Directors Close-Up: Best First Screenplay Noms On Making Movies On and Beyond the Page
Writing is rewriting, or so we’re told. No, but really: it is. Sitting in a room, at a desk, in bed, at a coffee shop and trying to find the truth within the story you are telling. Hoping that someone who reads it can resonate with it. People we’re sure would agree: Jamie Dack (Palm Trees and Power Lines), K.D. Dávila (Emergency), Audrey Findlay (Palm Trees and Power Lines), John Patton Ford (Emily the Criminal) and Joel Kim Booster (Fire Island)—four of this year’s five Best First Screenplay nominees at the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
At the second session of the 2023 Film Independent Directors Close-Up, these five writers came together to discuss their films and journey to this point. Filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez (Homecoming, Tales of the City) moderated the conversation; about distilling their ideas, rewriting and the relationship with the director, whether it be as a collaborator or as themselves. See highlights from the session below. Series passes are on sale now.
To start, Alvarez asked the screenwriters how each of their stories began.
Jamie Dack: I wrote and directed Palm Trees and Power Lines, the short, back in 2017. It premiered at Cannes in 2018. I felt like there was more I wanted to explore so I began adapting it into a feature. I wrote a number of drafts, but it wasn’t feeling like what I wanted it to be. I had an intuitive sense that I wanted to work with somebody else. I put it out into the universe. In meetings and in generals I would say: “ If you know a writer…” In one of those generals, an exec said “I actually might know someone who I went to school with” and he recommended Audrey. It was a very scary thing for me to decide that I was going to collaborate with someone, to trust someone. I vividly remember she made this one little suggestion about something and it was so smart, I went, “Okay, yes. This person knows what I’m trying to do.”
Audrey Findlay: I was a creative executive at the time. This mutual friend of ours reached out and said: “Hey, I know you’re working right now, but I met this amazing director who is looking for a co-writer.” When we met it was kind of like kismet. We seemed to be really on the same page about where the story was going. A lot of the key images were things that Jamie had already come in with. A lot of the work we did together was connecting those dots and deepening the drama.
K.D. Dávila: Emergency also started as a short. I did not direct the short or the feature, but I wrote both. We started in Film Independent’s Project Involve program. I didn’t know the director [Carey Williams] until we were in the program together. We didn’t expect [the short] to be as loved as it ended up being. We went to Sundance and SXSW. We were sort of blown away the whole time, like, “People are really responding to this!” The tone [of the project] was unique.
John Patton Ford: My movie isn’t based on a short. I’d been working as a screenwriter for a number of years, so it’s weird. The writing part was something I was pretty comfortable with. I knew that If I were going to get the chance to direct my first movie, I’d have to write a script that would be my bargaining chip. I’d have to write something that would have to work as a blunt object, that people could read really quickly. That they couldn’t argue with. That would bait an actor of a certain caliber. It is pretty unromantic to put in those terms, but it’s true. It was a pretty mercenary endeavor.
To Ford, Alvarez replied: “I love hearing that. I do often say that to younger screenwriters, I understand the dream fantasy of write anything you would want, but I also think there’s the practical side of [screenwriting] and the payback in dividend from actually getting the film made.”
Said Ford: “To be fair, I had the dream whatever you want years previously, in my 20s and in film school. By the time I started doing [Emily The Criminal] I was very much like, ‘I need to make a movie or I’m gonna go nuts. How can I do this, laser-guided, in the easiest way?’ I was like, alright, genre movie. It has to be the easiest thing to read that I’ve ever seen. Those were the rules. Only after I started writing in those parameters did it become personal.
Alvarez asked Ford whether he considered his Black List script Rothchild the calling card that had led to the eventual flourishing of his career and subsequent production of Emily the Criminal.
Ford: It’s funny, because I made a short in film school that played at Sundance in 2010. At that point I was just a director. I’d never written anything, except for that short. I thought: “Alright, I’m going to get into the labs with a feature. I’ll do the thing that all the things that all of my heroes did.” And, it just didn’t happen. I wrote a feature script and it got rejected from Sundance. They were like “rewrite it.” I spent a whole year rewriting it, and they rejected it again! I had like $100,000 of debt and I was just getting nowhere. So I started banging around and working whatever jobs I could to hang on and get by. Then I wrote Rothchild and it all started over again. No one remembered the short I made at Sundance, no one cared. It became me going to meetings and pitching as a writer. Every now and then I would say “I direct too” and they’d be like. “Yeah, sure.”
K.D. Dávila: You have to put on a producer’s hat when you’re writing a screenplay. When I talk about Emergency, the idea came from a place that stemmed from talking about political issues. The movie is about the fraught relationship between POC and the police. When I was actually writing the script, there was that element of how do I make this the most producible movie possible? I wrote the smallest possible version. If we can’t get any funding, I wanted to be able to make this with my own credit card debt. I wanted to be able to make it with no money at all. The thing that is interesting about doing that is that if you write something really small and you end up getting funding, people are like, “Maybe you can make it a little bigger?”
Alvarez asked Dávila, “At what point did [production company] Temple Hill get involved and how did that change the script for the Emergency feature?”
Dávila: We had the short and were able to shop it around fairly easily. When you’re pitching things you have to get people’s faith in you, so it was really nice to have a finished product. We met with a bunch of different companies and Temple Hill was the only one that didn’t seem nervous about some of the tricker issues in the film. A lot of the producers we met were like, “Can you pull back on the social commentary and just make it more of a party movie?’” We said: “You’re missing the entire point of the entire movie that we wanted to make.” It’s hard when you’re breaking in to not say “Yes” to the first person who’s interested in you. You want it so badly. You want it to get made, but you also have to have some restraint and ask, “Is this the right person?” It’s really like dating in a lot of ways. You can’t just date the first person who has a crush on you. You can’t do that to yourself.
Alvarez agreed. “It’s true. Sometimes it’s better to not make the thing than make it wrong. That’s probably the thing that keeps me up at night.” Turning to Fire Island‘s writer and lead actor, he asked Booster about the projects evolution from episodic series on the doomed Quibi platform to feature-length Searchlight release.
Joel Kim Booster: I would definitely say [director] Andrew Ahn’s involvement changed the script more so than the switch from Quibi to Searchlight did. When [Quibi] commissioned me to write Fire Island, I wrote it in my head as a movie that happened to be broken up into 10 chapters. So when Quibi folded and we brought the script to Searchlight all I basically did was take out the chapter breaks and present it as a screenplay. From Quibi to Searchlight there weren’t a lot of significant changes. There were some rhythm things. Quibi was very adamant that they wanted a climax during every 10-minute chunk. Which is goofy if you’re watching a movie, and something climatic is happening every 10 minutes. It can be a little exhausting. So we sort of paired back on that and let the structure be a little bit more like a real movie. Working on the script with Andrew really changed the script more than the switch from Quibi to Searchlight. He added: “I wrote the first draft before I had ever been in a relationship. Once the Quibi to Searchlight switch happened, I had suddenly been in love for the first time. And that actually had a pretty big impact on writing a romantic comedy. It literally changed the ending of the movie.”
Alvarez asked the panelists, “What’s the one thing you learned the most from this specific project?”
Dack Being really specific on the page and seeing that translate into the final film. What Jamie and I did on the page almost exactly translated to Palm Trees and Power Lines. When I saw the final cut, it was almost exactly what we had on the page.
Booster: It is hard for me to separate the different experiences, because this was my first everything; my first lead role as an actor, my first time producing, my first time getting a script produced. For me it was really about trying to stay focused and [concentrate] on what hat I was wearing at that moment. There were at least two monologues in the movie that I showed up to set and said: “I don’t like this, I’m just going to wing it.” That’s something you can do when you’re writing and producing. But that’s not something I can take with me to other sets.
Dávila: I think more writers would be doing themselves a favor if they demanded more involvement in their film. I’m lucky because I was able to insert myself into the process. When I made the deal on this, I was like: “I’m an executive producer, please give that to me.” You can ask for more as a writer. The worst they can say is “No.” I think writers should be viewed more as a resource that you can turn to for problem solving in production. More directors should look at writers as resources and not as obstacles for their visions.
Ford: I feel like I learned something that we all know. It’s all the script. The weakness that are so obvious are things that trace back to the narrative that went underdeveloped. I remember trying to get this movie made for so long. By the time it was finally getting made it was too soon. I’m determined to develop like an absolute maniac for the next project, so there’s a rock-solid thing to fall back on.
The Directors Close-Up series continues with events through March 1 leading up to the 2023 Film Independent Spirit Awards on Sunday, March 4. Passes are on sale now.
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