Friday, May 16, 2014

All in the Family:The Making of "Town Diary" - Pt. 2 - The Girl Naked on Page 57

"When I was writing on commission I would never get writer's block. I would just write a shitty scene and make a note to write a good scene later."
-John Sayles at a writers conference I once attended

John Sayles doesn't know how he inspired me with that quote.

I went to Catholic grammar and high schools, and I loved English. IThe way I remember learning writing was very structured., with outlines and Letters and Numbers, not unlike this:

While having a strong feel for structure certainly helped me as a writer, it also held me back. To say I was overly-critical would be kind. The minute I strayed from a tight, structured format, or, Heaven forbid, had a dangling participle at the end of a sentence, it would stop me dead in my tracks, sort of.*

This made for some well-structured by dull scripts.

The Irish novelists were a great inspiration for me, and highest among them, James Joyce. His command of the language was masterful, as much like a composer of music as any author I've ever read. Still, I remember a teacher referring to his stream of consciousness style as "run-on sentences."

Really? Are you joking? Here was some person who had never written anything outside of an essay in their life reducing masterpieces to some formal sentence structure, a structure he certainly understood better than she did or he couldn't have turned it on it's ear.

I had a similar problem my first year at NYU when I had a teacher (grad teaching assistant, actually) take points off for similar flourishes on my part.

Make no mistake. I am no Joyce. Do not judge by the blog, either. I have chosen a more conversational  (yes, sometimes rambling) tone that I fully understand tweaks some rules of grammar.

By the time I started writing the script for Town Diary with Jack, my writing style was a little more free-flowing, based on getting the story down on the page. I approached writing like work, making sure I got to a certain point in the script every day. I took Sayles' advice to heart - just keep writing.

Jack and I first spent a lot of time talking, expounding, tossing ideas around and letting them grow. Jack could have written the entire script like that; I needed my space to hear the words in my head. I have now co-written a number of times, and I have never been able to have the two of us at a computer together. I know it works for some people - not for me.

JR stayed at Jack's apartment in Chicago, and I would fly out there as often as cost and Jack or JR's frequent flyer miles would allow.

Once we had all of our notes, I started going to "the office" every day, working from 10AM until 6PM with an hour break. "The office" was JR's editing suite. For me, if I was going to get the work done, I was going to have to treat it like a job, and I would set how far I had to get and push myself to get there. Then, I would get home, share it with Jack, and we would go over it.

As expected, Jack always had notes. Now, Jack had become a big fan of Robert McKee's Story, whose idea for structure is pictured in the first image at the top of this page. It worked for Jack. If I were to work like that, it would be a maze that I would never get out of, any creativity pummeled as I worried whether the molecular structure was about to go nuclear.

Jack and I were an odd couple in many ways - more on that as this blog goes on - but we both not only respected each other, but needed each other in the process. Jack needed me to actually take the ideas and get them on the page; Jack's attention to structure often reigned me in when I was straying off-course.

Often, I thought of something Sayles also said at that writers' conference, and maybe somewhere else as well. I'm paraphrasing very slightly, as he talked about the difference between working on the studio film Eight Men Out , about the Black Sox scandal, and working for Corman. I believe the reference is to Sybil Danning in Battle Beyond the Stars, but it could have been one of their other collaborations.

"When I was working on Eight Men Out, I would get these notes in meetings like 'we wish the plot point at the end of Act 1 were actually earlier in Act 2' . I'd walk out with no idea of what they actually wanted me to do. With Corman, he would say, 'You have the monster attack on page 55 and then again on page 57. Why don't you have the girl naked on page 57 and have the monster attack again on page 59!' That I understood!"

However, after some less-than-fruitful experiences in Hollywood, there was another Sayles' quote that rang true about this project:

"If you write a movie for Roger Corman, it's gonna get made. You saw it almost the next day."

Town Diary was gonna get made.

* Dangling participles still drive me crazy in written form, especially because they are so common in our conversational mode.

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