I really enjoy the revision process when writing. I don’t think that I’m that great of a writer, so I like to take my time and tame the hasty jumble of words I’ve strung together. I get a kick out of printing a manuscript and marking it up with a red pen, writing in the margins. After having my screenplay, “Last Will and Laundromat,” critiqued in the first round of the Steeltown Film Factory, I found myself with more than a recommended serving size of revisions.
I had a week to turn in a new draft. It’d then be re-judged by a new panel, along with the other 11 scripts, and six would be selected for the semi-finals. I felt like I was behind the eight-ball. The critiques of my script were so major, and varied, that I was faced with a number of ways to proceed. I spent almost the entire week mapping out every story path I could think of–like a choose-your-own-adventure novel.
“Last Will and Laundromat” was, originally, about a grandfather getting a second chance to get to know his granddaughter, Andi. He is able to come back and haunt her for a limited time. His time runs out just as the two become close and Andi is left wanting more. She goes to the Elks Lodge, where her grandfather was an active member, and meets folks that knew him better than anyone. The problems the judges had were fairly straight forward: the tone wavered too much between slapstick ghost-comedy and sentimental drama about loss; the grandfather, as a ghost, felt too much like a schtick; and the conversations, generally, lacked the minimum level of heart to make them worthwhile. There was a slight debate, amongst the judges, as to whether or not the ghost should even be in the movie.
I didn’t get rid of the ghost. Not out of some kind of stubborn, artistic integrity thing, but because losing him would, in effect, turn this into a story I wasn’t trying to tell. I was hell-bent on figuring out how to make him a meaningful specter, with purpose and heart. I also needed to figure out how to make him more real.
I spent most of the week being unhappy with everything I was writing. Nothing was working.
Sunday was deadline day. I had decided, while at church that morning (whoops), that I wanted to change the ghost mechanic to make it more limited and laundromat-specific. That was a start; it wasn’t until later on, when I was sitting in Abby’s apartment brainstorming with her, that everything changed. Abby turned to me and said: why don’t you make her write an obituary. Tetris! As soon as she said that, all of the blocks fit together. The ghost mechanic, the stakes, the motivation. Abby had given me the missing the piece. I grabbed my laptop, gave her a kiss, and ran off to the 61C Cafe in Squirrel Hill. I emerged, as jittery and dazed as a newborn, hours later, with a new script. Ultimately, I re-wrote close to 90% of it, keeping only the final couple pages in the Elks Lodge. It felt great.
Later that week, I got an e-mail reporting that I had made it to the next round. I called Abby to deliver the news. I put on a Rush vinyl and danced around my apartment. I never saw it coming.
For the second event, the Producer’s Pitch, we had to assemble production materials to present. Plans for a $30k budget, scene breakdowns, and location info along with storyboards or production art. This time around, I felt good and sort of prepared. I was able to assemble a very thorough budget where everyone got paid (except for me), and I was able to film with top of the line equipment (donated by my boss). I spent two days drawing 60 or so storyboard frames, and another day assembling a booklet that I had printed and bound.
I probably learned more about the filmmaking and planning process in that week of preparation than if I had taken a semester-long film class. Steeltown’s model forces the competitors to inquire about insurance, find crew, plan shots, and think about feeding people with craft services–this felt like a crucial and meaningful exercise.
On the day of the event, I showed up with my production book, a large coffee + espresso, and a jacket with Aunt Marian’s card and Abby’s pen tucked in the pocket. I wasn’t as nervous. Abby had given me beautifully encouraging advice the night before. I knew all of the competitors by now (and they are all wonderful, talented people, by the way). Best of all, we wouldn’t have to wait long to find out how things went: they would be announcing the finalists immediately following the event.
I pitched second. Unlike before, I wasn’t a bundle of awkward. I was happy, smiling. Myself. I shook the panelists’ hands. They liked the booklet I had designed. No matter what the result would be, I was relieved. I went back to my seat (got a sneaky kiss from Abby) and enjoyed the rest of the pitches.
I didn’t make it to the next round. It would have been great to become a finalist, to get that table reading and a chance at 30 grand. But I had already received so much. I’d met the wonderful organizers at Steeltown. I’d reached out to filmmakers and talked to producers that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. They had tricked me into doing all of the work necessary to start producing my movie–and in doing so, I realized I probably didn’t need $30,000 to make “Last Will and Laundromat.”
I want to make this movie. I want to work with the creative folks that helped me put together my production materials. I want to tell this story. So I’m saying it here that I will somehow. I’m looking into organizing a Kickstarter campaign, redoing the budget on a smaller scale, and thinking about the summer. Without Steeltown, none of this would be possible. Without making it to the second round of the competition, I would have just moved on to something else. I may be back to where I started, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot along the way.