Note: This article is included in our year-end storytelling advice round-up.
They say the key to creating any written work is not in the writing, but in the rewriting. Subsequent drafts of your book or movie project are where the clarity and polish kick in. The only problem is you still somehow have to do that initial writing, no matter how much your brain seems to resist. Fortunately, Bobcat Goldthwait just may have found the simplest and most direct way of getting it done.
The ’80s movie mainstay occupies his own schizophrenic lane in the cinematic and stand-up comedy worlds. He was recently named Esquire’s Director of the Year for his work on 2012’s God Bless America; however, he also frequently performs at comedy clubs that double as fish restaurants. One role may be more glamorous than the other, but the latter provides Goldthwait the means to run off and make movies whenever he feels like it (he feels like it a lot). First, he has to write them, though, in a process that resembles nothing so much as a man taking himself hostage.
The veteran comedian and actor first tried out his unusual technique with 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie. It was a movie that came out of Goldthwait’s frustration about whether he could even tell a story. He ended up going to a hotel, and committing an act of self-inflicted Misery–remaining locked inside until he wrote the entire screenplay. After shooting the finished product for $20,000, the movie ended up a hit at Sundance and paving the way for an unlikely second career as an auteur.
Still hot off the word-of-mouth from last year’s God Bless America, Goldthwait has already completed his next feature, the partly improvised Sasquatch film Willow Creek. Below, the writer-director outlines the process for how both these films, and others, were written.
I usually go to a chain-quality hotel, nothing too fancy. The pressure of actually paying for a hotel encourages me to have something finished.
I like to go somewhere at least an hour or two away from home so I have no distractions. I really try to stay someplace where I don’t have any friends nearby and no movie theaters. I like to write at night, so a big distraction for me is usually going to the movies. This way, I’m cut off from that. The other good reason for a hotel is after years of being a nightclub comedian, or even just how I’m wired, is I’ll tend to write all night and sleep during the day.
The germ of an idea is already kicking around. It’s usually the beginning of a movie. If I don’t have a theme at the end, some simple thing I can figure out what the main character is trying to say, I usually won’t start a movie until I know exactly kind of how it ends. I do the outline when I get there. The kernel of the idea is in my head before I go, and the theme, what I’m trying to say at the end is there, and also the world it takes place in. Those are the things I have to know before I pull the trigger. And then I figure the story out from there.
Since I’m always a couple hours out of town, you’d be surprised how much those two hours driving up are a pretty good place to work. I’m always talking to myself and recording it on my phone–getting ideas for dialogue and story elements. Anyone who sees me talking to myself and getting into the characters’ heads probably thinks I’m some nut job checking into a hotel.
I keep access to the Internet, but I actually tell myself that I’m not allowed to surf. Basically, it’s for when I need to do research. I think you need it for anything from locations to historical facts, things like that.
One of the blocks I used to have is always really trying to write the perfect line of dialogue, and that would trip me up. Now when I’m banging out these first drafts, I just kind of get down what the scene is supposed to be, and then in the rewrites, the dialogue improves. Then, on the day, the actors usually have something to say about the dialogue. I tend to work with people who bring more than just saying the lines, so the dialogue’s always kind of changing up.
I stopped smoking a few years ago, but that used to be the reward. Write for a while and then go have a cigarette. I do kind of set a goal of how many pages each day, and I try to meet it. When I do that, even if I fall short, I still feel pretty good. Other days, it’s not about page count, just getting through certain scenes.
There’s definitely a block and you have to spend as many hours as it takes just pacing or whatever. Sometimes I do the opposite and go on a tangent, and then I have to remember, “Well, this dialogue isn’t helping me to get to the last scene.” That is something that’s good for writers to ask themselves: “Is this helping me get to the last scene?” And if it’s not, then maybe take those scenes or ideas and cut them to use for other projects.
A lot of the time, it’s just a week or even less. That’s all it takes to get a first draft. Other movies have taken longer, but when you’re cutting yourself off from the world and you’re just sitting in a room, you can really write for hours on end. Sometimes it’s these days of me pushing myself to write 25 pages in a day. I usually try to stay as long as it takes, and then I’ll talk to my wife, and she’ll say, “If you think you’ll be able to finish it in the next couple days, then why don’t you finish it.”
[Photo by Seth Olenick]