Buildout Your Script, part 2: A Decision Every Moment
By Jacob Krueger
As we continue to build out the new home for Jacob Krueger Studio (in expectation of a Jan 1 move in!) this series of podcasts will explore the many ways in which building out a space is like building out a script, taking some of the lessons I’ve learned in our buildout, and applying them to writing.
Today’s podcast covers a topic that any screenwriter, and anyone who has ever built out a space, knows well. The millions of little decisions you have to make at every moment of your buildout, and on every page of your script.
As those of you who have taken our screenwriting classes know, when you don’t know what choice to make in your script, you look towards your theme to guide you. Just like when you don’t know exactly what choice to make in your space, you look toward the purpose you ultimately want that space to serve.
But what do you to when your theme changes? Or when you’re not really sure what your theme is yet?
I recently faced this quandary while running Ethernet, HDMI , USB and microphone wiring for the online setup of our new classrooms. I knew that I wanted to build the most incredible experience possible for our online students, with top-end microphone, camera and television setup that would allow every student to see, hear and participate as if they were live in the room.
The challenge of course was that the ideal setup would be different for each kind of class we offered, and each decision I had to make seemed dependent on a million other choices: Would we be using HDMI cameras, IP cameras, USB cameras or some technology yet to be invented? Would the cameras always be in the same positions, or would they need to move for different classes? What technology would our students all over the world be most comfortable with, and which of these top-end solutions would it be compatible with?
We only had one chance to do this the right way, before the sheetrock went up, the insulation went in, and running wires inside the wall became very difficult and expensive, I found myself up all night for many nights, crunching on one wiring blueprint after another. Trying to figure out every possible scenario for the next ten years, before I’d even taught my first class in our new space.
Yeah, it was a nightmare.
Then I realized, of course it was a nightmare! For the same reason writing a script this way would be a nightmare.
Because, as nice as it would be to know every element you were ever going to need in your story before you wrote the first page, the truth is, you need to know the variables you’re playing with before you can learn how to play with them.
You have to let the story show you what it wants to be, and sometimes that means writing some scenes, or running some wires, that aren’t going to make it to the final draft. There are some things that you’re just not going to realize you need until you’ve lived in the script for awhile, and really come to understand what you’re building.
So how do you accept the messy nature of this process, while still “running your wires” in a way that’s likely to serve the final product you’re building?
Fortunately, there is a long history of great writers, all with their own solutions for this very problem…
So, for example, he might write Capitalism above his typewriter before he started a project. This was his way of focusing his theme consciously. He allowed himself to write anything he wanted, as long as in some way, literal, metaphorical, personal, emotional, in some way it explored Capitalism.
Or, he would write a movie about Love so he would write Love above his typewriter. And he could write anything he wanted as long as it was about Love.
Paddy Chayefsky would pick a theme he was interested in—one that mattered to him. He didn’t pick something at random like “Oh, bagels!” You pick a theme that you have some questions about: something that is hot for you that creates an emotional response, something that you don’t understand, something you’re angry about, something you dream about.
And you use that theme to focus you, so that you’re coming back to that theme whenever you can in your writing. It’s a North Star to navigate by, not an anchor to drag you down.
When you’re navigating by the North Star you don’t spend the entire time looking at the sky. Because if you do, you’re just going to crash into a bunch of trees. You look up for awhile and decide “Yeah, I’m going to head that way.” And then you head that way, and, every once in awhile, when you’re wondering if you’re off track, or want to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, you remember to look up at that North Star.
You don’t need to tie the North Star to you to be guided by it (and it wouldn’t be pleasant if you could!). You’re simply looking for opportunities to get at that theme, to hit it again and again.
You can see this in a lot of different writers. If you look at East of Eden by John Steinbeck, he keeps on coming back to the same theme. Instead of using a word like Paddy Chayefsky, in East of Eden he uses a question. Why was one offer accepted and the other refused by God?
He keeps on coming back to that theme structurally, in the character’s journey, to the point it almost becomes redundant. Why was one offer accepted and the other refused? He just keeps on hitting it, in different ways, again and again and again, wrestling with that question and trying to find an answer.
These are two ways of focusing your theme from the outside, from the beginning. The first is to write a topic you are interested in, like Love, and then look for the opportunities to come back to that topic. The other is to write a question to which you don’t know the answer.
You’ll be much better served by a question than a moral. A moral is much more likely to lead you to a dogmatic or preachy place. “People should be nice to each other” can be a moral. “Love leads to happiness” can be a moral. Or if you’re of a darker frame of mind, “Love leads to sadness” can be a moral.
“Why does love lead to sadness? is a question. “What is the relationship between love and sadness?” is a question.
Ideally, we want to be guided by a theme that we don’t feel we could tie up in a little bow right now. We want a theme that’s a little bit beyond our grasp, something we have to wrestle with.
That said, there are a lot of writers who don’t do this. If you read Save The Cat! Blake Snyder is not going to talk about theme in this way. Many writers look at theme as way of manipulating the audience to think in their way, trying show them the “right way” to think about these things.
You can do that, and some audiences will accept it. And if you’re really good, some audiences will even come to think in your way. But it’s more likely that you’re going to find yourself preaching to the choir. And more importantly, writing is going to be a lot less interesting for you. Because rather than taking yourself on a journey of exploration that could reveal things to you about yourself, your character, or your world, you’re merely going to be parroting back what you already think you know.
With my own writing, I want to be searching for some kind of answer to things that are hard to understand. When you pick something that’s hot in that way for you, that’s broken in that way in you, that you can’t quite get your head around, it adds an immense amount of tension in your script. Because, most likely, your character also doesn’t know how to get his head around it.
Then what that allows you to do is use those themes to guide the creation of your characters. If you know that your movie is about Love, you might write a character that is totally open hearted and only suffers. You might write another character whose heart is closed, but everybody loves him. You might write a character who doesn’t need love, or doesn’t think she needs love. You might write the character who has the biggest wall, but when you climb that wall, their love is absolute. You might write the character whose love is conditional, and who’s cool with that and doesn’t think it’s a problem. Or you might find that all these beliefs in relation of your theme are captured in the journey of a single character—that these are the phases, the acts, your character goes through in relation to their journey about Love. In this way, your character, or your characters, will start to embody these themes.
If you think of a film like There Will Be Blood, which we’ve been discussing in several of my recent podcasts, it is born on this dialectic between Capitalism and Church. You have two characters at the center of the story, each representing one aspect of this dialectic.
The first is the oil-man, Daniel Plainview, who is the embodiment of Capitalism. He trades his son for a brother, and when his brother turns out to not be his brother, he tries to “buy” his son back. When the grown child tries to break off to form his own company, the father cuts off all ties to him accusing “that would make you my competitor.” Nearly everything the character does or says occurs in terms of good old’ American Capitalism, a system that puts money before love, before relationships.
But Daniel Plainview is also a real character, so he has a lot of qualities that have nothing to do with Capitalism. For example, he has a longing for relation; he wants family. When the man who he believes to be his brother shows up, this guy who never wants to chat with anyone outside of a business deal is suddenly “blah blah blah blah!” He wants to transform America. He has this great speech in an early draft of the script about putting bread on every table, and never again will people be without drinkable water or education. He sees himself as a transformative force, and in this way, he also embodies the other side of Capitalism. But above all, he loves his son.That has nothing to do with Capitalism. And it might not be 100% clear in the movie, but it’s 100% clear in the script. In this way, as much as Capitalism is the inspiration for the character, and the North Star by which he’s guided, it doesn’t capture the whole character, it just inflects major character traits. You still have to do the emotional work as a writer to get in touch with who the character truly is.
The moment when he shoots his brother doesn’t have to do with Capitalism, it has something to do with something much deeper about betrayal, about being lied to.
Beating the preacher, Eli (who represents church) to death with a bowling pin may capture symbolically what P.T. Anderson believes Capitalism has done to Church in America, but on a character level, it has a lot more to do with Daniel’s rage than it does with his business prospects.
Theme to a writer is like super objective to an actor. It drifts over everything, affecting every moment, consciously or subconsciously. You don’t have to force it. You just have to remember it’s there.
And, suddenly, you’ll find that this simple theme is even driving the structure of your story. In There Will Be Blood, the force of Capitalism in Daniel squares off against the force of Church in Eli. And just as Daniel’s ideals are corrupted by his unwavering pursuit of Capitalist power, so too are Eli’s ideals corrupted by his unwavering pursuit of Church power. And the structure of the movie is simply that Church makes Capitalism tell the truth about his corruption, and Capitalism makes Church tell the truth about his corruption. And then Capitalism destroys Church, and with it himself. Daniel Plainview, as America, drains his own milkshake. It’s that simple.
Now, what’s interesting about There Will Be Blood is that there is actually another theme on top of Capitalism vs. Church and that is the theme of Blood. The theme of Blood is the theme that infuses everything. And I don’t know if P.T. Anderson knew this from the start, or whether he discovered it along the way. But I do know that, oftentimes, the real theme is a destination we can only reach by taking the journey.
There are three kinds of Blood in There Will Be Blood. There is the Blood of Relation, Are you my son, or a bastard in a basket? Are you my brother? Then, there is the Blood of the Lamb, the blood of Christ, which is captured in that unforgettable scene in which Daniel begs Eli “Give me the blood Eli. Give me the blood” after confessing to abandoning his boy. And finally, there is the Blood of Oil, the blood of Capitalism. There is the literal blood that flows every time they go to the well; every time they try to build something better, someone is hurt, someone dies, someone is maimed. This is the blood of Capitalism, the lives, the pain, that it costs to build a country.
So how do you arrive at the real theme?
Sometimes, what happens is, you start with a theme that you think is totally simple, and then the character takes over and starts to reveal things that just don’t fit, but that you know are true. And the nature of this is even clearer in the script of There Will Be Blood than it is in the film, because so much was cut, but there was an extensive subplot in which you’re watching Daniel and HW working together. You’re watching HW build out the well for his father. There are scenes of Daniel praising his son, depending on his son. And you realize, this is not just about Capitalism. This is a family enterprise. And underneath all of this there is a love for his son that transcends all this business.
These were the scenes in which the love for the son is established. And one reason some people disconnect with the movie is because they cut those scenes out. And while those scenes might not have had much to do with Capitalism, they had everything to do with what made Daniel human.
Without those scenes, some people didn’t get that Daniel loved his son. And, if you don’t get that, at the point when Daniel abandons that boy on the train, you’re not thinking “what a tragedy.” You’re thinking “what an asshole.” And suddenly, you’re checked out of this movie. If you think, when Daniel says “you’re a bastard in a basket” it’s because he cares only about money, rather than because he feels betrayed by the boy that he loves, then this movie becomes pretty much unwatchable.
And that’s the thing with theme. You can let it guide you, but you’ve got to hold it loosely in your hand. Otherwise it will drag the life out of your characters. Sometimes that means giving yourself the freedom to write the things that feel true, even if they don’t relate so clearly to the theme you’re building.
And sometimes it means giving yourself the freedom to realize the theme you think you’re building is only the surface of what your movie is about.
You’re writing a movie about Capitalism vs. Church, and then suddenly you realize there’s this other theme here under the surface: a theme of Love and Family.
There is another subplot from the script that got cut out of the film: that Daniel is impotent. And that, of course, is pretty important. The guy who builds big wells that spew oil and ends up disowning his adopted son can’t have children of his own, that’s pretty big. And you might start to wonder, what does that have to do with Capitalism?
And you start to realize, you might have thought you were writing a movie about Capitalism vs. Church, but you’re actually writing something bigger. And now you have to find a way of speaking this theme to yourself that creates a big enough umbrella to cover everything, that is enough to hold all of these subthemes together.
This is one of the most common experiences that I have as a screenwriter. And if you’re really wrestling with a question you don’t know the answer to, it is likely you’ll end up in this place. Even if you’re really focusing on a topic, it is likely this will end up happening. And the reason is, you don’t know the answer, so there’s no real way to anticipate where the question will lead you. That’s what makes it exciting. But also infuriating.
It’s like starting therapy. You show up and you think “I just have this little tiny problem” and then after a couple of months you realize it goes back to something that happened when you were three, and you thought it was just a weird thing you were doing, but there is a bigger theme that envelopes it.
Sometimes, similarly, in the process of writing you discover “Oh! My theme is not big enough to contain everything I’ve written.”
An example of this is American Beauty. If you’ve watched my 7 Act Structure lecture on American Beauty, then you know that when Alan Ball started writing American Beauty, he was in a pretty miserable place. He was working on a crappy sitcom and he hated the lead actor. And here he is, and he’s got the thing that every writer wants, he’s got the big staff job, and he is miserable as hell! And nothing means anything, and he’s “wasting his time” on this “stupid spec script” that he knows nobody is ever going to make called American Beauty.
His focal theme is American Beauty, the name of a type of rose that’s prone to rot. And he wanted to use this rose as a metaphor to talk about the nihilistic meaninglessness of the American Dream.
In this early draft of the script, Kevin Spacey’s character does sleep with the little girl. In that version of the story, the army guy next door ends up testifying against his own child so that the kids go to jail for the crime of the murder that he committed. And the structure of the story is a who-dunnit? “Who killed Lester Burnham?” You can still see the bones of that story under the final draft of the film.
That’s the movie Alan Ball thought he was making. But in the process of making it, he discovered some hope. He discovered that, even as he started to behave more and more like a child, Lester Bernham the character began to feel good about himself. That his selfish nervous breakdown actually led somewhere beyond where Alan Ball expected it to go.
This was going to be a movie not just about selfishness and rot, but also about transcendence and transformation. And that whole theme of the nihilistic who-dunnit became a whole lot less important. It’s still there in the structure: remember that scene where they’re all heading home to kill Lester and every character has a reason to do it? It’s Clue. He thought he was writing the nihilistic version of Clue, and instead it turns out he’s really writing a movie about hope. About finding real beauty in the most unlikely of places. He thought he was writing about the rose that rots, but he was writing about rose that’s beautiful as well.
When that happens, sometimes you don’t have to do a thing. Sometimes the movie is working, and you’re pleasantly surprised to find it’s about a lot more than you thought it was. In these cases, you don’t have to get all intellectual about it. You don’t have to be so serious about it. You can accept the gifts of the screenwriting gods. You can trust that your subconscious mind is taking you somewhere interesting, check to make sure that everything you’re writing is emotionally truthful, and that your story is coming across. And if you follow your instincts in this way, if it’s working, and people are getting it, you might never have to consciously name the theme. You might just need to feel it.
But other times you’re not sure what’s true. You have multiple versions. “He might do this or he might do that.” They both feel truthful, because you haven’t made a decision yet. You don’t actually know what it’s about.
When that happens, every possibility starts to feel possible. And that is the truly terrifying thing in writing.
When every possibility starts to feel possible, it becomes incredibly difficult to make decisions.
Which brings me back to my wiring conundrum. Because ultimately my decision was to spend a little bit of extra money, and run some extra wires, even though they might turn out to be redundant or unnecessary. Because I don’t know exactly what the purpose is yet, or exactly what’s going to work yet, or exactly what these rooms are going to become over the next ten years.
But I know this is important to me. That it’s something worth exploring. And that even if I don’t know what to do with every wire at the moment, I’ll figure it out eventually.
Sometimes that’s the process of writing as well. They’re all good wires, but some of them are leading to places they need to lead and some will hang there and never be used.
In a screenplay, those wires need to be removed, because we only have 95-105 pages, and we don’t want to distract from the things that are actually important.
In my studio, on the other hand, some of them can just hang out in the walls.