What I learned while writing a movie (that had nothing to do with film)
I started my year-long journey to write a screenplay last September. When I walked into class on the first day, there was a general and overwhelming “what the hell did I get myself into?” vibe consuming our tiny, broken classroom. From the first time my classmates and I pitched our ideas, it seemed that we all immediately knew we were about to start something terrifying, something insane, something impossible. We were college students and sure, some of us were writers, but we weren’t Writers. We didn’t have the authority, the skills, or the knowledge to write an entire movie. At that point, we hardly had the authority, skills, or knowledge to live-tweet an entire movie. But it was something, as lower-case-w writers, we knew we had to do to prove to each other, to our parents, to our friends, and to ourselves that we could do. And so we jumped in, each one of us as panicked as the next. Together, throughout the next year, we learned some pretty important things about life (which were conveniently disguised as some pretty important things about writing):
Self-knowledge is crucial: Every single time we stepped into the classroom, we knew there was a high possibility we’d get into an argument with one of our comrades. When you’re studying film theory, trying to nail the logistics of writing a screenplay, and juggling the creative mammoth that is writing, it’s easy to blur the lines between fact and opinion. On one hand, you want to be able to have a logical, collegiate debate about a film. On the other hand, if anyone says anything bad about Love Actually, so help you God, you will throw a hissy fit RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF CLASS!
That’s not always an option, so it’s important to recognize that sometimes, the things you love kind of suck (not Love Actually, though!). It’s still okay to love them, but you should make it a point to try to understand why you love the things you love, so that you can explain yourself in a rational, non-hissy-fit manner. Once you understand your interests, you’ll start to recognize why they benefit and feed your soul so abundantly, and from there, you’ll learn what kinds of things to go after in the future. It’s important to know yourself not just so that you can argue your side correctly, but so that you know exactly what your side is, and why you’re not ashamed to stick up for it.
Fear is not an option: You’re going to fail. Your ideas will sometimes be bad, your friends won’t respond to them the way you hope they will, and at some point, probably the point at which there’s no turning back, you’ll start to rethink every single word you’ve ever written. That’s okay. Taking risks is the only way to find out if your idea is worth it.
I struggled for the first few months because I thought my ideas were too much. I thought I “should” do it this way, or it’s “supposed” to be that way. It took me way too long to realize that as long as it’s MY movie, anything I write has to be right. I’ve got to define my own supposed-to’s, and that was liberating in a way I couldn’t have imagined. In writing, as in life, there are rules. There are structural guidelines and theories galore, but if they don’t work for you, don’t follow them. Sometimes, structure keeps us following our path to a final destination. But sometimes, it just reminds us how much fun it is to stray from the path.
Reality doesn’t have to make sense: I know I just said rules are meant to be broken, but in writing, there is one over-arching, maddening rule that is simply impossible to ignore: Fiction has to be credible, while reality does not. If a character in your movie cannot drive and your final scene includes him tailing the taxi of his lady-love as she escapes to the airport, you will lose your audience. In real life, things change. Nothing is static. People do things they shouldn’t, and things don’t happen that should. Change is the only constant, which can bring wonderful surprises as well as terrible tragedies.
Life does not have to make sense—and that’s kind of the fun of it. What fun would it be to know where you’ll end up in 5 years (or even 5 minutes)? The more I wrote and the more I focused on creating a credible universe for my characters, the more I realized how incredible the one I was living in appeared to be. Life will never end up the way you want it to, even if you do everything “right.” Like the over-arching rule, it’s simply an unavoidable truth. At the very least, you’ll always have movies to come home to when you’re looking for consistency.
We eventually moved out of the room with the caved-in ceiling, and we finally finished our movies. For a few moments at the end of the year, sitting on the hideously-carpeted floor in a circle like a 21st century, way-less-cool Breakfast Club, wondering how the hell we’d just done what we did, and how we’d ever do something like it again, was a patchwork group of Writers. We were a bunch of kids who somehow did something amazing, and on the way, learned how to be people. And though I can’t speak for the rest of them, when I typed my last words in bed with no pants on at five in the morning, I sat back, closed my laptop, and thought, “If I can do that, I can do anything.”