February 7, 2016
I recently found this essay, written in the fall of 2011 and published in a now shuttered online journal, and thought it was worth preserving. For what it's worth, the screenplay whose inception I detail here was never finished, although its central conceit still flutters around the periphery of my mind, and will surely one day be realized).
The Beginning: it is the most difficult part of a film’s anatomy.
It is also the easiest to write.
As a filmmaker, I’ve written far more beginnings than I have endings. Endings are difficult to write because one must arrive there. With beginnings, at least in my experience, I simply sit down and begin. There’s no predication to consider. I entertain myself. The words and pages accumulate with ease. It’s only later, when I reach page 20 or 30 or 40, or sometimes even 50, that I realize the platform from which I’ve been building is ill-prepared to shoulder the weight of the firmaments rising up atop it. Often I discover a little too late that where I’m winding up is not where I’ve begun.
My screenplays-in-progress are Winchester houses, with chutes and passageways and entire wings shooting off the side of the building. There are ways to avoid this, and these include: outlining, foresight and a strong sense of direction. Of these I have only the latter, and trust it implicitly, but never let it stay me from the rambling that’s become my process.
Here is how it happens: I sit down to compose a screenplay, one that I’ve been thinking about for almost exactly a year. It is in this case the tale of a little girl named Emma who writes a book. I’ll leave the description at that. The idea has stuck around long enough now; has proven its worth. It’s time to write it down. And so I begin. I begin in this case quite literally, with a character speaking about beginnings. This reads well, and sounds good, and is a fine start—but it is too obvious. Who cares? It’s staying in for now. Let’s move on.
A new character presents himself. He’s a publisher, an employment necessary for the plot to proceed as I’ve foreseen. I give him some dialogue, do what I can to give him some color. And in doing so I wonder: But what if, in addition to serving the plot in a professional capacity, he also becomes a de-facto father figure to the protagonist, who heretofore was not missing one but might be enriched by such an absence? Indeed, I was going to off the fellow later anyway, so I’d be getting a jump on things. I make a note in all caps right there in the body of the text: go back later and eradicate all instances of the father.
I digress. This character is a publisher, which must mean that he works at a publishing house. I know nothing of this world, outside of what I’ve seen in the movies. But first drafts are not the time for research. All I need is for this character to have an office in which he can do some busywork while talking to our main character–editing a manuscript, or some such thing. All the same, I wrack my brain for contextual clues and points of reference: giant printing presses with their black rollers and spinning turbines come to mind first—which is not what I need—followed by an image of freshly pressed pages hanging on clothes line to dry. This feels suddenly correct.
This image, I know almost instantly, is from the movie The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s novel. It depicts Leonard Woolf at work with his apprentice at the Hogarth Press, the imprint he founded with his wife Virginia and which published her work. I liked The Hours, the book, well enough. But Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors—one who, upon discovery, shook my sense of what literature could be and made me love it in a newly tangible and palpable and sinuous way, and her intrusion, however roundabout, upon this story sends a warm jolt of perspective backwards over what I’ve written and forwards over what’s yet to come. This vision of pages hanging like laundry, the sun shining through the paper’s fiber, itself besmirched by neat and miniature formations of black ink drying in the light—this has something to do with that charge. Perhaps unbeknownst to myself, I’d already been striving for that something, because from page one I’d named this character Leonard.
And so I dive into the black hole that is research. I ferret out all details of the Hogarth Press that I can find online. I order a copy of a memoir entitled A Boy At The Hogarth Press, by Woolf’s apprentice Richard Kennedy. I remind myself that I need to pick up Virginia’s collected journals and letters. I read about how the Woolfs first bought a small letterpress in 1917, and how their hands were made sore divvying the type into typecases. I imagine the type made of wood or pewter or some lesser material, and wonder what the typeface was. Virginia, I learn, had already been skilled in the art of bookbinding before printing became a new passion for her.
I picture her as a teenager, sitting beside a window with an awl and thread, the punch and the pull, binding folios and stitching them into manuscripts.
Here, now, in this instance, I have an inkling: I once researched bookbinding for another project; one long since finished and buried. Come to think of it, I had read up on printing presses for that same project, in which the hero carted a small press across a newly-formed America with the aim to publish poetry. How had I forgotten this? It explains the well-worn-wheelhouse sensation I felt as this new narrative began to drift in that old direction.
This always happens. Themes resurface; props indicative of some latent proclivity are ferried from one project to the next. Were my body of work more substantial, I’m sure it would have grounds to be called termitic. It isn’t substantial, partially due to the amount of time I spend in instances like these poring over antique letterpresses on eBay and considering the possibility of printing and binding books as a hobby of my own (and, if not that, then finding someone who’s already thus employed to make a short documentary about them). In the basement of a building in which I once worked, there was an old-fashioned printing company. I’d pass their churning press on the way to the elevator and imagine panning a camera obliquely across its cantilevered plates.
The press closed before I could ever film it. And I can’t afford to buy a printing press, nor would I likely find the time to operate it. My desire to do so is indicative of something else, some love of text in its most tactile forms. It’s in all of my work: letters, documents, things printed, the texture of paper, the blot of ink, pencil smudges, the folds of envelopes, and text again, on paper, emblazoned and pretend-permanent. This is something I learn that Virginia Woolf grew to love as her skill at the press increased; the way in which the words were printed on the paper, she found, could have as much impact as the words themselves.
She was a formalist, not just in terms of language, but also in the plastic potential of her chosen medium. Like all great formalists, she could push her form to new heights, stretching but never breaking the membrane that made it cogent. This is what I’ve been after in my own work, sometimes explicitly, often subtly, and always conscientiously. I don’t make movies to write novels. Which is another way of saying that, while the medium is not always my message, it’s an intrinsic part of it.
And where my medium has gotten me at this point is fifteen pages into a screenplay that is suddenly no longer just about a little girl named Emma who writes a book. Well, it is—but that vague coal of a concept stoked for a year has, with a few days of writing, turned into a conflagration that I’ve not quite managed to contain. It continues to burn.
I check myself. I make sure this is still the story I want to be telling. There are no clear indicators of this. It is a gut instinct, that aforementioned sense of direction. That and the fire (which will grow fainter as days go by, but won’t likely go out unless the project burns up first) should carry me forward, all the way to the end, at which point I’ll head back to the beginning and retrofit those struts and pylons of form and narrative to support whatever load they need to bear.
That ending will stay the same. Endings are the easy part, because you know them when you get there.
Posted by David Lowery at February 7, 2016 2:41 PM