ROOM: What’s On The Other Side Of Your Wall?
By Jacob Krueger
This week we’re going to be looking at the Academy Award Best Picture nominee Room.
It’s interesting that we’re looking at Room because, as screenwriters, we often lock ourselves in our own little rooms. Like the main characters of Room, we get bound up by other people’s rules, by our own comfort zone as screenwriters, by the movies that we have seen before. And we forget that every wall has another side, that there is actually something out there bigger than the story we know how to tell, than the movie that we’ve seen before, than the structure that we’ve been handed down, than the rules that have been imposed upon us.
And Room, in its execution and its subject matter, really shows us what it is to transcend those rules, to transcend our expectations as we write, and to transcend the expectation of our audience for what our film is supposed to be.
Now, a lot of people who have studied the rules of screenwriting might look at a screenplay like Room and say, “is this even a movie? Shouldn’t this be a play?”
After all, nearly half of the film takes place in a single room. And, even when we get out of that room, most of the action still takes place in a single location: in the living room of a home.
Although this is certainly wonderful from a budgetary perspective, this is not something we see very often in movies. In fact, the dogma tells us this is impossible.
And, of course, there are reasons for that dogma. Movies are a visual medium. By using the power of dynamic visual action, and the power of our cuts, we draw an audience into our stories. There are a lot of reasons why these rules exist.
The problem happens when we start letting the rules rule the script, rather than the other way around. When we try to follow all the rules in a vacuum, rather than figuring out the rules we actually need for the story we want to tell.
The truth is, if you were to follow the dogma and “open up” a movie like Room, if you were to take it out of that one location, you’d damage it terribly. Because that choice would undermine the whole point of the movie, the whole theme that the writer, Emma Donoghue, is building: everything that we loved about the film.
Now, this is not to suggest that you should run out right now and write a movie set in one room. But what I would like to suggest is that the rules of screenwriting (while they may make your life easier on certain projects) should not dictate what you should do with a script. The story that you tell should dictate the rules that you follow.
There are other rules that Room breaks as well. Imagine what would have happened to Room if Emma Donoghue would have followed the dogma of “no voice over.” Imagine what would have happened to Room if she had allowed herself to be confined by the rules rather than asking herself “what are rules that serve my script?”
This is the hard thing about the psychology of being a writer, because we all long for rules. We all long for structure. We all long to understand how a good screenplay is built. And we all long to “do it right.” And often, just like Jack and Ma in Room, when we are exposed to the vastness of the outside world, to the other side of the wall, we get overwhelmed.
When every possibility becomes possible, it can become terrifying, it can become paralyzing. Whereas when we are in that small room with the door closed, sometimes things feel safe, sometimes we can feel free, even when we are not.
So, I’m not suggesting that you need to break every rule to be a screenwriter. Nor am I suggesting that you should follow every rule to be a screenwriter.
I’m not even suggesting that you should start by knowing the rules and then start breaking them, even though that is also the common dogma: “know the rules before you break them.”
Unfortunately, when you know the rules too well, it becomes really really hard to break them because we become attached to the rules, just like Jack becomes attached to that terrible little room.
So, what I’m suggesting instead is that you find the rules that work for your story. Instead of asking yourself ‘What’s the right way to do this?’ you ask yourself ‘What is the story that I want to tell, and what are the techniques I could use that would best serve this story?’ If your screenplay is best served by things that are hard, then figure out how to do those things.
At the same time, we have to be careful, because living in a world with no rules isn’t much fun either.
There are two things that tend to happen to us as screenwriters. The first is that we trap ourselves in the little room. We lock ourselves into all these rules we learn from screenwriting books, from screenwriting gurus, from writing groups, from watching the crappy movies that are out there, and from the general dogma that’s floating around right now.
The other problem we have as screenwriters is that sometimes we burst open the doors and we overwhelm ourselves in a giant world where everything is possible. We start to explore every possibility before we have our grounding, before we know where we are psychologically, before we know our characters. We try to outline our entire movie before we know who we’re dealing with, before we’ve spent any time with them, before we’ve gotten to know them. We try to know everything that we’re supposed to do, everything that could happen, before we’re ready.
And what can happen then is an equal sense of overwhelm.
When there are no rules, when there are no limits, when there is no controlling idea, when there is no one theme that you’re serving; writing can also become overwhelming. So what we’re really looking for is a balance.
To use the metaphors of Room, we’re looking for a balance between the little room and the other side. We’re looking for a process that allows us to get to know our characters, and to get to know our movie, to get to know what the hook is, to get to what the big thing that we’re looking at is.
Sometimes that starts with just taking two characters and sticking them in a room and letting them talk to each other. Sometimes that’s about an action sequence. Sometimes that’s about a dream that came to you at night. And sometimes that’s about this brilliant idea that came to you in the shower. Sometimes that’s about saying, ‘Hey here’s a rule that exists that I want to try,’ or, ‘here’s a rule that exists that I want to break.’ Sometimes that’s just simply ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ that leads you through the door.
When you find yourself in that first room, you want to explore it fully (and you can see how fully Emma Donoghue explores that room). But you want to explore it in a way that makes it likely that you end up with structure.
This is important; exploratory drafts are different from free-writing. They need to have structure underneath them, or they’re not likely to lead you anywhere. That may be an emotional structure, like we teach in our Meditative Writing classes, or it might be a structure based on wants, or related images or themes, like I teach in my Write Your Screenplay class.
But once you’ve got that simple structure, that simple idea to ground you as you write your early drafts, you don’t want to be limited by where you’re trying to go. You want to enjoy where you are.
You can see what an amazing job Room does of that in that opening act. We really get the full sense, not of the horror of Room, but of the beauty of it; the beauty of this relationship. And, of course, this is the hook of the movie.
In fact in many ways the opening act of Room is just an update on Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. It’s a story of a mother in a really terrible situation, making up a mythology for her son that makes it okay, that makes it beautiful. It’s about a mother making up a story that changes the way her child feels, just as we try to do for our audience as writers.
The reason that Room gets away with doing all that in a single room is because the story is grounded in two really simple elements.
The first element is the question, ‘‘Why today?”
We don’t go into Room on just any day. We go into Room on a special day. The special day is Jack’s fifth birthday. We’re not just setting up what Room is like. We’re already into the story, on a special day with Jack and Ma.
And coming in on that special day allows Jack to be charged with this second element, which is his want. The element that will eventually change his life forever.
All Jack wants is a cake with candles. And, that little desire starts to change their world. In fact, it’s the desire for the cake with candles that leads to the desire for the gift. And it’s the gift that leads to the interaction with Old Nick. And it’s the interaction with Old Nick that leads to Ma’s realization that she needs to escape…
So what’s actually happening here is by rooting your characters as you begin writing, by playing around with ‘Why today?’ and ‘What do they want?’ we’re building structure even as we explore.
The other reason why the beginning of Room works, despite its single location, is that this writer and this director are so good with action. We’re not just sitting around watching these people talk.
Which brings us to the second thing you should be aware of if you’re breaking the rules: how you’re going to deal with the side effects.
The dogma about locations exists, to a great extent, simply to keep movies from becoming just a series of ‘talking heads’- of boring cuts back and forth between one close shot and another.
But despite their single location, the writer and director of Room never fall into that trap.
These characters are always grounded in an activity. And all of those activities are cool to watch.
They make egg shell necklaces. They measure height. They play with a car. They splash each other in the tub. They have constant activities to do together. And all of those activities work together to go way beyond the dialogue they are speaking to each other, and to really tell us this story of a mother and son who, despite their circumstances, have a blissful relationship. A mother and son who have the kind of relationship that we wish we had.
All of those visuals are also used, very gently, very subtly, to let the audience in on the horror. Those images from the wardrobe when the boy watches, not understanding, and we start to piece together in our minds exactly what is happening.
You have a movie that starts off in a little room. And the truth is, metaphorically, whether your movie is Room or not, for screenwriters all movies start off in a little room.
We know very little about our characters when we start. And we know very little about where our film can go as we start. We are limited in our imagination because we don’t know our characters that well. And, in fact, it’s very likely, early on, that the places we imagine our script going are not really that original.
It’s just like if you’re dating somebody. You go out on your internet date and you have all kinds of plans. But most of those plans are things you’ve probably seen in movies, or heard about from a friend, or remembered from a fairy tale you read as a kid!
But spend a year with somebody, and suddenly you start to make different plans. And, suddenly, those plans get much more specific. They start to be the plans that the two of you- only the two of you- could make together.
The same thing is true for characters. When we first meet them, we only know their shell. But as we spend time with them, we get to know them deeply. We get to know who they really are. And in this way we also get to know who we are. We get to unearth the parts of ourselves that we, otherwise, would never get to see.
So, every movie, whether you are writing a big budget action movie or a little tiny drama, every movie starts out in a small room and we want to explore that room fully. We want to start by understanding where our characters are and what’s the movie we think we are telling. But our goal, as soon as we think we know that, is to start attacking the movie we think we’re telling.
In other words, we have to surrender some of our control in order to push our film further than we expected when we first sat down to write.
There’s a very simple technique you could use to help you do this. Instead of saving the best for last in your screenplay, save the best for first.
So often when we first start a screenplay, our terror is that we don’t have enough story to sustain the movie. Oftentimes, we have a really good ending in mind, so what we do is, we wait for it… and we wait for it… and we wait for it… and we wait for it… and we wait for it, and then finally it happens.
And if you write your movie this way, the truth is, it’s very likely you’re going to end up writing a really boring film.
The reason why that film is going to be so boring is that, most likely, your ending is an ending that your audience has also thought of, since it’s an ending that you thought of when you first started writing. It’s probably not that original, and even if it is that original, chances are you have bored the crap out of both yourself and your character and your audience, while you paced yourself waiting to get there.
You’ve written your whole movie without ever leaving that first little room of your mind.
So instead, what I would like to suggest is to save the best for first.
To use Room as an example, as soon as you find yourself with the characters in Room, you already know that they need to escape.
What a lesser writer would do, is to come up with plan, after plan, after plan and obstacle, after obstacle, after obstacle, until essentially you’re just doing Chicken Run. Until finally, at the very end of the movie, those characters finally would find the right way to escape.
What Room does is so much more profound. Room gets them out of that room halfway through the film. In Room, all the things that we expect to happen have already happened halfway through the film.
And as a writer this is both terrifying and exhilarating.
It’s terrifying because you look back and say, ‘Oh my G-d. Everything has already happened. What the hell happens now?’
But it’s also exhilarating, because this means that now you are in unknown territory. You are now exploring beyond the realm of what you expected, you are exploring beyond the realm of what your audience expected, you are exploring beyond the realm of what your producer expected, when you first pitched the movie.
You are on the other side of your own personal Room.
When you pitch a movie like Room, you’re pitching the idea of this mother and this son, stuck in this room: blissful paradise for the son, hell for the mother. The producer starts to tell herself a story, and your audience begins to tell themselves a story, and you start to tell yourself a story: ‘Wow this will be a cool movie watching these characters escape.’
And if you allow these characters to escape by the end of the movie, you have a very nice movie.
But if you allow yourself to let them escape halfway through, you have a great movie.
I want to talk about a very specific part of the screenplay that will become the engine for the second half of your film.
Now, those of you who have studied with me know that I teach a 7 Act Structure, which is a different approach to structure that is more organic and helps break down structure into smaller chunks so that you don’t get lost in the second act.
And part of 7 Act Structure is a very important element that happens halfway through, which is a moment I call the “Sea-Change”.
Think of the first act of your movie like taking a giant boulder and throwing it into a body of water. It starts to send waves rippling towards the shore. Halfway through your movie is a moment called the Sea-Change. It’s like a tidal shift in your film where all the energy created by that boulder has expended itself. The tide that you started in your first act washed in as far towards the shore as it can go, until the only thing it can do is start to go back out.
The Sea-Change in Room, the moment that yanks the carpet out from under the characters, that says ‘You thought you were in this movie, but you’re actually in that movie’, is actually not the moment when they escape.
The actual Sea-Change of Room is the moment in the car, the police car, when Jack looks at Ma and tells her that he wants to sleep in his bed in Room. You can see how that one moment powers the whole second half of the screenplay.
The first half of the screenplay is all about getting out, and the second half of the screenplay is about Jack’s desire to go back in.
And you can see, in this way, the writer forces herself to explore outside of the wall. To explore the other side of the wall. To explore what it would look like once they are out, how hard it would be for Ma to deal with the trauma, what it would do to the relationship. To ask herself, ‘What are the horrible things about the outside world as compared to that tiny room that you shared with your child? What would the pressures of having a real life do to these people who have only known a life together? What would the pressures of not having Ma there every day do to this child? In what ways was Room better that the outside world?’
When we build a movie like this, it can be terrifying because what we are actually trying to do is expel all the energy of the first act, not by the end of the movie but by halfway through. And that’s why it’s so important to build the right kind of Sea-Change; a Sea-Change that actually winds up the movie again and propels it with enough velocity on the other side of the wall.
Whatever room you’ve built for yourself in the first half of the movie, in the second half you want to tear it down. Whatever expectations you’ve set for yourself in the first half of the movie, in the second half you want to surprise them.
So, how do you do that?
Well the good news is, if you actually allow yourself to explore the first half of the movie, if you have actually grounded your characters in wonderful specific actions like the characters in Room, if you’ve actually allowed yourself to be present in each scene, the answers for what happens next are not going to be out in the ether.
The answers are going to be in what you’ve already written.
In fact, in a 7 Act Structure, Acts 1, 2, and 3 leading up to the Sea-Change, and Acts 4, 5, and 6 leading out of it, are like funny mirror reflections of each other.
I’m going to give you one simple example of this.
At the very beginning of Room, we watch Jack say, “Good morning,” to everything in Room. It’s one of those wonderful little moments that you get when you’re not racing towards the end: that you only get when you allow yourself to actually sit with your character in the room and play.
In the very end of the movie, Jack and Ma go back to Room, and of course structurally we are seeing a funny mirror reflection of the First Act.
First Act: all about getting out. Last Act: all about the return.
We’re seeing a reflection of that specific moment because in the very last scene of Room, we watch Jack say, “Goodbye,” to all of the objects in the room. “Goodbye chair, goodbye door, goodbye room.”
In seeing this we feel a completion that we could never have felt otherwise. We feel catharsis that we could never have felt had that original scene not happened.
Oftentimes people talk about this in terms of setting things up and paying them off. But this is different than setting things up and paying them off because, oftentimes, as you write, you don’t realize you’re setting things up. You just realize that you’re exploring the scene and finding beautiful elements that stay with you and come back to you in some way later.
Because setting things up, when you’re really just setting things up, is boring, both for you and for the audience. Setting things up is planning, not writing: a way of manipulating the audience, rather than sitting in the scene and finding what’s true. Setting things up suggests that you know where you’re going before you got there.
I don’t want you to set things up. I want you to observe things as you write. Then ask yourself, “If this is true, what else is true? If this is true on this side of the wall, what is true on the other side of the wall?
“If it’s true that he says, ‘Good morning,’ to every object in the room on one side of the wall, is it true that he says, ‘Goodbye,’ to all those objects on the other side of the wall?
“If on one side of the wall mother and son have a beautiful blessed relationship about play, is it true that, on the other side of the wall, they are going to have an abusive moment when she tries to force him to play?
“If it’s true that inside Room, Ma is endlessly patient, is it true that on the other side of the wall, she might be short tempered, selfish, angry?”
This is the concept that I want to leave you with. Writing a screenplay is not about
knowing where you’re going, it’s about knowing where you are. It’s about saving the best for first and sucking the marrow out of every scene. It’s about looking where you’ve been to figure out where you can go. And it’s about forcing both yourself and your characters to take a true journey, to find what’s waiting on the other side of the wall.