I wrote my first screenplay when I was a Sophomore in high school. I remember three things from that year in school. The first thing I remember is the election. The year was 2000 and one of the most ferocious elections ever fought was being waged that year. I remember guys who had just turned eighteen voting for George W. Bush because “high daughters are hot.” I remember that election well because back then I was a Republican. I was one of those “fiscally conservative” people. I didn’t care much for social issues. None of them really affected me. Why I was a Republican then is as much a mystery now as it was then. I know I had my reasons though. I remember showing up on Election Day and seeing the school packed with voters. Most of the voters were old – something I took to be a bad sign for my choice – George W. Bush.
I wasn’t a big fan of George Bush, though I had read several books by his father. I was a McCain supporter back when McCain stood for something more than personal animosity towards a man who denied him his chance to be President. The 2000 election could have been such a transformative election for our country, but instead is one of the worst wounds our republic has endured. My dad was a Bill Bradley supporter. I remember watching the debates with him and wondering why the government needed to hang on to so much money. What’s ironic in a sense is that it was the Bush tax cuts that allowed my parents to move us out to the country – to a place I love – and away from a community that was quickly deteriorating.
The second thing that I remember from that year was meeting two of my best friends in high school Matt and Brian. We did almost everything together. It was our combined passion for movies that led me to the decision to write a screenplay. Why this responsibility fell on me I’m still not entirely sure. I may have volunteered myself for this assignment or I may have drawn on earlier experiences writing plays in middle school. Whatever the reason behind it, I wrote scripts all through high school and we often spent our afternoons after school looking for optimal shooting locations. I had every scene perfectly timed in my head. We drove around and watched movies. We were inspired by the work of Stanley Kubrick and Federico Fellini. We had debates about film in our speech and debate classes that ended one day with my teacher sitting us all down and explaining why Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made. I still disagree with him about that, but I must admit he made a very compelling case.
The third thing that I remember about that year was the writing process itself. I didn’t write then how I write now – perhaps a better way to put that would be that my writing style has changed and how I think about the process of writing a story has changed – though I still use some of the same methods for putting together scenes. One of the first ways that I put scenes together was by listening to classical music and timing my scenes to the music. I noticed that in most art house films the director usually did that with at least one scene in the film. I timed an entire sequence to the Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and not the short version, the full length version. It’s a poorly written scene looking back on it. There is voice over all over the place and in reality the scene is just a combination of shots establishing the place that the story takes place. You don’t learn anything about the characters until Act Two, something that I see today as a very serious problem. I have not and probably will not ever attempt to re-write that script. It is almost completely beyond repair. I do like the ending that I came up with though. I thought about all the movies that have as their worst case scenario the end of the world and then I thought about how few films have gone through with that as an ending. Therefore my script called for a mix of Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the Book of Revelation from the Bible. I still love the idea of people coming to grips with the end of the world, it’s just a really difficult concept to put into reality and it’s also quite difficult to get the audience to care about something that seems almost impossible to them.
In 2000 and 2001 there was a good deal of musical interpretation in mainstream Hollywood films and I remember being impressed with the ideas, but disappointed with the products. I remember seeing A Knight’s Tale and thinking how clever the story was and how interesting it would have been had they used instrumentals of popular songs instead of the popular songs themselves. I also liked Steven Soderbergh’s use of Clair de Lune in Ocean’s Eleven. Overall, I thought it was the directors that made the best use of music and movement in certain scenes but at the same time I needed to come up with the scenes myself because it’s not like there’s a surplus of students writing full length feature scripts at a high school in Wisconsin. I decided to combine the role of director and writer and as I traveled around, usually in the back of Brian’s very old blue station wagon, I thought of scene ideas and ways to incorporate music into a scene. I had a vision then of what I wanted everything to look like and as a writer it is critical to have a vision of what you want your end product to look like. Even now I try to picture every scene that I write so that I can write down all of the movements that I want the characters to make and all the subtleties that make my characters who they are.
Writing is about so much more than story, characters, plot or subplot. Writing is about the small stuff, the little details that go into constructing a great scene. I always tell writers that if they want to see how to build a scene all you have to do is watch a scene from the Wire. Every scene starts with a problem and ends with another problem. It’s the perfect way to write (at least for syndicated television.) In every scene they are giving you the fulfillment of some small plot resolution, they’re building up the main story, giving you something to think about and creating another conflict at the end so that you have a reason to keep watching. Writing isn’t about building great stories, it’s about building great characters and putting those characters in great scenes. If you can do those two things and have some general idea as to what you want to do with the plot you can usually write a pretty story that your audience will appreciate and one that you can be proud to have written.