I’m lucky to have recently made friends with Michael Bruce Adams, acclaimed screenwriter of 27 feature length screenplays and assistant cameraman for over 120 film and television projects.
Michael’s latest project involved writing the short film “BOMBSHELL” which debuts at the Landmark Cinema on September 23rd of this year. He and I began discussing how he takes and idea from conception to finished product and we both realized this was information worth sharing.
Here’s how Michael creates a screenplay in his own words:
I suppose the genesis for this project started eight years ago in 2005. My wife, Dawn Leigh Climie, was working as a Costume Set Supervisor on Michael Mann’s feature film Miami Vice. I was fortunate to spend some time with her while they were shooting in Miami and that’s where I researched and wrote the rough draft for a massive biopic of Fidel Castro.
Researching Castro put me into a world that fascinated me… cold war, Khrushchev, JFK, Hollywood, Havana, sugar and cocaine… a time before the instant accountability of the internet, a time when a person like Marilyn Monroe could be privy to a nation’s most dangerous secrets.
Fast forward to September of last year and I get a phone call from my good friend, Producer/Director Jason Lehel of First Breath Films. He says he’s got a few months between projects and wants to shoot a short film… and he’s got a beach house in Malibu to use as a set.
The Malibu beach house took me right back to the 60’s… yes a flashback!… and to the research I had done for Castro. I was thinking about fallout, I was thinking about the death of icons and the death of the public’s innocence, I was thinking Marilyn Monroe.
The story had to be contained because of the limited resources, but it had to have an epic feel that could transcend a moment in time to give Marilyn the timelessness that her life inspired.
I pitched Jason on the idea that we explore the last four hours of Marilyn’s life from the perspective of her fractured, addicted mind. Less about the cause and effect that resulted in her tragedy, and more about the idea that every event in time has lead her to this final moment.
Fortunately for me, Jason loved the idea as much as I did.
With most of the research already under my belt from CASTRO, I was able to start right away on structuring my story.
With the short film format you are able to add texture and subtext in much more abstract ways than you can with a feature; the audience will retain the meaning of certain images and sounds throughout a twenty minute film with much more connective power than through a two hour feature. So I could be a little more adventurous with how I structured this piece.
I knew I wanted to give the audience the sense that even though we we’re experiencing this story through the lens of Marilyn’s mind, motivationally it was very much grounded in truth, Marilyn’s truth.
The film is called BOMBSHELL not just because she was and is the Blonde Bombshell, but also because I believe there was a moment before the end, for this character of Marilyn, that she knew the bomb had been dropped, it was heading straight for her and there was nowhere she could hide. The other revelation I wanted for this character is that she knew she had a hand in that bomb’s release.
I built the primary story line around what I had imagined Marilyn’s character wanted to achieve that last night. I supported that journey with a slightly abstract flashback to an encounter on the beach that foreshadowed her final reveal, and an audio track of a telephone conversation meant to symbolize the bomb being dropped. I wrote that first 12 page draft in a day. Emotionally, it shattered me… I knew I had something.
Ordinarily with any script I will do a minimum of five rewrites before I send it out for feedback… then do more rewrites from there. But in this case, because I knew that Jason is a director motivated by his emotional connection to the material, I wanted to test the story out and see if it worked for Jason.
It did. He had tested with his producers and casting director as well and the consensus came back… we had something.
This is where the power of collaboration begins… and the microcosm of short film as a parallel experience to having a feature produced becomes very clear.
The best result I can hope for with one of my scripts is that it inspires the people who read it, and choose to produce it, to transcend what I have on the page, to bring all their sub-textural inspirations into the project and make the story as powerful as it can be.
I have a unique set of experiences, coming from both story and camera, which allow me to see story in a highly visual way, with layers of subtext… what I want is for that vision to be expanded and extrapolated by my creative team. This is the goal for me… to inspire in that way.
After reading that first draft we all got very excited. Jason was able to find a couple more locations to use so that we could vary our setting a bit and find a different context for some of the dialog pieces from the main storyline… which allowed us to add more subtext.
We also began discussing things like what the house represented and what the beach represented. Jason pushed us to work for more possibilities for our visual palette that would create more power for the story. I dug back into the research and discovered some lovely visual additions that we could add as color and texture… and most importantly scope. We were bringing that epic feel to the story and building on the emotion rather than diluting it.
I rewrote the script about a dozen times. The original text is almost fully intact… but what we changed and added were the number and power of subtext elements, the different setting context of certain scenes, and the scope of the film over time and place. The result is a script that I am incredibly proud of.
So at this point, we’re ready to shoot.
The Letting Go
Let me tell you that writers are not usually welcome on set.
There are good reasons for that, the most important of which is that when we write a script, we have to understand that every person who reads it is going to have a different interpretation of the story… from the writer and each other. That means that when we hand a script over to a production team, we have to have faith that we have done our job so well as to inspire them to tell the most powerful version of the story, and even if interpretations of the story differ, the emotional direction of the story is maintained and the emotional power not diluted.
When you hear the term, ‘it is not on the page’, that means that the writer hasn’t communicated the story and characters properly and powerfully enough. Interpretations of the story and characters vary wildly… and disaster results.
With BOMBSHELL, I had faith in Jason’s interpretation even though I sensed it was slightly different than mine. And I also knew that because Jason and I have had many passionate discussions over the years about story, if I was on set during shooting, my presence would be a distraction rather than an inspiration.
You have to let go and trust. If I had gone on set, I would’ve prepared myself to react and participate in support of the experience, rather that what was on the pages of my script.
This was the case for a feature I had produced a few years back called REACH FOR ME, directed by LeVar Burton. The Producer, Charlene Blaine-Schulenburg, very graciously brought me down to LA during the production. I was on set for a good portion of the shooting, was able to rewrite a couple of key scenes on the fly, participated in some tough editing choices, and I got to see several test screenings and participate in the discussions after. LeVar’s interpretation varied from mine, but the emotional direction did not… very important.
I know my experience on REACH FOR ME was very unique for a writer, and had I not had 15 years of production experience under my belt, it would never have happened.
With BOMBSHELL, I wanted to give Jason the most freedom I could without him feeling any obligation at all to consult me during production… and I think that paid off big time.
I got to see an unfinished cut a week ago.
Jason’s work on this film is layered, inventive, textured, epic, intimate and intuitive, and every decision that he made, that I can sense on screen, serves the story, and more importantly, transcends it… he transcended the story on the page. Yeah. That’s okay by me.:)
Our hopes for BOMBSHELL are to interest folks in participating in a feature length version of the last years of Marilyn’s life and I think we have an incredibly inspirational and powerful tool to help accomplish that… not to mention a gorgeous film experience.