I got a great opportunity recently when the film I wrote this year, GRINDER, attracted a quality actor. The screenplay came to me as a rewrite assignment almost exactly a year ago. I worked with a group of producers and the film’s director to produce a new outline, treatment, two full drafts, and two polishes. The result was an intriguing action film with intense, zombie-like creatures and a structure similar to the film “Momento.” The final draft got the film its financing as well as a number of exceptional crew attachments. The lead actor came to us and made his attachment contingent upon an additional rewrite to satisfy his notes.
The actor looked at the script through the eyes of an actor. And thank God he did. He pointed out the fact that the central characters lacked motivation. He noticed that the clever, intricate plot actually disguised the fact that the characters had not been properly developed. The plot served as eye-candy to keep the viewer (or reader) turning pages, offering no additional dimension, no “soul.” It was Story 101 stuff, and I should have caught it earlier. But the development process is complicated and a great many perspectives need to be considered along the way. We could have moved forward with the script we had, parting ways with the actor who had so generously given his time and feedback, or we could have taken his notes and worked to give the film the depth it deserves. We decided to do the rewrite, and I’ve spent the last two weeks writing a new treatment for the film. I’ll have about two weeks now to write the draft. Eleventh-hour stuff, but exciting as hell.
Motivation. Why our characters do the things they do. The challenge with the script is that it’s non-linear, so it’s very difficult to mark the “scene before” moments that guide each character’s motivation through the story. I had to pull the story apart, create a linear time-line, then restructure the puzzle in a way that made sense. In the process, I had to give the protagonist a reason to do the things he does. The actor asked a few crucial questions about his character – “Who is he now? What was he? What does he want to be?” Simple stuff. Sacrificed by a complicated plot. What motivates him to do the things he does?
The questions got me thinking about my own motivation and how it has changed over the years. I’ve noticed that I don’t have the same kind of passion I used to for writing novels. Why is this? What happened to me?
When I was writing BOULEVARD I wrote every single night after my day job. After a ten-hour day I’d go to the cafe and spend another five or six hours writing the book. I spent all my weekends, holiday and vacation time writing the book. I did this for three and a half years. What was my motivation?
I think the big motivator was a decision to change my life. The novel represented my last opportunity to prove that I had something more going for me than selling lighting products to support myself and my family. It was my ticket out. I had already spent what felt like a lifetime in and out of the film business and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The novel seemed like the perfect way to fulfill my creative aspirations.
When I got my book deal, I was motivated to please my editor and write the best book I could. It was a two-book deal, so the motivation to write my second book, Beat, was wrapped right into the first. I expected all that hard work to pay off. I expected to support myself as a writer from that point on.
But I learned it could be a long, long road to that goal. I quit the day job a year ago, determined to write my third book without the stress and frustration I experienced while writing the first two. I had a screenwriting assignment, a little bit of cash from the books, and some savings.
I’ve been writing the book, but the motivation hasn’t been there. Why? Well, there’s no book deal, for one. I’m writing on spec with the hope that it’ll sell when I’m done. But that’s how I wrote the first book, so why was I motivated then and not now?
I think it’s because, in the beginning, the possibilities seemed wide and endless. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. I figured a two-book deal would net me, what, two million dollars? Seemed about right. Now I’m educated and depressed. I tend to think, “What’s the point?” All this hard work, all the sacrifice. I made a big deal of spending a lot of time with my family this year, to make up for all the time I didn’t spend with them when I had a full-time job, writing those first two books. I didn’t want to resent my writing for taking me away from my family, so I quit the day job in order to balance it all. But now I resent the writing for all that it requires of me, while not providing me with the kind of income necessary to support a family. I get tired of the dream that says, “after I finish this screenplay/novel/film/whatever, I’ll sell it and everything will be all right.” I’ve been living that dream for twenty-five years.
There is, of course, a different kind of motivation to write, and it has nothing to do with paying the bills. There’s writing for writing’s sake. I’m all for that, but it means a complete restructuring of my life. It means I write for myself and if it sells, all the better. It means I should have a real job, something I love, something that I want to do for the rest of my years. All of my day jobs have been just that–day jobs. Designed only to get me to the next film or writing assignment. Because all I ever really wanted to do was write and make films. What else do I love? I mean, love enough to do forty hours a week? The only thing I can think of involves animals. I could work at a zoo forty hours a week. Or a gorilla reserve in Uganda. Or I could do ocean animal rescue. Maybe I could work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. I could do these things, for the rest of my life. However, they wouldn’t pay the bills.
I’m told I’m only a couple years away from really “making it.” Hmmm. It does seem plausible now, for the first time in my life, providing the film gets made and it becomes a success, and that the TV option I recently sold for Boulevard and Beat actually goes to series. And that I finish my third novel and sell it.
But where’s my motivation to finish that third novel? Why does it feel so much like work?
I have to find my motivation. Story 101. Without it, my life is just a clever, sometimes intriguing, oddly non-linear ride toward a zombie-like climax. But the soul, man, where’s the soul?