By Tapio Ylinen – Master of Arts in Screenwriting
It was something I had wanted to do for a long time: a film about rock ‘n’ roll and, more precisely, the process of making music. My first feature film script was about something that I was deeply involved with. The story grew to become a metaphorical journey in which music represented life. The way the characters make music is the way they live their lives, something I knew all too well myself. When the time came to write my second feature I realized I was in trouble, quite frankly. I had no ideas. I had already spent the one idea I was passionate about.
In part II (Also see: Part I) of this article I go through the entire process of writing a full feature film script, step by step. Of course, as you probably know, a script is never finished. Therefore you should probably put three imaginary dots at the end of this article as the development of this story will most likely continue. But at least the script was good enough to be submitted as my master’s thesis and to receive good grades. Can’t be all bad, then…
So, here we go.
The Second Coming of The Second Coming
Some years ago, almost as a joke at first, I had the idea of writing a black comedy about the second coming of Jesus. Jesus himself would return to Earth, but no-one would believe that he is Jesus. In the end he would suffer the same faith as in the Bible, again. As the time came to choose a subject for my second feature film script this idea came back to me. Being somewhat atheistic myself I was intrigued by the idea of a character being forced into a situation where his/her life-long religious beliefs are questioned and ultimately changed. Why do we need religion in the first place? And how to address that question in a film?
My first attempt to deal with the challenging subject matter was a thriller concept in which a fundamentalist christian holds hostage a man who is believed to be the new messiah. The concept was flawed with a totally unlikable main character, so I made an alternate first draft of the synopsis. In that version the main character was a psychiatrist who tries to find out whether one of his patients is indeed the messiah. Although much better, this latter version had no clear sense of theme in it. In reference I watched a film called “K-Pax” which basically had the same idea, only the patient claimed he was an alien. After watching the film and receiving feedback the challenge of this particular idea, and the subject matter in general, started to dawn on me. There was no good way of ending the story.
If the man is the messiah, what happens then and what does it all mean? How does one say anything new and fresh about any of it? If he is not the messiah, then it’s all just a big anti-climax. And when Colin Muir told me that the BBC had, not too long ago, produced a mini-series about the second coming, which included a better resolution that I could have ever come up with, I nearly gave up on the whole subject matter. It started to seem too pompous, too overwhelming.
A series of small things happened that made me, eventually, change my mind. What I had learned from my previous writing effort was that eventually I would find a resolution to these problems if I just kept trying to think of new creative solutions.
Someone had told me a story, an urban legend, about a man who, while drunk, fell off an overpass down to the highway and got hit by a truck while falling. Miraculously, or by pure drunken luck, he survived. I thought it might be a great opening scene in a film. But what would the story be? I didn’t know at the time. The next thing that happened was that after Colin gave me feedback on my second draft of the story, he suggested that, instead of writing about someone who is Jesus and knows it, it might be interesting to have a story in which the main character is about to become Jesus and doesn’t know it yet.
How does the character find out he is Jesus? Maybe if he jumps off an overpass, gets hit by a truck and survives without a scratch he might suspect something. Why does he jump then? Being drunk is not very messianic of him nor is it dramatic. But if he tries to commit suicide that might be interesting. Why would he commit suicide? Because he has lost everything that matters to him: his family. I continued this series of interconnecting questions and very quickly the heart of the film started to form.
New Ideas for The New Messiah
When writing my first film, I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly flexible in terms of changes in character. I had a very clear idea of certain elements that had to be there and the story evolved around those elements. What was very different now, and probably for the first time in my writing career, was that I let the core of the idea dictate the nature of the characters. I was much more open to new ideas, and because the subject matter wasn’t so close to my personal sensitivities I was able to use those new ideas freely, without second-guessing myself. An example of this would be when I had the idea of making the lead character a woman.
I would have resisted this idea earlier, simply because it wasn’t the original way I saw the film evolving. Plus I might have been afraid to write from a woman’s point of view, not being sure whether I could make her believable. But having moved forward as a writer I realized now that it wasn’t about the character being a man or a woman. It was about making her as interesting as possible. And having a woman as the messiah (when most people, I think, would expect the second coming to be a man) was too interesting to pass. Plus it gave more weight to the fact that she loses her children, which is, I believe, especially devastating to a mother. And suddenly her coping with this tremendous loss and her evolving powers became the heart of the story.
The first version of this tale was a mishmash of a rites of passage -story, political satire and conspiracy thriller. I was adamant that the new messiah should suffer the same fate as her predecessor, she would have to die. Also the fact that our main character is the messiah became clear fairly early in the story. Reading that particular treatment now it is fairly obvious that, even though I may have had an inkling of what it all should mean, I didn’t have any idea on how to express what I was thinking.
I did a lot of research. I read long passages of the bible, especially The Book of Revelations. I watched documentaries about the myth of Jesus and other messianic figures, like Mithra. It was all very interesting, but didn’t really solve anything. (How does one write anything original about a myth that has existed for over two millennia?) I spent a lot of energy, once again, trying to think of a story that would blow peoples’ heads off and trying to get at least some of my research into the story.
Since I didn’t have to do any research with the first script I didn’t become attached to the research when it became time to write the actual script. Although, one might argue, that my research for that script was my true life experiences that influenced a huge part of that story and the characters. And I did get attached to that so called research, up to a point that it took something like 12 drafts of the treatment to get me to a stage where I could let all that material go. The difference this time was that I fortunately realized myself that I needed to let the research go, though it took some time for me to actually do that.
The next phase was to write a 25-page treatment of the story to my mentoring teacher, Roger Stennett. This was a scene-by-scene document of the entire film, a huge amount of work with a story that wasn’t fully formed yet. Without thinking too much about it I thrashed out a series of scenes in an attempt to get the story out in some form or another. I wasn’t too happy about what I wrote, feeling that I was writing for a dead line and I ended up repeating my old sin of writing scenes with huge chunks of snappy dialogue but without any visible action or character development. Roger gave his feedback accordingly.
There were two major issues with the story. Helen, the main character, is the messiah, but how exactly does it show? Because the idea was that she would find out about her powers as the story progresses there had to be some doubt over whether she is what she is suspected to be. She couldn’t be omnipotent, because there wouldn’t be any threat to her. I decided to make her less of a divine figure and give her only one special power: healing. But, again, how does it show? In the first long treatment (draft 4 of the story) there were a lot of scenes where she cures cuts. The problem was that there was no progression to any of it. Once she was able to cure there was nowhere to go. In addition to this Roger noted that healing wounds has been seen before. I needed to come up with a new twist to it and be much more specific about the way she heals.
I though it would be an interesting, ironic idea to have organized, dogmatic religion as the antagonist of the new messiah. Thus Minister Lambert came into existence. Unfortunately I didn’t delve into his character or the evangelist movement too deeply. The character was almost a self-parody of himself, a fire breathing dragon of a man. This was the second major issue. Because I had no real character as an antagonist, I really had no satisfactory resolution to the story. In this version Helen ends up being accused of a crime and the whole third act is just basic court room drama, but nothing to do with the actual theme of the movie. At Roger´s suggestion I spent a lot of time creating the world of the evangelist Minister to make him resemble an actual human being.
Time was ticking away so I went straight into writing the first draft of the script. Roger and I had discussed a documentary we had both seen about the Scientology movement which had scared both
of us. It seemed like a good idea to get some of that sinister quality into the world of the evangelist movement. In order to get the conflict between Helen and Minister Lambert more personal I decided to make Helen a member of his church. The conflict between them would begin when Helen loses her family in a car crash and loses her faith in God as a consequence.
The conflict deepens when, after discovering her healing powers, Helen refuses to come back to the church and starts to become a leader of a movement of her own. I devised a plot strand where the guy who runs over Helen with his truck first becomes a member of Lambert´s church and then an instrument of an assassination attempt on her life.
I also needed a good B-story, so I hastily concocted a love interest for Helen. The man, Michael, would be the one with whom Helen´s development as a character would manifest itself. My haste resulted as a bland character with no proper back story and thus no depth. At this point I noticed a development in myself as a writer. While writing those scenes with Michael I already knew that many of them weren’t working. Previously I would have become completely stuck, not being able to finish the draft before I had solved this problem. This would have taken a long while. This time I pushed through the entire script in order to get a sense of the full storyline, the tone of the film and the way the characters might function in this world I had created. Then I could go back, revise, rethink.
How To Keep It Real
The feedback I received from the first draft was very thorough, but essentially it can be boiled down to two sentences. “Great central idea” and “You have to keep it real!” All of the individual feedback, not counting linguistic mistakes, derived from these two sentences. Basically what this meant was that I had the basic structure of the story, the characters, the plot points and all of those mechanical things approximately where they should be. And yet the story wasn’t quite there. The theme wasn’t clear and the tone of the story wasn’t stable. Because of the supernatural elements I had occasionally drifted into scenes that were way over the top in reference to the very human core of the film. The subplot with Trevor, the truck driver, who in the final scene shoots Helen was a very good example of this.
Most of the story was an intimate study of a fragile human being in an extraordinary situation. The subplot with him carefully planning and finally executing an assassination was a different movie altogether. And still, even though I knew this, I had fallen in love with the ending I had so carefully planned. It was probably the only thing I really had time to plan and write properly because I had had this moment of inspiration when I first came up with the ending. I still felt that Helen needed to die. Otherwise I felt like I would loose the parable with the myth of Jesus. The ending fitted perfectly, in my opinion, with all that I had envisioned up to that point. I had a tremendously hard time letting it go. I resisted to the very end. It took a lot of time before I realized that this story was not about being Jesus anymore. Something fundamental had changed and the parable was no longer there.
Writing the second draft was absolute torture. It began with me catching a cold that very soon turned into bronchitis. I was quite ill with a high fever for about two weeks, but I still had to write a lot of material to make the next deadline. At times morale was very low and I felt like wasn’t going to be able to finish. Most of the material I wrote during that time is difficult to read now. It was almost like all my worst qualities were multiplied. My over-emphasis of dialogue went from annoying to ridiculous. A scene that might have been just slightly over the top became melodramatic, bordering on unintentional comedy.
My main focus now, in order to make my precious ending work, was to make Trevor’s assassination attempt somehow understandable. Also Minister Lambert needed more layers so I wrote a lot of material with that in mind. The result was a huge chunk of scenes with Trevor and Lambert. And while it made Trevor´s motives understandable it ultimately made the problem of mixing genres even worse than it was. There was now a whole storyline to deal with and it became so long that it stole screen time from the main story.
Another thing I tried to do, regarding Roger´s feedback on making things more real, was to delve more into Helen´s psychological journey. Even in the very early stages of development the dynamic between psychiatrist and the messianic character was always there. I never lost it. But the second draft of the script was the first time that I really had a good chance to develop that dynamic. A lot of the scenes with Helen and her doctor in the first draft suffered from expositional dialogue, and they didn’t really progress.
The whole point of the theme was that by healing others she would slowly heal herself and vice versa: after coming to terms with her trauma she is able to accept her new status as a healer. At this stage there was no real struggle between Helen and the poor doctor trying to heal her. When I suddenly realized that all she wants is to be left alone for the rest of her life it became possible to write those scenes with the doctor. Now there was a real conflict between them. The big irony, of course, was that after people find out about her power to heal they won’t let her be alone.
The second draft as a whole ended up being a major improvement, although I now had the burden the Trevor storyline that was way too long and tonally different from the A-story. This didn’t go
unnoticed by Roger. The feedback was much more positive and mostly concerned with minor details except when it came to that particular storyline. There were still passages that were too much about talking heads without people actually doing anything, but I managed to solve those (I hope at least) fairly easily. The big problem was Trevor and the whole assassination scenario. It had to go. I knew it had to go. But with it I would have to loose my precious ending.
I spent several days trying find a way to keep that storyline, to boil it down to its bare minimum, to make it less of a thriller. In the end there was no way around it. If you have an assassination scenario, if you have that action performed by one of your characters, it is bound to be thriller material. And this film is not a thriller. It is a rites of passage story. A death passage story, if you will. Trevor and his rifle had to go.
After I decided to disown Trevor everything suddenly became much simpler. (I kept Trevor as a minor character but with a totally different function.) Suddenly the movie was all about Helen and her journey, as it should have been right from the start. There was no more need for complicated plotting and there was much more space and time for character development. The B-story between Helen and Michael became more nuanced, the scenes with Helen in therapy more realistic. Writing draft three only took ten days. It was the same as with the first script. The resolution came, but only after a lot of hard work.
It’s All In The Details
I’m certainly beginning to know myself as a writer, or at least I’ve become familiar with my pitfalls when developing stories. I have become better at recognizing what doesn’t work and, more importantly, letting go of ideas and material that doesn’t fit the ever developing story. Although I did hang onto my original ending for much longer than I should have the fact that I did eventually let it go was encouraging. And by letting go of it I felt like I had truly, honestly moved a step forward.
The second important thing I developed in during this process was my attention to details within the script. In the first film the world that I created was so familiar to me that I didn’t need to pay too much attention to details. They came naturally. This time it was absolutely essential that I did the work. And in the end it is the details, the little actions the characters make, the exact words they use when they speak, that make this supernatural story either believable or not. And most importantly, for the first time, I was able to let myself drift into the direction where the story was taking me instead of trying to control the current by force. I found that comforting. I think it might be the start of a new journey. We will see.