Monday, February 22, 2010

The Creative process

I've mentioned this before but I have worked on at least 70 screenplays, most of which were never made. These include rewrites and polishes for producers, networks, studios and even myself. One of the readers asked how writers write so since we're in a bit of limbo this week awaiting some news of Travel Day, as well as toying with Chaser and Emperor of Mars, I figured I might talk about how I do it.

And that's the first big thing. How I do it isn't necessarily how any other of the 8000 screenwriters in WGA do it. Nobody creates the same way. It's as individual as a fingerprint or better still, DNA.

If there was one thing that I could think of that seems to guide and push me forward in this screenwriter life, it is this; 


I want to know everything. 

Right now, I have five books;  Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku on quantum physics,  Woody Allen on Woody AllenIn Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts on the Anasazi tribe in the southwest, Where I'm Calling From, a collection of Raymond Carver short stories and Tear Down this Myth by William Bunch on Ronald Reagan.

I have them in different places, living room, bedroom, office and of course the best place, the bathroom. Reagan's book is there.

I read the LA Times thoroughly every day and get a few magazines although I have to admit Consumer's Reports is my favorite, I've had a subscription for years and years.

You can learn alot about stuff in CS.

And you might have noticed one common factor. 

They're all non-fiction. 

I don't read a lot of fiction. It's work. Whenever I start a fiction book, I began analyzing it, breaking it down,  noting the scenes and the structure. I'm working. I do read Stephen King as  his writing is continuous, fast, well done and he gets into character so much better than most writers.

Ironically that's why many movies made from his books don't work. Because producers often take out the character and just depend on the idea, which, in itself isn't enough.

I love any non-fiction book on almost any subject because I'm learning. And that's the difference.  But I know screenwriters who do read fiction. But I know more who don't.

Years ago I was one of the first people to get the Sony cassette Walkman (yeah, I know, that's so analog, Jim as a teen told me once). I  had it on for about 2 days and realized I didn't want to block myself off from the real world, I want to hear traffic and people fighting and music blaring. To me, it's life. I do have an iPod but only for music played through my cassette deck in my SUV.


I was in a little town in Montana called Forsyth early one morning, that's the main street in the photo above. One cafe open, one cowboy, one waitress and one Jim.  I have a gift of getting people to talk. It's not really hard, just ask them about themselves.

So after the waitress told me how she moved from Nebraska and a bad boyfriend, I noticed a little note near the cash register. It read simply; "If Mary B. comes in make sure she pays for her meal before she gets it." 

I had to know what Mary B. had done to deserve this memo. It turned out that Mary B. often showed up for breakfast after a night of drinking and carousing, and would order and eat breakfast and leave without paying. She wasn't running away, she just forgot to pay.

My first question was: "Will Mary B. be coming this morning?"  I wanted to see her.

Some would say that sounds like a condescending remark, turning her into a joke. It wasn't. I was serious. I wanted to see that character, how she walked and talked and ate. And I know at some point, that would go into a screenplay.

You wouldn't believe how many screenplays have started with a character like that. What got me about the story was not the drinking, but how the cafe handled it. They didn't call the police, they just put a note up. And it reflected a value I found interesting.

But it took me years to get to that point where I could smell something possibly good, a gem that might turn out to be gold.

Most of my stories are based in truth, and the others have characters based in truth. Because I could never create something as good or bad as what people say and do.

There was another time I was stuck in Casper, Wyoming in a storm. Hungry, I found a small steakhouse attached to a Holiday Inn and went in. Just as I got my steak the power went out. There were 6 customers and 2 waitresses and a cook and me. Nobody knew what to do.

I suggested they bring candles, every restaurant must have candles. The waitresses did and we all lit candles around a few tables and as the storm raged, we ate and enjoyed the company of strangers for one of the most memorable meals I've ever had.

The interesting thing is that I just described very ordinary things. Things that happen every day to everybody. The difference with me is that I can see a story in some of those things, not all of them, but some of them.

There's an odd thing that happens to me now; I have a separate "hard drive" in my brain that now automatically locates and stores these little stories in different files. Sometimes I'm not even aware I'm doing it. My friends can mention a town, or a place, or a person, and my little hard drive hums up a few stories.

Learning to write good was hard for me. I take some consolation in that Paul Newman said the same thing about acting. It did not come easy to him. I have always said that I have little real talent, but my greatest talent is my stubborness. I refuse to give up. Those who followed this blog since the beginning know that.

And that takes me back to the 24 or so screenplays I have that were never made. I happen to think they are all makeable, even now as some are 20 years old. Just change the dial phone to a cell and it's ready to go.

My first screenplay was awful. Really awful. About a kid who goes to a fine arts school in the Rockies, based on my summer in Banff with my now ex-wife. It was just plain bad.

Except for one scene. A scene where the kid confronts his father about values. It was good. But one good scene doesn't make a movie. I think it took me 2 years to really write something that I thought was not bad. And I made it in 1980, Ghostkeeper, a suspense-thriller similar to The Shining. 

But it wasn't all that good either.

Back to the drawing boards. I spent a few more years just writing. All the time. Some scripts lasted 120 pages, some only 20 pages. Then came the breakthrough screenplay. 

It was Emperor of Mars. 

And it was all about me. Sort of.  Stay tuned. 

Oh, and I waited and waited for Mary B. but she never showed up that morning.