Swiss Army Man: The ‘Bad Screenplay’ Experiment
By Jacob Krueger
Swiss Army Man: The 'Bad Screenplay' Experiment
This week, we’re going to be talking about Swiss Army Man by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. This is an extraordinary script, and one of the great examples of just how far outside of the rule box you can actually go as a screenwriter or director. It’s also a prime example of how a really out-there script can sometimes attract the biggest talent in Hollywood, in this case, Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano.
There’s an exercise that I often do with my Write Your Screenplay students that I call the “Bad Screenplay” exercise. We put a list up on the board of all the students’ greatest fears about their writing. We hear all kinds of things: “bad dialogue,” “cliché,” “redundancy,” “no structure…” the list goes on and on, as the white board fills up with increasingly egregious fears.
And then I give my students a challenge: to write a scene that embodies every one of the fears about their writing that we’ve put up on the board. To strive not for good writing, but for bad writing. In fact, I tell them that if their writing starts to get good, they should look up at the board, find the idea they find most horrifying, and strive to integrate it into their script.
In many ways this is exactly what the Daniels did in the creation of this screenplay. Daniel Kwan has spoken about the fact that he hates fart jokes, hates buddy movies, hates a cappella music, and many of the other fundamental elements of Swiss Army Man.
He built Swiss Army Man out of the things that he hated most in screenplays.
So why would somebody do that?
Well, there are couple reasons. The first is that, oftentimes, it’s our fears that actually get in the way of our greatest creativity. We are so afraid of doing the things that bring us shame that we just end up not doing them at all, for fear that we might fall short of our own expectations, or societal expectations.
And of course, if you’ve seen Swiss Army Man, you know that this is exactly what the movie is about. The movie is about shame. The kind of shame that cuts us off from one another, and from ourselves, and leaves us feeling like we’re on a desert island unable to actually reach anyone.
Now, just a warning, there are some spoilers ahead!
In a lot of ways, you could say the arc of Paul Dano’s character, Hank, is simply a journey from hiding his farts from others, to farting in public. And this is probably the worst premise ever for the structure of a film. And if you’re Daniel Kwan, and you hate fart jokes in movies, and body humor, and the thought of building a movie based around a giant fart joke fills you with shame, this is an especially horrifying premise for a film.
For the Daniels, this was the whole point of the movie. It started as a joke. it was for them, the most ridiculous thing that they could imagine filming. And they actually built the entire script simply to serve that joke, to give themselves the opportunity to do the thing that they feared, and in doing so to get some of their own shame on the page.
And you can see what happened when these writers moved towards their shame rather than away from it. When they put the things on the page that they were most scared of and most embarrassed about, all that silliness ultimately led them to a very profound theme about shame and the nature of shame.
It led them to a shockingly moving (and funny) exploration about how the things that are actually natural about us, things like farts and erections and masturbation and sexual attraction get repressed by our social conditioning.
We hide these things from each other, in the same way that as artists oftentimes we hide ourselves from the audience; we hide ourselves in the page.
There are two kinds of writers block. One kind people are very much aware of, and that’s the kind of writer’s block where you simply can’t write. That’s an easier kind of writer’s block to deal with, because as least you know your block. You can feel that you can’t write. You know you’re not writing. And there are a lot of things that we do to get people past that block. It’s a really obvious block. It’s like your your creative mind screaming for help.
But there’s another kind of writer’s block that is actually far more insidious.
And the reason it’s insidious is you don’t always know that you have it. This far more insidious case of writer’s block is when your writing just comes out flat and uninspired. When your writing just comes out normal. When you end up just writing the same things that everybody else is writing, following the same old formulas.
You end up with these scripts that make a lot of sense, and are very clear, but don’t actually move anybody: that quite frankly don’t even really move you.
And, oftentimes, when you’re in that kind of block, the reason it’s so dangerous and so hard to detect is because it seems like you’re writing! But, in many ways, you’re not.
What you’re actually doing, often, is hiding. Hiding those things about you that you find shameful. Hiding the uniqueness of your voice that you fear being judged for. Hiding the weird, bizarre way that you see the world, that you’re afraid other people won’t understand. And, similarly, hiding the things about your characters that give them their rough edges, that give them their interesting elements, that make them compelling.
Now, this was the Daniels’ first feature film. And most of us would really love to have this kind of success on our very first film. It’s not their first filmmaking. They’re pretty famous music video directors. But how do these first-time feature filmmakers get this completely unlikely movie made?
Well, they get two really extraordinary famous actors. They get Paul Dano and they get Daniel Radcliffe.
And how do you get two A-list actors like these in a film like this? Well, if you listen to the many interviews available with Paul Dano and Danielle Radcliffe, you’ll find them both saying the exact same thing: that the very elements that might make a young writer doubt the commercial viability of an idea like this were exactly what drew them to it! They read the first scene, and they knew they wanted to do this film.
Even if you haven’t seen the movie yet, if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what the first scene is. Paul Dano is marooned on a desert island. He’s about to hang himself and he sees a man’s body wash up on the beach. He steps towards the body, falls and almost accidentally strangles to death, only to have the rope break. He runs towards the body, and, of course, the body turns out to be dead.
And then the body starts to expel gas. A lot of gas. Enough to propel it across the water. And Paul Dano climbs aboard and ends up riding Daniel Radcliffe’s body across the ocean, back to the mainland, through the power of the dead body’s farts.
And this is one of the most bizarre and ridiculous images you’ve ever seen in a film: Paul Dano actually riding Daniel Radcliffe’s body like a jet ski through the water. But as strange as it was, it was this bizarre image coming to them that made the Daniels want to write the movie in the first place. And it was that image, that very first page and very first scene, that made both of these actors say, ‘Yes, we want to do this.”
Why did they want to film a scene like this? Because it was totally original, unlike anything they’d ever seen before, or ever had a chance to do before in a movie.
And, I’d add, it wasn’t just original for originality’s sake. There was something true about it, something, however strange the form, that came from these writers’ subconscious minds. A silly image with shockingly deep roots, that allowed the screenplay to ultimately chart some truly unexpected waters.
Oftentimes, we think that A-list actors are looking for big budget popcorn movies. But the truth is, it’s mostly their agents that are looking for those movies. Although, like everybody else, A-list actors like to get paid, what A-list actors really want to do is play great roles. They want to play unforgettable roles. They don’t want to do the same old stories they’ve already done a million times. They want to do the things that nobody else has ever gotten to do as an actor.
So, when you write the script that breaks out of the rules, when you write a script that puts your unique voice on the page, you actually start to create an actor magnet.
Now it’s important to know that just because your movie is weird does not mean it’s going to get made. And just because your character does weird stuff does not mean it’s going to be actor candy.
The stuff your character does has to feel authentic; it has to grow naturally from you, and reflect the world as only you see it. And then it has to be nurtured with the craft that makes it work inside the structure of a film, that makes it relatable and pitchable to an audience.
But as Swiss Army Man shows, when that voice is there, with enough love, enough work, and enough craft, you can transform just about any idea (even one as unlikely as Swiss Army Man) into something beautiful, and marketable.
But without that one true thing, without your voice– whether your voice is one of playful magical realism like that of Daniels, or the well observed naturalism of a writer like Noah Baumbach, or anything in between– without your voice, your movie has no shot at all.
Because if a producer wants to buy a movie that plays by the rules, or an actor wants to star in a movie that plays by the rules, there are a thousand more experienced writers, with better resumes and more powerful agents from whom they can get one.
To get a producer, agent, manager, actor, director, financier or anyone else interested in a movie by a new writer, that script has got to shake them up. It’s got to instill passion in them– the passion to take a chance on and invest a lot of money in someone who’s not a known commodity.
Instilling that kind of passion isn’t about writing a script that anyone will love (I’m sure a lot of stars would have run from Swiss Army Man for the same reason that Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe ran towards it). It’s about writing a script that you love. That plays by the rules that you create and serves your specific voice as a writer. And then, finding the people who feel like you do, and want as badly as you do to see that kind of movie on the screen. The producers, actors, directors, managers and financiers who feel passionate not about a script, but about your script.
So how do you get your voice on the page like that?
Well, the first step is learning to say “yes” to your instinct. And one of the ways to learn to do this is to go back to the “Bad Screenplay” exercise.
It’s not your talent that gets in the way of saying “yes” to your instinct. It’s your fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of being not good enough. Fear that if you follow your voice and trust your instincts your writing will turn out to be all those things you so greatly fear.
That’s why, as part of the exercise, we seek to write a scene that embodies all those fears. That’s why we begin by striving for the truly terrible. That’s why I tell my students that if their scene starts to get good, they should purposely try to make it worse.
When we get to the end of the exercise, I ask the students to raise their hands if they feel like they succeeded: if they feel like they’ve truly written a terrible scene. Then I’ll ask them to raise their hands if they’re pretty sure they’ve written the worst scene in the class.
And then, what I will do is, I will ask the student who is convinced that they have the absolute worst scene in the class to read it.
And here’s what happens: invariably that scene is completely compelling.
It’s one of my great experiences as a teacher getting to watch the looks of amazement pass through the class as they hear this scene: a scene that the writer is convinced is so totally awful that it’s the worst scene in the whole class, and laughing, or finding themselves moved, or drawn, or compelled by it.
It’s a great example of how ‘off’ our inner censors can be about our own writing.
Our inner censors have been developed since we were very young. And you need your inner censor. When you were a kid, your inner censor kept you safe on the playground, kept the other kids from picking on you, mom and dad from getting angry at you, teachers from punishing you. Our inner censors keep us getting along with our families and with our communities and with our bosses and our coworkers and husbands and wives, and these are all really valuable things!
But your inner censor is not particularly valuable for you as a screenwriter.
As a screenwriter, you want to get your ugly stuff out there. You want to invite the repressed parts of yourself that don’t always get to come out, to come play with you on the page.
Some of these repressed parts will turn out to be really beautiful parts of you. And some of those parts may be really ugly parts of you that you haven’t yet found a way to come to peace with. And some of them are simply perceived to be shameful or embarrassing parts: things that you think are ugly that may be really aren’t.
And our goal as screenwriters is to let go of our judgment, and get as much of ourselves onto the page as we can. So we can see what we’re shaping before we start trying to shape it. So we can perceive our voice in its natural form, before we start applying craft to it.
What’s always very interesting about the scenes that are written during the Bad Screenplay exercise is that they are never boring. And yet, if, as many teachers make the mistake of doing, you ask the same students to try to write a scene that’s good, you will almost certainly be confronted by one boring scene after another.
In fact, the only way to guarantee that you can become a really bad writer is to try to write well.
Because when we try to write well, what happens is, instead of thinking about ourselves and our characters, we end up thinking about the audience. And the audience that we think about is not an audience that actually exists. The audience that we think about is actually a projection of the most insecure parts of ourselves.
The part of yourself that thinks you’re not good enough, the part of yourself that thinks you’re going to be judged, the part yourself that thinks people are going to laugh at you: these are the parts that we project when we think about an audience.
We get obsessed with what the audience is going to think of us, when, in fact, the real journey we need to go on as writers is the same journey Hank goes on as a character. We need to learn to not give a shit what other people think.
If we’re going to put our authentic voice on the page we need to learn to not care what other people think. We need to learn to stop writing the premise that we think we can sell, and start writing the premise that we are desperate to create.
And, of course, that’s exactly what happened with the Daniels. They had this joke about the most ridiculous scene ever to shoot. A shot which, unlikely as it may sound, actually turned out to be the hook that got two big name actors into their movie. And they created a script simply to support that joke. They created a whole script simply to give them an excuse to film this totally ridiculous scene.
And, instead of running towards the things they thought were good, they ran towards the things that they were afraid of. They wrote a movie about shame by putting their own shame onto the page. And even though they began by doing it as a lark, as what they refer to as “a fart comedy.”’ They ended up with what they call, in their own words, “a fart drama.”
In fact, the structure of their movie, as they describe it, was “the first fart should make you laugh and the last fart should make you cry.”
And this is another example of the power of the Bad Screenplay exercise.
Sometimes, you do the Bad Screenplay exercise and you actually end up with a really incredible scene. And sometimes you end up with, at least, some elements of a really incredible scene. But even worst case scenario, on that rare occasion when everything truly doesn’t work out, and the scene truly is terrible, you still end up with something really valuable: the worst possible version of that scene.
And once the worst version is already out on the page, it’s nearly impossible to be blocked anymore. Now that your shame is out and present and exposed, pretty much anything you do to it can only make it better.
If you seen Swiss Army Man and the way the film develops from an off color joke to a deeply moving personal story, you can see that the structure of the film mirrors the process: the process by which the Daniels created it.
They start with a really unlikely premise, that certainly doesn’t seem like it should sustain a scene, much less a movie. And by running towards it, end up with a meditation on the connection between shame and loneliness, a meditation on love, on friendship, on sex, on attraction, on the way that we hide in plain sight, on what’s really important about life, about the strange and sometimes uncomfortable lines between love and friendship, and about the personal journey that we all have to go on in order to figure out who we really are.
In one of the most beautiful lines in the movie, Daniel Radcliffe’s character, Manny, asks Paul Dano’s character, Hank, “You want to go home so you can have love, but you ran away because nobody loves you.”
The structure of the film forces Hank to come to terms with that dilemma, and with the nature of that loneliness: not the loneliness forced upon us by other people, but the loneliness that is forced upon us by ourselves, when we hide the natural things that make us who we are from the people around us.
And the magical realism elements exist, not to be weird or unusual or show how original these writers are, but to dive into the metaphor that drives the movie: how the ways we feel “marooned” by the people around us are often a by-product of the way we maroon ourselves.
And that’s why (slight spoiler alert) in many ways, at the end of the movie, it seems that Hank may not have ever been physically marooned at all. This is why we start to wonder if this whole story has actually taken place in the woods near a suburban neighborhood, where a girl he thinks he’s in love with, but doesn’t have the courage to talk to, happens to live.
Because, in fact, this may not really be a desert-island-marooned movie at all.
This may actually be a movie about a guy living in suburban America, and feeling like he is on a desert island. Feeling like he is marooned in the world, and wanting to die, because he doesn’t have the courage to be who he is, or to share how he feels, or to talk to the girl that he really cares about.
And if you’re a writer you know what that feels like. I think, if you’re a person, you know what that feels like. And I think that’s one of the reasons this movie is so beautiful. Because, despite its silly premise, and its magical-metaphorical execution, underneath it all, it builds up a structure upon things that we all experience.
If you’re a writer, you know what it’s like to be afraid to get your voice out there. You know what it’s like to know that you have something beautiful to share. And you know what it’s like to feel, sometimes, like you don’t dare to actually put it out there.
So, we have a “terrible” premise that gets molded into beauty. And fortunately, we have two writers who trust their instincts enough to follow that premise, even when it seems impossible.
But imagine what the standard “development” process would have done to this movie. Imagine if the Daniels had tried to shape their movie into a commercial logline, before they followed it to its emotional conclusion, undertook the journey themselves, and knew what it was really about.
That’s why you need to be so careful about where you get your feedback.
Because, oftentimes, what happens is, we’ll write the wonderfully “terrible” scene that is so beautiful and compelling, but still messy and shapeless and under-crafted. And, instead of building upon it, like the Daniels do in this film, we end up instead “fixing” it.
And I put that word, “fixing” in quotes. Because “fixing” is almost always a bad word when it comes to screenwriting. We think we’re “fixing” it, but we don’t really fix it. What we actually end up doing is we hide it.
We bury those raw instincts under acceptable clothing. And although this is not always wrong, it’s often a mistake.
It’s not until you see the “Bad Screenplay” exercise in class, and realize how many students are ready to throw away their most compelling scenes, that you realize how strong our self censorship can become.
Unless you have the years of professional experience it takes to actually know what is beautiful or can become beautiful, or are working with someone who does, oftentimes what happens is the feeling of shame and vulnerability, that naturally boils up when your authentic voice makes it onto the page in its raw form, ends up obscuring the beauty from your own eyes before it ever has a chance to develop.
Similarly, other people who read early drafts of our scripts, unless they’re very deeply experienced and very well trained, often have their own shame, and freak out when they see that kind of raw vulnerability on the page. You can read a ton of screenwriting books and a ton of finished scripts, but unless you’ve been this deep in the jungle yourself, and know what that material looks like in an early draft, you may find yourself panicking back to the surface and the comfort of the same old tired formulas, and running away from the very inspiration that could make your screenplay great.
And if that happens, there’s a good chance that voice is gonna be tamped out before the beauty ever arrives. That you’re gonna end up just like Paul Dano, marooned on an island and never really getting to get your true self on the page.
When the truth is, a teacher’s real job is to give you the tools you need to follow your own instincts. Because as long as you do so, you’ll soon find that you’ve already got your own “Swiss Army Man” inside of you– ready provide for every need you have to get yourself out of the jungle, so long as you follow the path of your own metaphors, and your own personal truth.
In the structure of Swiss Army Man, Paul Dano’s character, Hank, develops a friendship with with this dead body, Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe. They become teachers for each other, and the dead body, in a magical realist way, ends up being, basically a Swiss Army toolkit of everything Hank needs in order to get off of this island.
Manny’s farts propel him to the mainland, his erections can act as a compass, his body can spurt with water for Hank to drink, shoot fish for him to eat, protect him with fire and comfort him with words and questions and play. It can do pretty much everything Hank needs.
And what happens is, Hank and Manny end up becoming guides for each other. Because as a cadaver, Manny has forgotten everything about life. And because he’s forgotten everything about life, because he’s forgotten everything about how the world works, he has found that place that artists call “beginner’s mind.”
He is like a child. Like a creative child, he doesn’t have filters. He doesn’t know what should be hidden. He’s not ashamed of the things that other people find disgusting and embarrassing. He doesn’t have expectations for how he should be.
And, by communicating with this completely unblocked corpse, the blocked artist, Hank, actually learns to create beautiful things again. The blocked artist, Hank, learns to play again. The blocked artist, Hank, learns to process his own ideas, learns to change the way that he sees the world, learns to adapt his rules to fit his needs and let go of the ones that don’t serve him.
And, in this way, Hank finds his way back to society. Not, ultimately, for the girl that he’s always dreamed of, but instead for the recognition of who he really is. The freedom to fart in public and stop playing by the rules.
In other words, by learning to think in his own way, Hank comes to terms with his shame, and finds his beauty.
And this is the same journey that you want to go on with your collaborators, whether they’re the people you work with to make your movie, or the characters you work with to write it!
The Daniels do something that is very challenging in this film: they actually direct the movie together.
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe have spoken about how shockingly pleasant it was to work with two directors. They were actually scared the directors we’re going to be fighting on set, and were pleased to discover that the Daniels were completely on the same page about every shot.
But this didn’t happen by accident. The reason the directors were able to be on the same page as they directed the film, the Daniels have explained in several interviews, was because they had fought about pretty much everything up until the day they started shooting. They had wrestled with these ideas in each draft of the script until they knew exactly what these ideas needed to be. They had acted as both mentors and students, champions and challengers to one another: just like their main characters.
Like Manny and Hank, they allowed themselves a journey that took down the filters and empowered the raw, boundary-free creativity of their subconscious minds. And once that was done, they also allowed themselves the editing process, to wrestle with their conscious minds about what they wanted the movie to say and how they wanted the audience to experience it.
In this way, they used both their art and their craft as writers in order to create a shape that did both.
This is the dance that we do as writers. It’s a dance between our conscious and our subconscious minds. It’s a dance between raw creativity and structured order. It’s a dance between the child and the adult inside us all, through which, hopefully, the child learns from the adult and the adult learns from a child.
And the way we learn, just like Hank and Manny, is not through seriousness, but through play.
Often, that means giving ourselves the freedom for things to be bad, before they get good, to explore the limits of what our stories can be, before we settle in on what it is.
Instead of looking at the things to fix, instead of bludgeoning yourself with the things you think are wrong, look for the moments that feel authentic, the moments that feel true, the moments that create a strong reaction in you. Look for the actions that you would kill to do if you were an actor, that you’d kill to shoot if were a director. Look at the moments that are well visualized, that sound right, even if they don’t make perfect sense. Look for the moments that surprise you, the moments that you haven’t seen before. Look for the beauty, and look for the shame.
Instead of asking yourself, ‘how do I fix this?’ Ask yourself, “How do I build upon it?” “How do I push it deeper?”
There’s a last kind of block that many writers go through, and this is the block of feeling like everything that we write is not good enough. An idea comes to us, and we dismiss it: “It’s trite, it’s cliche, it’s weird, it’s been done before, it’s silly, it’s foolish, nobody will ever buy it…”
This place of not being good enough is one of the hardest places to be as a writer. But if the success of Swiss Army Man teaches you anything, it should teach you this: any premise can work, if you’re willing to push on it hard enough.
Particularly in the world of independent film, the movie that seems impossible to sell is often the one that actually does.
The movie that nobody else would possibly have the courage to write is often the one that ends up attracting the huge star, that ends up attracting the up-and-coming producer who wants to make their mark, that ends up attracting the up-and-coming agent who’s looking for that new talent and those fresh voices.
And even in the “commercial” world of Hollywood movies, it’s often the totally “uncommercial” but beautifully written spec script that ends up landing you the big write-for-hire gig.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need craft. And that doesn’t mean you don’t need rules. That doesn’t mean you don’t need hook, and theme and structure and genre elements and all the other things writers obsess over.
But you don’t need them in your first draft. You need them in your final draft. You use them as tools to shape the clay of your raw creativity into a shape that an audience can understand. And just like a good sculptor, you don’t try to use the same tools or the same mold on every material. Rather, you allow yourself to develop the script in phases, first learning what the script can be for you, identifying the unique properties of the material you’re working with, and then choosing the tools you need to develop that material into a form that captures that vision for others.
At the studio, we teach this concept by breaking down screenwriting into three different classes: Meditative Writing, where our students develop the art of getting their raw voice onto the page. The Craft Intensive, where they develop the tools to shape that voice into a form that others can understand. And my class, Write Your Screenplay, where our students learn to develop their structure organically from their raw instincts and the instincts of their characters.
What we’re really striving toward as writers is a dance. A dance between art, craft and structure. And you can see that dance at play in any successful film: from a big budget popcorn movie like Deadpool, to a character driven drama like Room, to a movie as “crazy” and experimental as Swiss Army Man.
Because for all its originality and wildness, the Daniels built Swiss Army Man around some very simple structural elements.
The first is, these characters all have very strong, clear wants and very strong clear obstacles. We know exactly what Hank wants: Hank wants to get home to the girl and he wants Manny’s help to do it. We know the external obstacles they need to overcome to get there, and we know the internal obstacles they both must make peace with in order to earn their happy ending.
We know who these characters are, how their view of the world puts pressure on each other, and the ironic complications that are going to force them to change.
Manny is a character with no limitations to what he can do or what he can believe in– a child with no self-censorship at all, as we all once were, who does not yet know how the world can hurt him.
And Hank is character completely blocked and trapped within his own shame, intensely aware of how harsh the world can be, and navigating home toward the girl that he cannot have.
And one of the ways that he’s gotten Manny to help him is by convincing Manny that it is, in fact, Manny who’s in love with the girl. And that’s going to be a problem when Manny finds out the truth.
Hank has all kinds of unresolved issues with his father that he has to work through over the course the movie. And there is a strange sexual tension between these two friends that gets played out with a pretty unexpected kiss.
And what is beautiful is that as these characters pursue these very simple wants, they find themselves coming to terms with these very deep themes: through play, through fiction, through fantasy.
That is the shape of these characters’ journeys. And in this way, the shape of the story and the shape of the writer’s journey in writing it, actually end up being exactly the same thing.
Just like these characters, our journey as writers, if we’re really doing the job, is to process our own shame, our own problems ,our own questions through play. To use fantasy to look for the truth.
In many movies, the writers would’ve gotten scared. They would’ve gotten scared by the fantasy; they would’ve gotten scared by the dream; they would’ve gotten scared by the fairytale. They would’ve written that first scene and then said, “oh let’s wake up and let it be a dream!”
But in the best movies, the dreams count. They count as if they were real.
And what we get by allowing the dream’s to count, by allowing the dreams to stand in as structure and plot, we actually get two stories at once.
The first story is a very simple story of a dude who wants to ask a girl out (a married girl who doesn’t even know he exists), a guy who goes through a whole journey to get to her, in hopes of someday being the person he thinks she wants him to be, and who ends up exposing himself in front of her as he really is, not even caring how she responds. And you can see that’s a huge journey for this character, built on good ol’ romantic comedy bones.
And in the second story, there is a fantasy buddy movie happening, about two very different guys lost in the woods (one of them happens to be a dead corpse, but could just as easily have been one of the kids in Blair Witch Project, cops in Lethal Weapon or Wilson the Volleyball in Castaway).
And what’s beautiful about that is you can see that even this incredibly experimental movie is built on very simple genre bones. That even this movie that is so completely out-of-the-box lives inside of a world that we have seen before: a buddy movie, an adventure movie, a lost-in-the-woods movie and romantic comedy.
By building this incredibly complicated movie upon these incredibly simple bones, what these writers end up doing is this beautiful dance; this beautiful dance that takes the raw material of their subconscious minds, this unprocessed magical stuff, and delivers it in a form that an audience can understand: boiling it down to its purest essence and simplifying it into a drum beat that anyone can dance to.
We feel safe going on a wild journey with these characters, because we understand what’s happening. Because the writers have given us enough touchstones to know where we are, even as they expose us to a world we’ve never seen before.
So the last thought that I want to leave you with, is that the journey of all writers is the same: the journey is to get that raw material out, and then, like a good improvisational actor, to “yes, and…” it.
Instead of saying, “No, but…” instead of trying to fix it, what we really want to do is say “Yes, and…” even to our bad ideas.
Our job is then to find the most beautiful elements of those bad ideas, and push them deeper and deeper until we end up with something beautiful.
And this is the great thing that I learned as a producer.
Way back when, before I was a writer, I did work as a producer. And one of the strange things about working as a producer is that you’re working with work-for-hire writers. Oftentimes you’re working with work-for-hire writers on bad ideas that you didn’t even think of, that somebody higher up in the company came up with, and that some writer who really didn’t care at all about the idea was hired to write.
And the writers phoned it in, because they were really just doing it for a paycheck. And you, as a producer, feel no connection to it. And you get these terrible scripts.
And my office was the office that writers ended up in before they got fired. It was my job to save the script. Because it was a lot cheaper for me to save the script then to fire the writer and hire a new one.
And one of the things I found was that by the time you’ve written a 100-page script, even if it’s a bad one (and I will tell you a lot of these “professional” scripts were much worse than anything I’ve ever seen from any of my students), that, somewhere along those 100 pages you’re going to leave some real piece of yourself, even if it happens by accident.
And what I learned as a producer was that if I could expose that one true beautiful thing, that one true piece of themselves, to this writer, and if we could just keep on pushing on that one true thing, even the worst premise could become beautiful.
And we see this again and again and again. There’s a little movie called Lars and the Real Girl the worst premise ever, prior to Swiss Army Man. A man falls in love with a sex doll and it changes his life and the life of everyone in his community.
Terrible premise; beautiful movie. And what’s interesting is, the terrible version of that movie was made, many years before in the 80s: a movie called Mannequin.
But by pushing on the same theme harder and harder and harder, what ends up happening is that terrible idea turns into a beautiful one.
We can see that here once again in Swiss Army Man. The worst idea ever! Castaway meets Weekend at Bernie’s! A movie built around a giant fart joke!
But you can see how, by pushing on that very shame, that piece of themselves that was embarrassed by what they had created, by pushing on that one true thing these incredible writers were able to elevate this terrible idea to a place of beauty.
And this is why the “great idea” everyone is worried about is probably the least important thing in your writing.
Really, the most important thing is the bravery: the bravery to put your actual ideas, not your good ones but your real ones, on the page. The bravery to write the things that you want to write even if they embarrass you. The bravery to go for things that you’re not sure if you can actually deliver, and the bravery to push on those things and trust your own instincts until the hidden beauty emerges.