work, on and on, the number of participants extending out through the world, getting this book into the hands of as many readers as possible.
But it is still my book. My name is the one on the cover. I am the guy in the spotlight.
In screenwork, nothing could be further from the truth.
When I talk with beginning screenwriters, I often hear them refer to the project as ‘my film’. I have to tell them they simply cannot say this. Not and be allowed to sit down with a director or a producer. Both of these people will boot the would-be scriptwriter right out the door. Because it is not their film and never will be.
A screenplay is like a blueprint.
And once the architect finishes the first draft, that is when the real work begins. And as many as a dozen sets of hands will work on the story before the first inch of film is shot. That is the world of film. Either you accept it, or you grow increasingly bitter with the process.
The second unexpected newness is the intensity of the set. I am on my flight home now, leaving behind the sites in El Paso where Unlimited has been filmed. I was both working on the film project and working on the novel. This happens occasionally, switching the order around, doing the screenplay first and then the novel.
The Godfather is an example of this order, as is Love Story. Adapting the story from script to film means a great deal of new research, because of the depth that a novel will reach which is not required for a good film. Nuances of the characters must be revealed, and a stronger sense of three dimensional flow is required in the plot. So I have had some extremely busy days. But beautiful. And one reason for this amazing wonder is, as I said, the intensity that surrounds a film set.
The level of professionalism is extreme.
Each component of the film is critical, from lighting to cameras to set design to wardrobe, on and on. And each one of these groups are here because they are passionate about film and extremely professional in their approach to the project.
And the reason that I was accepted on set was because I adopted the same approach. I might have been the screenwriter. But this was no longer my project. I was just one of many.
And the newcomer. Everyone else had worked on multiple projects. My first day out there, they watched. Would I play the prima donna. Would I object to the alterations that were happening to my work. Would I demand a central spot.
Instead, I remained at the very fringe. Like the wedding banquet Jesus described, I held back and settled down at the far border of the set. And I watched.
So people relaxed. When I was invited forward, I did not comment about the film at all. How could I? I have no real idea what’s happening. I was like a newborn, assaulted by so many new sensations I could only catch glimpses of what was happening, with no real understanding of the entire process that surrounded me.
Questions, questions, and more questions
On the flight out, I had an idea. I knew I was the outsider here, and I also knew that many producers and directors bar screenwriters from even entering the set, precisely because they want to claim the work as theirs. I wanted to show them from the outset this was not my plan.
When I was invited to become a part of the process, really enter in and work around the people, I started approaching one actor after another. And I interviewed them.
I asked them to tell me who the characters were. Not what I had written. What they had made of these characters.
- What was the backstory?
- What did they bring to the moment when the cameras caught them?
- Where did they come from?
- Why did they act as they did?
- Who drove them?
- Where were they going next?
The questions caught everyone off guard. The director, the actors, the cameramen, everyone. No one had ever known a writer to do this before. Which surprises me, because it seems the natural thing to do.
These people had been living inside the heads of these characters for weeks and weeks of prep work. Of course they had studied these issues. They are, after all, real professionals. Three of them are stars in the making. Perhaps four.
One of them, Roberto Amaya, literally stole every scene of Courageous that he appeared in. He was great to talk with, by the way. He plays an orphan who wants to take over the Christian home where he was raised, and has a beautiful sister, Sofia, who plays a major role in the orphanage, and yet who exasperates him with every breath. Seeing the two of them work through this, and discussing their relationship with Robert, was like mining pure gold.
One of the great challenges of writing solid fiction is managing to give each character a unique voice. They must stand out as having their own story, and sound like this, think like this.
Learning to separate the characters from one another is a powerful component of becoming a successful novelist. And here I was, talking to one professional after another, who had spent months doing this work for me.
Of course I talked with them.
And what a joy, what an indescribable delight it was, to learn at their feet.
A Virtual Day on the Set
Join me at my Facebook page Tuesday, April 24 for a day on the set of UNLIMITED. I’ll be posting updates throughout the day about my experiences on the set.
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