After finishing my screenplay and submitting it, I did three things almost immediately. I registered the script with the Writers Guild of America. Registering a script provides a record that you claimed ownership over your work on a particular date. It certainly won’t stop all plagiarism, and it’s not always a decisive piece of evidence in lawsuits over intellectual property, but it’s nice to have a record of when and what you claimed as your product. Next, I sent a copy to one of my best friends who had been patiently waiting to read it. Third, I organized a table reading of the screenplay with actors from WMU. It was summertime, and I was fortunate enough to have a colleague conducting the New Play Project course, and from there, I was able to find 13 chipper actors ready and willing to read parts with almost no notice. Within a week, I got a response from my friend Josh. He loved the script, had read it two or three times already (which incidentally, is more than I had read it, and I WROTE it) and wanted to meet with me over drinks to talk about it. We had some beers, and he explained what parts drew him into the story, what held his attention, what he loved about the characters and the unfolding action. It is hard to express how gratifying it is to hear that someone’s response to your writing is largely in sync with the feelings and motivations that you as the writer felt in producing that writing. Hearing my own story echoed back to me by another voice convinced me that this venture was real, that I had in fact created a reality that someone else was compelled by.
In a few weeks, we got the actors together for the table reading. The volunteers had only had about 24 hours with the script. Some had read it closely; others hadn’t cracked it. I ordered pizza and coke for everyone, and introduced the actors to Christ the Kink, explaining that this was the first draft of my first attempt at screenwriting. In retrospect, I really wish that I had taped it. Overall, it was a brilliant experience. Hearing your own words spoken back to you, in character, is something I hadn’t experienced as a poet or as an academic writer. I was watching, or at least, hearing (at the table) an entire world play out, and it was one that I had created! I made notes the entire time, scribbling in my script whenever a line sounded unnatural or forced, whenever there wasn’t laughter when I expected there to be, whenever there WAS laughter that I didn’t expect, or whenever I noticed an actor struggling over words. When the other readers reacted positively or showed that they were absorbed in the goings-on, I highlighted. To my pleasant surprise, there was pretty consistent laughter in the second act where there should be, and by the end of the third act, there were appropriate sighs and sniffles. For a trial run, it was very much a success.
The actors were gracious enough to stay for an hour after the reading to give their input. Most reacted very favorably, and they genuinely answered yes to the most important question I had: “Would you go see this movie?” The criticism was incredibly helpful, if a little overwhelming at times. Some felt that I needed to include some flashbacks of the main characters’ parents. We learn through exposition that Preston and Jason had a hard time growing up, and that Preston’s parents were abusive drunks, yet we never see them in action. We have to take the characters’ personal testimony for the truth. In another embarrassing instance, I let a glaring anachronism betray my age. I referred to a “Walkman” as a prop in a car scene, and my 20-year-old thespians had to remind me that Walkmans weren’t really a thing since about 1988. That’s about where my knowledge of technology ends. So it was a good note.
Another criticism that I hadn’t anticipated is an interesting one. One actor suggested that my three principal characters all spoke suspiciously alike. He suggested that there was little to distinguish among the three, in terms of their attitudes, temperaments, and vocabulary. Some disagreed, arguing that these three had been lifelong friends and were therefore very likely to speak similarly to each other. But the criticism stayed with me. That is still an issue I am responding to. All characters are in some way a mouthpiece for the author, but each character should be distinct, recognizable in his/her own way. Especially because the three characters really diverge by the end of the film, I think it’s important that the audience have a strong sense of their individuality. The last major criticism I heard was that, after the climax of the film, we don’t see onscreen how several of the characters react to the tragic events of the story. We only see them in montage at the very end as a quick recap of the aftermath. I understood their need to get more from these characters; I also took that as a good thing—as a sign that they had begun to care about these characters and that they were invested in what happens to them.
I decided to give myself a month or two’s rest from the script, to let it gel in my head before revisiting it for revisions. In the mean time, I submitted to another script competition, and gave it to a few other friends to read. All the feedback returned to me was positive. I sensed that most people who read it felt it was a good fit for the big screen, that it was a compelling story, and that it was worth pursuing in the industry.
At this point, I only had one real connection to Hollywood. I had met a guy, an alum from WMU, who had found success as a TV writer. He was kind enough to come speak to my class in the spring of 2010, and we kept a correspondence going afterwards. He asked for a brief description of my film project and warmly offered to read a copy when I had finished it. I sent it to him and didn’t hear back for well over 6 months. When I did hear back, I immediately wished I hadn’t. Here I was facing some of the first deep criticism of my work. I’ll attach the majority of his e-mail back to me:
As for your script [Christ the Kink]. I did give it a read. I think there was a lot of smart writing and fun dialogue, but I had a hard time because I just didn’t respond to the story. I’m not a fan of the crazy conservative right, but I thought the depiction of the Christian South felt almost mean-spirited in a way that would make it a really tough sale (those people buy lots of movie tickets). And then on the other side were the prep-school kids who were so corrupt that I wasn’t really rooting for any of them to have a journey or change. I just didn’t really want to watch them. The tone of the piece also shifted. The first act felt a bit like a Brett Easton Ellis coming of age story, the second act felt more like a comedy, and the third act took an incredibly serious drama turn. As an overall note for the future, I think you can pair [sic] your dialogue WAY down. Almost every line is a clever monologue. It’s a difficult note to give because the writing itself is excellent, but the overall effect is that it doesn’t flow naturally. When we speak to each other in real life, we tend to speak in short clipped sentences… and none of us are that clever all the time (if only). Just don’t be afraid to take a less-is-more approach. I say all this with a grain of salt because I’m not a feature writer. Truthfully, I am terribly intimidated by features, which is probably why I write for tv. Your script shows that you’re obviously smart and have a great sense of humor. And from the sound of it, you’ve already made a lot of revisions. I wish you all the best.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
After the lovefest I had been experiencing, I clearly wasn’t prepared for such a radical critique. The frirt week after receiving this, I was pretty devastated, and took the entire e-mail as an indictment of me as a writer and as a person. I then told myself that everyone would have a different take on the script and it was also important that I remind myself of the context in which he is writing. He has spent the last 4 years writing for a teen-oriented nighttime drama on the WB. He just changed to a job as a head writer on another teen-oriented drama on the WB. Thus, he is highly attuned to what it means to write for a particular audience. A very wide audience, but nevertheless a specific audience. I tried to take his suggestions one by one, to see how much I agreed with each. I needed to remind myself not to assume from the get-go that everything he mentioned is a failing of the script, just his perspective. The first thing he mentioned was the script’s “mean-spirited”ness. Hearing that was quite a blow, but it also made sense in the scheme of things. In writing for television, particularly the WB, my friend had to please middle America. He had to come up with script ideas that were edgy, but not too edgy, provocative, but not too provocative. They had to meet certain requirements for their demographic, and they also had to edit themselves so that their sponsors would keep their advertising support, which is the bread-and-butter of the tv industry.
I felt as if, perhaps, he was judging my screenplay by those same standards. “Mean-spirited” is a really strong characterization, but his point was an important one: If my script risks alienating Southerners, deeply religious people, people with middle American values, then those people are very unlikely to buy tickets. That would mean DEATH in the TV industry. But I had to think for myself, What does that say about my screenplay? Who exactly is my audience, and am I insulting my own core demographic? It was then that I realized just how much of an Independent film I had written. I had always sort of considered Christ the Kink a hybrid, somewhere between an Indie and a big Hollywood movie. A big Indie or a small mainstream film. Reading this particular response was a reality check for me. I in fact did not agree with his assertion that the screenplay was “mean-spirited.” Yes, it portrayed some of the Baptists as closed-minded, naïve, and/or afraid to think for themselves, but there was certainly no blanket characterization of all Southerners or all Christians as one particular type. In fact, Nicholas, one of the supporting characters who becomes prominent in the third act of the film, is one of the most likeable, audience-friendly characters in the whole script, and he is a Baptist from Alabama. Also, one of the major points of my story was that Preston, Audrey and Jason—our main characters—behave in a way that is indeed “mean-spirited,” and this is their major flaw. I wanted the audience to walk away from the film feeling as though what those three did was a major problem—that even though they grew up oppressed by Christians, this revenge ploy really did nothing in the name of justice or retribution. It was important for these characters to recognize that they had been hurt early in their lives by Christians, but tying their whole identity to this idea of being victimized is hardly a way to progress through life and thrive. So, I thought it was pretty clear that “mean-spirited” was a reductive way to regard my story. What it DID tell me, though, is that I would not be counting on conservative audiences to champion my film, that I didn’t write it for middle America, and that I didn’t have to. My friend’s critique ended up being something I didn’t agree with, but it also let me face the question of my demographic and my expectations for what kind of producer would find my story interesting and worthy of filming. So, from this point on, I thought of my film as an Indie project.
The related critique that my friend had—that he couldn’t root for the characters because he could not bring himself to like them—was equally troubling. I had aimed for three main characters who had a lot of questionable quirks and idiosyncrasies, who had been wounded in their young lives and had responded to this wounding in ways that made them appear cynical, hardened, a little vicious, and warped. But I had felt confident that some strong sense of humanity prevailed. I thought back to some of my favorite films, and realized that one thing they had in common was that all of them made liking the central figures quite ethically challenging. This was true of most novels I loved too. I am attracted to stories about characters who generate highly ambivalent feelings in the reader/audience. I think it attests to the strength of your story, that one can be turned off or even repulsed by the thoughts or actions of a character, but is stilled compelled to find redeeming moments in that character, to wish them the best in their journey, and to hope for an auspicious outcome—either a triumph, however compromised, or a new beginning.
My friend had, in essence, given up on these characters, finding them irredeemable. It may sound strange, but I took this very personally. These people were, in a sense, my “babies.” I had created and nurtured them and, however much they disappointed me as their creator, I never thought of abandoning them. No one has voiced a similar critique, before or after my friend’s reading of it, so I am confident that these characters were sufficiently sympathetic to most of the audience. But I realized that my friend probably represented a certain population, a certain sensibility, that would reject my characters. I could regard this as an artistic failing on my part, a failure to empathize on their part, or as a natural part of interpretation, where different people’s sensibilities allow them to arrive at very different conclusions and points of identification. This criticism also made me think about the actors who would inhabit these parts. I think a lot of audience sympathy depends on how the actors interpret the characters. The character may do horrible things or hurt someone else with words, but if they can project a kind of vulnerability, or a sense of being contrite and/or reflective about their actions, then we can still embrace them. I fell like this is largely the province of the actor, as much as the writer. I don’t want to put all responsibility on the heads of the actors as an excuse not to change my characters, but I’d rather not idealize characters, to show them in all of their ugliness, and let actors breathe the necessary humanity into them, or maybe more accurately, ignite the “human kindling” I have already embedded in the character, though it may be hard to find.
My friend’s next critique is also a really interesting one. He suggests that my first act reads like a Bret Easton Ellis film (see Less Than Zero or Rules of Attraction), the second act reads like a comedy, and the third act is a serious drama. He meant that to be a criticism of the whole work’s lack of cohesion, but I strangely take it as a compliment. The reason that I like this characterization is that I really like movies that take you on a ride, in terms of your genre expectations. Some of my favorite films, especially those by Todd Solondz, Pedro Almodovar, and Paul Thomas Anderson, don’t commit to one genre. In fact, they evolve genre-wise as the story unfolds. In some moments, you may find yourself knee-deep in melodrama; in others, you may be engaged in the lightness of slapstick comedy; yet in others, you may be taken on a cerebral puzzle through figuring out a murderer. I always appreciate having the rug pulled out from under me, provided it doesn’t separate me from the characters that anchor the film and it doesn’t transform itself simply for the sake of being quirky. I understand the critique. Audiences go into a film and expect certain conventions of a genre to be followed. It is an accomplishment to sustain a certain mood, environment, and set of operative values over the course of a two-hour film. I understand that, the more films mutate in terms of genre, the more likely they are to go off the rails and become incoherent to their audiences. All in all, this goes back to the initial concern of my friend—middle American audiences are likely to feel betrayed or irritated when genre conventions are not followed. In this more experimental milieu, I feel like I have some license to change the tone and the pace of the movie. I love the idea of audiences laughing delightedly and wickedly in the second act, and then tearfully regretting the laughter, just like the characters do, in the third act. If this choice threatens the coherence of the film, that is a risk I am willing to take.
The last critique my friend made was dead-on. Despite my resolution not to write a literary work—remember, that’s the first warning I ever got regarding the approach to screenwriting—I knew that my propensity for big words and lofty phrasing had gotten the better of me at times. I had been really vigilant as I wrote, trying not to over-write, trying to let the visuals speak for themselves, but because the genre is so new to me, I found myself not trusting the story-telling to the director or the actors or the cinematographer. I wanted to do it all in words. And of course, this makes for a clunky script, one that is weighted down by exposition and metaphors when it should be flowing from one scene to the next. My story contains plenty of eye candy, plenty of interesting ethical situations, plenty of vivacious people—I don’t need to oversell it with the language. So, yes, my friend is right. I am still trying to find ways to slim down the verbiage. Of course, it’s hard to do so without sacrificing lines that have become incredibly meaningful on a personal level. It’s a difficult process of what a friend of mine calls “Murdering your darlings”—the idea that in order to refine and improve your work, you often have to let go of a portion that carries a lot of weight for you.