Tuesday, 2 December 2014

SCRIPTS: Hearing voices by Ola Zaltin

It is said that a film is made three times: it is written, it is shot and it is edited. Every time it comes out somewhat different from what the original intent was. (Hell, quite often the original intent is all together forgotten, left for dead or just plain abandoned.)

Come to think of it, the three different stages of the making of a film could roughly be transferred to the classical three-act structure. There is the first act: the writing of the script, wherein we set up the central plot lines, introduce the characters – their flaws, wants and needs – and put the film in its proper genre. 

Then there's the second act, as it were, the actual shoot: the most arduous, conflict filled, relationship killing, suicide inducing, no-sleep-no-eat-lots-of-alcohol-and-pills a director can imagine. And then some. This all inevitably leads up to the climax of the process, which is the last day of shooting, plus one week of over-budget pick-up shots that were missed or lost, and then to cap it all off: the wrap party.

The wrap party is ostensibly there to celebrate the end of a successful shoot. In reality, it's the one time that the entire crew can unwind, let their guard down and go bananas. And they do. There's drinking like the world ends tomorrow, drugs in the stalls, making out in the corners and shagging on the lawn. (This is all before the appetizers, mind.)

After that comes the mellow third act, the easing of the tension, tying up all the loose ends that is the editing process.

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As a screenwriter, you are naturally heavily involved with the first act of this melodrama – the writing part. I've mostly written with directors and not for them, so to speak. Meaning that we meet for days and weeks and talk and walk and I take notes and go home and write and send it off and then more back and forth via e-mail and then new sessions in conference rooms that drag on forever and a day with copious amounts of coffee and snacks.

During this initial part of the making of a film, I am the director's best friend, drinking buddy, confidante, confessor and priest combined. In my experience this involves baring your inner-most secrets (most lofty dreams) and get acquainted with his or her family in general.

However, slowly people start to trickle in on the meetings. Other voices are introduced into the conversation. Voices that all have a point of view, helpful advice. Constructive feedback. A producer, a co-producer. A line-producer, casting-agent, actors, set-designers, prop-masters and even the odd editor show up in the heretofore empty conference room. As the project gains funding and therefore momentum you suddenly find yourself in a room with people demanding the director's - your (by now) best friend's ear and time, and you hardly know the half of them. But they know you: you're the originator. The screenwriter.

Your job at this stage of the development process (sometimes also known as hell) is to remain utterly calm and to the greatest possible extent remain objective. Now this might look easy on paper, but in real life it's a proper mind-fucking you're in for. What you thought were absolute givens: what your character wanted, what gender it had, background, dreams, the car he or she drove, the dog she had are now suddenly again - after weeks and months of talking and writing with and for director – up in the air.

Questions like: “Can the main character be Nigerian instead of Norwegian?”, “What if he's a woman?”, “Can the castle not be a two-room apartment in the Bronx?”, “What if she is an alien vampire, instead of a Colombian aid-worker?”

And so on, and so on. You have to listen to these people, because no. 1 (2 and 3) they have the money. Without the money, no film. Also, these voices, (most often the voices of producers), have an irritating propensity to actually know what they're talking about. Sad to say, but they're good, and you better listen.

So your job suddenly becomes not sitting alone in a room with your best mate dreaming up great stuff, but listening, taking notes, going to meetings and listening to people – a dizzying array of voices – meaning all the best, but heavily trampling your love-child: the screenplay.

Now, I've gone to film school and I've partaken in many workshops and script-labs and whatnot, but the thing I've never heard taught is how to keep a steady course under the onslaught of well-meant advice from a dozen voices at once. This is one of my flaws as a screenwriter. So me sitting here pontificating sounds a bit strange, at least to my own ears. Let's just say that I'm speaking from hard-won experience whilst simultaneously writing a note to self.

First of all: be aware that it is going to happen. This might sound obvious to write here, but I can't emphasize how important it is to know beforehand that there's going to be a shitstorm of good advice by people who mean well, but who unintentionally will rip your story apart. Before taking your first meetings, anticipate – as well as you can – what the question marks and feedback will be. Have answers prepared, if not written down.

Secondly: (and this is the tough part) LISTEN. Listen, because these people are professionals, they want to make the best film possible, and they usually have a ton of experience. Experience that is much more far-reaching than yours. They know about markets, funding, co-production, viewer segments, what's trending, what's not, what actor is looking for a project, the director of photography that would be perfect, etc etc. While you have your nose in your pages, deep down in the story, these guys have the broader view and can steer your project clear of cliffs, shoals and ice-bergs (read: megalomaniac actors, Armenian gangsters and Nigerian investors).

But when you listen, keep that first rule in mind: hold on to the rudder, remember what your project started with. What was the spark, the passion, the drive, the endurance to get it all down on paper and shared with the world? What made you lose your job, get thrown out by your partner, eat spaghetti and ketchup for months and lose your car? That initial falling in love with the story, the zone you were in when you wrote it, is what you have to hold on to, explain better and better, and polish until it is no longer the turd it began its life as, but a shining diamond.

Listen with prejudice. Take what you can use, throw out the rest. Argue for your view and give ground when needed. Choose your battles. (A fine string of clichés that, but hey, they're clichés for a reason, right?)

It has been said that a screenplay is never finished – it is abandoned. There's some truth to that. Whereas a novel can be rewritten ad infinitum, and then helped through its teething by a wise and considerate editor – a screenplay is only alone with its maker for a short while and then subjected to a tsunami of good advice, bullshit, nonsense and wisdom in an extremely confusing maelstrom of voices.

Yes, at one point you'll have to abandon it, give it over to the (hopefully) competent hands of the director and his huge team of professional film-makers: the crew.

Which, incidentally, leads us back to that midnight madness, the king hell trumpet of all orgies, the mother of all bacchanalia: the wrap party.

As a screenwriter, you were there when it all started, with that little seed, that original idea for a story. Perhaps a title, or a character, maybe a conflict set you on your way. You developed it alone, later with the director and then gradually a huge team assembled to actually make the darn thing happen. Now, a year later (or ten, give or take) you're invited to the wrap-party. The last time you saw the crew, they were a disparate group of individuals trying to come together to make something as a team. After the shoot, they are now a hardened bunch of team mates that have been through hell and survived it. They've bonded on a profound level, having faced down all kinds of craziness and soul depleting work schedules for weeks and weeks. The tension, both sexual and physical is palpable: this gang have given it their all for a very long time, suppressing all kinds of desires and hatreds. Now it's time to let it out and they're a tight-knit bunch of desperadoes by now. You, on the other hand, are not part of this particular clan anymore. You've taken a holiday, or perhaps started up a new project, or switched to driving buses. Short of the long: you're by comparison sane.

Eyeing you, everyone in the room (when not fucking or fighting) will whisper “who invited that weirdo?”. Not so fun, but that being said: apart from bare-knuckle spectator blood sports, nothing beats going to a wrap-party.

The last act of the making of a film is, of course, the editing. This is the third time it is “made”. Now the director assembles all his footage and tries to tell a cohesive story out of all the madness and mayhem that once upon a time began with words on paper: the screenplay. This is a very quiet period in a film's birth. I've been called to sets, but rarely, and I've visited editing suites, but never for any real input. From here on in it's the director, editor and producer's ball-game, and good riddance.

In the end, after all that's been voiced, talked about, discussed and fought over at the script-stage – leading to the insanity of shooting a movie on sets and out in the world, day and night for weeks and months on end – ending with the arduous task of assembling all those scenes into a coherent story – hopefully (when the PR and distributors get their shit together and streamlined), the finished product will headline the director's name. But in truth it will be a vast number of different people, from different backgrounds, with different opinions, credos and points of view that have, in spite of it all, come together and spoken together: with one voice.

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