Filming my directorial debut, Interior Night, was an exhilarating and exhausting experience. I’d seen the movie a hundred times during editing, and after so many viewings it was hard to have much objectivity, yet I was required to continue making creative decisions.
The thing that helped me through the process was returning to the question: “What is this thing about?”
Because we talk about this so often in the workshops, I wanted to use my process with the film as an example of how I arrived at a meaningful understanding of what my film was about.
First, we’re not looking for some empirical answer: my screenplay began as a search for connection, and that is still integral to the story. But as I explored what connection meant, the idea of “reveal yourself” kept emerging, and I began to see this as the resolution to the dilemma of connection.
This led me to explore ways to amplify the stakes: “What have these characters done that they are afraid to reveal?” “What is standing between them and experiencing a true connection?”
I wanted the story to be real, to reflect the people I know and grew up with. My background, the people I knew in my twenties and early thirties were standup comics, smart, articulate, and often quite damaged, with everything from substance abuse issues to things that I can only guess at. In other words, they all had secrets.
For whatever reason, I was drawn to exploring how these types of damaged people (none of my characters are comics, but they are basically high-functioning damaged people) face the secrets of their pasts in order to move on with their lives.
I didn’t want to write a story about good guys and bad guys – all of the characters are flawed in some way. I wanted to walk the line between caring enough about them to take the ride, but without offering easy or sentimental answers. I didn’t want to give them an easy out, but I wanted to redeem them in some kind of real and substantial way. (It seems that everything I write is an attempt to redeem the irredeemable.)
As I continued to explore what it means to “reveal yourself,” I discovered other words – responsibility and self-forgiveness. This process became an excavation as I imagined characters in relation to one another and explored the structure questions that speak to the key stages in the hero’s journey. I also worked with the writing exercises that we use in the 90-Day Screenplay workshop and began to discover who these characters were and how they related to each other.
My film is ultimately about connection, but through this process, I came to understand some things about connection that I didn’t previously realize. We can connect in all sorts of ways, and not all of them are positive. Connection can be an attempt to control, to stay in denial, to punish, but if one stays with it, eventually we discover that none of these strategies sustain us, and if we are willing, we move inexorably toward connection by gradually telling our truths.
The ending surprised me. I rewrote it fifteen minutes before we began our first day of shooting. It was a bizarre experience, after having lived with the story for so long, to wake up on the day I was to start directing it and realize that it didn’t feel true. We had done a number of readings of the script, workshopping it for a year and a half, and on the first day of principal photography, I told my producer how I thought it should end, and we both started laughing. We agreed that it was the truest and most organic resolution to the dilemma.
I am always encouraging writers to hold their idea of their story loosely. Our idea of our story is never the whole story. It’s not that our idea is incorrect, it’s just that it’s incomplete. Knowing this and teaching this for years gave me the freedom to hold it loosely, even as we were minutes away from production. Story is incredibly malleable. We don’t have to have it all figured out before we start writing it, or even directing it. But without staying connected to the theme, to “what the thing is about” we can easily become lost in the plot, and lose sight of what we’re actually attempting to express.