Monday, March 31, 2008

Listening and Learning

I was recently commissioned to write a short script. A director had roughed out a story idea. Her producer found me, gave me a few ground rules, then told me to run with it.

The story idea was interesting enough, but broke a number of rules of good storytelling, and seemed to require a few too many crowd scenes and hard-to-access locations. I wrote a lot of notes on the idea and came up with a list of the tools I had to work with. If you've been reading my blog for a while, you realize that 'tools' are really just problems viewed from a better angle. Often you can take two problems and find one good solution for both. For example, say you've got a character that drops somewhere before the midpoint. The script also bogs down and loses pacing somewhere after the midpoint. I look for the dropped character to jump in and kick the pacing back up. (or remove that character, and thus maybe the storytelling swamp it creates down the way).

I was pretty proud of myself. I managed to eliminate the prohibitively expensive locations. I made the piece feel more unified -- full of expectations that could be subverted, transcended, and otherwise played with. I shoehorned a story that covered weeks of real time into 15 minutes of narrative.

The producer was thrilled with the story. The director, however, was not. I'd drifted too far from her original idea. It wasn't going to work. There was no reason to try to convince her that this script was a stronger project. If you've ever helped make a script into a movie, you know that the director has to be 100% engaged in it. There's no reason to make something you aren't deeply committed to. It's too much time, money and effort. It's too much stress.

So I sat down with the director, and we hashed out what works and what doesn't. And I learned a great deal. She had a strong sense of what she wanted. She knew how it looked in her head. She'd secured a few locations that I thought she wouldn't be able to get.

But as we spoke I realized something deeper. While I'd read and reread her story idea, I hadn't been able to read past my own assumptions about it. And as she spoke about the script idea, I realized I'd fallen in to the trap of writing for accessibility and entertainment.

The director wanted something more challenging. There wasn't to be a neat little plot escalation. She wanted the audience to make the jumps between scenes for themselves. She wanted the visuals to tell the story more than the conflict. The story was set immediately after the break up. So I'd decided it was a break up story. It's not. It's about people searching for themselves when their assumptions about themselves have been stripped away. Suddenly it all made sense.

She had an aesthetic worked out that supported the whole story idea. Once I understood it, I fell in love with the idea.

There's good news here for me. It looks like I'll get two short scripts made instead of one. I've made new contacts and moved my career forward. But beyond that -- I learned a little humility. It's easy to look to your training or your experience and think you can solve any problem by spiffing up the three-act structure or honing the character's misbehavior.

But the world is bigger than that. Storis are wilder than that. And thank god for that.

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