By Chris Provenzano and Charlie Mitchell
When you’re starting out, they tell you to write what you know, which in theory is good advice. I took it pretty literally, and so my first few scripts were written about mediocre rock bands, awkward love affairs, and the tedium of the suburbs. A prominent agency called one script “a bad idea badly written.” My sense of humor mitigated that gem, plus deep down I understood that “what I knew” at that young age was not a whole hell of a lot. I was still learning my craft, studying the greats, and making mistakes. In short, educating myself. Get Low was my enrollment into the graduate program.
I didn’t know what it was like to live through The Great Depression, or what it was like to be a Tennessean, or, for that matter, what it was like to be an old man whose only friend is a mule. But I did know what it was like to be lonely, to feel regret, and to crave human connection. Uncle Bush (as the real hermit was known) knew these things. His voice whispered to me, urged me to face those feelings honestly and ambitiously, and to write down what I discovered.
I put myself in Bush’s shoes and started asking questions:
- Why am I a hermit?
- What am I running from?
- Why do I want a funeral so badly?
- What are my fears?
- What are my regrets?
- Who loves me?
- Who wants to spit on my grave?
Scott Seeke, who brought the paltry few historical facts to my attention, traded calls and emails with me as I tried to figure out those answers. Good ideas went into a Word document. After about six months, an outline took shape. Looking back now, I see that time as when I developed the technique I rely on to this day, the process of asking myself a continuous stream of questions that slowly illuminates the character’s motivations and actions, the story’s structure, the plot, and pretty much every other aspect of the script.
I wrote the first draft in a gloomy apartment I was subletting from a French-Canadian actress. She had tapestries and Moroccan pillows and exotic masks everywhere, but she didn’t have a proper desk, so I sat at a rickety folding table at the edge of the bed and banged my shin on the metal bar running underneath it. I did this for nine months. Alas, the outline was not Holy Scripture, after all. I halted and rethought, circled back, and rewrote. Three steps forward, two steps back.
I was in the weeds for a while. I turned to Robert McKee’s Story, and I’m unashamed to say that it helped. What I took from the book was the elementary idea—never elucidated to me prior—that a compelling story must rigorously increase the pressure on its characters in order to reveal their ultimate nature. Learning that lesson was like being shown the secret behind a clever magic trick, and I applied the technique as best I could. I was thrilled that producer Dean Zanuck felt the magic when he read that first draft.
The biggest challenge by far was how to end the damn thing. Sure, there was the funeral, but a funeral alone does not an ending make. The story needed a culmination, a catharsis. There wasn’t going to be a big shootout or jet boat chase, so it came down to the characters—to Bush, specifically. Here was a story about a man who had buried his whole life; naturally, when he exhumed that life, it would have to be monumental. Looking back now, I guess I was naive, or cocky, or maybe both, because talk about swinging for the fences. It’s one thing to put yourself under that kind of pressure, but to ask an actor to “sell” the summation of a character’s troubled life in one speech is to ask quite a lot. Thank the good Lord it was Robert Duvall who spoke the words. I shudder to think of a lesser actor in his place.
“I wrote the first draft in a gloomy apartment. I sat at a rickety folding table... and banged my shin on the metal bar running underneath it. I did this for nine months.”
No magic trick that time. That was just plain rewriting. My computer has 13 fully rewritten, page-one drafts of the screenplay, but I honestly cannot say how many times I took a run at that speech. Probably 60.
Years passed. Investors came and went. Aaron Schneider, the director, signed on. There were some tweaks. We got close to making it, but the money disappeared. Life went on. I was always tinkering, trying to improve the script. At a certain point, Aaron brought on writer Charlie Mitchell and my work was done. I won’t lie and say this was easy, but I will say that I am fortunate that a writer of such skill and sensitivity contributed to the finished product. One day the money came and stayed, and the movie got made after a very long time and against very long odds.
I’ve come out of this exhausting, enthralling experience with a head full of knowledge. A short summary goes something like this: If you “know” it, write it; if you write it, write it well; if you write it well, defend it; if you defend it, pick your battles; if you lose, stay strong because you may win the war. Lo and behold you win the war, the phone just might ring with someone asking if you’d like to do it all over again. If that happens, say yes. It may take 10 years, as Get Low did, but it’s worth every minute.
While Chris and I did not write together, Get Low is an absolutely collaborative effort. He did the hard work of starting it and staying with it and staying with it. For some reason, we both felt an intense desire to do whatever it took to tell the story. It is a simple tale with a miniscule budget, but between writing and production efforts, it is certainly the most labor-intensive moviemaking experience of my career. And yes, I would do it again. But I might need to medicate. And purchase arctic wear. It was freezing-ass cold when we made this movie. We spread tons of pine straw to hide the snow and hail and rain and mud. But I’m getting ahead of myself. And getting cold.
Opening up to characters is where I begin. An idea for a story may pique my interest, but I won’t be able to do much with it until I get to know the people inside it. And for me, it is always a real first meeting. I’m a little anxious, a little excited, I don’t know what to expect.
Imposing my thoughts and feelings, my own critical designs, upon people in a story doesn’t work there anymore than it does in real life. I have been privileged to travel the world and ask people to tell me about their lives. My job is to be patient, listen, watch, and take everything in, no matter what it is. If I am judgmental or insincere, I will be tossed out and kicked to the curb with nothing, which is more than fair.
If I have a gift in regard to my work, it is curiosity. I want to know everything I can about everything there is. That is how I make my way through the world and why I love telling stories as I go.
You may think that’s okay for the real world, but we’re talking fiction here, aren’t we? These people are not real. But they are to me. And my experience is that if they are not real to me, they won’t be real to an actor or an audience.
I’ve found that fictional characters respond to a request for revelation in much the same way that real people do. If I ask respectfully and listen, they will usually tell me things. And that is the necessary magic. We don’t have years to get to know each other; our time is compressed, intense, our worlds do not intersect except upon a page. Scientists have begun seriously exploring other dimensions because they help explain mysterious things about the universe. Writers have known about these dimensions for some time. They are where we work:
Indians said that everything spoke to
them. That’s how they made medicine
and knew what to eat. Things talked
to them clear as we talk. You don’t
listen you won’t hear nothing.
Those were the first words that Felix Bush said to me. It sat me right up.
Here was someone who was going to say what’s what. Or was he? As we went on, I found that this man who had spent 40 years living alone in a little cabin withheld as much as he gave, hid much more than he showed. Why did he live alone? He wouldn’t say. He was obviously ill but he wouldn’t talk about it. When he went to a preacher in town to make arrangements for his funeral, it didn’t go well:
What matters when you come to the end
of your life is that you are ready for
the next one. Have you made peace with
And that was that. He picked up his big, old, greasy ball of money and left.
Thus began my adventure with Mr. Bush. When his funeral meeting with the preacher didn’t work out, he went to a funeral home on the verge of bankruptcy. Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), owner of the funeral home, questions his choice of occupations:
I wonder what the odds are of a funeral
home going broke? You have a business
that everybody on earth needs, you can’t
make that work, it’s got to be you,
right? And yet... I don’t know. What do
you do when people won’t die?
Several people have asked if Mr. Murray improvised his dialogue, and I am pleased that they think he might have. But Bill came in wanting to fully inhabit Frank Quinn as is, in part because Frank is such a complex man. He follows rules that are mostly his own, so no one is ever quite sure where those rules are going to take him. Even he isn’t certain. Frank’s thoughts are scripted, but Bill Murray delivering those thoughts is a gift from the gods.
Working with actors who care and are looking to find their way into characters is intriguing and inspiring, Sissy Spacek especially so. From our earliest conversations, everything mattered to her—hair, clothes, pictures in a room, contents of a drawer, nothing was insignificant. Why does the character say that? Why does she do this? But, what was most amazing was how she expressed what she knew when we were shooting. Often it was in an unspoken moment; just a look, but miraculously, everything was in it. I know great actors can do that, but I still don’t know how they do. Fortunately, our adept director Aaron Schneider, cinematographer David Boyd, and their talented and tireless crew were able to beautifully capture those rare moments for everyone to share.
I had the great pleasure of going to Mr. Duvall’s farm in Virginia, sitting on his back porch, and talking with him about Felix Bush. At times, it was like talking with someone who knew Bush in ways that I did not. As those aspects of Bush came to life, they became integral pieces of his portrait.
When Mr. Duvall was delivering Bush’s speech at his funeral party, I was standing at the crane monitor watching him. But after a couple of lines, I looked up at the stage and just listened. Before I knew it, I was gone. There was no camera, no set, no actor, just a man talking about his life, about what happened. I had no sense of authorship, didn’t know what he was going to say, just knew I had to hear it. And he broke my damned heart. When he finished talking, I looked down at my jacket and it was wet with tears. I hope every writer gets such a drenching at least once. If you do, you will not only remember why you wanted to write in the first place, but you will be anxious to sit your butt down and do it again.
CHRIS PROVENZANO’S work on AMC’s acclaimed television series Mad Men earned him a 2007 Peabody Award and the WGA Award for Best New Series. His teleplay for “The Hobo Code” received a WGA Award nomination for Best Episodic Drama. He is currently a co-producer on the FX drama Justified. Additionally, he has been published in the Los Angeles Times.
Born in Alabama, CHARLIE MITCHELL is a songwriter and screenwriter who has worked on numerous studio and independent movie projects, including Cinderella Man (uncredited), Seabiscuit (uncredited), Blood Diamond, and Get Low.
Originally published in Script Magazine September/October 2010
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