Research, research, research is just as important as location, location, location.
When you grow up as sheltered as I did in a place where almost nothing of consequence ever happens, you do a lot of research. You have to. If I did no research, I’d have to write a non-fiction book called, “How to survive growing up in Northwest Wisconsin and staying mostly sane.” It would be 50 pages long. Who’s going to bother reading that?
Murders like the kind I write about rarely happen here. We get one gruesome killing maybe every five years or so. So, just the murders alone take exhaustive research. Toxins in plants don’t make themselves apparent with casual internet searches. You have to dig for them in scientific blogs and research papers chock full of Latin. I sometimes wonder if the federal government really “Big Brothers” our internet. They’d probably be dismayed at some of my search terms, like “burning a body in a metal barrel.”
I get dismayed at the sheer brutality our so-called “humane” race is capable of: domestic violence, the war on drugs, human trafficking, rape, exploitation, genocide. Just focusing on those subjects in and of themselves is enough to make me want to hide under a very thick comforter and stream nothing but Sesame Street re-runs. The trick to doing the research is to glean the kernels of good out of the overwhelming bad.
And, believe it or not, there are pockets of hope, redemption, survival, and sometimes justice amidst all the pain. We are a resilient if duplicitous race of beings. There is always that search for love, for peace, for liberation from the yolks of bitterness and regret that all of us are guilty of carrying around for too long. As a writer I use the research to put my various characters into the positions they need to play to find their end game, whether it be a good outcome or an unfortunate one.
In essence their fictitious journey is simply a reflection of our real one. In my opinion, that’s what good dramatic writing should really be about.
Hank Isaac: Underfunded Overachievers
Night, cars, crowds – the most expensive scene in LILAC
The Crafting of “Lilac” Part 3
by Hank Isaac
I came to screenwriting and film making from the visual arts. My undergraduate degree is in Industrial Design. When I was in design school back in the 60s, the head of the program would always give his charges a little pep talk at the beginning of each school year. As young eager students, we generally zoned out during the talk.
But I do remember – all these years later – one significant comment. He said (again, my paraphrasing): It’s quite easy to draw a pencil line on a piece of paper. Just remember that, eventually, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people will be spending potentially millions of dollars to make that line. And then they’ll be cranking them out – one each second – and people all around the world will be looking at and using that line. Their lives might even hang in the balance on that line (the head of the program was a designer of surgical instruments). Corporations. The world economy. The future of humanity. Anything could hinge on that line.
Just remember… you do have an eraser.
I remember when I first started writing screenplays some years ago. It all began in a fabulous yearlong course. I quickly became overly concerned about how much everything was going to cost. Then my teachers, a mix of screenwriters and producers, said: Your job is to create the characters and write their story. If you’re lucky enough to sell it, someone else will figure out how to make it all work.
That’s pretty comforting advice. So I can set my story in eighty countries, perhaps in the mid-1600s, with some sort of mega-monster on the loose. And vampires.
Sure, why not.
…what if I’m the one who has to “make it all work?”
Okay, so maybe not eighty countries. Hey, I know! They’re playing RISK®. On a card table. In the living room. And one guy accidentally cuts his lip. With a toy dinosaur. While an old costume drama plays out on the TV. For ninety minutes.
The most expensive scene in my new WEB series, “Lilac,” lasts about thirty seconds. It’s outside. At night. In a city. On the street. Spanning a distance of about a hundred feet. With child actors. Extras. And the police – actual police. What if it rains? What if some sort of mad dog gets loose there?
I recall writing the scene and the stages it went through. Is it less expensive to get a couple of old cars and dress them up as police cars – including flashing lights, recruit two more actors, make or rent police costumes, create police paraphernalia, than it is to hire real police officers and their cars? No. The real thing is actually way cheaper. Plus, you get security for the shoot as a bonus.
So the question constantly hanging in the air was: Is this scene really necessary?
Well, it accomplishes a number of things: It pays off the entire opening sequence. It surreptitiously connects the main character with her soon-to-be antagonist. It shows us a side of the main character previously hidden. And, in showing that, sets up not only the end of the first season, but also suggests the quest that will drive the main character throughout the second season.
So, yeah, the expense was worth it. But, man… It’s worse that watching a meter drop in a NYC taxi.
I have to acknowledge that as both a screenwriter and a filmmaker, every time I’m writing and realize I need a certain scene or another character, I kind of cringe. I know it’s going to cost more. Sometimes a lot more. This doesn’t mean I don’t write it. At least in early drafts. But it does mean it will be revisited many, many times over the course of development.
Being a filmmaker and having to go find the funding for my projects has also made me a better writer. I get to apply the how-important-is-this test to every shot. Every scene. Every character. I know what it takes to light scenes, make sets and props, cast talent, direct actors, create the support infrastructure necessary to execute a filmed project, and the hundreds of other seemingly endless tasks required to get to a finished product. And no matter what, somebody is going to have to plan out, cast, set up, film, edit, score… every word I write.
So every word better have a good reason for being there. From tvwriter.net
Sometimes it’s really tough giving a crap about what other people think. Honestly, how liberating must it feel to be a self absorbed a-hole who either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care for the opinions of others? Or to be so self-righteous, you simply believe that everyone else is just wrong anyway? That would have its merits too.
But, alas, as far as I know, I possess none of the above mentioned personality traits. I have the opposite personality trait. I am the validation junkie, the one who lives for the praise of others and dies just a little inside from their criticisms.
And that second part really sucks. It just does. I can get mad. I can rant and rave about the injustice of that anonymous reviewer that gives me one rate-reducing star with no explanation, or the other reviewer who uses my books as a platform to justify his or her disgust with an entire genre of writing (or gender of writers, or political leanings of writers, or all self-published writers in general). But that doesn’t make the cut sting any less. I still get hurt.
Do critics ever think about the pain they cause when they voice their negative opinion for the world to see? Are they working under the assumption that a creative person who has the audacity to share their heart-felt creation with the public deserves ridicule for efforts? Maybe so.
I have opinions. I voice them to people I’m comfortable sharing my opinion with. I would never make a decent critic. I was raised with the time honored mantra of, “if you can’t say something nice, mumble something snarky about it to the closest ear and move on.”