Understanding The Work: How I’m learning to love storytelling.

29 Aug

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Coffee and note cards: my keys to writing.

I don’t know what made me want to be a filmmaker. I know a big part of it was feeling a kinship with the imagination of Terminator-era James Cameron and Spielberg. I know that I saw H-Man as a young kid and remained hypnotized by it. I saw Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and talked about it for 3 months, much to the daily chagrin of my fellow swimming students. I later became obsessed with all things Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Tarantino.
I think the sheer scope of cinema and the emotions it elicited were central. However, I never fully fell in love with storytelling. While I think many of my favorite films tell great stories, for me it was always about the interaction of people, which is probably what inspired me to go out and become a theater director. I loved working worth actors and helping to craft performances. Theatre is beautiful in that, to me, it’s purely about actors and a stage. It’s a performance and driven by that necessity (That’s not to say it isn’t by story, but my interest was always in character and interaction).
I think my transition to film, which started when I moved to New York City in 2008 (also the summer where I spent an entire 4 month period in awe of a new Batman film, this time by Christopher Nolan), has been rocky. I’ve spent a great deal of time in my late 20’s and early 30’s watching films from Eastern Europe and abroad. Films that are driven much more by feeling and relationships. I wasn’t as concerned with story as I should have been (probably being too naive to realize that all of these elements must go hand in hand).

But, recently, something has shifted, and it’s come about for a variety of reasons.

What happened?

It could be the book I’m reading. It could be my ongoing difficulty in finding ways to comfortably define myself as a filmmaker. I’m not sure. Mostly, I think it’s the script I’m writing, which is the reason most of my posts this summer have been about other people.

As those you who have read this blog in the past know, I spent a long period of time struggling with my first feature film. After coming to the conclusion that I was just battling the realities of art as process, I took the advice of Richard Linklater and began slowing down my approach to writing. I remembered that, on my last film, the structure of that film came to me when I stopped working on the screenplay and started tossing around notes on notes cards.

So I did the same here. I walked over to Rite Aid and spent $15 on notecards. I had blue note cards, yellow note cards,  orange note cards, red note cards, green note cards, and pink note cards. I gave each character (my film features 3 major characters) a set of note cards for general notes, and finally, I took the 4 days the film takes place over, and gave them each a color (I had lots of colors).

Some of these cards saw no writing. Most of them did. I wrote the film out, scene by scene. From notecards, I went to my notebook, writing down extra details and creating internal monologues for each character based on each scene. After doing this for a few weeks, I sat down to create a true outline to expand on my notecards. What happened instead was a first draft of my script, over a month before my planned first outline and 3 months before my first script draft. And it wasn’t bad.

So why was this different?

Well, for one thing, I’d learned some lessons. But, I think, most importantly, I let myself sit in my experience. I didn’t rush to get to the end of the script. I didn’t become (too) impatient. I understood that there needs to be a methodical meaningful process to how I work. This is narrative. This was the  narrative of how I wrote my script. It was storytelling. I was telling myself a story of how to write my script. In telling my story, I surprised myself: I got through a first version of my script with a fair amount of ease and focus. I built a sense of momentum and I followed it through. By creating a system (the notecards) and deepening it (the monologues), I was able to create a narrative for my film and myself.

I teach editing at BRIC House in Brooklyn, and the material we use is some material for a program about a cooking store. On day one, once they have the basics, they being to create an assembly of the footage. Often they will begin adding cuts and making decisions, and I encourage them to wait until the material is fully assembled. ‘Why?’ they often ask. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know?” I often say back. You have to let the material work on you, and that requires working on the material.

So what’s next?

Last week I finished the first draft of my script, and decided to let it sit for a few days. By the time you read this, hopefully I’ll be back to it, and with the same sense of need to build a narrative around it: to create a process that leads to a deep investment, and then to surprise myself with where the story takes me.

I’ll update this soon. Have a great weekend.

Best,

Liam

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