THE BEST PART IS ALL OF IT
A little light gossip: I just closed a deal to do a new thing! In this business, many of my projects have to stay under an annoying cloak of secrecy. So secret, in fact, that I’ve been working on a film for two years that I STILL can’t tell you about. But when I can tell you, I will. It’s exciting to already know what my next film is going to be before I finish my current one. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you more… but not yet.
Along the way, the creative process provides some universal lessons that apply to just about anyone working on anything. And until I can talk about “behind the scenes” work, I’ll keep discussing more “broad topic” items on this blog. Recently I’ve written a lot about the value of the details, of getting specific little things right. Now I’m going to talk about the opposite: the larger view. The whole. Seeing all of a project, beginning to end, as soon as you possibly can. In the end, it’s ultimately more important than any detail.
As I go into story and script mode for a new project, I have to resist the urge to look at any one “cool scene” or “great joke.” One of my former collaborators pointed out that you’ve got to make sure the “tree” is sturdy before you get too excited about the “ornaments” hanging on it. Movie trailers have great “ornaments.” “Did you see that shot?” “That effect was incredible!” “The new uniform looks weird.” “I cried when Han said ‘Chewie, we’re home.'” But those are all ornaments. Until we see the movie itself, we have no idea if the “tree” will prop them up. So here I am, once again, growing the tree.
Before you write a script, you need an outline. You MUST have an outline. And it’s okay if the outline takes weeks to finish. Because that is your “tree;” your scaffolding on which the script will be built upon. It’s a huge stress-reliever once I have my story outline. Then every day I don’t sit down to write a whole screenplay, I just write one small part of it. I look at my outline and give myself a small assignment for that day. I’ve got the broad view of the whole thing and I know where the set-ups and payoffs are. I know how it ends. I know what my character needs to experience in any one particular scene and where that fits in their progression, their arc. Anyone who tells you that they just “start writing and see where it takes them” is probably not a professional screenwriter. They might be a poet or a songwriter or a novelist who doesn’t like to be a slave to plot. But movies are nothing but plot. Many will argue character is more important, plot is just a vehicle for that character. But when I say “plot,” I really mean what HAPPENS — what happens to that character? And what happens for the audience as they watch?
I used to outline solely on the computer, but that gets restrictive and you can’t see the whole story laid out in front of you. Eventually you have to move to index cards or Post-It Notes or a whiteboard. Index cards are great because you can lay them out on the floor and move them around. What if the big action scene happened before the big emotional scene? What if this character died much later? Or much earlier? Move them around. Nothing is solid, everything is negotiable. One step better for me has become Post-It notes, up on the wall. I can move them, but I can also fix them in place and add to them quickly. Brian Smith is a fellow writer / director I’ve worked with in many capacities over the years, and when he was making features at Disney with his co-director Jim Kammerud, they came up with a story system that I think is genius. It’s a way to track the horizontal and the vertical at the same time. The horizontal is the page count and minutes into the film. This line dictates the chronological events in the story. But then I can also drop a vertical string of Post-Its from beneath each of these main events. Each vertical can contain details of that event, or elements of the theme that need to be accomplished, or a character’s epiphany, or a piece of key information revealed. The genius of this kind of layout for the story process is that the whole movie stays on one whiteboard, maybe seven feet wide, and you can step back at any given moment and see the WHOLE THING. First page to last page, opening shot to credits, you can step back and see your movie as a whole, immediately. This is crucial.
In many art forms, you can’t see the entire end result until the end of the process. Painting, theater, dance, sculpture, even a lot of musical pieces. You have to add a lot of the elements before you can understand if you even have something good. And in film, the actual finished MOVIE is like that too. I’ve written here before about the need to not judge the success of a film while it’s still being made. Pieces are everywhere, in various stages of quality. But I’m talking about the STORY. I can see the story in a matter of days, even hours, right in front of me. Start as broad and simple as you want: “Big Action Scene Here!” “Something Tragic Happens,” “Meet John (Funny Scene).” Then bit by bit, you add and add and fill in the connective tissue.
Post-Its also come in many colors, so I assign action scenes one color, emotional scenes another color, etc. Once I step back, I can chart where my story is lacking in action or is too full of action. Pacing is everything, and it is never more clearly defined than with this simple, color-coded process.
For this new project, I had to get the story in shape very quickly. One week later, I was looking at the whole story for the movie, front to back. If you have a good imagination, you can actually zero in on parts and play the movie in your head. How fast does this part need to go? Does this part need an emotional LOW before we go HIGH again? Step back and look, over and over.
And not to get too deep, but lately I’ve realized that it’s the best way to look at your life, your relationships, your hardships, your faith. Don’t fixate on what you’re going through right now, today. Good days come and go. Take a step back and see the whole board. Where your life has taken you. Who you were ten years ago and what you’ve learned. Maybe even where God has orchestrated events to place us in what we call our “destiny.” But seeing it all from such a global perspective requires years, and after those years, stepping back to see it all at once.
We respond to story because we are narrative creatures. We live stories. We ARE stories. And no story is clear to us until we see as much of it as possible, all at once. So if your career is on the skids right now, or you just broke up, or you feel painted in a corner, just know that it’s only part of your story. The broad view will show you something you never saw in “close up,” even if it takes years until you can “step back” and see it. But get through this event in your timeline, endure this particular “Post-It” and see where the next part of the story takes you. For me, stepping back for the broad view gives me constant gratitude and allows me to shake off a lot of the terrible people that come with this business. A loving family or a good life well-lived is a lot like my favorite movies. When someone asks me, “What was your favorite part?” I have to say, “All of it.”
That’s when you’re telling a great story — when the best part is all of it.