Kill Your Baby

Sometimes you have to kill your baby. Editing is all about finding the essence of the story and eliminating the extraneous stuff that distracts from the main narrative. Sure you have to keep a little filler and transitions to give the story breadth and rhythm, and specific details to allow the characters to sing, but getting a script down to an acceptable length is all about asking, how do I tell this story in the most concise way possible and boil the narrative down to the basics?

One trick to scale a script is to look at it from a budgetary perspective. Is that car chase really necessary? Do I need the mountain lion on page 35 to complement the main character's emotional state in a grand display of magical realism...or can I save $15K? As a writer, you don't want to completely eviscerate imaginative storytelling, but you also don't want to forget practicality plays a big role in getting movies made.

Another way is to focus on the dialog, and in the case of this script, also Voice-Over (V.O.). Much of the inner monologue from the blog this story was inspired by, was re-purposed for the screenplay, and although each line has meaning, there's a lot of V.O. that seems repetitive. Can it be consolidated without adversely affecting the story? Can two lines be condensed to one? Can five be condensed to one? In real life, our vernacular is often long-winded, and repetitive. The beauty of cinema is that film dialog does not need to be an exact representation of real life. It's got to sound real (if that's the style in which you're telling your story) and authentic to each character, but it should be concise in order to capture the essence of a scene. Less literal, more metaphor! Strangely, I find that the final lines of a scene, especially in a first draft, can often be cut.

I'm almost down to 120 pages! Cutting 40 pages is no easy task. Some tough, painful choices had to be made. I'm agonizing whether to remove a chunk of V.O. I wrote for the ending that encapsulates the entire story:

Alexandra (V.O.): What will the novelists, the poets, the playwrights and the screenwriters write about us a hundred years from now? Did we only sacrifice for ourselves and eagerly turn a blind eye to the problems before us? Did we stop listening and loving, and let anger and fear pit us against each other? Or did we grab our stilts and superhero costumes, spreading our wings with a feather in our hair, and fight for each other, for love, for happiness, for a more perfect union?

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It's powerful, but millions of fluttering butterflies are more affecting. Kill your baby and move on. One week to go until deadline. I still need to trim another 20 pages!

Surviving the Storm

I survived the storm... fared pretty well from Hurricane Irma as well. I made it through a first draft, even with a Cat 3 hurricane raging outside.

I feel drunk, but haven't been drinking. Writing can really do a number on your head. I get tired going to the gym, but when I write, I get exhausted. I'm always thrilled when I can complete a feature length script. It's an accomplishment. A marathon. Something that seems so daunting that I fear I'll never be able to finish. This was a challenge unlike any other - an adaptation of a blog (LA Stories) that covered seven years of a girl's life. But I did it... all 160 pages!

160 pages is a bit much for a screenplay. Most films are no more than 120 pages (you estimate one page per minute of screen time). For comedies, 90-100 pages max. Oh, geez. Did I write a script that's too long? Is this story simply too complex to turn into an hour and a half film? Should it have been a mini-series? A TV show? A novel? F*******CK!

...After a good night's rest, I looked at the problem with fresh eyes. Remember that editor's cap? Maybe I can chop it down a bit. A lot. I'm going to need a chainsaw. Thank goodness there was a hurricane.

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Halfway to Heaven

Halfway through a first draft! Converting this story from outline to script is taking time and a lot of effort. The first challenge is finding the right tone. The blog this film is based on is very dramatic, but hilarious. I was afraid to make this strictly a comedy, but there's humor on almost every page. I think there's enough drama to balance the funny. Dark comedy?... Might as well embrace it.

The next issue is structure. The blog is told in first person perspective, and I always saw this as a voice-over (VO) style film. I'm a huge fan of Martin Scorsese pictures like "Goodfellas" and "Casino." I recently re-watched "Wolf of Wallstreet." Heavy VO. Multiple perspectives. Yes. I just pulled the script offline to use as a reference - I guess the studios publish scripts publicly now? I remember living in New York when street vendors sold scripts along the sidewalks. Oh, the good-old days. Actually, it's better now, because they're free.

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Storywise, the very beginning is proving a little tricky. I've got this great "prologue" based on a story I read about agents watching films at Sundance and getting frustrated that all indies seem to have suicide in them. Instead, in my story, a movie executive is reading the script to a film the main character (MC) is submitting (this film?) and likes it, until he reads the suicide part about MC killing herself (spoiler alert!).

However, I'm finding the need for a bit more backstory in the first act, prior to MC moving to LA. How did MC fall in love with movies? How far back should I go? There's some discussion of high school in the blog. Nothing to do with college and film school. Odd. Maybe I need to show how MC develops a love for movies as a child? Maybe the inspiration comes from her father? The blog creator has a contentious relationship with her father, and I'm curious what his role was in shaping her dreams (and despair). Not much about him in the blog, but seems like many motivations and struggles emanated from this relationship.

I'm also curious about how to end the story. I know the return of the wedding album will be the conclusion, but there may need to be more. If we learn MC dies in Mexico in the beginning, shouldn't Mexico also be the end? May need a denouement. Something with butterflies? There's such a prevalent emphasis on butterflies in the blog (Burning Butterflies and Origin Story to reference a few instances). Such meaning. Such personal connection. I've been thinking about the great monarch migration to Mexico. How could I get MC down to Mexico at the end?

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Time to Write... The Outline

The writing has begun! Well, the pre-writing. I'm a little behind schedule, but I think it was worth spending a lot of time on research and answering key questions about characters, themes, plot.

Some of my writing friends use note cards to figure out the structure of a movie, one card per scene. I prefer to write a detailed breakdown of the entire film, scene by scene, with details of basic action and dialog. I'm often putting all my ideas into the outline so that I have options when I write the first draft, or because I haven't figured out all the questions yet. The dialog is very rough. I'm able to pull snippets from the blog, which is helpful, but also difficult because there's a lot of repetition throughout. Which line works best? Which conveys the greatest meaning? Can I pull lines from some blog entries and use them in unrelated scenes in the screenplay? I'm also finding some major problems structurally. As interesting as the blog is, it's not written as a movie. There's some things that need to be changed to make it work as a fictional narrative. Some artistic license is in order.

For instance, there are a lot of characters that Jaime (the author of the blog) encountered in LA. I need to consolidate and even create a few that will represent a handful of people she knew. Did you know that Oliver Stone did this for at least one character in "JFK?" I had a little less respect for him after learning this. However, I'm not telling a historical drama. Well, not really. I'm hoping that as long as I tell this story in a voice consistent with the blog, and capture the spirit of Jaime, I'll be able to take some necessary license.

There's also the issue of getting from point A to point B. How do I bridge scenes? How do I get from one seemingly unrelated blog entry to the next? There's really three distinct parts to this story which will work well for a three act structure. The LA/movie industry part, the crash and burn (marriage and mentally), and the rediscovery/rebirth in Orlando. But there's some missing pieces. How do I transition the MC (main character) into each? What are the key conflicts or events that precipitated each act?

What's the key that binds this story together? Professionally, there's really an interesting story to tell from Jaime's time as a pornceptionist (Pt1, Pt2) - even the history behind the company where she worked. I know some people may be squeamish about this subject (as was Jaime), but I think it's hilarious and fascinating and seems like such a pivotal part of her journey. Should I take the risk of alienating some folks...?

On a personal level, the story seems to revolve around mental health issues and the need for affordable, accessible health care. The blog doesn't shy away from depressions, and suicide, and all the things we face as artists but are often afraid to discuss. There's such a powerful story throughout the blog about Jaime's heart condition and the fear of not being able to pay for life-saving meds - how life was pre-Obamacare, especially with a pre-existing condition.  Her discussion of the homeless population in LA and the fear of Jaime losing her mind, losing her savings, and ending up on the streets with the people she fears the most needs to be a key part of this story. How can I show the homeless in a way that explains why MC is so afraid while humanizing rather than marginalizing them? What was the history of healthcare and mental health services in CA that led to such a large homeless population?

Still need to determine how I can make the ending I want fit so that I can work towards that. Endings can be a tough nut to crack, but I knew from the beginning, even reading the blog for the first time, that the return of the wedding album would be a great ending for a movie. It's pure action. Pure revenge. Pure fun.

This has to take no longer than a few more days. I need to start writing a first draft...

Finding the Story, Part 2… This time, it’s personal.

Ever watch a film that was all over the place? No clear focus, no clear direction? Good chance the script began with no big idea. Or too many writers. Or cocaine.

It's time to get personal. It's time to figure out the story. What is this movie really going to be about? What's the big idea? There needs to be a clear purpose before any writing, or even an outline occurs. I want the audience on the same page about what the movie is trying to say. I want to know what the main character is trying to achieve and how that factors into the big idea. Sure there can be a handful of themes. After all, the journey Jaime took in her blog covers 7+ years (and continues here). A few things can happen in 7 years. But I need to find the core theme from which the entire movie is going to be built.

Here's a partial list of themes I'm coming up with... with which I am coming up... with which I'm developing:

  • Coming of age story from girl to warrior.
  • About marriage/relationships, finding love, finding oneself. Loving yourself for who you are.
  • About growing up but never giving up (on dreams, talents, love, friends)
  • Need for home, for connection, success, love, redemption, purpose.
  • Whether we are destined for things or we create our own destiny (or both).
  • What it means to be a writer and the sacrifices of being an artist.
  • The struggles (and psychology) of mental illness, depression, suicide, self-harm, insomnia, and the creative mind.
  • From dependence on meds to coping/resolving problems - healthy living, healthy relationships.
  • Figuring out how to escape an awful place and persevere.
  • The struggles of the poor/working class.
  • Perception vs. reality - what we want to see and what is actually in front of us.
  • The effects and need for change and how it affects us all.
  • Things don't turn out the way you expect.
  • America circa 2009. Great Recession. Slow journey back from the brink. Life before Obamacare. Allegory for American journey/dream.
  • Being reborn, starting over, moving on.

The Writer as Editor

Have you ever watched a movie a second time and felt like you watched a completely different movie? It's amazing the details you miss on the first viewing. To find the story, I had to reread the entire LA Stories blog. It took a lot more time than I was anticipating, but it was worth it. There's a lot of great material here - in fact, a ton of it. A few key entries that stood out even more this time: Red Flags & Cockrings, California Dreamin', Best Served Cold. There's something about this line that I love: "...he is not exactly what I'd imagined, but everything I'd hoped for." Where in the screenplay can I use this?

Editing normally happens after you write a first draft, but with adaptation, I'm finding it comes into play early in the writing process. So it's time to put on my editor's cap. I need to find key elements of the blog to be able to create a concise narrative suitable for the screen:

Theme/Message: What is the thesis? Purpose? What am I trying to say?

Metaphors/Objects: Jaime Jessup, the writer of the blog, is a very figurative writer. Lots of metaphors. Objects are symbolic or have specific meaning to characters. An eagle feather, wishbone necklace, butterfly journal, red '67 Mustang.

Characters: Who are the key players? MC (Main Character), MC's husband, MC's close friend in LA (Hope?), Tribe of artist/street performer friends, homeless man in parking garage, Shit-Tits!, LA - the city is a character in this story.

Character Traits of MC: who is she, what does she want, where is she trying to go? What are her flaws? What's preventing her from achieving her goals? Why does she want to write for TV and movies? Did specific shows or films influence her as a child? What is her arc?

Character Traits of MC's Husband: What drives him? How and why does he change over the course of the film? How to portray him honestly without being one-sided in favor of MC.

Character Traits of supporting characters: see above.

Structure: What are the basic plot points for a three-act screenplay? What conflicts move the story along?

Scenes: What are some key scenes I see being part of the movie? How does movie begin and end?

Specific Lines: See highlighted lines from blog

Tone/Visual/Music Elements: What genre is this? Comedic drama, dramatic comedy, dark comedy? How should story be told? Firs person? Voice over? Relatable to girls and guys - window into a girls mind, but not simply demeaning towards men - NO F'ING LIFETIME MOVIE. Magical realism, but not too much. "Ride" by Lana Del Rey. Cheesy '80s power ballads.

 

Thoughts/Ideas/Questions: What stories are missing? There's some stuff Jaime has told me that's not in the blog but needs to be in the movie. How did certain events/places look? What can I change or alter? How much artistic license can I take? Focus more on relationships vs. entertainment industry. Needs to be a story that's bigger than a single person. Need an awesome title.

Logistics!

After screaming loudly, going to the gym, getting a good night's rest, and screaming a little more, I regrouped and came up with a plan of how to attack adapting the blog LA Stories.

For a writer, getting started is one of the hardest things. To take that first step, you have to know where you're going. So I'm going to start with the unsexy part of creating a story... logistics! Sounds like something better suited for UPS, but it helps if you want to create a feature length screenplay.

Writing a screenplay requires Baby steps

Writing a screenplay requires Baby steps

Adaptation, I'm finding, requires a few extra steps. I first need to get the blog into a format that I can easily and quickly reference. So I'm going to cut and paste EACH blog entry into a Word doc. As I do this, I'll create Headings using the date and blog heading so I can quickly navigate.

Then, I'm going to highlight key sentences, dialog, characters, etc. I'm searching for the story in terms of voice, theme, and scenes. I probably should have done this as I was reading the blog, as I don't have much time to spare. This is going to take a little while.

The Path Less Traveled

I hate this acronym, but OMG!!! I just finished reading the entire LA Stories blog by Jaime Jessup. All 7 years' worth. EVERY SINGLE POST.

I'm tired. My brain box hurts. I need some fresh air. This is a hell of a story. If you haven't taken a gander, here's the basic rundown: Bright-eyed ingénue moves to LA with actor hubby to find her place in the stars as a screenwriter, but LA rains down meteors and crushes her hopes, her dreams, and all she holds dear. Said girl moves back to Orlando for a year to pick up the pieces, regroup, and rediscover herself.

A few key posts worth noting: The Mexico Plan, Origin Story, and if you're really brave, Porn Again Virgin Pt 1 and Pt2 (X-rated! - You've been warned.)

There's at least five different movies that could be made from this blog. At least. It's part movie industry insider story, part relationship/marriage/divorce story, part mental health/healthcare story, part coming of age story, part American Dream allegory... I could go on.

What have I gotten myself into!? I put on deodorant today, but I'm sweating profusely. Did I put deodorant on? Never end a sentence in a preposition, Jeff. Focus. I took the leap but am in way over my head. Where to begin? How do I approach turning such a daunting, far-reaching story into a concise 2-hour film? Maybe I should re-watch the Spike Jonze film "Adaptation." Maybe I need to reread Robert McKee's "Story." ...

Notice the book He's reading

Notice the book He's reading

… Maybe not. It’s mainstream schlock and I want to be original.

The outline alone could take a month. I need AT LEAST 3 weeks to write a first draft, another 2 for a second draft. Probably another 2 for a final. The deadline for a completed feature length screenplay is Oct. 1st and I don't even know where to begin.

Am I going to be able to figure this out? Am I going to be able to pull this off, or am I a goner? And why do I keep thinking of "Trainspotting" and the opening declaration, "Choose life."

Finding the Story

One of the toughest things as a screenwriter is finding the story. Sometimes inspiration hits you like a ton of bricks. Other times, it takes years. This is a story that found me.

While my previous screenplays have been very personal, often inspired by my own life experiences, this idea is based on someone else’s story. I’ve never adapted anything before, but what the heck. I’m always up for a good challenge. I feel like writing a script that isn’t so egocentric may be a good way to create something powerful and original, and set me on the right path to a screenwriting career. You know, that thing Faulkner said out in the woods…of course, it may lead off the side of a cliff, but let’s stay positive.

So a good friend of mine, Jaime Jessup, writes a popular blog called “LA Stories.” (she’s also doing a relaunch here).  Jaime and I met back in film school, and we’ve shared some interesting adventures over the years. She started this blog back in 2010 when she moved to L.A. from Orlando to become a TV writer. She's had some crazy professional experiences and heartbreaking personal ones, and, of course, decided to blog all the juicy details. Her writing is hilarious, surprisingly relatable (even as a guy), and always offers a powerful message. I've wanted to turn the blog into a movie for quite some time, as her storytelling is very cinematic. She's wanted to turn the blog into a novel, but I convinced her to let me take a crack at turning it into a screenplay first. It's a story I'd like to see on the big screen and feel confident others would too.

First step is to read the entire blog. Don’t tell Jaime, but I’ve only read a handful of the posts. There’s seven years worth of material in the blog, and I need to read every ounce to get a sense of how to turn it into a movie. I’m going to be off the grid for the next few days, reading. Catch you on the flip side...

Gotta love stock photos... Or you can pretend “Handsome-Guy-in-bed-with-laptop” is me

Gotta love stock photos... Or you can pretend “Handsome-Guy-in-bed-with-laptop” is me

Jeff George

Writer/Director Jeff George was born and raised in Clearwater and began his filmmaking career in high school as an intern with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Film Commission. A recipient of the Commission’s “Linda Perry Touch the Future Scholarship,” Jeff began making films at The George Washington University, where his first short won third place at the school's annual film festival. 

A film school graduate of New York University and University of Central Florida, Jeff's senior thesis "g.p." took home honors from a number of national film festivals. Jeff honed his craft by directing short films, commercials, and industrials, working in a variety of on-set positions. Jeff worked with producers from Phoenix Pictures on "Basic," starring John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, while observing the direction of John McTiernan, then as the Camera PA on "The Punisher," working under D.P. Conrad Hall, Jr. and Writer/Director Johnathan Hensleigh. 

Writing has been a passion for Jeff since a young age. Although the focus has been on directing, Jeff has pursued the “Writer” part of Writer/Director more actively in the last few years, having penned a few feature length scripts. For Jeff, screenwriting allows a true expression of voice through an exploration of themes, characters, and questions. His stories originate from experiences, emotions, and people he’s encountered, with an emphasis on cultural issues that have personal impact. Using fictional narrative and the universal language of film, Jeff strives to both entertain and enhance understanding of ourselves and each other.

As a local, born and bred, Jeff hopes to make Pinellas County his home as a professional filmmaker, embracing existing talent and resources and encouraging a serious filmmaking community to thrive. Embracing both the creative and commercial aspects of the art form, Jeff looks forward to expanding strong visual storytelling in the area in a sustainable way.