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How The Sundance Film “Crown Heights” Went From Blank Page To Finished Script

Before it was a film, it was a screenplay. Before that, it was a page of nothing. The creative fits and starts of writing a Sundance film.

How The Sundance Film “Crown Heights” Went From Blank Page To Finished Script
Lakeith Stanfield in Crown Heights

About this series: Before it was a movie, it was a screenplay. And before it was a screenplay, it was a terrifyingly blank page. Revision History tells stories about one of the least understood but most creative stages of filmmaking: the writing (and constant rewriting) of the screenplay.

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The movie: Crown Heights, starring Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta). Based on a true story about the wrongful imprisonment of a Brooklyn man from Trinidad. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival last week, the film should reach theaters and streaming services later this year.

The writer: Matt Ruskin, also the film’s director. Prior writing/directing credits include Booster (2012); prior to that Ruskin had directed documentaries.

Matt Ruskin

How the Movie Was Written

Ruskin first heard a rebroadcast of the This American Life episode “DIY” in 2010, five years after it originally aired. “I was completely floored,” he recalls of the story by reporter Anya Bourg. “DIY” was the true story of Carl King, a Brooklyn man who becomes consumed with the quest to exonerate his friend Collin Warner, wrongfully imprisoned for murder for more than 20 years. “I was convinced, if I could get the rights to make this story, it would be a really compelling film,” recalled Ruskin in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival last week, where his film premiered.

Back in 2010, Ruskin reached out to Bourg, who connected him to King and Warner. The men had optioned the rights to their story to one studio and then another, but the projects had gone nowhere. As an indie filmmaker, Ruskin was much scrappier than a fancy studio, “but at that point they really welcomed that,” he says. By early 2012, he had the rights.

Bourg shared her source material with Ruskin, and Warner’s lawyers shared their massive case file. Ruskin–whose training in docs stood him in good stead–also conducted dozens of hours of interviews with Warner and King. After immersing himself in the material, he was finally ready to write.

First Draft: What Goes In?

As he stared at the blank page, he had many questions to answer for himself. How to condense a 20-year story into 90 minutes? Should the film progress linearly or nonlinearly? Most fundamentally, he recalls asking himself, “How do you show a guy in prison for 20 years and make it interesting?”

Overall, Ruskin recalls this first draft as being “just about trying to figure out what pieces to include.” In a massive story spanning decades, Ruskin first had to decide what elements were essential, and which could fall by the wayside. “There was a lot of trial and error, feeling things out. There were always questions of, ‘How much does this peripheral development need to be developed? What characters could be cut? Do we need the wife’s sister, or could she just stand on her own?’”

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There were many things that were factually true that Ruskin initially eagerly included in this draft. For instance, Warner was briefly placed, twice, in the very same holding cell as the teenaged eyewitness who wound up falsely accusing him, “which you would never do–for safety, for all sorts of reasons,” says Ruskin. When Ruskin shared the draft with these real-life elements, some early readers told him they were “too crazy” and that he “didn’t need to make up wild stuff.” He wound up taking these bits out, fearing he’d alienate the audience.

Second Draft: Pleasing the Crowd

For his second pass at the script, Ruskin focused his attention on one key matter: what would the audience’s experience of the movie be? If the first draft was all about getting the right information in the script, the second draft was about playing with its structure so that the result was “a movie that the audience would enjoy watching, that would keep people engaged.”

Ruskin stared down one puzzle in particular: In his first draft, he had included early scenes detailing the police misconduct–a bullying of that teenaged witness in the holding cell–that wound up convicting Warner. The problem was that later in the movie, when Carl King begins his own investigation of this police misconduct, readers were simply being shown information they already had. “If you’re investigating something and no new information is discovered, it’s not the most compelling investigation,” Ruskin had to concede.

Initially, Ruskin tried cutting everything having to do with the police misconduct, and attempted to write the first part of the movie entirely from King’s and Warner’s perspective. But it felt baffling: “You needed more information” as to why Warner went away. So Ruskin began “experimenting with moving information around and seeing how it played.” Ruskin toyed with scenes until he found just the right balance: a first act that was mysterious without being outright confusing, and a third act that revealed enough new information–about a supposed eyewitness who couldn’t have seen the shooting, about the actions of the real killer–to create a compelling, lean-in feeling for the movie’s later scenes.

Final Draft: Just Saying It

“I don’t like screenwriting,” says Ruskin. “I like shooting movies. I love this medium because I love visual storytelling.” And one thing Ruskin found, when sharing his second draft of the script, is that readers were a little baffled by Ruskin’s descriptive text (as opposed to character dialogue). It was very visual–even a bit mechanical. Ruskin would write, for instance, “Colin looks away, then walks back to his cell.” Ruskin, in his head, could see Colin’s expression, and know that it was full of skepticism in this moment, for instance–but readers weren’t always getting what Ruskin was trying to communicate. Colin looks, he walks–so what?

Ruskin began reading the work of other screenwriters he admired, in particular Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games). Ruskin was surprised to see how direct Ray was in his own descriptive text. If he wanted to say how a character felt, he just said it, rather than describing it. “He tells you the story in a way that it doesn’t feel mechanical,” says Ruskin.

So Ruskin went back and fixed his lines of description, just saying directly what his characters were feeling. Instead of an elaborate description of Colin’s looks and gestures, Ruskin simply wrote what mattered, and what he knew an actor could act. “Colin looks away then walks back to his cell” now became, simply: “Colin’s not buying it.”

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For his next set of readers, the pages flew.

The script was ready to shoot.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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