My wife and I have a large cage with finches in our home and it was time to buy some more seed. So, I recently found myself chatting with the guy who runs a bird shop in West Hollywood. He also writes books – pulp fiction, often with gay heroes. He mentioned the time he found himself in an inspired frenzy, writing a play that eventually got produced. He wrote the first act in a three-hour gusher. The whole thing just poured out. Then, a friend of his phoned and interrupted him; his pal was having personal troubles and the two had lunch. After lunch? My bird guy lifted his hands like fluttering wings, “empty." The flow had gone. It took him another year to write the second act.
Damn, this process is mysterious.
I have experienced similar things. I Gestalt-ed the coolest first 20 pages of an action-mystery in an inspired flash. I wrote the stuff down in a desperate feat of memory retention. And sold the project, pitching those beginning ideas along with some puffed up filler to make me sound more coherent than I really was. The project was called Accelerator – a young blue-collar mechanic with a prison record for heisting cars is accused of killing a cop and must find the real killers before the cops get him.
The rest of the writing process was what I call a brain-burner. It took months! Writing action is easy for me. Like setting up dominoes and knocking the rows down. But mysteries are brutal, horrible things.
I spent two weeks in a single scene in that script. Literally, two weeks going to work everyday and trying to wrestle perhaps two pages out of myself. Two weeks where two characters meet in an empty restaurant and trade barbs and plot points. But those two pages contained the nexus of the mystery plot. I had to know everything about the plot to make the rest of the script work. That one damn scene almost cost me my sanity.
I am taken by the simplicity of a good mystery plot. They are like little equations. Sea of Love – a homicide detective suspects a woman who puts ads in the personals to meet men. The men then get murdered. He dates the woman to figure out how to arrest her – only to find the killings are by one of her madly jealous earlier dates. Easy, huh?
Not for me. Writer friends have told me “just figure the mystery plot out before you start writing." They say you start with the end and work backward. They are right! Except those things don’t come to me in nice packages.
So where is this going?
Before I wrote the story for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I started work on a mystery thriller set in New Mexico. I had this instinctual passion to explore a highly visionary mystery with a white detective investigating the murder of a Native American artist. I started plotting the movie with my writing assistant at that time, Jay Roach -- a truly inspiring guy to work with, and a great friend. We actually laid down the first two or three pages.
I felt ripe, like the story was going to come!
And then we discovered that, out there in Studio-land, there was a finished, Native American-themed script called Thunderheart. Robert De Niro was going to star in it. I allowed myself to give up on writing my project, which I called Blood Springs.
Two things came of that event.
Thunderheart did not get made with De Niro. It took four more years for the movie to get made with Val Kilmer. And I hated myself for giving up on my child. I kept trying to write Blood Springs – but it wasn’t ripe anymore.
I was clouded with doubt. I didn’t have the plot mechanics. I kept working away at it in my spare time. And amassed an amazing 600 pages of notes! So much “stuff” that I couldn’t find my way through the fog. I kept trying, and got my first act out – but couldn’t get beyond it. I didn’t trust myself.
So for 14 years – (yep!) – I kept trying. I was like a wave crashing onto the beach each time I started, only to be washed back out again. My guts knew there were profound and important life issues in this script for me and I couldn’t give up. And I couldn’t get it done.
I have learned to go with magic or charms or instincts in my writing. And I had a bizarre intuition that I must speak to Kristin Hahn about my script. I had met Kristin when she worked at Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company. She had shared with me a book she had written called In Search of Grace. In it, she documented her spiritual search across all the religions in America, exploring with mentors in all kinds of faiths and religions, from priests to shaman, in order to define her own spiritual time and space.
Somehow my unconscious knew that I must try talking to Kristin about my story – which centered on a detective who has a giant crisis of faith because of a tragedy that had happened after an altruistic act of his.
I was pretty shy about my gut instinct. I figured Kristin might see me as nutty – or worse, think I was trying to hit on her. But, finally I bumped into her at a production company and summoned up the courage to face being an oddball and invited her to lunch. She accepted. A week later we were having lunch, and I told her my desperate, uncompleted story.
It turned out that Kristin had grown up in New Mexico. She understood what I was trying to attempt. And gave me one major thought. Essentially I had created a second character in the story, a Navajo Tribal Policewoman. I had seen her as transitional element. She was just there to deliver my detective to her uncle, a shaman who would help my detective find a new way of viewing his life.
Kristin’s thought was, Why not let the Tribal Policewoman teach him? Make her a struggling student of her uncle.
It was like that thought unzipped my head. I knew immediate that I could write the script. I had a life pattern of writing stories that shared the plot between a man and a woman of different cultures. It is one of my strengths. But, I had been blind to that in this instance. I went gratefully to work.
The movie flowed out of me. I now made decisions about the plot with certainty that my body would find the answers as I wrote. I was in that blissful but rare flow state. I discovered that I was really writing a personal, internal story about the detective. What he learns from the Navajo beliefs helps to cleanse the detective and let him re-start his life. His internal plot was the power that drove me – not finding who committed the murder. Although that all worked itself out, too.
I will share, I love this script so much I kinda tingle when I read it. It’s now called Land of Enchantment (after the New Mexico State slogan). And though it is not the brand-of-the-week that studios think they want, I yearn to get it financed.
Oh, and the second thing that came from my original failure to write Blood Springs?
Despite three studios telling me that my story for a new Robin Hood was a stupid idea, John Watson and I decided to collaborate on it as a spec script.
We were three quarters of the way in when we heard Fox Studios had green-lit a Robin Hood feature with a director and were ready to go.
The thought was debated to “not waste our time finishing our Robin Hood."
But, something in my psyche yelled at me that if I failed to finish this script too, I was consigning myself to a life as a confused loser.
I pushed hard, and John hung in with my mad idea … to finish a pointless script.
And boy – were we surprised when Kevin Costner chose to make our script and the career-changing reception it got.
You just never know …
Read Pen’s previous “Alligator Tales” installments here.
If you like Pen’s blog, you can download a FREE chapter from his book Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (And Not Getting Eaten) at www.ridingthealligator.com, published by MWP. The book is a unique insiders guide to succeeding as a screenwriter in a difficult business, and has been lauded by top Hollywood talent such as Ron Howard and Paul Haggis.