I’m not a mathematician but I like to think that breaking a story is like is like solving a mathematical proof, one that hasn’t been solved before.
Same concept, but not as difficult. Math is harder than writing.
When I start, I have an idea of where I want to go with it. It might be one scene that I’ve been playing in my head, something that hasn’t found a home in a larger story yet. I have about a half dozen of these at any given time. I know them so well that I have names for them like “the trunk scene” or “the park bench scene” or the “suicidal check-in scene.” They’re orphan scenes, waiting to find a home in the right script.
Or it starts with some characters or a concept or just something I want to play with (con artists, jewel thieves, a quixotic adventure across Chicago in a day, etc.).
Eventually, a couple pieces fit together and I can see that there’s a story there. Then the hard part is building it out so it’s a full movie. Sometimes the middle shows up first and it’s about breaking the beginning and the end. A much harder version is when I have the beginning and end and the middle is the part I can’t grasp yet.
Then for weeks I sit and write ways in and out of it, trying to pull together threads, going down dead-end alleys, writing notes on possibilities. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall for a month and have to put it down — it doesn’t break until I pick it up again a year later and find the missing connection, the way through.
But it’s a wonderful feeling to sit down every morning and work around the problem until one day it clicks and the floodgates open and the story just pours out. For me, the two hard parts of writing a feature are this part (breaking the story) and then rewriting it to actually make it good. The middle part, the first draft and the core action/dialogue usually comes out pretty easily. It’s easy to tell a good story poorly. Rewriting is about telling a good story well.
But breaking it is always the most rewarding part. With each little piece that falls into place, there’s a click, a feeling of pure joy. Sometimes it’s days and days of “no, no, no, no, no” and then one day there’s a “yes” and things click and I know I have something real.
I think it’s like what solving a mathematical proof would be like because there’s a suspense to it (like in a good story). There’s always the chance that it will never click. That I’ll spend months on it and it will never break. There’s real fear there (to steal a line from the amazing Toni Erdmann, which I saw last night) and I think that’s what makes this exciting work.
I find that it helps to have a few scripts in the pipeline and to write every day. When I write every day, writer’s block isn’t an excuse to stop. It just means it’s time to put one script away for now and work on another.
Movie-picking advice from one of my favorite blogs, Marginal Revolution:
1. If the movie was shot for the big screen, you must see it on the big screen. Otherwise your response is not to be trusted.
2. Try not to discriminate by genre or topic, for instance “I don’t like war movies,” “I don’t like romantic comedies,” and so on. You’ll miss out on the very best of that genre or topic this way, and those are very likely very good indeed. (NB: In your spare time, you can debate whether there is a horror movies exception to the principle.)
3. In my view, the bad Oscar picks were evident right away. A five year wait will only elevate some other set of mediocre movies instead. Movie awards are designed to generate publicity for the industry, not to reward merit. Ignore them.
4. I use movie criticism in the following way: I read just enough to decide if I want to see the movie, and then no more. I also try to forget what I have read. But before a second viewing of a film, I try to read as much as possible about it.
5. On net, I find the best reviews are in Variety magazine, as they are written for movie professionals. And the market for reviews is largely efficient. That is, if you read six smart critics on a movie — usually just two or three in fact — you will have a good idea of the quality of the movie. But you must put aside movies that are politically correct or culturally iconic, as they tend to be overrated. Brokeback Mountain and The Graduate will make plenty of “best of” lists, and they are both interesting and extremely important for both cinematic and cultural reasons. Still, I would not say either is a great movie, though they have some wonderful scenes and themes.
6. Hardly anyone watches enough foreign movies, that means you too. Or you might not watch enough outside your favored cinematic area, such as French, Bollywood, etc. There is a switching cost due to different cinematic “languages,” but most of your additional rewards at the margin probably lie in this direction. Furthermore, the very best foreign movies are so excellent it is easy to find out which they are.
7. I still think Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, while good, are overrated. Don’t always assume your second reaction is the correct one. In addition, a lot of movies are made to be seen only once, so don’t hold that against them. For instance, I am not sure I need to see the opening sequence of Private Ryan again, but I am very glad I saw it once. It made seeing the whole movie worthwhile, but since most of the rest is ordinary, albeit serviceable, seeing it again would be excruciating.
8. It is a mistake to smugly assume that television has surpassed movies. The best movies (mostly foreign) are better than the best TV, even today.
I especially agree with 1, 2, 6, and 8.
Most people think they’re pretty good singers. This has something to do with the way your voice resonates inside your skull. It’s a lie born in our bone structure. And that’s why when you hear your voice played back from a recording it’s pretty shocking. The truth is most people aren’t good singers. Most people are bad singers. And the same principle applies to our ideas. Things usually sound great inside our heads. So it can be a huge disappointment to see them on the page, out there in the real world. Suddenly they don’t sound so clever or as interesting or as intelligent. Suddenly, they sound dumb. This is a good thing. People become better singers by forcing themselves to sing. And facing your bad ideas is how you make them good ideas. But you have to get them out there first. You have to write them down.
— Why Filmmakers Should Write Often. Maybe Every Day (Musicbed)
Every day in my opinion. but that’s just me.
I really enjoyed this. Lots of good stuff in here on working with low budgets and getting the most out a little money, production-wise.
A few takeaways:
- He started with black and white to eliminate a lot of variables and work faster.
- He started with a scene where he could control the camera tightly, so that the first scene would be high quality and later shots in uncontrolled environments would register as a choice and not an accident.
- He did the same for sound, getting high quality sound in the first scene so that people weren’t immediately alienated by the quality of the sound.
- By the time people realized how cheap the film was, they were already into the story.
- Working in film noir or a crime film gives you a lot of creative freedom because the audience knows you’re going to get back to that main story, enabling you to take quite a few leaps and experiment without compromising the comprehensibility of the film.
Inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to developing a daily writing habit, I made a little web app that tracks your daily writing streak. Just a fun side project as I learn more about how to build websites, but it actually works. Check it out if you try to write every day and find that it’s hard to keep up.
My friend Jae wrote on Letterboxd:
It’s pitiful that this will be marketed as the “iPhone film” or the movie with the the transsexuals – because I believe it offers so much more than this – though both aspects are important for different reasons.
I had the same thought watching it, that people would know or remember it as “the iPhone movie,” which makes me a little sad because I thought it was brilliant filmmaking that didn’t have much to do with what camera they shot it on. I think the budget was around $100,000 and you could easily make a film for a third or less the cost but with a much better camera.
What I loved was the editing, the sense of movement, the music and how it worked with the images, the performances, the writing, and above all the rhythm that makes it feel so alive. That feeling of “aliveness” is hard to define and even harder to create. To me, it’s a combination of playfulness, good camera work, great editing, and not giving a fuck (in a good way).