Writing for Hollywood

The Screenplay Is Conceived


Once I had established writing as a fairly regular practice and began sharing some of my work with others, with an eye towards publication, I opened myself up to possible longer-term writing challenges.  And of course, given my debt situation, I was attuned to the idea of lucrative writing projects.  Journal articles may get you a few dollars a year, and a book publication in academia may afford one some nice evenings out, but they are nothing to change your overall financial portfolio.  I thought back to a crazy idea I had in a computer lab back in grad school.  It was around 1999, and the Internet was still very new, and my friends were remarking on how quickly technology was moving, and also how pornography seemed to be at the forefront of these technological leaps.  At this time, girls were beginning to auction off their virginity on eBay, and we were already getting junk mail in our e-mail accounts about sexy Catholic schoolgirls, sets of naughty twins, even things as outlandish as barnyard sex.  It seemed as if we were destined to repeat the Fall of Rome with all of this cyber-decadence.  To my friends, I recall joking, “I bet the only thing they haven’t done on the internet yet is show Baptists losing their virginity on their honeymoon.  Wouldn’t you pay to see that?!”  I have a dark sense of humor, and I thought it was a funny, if horrifying, idea at the time.

I thought nothing of it again until the fall of 2008, when that recollection struck me as a particularly interesting idea for a movie.  Naturally, I wasn’t game to find some Baptists myself and tape them having sex and then exploit them on the web.  That’s what fiction is for.  I started asking myself:  Where would someone go to find Baptists losing their virginity?  What kind of people would take this on?  How could you be remotely likeable or identifiable and still be motivated not only to spy on couples, but to broadcast their most intimate moments to the masses?  How would you go about filming couples without their permission?  How would these couples really BE when having sex for the first time?  Would it be funny, clumsy, embarrassing, boring, sad, interesting, or ultra-hot?  Would it be wrong to assume that Baptists would be virgins on their honeymoons? What would the consequences be if you were caught?   This initial scenario obviously launched a thousand questions.  Luckily, they were questions I was anxious to answer.

I started, of course, with a fresh notebook—spiral, this time (it seemed right)—and took a quasi-journalistic approach.  I asked myself,  Who?  What? Where? When? Why? How?  The What is what came first, and hasn’t changed much since the inception of the idea.  Even now, when people ask me what the film is about, I say, “It’s about Baptist Wedding Night Porn.”  Of course, there’s a lot more to it, but it was the anchoring concept.  That first Fall three years ago, I dealt primarily with Who? And Where?  before I ever started writing a draft.

The Where? may have been my easiest question, but my answer required a lot of fleshing out.  Most of my mother’s relatives are from eastern Tennessee, and growing up in Georgia, I had many opportunities as a child to visit the Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas.  My family, in fact, has property there—a cabin, or glorified condo on stilts, that sits next to the Little River.  I vividly recall a trip I took as a child to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  Dollywood, the amusement park mecca of the greatest country-western singer I have ever known, was just being built at that time.  Pigeon Forge, I remember, was nothing more than a highway with go-cart racetracks and miniature golf dotting the roadsides.  Gatlinburg was a formidable tourist town.  It was, and still is, a wondrous concoction, part Bible Belt, part Old Mountain Charm, part Tourist Trap.  It is a city grid of antique car museums, taffy and fudge shops, country music venues, and unending food buffets, all dwarfed by the neighboring Smokies, which, I must admit, are astonishing in their beauty.  It is a city where churches hold retreats and conventions; it is also a city where Southern Christian types come for their honeymoons.   Bingo.  I had my where.

I started to do research online.  I googled “honeymoon” and “Gatlinburg,” and that was probably the most enabling move I made in the entire process.  These beautifully tacky Christian resorts popped up, and they were such eye candy, I felt as if I couldn’t NOT write the script, for the sole purpose of reconstructing these honeymoon suites on a film set.   Here’s a beautiful example:  http://www.honeymoonhills.com/Photos.asp

The heart-shaped beds and hot tubs, the profusion of pinks and reds, the gaudiness of the valentine’s-mixed-with-Jesus aesthetic was the stuff of comedic genius and the perfect setting for Christian honeymoon porn.  So that December, just a few months after I decided to pursue this writing project, my father and I took a road trip to Gatlinburg.  We took pictures of the museums, the mountains, and hotels.  We took postcards from local motels, nosed around wedding chapels just to soak up their flavor, got coupons for food and concerts, and talked to some hotel managers about their experiences with honeymooners.  All of this I collected and put into a giant notebook.  I knew I was going to be writing the bulk of this in Kalamazoo, and I thought it was really important that I have a resource to draw on when I needed to evoke the local color of the place, to get inspired by its ambiance  and to feel renewed in the writing process.  It proved to be a very valuable resource, helping me get back in touch with the project after letting it sit for a year (but that comes later).

In addition to the “where,” I started to work on the “who.”  After all, I couldn’t really have a film without characters populating that world.  On my Greyhound bus ride from Kalamazoo to Atlanta that Christmas—I have started taking the bus down south for the holidays because it gives me time to mentally adjust to visits with my parents—I began to take notes about the characters.  I wrote down the principal characters, how old they were, and various and sundry facts about them.  On top of that, I also parenthetically put actors I was familiar with next to each character in order to reference what kind of visual image I was attaching to each character.  I wrote out their physical characteristics, their quirks, what they were like in high school, their relationships with each other, how long they had been friends, etc.

When I had established a basic profile for each of the principal characters and a few of the supporting ones, I started thinking about how I could make the leads endeavor to do something as morally questionable as filming people having sex without their consent and then displaying it for the world to see and STILL have some redeeming qualities.  It is very difficult to watch a movie when you have no sense of respect, identification, attraction, or good will for the main characters.  I wanted audiences to be torn, to judge the actions of these characters, but not be ready to abandon them just yet.  I sketched out their past and in doing so, revealed that each of them had been raised by wealthy, vacuous, hypocritical, and in one’s case extremely violent, ultra-Christian parents.  So there became a sort of score-settling element in the decision to film the Baptists.  Another one of them—now Jason—is gay, and he had been bullied by Christians his whole life, so this was an opportunity for him to give back a little of the humiliation and powerlessness and shame he experienced as a child and as a teenager.  Preston is the one who has the major vendetta.  His hatred for his parents gets mapped onto his “victims,” and he sees their religion as making them into hypocrites, morons, less evolved human beings.  Audrey doesn’t have as much reason to move forward with the plan, though her deep love for Preston allows her to overlook the more unseemly sides of this business venture.

I had a sense of the “who” and the “where” and a little bit of the “what.”  The “when” quickly fell into place.  I decided on the present day, after spending a little while entertaining the idea of its taking place in the 80s.  Were that to be the case, the cameras they used would be bigger, unwieldy, harder to conceal in a hotel room, and the internet didn’t exist yet, so they would have had to make duplicate videotapes and find a porn distributor that would mail them to customers.  I thought the internet made things cleaner, more efficient, and it let me use my fantasy url:  BoinkinBaptists.com.  I also considered that, if there were major budget considerations, it would be difficult to shoot crowds and exteriors with everyone there in 80s costume.  Placing the action in the current moment seemed to involve the least amount of stress.  So it was done.

I covered the “why” a little bit above.  To answer the question, “What motivates our main characters to perpetrate such an outrageous crime?”, we have the issue of the vendetta, the childhood rage and the scorn directed towards the stifling confines of religion.  I also thought about more general, human motivations.  Filming Baptists having sex for the first time would be fascinating to watch.  You could watch it to get turned on, to laugh at people, to examine human behavior on an anthropological level or sociological level, or just experience a very human moment of vulnerability and symbolic weight.  The scenario has the potential to be uncomfortable or poignant or titillating.  I wanted to show that these characters each brought some of these motivations to the table.  I also loved the dramatic and comedic possibilities of showing many different couples, eliciting those same kinds of responses from the audience.

The “how” was difficult for me to conceive, simply because I am the farthest thing from a tech nerd.  I wasn’t sure what the equipment needed to look like, how expensive it would be, where the kids would be able to monitor the action from, and what it would take to transmit the camera images to a web site.  I ended up having the kids stay at a house that was adjacent to the honeymoon hotel so that they could monitor the action from close by, and interfere if they had to.  I asked some computer savvy friends how they would go about installing surveillance equipment and how best to conceal it, and I tucked that information away for the when the actual writing began.

Over the next few months, I let the characters and the idea simmer.  In my spare time, I often visualized the hotel, the individual suites, the house where Preston, Audrey, and Jason set up camp, etc.  I thought about how they would interact, what would get them to the hotel, some more logistical questions.  I decided then that the only way they would be there was because of a job opportunity.  One of their aunts would own the place, and she would go away for the summer, leaving her nephew and friends the hotel to run (with her co-manager Darletta—more on her later).   This was a tricky situation.  I had envisioned the kids as rich Northeasterners who were 22, just out of college, and I didn’t want to change this.  But it seemed unlikely that the kids who were so well off would deign to go down to the Bible Belt to work for a summer changing sheets and wheeling room service carts in a Baptist Honeymoon resort.  That is when I decided to let drugs into the picture.  These are smart kids, well-educated, witty, and quick, but also very jaded and prone to escapism.  I thought that having them be frequent coke users, and alcoholics, and potheads, etc., it might explain their enthusiasm to do something so unexpected of them, so off the grid of their daily Ivy League lives.  I also wanted to emphasize that these kids had been friends since childhood and that they realized this was their last summer to do something meaningful together before going their separate ways to grad school and law school, etc.  So for these months, I thought about the details.  I began to actually have dreams about Gatlinburg, and the various rooms of the hotel I had created in my head,  and that was very exciting.  At the same time, it was frustrating because I hoped to see my characters populating those rooms, and they weren’t.  Eventually I got some vague people in there, and after a while, they began to look like Preston, Audrey, and Jason.

I had never taken a screenwriting class, nor did I even know any screenwriters.  I think I had read a total of two movie scripts in my life.  So I had a lot of catching up to do.  My learning curve was steep.  I went to Barnes & Noble and did some deep comparison shopping.  In the end, I chose The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley and Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Robin Russin and William Downs.  The first is more of a bible, a manual that gives you all the technically correct formats for dialogue, camera directions, and transitions.  The second was a more philosophical piece about what it takes to create a narrative and make it cohere.

I found both books enormously useful, so much so that I didn’t seek out any other sources.  I felt all of my questions were answered therein.  In the intro of Writing the Picture, I encountered some advice that I really didn’t expect, and it was advice that probably saved me a lot of hair-pulling and heartache.  It wasn’t so much advice as it was a description.  A screenplay, they wrote, is not a literary work.  It is a blueprint for action occurring in time and space.  This statement both puzzled me and made me very nervous.  “Literary” is my thing.  I write poems and literary criticism.  I adore big words and beautiful phrases.  I like metaphors, similes, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and all that good stuff.  Here they were telling me I was in foreign territory.  It turned out to be spectacularly good advice.  I certainly faltered along the way, lapsed into some of my “literary” tendencies, but I really took that statement to heart as a guide for my writing mission.  And it is very true.  The camera does so much of the work in a film, things can’t be verbally over the top, or you produce overkill.  The visual has to rest comfortably with the spoken.  A poet relies on the spoken alone.  It is a hard transition, but it is very helpful to look at those types of writing as very different animals.

That next summer in 2009, I rented a house in Cleveland, hoping to get away from my life in Kalamazoo and write in peace.  I was armed with my film books, my Gatlinburg folder, my spiral notebook (that I had filled with random thoughts throughout the day, like what record albums would be found in the suites, and what brand of cigarettes certain characters smoked), and my character profiles.  I should mention that I also purchased a copy of the computer software Final Draft.  This is a MUST for all screenwriters.  Every major writer in Hollywood uses the program; it is genius, so so helpful and practical.  The software has the built-in formatting of a screenplay, and it knows where the margins are for dialogue, for description, and for other kinds of direction.  It has a memory of your character names, so you don’t have to type names repeatedly.  I can’t say enough wonderful things about Final Draft.

I sat at the dining room table in my rented house in Cleveland Heights and cranked out about 32 pages in about 3 days, with almost no sleep.  I wrote chronologically, so I basically wrote the first act in that time.  A page of a screenplay is roughly equal to a minute of screen time.  Therefore, you want your script to be somewhere between 90 and 135 pages, most often 95-110.  I got through the 32 pages, set up the character introductions, set a tone for their interactions, and gestured towards what was to come.  The action actually begins in Connecticut, where the kids are from.  It isn’t until about 30 minutes in that the kids get to Tennessee.   So, basically I completed the first act.  This is where I stopped.  I still can’t quite explain why I stopped.  I was a bit freaked at how much I had written in such a short time.  I started to draw out a lot of insecurities that I hadn’t paid attention to before.  I thought about the fact that no one had ever taught me to write a screenplay, that I was learning as I went.  I realized that I didn’t know any screenwriters, or really anyone in the industry, for that matter, save some people in licensing.  I suppose it was a crisis of faith.  The whole project started to feel overwhelming, and I took a very long break—one that lasted almost exactly one year.  In that year, I was busy teaching and didn’t think about the screenplay often.  Occasionally, I would let my mind wander to the car trip from Connecticut to Gatlinburg my characters were taking; I would think about the necessary transitions the kids would face in getting used to life in Tennessee.  I wanted a real “fish out of water” story, and I thought quite a bit about what it would be like to live there, coming from where they did.  I thought about their first impressions of southerners, what they would find funny or strange or disgusting.  So, in this year, I committed nothing to paper, but still let these questions brew in the back of my mind.  Before starting the screenplay, I had decided on a tentative title.  I originally called it Christ the Kink.  I really liked it, but found out later that most of my friends hated it, and a producer told me that any production company would be nervous at buying a product with “Christ” in the title because it would be too controversial.  Some of the other names I entertained:  Gatlinburg, A Vigil Keep, Hearts on High in the Smokies (which is what I named the resort the kids went to work at), and Thresholds.  Naming the film turned out to be a much bigger ordeal than I had imagined.  Sometimes I think writing the thing was easier than naming it.

So, the next summer, 2010, I pulled out the old notebooks, the folders, the computer files, and the software and resolved to pick up where I left off.  I re-read the first 30 pages and then progressed from there.  About four sleepless days later, I was finished with my first draft.  I probably should note here that I don’t work well—no, I don’t work AT ALL—without a deadline.  So, it’s not that I didn’t sleep all this time because of my dedication to Art.  I had set a deadline for myself, which was midnight of June 1.  This was the deadline for the Austin International Film Festival’s screenwriting competition.  I had researched script competitions, and this one had been touted as one of the most widely recognized, as well as one of the most likely to get you noticed by film producers.  So I plotted to have the script done in time to submit.  Which I did, with about 4 minutes to spare.

A word about film festival competitions.  There are quite a few every year.  Entry fees usually range from 35 to up to 100 dollars.  The prizes vary greatly.  Austin’s has some of the highest—10,000, I believe, for first place in Drama and in Comedy.  Of course, consequently, everyone and their mother submits to the AFF, meaning you are competing with several thousand other scripts.  In a lot of festival comps, even if you are only a semi-finalist, the organizers will put your script in a compilation book that will circulate around to several production companies.  This is a nice side benefit to the competition—you can get some exposure you’d never planned on.  Some festivals provide you with reader feedback, where the judges will offer you some basic critiques of your work as part of the entry fee.  More commonly, you can pay extra for a judge’s critique.