Filed under: Nobody Loves A Thinker
Somewhere between winning an Awgie last Friday (on a script co-written with the inestimable Chris Lee) and re-reading one of my own scripts yesterday coming home on the train, I made a discovery. It’s a dumbo kind of discovery – I remember a lecturer at NSWIT once saying they thought that semiotics either stated the obvious or said something so obscure it was meaningless – well my discovery is one of those “stating the obvious” kind of things. And it’s not even my discovery, it’s really only me applying something Mogens Rukov said at Indivision a couple of years ago at last to my own work.
I’ll have to paraphrase. What he said was: in a script, this happens, and then you ask yourself what would happen next, what would this character do, how would you yourself feel, and then that’s what happens next, and you ask what happens after that, and that is what happens after that, and so on. The point is not to treat your characters like insects or lego people who do what you want, but to let them do what they do. I’d always thought this was both obvious and merely one way of approaching story-telling. And I’d always tried to be true to character in my writing, to be honest etc. But I’d also been doing a lot of other things as well, like trying to rationalise why my character would perform the action I needed them to.
But last week I applied this principal to a close, scene-by-scene rewrite of a sequence in Timing Chain, a feature I’ve been writing for many a yonk. I’d already decided on a new structure, so I wasn’t applying Rukov to the larger structure. No, this was about feeling the question and the situation and then responding to that with the next event or action or intention.
So I rewrote about 15 pages of my feature script. Then I went off to the Australian Writers Guild Awgie award night with a heavy, unemployed-writer kind of heart, a heart that is all miserable, hopeful, and outsider-observant at the same time, with my bonza shiela by my side, and ran into a heap of people who seem to like me (which doesn’t seem real when you have that heavy heart thing happening) and whom I like very much and things were suddenly looking up. I normalised, won an award, gave a semi-crap because semi-demi-prepared speech, and realised I have to be very careful to avoid being a solipsistic mega-fauna just because I work alone in a room on a farm in the bush (which explains David Foster [and isn’t Moonlite an amazing book?]).
Then on the train home yesterday, I re-read what I’d done. And it was strong. It wasn’t laid out like a hopscotch game the way the more obvious scripts are, or following a single-minded emotion or situation. It was more complex. People did things uncertain of the outcome, because that’s what people are like, they tried it on, they protested and wheedled and wheeled and dealed and shook and stood still and reacted and proposed. The discovery was that what they were doing from scene to scene or within a scene wasn’t driven by the premise of a film. The premise is there, an Easter Island statue gazing across the script, but not every moment is the premise: forget that Hollywood wisdom that “every scene is the whole film in miniature”.
This is about script-writing as exploration. And here I am still discovering how to write a script, still finding serious basic working policies for myself, still finding tools. I’m a carpenter who after 15 years has been given his first hammer.
The strangest thing is that, at least in the sequence I’ve rewritten, I can still do anything I want. I want the gun to go off. Well, the gun can go off. I want Tony to tell Marta that he loves her much earlier in the film, he can do it. I can interrupt the action with something else. As long as the people in the action feel it and as long as it is like an interruption. The sequence is imperfect, maybe even wrong. But it’s fuck-off verisimilitudinous. And now I’m going to try the same technique to the other scenes that aren’t working. Maybe even to my life. Wish me luck.