I’ve heard it again and again: when you make a film, you have to start with a good script, or else it doesn’t matter how great your director or producer or director of photography or editor is. The film just won’t work.
I know that I want to be involved in filmmaking in some way, but I found out early on at Hopkins that screenwriting wasn’t my strong suit. So when the grants for the new student-run production company Studio North were announced last April, I teamed up with senior Tony Lee––who could write, who was a good friend, and whose work I admired. I told him I would direct a script if he wrote it, and that’s how Bernard Died began.
Tony sent me four short stories he had written, and I picked the one I liked best. It was a 10-page prose piece on a nine-year-old boy named Ray Goby who didn’t want to flush his dead goldfish down the toilet on the day of his grandmother’s funeral. It had multiple flashbacks, dozens of main characters (all family members), and had a unique child’s perspective. Plot aside, the story seemed like a logistical nightmare to produce, but I couldn’t stop visualizing the narrative of a young boy reasoning with death alongside his quirky modern family.
When we started to work on the lovingly titled Untitled Goldfish Funeral Script, I learned that writing an adaptation of a short story is tough. For one, something inherent to prose is the voice, which is difficult to translate visually. We chose to keep Ray’s point-of-view by writing voice-overs, which also solved the problem of the complicated characters and situations. Another difference is the scope. Prose has no limit; scripts, on the other hand, do. Scripts are meant to be produced, to turn into material work. They can’t have that same unrestrained quality of prose––or they can, but with a slim chance of being produced without a lot of money.
We felt so accomplished when we finally finished writing that I thought that once we sent our script to Studio North, pitched it, and got the grant, our screenwriting was over. Far from it. Over the course of the next nine months, we revised countless drafts, even on-set and in post-production. One night in November, Tony, Will (our producer/1st AD), Corey (our DP) and I stayed up late workshopping our script in a true “writer’s room” fashion. We all stood up and screamed at each other at one point, wondering why no one agreed with our ideas. The script went from seventeen pages to ten; from eleven main characters to nine; from dozens of scenes down to just eighteen. It was tough to receive criticism, but that criticism helped turn it into what it is today.
Most of our revisions when we neared production were focused on the logistical aspects of producing the script. When working on a low budget student film, there isn’t money to buy a casket or funeral flowers; no way to pay actors; impossible to fake a school carnival. In a way, the production itself influenced the script, and the limits became its aesthetic. Since we already knew we couldn’t shoot a summer outdoor wedding scene in the middle of January, it was best to change the location and motivation of the scene sooner rather than later. We found ourselves inspired by the props found in thrift stores, the wardrobe that our actors brought to set, the small locations owned by Maryland families, and the personalities and touches that our actors gave their characters.
In the end, what makes all of the revisions and late nights and stress worth it is when this line:
...becomes this opening frame from the film:
Over the next couple of months, I hope to share all of the ups and downs of the little-short-film-that-could, Bernard Died (or, as we still call it, the Untitled Goldfish Funeral Script).
Until next time,