Official Screenwriting Blog of The Blacklist by Scott Myers. Since selling his spec script K-9 in 1987, Scott has written 30 projects for every major Hollywood studio and broadcast network. His film writing credits include K-9 starring Jim Belushi, Alaska starring Vincent Kartheisher, and Trojan War starring Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Today: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown. Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
This week: First Reformed. You can download a PDF of the script here.
Written by Paul Schrader.
IMDb plot summary: A minister of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns, and a tormented past.
First Reformed Scene by Scene Breakdown
By Julianna Hartke
P 1–4: TOLLER (M, 40s), a cleric bent over in pain, tends to the historic First Reformed Church and its cemetery in upstate New York. As we see still images of various details of the church and Toller preaching to an extremely small congregation, Toller narrates his journal. He is writing longhand to reflect his thoughts and as a form of prayer. He says he will keep the diary for one year, then destroy the diary at the end of that time.
P 4–9: After service, Toller and John Elder, the parish organist, discuss church repairs in the Vestry, with Toller refusing to ask any more favors from Abundant Live, another parish. As they argue, Mary Mensana (30s), pregnant, interrupts, asking Toller if he can speak to Michael, her husband, in place of a counsellor. She explains that Michael has gotten involved with the Green Planet Movement, a rather extreme group of conservationists, and she’s worried about him. She also worries that Michael wants to kill her baby, as he claims it’s wrong to bring a child into this world. Toller reluctantly agrees, later returning to the parsonage to write. He expresses his desire to stop caring what people think of him and expresses his disdain for himself as he sees his own pride. He wishes he could pray.
P 10–19: Toller meets with Michael at the Mensana household. Michael talks about how his child will live in a completely different world, one that is being destroyed. He lists all the ways the earth will be different and worse because of climate change, going into great detail. He sees no future for his child. Recognizing that Michael’s despair is for himself and not for his child, Toller tells Michael about his own son. Toller was a chaplain in the war and, per his family tradition, enlisted his own son, Joseph. Six months later, Joseph was killed in Iraq. His wife left him and he, in turn, left the military and took up a position at First Reformed. He tells Michael that whatever despair he feels about bringing a child into the world can’t equal the despair of taking a child out of it.
Michael asks Toller if he drinks, to which Toller says he does not. Michael then asks if God can forgive them and Toller responds that no one can know the mind of God, but to live the righteous life is to believe and forgive. Toller insists they meet the next day and, although he hesitates, Michael agrees.
P 19–20: Once again, Toller writes in his journal, this time with a glass of scotch. He replays his discussion with Michael, thinking of all the things he could have said better. Despair is a development of pride, but Toller asks himself, “Who am I to talk about pride?” That night, he urinates painfully as his urine runs dark brown.
P 20–29: Toller gives a single family a tour of the church and cemetery, promoting the church’s 250th anniversary. Afterwards, he meets Esther, an old flame, at a choir rehearsal. They schedule lunch after Toller’s meeting with Pastor Joel Jeffers (60), head pastor at Abundant Life. At the meeting, the two pastors plan for the 250th anniversary reconsecration service. Abundant life staff is handling most of the work, but, the organ hasn’t been fixed. Jeffers isn’t worried and instead tells Toller Ed Balq, the wealthy businessman who saved First Reformed, wants to meet them for coffee and cover the reconsecration service in the news.
Later, over lunch, Toller complains to Esther that Balq only wants to cover the reconsecration for the credit and media attention. Esther doesn’t seem to care and quickly turns the topic to Toller’s health. Toller insists he made an appointment for the doctor but refuses the idea of someone to take care of him in his daily life. He says he’s not made for marriage and insists he’s happy. Esther is skeptical but still backs off.
P 29–32: Mary, frightened, calls Toller to her house. She’s found a suicide vest in the garage; a project Michael has been working on in secret. Toller takes the vest to dispose of it but promises he won’t call the police on Michael. After making sure Mary feels safe, Toller leaves with the vest, promising to see Michael the next day.
P 33: That night, Toller narrates his journal as he unclogs the toilet with Drano, only to throw up in it later. He speaks of discernment and how his “petty ailments” have made him bad tempered.
P 34–40: Toller finds two repairmen fixing the organ. They were told by Ed Balq that First Reformed was top priority. Toller is interrupted by a message from Michael: he’s changed their meeting place to Westbrook Park Trail. There, Toller finds Michael’s body, head blown off by a shotgun. The police arrive, and Toller admits Michael had been fighting depression before taking his own life. Toller goes to Mary’s house with the police and comforts her after they have left. He tells her to get rid of any evidence of Michael’s attempts at violent activism. Mary shows him Michael’s last will and testament and instructions for his internment, left in an envelope for Toller.
That night, Toller is haunted by nightmares. He wakes up at 3 am with a cry and sleeps on a church bench the rest of the night.
P 40–45: Toller walks into a youth ministry group at Abundant Life. One teen asks if her father did something wrong because he got laid off. Toller tells her that Jesus does not teach that wealth comes with godliness. A third teen angrily interrupts, saying he is tired of “turn the other cheek.” Later, Toller confides in Jeffers that he doesn’t know how to deal with teenagers anymore. Everything is extreme and there is no middle ground. Jeffers remarks they are living in a much more complicated, chaotic world where they want certainty in their lives. The church must be patient and encourage young members to express themselves.
P 45–47: Michael’s memorial. Mourners gather at Hanstown Kills, a heavily-polluted stream outside the Hanstown Paint Factory. Toller presides over the service, sharing that Michael chose this place as a repository for his ashes. Mary, accompanied by friends and family members, dumps Michaels ashes into the stream as Esther’s choir sings and John Elder plays his keyboard. It is solemn and surreal.
P 47–52: Toller, Jeffers, and Balq meet in a pancake house. Balq shows off fancy booklets for the reconsecration service and Jeffers goes over the order of introductions at the service. Balq is concerned about political messages, showing them a page from an Environmental Action website: Michael’s memorial played as a political event, and both Abundant Life and First Reformed are mentioned by name in the article. Balq insists it was a political act even though Toller was simply honoring Michael’s last wishes. Amidst Balq’s protests, Toller asks Balq if God will forgive them, repeating Michael’s own question to Toller. Toller calls out Balq, saying they need to protect the earth, as God commanded. Balq shoots him down, accusing Toller of causing Michael’s death.
P 52–56: Mary and Toller cycle along a bike trail and, for the first time, Toller smiles. After, he helps Mary box up Michael’s belongings and Mary tells him she plans on moving in with her sister and brother-in-law, possibly relocating. She also confides that Michael wasn’t religious like her. As Toller goes through Michael’s files, he reads through files and books, all research on environmentalism and information on big polluting companies, such as Balq Industries. He drinks as he reads, and, in voice over, says he can no longer ignore his health. He has postponed his checkups too often.
P 57–63: Toller finally visits the doctor and has many tests done. The doctor us unsure if Toller’s tumor is cancerous and wants to run more tests. He prescribes pain medication and nutritional supplements in the meantime, insisting Toller’s moderate drinking needs to stop. Later, Esther confronts him, saying she’s worried, but he pushes her away. He yells out she reminds him of his failings and he despises her.
P 64–67: Toller has lost weight and his skin is yellowing. He pulls out Michael’s suicide vest from the closet and begins researching how the vest works. As he does so, he pours Pepto Bismol into a half-full glass of scotch and drinks it. He sleeps on top of the blankets, still dressed and wearing the vest.
He makes his way to Balq Paper Industries, taking the tour and examining the buildings. He’s almost caught by security; the vest is in the backseat in a partially open bag. Because he is a pastor, he’s allowed to leave, and the vest remains hidden.
P 68–71: Mary shows up at Toller’s parsonage. She’s frightened and anxious. She tells Toller she and Michael used do a “Magical Mystery Tour,” where they would smoke a joint, lay on top of each other fully clothed, and try to get as much body contact as possible, staring into each other’s eyes and breathing in rhythm. She and Toller perform the strange rite and as they slip into a meditative trance, they levitate off the floor and the parsonage disappears. Soon, they are floating across the wonders of the earth and the polluted dumps created by human beings.
P 72–75: Alone in his room, Toller sews a handmade patch of two environmentalists onto the suicide vest. He puts a loose shirt over it and it’s barely noticeable. Wearing the vest under his shirt, he drives throughout the streets, eventually ending up at Hanstown Kills. He wears the vest to the soup kitchen as well, but no one notices.
P 76–79: The day before the reconsecration, Jeffers calls Toller into his office inquiring about his health. People are worried, and Toller doesn’t look good. Still, Toller doesn’t admit anything is wrong. Jeffers sees through him and tells him not to confuse PTSD with “Holy Agony.” Jesus doesn’t want suffering. Toller turns the conversation toward God’s creation, pointing out that the church remains silent as the government denies climate change and big industries pollute the earth. Jeffers says it’s not their place and tells Toller that he should go to rehab or a medical institution. Toller insists he be a part of the ceremony and introduce Jeffers.
P 80–81: Toller sees Mary off as she’s packed for her trip to Buffalo. She tells Toller she’s staying for the ceremony, but he tells her he doesn’t want her to be there. Although confused, she relents.
P 82–87: Reconsecration Sunday. TV media is parked outside, and uniformed security watch the church. As a crowd gathers inside the church, Toller straps on the suicide vest and arms it, carefully lifting his clerical cassock over it. Glancing outside, Toller watches the guests when he spots Mary. She’s looking for him. Panicked, he races to his journal, writing “Last Will and Testament” then replacing it with “Statement of Purpose” then “Magical Mystery Tour” before crossing that out as well. Jeffers looks for Toller, but Toller remains silently in the parsonage. Jeffers gives up and begins the ceremony without him.
Toller removes the vest and disconnects the wires. Instead, he grabs a roll of barbed wire, wrapping it tightly around himself. He puts on an alb and white stole on as music begins to play from the sanctuary. Toller grabs Drano and pours a drink. He brings it to his lips as Mary enters. He drops the glass and the two embrace, kissing in slow motion as the camera moves for the first time. The camera dollies forward and around until it suddenly stops. The screen goes black.
Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?
Major kudos to Julianna Hartke for doing this week’s scene-by-scene breakdown. Julianna is a DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts senior getting a B.F.A. with a concentration in screenwriting and took time out of her busy academic schedule to read the script and do the breakdown.
To download a PDF of the breakdown for First Reformed, go here.
I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get out from it? Beyond your name being noted here, my personal thanks, and some creative juju sent your way, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.
There are a lot of 2018 scripts which have been made available by movie studios and production companies. You can see that list here. Here are some noteworthy scripts just waiting for someone to read and break them down: Crazy Rich Asians, Eighth Grade, On the Basis of Sex, Sorry to Bother You, A Star is Born.
The latest volunteers [BOLD signifies they have sent me their breakdown]:
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs / Jeff Messerman BlacKkKlansman / Julianna Hartke Black Panther / Stacey Wright Destroyer / Roo Black The Favourite / Matthew Oglesby First Man / Rose Banks Green Book / Denise Garcia If Beale Street Could Talk / Kirby Marshall-Collins A Quiet Place / Mark Furney Roma / Julianna Hartke Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse / Halil Akgündüz Stan & Ollie / Andrew Lightfoot Vice / David Joyner
Thanks to the folks who have already sent me their breakdowns. This will enable us to begin our 2019 bi-weekly script read and analysis series.
Now is YOUR chance to contribute to this most worthy cause and provide an additional resource for the online screenwriting community.
Even if you do not participate in the analysis, discussion, or write up a scene-by-scene breakdown, I strongly encourage you to read these scripts.
So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!
I hope to see you in the RESPONSE section about this week’s script: First Reformed.
From her post at the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group site:
I had to do another gut check this week regarding my writing and what I hope to get out of it.
As far as “making it” as a screenwriter, the odds are not stacked in my favor: I don’t live in L.A; I’m 58; I’m a woman; I have no representation.
But here’s what I can control: Sit my butt in the chair to write and rewrite…and rewrite…; Submit my work to places like The Black List, Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Film Fest; Learn from notes and improve; Keep creating new stories.
So this is where I’ve landed — If my screenplays never see the inside of a theatre, it’s okay. There are characters and stories running around in the creative universe that exist now because I wrote them…and that brings me joy! Whatever your motivation today, keep writing! #ZD30#amwriting
The odds are long, no doubt. But I’m living proof an outsider — with no film school experience — can write a spec script, breaking into the business, and build a career. So yes, I’m telling you… there’s a chance.
But as always, write because you LOVE it. Allow the writing to be fulfilling in and of itself. And if success comes your way, excellent.
Start a blog and share your wisdom!
Speaking of wisdom… because of her post, Cindi Woods is today’s recipient of the Anita Loos Award!
“Great writers play to their strengths. If you’re hilarious, let yourself be funny. If you have an ear for dialogue, keep your characters talking. If you have a sixth sense for plotting and suspense, write a mystery.”
— Arlaina Tibensky
On Writing was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
“What we done in France, we had to do. And some as done it, didn’t come back, and that kind of thing ain’t for buying and selling.”
— Sergeant York (1941), original screen play by Abem Finkel and Harry Chandlee & Howard Koch and John Huston, based on the diary of Alvin C. York
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: World War I.
Trivia: Alvin C. York had been approached by producer Jesse Lasky several times, beginning in 1919, to allow a movie to be made of his life, but had refused, believing that “This uniform ain’t for sale.” Lasky convinced York that, with war threatening in Europe, it was his patriotic duty to allow the film to proceed. York finally agreed — but only on three conditions. First, York’s share of the profits would be contributed to a Bible School York wanted constructed. Second, no cigarette smoking actress could be chosen to play his wife. Third, that only Gary Cooper, could recreate his life on screen. Cooper at first turned down the role, but when York himself contacted the star with a personal plea, Cooper agreed to do the picture.
Dialogue On Dialogue: A powerful movie that anticipates the military industrial complex.
Recently over in the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group, Nicole posted this:
As I hit up Act 2 today and stave off the usual insecurities, questioning the worth of my story (which I love dearly but what the hell do I know) feel free to join me for a full day of going for it anyway.
And this from Delia Ephron:
Why chase the market when the market always changes? Instead look inside for what’s true, what you’re passionate about… and write THAT!
For that writing wisdom, the recipient of today’s Anita Loos Award is Nicole Alexander!
A memorable scene from the 1987 movie The Princess Bride [screenplay by William Goldman based on his novel].
Setup: The Princess Bride on the verge of marrying the evil Prince Humperdinck while Westley, Indigo Montoya, and Fezzik try to get there to stop the proceedings.
Buttercup and Humperdinck kneel before the Clergyman. Behind them sit the mumbling old KING AND QUEEN. Standing in the back is Count Rugen.
FOUR GUARDS are in position flanking the chapel door.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN (clears his throat, begins to speak) Mawidge...mawidge is what bwings us togewer today...
He has an impediment that would stop a clock.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN Mawidge, the bwessed awwangement, that dweam wiffim a dweam...
And now, from outside the castle, there begins to come a commotion. And then--
YELLIN (off-screen) Stand your ground, men. Stand your ground.
THE BRUTES AND YELLIN
by the gate, for it is indeed they who are making the commotion, frightened, pointing.
YELLIN Stand your ground.
And it is a bit unnerving -- a GIANT seems to be floating toward them out of the darkness, a Giant in a strange cloak, and with a voice that would crumble walls.
FEZZIK (deep and booming) I AM THE DREAD PIRATE ROBERTS. THERE WILL BE NO SURVIVORS.
and he seems to be floating because he's standing in the wheelbarrow, as Inigo, hidden behind him, busts a gut by pushing it and supporting Westley.
WESTLEY Not yet.
THE GIANT FLOATING CLOSER
FEZZIK MY MEN ARE HERE, AND I AM HERE, BUT SOON YOU WILL NOT BE HERE
keeping the Brutes in position, or trying to, shouting orders, instructions and as yet the Brutes hold. Now --
INIGO AND WESTLEY
Inigo struggles bravely under their combined weight --
WESTLEY Light him.
as the Giant bursts suddenly, happily into flames.
FEZZIK (roaring) THE DREAD PIRATE ROBERTS TAKES NO SURVIVORS. ALL YOUR WORST NIGHTMARES ARE ABOUT TO COME TRUE.
THE CHAPEL, where The Impressive Clergyman plows on.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN ... Ven wuv, twoo wuv, wiw fowwow you fowever..
PRINCE HUMPERDINCK, turning quickly, giving a sharp nod to Count Rugen, who immediately takes off out of the chapel with the Four Guards as we
FEZZIK, flaming and scary as hell.
FEZZIK THE DREAD PIRATE ROBERTS IS HERE FOR YOUR SOULS!
as suddenly the Brutes just scream and take off in wild panic --
YELLIN Stay where you are. I said stay where you are!
INSIDE THE CHAPEL
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN ... so tweasuwe your vruv..
HUMPERDINCK Skip to the end.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN Have you the wing?
As Humperdinck whips out the ring, the screams are very loud outside.
BUTTERCUP Here comes my Westley now.
Fezzik, as he pulls off the holocaust cloak.
WESTLEY FEZZIK, the portcullis.
And FEZZIK rushes forward, grabbing the portcullis, which is indeed closing quickly.
FEZZIK grabs the gate: and swings the tonnage back upward. Yellin just watches in fear.
as Humperdinck shoves the ring on Buttercup's finger
HUMPERDINCK Your Westley is dead.
Buttercup only smiles, shakes her head.
HUMPERDINCK I killed him myself.
BUTTERCUP (never more serene) Then why is there fear behind your eyes?
And she's right. It's there.
pressed against the main gate. Westley, Inigo, and FEZZIK close in.
WESTLEY Give us the gate key.
YELLIN (every ounce of honesty he's got) I have no gate key.
INIGO Fezzik, tear his arms off.
steps toward him.
YELLIN Oh, you mean this gate key.
And he whips it out, hands it to Fezzik.
Here is the movie version of the scene:
Some personal trivia: Given my background in theological studies, I was once asked to officiate at of one of my best friends’ daughter’s wedding. And the couple asked me to begin the ceremony with “Mawidge…mawidge is what bwings us togewer today… Mawidge, the bwessed awwangement, that dweam wiffim a dweam…”
Which I totally did.
What do you notice comparing the script to the movie version of the scene? I’ll see you in comments for a discussion of this terrific scene from The Princess Bride.
One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.
An in-depth conversation with the co-writers and co-directors of the movie Sister Aimee which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Marie Schlingmann and Samantha Buck on the set of ‘Sister Aimee’
The very first movie I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Sister Aimee. It was a 9:30AM screening on a Monday morning. I am not a morning person, so the fact I was so taken by this film should tell you something about how entertaining it is.
In watching the post-screening Q&A with the film’s co-writers and co-directors Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, I was so struck by the story behind the story of how this project came to be, I decided I needed to interview the pair. I got in touch with their manager Lee Stobby which led to a 45-minute conversation which I am happy to share with readers.
Scott Myers: First of all, congratulations on the movie Sister Aimee and also, too, I see recently where you’ve signed with ICM Partners, is that right?
Samantha Buck: Yes.
Scott: Was that after the festival?
Samantha: After the festival, yes.
Scott: Very good. Let’s talk about your respective backgrounds. Now, Sam, a part of your interest has been documentary filmmaking. In fact, you directed the Peabody Award‑winning doc Best Kept Secret and that’s a recipient of a Sundance Institute’s Documentary Fund grant. How did you get into documentaries and then start moving into scripted filmmaking?
Samantha: It started with acting. I’ve been a professional actor for many, many years. I was on a television show (Big Apple) with a wonderful showrunner and writer, David Milch. He made everybody take his writing course. He did these writing workshops.
I did that, and Milch called me in his office a few months later. He’s like, “Listen. You should be behind the camera. You should be writing.” I was a young actor who wasn’t confident enough at the time.
There weren’t many examples at that point of actresses that were moving from in front of the camera to behind the camera. There’s Jodie Foster, basically, that was it, who’s a great example. I think I wasn’t confident enough to go for it at that point.
Then a few years after that show, I finally had financial stability and so, I had this opportunity to go down to DC to the March for Women’s Lives because my mother was friends with Ann Richards and Molly Ivins and all these incredible women. Instinctively, I thought, “Oh, I should bring a camera.”
Going behind the camera, that move did happen organically. Very quickly once I was into documentary film making, the desire to want to write and to work with actors, it was always there. How I was approaching doc film making was very verite, Frederick Wiseman‑esque approach where you were basically writing in the edit room with 100 hours of footage.
You’re outlining and writing the screenplay of the film with the footage. I applied to Columbia Film School. I got in when I was working on Best Kept Secret. I’m very happy that I did, because I walked into Screenwriting One, and I met Marie Schlingmann.
Scott: Marie, let’s talk about your background. Photography, gender and sexuality studies, political campaign ads, and I think you’re based out of Germany.
Marie Schlingmann: Yes, I am German. I grew up in Germany. I’ve always had a knack for writing. I’ve always loved films. I didn’t go into it immediately. I did my undergrad in Berlin, which was gender studies and cultural studies and then later American studies.
During that time, I very quickly was more interested in doing photography on the side. I interned and then later worked at a very good production company in Berlin who did international co‑productions. I was much more interested in that.
Funnily enough, I think English is working better with my creative brain, my writer’s brain. I never wrote screenplays, maybe a few short stories, but that’s it, in German. I only wrote them in English.
It was very clear to me that at some point after my undergrad studies and working in this production company that I wanted to do this, and I wanted to do it in the States. I applied to film schools, and I ended up at Columbia, which was good.
Scott: Were you both screenwriting concentration there?
Marie: Basically, directing, screenwriting is very mixed. I think I came in officially as a screenwriter, and I think you came in…
Samantha: I came in as a director.
Marie: …as a director. You can focus on one thing, but you don’t have to. Both of us chose Columbia because it gives you the opportunity to do writing and directing in equal measures.
Scott: Did you start working together on projects when you’re at Columbia?
Samantha: Yeah. Very early on. I’m not joking, Screenwriting One. Remember, you brought something in. I knew I want to work with this woman. I need to know her. We started meeting right away outside of class and shared each other’s work. We gave each other notes.
Again, it happened organically, where I was interested in what she was doing. She was interested in what I was doing. We both recognize that when we came together, it felt like something even more potent was happening in that combination. We started co‑writing and working on each other’s short films and collaborating from the get‑go.
Marie: I think that a little bit into Columbia, we started to actually write together. Then obviously, while you’re in a film school setting, you have to be on your own a little bit because that’s how they grade you in things. After Columbia, we’ve only written together.
Scott: You’re a couple.
Samantha: Yeah, and we’re married.
Scott: How does that work for you in terms of division of labor? Just strictly about screenwriting, how do you go about working that as a couple?
Marie: It is the one thing that we always say is, every couple has their issues. Ours is we have to sometimes remind ourselves not to let the work seep into everything we do. Obviously, as a screenwriter and as a writer and a director, it’s always on your mind. You’re always thinking about something and talking about it.
That’s our bag to carry as a couple. As partners for the writing process, it’s great. It’s wonderful. We have a pretty set process at this point that usually starts with us brainstorming together for quite some time and then going into our corners or wherever and doing our own research, coming back together.
Then once we’re ready to lay it out, we work for a few weeks, depending on the project, together in front of our board, put it all up there and really structure the screenplays. We’ll talk it all out as much as we possibly can. Then Sam, she’s a very fast writer.
Samantha: I vomit, basically. [laughs]
Marie: I am not a fast writer, so that’s good. She’s very fast. She usually goes in first. She lays it down and moves as fast as she can. I come in behind her and fill it out.
The good thing about it is that by the time Sam stumbles upon a problem, because obviously, there’s always problems the second you start putting it on the page. No matter how long you’ve structured it. She can say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. We have to stop. We have to look at this. We have to figure it out.” We stop. We do it. Then we go back to our respective places.
In the same way, I can point to things that might have worked when it was a very fast‑written scene with XXX here kind of stuff and can say, “No, when you build it up, this isn’t working.” She can come back. We figure it out. By the time we’re through an entire screenplay, it is almost two passes of a script.
Samantha: I’m sure, if our cat could speak, it would be like, “No, let me give you the inside scoop. They drive me nuts when they’re working.” I think it’s part of the DNA in terms of our relationship, working‑wise, creative‑wise, and romantic‑wise.
I don’t know how people who aren’t married…I don’t know how they do it. You know how it is. It can be so all‑consuming in moment. We get an idea at 3:00 AM. We’re right there to wake the other person up and not let them sleep either.
Scott: Let’s talk about your movie Sister Aimee which debuted the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It’s also going to be playing at South by Southwest, nominated for their Gamechanger Award. Here’s a plot summary.
“In 1926, America’s most famous evangelist is a woman and she’s looking for her way out. Fed up with her own success, she gets swept up in her lover’s daydreams about Mexico and finds herself on a wild road trip towards the border, based on true events, mostly made up.”
I actually have a theological background. I’m familiar with Aimee Semple McPherson, how popular she was in Los Angeles. She was almost a cult figure there, involvement as a Pentecostal faith healer in that church, Angelus Temple, which is still around near Echo Park in East Los Angeles.
How did you discover this character, which sends you into this journey of writing and directing Sister Aimee?
Samantha: We have Anna Margaret Hollyman, actually, to blame and credit for so much of this. We had made a short film with Anna Margaret a few years ago. We just had such a wonderful time with her. She’s an incredible collaborator.
After that short film, she said, “There’s this woman, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson. She’s the kind of character you two would really be into, the kind of character you guys like to write. You should look her up.”
We went into a Google black hole. She was right. Aimee is totally fascinating. By the time we got around to thinking about writing the screenplay, what interested us was that span of time of when she went missing and when she came back.
That is the truth in the film, that in 1926, Sister Aimee Semple McPherson did vanish for a chunk of time. We were interested in this question of, what would make a woman, mostly from that time at the height of her popularity, her power, what would make her run away from all of that and what would make her come back?
It was just very convenient that nobody really knows what happened. That gave us an opportunity to make stuff up and…
Marie: I think that what we wanted to do and what we hoped we’ve done is, take some truth about the character, about what kind of powerful performer and witty personality she was and say something about women’s ambitions and how easy it is to usurp female narratives but do it in a way that is not factual, that is more existential truth than factual truth.
Scott: I think you said it was five and a half percent true…
Scott: Stepping back and looking at this as a storyteller, that’s just great because it’s a pre‑branded content, if you will, because she’s a personality. Historical stories seem to be quite popular right now. You got that gap, five weeks, of when she disappears, in which you could just tell whatever story it is you want.
Let’s talk about the tone of this film because it’s this really vibrant mashing of genres. You’ve got a mystery, drama, comedy, fantasy. A Western feel to it. Road picture. There’s even a musical component. Did you know the tone of the story you were going for upfront or did this wonderful meshing of styles emerge over time?
Marie: It did emerge over time. We were pretty clear from the get‑go that we wanted it to be kind of a wild ride because we felt that was appropriate for her character. We knew very early on that that would be some genre mash‑up in this story.
Also, she was a pioneer of radio, of media. We also wanted to add that feel of the 1920s radio, play to it. The idea of something that was very unorthodox in terms of genre and genre boundaries. That was pretty clear from the get‑go.
I think that developing it and then also working with actors, working with Anna Margaret very early on, during the writing process, the specificity of the tone revealed itself.
Scott: By the way, her performance is terrific, Anna Margaret Hollyman.
Samantha: Isn’t she wonderful?
Scott: She really is. There’s a great scene where she first meets Kenny and they get rather delicately close to each other. That’s a long scene, to be sitting like that in a slip on his lap. I’m just thinking, as an actor, “That’s interesting. How would you handle that?” She did such a great job.
Marie: A little behind the scenes tidbit about that scene. That is a very long scene, a very long dialogue scene. She is basically straddling him the entire time. We shot that on a day that was 110 degrees in Texas. We blasted air conditioner into this room, but it wasn’t really doing anything. Real kudos to those two actors…
Samantha: Michael and Anna Margaret.
Marie: For sticking with us.
Scott: Let’s talk about your story’s protagonist Sister Aimee. You start the story in media res, she’s in the middle of a faith healing ceremony at the height of her fame. There’s this woman in a wheelchair she’s supposed to heal, but Aimee just walks away. It’s almost like you’re introducing us to her in the midst of a midlife crisis.
Samantha: That’s exactly right. One thing about Aimee that…We did a lot of research about her. There’s people that are like, “She was a charlatan. Did she heal or didn’t she heal?”
There’s all of these narratives around her, but something that was always pretty consistent or is consistent is how people talk about what a great entertainer she was. Charlie Chaplin would go see her shows at the Angelus Temple.
Betty Davis is quoted, “She’s the best play performer she ever saw.” We wanted to approach her in her midlife crisis from that perspective of what happens when you can no longer perform. In Aimee’s case, and in her art form, part of her performance in stage performance is healing people.
We thought, “Well, if you’re unable to perform any more, a writer who cannot write has writer’s block.” That lends itself to a midlife identity crisis and that kind of pressure would make you want to run away.
Marie: It opens up a space in your life where something else can come in. In this case, it’s this lovely, radio engineer Kenny, who has the kind of passion for something that she is lacking at that moment.
She sees, in him and in the story that he tells her, something that she feels is missing from her life in that moment.
Samantha: Aimee is the type of woman who loves a good storyteller, because she is a good storyteller.
Scott: Interesting. I know that chopping away to the end of the movie, at one point she has to claim. She says, “I’m an entertainer.” She is trying to do that in order to save her skin, and so when you introduce her, you’ve got a great line of scene description in the script. You say, “She is Carole Lombard with a dose of Christian righteousness.”
I thought that was interesting, because he didn’t say, “She is Christian righteousness with a dose of Carole Lombard.”
Scott: You had that sense that the proportions there, more Carole Lombard than Christian righteousness. From the beginning, you had that understanding of her character.
Marie: Yes, I think that was for us. This wasn’t as much a predominantly religious story for us. She was a very religious, very devout person, but for us, the aspect in her that we could really tap into was the performance, the entertainment aspect, so we wanted to push that very early on.
Samantha: Anna Margaret also, when we act we work with her in that story, so much of our Aimee, so much of it is Anna Margaret, too. When we worked with her and a sort of the main capture after experience, we both thought, “She is Doris Day. She is Carole Lombard.” She should have been doing…
Marie: …comedies in the 1930s. [laughs]
Scott: I was struck by your comment just previously, about how she is in this crisis point like a writer’s block or psychologically just not connected to what she is doing. It reminded me of the “Hero’s Journey,” how Joseph Campbell talks about the heroine at the beginning of the story, that they’re just making it through, they need to change. That seems like a fair appraisal of her situation at the beginning. Yes?
Marie: Yes, for sure.
Scott: Then the call to adventure. She runs into this guy Kenny. How would you describe his character?
Marie: To a certain degree, it’s not as much as him, but the story that he tells her that is really the thing that pulls her away, that gives her this call to adventure and this idea of, “Oh, there’s something so exciting somewhere else and you know what? I can be a nobody.”
Because this guy really wants to make it in Mexico as a writer and I can be his muse. He sweeps her off her feet, in that moment, genuinely, but what she pretty quickly learns is that Kenny is not as talented as she thought. He is a radio engineer. He is not a storyteller on the radio.
Scott: Yeah, he’s got a pretty inflated sense of himself as a writer, and fashions himself after that, like someone like Jack Reed…
Scott: You talk about this story that he shares with Aimee, while they are in that interesting position of straddling, in a way that really catches our imagination, “The Hero With No Name.” Is that an actual folktale or is that something you all made up?
Samantha: It is.
Marie: It is totally made up.
Samantha: We certainly looked into especially female fighters during the Mexican Revolution and afterwards, but this is not as any specific tale that we’ve taken.
Scott: It takes on quite a bit of significance in the movie. There is a mystery element to it and as I said, it inspires Aimee to take off to Mexico with Kenny.
As I’m watching the film, it also plays to a central theme I find running in your movie. That’s this, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like Aimee has told herself a story about being a faith healer and spiritual leader. Kenny has told himself a story about being a great writer of the common people. There’s a story, A Hero with No Name, which at other points other characters claim to be the unnamed hero.
There’s all these stories you drop in throughout the movie where people are telling stories about Aimee’s life over the years to these LA detectives. There was a story that Aimee insist Kenny tell when she sends him back to LA to clear up the gossip which has sprung up.
Then there’s that story she ends up telling the musical version of it to the Mexican police. I’d like to get your thoughts on that, because this is a possible theme in the movie, “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” How the stories can help to define who we are, but also trap us due to the confines of the narratives or free us by telling new stories. Did any of that resonate with you?
Marie: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Really, for us, this was very early on it. “Oh, we’re making it.” This is a story about storytelling and about the power of storytelling, the privilege of storytelling. There’s also the idea that Aimee, in the beginning of the movie, is a person who actually has the power to tell her story, to tell it in the way that she wants it told, and she gives that power up.
The moment that she runs away from it, which opens up this space for other people to tap in and say, “No, no, no, no. Let me tell the story of this woman,” her gradual awareness of her lack of that power and then her reclaiming it is part of the narrative.
Samantha: Then the same things about the character Greg was this guy that they end up hiring to help them cross the border, because Aimee is in all the papers.
You have this other woman who ‑‑ again when we were doing research about Mexico and what’s happening in Mexico at the time and all these artists going to Mexico City, and it’s like hang out with Diego Rivera ‑‑ we researched these women who were fighters in the Mexican Revolution.
Some of these women, what happened to them afterwards and how their image was transformed and morphed into these sexual paintings. Just completely false for a lot of them.
We thought it would be interesting if you have this other character who is a lot like Aimee in terms of wanting immortality and ambition, and really good at what she does, but she has never had the ability to control her narrative. Her story has been taken by everybody, and no one will ever believe that she is who she says she is, her story is what she claims it is.
Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann at the premiere of ‘Sister Aimee’ at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival
Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann at the premiere of ‘Sister Aimee’ at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival
Scott: I wanted to get to Rey because she is a really terrific character in the movie and has a profound influence on Aimee. They develop a very special connection. Rey is basically going to help them get to Mexico because she is familiar with the area, she speaks Spanish.
Over time, Aimee’s affection shifts from Kenny to Rey. I saw in an interview with you at Sundance where you said, “We thought that it would be an opportunity to fictionalize and talk about female identity.” Could you talk a bit about that and how it plays out with Aimee and her relationship with Rey?
Samantha: Yeah, we’ve always though of these two women as soul mates in their quest. In life, they’re both really good at what they’re doing and they’re very subtle. In a way, they’re both in very male‑dominated worlds. If it’s just thinking, “Where’s a guide?” or “She’s a fighter” and Aimee is an evangelist. They share this identity, but they’re also very definite. There’s also elements of misunderstanding in their relationship.
There is an element of fetishization from Aimee’s part that Rey has to call out. It was this relationship, which is really, at the end of the day, that’s the romantic relationship of the movie and more so than Aimee and Kenny.
It gave us an opportunity to explore where identity can overlap and what the limits of that are, and how important it is to be able to claim an identity. If you can’t, then that is the one thing that becomes overwhelming in your life. You want to claim it or you want to reclaim it.
Scott: Aimee is absolutely dealing with the question of “who am I,” right?
Samantha: Yes, absolutely. Because, in the beginning, she is the image that everybody else has of her. She is this larger than life thing that she created and she’s lost her connection to it.
From the whole movie, it’s her running away from it. Being, quite literally, identity‑less in moments, she is not the person pulling the strings in every part of the movie. She is being put into the back seat of that car and that’s where she has been, pretty much without an identity.
On her way back, she has to go all the way where…There’s this moment in Mexico when she looks into..
“I’m very, very aware… that you are seeing other agents. And I think it’s good that you are. Finally, I mean it’s healthy. But, this is the thing. If you decide to sign with me, you’re gonna get more than an agent. You’re gonna get three people. [Holds up four fingers] You’re gonna get an agent, a mother, a father, a shoulder to cry on, someone who knows this business inside and out. And if anyone ever tries to cross you, I’ll grab them by the balls and squeeze ’til they’re dead.”
— The Big Picture (1989), screenplay by Michael Varhol & Christopher Guest & Michael McKean, story by Michael Varhol & Christopher Guest
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Hollywood Insiders.
Trivia: Martin Short regrets not appearing in the film’s credits. The reason he is uncredited: He was considered an “extended cameo” only having four scenes, totaling seven minutes. In his autobiography, he was so proud of the Neil Sussman character, that he wished he’d asked for screen credit.
Dialogue On Dialogue: Yes, this is over the top, but still there’s a ring of truth to this depiction of a Hollywood agent, at least insofar as his ‘sincerity’ is concerned.
Kathleen accompanied this visual on the Zero Draft Thirty Facebook group with this comment: “Friday Catch-up day writing sprint, who’s in?!” For the invitation to write and… cats… albeit fake cats… the recipient of today’s Anita Loos Award is Kathleen Wentworth!
Take up Kathleen’s invitation. Go on a writing sprint… a writing scamper… put in at least a good hour of writing today. Know why?
BECAUSE WE ARE OFFICIALLY HALFWAY THROUGH THE 2019 ZERO DRAFT THIRTY MARCH CHALLENGE!