I’m in the middle of production on a short film. It’s been a strenuous and intense preparation and pre-production. The script has gone through significant rewrites always bringing us closer to our truth, to the story we want to tell. We’ve lost actors and some have come back. We’ve had our share of crew challenges but the creative team has always stayed focused. And our guiding light, our lighthouse in every storm has been the story. Always the story. If I’ve learned anything in the past 40 years of directing theater and film it is that you can never go wrong if you consider the story first, last and foremost. What matters most is the story. And I have to keep reminding myself that every story is a compilation of many mini-stories (scenes, events, moments).
Several months ago I was asked to direct a feature film. I heard the pitch over the phone from the producer said, “If the script lives up to the pitch, the answer is ‘yes’.” When I read the script I immediately said ‘yes’ again even though I knew the script needed a lot of work. The story was there and it was strong and compelling.
It’s always been difficult for me to focus deeply on two or more projects at the same time. I know this is part of the business, multi-tasking, but in order for me to do the deep and specific work required on any one project I pretty much have to ignore all the other projects, especially when I am in pre-production or production. And that’s what happened during the past month. I was so focused on my short film, that the compelling feature film drifted to the back burner, getting only lip service. Until now.
As we wrapped production on the short film I could feel the feature script begging for attention, undivided attention. And even though I still needed to focus on the post-production for the short I felt safe letting my mind shift to the feature. In fact, I was looking forward to the opportunity to immerse myself into a new project – a new story.
But what happened next was totally unexpected.
Now I am reading the script, a script I have read several times and by the end of the second page I can feel something is wrong – dreadfully wrong. The script isn’t working. Now it seems to be just a mere suggestion of the story and it is in no way revealing the truth of the story. I keep reading. Scene by scene and event by event I keep seeing massive holes, significant problems, weak choices, poorly defined characters, forced actions and unearned emotions – the gamut. And yet, lurking behind this faltering script, somewhere hiding with great trepidation deep in the shadows is the same powerful story I had first heard many months ago. It hasn’t left. It just doesn’t know how or where to come out.
Now I’m on page 30 and I stop reading. I can’t go one. I go for a walk with my dog, Tanner (the best place for me to have conversations with myself), and I ask myself, “What happened? What has changed? I know it’s the same script. Why did it enthrall me before and why do I now think it is so unworkable?” And I keep walking and asking. And Tanner keeps listening and sniffing.
By the time I got back home I had come up with three possible explanations. Tanner thinks they’re good. His favorite is explanation #3.
One: The Sequence of events.
This project was first introduced to me through a powerful and persuasive pitch. (I’m now learning to be a bit suspicious of a great pitch!) And that powerful and persuasive pitch dominated my thinking for a long time. It even allowed me to dismiss the slight flaws and problems I saw in the script at the first reading. But, I don’t think that’s the main problem. So let’s look at #2.
Two: My pitching.
During the process of attracting talent and investors for this project I had to find the best way for me to pitch it. It’s a difficult story to pitch because of the violence and unwarranted brutality, but eventually I found a way that worked really well for me and for the listeners. In fact just the other day I pitched it to my driver, Nash, who was bringing me to the airport. I knew he had this fascination with ‘the bad guys’ so I tested my story and my pitch out on him. It worked like a charm. But here’s the question: have I become so enamored of my pitch, my way of telling the story that I have lost sight of the real story and the strengths and weaknesses of the script? It is possible. And I do think that’s part of the problem. But then there is reason #3, Tanner’s favorite.
That’s right. I’m the problem. I’m what has changed and altered the balance of the process. For the past few months not only have I been concentrating on another story, but I’ve been deep into production where my focus has been on every story detail and nuance to the point of obsession. Every day I’ve been focusing on the smallest details and possibilities of every moment insuring that they are rendered to the best of my ability so that the story will work. And then, when I am still in that mindset, I sit down and read another script with which I am familiar and suddenly I’m seeing below the surface, I’m seeing details and nuances, possibilities and problems that I hadn’t seen before. And now I can’t see the overall picture the way I used to.
And now I have a new experience, my view of the details (and the devils that are residing therein) is laser, sharp and focused. It’s a gift. Doors and windows have been opened for me. I am allowed to see the magic and mystery that lurks beneath. And I like that.
Talking with the producer and writer of this script and sharing my new insights with them has not been easy. They have not taken well to my laser vision, my myopic pov of every detail. Their minds are still riding on global scan, orbiting, remaining objective. They are far from my internal inquisitive probing, but that’s okay. That’s the creative balance that we need.
As I am writing this, I am involved in a third production (yes, one of those on the multi-tasking list) in Italy. My mind seems to have remained in its happy laser mode (luckily, because that’s what I need) and now I am looking forward to when I will have an opportunity to revisit to the feature script (I’m still stalled at page 30) and continue this new amazing experience. All I need is a day off. It’s coming.