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A FIlm in Two Weeks: The First Thing You Need is a Story

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I don't write quickly.

I've been working on the same feature script for five years, and it still needs a great deal of work. My last film, gravida, took about two months to write and it isn't exactly the most complex script in the world, even for a short. I like for my stories to hang out in the back of my head, to percolate in my subconscious. I like to live with them for awhile.

If I have to, I can work quickly. I've done it before. Back in college I was known to knock out a five-page paper in two hours. But this, three weeks to write and do pre-production on a feature, is probably closer to doing a doctoral thesis in a long weekend. You can do it, but it probably isn't a good idea.

Working on this sort of timeline, it's imperative to take as many shortcuts as possible, so I spend the first afternoon going over all my old story ideas, sorting through them for ease of execution and use. I consider the option of remaking some of my short films, as a lot of the groundwork would have already been laid. Problem is, none of them even remotely work. The small ones would either take too much scripting and rehearsal time or would require a location that isn't Pittsburgh (for example, I want to make a film that takes place in locations specific to Chattanooga, Tennessee). So I need a new idea.

I have a group of five or six people whose judgment I trust on story issues, so I send them an email, and the results are spotty. My old roommate suggests his oft-discussed story of a talking coffee mug that teaches philosophy [1]. And that's not the worst idea of the day.

The thing is, everyone you know has at least one idea for a movie, but a lot of those ideas are relatively complex or pretty stupid. Either there's a lot of characters or it's long or it needs a detailed script or there's zombies or, you know, stuff blows up. Think about it. What sort of film can you shoot in four days? Something with a lot of dialogue and not very many locations, right? You can't have car chases or explosions or 300 extras. You just can't. And what can you write and pre-produce in under three weeks? Lots of dialogue takes lots of time to memorize and rehearse. You almost have to improvise a rather big chunk of it, and you still need to keep locations and characters at a minimum. But improvising is scary. You have to cast well and get lucky.

It also helps when a story idea comes from an unusual place. At the time my girlfriend, who is a nurse, was doing a psych rotation for nursing school. During her studying, she finds a somewhat rare condition, which she shows me with the question, "What about this?" (For the sake of staying spoiler-free, seeing as this is a mystery and all, we'll leave it at that.)

It's a pretty good idea. Over the next hour or so we sort it out and it's still a pretty good idea. Better yet, it looks like it'll fit our needs.

Immediately I email Rachel Shaw (the lead actress from gravida) and the crew from gravida and tell them the idea. One of the first decisions I make concerning the script is to concentrate the film on the present day story and completely ignore any and all of the backstory and/or flashbacks that a film like this would obviously include. The idea being that the film's backstory would require a whole new set of locations, more characters, and basically just create a whole new set of issues. Ergo, it would make the film that much more difficult to execute while we'd be better off focusing on the core story that takes place in current Pittsburgh. Will it make the film more confusing, more abstract? Yes. But that's probably a good thing. The more open-ended we make things, the more opportunity the audience has to fill in the blanks themselves, bringing their own theories and stories into the mix. It also allows us more leeway in execution. Presenting questions is much, much easier than answering them. Just ask the writers of Lost. And with our #2wkfilm limitation, the theory is that we should take every shortcut we can, provided we can justify it. This one we can justify.

Now we just have to write the damn thing.


[1] I keep telling him that if he's willing to do the stop-motion animation for the talking coffee mug, then I'll be more than happy to do the film. Somehow I doubt it's ever going to happen.

Blanc de Blanc is now complete and starting a trip around the festival and self-distribution circuits. If you'd like it to play in your town, you can Demand it!. You can also pre-order a DVD from the webpage and we'll send you a link to a free digital download.

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About Lucas McNelly