From Paper to Screen

One of the most basic, essential lessons one must learn when writing for film (especially on a smaller production, where time and resources are sometimes limited) is to not get too attached to your “vision”. But this is also the most rewarding part! Seeing characters and scenes you wrote made flesh, happening right in front of you is very exciting, but seeing them take on their own life—and they all somehow or other do—is the real magic.

Collaboration and team work at its finest!
Collaboration and team work at its finest!

Bigsby was my first experience writing for production, and we were fortunate to have a cast and crew of tremendously talented and engaged people, all of whom helped Fritz and I’s script bloom into something bigger, deeper and more intense than we could have fathomed, let alone put to paper. For me, the bulk of the work of writing leaves no mark on the page. This imagination work lays the foundations for a story: building a world and getting to know it; hanging around in it a bit, soaking in its atmosphere, getting familiar with the people who live in it—especially, of course, your primary characters. The imaginative base and the writing feed back into each other. A deep, thorough sense of the world and characters informs and guides the writing; while the process of writing, as it meets with jams and roadblocks, pushes one to map out the world further. Working in the medium of film script particularly inclines a writer towards this sort of immersive thinking, as one must always be thinking ahead, anticipating how the words and actions one writes will look, sound and feel in another medium. “That’s totally Bigsby!” Of course, you can’t project the movie in your head into real life. Inevitably, mediated through technology, other humans and the vagaries of chance, some things turn out differently. Sometimes an actor will bring a different interpretation to a character, or a minor scene will have to be dropped for time. Even within a scene, over multiple takes mutations tend to occur—an actor might forget a line and improvise a new one, or try on a few different emotional emphases, or experiment with their timing. Personally, I like to consider a script as a rough guideline rather than a dictation.

Behind the scenes.
Behind the scenes.

Here at Tar City, collaboration and community is one of our founding principles, and our primary directive going forward. Often, if you give everyone room to do their thing, a scene grows up on its own better than you could raise it. Stiff lines evolve into something more natural, so-so jokes become hilarious with the right delivery—sometimes even an accident can spin into something brilliant. Aside from being generally less fun, an auteurist insistence on total fidelity to the page can have the effect of trapping all the writer’s flaws and mistakes in amber and cutting off the actual film’s potential at the knees. Most of my favorite moments of the film were born on set, suggested or improvised by cast or crew. I have to stress again how lucky we were to have so many great people on board, so much creative energy on set. Our Tar City family are the alchemists, transmuting script to film, tar to gold. Now, we stand on the verge of something else. The vision and the script both had the advantage of being perpetually provisional, subject to change whenever it felt necessary or natural any time before the cameras rolled. Their circulation, too, was limited to people in the immediate radius of production, so they came to an audience always in context of who made them, how they were made, and so on. The film is its own beast. It is concrete and finished, external and independent of creator and “vision”. When it is released to the public, it must find its own way. The whole enterprise is subject to judgement with no other evidence than the film itself. If the audience judges our characters differently than we imagined them, that’s just how it is—the “pure” characters exist nowhere but in our heads, the characters on the screen exist nowhere but on that screen. The authors are dead, the text emancipated. Indeed, seeing the finished product will be a fresh experience even to me. As we were shooting, I found myself focusing entirely on the scene at hand, and as it was shot non-chronologically, I lost sight almost entirely of how the whole thing will fit together, and as we were writing I could scarcely extricate myself to read the script from an outside perspective. My first time seeing the movie will really be my first time seeing Bigsby as a spectator rather than a visitor.

John Bury
Tar City Productions

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