It started with a dream.
I had just had my ACL repaired the day before and was not weathering the night well. I awoke with a start, my heart pounding — from the painkillers or the post-surgery anxiety or the vividness of the images in my head, I don’t know. But I was sure I had the makings of a good and creepy TV show. Shortly thereafter, I started researching how to write a screenplay. My mom bought me Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, for Christmas. In January 2019, I started writing. I compiled music for a soundtrack. About 10 months later, I finished my first pilot, along with the treatment and pieces of other episodes.
And then a year went by. And another.
Of course, over the past two years, I’ve spent some time working on a previously drafted novel, and I’ve written/read/submitted a lot of poetry. But on Feb. 16, 2021, I had an idea for a feature film. In the week following, I filled out a beat sheet, note-carded every scene, digitized those notes in PowerPoint (revising all the while), researched locations, watched half a dozen movies and several interviews with famous directors and screenwriters, and wrote the first 25 pages of my script.
And here I am now, in the thick of it, on page 47. So let’s talk about the most important things I’ve learned so far:
You can enjoy a movie even if you “know what’s gonna happen.”
When I first started taking notes on movies — tracking the plots with the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet — I was worried that movies might lose their luster. I thought finding the formula in my favorite movies would take away the magic. But it didn’t.
I wrote a little about this in my post on The Aeronauts in 2019, but let me give you some new examples:
Last week, as I watched Run on Hulu and the new Rebecca on Netflix, I followed along with the beat sheet, pausing the movies at every major minute mark (12, 25, 55, etc.) and appreciating how closely each film matched this standardized structure. Even though I knew at which moments to expect a significant change or revelation, the change/revelation was either not what I expected, or the power of its presentation — with the music and the colors and the framing — amplified the scene in a way my imagination wouldn’t have. My heart was still pounding at the climax/end of each movie, and I thought about those scenes for hours afterward.
The same goes for Se7en (directed by David Fincher, who also directed Fight Club), which I also watched for the first time recently — even though I knew what was in the box at the end as soon as I saw it, watching Morgan Freeman’s face, and then Brad Pitt trying to keep it together but clearly losing it, was devastating. That scene may never leave me (and not just because it’s been meme-ified).
You can learn just as much (if not more) from a bad movie as you can learn from a good movie.
Boy, is research important. You may think you know this, as a writer — whether of novels or short stories or screenplays — but you (and me) may also think we can fudge the details at some point, and that is a habit that needs breaking.
This is why:
Last week, I watched Insomnia, written by Hillary Seitz and directed by Christopher Nolan. Being a huge Nolan fan, I thought sure, I have to watch it, but then I saw it was set in Alaska — a real town, in fact, called Nightmute (Negtemiut in Yup’ik) — and cast with big names like Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Should be good, right?
Nightmute has a population of about 300 people, and yet the movie features a high school that looks big enough for three times as many students (they also showed a lodge that was definitely WAY too big for a village that size). The real town is also in western Alaska, where there are basically no trees, and yet the movie portrays it as a logging town. It’s also not on the coast, as the film implies, although there is a lot of water in the area. And, while Alaska is called the Land of the Midnight Sun for a reason, the daylight you see at midnight on summer solstice up here (at least south of Fairbanks; can’t confirm farther north) is not nearly as bright as the movie portrays it.
I’ve never been to Nightmute, I just know the facts listed above from a two-minute Google search. And while Insomnia was made in 2002, when the internet wasn’t as expansive as it is today, you’d think someone in the filmmaking crew might’ve bothered to, you know, ask some actual Alaskans what the area was like. Which leads me to my next point:
A good director can’t save a bad script.
Once you start shooting, there’s only so much you can do with your source material, and if it sucks, not even Christopher Nolan can save it (nor Robin Williams, Hilary Swank, or Al Pacino, though I think the latter may have a bigger name than his skills deserve). In Insomnia, it wasn’t just that they got almost everything about Alaska wrong. The dialogue didn’t even add anything. I could have watched that whole movie on mute the whole time and understood what was happening, figured out what would happen before it happened. The fact that I got out my phone to scroll through social media while Pacino’s character was talking to his partner (Martin Donovan), for example, should tell you all you need to know.
So, if you’re writing your screenplay or novel and thinking, “maybe no one will notice,” or “it’ll be good once a great director/editor and some famous actors/readers get their hands on it,” STOP. Go do your research.
(Note: I did just find out Nolan’s Insomnia was a remake of an older Norwegian film, but that means the production team had even LESS of an excuse to produce a bad movie!)
You can’t create something groundbreaking without knowing what you’re breaking away from.
Again, this advice applies in any realm of art, but sometimes it takes a person (i.e. me) multiple times of hearing a certain bit of advice before it really hits home. I think it’s important to remember, while I’m starting out, that it’s OK if my movies come out similar to other movies. Many of the greats cut their teeth on formula, and within that there can still be a lot of freedom and creativity — the people who made Run (and Searching, which is on my ever-growing To-Be-Watched list) say they follow Snyder’s structure to a T every time, and as I’ve pointed out, they make good movies.
But then you have people like Nolan who, with Memento (his second feature film) pushed the boundaries of linear storytelling in a way that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. That movie is 20 years old (though I just watched it for the first time a couple weeks ago) and people still talk about it, especially in the film industry. Of course, there are many other iconic movies, and each person has their favorites, but Memento and Inception (another Nolan film) are two that I will never cease to bring up as sources of inspiration.
That said, I have to remind myself that I’m probably not going to be the next Nolan, especially with my first feature. And that’s OK. The important thing is to keep the writing going, and to maintain whatever momentum we have after watching a great movie or reading a solid script as long as we can.