Monday, February 7, 2011

Changes in attitude...

It normally takes me a few days to get into a screenplay, sort of like dating; some dancing around, some flirting, some insight and finally you dive in, damn the consequences, it totally inhales you.

I started writing last Monday, after looking for anything I could do instead of writing. As I've said before, rather than getting easy for me after 30 years of screenwriting (excluding the other years of writing commercials and documentaries) it gets harder.

Why? Because I'm competing with myself and also I know too much about the process (and thus know the shortcuts, the easy outs and the best way to avoid writing).

And a main problem of this screenplay is that I am writing the real actors rather than made-up characters.

A word on "made up characters" first.  When I began writing, way back in the early years,  I would fill out the script guru's requirements for a character, what's his name, how far did he go in school, what's his pet peeve and many more useless things. Those of you who write knew what this is.

But I found my characters lacked... well... character. They were one dimensional and each character spoke like the same person. There was no individual voice to the separate characters.

This thing took me a long time to figure out, at least 3 years to a point, but my best character driven script came almost 10 years after my first screenplay. And that was Emperor of Mars, arguably my best screenplay. And never made. Yet!

What I learned was to borrow characters; in other words use people I knew or people I've watched in cafes or parties or wherever. Like Sunday morning, riding on Venice Beach with my usual group of ex-pat Canadians, I passed a couple walking from a cafe and noticed the man mimicking a waiter inside, he made faces and spoke in what was the waiter's voice.

In that instant, and that's how long it took, my memory froze that image of the man and his imitation and  his wife's reaction. I could suddenly see a character based on what I witnessed for maybe 30-40 seconds.

It only took me 30 years to learn how to do this. 

Okay, less than that, but I always marvel at how I can be doing one thing and then something in my brain catches something else, a man or a woman or a child doing something unique. And it automatically files itself into my hard drive corner in my mind.

After Emperor I began using real people as a basis for characters, people like the development exec who was an alcoholic and swore like a sailor and whom I still respect in terms of her ability to come up with great notes. Based loosely on her and a woman who had a great first name, Kylie, and a bit of my ex, who was and is a terrific woman and the total opposite of Kylie, but my ex's upbringing in Oregon helped me with the feel of the town Kylie came from. I began to assemble a character that was real.

She was a bourbon-drinking ex druggie who burned out in L.A. and made her way back to the Pacific northwest to confront her father for screwing up her life. I still love the title; "Secrets of the Salmon" after an article I read about how salmon have a homing device, returning to where they were born. Anyone for metaphors?

So real that Jody Foster's company couldn't believe a man wrote it but also wanted to know who the woman was. I said she was "Kylie" and left it at that. I also have a great way to write women's parts so much that they really like them. More on that later.

And this method has worked for me since then. But Ghostkeeper was different.

Now I was writing actual living characters, in the sense that the actors from the original Ghostkeeper (1980) were playing themselves in the Ghostkeeper remake. So I was now faced with writing dialog not based on people, but the actual people.

And you know what? They all sounded the same. Why? Because I didn't want to insult, hurt or make fun of them, after all they are my friends and I was treating them like royalty, no swearing, no anger, no confusion... no conflict.

No conflict is death. Without conflict there is no story, no drama.

So I tried something else; I tried to use gossip instead, you know "That Murray, sometimes he's a real pain". Well, I made Murray be a real pain for a scene. And for someone else, "she tells her husband when to sit, where to sit and how to sit", and I used that attitude for another one of the actors.

And by Friday the characters had taken their own direction, becoming real fictional characters who were moving in the direction they wanted, not necessarily what I wanted. And when that happens to me, I know they are coming alive.

A lot of people don't understand that phenomenon whereby characters begin to leap off the page and become different things. It really does happen and after awhile I feel like I'm just the typist and they are telling me what to do.

And believe me, it doesn't always happen this easily. Of course the main advantage here is that I am writing the screenplay as a spec, sort of, and I don't have to listen to development execs give me notes every week for 6 weeks or longer.

I'll finish this first draft by the end of the week, I hope.

(Thurs: Reality vs Myth - the Windigo)