This past week there was a great article published in MovieMaker magazine titled A Script Is No Longer Enough: Why First-Time Feature Directors Must Make a Proof-of-Concept. For those of you with a completed script that you want to see on the big screen, this is an absolute must read. This is the exact path I took to make Justice Is Mind.
My first script was not Justice Is Mind, it was a sci-fi epic titled First World that was nominated for a few screenwriting awards. In my view, once you’ve been nominated (or won) some screenwriting awards, that pretty much should signal that you can write. But the next obvious step is going from the printed page to live action. That is easier said than done. The former largely consists of time and the one time purchase of software. The latter, no matter how you slice it, requires real cash.
In 2007 I produced a short film version of First World for $14,000. With a feature film budget of $2 million, there were certain concepts and scenes I wanted to present (we needed a motorcade). The short did really well on the science fiction convention circuit with over 20 screenings and some solid press (it’s now available on Amazon). In 2008 I pretty much had the financing lined up (Chinese investor) along with a distributor in Germany. But then the economy crashed as epically as the story itself. Indie film financing around the world was crushed. But it was the short film that opened up the doors for the feature. Since then science fiction enthusiasts made this fan trailer to promote the project and I still present First World when the opportunity comes up. As I’ve said in earlier posts, it’s about patience.
As a producer told me when I was living in L.A. while you are developing one project, you are working on another and another and another. The idea is that they may be in various stages of development and you are presenting along the way. With luck, one of them may take off. For me, that launch was Justice Is Mind.
Having written the feature film version of Justice Is Mind in 2010, I wanted to produce a short film version as a “proof of concept”. At this point it wasn’t so much proof that I could direct, it was to see the concept itself come to life to present it to financiers and production companies. In addition, I also wanted to see actors in what would be the starring roles. After Evidence was produced in 2011, there was something else I discovered the project had – audience and distribution interest. Those two things by far are THE most important – obviously. After two theatrical screenings in Massachusetts and Connecticut, followed by several sci-fi convention screenings and VOD placement, the funding came together for the feature film.
The rest as they say is history. Justice Is Mind was released in 2013 and has enjoyed a theatrical run, is available on VOD and had an international premiere on Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. Two of the stars from the short film version carried over to the feature along with several of the crew. In fact the key grip from Evidence, Jeremy Blaiklock, was the director of photography on the feature film version. With over 200 people involved in Justice Is Mind when the next project comes online I have a proven network to approach first.
As for the next project, I will say this – I’ve already selected the “proof of concept” scenes for the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating along with SOS United States. For me, I’m not pursuing a “spec sale” deal, I’m only interested in directing and producing. But at the end of the day this is a business so one considers all options.
Lights, camera, concept.
Yesterday I finished the draft of the first act of the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. For me the first act is always the hardest. This is where you are “world building”, introducing your characters and setting up the story to eventually “turn” into why you’re telling it in the first place.
In SOS United States it’s the revelation of a potential nuclear bomb on an ocean liner heading to Boston. In First World, it’s the revelation of the classified mission of the Apollo space program. In Justice Is Mind it’s the revelation of a memory that cannot be immediately explained. In this new screenplay I’m writing, it’s the revelation that the skater’s family is somehow linked to a multi-decade Cold War mystery. From these revelation points, each of these stories moves into the next act.
Personally, I enjoy what’s called the “second act” the most. This is where I like to see all kinds of involved character developments and subplots. Of course, as screenwriters, we are inundated with one article or expert after another stating either the rigidity of the three act structure or the opposite. My stories tend to run about four acts. I do believe in a mid-point or splitting of the second act. In Justice Is Mind the true mid-point is when Henri Miller’s kindergarten teacher reveals something from his past that sets the course for another character to act while the main story continues toward its conclusion.
As a screenwriter I don’t believe in following a prescribed set of rules per see. But that being said, you do need a beginning, middle and end. Is this three acts? Four? Sometimes five? That’s really up to the writer and the story they are telling. In my view, some require less while others more. How I learned to write was pretty straight forward. I read the screenplays of my favorite films (some more popular than others). The one common thing they all had was a resolution, an ending that if a sequel was never made the story could exist on its own.
Being a filmmaker is a multi-disciplined endeavor. From continued marketing of First World (short) to Justice Is Mind, to presenting the feature film version of First World and SOS United States for development, to pitching Justice Is Mind as a TV series, the process is an endless one. And while I enjoy those aspects of the process, writing a screenplay keeps up my creative energies.
While I reference the word discipline, the other is also patience. Writing a screenplay, getting it produced and distributed is a multi-year process and isn’t for everyone. I remember coming across a documentary filmmaker a couple of years ago who told me flat out he hated the distribution process and that he just wanted it “done” to move on to the next project. We all look forward to our next project, but if your previous one fizzled in distribution, I don’t see how that helps future projects.
This is why you just need to stay a course. It’s not easy by any stretch. Some days are smooth sailing and others you just want to abandon ship, but in the end it’s about staying at your post and seeing your ship back to port.
I only subscribe to a handful of writing and filmmaking newsletters. In today’s day and age anyone can have a newsletter, but what it really comes down to is content. Many years ago my former business partner recommended that I subscribe to C. Hope Clark’s FundsforWriters. The amount of useful and insightful information about the world and industry of freelance writing is nearly unlimited. For me, I always enjoy Hope’s “EDITOR’S THOUGHTS” and the featured article. I was honored when Hope asked me to write the featured article for this week’s newsletter. Titled “From Bookstore to Theater, Turning Your Book into a Movie”, you can read my article at this link.
Writing an original story is not easy by any stretch and we all approach our stories differently. But in each and every case, there is that one moment when we are inspired to write that one word or phrase that will ultimately result in a book a movie or both. When I wrote a screenplay for a friend last year based on his book, there was a road map of sorts, a foundation in which to build off the primary story. The book was the original idea, the screenplay was the adaptation. A couple of weeks ago at the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, a friend of mine was passionately telling me about an original story that they want to turn into a movie.
And therein lies that one word that drives us creatives – passion. I can only speak for myself when it comes to writing an original story, but passion is the number one driving force for me. When you are “world building” an original story, if you aren’t excited about the concept why should anyone else be? I was having dinner with a friend last night who mentioned the complexities of the Justice Is Mind story and how it compared to a particular author and the movies that followed. The comment was very flattering.
For me, I like a complex story. A story that isn’t paint by number, but one that you need to watch more than once. I like characters that are multi-dimensional or suddenly change their tone. Take for example Margaret Miller in Justice Is Mind. In the beginning we see a concerned wife who happens to be a novelist. Suddenly in her desperate attempt to save her husband she goes against type by retaining a dubious private investigator to steal what she wants.
Having spent over three decades in the sport of figure skating in a variety of capacities, I suppose it had to be inevitable that I would conceive of a story around the sport. When talking about the concept a couple of weeks ago, I referenced the political thriller Marathon Man that starred Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. But there is another movie, a bit obscure, that is having another influence on this story—the conspiracy thriller Executive Action that starred Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. I say obscure, because when you look up the film you’ll see what happened when it was initially released.
In the end the goal, of course, is to write a story that audiences will enjoy. For me films are a living legacy. Long after their creatives are gone, a film lives on. One of my favorite thrillers is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).
But before I vanish into this new world I’m writing, I’ll leave you with a sample piece of dialogue from an FBI supervisor, “If I know this much you can bet that someone else sure as hell does. Because suddenly, there’s a concerted effort to get Wilson’s daughter to the World Championships in a country that has no extradition treaty with the United States.”