Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Writing Movies

Not that I'm a good cook or anything, but just the idea that creative writing is like cooking rings very true to me. You know, the whole idea of creating a story, structuring it for a visual medium (film) and creating an opportunity for the multiple layers of this medium to communicate the story you want to tell in the style you want to tell it... it's all too much fun. And I think it requires lots of brain energy. You let so much cook on an unconcious level, then you sit with that paper or keyboard and you start writing.

So my process is typically like this: I have an idea. I sit with a clear new notebook and I start handwriting the concept, scriblling possible characters, writing possible tones I could approach the film in, and I start constructing a general storyline. Then I start expanding the idea on a new page with a general outline. I always write down questions. What am I trying to do here? What does this guy need? Why does he do this or that? I keep writing questions so that I can guide myself to the answers that tell the story.

So once I have the outline, I start a new page and write the story free-hand. Stream of conscious writing. Just spilling out what comes to mind. Then once I have that whole story down, I come back to it and start transcribing it into my mac and cleaning it up. Expanding dialogue, combining scenes, clarifying details... things like that. This process goes over several days or weeks, depending on the size of the film.

Now here's the "craft" aspect of screenwriting... how can you tell each scene in the most effective way without the use of dialogue? I like to focus on point of view. Who's point of view is this scene told through? Why? What can I communicate through the actor's eyes instead of dialogue? I usually write in beats, and often I find myself replacing an entire line of dialogue with one word like "hm..." And I love it, because the less the actors have to express through words, the more effective their performance can be. Emotions are often kept internal. And you can engage the audience more if you let them try to see that emotion through the actor's eyes instead of being told what that emotion is through a line of dialogue. I think that's generally the difference between good movies and bad movies... and bad TV just the same.

Anyway, so after I've spent all this time working my ass off writing the script, I'm done... or so I think. The most painful, yet most rewarding aspect of screenwriting is the process of re-writing. You need to step away from the script for a while so that you can come back and read it with a fresh set of eyes. You have to see it through the eyes of a brand new reader. And when you do that, you discover that so much of what you wrote in the first draft is full of cliches or assumes that the audience understands what you're thinking. So you start rewriting.

What I like to do is re-outline the entire script from page one so that I can clearly see the big picture, the beats of the movie.
And by the way, I think humour is soooooooo important. No drama works without some humor, even if just on an intellectual level. Show me one example and I'll give you my left shoe. Anyway, so I re-outline the script and then start shuffling scenes or expanding a new treatment of the story. And, as painful as it sounds, I start writing the entire story on a brand new white page.

I don't do that until I'm ready to go into a new blitz of obsessive writing. I mean the kind of writing where you sit in a coffee shop and you write for seven hours straight without getting off your ass. The kind of writing where you're living inside the scene and all you're doing is transcribing what's going on in front of you. That's the most powerful feeling in the world because at this point, you know who your characters are and you know where the movie is going. You have to know where you're going to end up, and if each scene serves the grand theme of the film, then you have a tight script. So I love that feeling of getting lost in the world of the movie, being unaware of your surroundings.

I feed off the energy around me at coffee shops. And I just write. I write and play God for a while. I erase characters, I change their social status. I give them friends. I depress them. Put them through pain and torture. Give them a sense of hope sometimes. It's too much fun.

Anyway, so I felt like sharing with you my thoughts about writing. As I'm re-writing my thesis film right now, I'm exploring the different tones I could play with. I'm on my fourth draft now. My first three drafts were absurdist surreal comedy based on behaviour. This new draft will focus more on the psychology of the writer and less on the plot points and twists and turns. I figure the most effective way to make a short film is to explore strong characters. With features you have more time to play with plot. With shorts, I think it's better to have a character study.

So anyway, here are the first few pages from my thesis film as it is now... I give you "Morning Latte"

EXT/INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING

The orange sun shines through the windows of this uniquely trendy and colorful cafe. Sign reads “Morning Latte”.
Hands fill up coffee machines...
Pour milk into containers...
Fill sugar packets into bins...
Arrange pastries in window.
When suddenly, a hand bell rings.
All hands stop.
His thundering voice commands the room.

GEORGE (O.S.)
Who put the brown sugar packets in the cane sugar bin?

This is GEORGE, 40, the slightly portly manager, defined by his red cheeks and intimidating pointy goatee. His clothing references Samurai. In his hand, he holds a Pavlovian bell.
He stares at his three shaken employees across the coffee shop.

GEORGE (CONT'D)
We don't do that. We don't put the brown sugar packets where the white sugar packets belong.

He walks up to them holding the bin filled with brown sugar packets. Stops. Stares at the three.

GEORGE (CONT'D)
We don't do that.
We don't do that.
We don't do that.
We don't...
(long pause)
...do that.

He inspects his employees up close.
He moves up to LUCY, 25, freckled red-head, big optimistic eyes.

GEORGE (CONT'D)
I know it wasn't you, Lucy. You care about this place too much. You take pride in your work.

She smiles, relieved.
He walks to ROBERT, 35, terrified.

GEORGE (CONT'D)
Robert... No. No no no no no. You don't have it in you.

Robert relaxes.
George steps over to WILLIAM, 30, tall, defiant, handsome.
They stare into each other's eyes.

GEORGE (CONT'D)
Why William? Why do you do this to me? Why do you do this to you?

Not a flinch from William.
George flips the sugar bin over, dropping the packets on the ground and all over William's shoes.

GEORGE (CONT'D)
Clean it up.
He walks away to his office in the back as the bell rings in his hand.
William gets on his knees and picks up the sugar packets. Lucy gets down and helps him.

LUCY
(whispers)
Did you do it on purpose?

WILLIAM
It's just a stupid sugar bin.

LUCY
William, you know better than that. Why William?

WILLIAM
Because... because... it felt good. When I sell my screenplay and I'm outta this hell-hole, you'll understand.

Just then William looks outside and sees a beautiful girl, PENELOPE, 26, walking towards the glass door.
He quickly jumps up on his feet and leaves Lucy on her knees cleaning up alone.
He gets behind the counter as Penelope walks in.

WILLIAM (CONT'D)
Good morning Penelope.

PENELOPE
Morning William.

WILLIAM
How's your liver.

Pause.

PENELOPE
My liver?

WILLIAM
Wasn't your... didn't you... Weren't you having liver problems?

PENELOPE
No.

WILLIAM
'Cause I swear I thought I heard you telling someone you were having issues with your liver.

PENELOPE
No.

WILLIAM
That's why I thought you didn't come in yesterday.

Awkward silence. She stares at him.

PENELOPE
How's the screenplay coming?

WILLIAM
Uh great. Actually, I... I've been meaning to tell you.

He stares at her, smitten.

PENELOPE
Hm?

WILLIAM
Uh... I named the heroine after you.

Silence.

WILLIAM (CONT'D)
I... I... I named her Penelope.

Silence, then a slight smile from her.

5 Comments:

Blogger Lubna said...

A cute phrase, I played God :)
You’re so focused on your work, its making you shine in a very productive way.

I liked "Morning Latte", If I was on TV flipping channels and saw that little scene of yours, I would definitely stop and start watching :)
but next time let William call his heroine Lubna instead :P

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looking good Amin,
I'm a kinda person who reads while my eyes r closed ...I try to watch what am reading.. as i started reading your scene the feelings would flow through the images but i would feel some fade as the discriptions and the words change towards a climax then suddenly decend, it actually feels good for some moments as thrills illude into a distraction...the liver part sorta made me open my eyes lost ...it remindes me of hows your cancer? you know. Add some suger to your latte...you'll enjoy the feeling too, maybe then what you realy want out of your penelope will climix when your audience least expect it...You are doing a great job and i cant wait to c many more films to come..keep up the good work!

~T~

9:00 AM  
Blogger Amin Matalqa said...

Thank y'all. I hope my movie turns out to be strange and entertaining. The thing is you'll never please all audiences, so I don't expect everyone to dig it, but I'm going for something twisted and different.

8:37 PM  
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1:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:21 AM  

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