Freedom - whoppee! I’ve got the whole world as my stage. I can write whatever I like, about whomever I like, living wherever I like. The computer screen is pristine white, the cursor winks at me invitingly and I can type faster than a choirboy runs from a bishop.
So where to begin?
I think I want to tell a story about a boy and a girl, who meet in...Nairobi. He’s English middle-class visiting grandparents; she’s a girl from the slums. No. Wait. She’s English white middle-class visiting her dad who’s stationed in Nairobi working at the embassy, and he’s the dishwasher at the embassy, living in a hut in the slums with his five siblings.
Okay. Delete all that, not another Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve always wanted to write the new Star Wars, only with actual galactic stars as living creatures and sentient creatures battling out during the big bang.
...or maybe not. Better have another glass of red. Or not. Slow down now. White page again. Deep breath (and yeah a little sip of Merlot never hurt Hemingway, did it? He only put a shotgun in his mouth, no biggie. Big glass of Merlot then).
Who’s the main character? Man? Woman? Transgender? Dog? A talking stuffed bear? A Lego piece? Is it a main character story, or an ensemble cast? Is it told V-O, narrated by an old man remembering his youth told in flashback - or, hey! Maybe it’s a silent movie?
And genre, God! (More Merlot, and there might be some vodka in the freezer for later on.) Romantic comedy? Tragi-comedy? Historical drama? Cop drama? Drama? Comedy? Black comedy? Comedy comedy? Strange film set in Korea? Sci-fi, low-fi, wifi - shiiiiit. What the FI have I got myself into? (Wine glasses are for ponces, btw, wine tastes best straight from the bottle.)
I haven’t even started (or in fact I have - about 13 times - but it’s looking to be a sad ending. Or should I make it a happy ending? For which character, in what location, told by whom? Aaargh.
Freedom is choice. And if there’s too much choice, you get lost - both mentally and geographically (anyone who’s ever visited a US supermall knows what I’m talking about).
For me, the trick is to take away as much “freedom” from my story as possible. Because if the whole world is your stage; if your characters are unlimited, if anything can happen at any given moment - you’re lost on an ocean of possibilities. This (to me) is both bewildering, scary and uncreative.
Writing - at least screenwriting - is not about freedom. In fact, it’s about rules, and strict ones at that.
So let’s rewind the tape, erase that computer screen once again and start over. What if, in fact, you didn’t have any freedom when you started writing your story? What if you had some very narrow parameters to work with, some absolutely unbreakable rules?
A typical film-school writing assignment is something like “two guys and a girl in a room”: one is pregnant, one is the father, there’s a gun, and a million dollars: only one leaves the room alive. Write the scene. You have 30 minutes. Go.
(Producers, by the way, love these kind of scenes and movies: one room, one house, one apartment. They hate overseas travel, night scenes and any kind of film with Grand Central Station in it: it’s called “Writing with your wallet” - in fact, their wallet. A producer will ten times more likely accept a script that’s cheap to produce than one that needs thousands of extras dancing in Grand Central Station at night in costume.)
Examples of films that come to mind with small casts and limited locations are:
Pieces of April
Basically located in a tenement building and a car. The building where April lives, and the car that her family is travelling in, to come to her Thanksgiving dinner.
A lesbian (yes, with Gina Gershon: go see) noir crime thriller set in one apartment.
Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and Before Midnight
Okay, the films take place in three different locations (but only one for each film); Vienna, Paris and Pelopenessos, Greece, but it’s basically two people growing up, bickering, talking and meeting - and parting.
Those are just from the top of my head. The list could be made almost endless. (Oh, here’s another one: Little Miss Sunshine: A dysfunctional family travel cross-country in a beat-up VW bus to a pageant they all know their pre-teen daughter IMPOSSIBLY can win. One car, one family. Brilliant.)
Imprisonment is a great ally for the creative screenwriter. Freedom the enemy. Instead of mumbling to a possible collaborative partner: “Uh, yeah, it’s about, like, my dad and stuff…?” Do your homework; build that prison before you even leave your room. Boil down the location. Sketch out the characters (no more than five, ever). Set up your parameters before you write one single word on page. Will there be a murder? Will cops figure - or not - if it’s a crime drama? Will the press play a part - or not - if it’s a legal drama? For example, have a vague idea, at least, of the ending.
Then, when all that is done: let loose, and let your characters take a right where you’d planned a left, argue when you’d wanted silence, make love when celibacy was the rule. For short: break the rules. But to do that you have to have rules in the first place, right?
For me, as a writer, creative freedom is impossible without imprisonment: rules that help me build the screenplay in a coherent and structured way. And what is school, workplace, the army, prison - hell, driving down the road - but rules?
In real life we all live (and mostly abide) by rules, from dawn ’til dusk, and then some. And why do we (mostly) go to the movies?
To see people break the darn rules.