Learning at the Feet of… Actors

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.

On the set of UNLIMITED, the movie with the market in the background. Joe Scott, writer, Davis Bunn, writer, Chad Gundersen, producer

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.

The chief cinematographer explains to me that they are shooting ‘filler’ shots, walking around the barrio and capturing images that will add to the overall feel.

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.

Click the “Like” button, above, and you’ll receive all my updates in your News Feed.

10 Responses to “Learning at the Feet of… Actors”

  1. Linda Adams says:

    How awesome that you were able to demonstrate to them what a servant truly is. And as you say, there is so much JOY in the learning. I’m sure they experienced the same thing as they learned from you…by your example.

  2. Sharon Roberts says:

    I don’t think anything happens by chance. How amazing it must be to reach the next level of your God given talents. The journey will continue in your life because you have so much to do and give to the world.

  3. Barb Collver says:

    I am amazed at how God uses us in new and different ways if we are just willing and obedient! God bless you richly – I’ll be waiting to see this one.

  4. Davis: Thanks so much for sharing this report with your subscribers. This is
    just awesome! I’m not over remembering all details of recent LION OF BABYLON
    and so looking forward to the new novel RARE EARTH… However, I see what you
    mean about “using new tools” and it’s so interesting how God can use an author
    to write or even ’embed’ spiritual data/points in novels and I suppose at times
    the writer might not even know he did that, but by the Spirit was it so suttle
    accomplished….Thanks, Larry W. Taylor, Oklahoma

  5. Dorothy Cowling says:

    Am so looking forward to this movie when it is out. Your books are so well received in the library where I am the purchaser and I know that there will be a lot of interest in this movie. I am also anxiously awaiting your next novel…love your writing!!

  6. Cali says:

    As an emerging writter, I found it fascinating to learn about the process of script writting. To have the actors themselves talk to you about the characters must have been like having a character in a novel develope beyond what you expected. It’s happened to me, as I’m sure it’s happened to you, but then to have that character displayed in a person who is telling you these things must have been amazing and surreal.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Karen says:

    Thanks for the sneak peak into the world of film. You also gave us a picture of the person you are and how you are guided by God. I am looking forward to the day on the set on April 24th. I work at a bookstore and love recommending your books to customers especially ones who have never read your books. I have compared you to Francine Rivers another favorite author. Loved the collaboration with Janette Oke!!! Keep on writing and growing in Jesus!

  8. susan w. says:

    I have so enjoyed your writing and seeing how you have grown. The Messenger about the angel was the first one I read. Your last books are edgier and more close to the bone. Randy Alcorn is also a favorite of mine. You and he are now my top Christian authors to read. So glad you are working with movies. If unlimited is as good as courageous how exciting! To have a Christian presence in the entertainment industry is what we need.

  9. Sandy says:

    I learn, too! Every time I read your work, your blog, your posts it is like completing a continuing ed course in this journey called life. I’m enriched and enabled to keep on seeking, growing, learning in my own life. All glory to God!

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