After I finish rewrites on my laptop, I like to do a 2nd (or 50th as it may be) pass on a printed-out version of a script. I’m not sure why, but I always seem to catch more errors and fixes when I read it on paper. I think it might have something to do with the way we read screens–we’re trained to scan more and scroll through things. On paper, we’re trained to read more carefully.
I watched Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf this week after we used it in my cinematography class at Chicago Filmmakers as an example for a lighing setup exercise. It’s a good film to watch for indie people on ultra low budgets because it takes place mostly in a living room, which is where we often end up shooting stuff because it’s the easiest location to get.
I like the way Mike Nichols uses the camera to create movement and action within a single setting so that the visual experience is varied and remains interesting. The room and the walls are full of books and decorations that give it texture, as opposed to sparse or blank white walls.
On Sunday I did a reading of the play I’m writing. I get together every couple of weeks with some actor friends and we usually read a play but this week we read some things that I’m working on (it’s nice being the only writer in the group). And it got a really nice reception and lots of laughs. Which is a relief because I’ve spent a lot of time on it and the longer you wait without exposing it to an audience, the more I start to feel the weight of doubt about its viability.
If I go long enough without feedback I start to go insane, so thankfully I have an easily accessible audience of friends willing to read my work. And during the reading I realized that it’s still only half-finished and needs a lot of work, specifically with building out a full story structure that will support the comedy and the characters.
Anyway, the reading serves as a thermometer to see if there’s heat in what I have so far and to see where it stalls. If there’s heat then I can keep developing it with enough positive feedback to keep me going. Where it stalls is what needs to be rewritten and fixed, which is the hard part of writing (breaking the story), at least for me.
So to develop the rest of the story, I’ve been watching Westerns this week. I find the best way to get ideas (not inspiration–you can get that by pondering your imminent death) for whatever I’m working on is to watch other work–watching it actively and jotting ideas down as they come to me. Since I’m writing a satire (that also honors the genre), I’m looking for tropes and archetypes to play with and steal. And once I start looking for ideas, my brain starts listening for more ideas and then they just start coming to me throughout the day, which is much easier than sitting and staring at a screen and trying to think of things.
And now that I think about it, I get most of my ideas when I watch something being performed: plays, films, actors in a class, an improv show. Sometimes I think “I’d like to do something like this but with x or y or z” and sometimes I just get an idea for something completely unrelated. Or just a fragment of a scene or a setup or a line of dialogue. I jot them down and when I want to start something new, I have hundreds of starts, ideas, scenes, or other fragments to start with.
It always works this way and I almost never get an original idea that comes from just staring at a blank page–there’s nothing to connect to a blank page, so how can you be creative? You have to start with something and connect it to something else.
This week I’ve been watching Westerns to get into the genre more. I watched Blazing Saddles (which I’d never seen all the way through), True Grit (the Coen brothers version, 2nd watching), and Once Upon a Time in the West.
I’ve seen most of the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns but I’m not sure how I missed Once Upon a Time in the West–maybe because it’s almost 3 hours long? Anyway, it didn’t feel that long and it’s a great film that really takes advantage of the medium. It’s very much a visual story (and so beautiful) with sparse dialogue and a 15-minute opening sequence that’s full of tension and story with barely a single line spoken. Anyway, it’s my favorite Spaghetti Western now, replacing For a Few Dollars More, although that’s definitely a more playful, fun movie.
True Grit is also beautiful but with sparring witty dialogue as opposed to just letting the images tell the story. I saw True Grit as a film about about overcoming oneself to help another (at least in the end) and Once Upon a Time is about overcoming another to help oneself (and get revenge).
There’s something about westerns that I admire. Or maybe it’s just old movies in general. There’s a certain willingness to accept your fate and face it stoically. It’s theatrical and perhaps not true to life, but there’s a nobility to it, something to aspire to.
On the other hand, I wonder if these men go home and are ever happy. The protagonists never seem to have parents or wives or families or even friends. So the individualistic life is romanticized but I wonder if in reality it wouldn’t be cripplingly lonely.
As for Blazing Saddles, it’s hilarious, but you already knew that. And nobody had to cry. Imagine that, a comedy where no men cry or have awkward sex.