Monday, October 31st, 2011
Now about playwriting. Last summer, I was finishing up a rewrite of a play I had written twelve years earlier about breast cancer diagnosis and faith. Fire Exit Theatre in Calgary planned to do a production of my one-act, This Waking Moment, and artistic director Val Lieske liked the idea of my adapting the one-act into a full evening of theatre. So stretch it out I did. (A little too much, I’d say and you’d agree, but that’s what my next rewrite will fix… or so goes the self-deceptive inner logic of a playwright.)
Every time I write a play, there is something personal I am exploring in addition to whatever the characters do, seemingly of their own volition, and what they tell me to write. First time around I wanted to write a play about women whose lives intersect, and because several of my friends had faced breast cancer in the year or so before I wrote the play, that’s what came out. At the time, I deliberately avoided writing a play about cancer treatment and death because it was so far beyond my direct experience. It was bad enough that I, a man, was writing a play about women and their relationships with themselves and one another. The story arc focused on diagnosis, relationships, and how faith was ironically ignited in one character and snuffed out in another by the same turn of events.
Something big happened in the intervening dozen years between draft one of the one act and the full length version, and this is what the rewrite became “about” for me. A close friend of mine was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at the age of 36, and before my eyes, underwent the textbook horrific decline including chemo, radiation, and premature death over a two year period. My friend, Andrew, died in May of 2010 leaving a grieving widow, three boys, a devastated family and community. I was to visit him the morning he died, and visit him I did about one hour too late. With his favorite book in my hand, Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy, I read to him in the off chance that his spirit was still hovering in the room. I bid goodbye to my friend Andrew the Grey and told him I couldn’t wait to meet Andrew the White. Rewriting This Waking Moment in June and July became the dictaphone of my grieving process.
This might explain a little about why writing can be painful. Because the things a writer chooses to write about are often that. But additionally there’s the pain of trying to tell the truth under imaginary circumstances in a way that people who don’t know or care about you can be gripped. They may even be moved, if all goes well, hearkening back to my previous blog about Wallace Shawn.
But what makes a play a play? That’s what I want to focus on for our purposes. Playwriting is, at its most essential, the words the characters speak. The playwright puts everything that needs saying in the characters’ mouths. In the dialogue. And the occasional monologue. I was even instructed in grad school not to spend much of any time on stage directions because directors would be more likely than not to cross them out and ignore them entirely. (You’ll have to ask a director friend if this is what she was instructed to do.) Regardless, the task of the playwright is to embed the action of the play into the words spoken. Theatre is thus word- and actor-centered.
A screenplay is totally different. Suddenly all of my precious moments of dialogue are just words, words, words. Those who read screenplays don’t care about words, they want pictures. They want to see the story. So, you see, the decision to make a movie out of your play, while wonderful and ego-boosting, is also the death of your precious. (Am I whining?)
Structurally speaking, plays can tend to grow bones the way humans do – organically and invisibly within. Plot manifests as the characters interact with each other, and the play grows into its right size. In contrast, structurally speaking, screenplays dictate to you where the key plot points must fall, and often what those key plot points should be. If the books and seminars about making a million dollars as a screenwriter are to be believed (and they really shouldn’t be), you have 10 minutes to get to your inciting action without any hint of preachy exposition, at minute 30 comes your first crisis which is somehow caused unknowingly by the main character’s choice to go for his dream, you have the next 30 pages to get said character up a tree (that’s a direct quote), and 30 more to throw rocks at him (and a car chase, a beautiful woman or three, and several explosions) until he’s near dead, and then another 20 to get him down from the tree and resurrected in an inevitable, credible, and completely unexpected manner. Better to come in slightly under 2 hours because that means one more showing per day at the multiplex and therefore a greater profit. (There – you’ve had your first screenwriting lesson.)
Whereas writing a play is a work of acute internal listening, writing a screenplay is akin to putting together a 1000 piece puzzle that has no picture on it, only then to be told by a well-meaning onlooker, “It’s not visual enough.” At which point you say, “Of course. I knew that.” (Whether you did or not.) You go back to the drawing board, and you begin to paint your jigsaw puzzle now that you’ve figured out how it all fits together and where all the seams are that you’d like to hide.
If I’ve come to complete peace (which is an overstatement) with the pain of adapting Prodigal God from the stage to the screen, it’s because I’ve come to understand two things about moviemaking: money and money. Because filmmaking costs a lot of money which is all spent long before an audience enters the theatre or pops in the DVD, everybody involved is gripped with the fear of God and rightly so. Add to that the possibility that a successful movie could make a lot of money (regardless of its actual quality). So a wise writer has to abide by every screenwriting rule and then be willing to break them all, alternately giving yourself wholeheartedly to your “vision”, and then being willing to sacrifice your precious on the altar if nobody else “sees it” like you do. It’s quite a dance if you’ve got an ego of any size, which, if you’re a writer, you better have.
A little inside scoop here on our process. (I promised transparency.) The first draft of the screenplay went to a Hollywood script doctor who gave it a “three strikes and you’re out” rating. Never heard of that review scale? Strike one: it’s a musical. Strike two: it’s a period piece. Strike three: it’s religious. Welcome to the biz, my children.
I’ve learned that no conversation about making a movie happens without a dozen names being dropped, and this was true of our Skype session. Actors. Directors. Screenwriters. What’s been made. What’s succeeded. What’s hot. What’s cool. What’s embarrassed humanity. Nod your head, even if you’ve never heard of half of the names or seen the movies, and then bang it against the wall repeatedly. After the 2+ hour screenplay consultation, about 15 minutes of which was on point of what I had actually written and thus constructive, I came to believe that screenwriting is not about visuals after all. Screenwriting is about power dynamics of the 8th grade variety. I hated 8th grade. (Oh, there I’ve done it. I’m whining.)