A few people worried I wouldn’t be able to finish writing Movement and Location because I started over so many times. But once I got to draft seventeen, I didn’t touch it again. I changed nothing on set. It felt completely done to me.
When I revise, I work my way through the entirety of the script, as fast as possible, skipping whatever I can’t figure out, and I aim to clear 10-20 pages a day. I call that a pass. Between 3-9 passes gets me a draft, which is the best that I can make it. A draft is what I share with people for notes.
Right now I have a new feature script called Behave, which I began writing in January of 2015 and began again from scratch in January of 2016. I finished my page one rewrite this afternoon. It’s draft nine.
I don’t love that my process involves starting over, but with Movement and Location, my many rewrites made the story better and easier to film. I’m hopeful that the same thing happens with this new one. It’s a hard mental adjustment to make, thinking that I’m done and then the cold shower of realizing I’m wrong. But once I get over that, it’s freeing to delete whatever I want. There were things in Behave I felt married to because I thought of them first and there were dynamics and locations I found boring but they were too baked into the existing structure to remove. I kept the most basic one-sentence premise and most of the primary characters. Everything else is new.
So what’s to keep me from rewriting forever? An excellent question, although one I’d like to be asked less often.
When I’m working on something, I know I don’t need any more passes if I left nothing undone in the pass that came before. For instance, summaries of complicated scenes have been replaced with the scenes themselves. All the placeholder dialogue is out. I’ve cut down my overwritten action lines. I think of how water carves rock, by rushing past it again and again. I do passes until I can get through the whole thing and nothing snags. I hunt for moments that make me think, if I were watching this as a movie, here’s where I’d glance at my phone.
At the end of that process I have a draft, and I finish each draft in good faith that I’m done writing. I am wrong about this until I’m not. Dan Savage says: Every relationship in your life will fail, until one doesn’t. I would add: Same with drafts.
With the last draft of the script for Movement and Location, the feedback I got from readers changed. It was more positive in general, although some people still had problems with it. But their negative feedback didn’t make me defensive or inspire new ideas. I just didn’t agree with it, which is how I knew I didn’t need to listen.
This brand new ninth draft of Behave just went out to a group of people I trust. I’m typing these words in the surreality that precedes receiving any kind of feedback at all. Maybe I made it worse. I might have gotten rid of everything that made the story interesting. It’s really, really different from draft eight. I don’t think I made it worse, but if I did, I hope someone tells me. I’d rather know while it’s words on paper and not video in an edit suite.
So I might be done. I feel done. I feel great, actually. I put an enormous amount of effort into this draft and had a ball writing it (not true for prior drafts) and I think those things come across. But everything will fail until it doesn’t. The trick is having faith that I can get it to that point, whether that’s this draft or takes me ten more tries.
I do have faith. I know I have it in me to hack at the thing until it’s worth the five years of my life to make.
But fingers crossed someone reads it soon.
When people ask me where I got the idea for Movement and Location – the most frequently asked question at film festival Q&As – I think often what they really want to know is how to make a project idea occur to them, bang, fully formed.
Movement and Location came out of the collision of many tiny bad ideas, followed by an absurd amount of from-scratch, start-over revising, where I tried out different versions of a similar story, always centered on different iterations of (mostly) the same characters. I backed, haphazardly, into the final plot.
Some people do find ideas fully formed. Stephen King, for example. In his wonderful memoir On Writing, which I frequently recommend to people who want to write, King explains how a plot is a thing he uncovers. He describes it like he’s digging out an artifact, gently chipping away until the shape is revealed, never planning too far in advance, letting the story find him. But Stephen King is a genius and has worked a billion hours on his craft. I would give up so quickly if I used this approach. I outline and then revise and revise that outline before I transfer it to a screenplay formatted draft and then I revise and revise and revise that draft. I need to work out a lot of bad ideas before I land on a good one.
Movement and Location was my first screenplay, and I began writing it because I wanted to act in another feature. I had a fairly shitty idea for a science fiction story but thought it was at least a place to begin. I talked to a friend from college about it, and he suggested a much better idea for a science fiction premise, which I then ran with instead. Thank you, Pitr. This help and initial idea were invaluable, and why he and I share a “story by” credit on the film.
It’s pretty amazing to remember my first draft. Mostly it’s humbling. I didn’t know what I was doing so just barreled through until I had something that felt complete-ish and appeared to be formatted correctly. I was so proud of myself for finishing it, but it was also the worst. And I gave it to people to read and then had to look in their faces when they told me what they’d honestly thought. But wanting to act in it turned out to be a much stronger motivation than I gave it credit for being at the time. So I kept working on it. Over and over, for a year and a half.
During that process I read some books that were really transformative. Story by Robert McKee is a very famous one, and I found it intimidating but useful. It taught me what it meant to have a midpoint, and that every scene should have an arc. Basic stuff that I just didn’t know. Then a friend in LA recommended Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and that book completely changed everything. Snyder has a “beat sheet” format that I still use. It helps with structuring key moments like the opening image, statement of theme, the catalyst, the midpoint, everything, and has corresponding page numbers for when they should occur. My outlines are modeled after the Snyder beat sheet, because then I know I have enough of a story. I think the parameters of the structure contain a lot of freedom, while also keeping a thing from meandering too much, as something interesting really does have to happen every five to ten pages. I think the trick is to hit these beats but hide them, and stories that do this well are so, so satisfying to watch.
Writing a screenplay taught me how to write a screenplay. Now I have tactics for generating ideas and getting unstuck. I’m also way better at not taking criticism personally, even when it’s someone making me realize that a project I thought was done is nowhere near done. I enjoy the process of writing now, and feel lucky when I sit down to do it. This is the ideal, I think. To come at the work with a sense of appreciating the luck that you get to do it at all. This gets me through a lot of frustration.
I was at dinner with some friends recently, and someone mentioned that she can only write when she’s miserable, which made me sad. Misery is not the most interesting catalyst for creativity. Habit can get you there, too. Try sitting down every day to think about the same project, and then write down what’s on your mind. Repeating this every day will teach you how to do it, and how to learn to like doing it. You’ll be helpless against improvement.
A relevant quote from King’s On Writing:
“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”