Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Write What You Don't Know, Just Know It Before You Write It

People say, "Write what you know."  I'm not a fan of that saying.  I like to write about what I don't know but want to know so I can know it.  Writing is a process where you learn as you do it; that's where research comes in.  I prefer to say write what you'd like to know.  It's so fun that way!  I like to write the usual fiction, as well as the fantastical stories, and there's things to research in there too.  I've never time traveled, but it sure makes for an awesome story.  That's a big reason why I wrote Trust Us.  Writing a screenplay is hard enough.  We must create interesting characters, develop an interesting plot in the most unique way possible, while also having to write competent and clever dialogue throughout.  When we concentrate on all of these things, sometimes we miss a very important element to screenwriting: research.

You ever see a cheesy movie where someone gets shot in the heart, falls through a window two stories to the ground, and his best buddy, who happens to be walking by, decides to punch him in the heart while verbally abusing the poor unconscious man until he wakes up coughing for a second then feels just like new?  Fine, I haven't either, but I definitely have seen bad CPR save lives onscreen.  Come on, man, really?  Are we really supposed to believe that the dog handling expert in your script would run away from a growling dog in the middle of an open field?  I don't think so.  But you'd say, "No one would write something like this, would they?"  Ohhh, you'd be surprised.  Audiences usually catch these things without mercy.  The second a writer, director, or any filmmaker assumes the audience is stupid... well he/she has another thing coming.  If you think the audience isn't smarter than you, you're wrong.  In fact, we filmmakers are part of the audience unless dealing with our own work.  Audiences are not stupid.  No way!  In fact, they'll probably see plot and character mistakes better than even you, the filmmaker.  We're too darn close to our work to see everything.  Doesn't seem fair, does it?  It actually is though, because all writers should do their research to stay one step ahead of everyone else: the audience.  If you don't realize these kinds of problems in your script, you'll never sell it and you'll wonder why.  The answer will be there the whole time.  It's because you wrote some bogus scene where a regular, everyday, untrained person could hold their breath for 8 minutes under water.  It's not true!  See, I just had to look it up to figure this out.  Good thing I did my research, and it only took a minute.  If you were looking to put money into a movie and saw a mistake like that, you'd look elsewhere.  The writer couldn't even take the time to look it up?!   You can't survive a nuclear blast by hiding under a nearby table.  You can't!  So if you do that and you aren't doing slapstick, then you aren't doing your research.

Fine, maybe these examples are extreme, but I've still seen it happen in big budget, highly respected films.  Back in the day we may have gotten away with it, but not anymore.  I can use less extreme examples from things I've done where I had to do some real research.  In my short film, "Escape from the Night," I have several scenes in a psychiatrist's office.  But do you think I'm crazy enough to write that without researching what goes on in there?  I've never been to one.  What did I do?  I used some knowledge from a couple of college courses, read up on my character's problem, then read a couple of books about it.  Then I had a family friend who was a psychiatrist to proof my script, especially the dialogue, to make sure that's really what would go on.  I researched dreaming (a big part of the plot too) and how it would be interpreted in a psychiatrist's office.  What kind of theories are there for why people dream?  What would the patients commonly dream of and what anxiety would typically cause these dreams?  Already this story's going to be far better than me having unrealistic sessions of a shrink telling the patient the answer to everything.  That's just not what goes on.  Okay, I knew that from college classes, but not everyone does.

One of the things that really attracted the attention of one of my producers on Trust Us is the research I did on what we do know about time travel.  You'd be surprised.  Scientists are serious about it becoming a reality.  Without giving away my whole thing, I did tons and tons of research on modern theory of time travel: how it could work, how we could build a time machine, why these theories can't be disproven, and the scientists and fiction throughout history that has contributed to that.  And guess what?  It was so fun to research.  Pick something that really interests you and go to town.  I never understood how a writer can write about something that they aren't obsessed to know more about (or already know so much about).  Oh wait, I know... for money.  Well, okay... I get that... we all need to live.

If you're doing a script about space, research NASA.  Learn about where shuttles take off from... not everyone knows that Houston is NASA's communications center but Florida is the where we launch because it's closest to the equator.  I didn't learn that in school; I came across it when I was writing a screenplay involving space exploration.  Just because you're not an astronaut doesn't mean you shouldn't write about some.  I guarantee you Michael Bay is not an astronaut.  Neither is James Cameron.  Neither is George Lucas.  Chewbacca is, but he's not real.  If you are interested in space and don't plan on going to Space Camp anytime soon, I encourage you to still write about space.  Do your research, make it cool, and teach your audience something they may not know.  It's mutually fun, fulfilling, and your audience (and you) will get something out of it.  You have an advantage: by not being an expert you know what the general public would know, therefore you can amaze them with things you've learned here and there.  In writing, your knowledge of what you're writing about is power.  Awesome, two cliché quotes, one blog.  How about that!

If you're writing a script about a policeman, maybe talk to one or visit the station.  You don't have to be a cop to write about one.  If you want to do a story about a fashion model, you better be sure you know what's going on in the industry and what it's like to be one.  Again, don't go overboard and start sending out headshots of yourself for the experience... you don't have to actually be a supermodel to write about one.  Maybe this all sounds obvious to you, and it is, but it's not as obvious to learn everything you can, beyond what you think you know, to improve your script.  This research may not just get you out of logistical problems in the script, but it actually may give you some key, unique aspects that separate you from the thousands of other scripts on the same subject.  It's also one of the best ways to prevent simple writer's block.

I've been asked at Q&A's at film festivals about the accuracy of my work and whether this tidbit here and there is "true."  You better be on it and know your stuff or they'll eat you alive.  Luckily I was never eaten, but I knew I could have been if I didn't do my research.  If you think you know everything, you don't.  You know why?  Because you're not an astronaut.  If you were a filmmaker/astronaut extraordinaire, I'd be really impressed, but you're not.  So save your script's life and do what you have to do to "know."  So go for it... write what you don't know, just know it before you write it!