4. Three stages of filmmaking
About my writing process and how I use filmmaking as a metaphor to overcome fears of the blank page and terrible first drafts
Hello and welcome to 101 Things I Learned About Fiction from Film! I’ve noticed that a lot of people have recently started to follow the Substack, which has really encouraged me to sustain the craft essay portion of my platform. I want to start by thanking you for this support, which really means so much to me. I hope I can make my words worth the space they take up in your inbox and in your day. If you’d like to see a little more from me, this Substack also has extensions on Instagram and YouTube. (In fact, I might have reached some of you through my latest video about the writing life, told through the films of Wes Anderson!)
In this post, I’m going to talk about the filmmaking process and its profound influence on how I imagine myself as a writer. Back in my very first post on Substack, I spoke a little about this, saying that whenever I write my stories, no matter what stage of writing I’m in, I imagine myself as a film director, going to set every day and capturing the movie on celluloid (or digital). Part of this comes with a deep familiarity of film directors and their processes. I’ve studied their lives and works so closely that I can’t help but identify with their joys and frustrations throughout the creative process.
Reflecting on this approach, I realize that I need to do this to overcome my fear of the blank page and write. To put it another way, imagining myself as a film director is a bit like changing into my superhero persona. Bruce Wayne can’t spring into action unless he’s suited up to become Batman. In the same way, I often need to put myself on the set of my story with my characters, talking through what we need to do so that I can get the story down. A surprising result of this is a strong relationship between myself and my stories, working with the text through the avatars of the film’s cast and crew.
Let me break down this approach into the three stages of filmmaking.
In filmmaking, pre-production consists of everything that needs to be done before a single shot is taken. At this stage, you work on finding your actors, building sets and designing costumes, and planning where you will place the camera before you even start filming.
For me, this phase of filmmaking/writing is all about building anticipation. I usually start writing with some idea in mind, whether it’s a situation, a peculiar character, or an entire problem that I need to solve by the end of the story. When I am in pre-production, I try as hard as I can to imagine the specifics around this idea. If I know the situation, I ask myself: who are the people involved in this problem? If it’s a character I have in mind, I ask myself: well, what’s the most interesting scenario I can put this person in?
This latter question is especially fun for me, because it mirrors the process of creating a star vehicle for an actor who brings something interesting to the table that hasn’t been utilized in other movies before. One example of this is the film Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson built entirely around the desire to work with Adam Sandler. Anderson was obsessed with Sandler’s movies, and up until that point, Sandler had mostly starred in wacky over-the-top comedies like Billy Madison (1995) and more recently, Little Nicky (2000). While most people dismissed Sandler as a low-culture performer, Anderson saw something that deeply fascinated him, and so he started writing an off-kilter romantic comedy with Sandler and Emily Watson in mind. The result was a film that was unlike anything that Sandler had ever been in before, proving that he was capable of more than people gave him credit for. Sometimes, a great story can start exactly this way. We may have a person in mind who we feel is overlooked, or an amalgam of different people who, through their overlapping qualities, can feel larger than life. When we imagine that person in a situation where those qualities are engaged or challenged, that can set the stage for compelling storytelling.
Pre-production is also the phase where I try to think about what mood I want to set for my story, and how I can accentuate it by choosing the surrounding details carefully. Is this a story where the setting plays heavily into the story? Can I get their clothes or furniture to say something about my characters instead of saying it directly? Even music plays into this phase of anticipation in a crucial way. Do I hear music playing in the background of a scene, or is there music playing non-diegetically (i.e. that only I, the writer, can hear while I’m writing the scene)? These all help to influence how I feel about the story as I prepare to write it.
Once I have enough, I usually can already hear the first lines of the story in my head, something that will help me to hit the ground running as the film in my mind plays out and I start writing. Now you might have noticed that the whole time I have been talking about pre-production, I’ve neglected to mention the one essential ingredient everyone needs to make the film: I haven’t said anything about a screenplay yet. And that is a good segue into the next stage of filmmaking.
Typically, when we talk about screenplays, we are talking about the blueprint of a film. Because films are usually a collaborative process involving a very large group of talented creatives, screenplays are important for aligning and anchoring that group to a shared vision of what should happen in each scene. But one thing I learned very early on in my obsession with film is that the screenplay is often not considered a sacred text. In fact, the screenplay is a hugely malleable artifact, one that sometimes changes from day-to-day on the set.
Most of this comes from the input of the talented creatives in the group. An actor might look at a line and say, “I’m not sure my character would say this,” or the director of photography might tell the director, “We could actually do something interesting with shadows if we make the actor stand here instead of there by the window.” Good directors are often receptive to the creative input brought in by the people they work with, which is why some auteurs tend to work with the same people over and over again—think Steven Spielberg and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Spielberg has always had a distinctive look to his films, especially in the latter part of his career. But a big reason for that is his working partnership and trust in Kamiński’s ability to fulfill his creative vision.
When I am writing a story, I try to be just as receptive in my relationship to the text I am producing. Some people find it abstract to hear writers describe their writing as a process of “listening” to what the story is telling them. In my case, I do listen to what the story is telling me, but usually the story is telling me what it wants to tell me through the different people I am working with on the set of the film I’m making. If I write a line of dialogue, sometimes I might imagine a character telling me, “I’m not sure I would say this.” Other times, I might feel that a story doesn’t feel propulsive enough and I’ll imagine an editor telling me, “It’s because you’ve got your scenes in the wrong order.” For me, writing is just as much about listening as it is about writing. If I don’t listen to what my gut is telling me is right or wrong about a story, I’m not letting the story be as good as I can make it.
That said, I usually try not to write with such a strong blueprint in mind. I know this isn’t always the case for writers, and some can do well by outlining exactly what they want to write beforehand. For me, I try my best to avoid writing anything about my story until I’ve actually started typing the first words. The only exception I have for this is when I’m working on a longer project, like a novel, where a blueprint makes it necessary for me to see the direction I’m going in. In general, however, I don’t blueprint or script anything until I’ve started shooting, so to speak. This allows me to leave the greatest room for surprises and improvisation. I come to the page with an idea in mind, but I trust the story to grow into something more than what I first imagined it to be. This is as much as I can do to listen to the story in practice.
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai famously shot his masterpiece In the Mood for Love (2000) without a concrete script. I remember the first time I heard this, it completely blew my mind. Everything in the film seemed so deliberate and so well-conceived that I supposed it had all been so carefully scripted. But as it turns out, Wong only wrote vague scene sketches and treatments to get the film funded. When it came down to the actual production period, Wong preferred to spend a lot of time in close discussion with his two lead actors, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, to ask them how they would develop the characters from what he had written. This led to a somewhat messy production process lasting 15 months, but the demands of their time together inspired them greatly.
This is the kind of relationship I always aspire to have with my writing. As a writer, I have a particular view of the world, but my stories will not always have a one-to-one correspondence with what I think or feel. Many times, I feel most satisfied with my writing when I find myself adapting from the incidents of lives that have stayed with me a very long time. In these cases, the stories are no longer in my hands, but begin to grow apart from me in a way that feels organic and magical at the same time.
There’s a very famous quote from Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo that goes: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” In large part, this quote best sums up how I see the process of revising my stories.
In filmmaking, once shooting has wrapped up, the director gets down to business with the editor, who creates a complete sequence of all the marked footage taken from the film (called a rough cut), and starts trimming through the footage to find the final version of the film. The director and the editor work together for days on end to sift through the footage, look among the alternate takes for better shot coverage, and trim the film down into its most efficient form. When it comes to my writing, I like to imagine that the first drafts of my stories are the rough cut of the movie.
I know that most of us writers look at editing or revision as one of the most difficult parts of the process. It’s the moment we confront our first draft and engage with the ugliest versions of our writing. That’s usually how it is for filmmakers, too.
In the FX limited series Fosse/Verdon, there’s a great moment where Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) sits down to start editing the footage for Cabaret. The editor screens the factory cut of the film for him, and the next time we see Fosse, he looks miserable. We know at once that he’s watching the worst thing he’s ever seen—a bloated, incoherent ramble of a picture. And that’s when he gets to work.
Often when I am working through the first drafts of my stories and cutting through them, I try to remind myself that I am here to look for the best version of my story. I might be uncomfortable with what I’m seeing, but I have to remember that if I don’t look at this and reshape it into its best version, then nobody will ever see what I found so special about the story in the first place.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to remain open to surprise even in revision. Your story is still malleable, especially when it’s a draft. Recently, a story I was working on had one structure, where the present action frames the past so that we understand the context of the present moment. Then, after I got some helpful feedback and I started re-thinking the way the story was presenting itself, I realized that the story needed to have the inverse of its current structure: the past action needed to be the main driving thread of the story, with only occasional jumps to the future. This reorganization opened a lot of doors for me, including to my surprise a whole change in narrative voice, going from third person to second. I could go further into why the reorganization did that for me, but my point here is really to highlight that the entire story can change and you will discover what it’s really about even as late as post-production. I may realize that a new scene is needed, or that I need to change the tenor of an older scene I had written, and so I get out of the editing room and go back to the blank page to do re-shoots.
Editing is a process of deep reflection, and it’s often more about abandoning the things you feel precious about in the story to make room for more exciting things. When I imagine myself with an editor at this stage of writing—think of me sitting down with Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker—I will often rely on her distance from my experience of writing to tell me what I can’t see. Schoonmaker herself has talked about having a “cold perspective” of the movies her collaborator shoots. As much as possible, she tries to stay off the set so that she doesn’t have any memories of the scene that will influence her understanding of what is supposed to happen. This gives her the room to tell Scorsese when a sequence of shots makes sense or something could be done in a different way to pack a stronger punch.
A lot of writers talk about their internal editors being overly critical of every line and detail in their story. But I find that the best internal editor to work with is someone who doesn’t know what you’re trying to do, and so you have to spend a lot of time trying to tell them what you are trying to do and figuring out together how to do it. In that way, that internal editor is closer to your reader, not to you, the writer.
I’ve spoken a lot about how putting myself in the shoes of a film director has helped me to write, but I’m also well aware that these shoes won’t fit everyone. Nevertheless, I think there’s an opportunity for us to find roles in the world that we can imagine as stand-ins for writing, and I would like to close the post with this intention in mind.
As writers our curiosity drives us to invest ourselves in the lives of others. We are so entranced by the minutiae of what they do that we can say we know exactly how they do their jobs. I would add that we know them to the degree that we can start to see them as metaphors for writing.
For the exercise in this post, I’d like to do away with our usual reading and writing activities and instead think about how our knowledge of other careers and lines of work can serve what we know of our process or unlock a greater understanding of what we need to do to work.
Write one to two pages from the perspective of someone you know whose job you are deeply familiar with. It doesn’t have to be an arts-related role; all that matters is that you can speak to what they do day-to-day with confidence. On this page, I’d like for you to talk about the following things:
What you find interesting about this job
What you find difficult about the job
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about that job?
Spend a few minutes reflecting on what you’ve written, and ask yourself how each of the points in the previous item could apply to your writing process. Do you find it interesting when a story operates as an organic and integrated machine the way some doctors or engineers do in their work? Do you find it difficult to confront the tedium of everyday practice as some gardeners might?
Try to see what this exercise can tell you about your writing process and what are the things you need to do to bring yourself closer to your work.
Before my next craft essay—perhaps some time in the next week—I’ll likely be releasing a new video on my YouTube channel. I’m a little nervous about how it will turn out, but I hope you enjoy it as it focuses on another one of my favorite film directors. Then, in my next essay, I’ll discuss the language of the literary world and how the knowledge of it can help us to understand its machinations while also showing us how it can shut us out. I want to say here that I’m a little daunted by this topic, as some of it may draw from my personal experience of the writing world as I’ve encountered it. In any case, I will do my best to make sure that I can share my insights on the matter. Thank you so much for reading and see you later!
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