Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Earrings: Influences – The Writing

The very few people I’ve told the full plot of Earrings to always immediately ask me the same question: “Where did you get inspiration to write such a story? It’s so dark, so haunting; how did you come up with it?”

And my answer is always the same: I point to my head and say, “Things just pop in and stay.” Sometimes I have no idea where they come from, sometimes I am precisely aware of their origins. Whether I know what caused them or not, if an idea lingers too long, then it needs to be exercised in print.

The origins for Earrings are extended and complicated; the film is rooted in several different inspirations, and after many months (years, actually) of lingering, the idea finally formulated itself into a cohesive script and will, I hope, become an intelligible film.

Disappear Here
About a year and a half ago, Catherine, who is the star of Earrings, contacted me about writing a script based on an idea she had. The idea was about loss, love, and redemption. It was about overcoming internal grief with absolutely no help from outside factors. It was an interesting, layered idea that Catherine gave me free reign to roll with. A month later, I handed her a 45-page script that we planned to film a few months later. Actors were cast, a small crew was established, but due to many outside factors that I’m not going to go into here, the project had to be delayed indefinitely. I was troubled by this, but I understood. When a project isn’t ready, it isn’t ready.
I moved the script aside and let it disappear from my mind.  Jump cut to seven months later, and I remained plagued with images of pain.

When I get an idea for a script, it almost always manifests itself via visually imagery. The image can be anything: a young man driving a car with a slight smile, a man with a bruised face staring at a house, a slow-motion dolly shot of a woman’s face as she discovers something familiar – anything. And, when coupled with the right song, these images beg to be brought to life. I cannot escape them.

For example, I’ve had the image of a young woman walking aimlessly through a crowded nightclub for years. Years. Why? Fuck if I know. I suppose I like the juxtaposition of so much happening around her, and virtually nothing happening within her. And once I heard a specific song by Radiohead (which I’m not going to reveal), I played it over and over and over, knowing that it belonged somewhere. It needed to be accompanied with something. I thought I had brought that image and that song together perfectly in the script I wrote for Catherine, but I was wrong. It will be through Earrings that I will finally be able to put this idea to rest. 
These notions of imagery aren’t nagging annoyances, mind you, they are simply pictures in my head that must see light. It’s something I’ve lived with for decades – the thought of transferring the images in my head to the page or the screen, so last November, as I made my way through Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography Images, I sat literally dumbfounded when I came to the passage in which he describes how he formulates his scripts.

For Cries and Whispers, Bergman describes how he was “plagued” by the image of a room bathed in red. The red room haunted him, it kept him awake at night, begging, pleading. He wrote the script for Cries and Whispers based around that red room, which, if you’ve seen the film, plays a vital part in the movie. When I read this, I sat dumbfounded because that is precisely where my screenplays come from, that persistent image that won’t go away. It’s similarities like these that no doubt make Bergman my favorite filmmaker.

The Hunger for Shame
The first time I watched Steve McQueen’s Hunger represents one of the most jarring film-viewing experiences of my life. It was bold and raw and honest and gut wrenching. And it was nearly dialogue free. Sure, there is a centerpiece conversation that takes up a few dozen script pages, but for the most part, very little is said in Hunger. Why then does the film speak immeasurable volumes?
The first film I made (in the summer of 2008) had not a single line of dialogue, so, naturally, when I saw Hunger (in the fall of 2009), I was taken with it immediately. In the special features on the Criterion DVD, McQueen says that dialogue isn’t needed for the first act of the film, the images are the dialogue. That’s a notion I identify with wholeheartedly, and it’s something that most definitely influenced Earrings.

Creating (whether you’re writing, filming, painting, whatever) is something that opens your world up to fantastic little ironies that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Irony may not be accurate. Coincidence is more precise.

When I wrote the script for Catherine, I included an extended, balls-out sequence in which the main character goes slightly mad. All of the emotions and problems and sufferings that were teasing the character came out in about four pages of script. It was going to be seven filmic minutes of pain and blood and sweat and tears. With Earrings, I’ve made that sequence tighter, and more impactful. It’s going to be the film’s Hail Mary. Abandon all faith, ye who enter here.

And it is partly because of this sequence (which I wrote last November), that I became so enamored with McQueen’s film Shame.
If you’ve seen Shame, then you know there is a sequence late in the film that is rather similar to what I’ve described in regards to Earrings. And, much like when I read Bergman’s book, I sat literally dumbfounded the first time I saw that Shame sequence. It was exactly the torment I was trying to capture. As soon as I got home that night, I pushed the sequence in Earrings further. I added more depth, more pain. I wasn’t inspired by Shame to pen that sequence, but you can be damn sure Shame helped propel it.

Images and coincidences, that’s what my writing stems from. The images force me to write, the coincidences make it worth it.


  1. Dare I say this may be your best piece on Earrings yet! I am always fascinating by what goes into people's script writing process and this piece offered much to think about. Really keen on seeing how the final product turns out. All the best with the shooting, editing, etc.

  2. I'm loving all the insights into Earrings, it's making me want to start writing again (I used to write a lot of stories when I was in high school. It's hard to find the time anymore). Maybe I'll pen a script for Tropfest next year, hmm.....

  3. While the script I wrote last year had some personal elements I infused into the story since some of it was inspired by my own depression.

    There were a lot of cinematic influences that I did put into that script. Notably the minimalist films of Sofia Coppola and Lynne Ramsay plus some of the works of Lars von Trier.

    For the new one that I'm currently working on, I'm leaning towards some of the works of Sergio Leone, early Danny Boyle, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Bruno Dumont, and Gaspar Noe.

  4. If there's one thing this particular post makes me want, it's to read Bergman's book and see the movie SHAME. Sadly, the DVD release for SHAME here probably won't be until June or July, but I am looking forward to it. As for the Bergman book, fuck off if I'm not going to buy that right now. Great post as usual man.

  5. @CS Thanks man! That's really kind of you to say. Cheers buddy!

  6. @Ruth DO IT! I completely agree that it can be hard to find the time. I watch about 30 movies a week, but when I started writing more, I cut back to like 20 movies a week. Fair trade. Gotta make that time!

  7. @thevoid99 Dude, your script sounds fucking awesome, with those influences... damn. I'd love to read it when it's finished. I know that can be scary, giving your material to someone else, but if you're ever looking for an unbiased opinion, I'd be happy to oblige!

  8. @Tyler Ha, thanks man! You'll seriously dig Images. Excellent insights there.

  9. Wow, that idea with the girl sitting in the crowded nightclub is awesome. Is the song "How to Disappear Completely?"? :) There is an excellent scene where a character is going mad in one long take in "Possession" flawlessly played by Isabelle Adjani, when I read your description of character going mad I imediatly thought of that.

    Great post!

  10. @Sati. Thanks! Ohhh I really want to see Possession now, hopefully I can find it soon.

    Also, I can neither confirm nor deny your song choice :)

  11. Loving your Earrings posts, keet them coming! I also enjoyed reading about your inspirations, I always find it interesting to see how writers create characters and storylines..basically the whole process! Good luck with the shooting!

  12. @Diana Thanks Diana! I'm leaving for LA in one hour... so pumped!

  13. Love this insight in to your writing practices Alex. I have absolutely no concept of what your script must look like.

    1. Thanks Toby! My scripts are long and very very detailed. If you buy a professional script for most any movie, you'll see that very little is on the page. It's mostly just dialogue for the actors. Well, my scripts include camera movements, sound specifications, editing requirements, and so on.

      This detailed method can seriously bug the shit out of people, but it's just the way I do it. I've tried the only-dialogue way, and it simply doesn't work for me.

      But again, once we're on set, I'm willing to adapt and change something if it feels natural. Nothing in the script is set in stone.

  14. Hey there, I'm finally making my way through this set of posts and will eventually get to your film. As someone who has been plagued by images as well and has had trouble in the process of writing a script, would you mind giving me some advice as to how you started first writing your script? In my head I have an opening, an ending and several scenes that I have been haunted by, as well as a tone and mood that I would like to capture. Any advice at all would be helpful. Thanks!

    1. Hey man, thanks so much for taking an interest in Earrings. It means a lot to me.

      Well, first off, it's very important to note that everyone's writing process is different. So what works for me may not work for you, you know? I had the idea for Earrings about five years before I shot it, only I didn't know what it was. I had ideas for scenes, and I spent years letting those scenes organically form into a cohesive film in my head. My lead actress, Catherine, and I worked on a script together a year and a half before we started Earrings. That movie never came to be, so I used some of the themes of that script in the script for Earrings. So all of my scripts start with at least a year's worth of ideas and thinking. The characters form from the scenes, and the tone forms from the characters.

      The fact that you already have a beginning and end are two very big steps. Start by writing your beginning, and see if the characters take on a life of their own. You probably won't use much of it in the long haul, but the best way to write is by... writing. I know a lot of people who want to write scripts, but are intimidated by the actually process of writing one. Fuck that. Just start writing and see what happens. I thought about Earrings for 3 years before I wrote a word. Then it took another two years to turn the story into a shooting script. At some point, I became afraid of the material and almost didn't write the script. Would've been a big mistake.

      Just. Start. Writing.

  15. Thank you for share this informative post.