I’m currently in the middle of a screenplay for a feature project to direct this summer. It’s a project that I designed to fill in some empty space in my schedule, as my fall is pretty booked up, and a project I was supposed to direct this summer has been delayed. Such is film, there are no predictable schedules and for a project to come to full realization, a million parts must be synchronized at once.
The piece I’m writing is a pure performance piece - six women in one room - and I’ve never written such a complex script before. As is my style, I tend to write everything out. Both the Lilith and One Trick Rip-Off screenplays are filled with details and instructions, they are more like blueprints for a film to be constructed from. When people read those screenplays, they often are able to vividly see the film before them. It’s a way of writing that works for some, not for others. It works for me, as the analytical part of me reassures my creative free spirit. I know that when I get off the path less traveled, I always have a core plan I can go back to and rely upon.
But this script is an entirely different animal. It’s one room, so it’s not like I have to fill the screenplay with descriptions of setting and mood. One and done on the environment, which changes only slightly over the course of the story. This is purely a performance piece, where the six women talk and debate. Ethics. Morality. Mortality. It all comes into play.
I’ve never written a screenplay - let alone a single scene - where six characters interact with one another. Maximum I’ve done is four in one scene, and luckily that was just a scene, it didn’t have to carry out for 90 minutes. After plotting the script out and writing a full treatment, I stared at the blank page, not really knowing where to begin.
Do I just write it all out, just as I would any other screenplay? I started doing this and it didn’t feel right. It felt clinical and lacked spontaneity. Everything was planned, the dialogue was coming off as far too clever and snappy. I was writing in actions for the negative space - the space between the words - and it was reading just as filler. My tried and tested method of screenwriting was not working.
Not that it was bad writing, in fact it was quite good. Very good quality, some of the best I’d written in a long time. The debates between the women were reading more as a transcript of a debate that’s already happened. I imagined that if I was an actress I’d be excited to play the part, but it would be a matter of saying those specific lines in a specific way. I want something that grabs the actress and fills them with immediacy. So I decided to scrap what I’d written and start over.
I started with the characters. I created detailed profiles of each character, not getting into their backstory but rather the salient points that would affect their arguments. After finishing the profiles, I mapped out the five main arguments that transpire over the course of the story. I then created a graph, with the characters names on the horizontal access, and the argument topics on the vertical access. And then came the hard part - at each cross-point, I wrote how each character would respond to each argument. The graph visually presented each argument in proximity of one another, and in this presentation, I saw how each act would initially unfold.
I’d achieved an organic construct, and now I had to get back to writing a script. The dialogue was beckoning, but I decided to take a massive departure and I planned to let my actresses improvise the dialogue.
Improvisation doesn’t mean you don’t have a script, in fact it’s still a very detailed screenplay that must result. But the script is painted in broad strokes with the important details not omitted, but rather concealed. The true power in improvisation is not telling your actors what to say, but rather describing what they should not say. It’s what they’re holding back that will deliver the true meat of the lines.
Everyone’s got secrets, and the core of any drama is the lengths people will go to cover up the truth. In a romance it is the suppression of true feelings, in horror it is one’s mortality, in comedy it is the avoidance of awkwardness, which makes things all the more awkward. In my screenplay I’m focusing on the inner fears and prejudices that drive each woman to a conclusion, so what’s important is that the actors know what it is that they’re hiding. Once they know that, the improvisation to cover up those truths, when in concert with character preparation and immersion, should promise some very interesting results.
I’m about a quarter of the way through, and the screenplay is reading essentially like a prose document, except with some key start and stop points. I’m defining the beginning of an argument, and the idea of the counter argument. The idea is the gift to the opposing actors. There may be a few key lines of dialogue that are to be given not as gospel, but rather as a suggestion, a seedling to a line that will come out organically and in the moment. By the time I’m finished, the screenplay will be about fifty pages.
I’ve never done something like this before, and I have to admit, it’s a little scary. But I also know that an improvised screenplay has more than one author, and in this instance I will have six more once I complete my casting. Casting becomes paramount because not only am I bringing in six performers with great acting capacity, but also six co-writers who must have the intellect and creativity to finish what I started. They will have to come from a place of total immersion, which is undoubtedly a lot of pressure but also a tremendous adventure for an artist. It’s like being sent on a mission - you’ve been given your orders, you have your tools, and now you must execute. My job as a writer and director is to ensure that my actors are safe and comfortable, that they can count on me for direction when they get trapped or lost. We depend upon one another, and trust is key.
This is exciting, a new territory for me. It’s part of my continual growth as a filmmaker, to keep pushing myself and my collaborators into new things. We swing to different ends of the pendulum and arrive in the center with new skills, perspectives and tools. Ultimately I want to achieve the natural ease of improvisation with the composed, artistic formality of my earlier work. I’ve always been a visual and sonic artist, and to get to the very core of performance, to make acting harmonize with the visuals and sound, is to reach the apex of my goal as a filmmaker. Doing this improvised screenplay is an important step in that direction.