An Unexpected Journey: Following a Story From Screenplay to Blockbuster

director John Gibson on the set of his film, Revelation Trail
director John Gibson on the set of his film, Revelation Trail

    Actor Chris Evans walks heroically off screen as explosions fill the background and people clap and cheer. A long list of credits rolls past as people file out of the dark theater, missing a small list of names that are often overlooked. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of this year’s blockbuster hits, and has already grossed more than $95 million, but before actors act or directors direct, there has to be a story. A largely unseen group of men and women are constantly at work creating adventures and character that spark the imagination.

    Before a script gets into the hands of a director, it arrives on the desk of a producer in the form of a screenplay. The innocuous stack of pages has taken a long journey to become the final product that moviegoers enjoy.

An Idea Is Formed

    “Stories have always appealed to me, even as a kid,” says Don Hurst, a writer from the Midwestern town of Kettering, Ohio. Hurst sits in a dimly lit booth at the back of Chappy’s Tap House. As he talks about his latest work, his hands gesture dramatically and draw pictures in the air.

    Hurst has been a freelance writer “off and on” for more than 30 years, although he says that it became a serious endeavor just two years ago. Throughout that time he has served in the U.S. Army and spent six years with the Denver Police Department. He currently works for the Navy Reserves as an Intelligence Specialist.

    “I knew that somewhere along the line I would sit down and really try, so I kinda let myself just practice for a while. I made a promise to myself that every day I would write a sentence. That grew to a paragraph. And that grew to a page.”

    Since that time, Hurst has written four plays, a novel, several short stories and now a screenplay.

    “I try to pay attention to what’s happening around me–reading, observing, whatever. Strange connections start percolating,” he said in reference to his writing process. Instead of keeping a notebook on him, Hurst prefers to think on it. “If an idea doesn’t survive long enough for me to go through my day and grab a pen, then it probably deserves to die,” he jokes.

    His screenplay, North Pole Inc., is a comedy in which Santa Claus becomes brainwashed by greedy elves that manipulate him and turn Christmas into a monopoly run by an evil corporation.

    The original idea came from the screenplay’s co-writer, Alex Koenig, who asked Hurst to critique a play based on the same story. “I liked the idea, but I hated his play!” Hurst said.

    After a few rounds back and forth, the story became a project that grabbed a hold of his imagination. Working with a co-writer “kind of happened by accident,” Hurst said. “We just started asking each other ‘what if’ questions, and that got him thinking about other things.”

    Eventually, the two decided to turn the story into a feature film and began drafting a script.

The Writing Process

    An idea alone “doth not a feature film make,” said John Gibson, a director, writer and lecturer at Northern Kentucky University. It needs to be crafted, finessed, and sometimes painstakingly edited.

    Gibson’s most recent film, Revelation Trail, went through more than 14 revisions before it went into production. “The feature [film] was originally a 50 page script… But we didn’t stop there. We sent it to a couple people for feedback,” he said.

    The feedback he and his writers received was used to write another 30 or 40 pages that ended up completing the story.

    Hurst and Gibson both say that there were challenges to working with other writers, but that the outcome was generally better than if they had gone it alone.  For instance, Gibson had a historical advisor, his co-writer and a production assistant (who happened to be his wife) all working with him to add to the credibility and overall quality of the screenplay.

    At times, he admitted that it felt like there were “too many chefs in the kitchen,” so he devised what he refers to as the 30-second rule, which means that to change something creatively you must be able to pitch the idea to the entire group in 30 seconds or less.

    “This was really useful when it came to problems,” Gibson said.

    Throughout the production process he said that one of the biggest challenges was finding balance between what was written, what he envisioned, and then reality. “Sometimes reality changed what was on the page or what was in my mind.”

Selling The Concept

    Once a screenplay is written, edited and polished, the story is far from over. Unless the writer works for a television network, or production company, they must attempt to catch the eye of someone with an interest to produce it.

“It’s not about how good your script is, if only good scripts got made, then every movie you sat down to watch would be just awesome,” explains Hurst.

    Producers are often flooded with pilots (a type of TV show proposal), and screenplays all competing for attention. Many times writers will turn to other means in an attempt to gather widespread support for a screenplay.

    Gibson worked with local talent to create three trailers and an animated web series for Revelation Trail that debuted online. “Facebook was how we drummed up the most support,” said Gibson, who used the series of “teaser” trailers to encourage interest in his script. Those trailers got on a blog or two, and then spread to five or six more blogs and 60 fans turned into 500 and continued to grow as he released new pieces of content.

    “Success no matter how minor seems to produce more success,” said Hurst, who has personally produced many smaller plays and presented at writing competitions. He recently won a local pitching contest that convinced a contact at Strange Weather Films, the producers of Shrek, to take a look at North Pole Inc.

    It is the small victories that Hurst believes will give him an edge in the long run. “On their own, those [accomplishments] aren’t overwhelmingly awesome. But you’d be surprised at how many people don’t try for those small successes. So even having that on your résumé puts you above the regular guy writing something”

Producing A Screenplay

    Producers are the gatekeepers to the final hurdle a screenplay must face before going into production. A producer’s primary job is selecting projects that will make money or meet a client’s needs, and then keeping them on schedule and under budget.

    Eric Ankenman is a Story Lead; a type of in-house producer, at Cincinnati based Epipheo Studios. Ankenman is part of an intricate hierarchy of creative directors, story leads and producers working together to keep the studio’s production going.

    He explains that each project is assigned a group of several producers who gather a team of visual artists, writers and others to begin brainstorming ways to visually depict the script in front of them.

    “Working with a script changes the parameters that you’re working with,” said Ankenman, “A lot of times I’ll start the meeting with: ‘here are the guidelines, here are the boundaries that we have to play with, we have to do this and this, now go.’”

    By the end of the first creative meeting the team has a general idea and then, “it’s a process of honing it down and getting it to a point where we have a basic summary and a handful of sketched visuals,” said Ankenman.

    He explained that producing is very much about finding a balance between encouraging creativity, then reining it in at the same time. “It’s something I have to do for almost every project,” he said.

    Another challenge is managing the budget, and when money is limited, producers have to find a way to work around. There are times when ideas have to be scrapped and the team must go back to the drawing board. Where others see obstacles, Ankenman sees is as a positive. “It’s less about story and more broadly about creativity, I’m a firm believer that constraints actually make you more creative.”

    After storyboards are drawn and actors cast, it’s lights, camera, action and the screenplay-turned-film is on its way to an audience.

    John Gibson smiles as he watches the audience file out of Northern Kentucky University’s Digitorium following a screening of Revelation Trail.

    “Honestly, the most rewarding moment for me has been the overwhelming appreciation of the story… love it or like it, they [the audience] stuck around to the end,” said Gibson. As a writer, he explained, it makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished your goal to see an idea transfer to the screen.

    Other writers like Hurst hope to make that dream a reality, and producers like Eric Ankenman believe that there is more opportunity than ever.

    “Stories have historically been a passive endeavor,” says Ankenman. Audience members were only able to connect by listening and discussing. With advances in technology, Ankenman explains that the audience is now capable of interacting and connecting with a story in ways previously unheard of, by making choices that affect its outcome, or being able to play the role of a character in the storyline.

    Offering a story with choices, particularly choices with consequences are something Ankenman sees as the next level of audience participation. Choices mean new possibilities, new endings and perhaps new characters.

    That leaves writers, directors, and producers with plenty of work as they continue to type out the pages that eventually become silver screen adventures–capturing our imagination.    

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