what writers can learn from making a movie2

4 Things Writers Can Learn From Making a Movie

4 things writers can learn from making a movieI’ve been a book editor and a writer for a number of years now. As an author, I have one published novel in The Listeners; as an editor, I’ve worked on more than seventy. I’ve written screenplays that were optioned but never made, and I’ve sat at book signings to which no one showed up. I’ve spoken at conferences to audiences full of aspiring writers, I’ve counseled authors, and I’ve taught high school students the craft of fiction.

But this summer brought an experience I’ve never had before, and one reasonably likely never to happen.

This summer I saw the filming of my very first movie.

As my cryptozoological dramedy Ape Canyon now navigates its way through post-production, I find myself considering four important lessons I’ve learned through this process.

Ape Canyon co-lead Anna Fagan (Samantha Piker) in the foreground with members of the crew behind (Gabby Sturgeon on sound, alongside production designer Jari Neuman and, on a tree stump, gaffer Ty Gentner) during filming in the area of Roslyn, WA.

1. Never Abandon a Good Story

More than one member of the remarkable cast and crew of Ape Canyon asked me what it was like to finally see the production of something that had existed in my head for a year or two. I had to correct them: it’s been so much longer than that.

Ape Canyon is a screenplay I started thinking about in 2009. I started writing it in 2011, and writing it in earnest in 2013, completing it in 2014. I have a lot of other screenplays, and a litany of short stories I saw myself adapting into short films. I didn’t know Ape Canyon would resonate with director Josh Land and director of photography Victor Fink when I met them in 2016, and I sure didn’t know we’d be filming it in 2018.

If I’d let Ape Canyon go when it was just an idea or abandoned it after 2011, or if I hadn’t committed myself to finishing it in 2013, or if I’d forgotten it when it didn’t set the world on fire immediately in 2014, then I would never have had the experience of watching it come to life before my eyes.

Leads Anna Fagan and Jackson Trent (Cal Piker) in the lens of director of photography Victor Fink.

2. A Good Writer Must Be Agile

This is a lesson I preach to my clients in fiction and memoir, but it can be a tough one to put into practice. What I wrote in the Ape Canyon script was the film as I envisioned it—but it turns out films have budgets. And when you’re making an indie film, those budgets provide some limitations. It’s on you—and your team—to adjust on the fly and come up with ways to maintain the integrity of the story while remaining realistic relative to what you can actually do.

One particular problem area was the sequence in which protagonist Cal Piker (played, beautifully, by Jackson Trent) gets lost in the woods. In the screenplay, this happens during a storm. But you can’t control the rain. He falls into a rain-swollen river and nearly drowns, but that’s a major, costly stunt. So we lost the storm. We lost the river. Cal fell down a hill. (And Jackson, fortunately, was not injured.)

Though not badly injured, Cal has had a very rough couple of days. Anna and Jackson, with Gabby operating the boom mic.

The real tricky part, though, was the squirrel.

As written, Cal wanders into the woods because he thinks he hears Bigfoot. He realizes he’s lost after he discovers the true source of the sound: a squirrel, scampering away. It was virtually impossible on our budget to get a squirrel to scamper about the woods on cue—but equally impossible to control another animal, or a gust of wind, or whatever else might make a similar sound.

Josh suggested trash left in the woods. From there I proposed a bag hanging in the trees, as campers sometimes do to keep their supplies away from animals. Through some careful adjustments, we had a pretty great sequence—not the one I envisioned, but one that works just as well.

It wouldn’t have happened without Josh. That brings me to the third lesson.

3. Respect the Collaborative Process

Writing is frequently a solo act, but revision comes often with the creative input of others. Film compounds this, because film is all about collaboration. Without collaboration, and the teamwork of many creative people, there can be no film. This is one of the central ways in which the filming of Ape Canyon was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

We ran into another budget issue with the car chase scene. First we had to lose the chase. Then we had to lose the highway. Soon the car could hardly move at all. I tried to be agile. I wrote three alternative versions of this scene and did everything I could to make them at least almost as good as what I’d written originally. But I wasn’t happy about it.

I was there the day this scene was filmed—and I discovered Josh, Victor, and the rest of the team had done something amazing. They’d kept the dialogue and the arc of the most budget-friendly version of the scene, but they’d also sped it up, transforming it from sardonic to manic. It was a brilliant change because it maintained the energy of the chase within the confines of our limited budget. It wasn’t my idea, but it’s exactly what I would have written had I thought about it.

The Ape Canyon team films the reimagined no-longer-a-car chase. Left to right: director Josh Land, 1st AD (assistant director) Duncan Hill, 1st AC (assistant camera) Jessie Dubyoski, director of photography Victor Fink, and gaffer Ty Gentner. Unseen: Jackson Trent, hot-wiring the car.

That’s the magic of collaboration. There are lines in this film I didn’t write—lines the actors improvised or otherwise developed in the course of the filming that fit so perfectly even I couldn’t be sure they weren’t always there. And of course the entire visual element of the film is dependent on Josh and Victor and the craft they bring to what they do.

Part of the magic of watching a film come to life is in the fact that it’s not just you making it happen.

4. Embrace the Surreal

It’s hard to express the wonder I felt the first time I visited the set to watch actors playing characters that have existed in my head for, in some cases, nearly a decade. I experienced this first during auditions, hearing my words read by a variety of different performers with a variety of voices, but it’s different in the context of filming. The first time the majority of the cast was gathered on our campground set, seeing all the characters in the same place was like my own personal Avengers.

The majority of the Ape Canyon cast gathers around the campfire. From left to right: Donny Ness (Charlie), Lauren Shaye (Gina), Clayton Myers (Mark), Anna, Jackson, and Skip Schwink (Franklin).

But it’s not just the actors. It’s the locations. I wasn’t on set every day, but I would see photographs of settings and instantly recognize them from wherever they appear in the story. How do you recognize something you’ve never actually seen?

At heart, this isn’t just the wonder of filmmaking. It’s the wonder of firsts. Whatever new opportunity emerges to take your writing out into the world, even if it means entrusting your work to others, try it. Give yourself the opportunity to see your work in a brand new light. You’ll learn in the process that embracing the surreal can be one of the great joys of being a writer.

One of the last shots of the film: Cal and Samantha (Jackson and Anna) looking out over the beautiful Washington scenery.

Ape Canyon will surely have many more lessons to teach me as it develops into a finished film. I’m looking forward to it seeing it. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, or editing for that matter—there’s always something new out there. That’s what makes it so exciting.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What has been your most surreal moment as a writer? Tell me in the comments!

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About Harrison Demchick | @HDemchick

Harrison Demchick came up as a book editor in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than seventy published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning screenwriter whose first feature film, Ape Canyon, is currently in post-production. He’s currently accepting new clients for book editing in fiction and memoir.

Comments

  1. Robert Billing says:

    I can understand this. Earlier this year, for the first time, a show that I wrote was performed live on stage. Seeing actors dressed as your characters, speaking your words, is as you say totally surreal. I also had to make the positive decision that all the other skills, such as costume, lighting and sound had their own professionals who knew how to their jobs. Standing back and letting them make their own creative inputs resulted in a much better performance.

    I must have done something right, by the last night the whole house was sold out.

    • That’s fantastic, Robert! And yes, that’s exactly the experience. You’re watching your work come to life, but thanks to your collaborators it’s in a way you could never have imagined. It’s yours, but also theirs. And the result is magical.

  2. I definitely agree with collaboration. It can take a hit to our ego/pride but it can be so important to allow others to influence our stories and writing in general. Isn’t that why we read blog posts, allowing someone else’s input to feed some aspect of our writing?

    • That’s an interesting connection, Michael. You’re right. Really it applies to any feedback too. Part of growing as a writer–as anything, really–is understanding that you may not always know best.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Harrison!

  4. I have a book that’s been optioned and is supposed to film next year. When I first found out about the option, I freaked out so much that my husband had thought someone died. I’m excited to see it come to life, and I really appreciate these lessons.

  5. When I write, I often think about how my writing would look if it were acted out. I find that it is a useful tool to use when showing rather than telling. I also use it when trying properly (but not excessively) explore the environment in which scenes are set, to include details that create a better word picture in readers’ minds without bogging them down in irrelevant details that sap the life and energy out of the scene.

    • Sometimes I encourage writers to do exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason. Setting aside flashbacks, dream sequences, and voiceover, film is generally third-person objective, so it’s all about show versus tell. In the past I’ve also sometimes “cast” my own writing–that is, imagined dialogue as performed by this or that actor. It can help clarify the voice of the character and help set them apart from others. (I wonder how that will change now that I’ll actually be able to hear actors reading my dialogue.)

      Thanks for reading, Bernadette!

  6. An excellent look into the real world of film making and why so many novels are changed in the filming process. It just has to be done.

    • That’s very true, Steve–and often even *before* budget enters the picture, simply because not every novel or short story breaks down easily into three-act film structure. But I’ve always felt in adaptation that the real goal is to be true to the *heart* of the story–if you can do that, it’s a successful adaptation. I think the same is likely the case with filmmaking in general. As long as the artistic inclinations of writers, directors, cast, crew, etc. are devoted toward realizing what the story is at heart, the result will be a film of which you can be proud.

  7. Natalie L Shannon says:

    I wish I would have read this 7 years ago! I put my book out on a few chat rooms and facebook groups. A brief synopsis. A streaming channel that was just starting to have original programming wanted me to sell them my book. I told them no. I did not want MY BOOK to be some two bit TV series on a “streaming channel” I was afraid that my creative influence would be taken away. I saw how many authors had their books and visions ruined by TV and movie makers. (I’m a Stephen King fan and most of the movies about his books stink)
    Now I realize how dumb I was. I had a few life setbacks and never got to finish my book. If I had not been so snobbish, my book and vision would be finished.

  8. You make wonderful points about the importance of being open to the process and collaborating. It’s one thing to see your work in print and quite another when your work changes mediums. I’ve written for the stage and had it produced, and that first moment when the actors embody your words is thrilling. It’s also exciting to learn what works and what doesn’t work and why, and then expand your craft (and yourself). Many times we want to protect our work and end up contracting and going nowhere. You’ve given us a beautiful example of being open to the possibilities and moving forward. Congratulations on your film!

  9. Will this movie be in theaters?

    • That’s the dream! As a low-budget indie dramedy, though, we have a pretty long road to that destination, and most likely the best we could hope for would be limited release–which would still be pretty great. But film festivals and Netflix are also potential destinations. It depends on the response we get from distributors and such once the film is finished.

  10. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    No place I’d rather be than on a film set.

    • It’s an addictive experience. After I wrote this article, we shot one more day in a small airport–and in an old, out-of-service airplane as well–and I’m glad I had that one last chance to watch it all come to life. It’s become clear that I need to make another film just to have a chance to do it all again.

  11. Christian says:

    I am about to read your article. But got distracted by the film “stills” camera used to, I am guessing, as a visual representation of movie making. Continuity?

  12. Everything you’ve said here is spot-on. I had only written short fiction before a friend and I co-wrote a screenplay back in 2012. That process has been amazing–seeing it go from something that we had complete ownership of, to watching actors bring our characters to life, to having people outside just your family and friends watch it and comment. Great post. And congrats on the movie!

  13. Making a movie was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life! I had to murder so many ‘darlings’ to fit the budget. Not sure if I’d do it again, but it has taught me to be ruthless when editing my work.

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