Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Film Courage Plus: Researching A Screenplay

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. As they have been releasing the interview segments from 2015 every week or so, I have dug back into their archives and tweeted some of the segments from 2014... so they won't be forgotten. There were something like 12 segments from 2014, and probably around 24 segments for 2015... and that's 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

So here is the sixth one. I'm still not sure whether the article should come before or after the clip, so this time around it's *before* the clip - you can tell me which way you think would work best in the comments section.

To Research Your Screenplay:

According to Rogers & Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA musical, “In my own little corner in my own little room I can be whatever I want to be.” And that pretty much describes me as a writer, and probably you as well. I first saw that musical on TV as a kid with Lesley Ann Warren playing Cinderella, and developed a massive crush on her which I still have to this day... I also developed a love for action and adventure and romance and suspense - as long as it was something I could experience by reading or writing in my own little corner in my own little room. The world outside of that room was scary, and didn’t seem to like me very much. I was happier in my fantasy worlds, whether they were created by others or myself. I suspect this may also be true for most of you reading this - we become writers to create better worlds for ourselves... and we hope that phrase works in two ways. We hope that not only do we get to escape in fantasyland while writing our stories, but that the fantasy is something others will want to experience and pay us for a ticket to the worlds and adventures that we have created.

But here’s the problem: Input = Output.

To write realistically about people and places and things that are exciting, we must venture out from that corner of our room and enter the (scary) real world. We can’t just stay locked in our rooms. We have to live a life to write about life - and that means broken hearts and probably even some broken bones. We need to go out there and face life in order to bring home those experiences and write about them. You may not have to run with the bulls like Hemingway, but you need to get out of the comfort of that little corner and *do things*. That can be scary. If we wanted to actually *live* adventures we wouldn’t have become writers in the first place, right?

If we isolate ourselves from the world, we may be safe... but we also cut off all of the raw materials we need to create stories. Though you don’t need to *be* someone like Dirty Harry to write a character like that, it helps to do some research so that your writing is authentic and the adventure has enough details to be realistic.

BOOKS & FIRST HAND


There are two basic kinds of research that a writer will do - reading about things and either experiencing them or talking with people who have experienced them. Many writers are comfortable with hitting the books, but avoid hitting the real world. But you have to do both. And it’s best to do them in the correct order.

I’ve written a couple of US Navy Cooperation movies for HBO, and they gave me a submarine and aircraft carrier tour and allowed me to question some crew members. They do these tours in groups, so I was with a couple of other project’s writers & directors... and was amazed at the stupid questions they asked. When you have real people you don’t want to ask them questions you could easily find the answers to in books. You are just wasting their time and yours. Read the books first, so that you can ask questions about things not covered in the books. Technical stuff - the facts and the “hard information” can be found in books, but the “soft details” - the “people stuff” is what you want to ask the people about. Sure, those people know the technical stuff... but books are the better place to find that information. While you are talking to people, ask people questions. While the others were asking (really dumb) technical questions to the submarine crew, I was asking them about how they dealt with the living conditions in cramped quarters for four months. They “hot bunk” on submarines - which means they sleep in shifts and share a bed with some crew member on another shift. They have no private space. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with smells after 4 months? How do you deal with personal problems with other crew members - there’s no place you can go to get away from them. I wanted to know about the *people* on the submarine - I’d read a couple of books to learn about the submarine (and the physical tour helped fill in the gaps).

So start your research by hitting the books. Magazines and internet are included in that. Find several different sources of information, because one source may miss something that another includes. When I was doing these Navy Cooperation movies and BLACK THUNDER (stealth fighter planes) and THE BASE (Marines), I read stacks of books. I wanted to know as much as I could before I wrote the screenplay, and *find* all of the cool things that would make that script more fun. That’s one of the great side-effects of research: you discover all kinds of cool details that spark story ideas. On BLACK THUNDER one of the first things I learned is that stealth technology is a “passive system” - it absorbs radar beams so that it doesn’t bounce back to the source... and that triggered my imagination and the “rule of the logical opposite” to come up with *active* stealth - a system that *creates* invisibility... a “cloaking device”. That turned a standard military action flick into something cool and high concept. Wouldn’t have come up with that without hitting the books. Research triggers story ideas.

After all of the tech stuff, I needed to talk to a human with air combat experience... and my friend Bill Jones had been a Navy Top Gun pilot and did a couple of tours in Viet Nam... so I bought him lunch and asked him about the people stuff. Because Bill had never flown a stealth fighter, I also read an autobiography by a stealth fighter pilot which filled in other details I was unable to get from a human being (on my deadline - had this been a spec I may have tried to find a pilot to interview). The great thing about talking to real humans is that you get details that turn your characters into flesh and blood people. In some Script Tip I mentioned buying pitchers of beer for auto workers when I researched my RECALL script, and the guy who told me that he was afraid to touch his wife because his hands were so rough from work. Wow! Things like that can’t help but improve your script!

BOLO!


BOLO is Police Code for Be On The Look Out, and the best part about getting out into the real world is that you see and experience all kinds of wonderful things that can end up in a screenplay or novel. There’s a Script Tip in rotation on my website called Listen & Observe about paying attention to the world around you. Though I’m assuming that we are all avid readers and curious people who are always on the look out for an interesting story or strange fact... or just some odd ting in the world; I’ve known a few people who want to be writers who seem to go through the world with blinders on. They don’t seem to notice the world around them at all. I find that strange, and more than a little frightening. They have no idea all of the things they are missing - from story ideas to cool little details about real life. All of those things that make our stories better. More vivid. More interesting. More realistic. More fantastic.

An odd part of our job is often to synchronize our stories to what is happening in the world, and we can’t do that if we are not actively participating in the world. We need to get out of our comfortable homes and home offices and all of those places that keep the world hidden from us and experience things - look for things- that are new to us. Don’t take the same route twice - you’ll become blind to the scenery. Don’t be afraid to try new things. And keep your eyes open for things that might add a cool moment of detail to your screenplay... or might even add production value.

I’ve seen cool things that no one else seemed to notice and written screenplays around them. CRASH DIVE and STEEL SHARKS both came about because I had read in Variety about the Navy’s Cooperation program that can get you aircraft carriers and jet planes and submarines and helicopters for *free*. I once found out about a 727 owned by San Jose State College as part of their airplane maintenance courses... which they rented out for TV commercials. I’ve noticed all kinds of things that would be great on film but didn’t cost much (or was free). Those things can help turn a producer’s interest into a sale. “How the hell are we going to shoot that?” “Here’s how – “

Another important part of living in the real world is having interests *other than* screenwriting. Hobbies. Skills. Part of screenwriting is “self branding” - figuring out who you are in the business so that they can put some label on you to remember you later. Look, everyone a development executive meets is a screenwriter, so what makes *you* different and special? “Oh, he’s the guy who can tell you the B side of every hit single record from the 1950s to the 1980s.” (I actually know that guy). This not only helps them remember you, guys who they are going to call if they are doing a movie about the record industry or hiring a new writer on VINYL? Hobbies and other interests are part of having a life... part of living your life... part of being a member of the world and not just someone who spends their entire life in their own little corner in their own little room.

- Bill

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