Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ten Fucking Years of Cy, Part Two (Cy writes a screenplay)

So how do you celebrate ten years of putting comics out into the world? I'll tell you how: you write something completely different.

Back in April, I was approached out of the blue by a film-maker with a story he wanted me to write. He had a loose idea, a core character and, most shockingly of all, a budget. What he needed now was a script. Apparently, he'd found some of my work on Comixology, and wanted to see what I could do with his idea.

So yeah - I spent my tenth anniversary in comics writing a screenplay. Kinda sci-fi, kinda horror. Unlovable protagonist. Felt like a decent fit for me.

I've actually written a few "practice" screenplays before, primarily for fun and experience. Working freelance, you never know when a client's going to hit you up for something out of your usual wheelhouse. Learning to write for the screen seemed like a worthwhile use of my time when I was starting out, and it's come in handy more than once. Every so often, a client I'm used to writing web stuff for will ask if I can put together something like a TV or web advert. It's nice not to go into that unprepared.

Anyway, back to the screenplay I'm working on now. There's not a whole lot I can say about it just yet, other than the first draft's been checked out and I'm in the process of seeing what it'll take to kick a second version into shape. So far, I'm enjoying the process - but it's a world apart from writing comics. At least, it's a world apart from the kind of comics I've written so far.

I've worked on other people's stories before, of course. Starship Troopers didn't belong to me, nor Master Merlini, Metal Made Flesh, Unseen Shadows or any number of other projects I've signed onto. This is probably the first time I've contributed the story for something that had no previous existence at all, though. No road map to follow, no plot Bible to research from. Starting out, all I had was a 300-word synopsis and a pretty generous deadline. The details of the story were, and to an extent still are, in a state of flux, so I treated the first draft as kind of a radar pulse, feeling out the terrain and mapping the landscape. There was a lot of ground to cover, but it made a much tighter second draft a realistic goal to aim for. That's where I am right now. The freelancing life being what it is, it'll be a couple of weeks before I can dive back into the script, but the hard part's done now so it should be a gentler climb to the summit from here.

On a technical level, to me, this feels nothing like writing comics. A comic script doesn't have to care if what it's asking characters to do is impossible, or even simply inadvisable. All that matters is whether it can be justified by the story, and then drawn into it. At no point during the writing of Indifference Engine 2 did I find myself asking if we could afford to open fifty dimensional portals and have mutated, superhuman versions of the protagonist spilling out of them. The story needed them, Russ was happy drawing them and that was all that mattered. Moreover, it actually takes me way less time and effort to write something like "DOUBLE-PAGE SPREAD: PLANET EXPLODES" than to fill those pages with intense but essentially realistic kitchen-sink drama. The world's on its head here, and it takes a moment to adjust.

With this screenplay, every prop I destroy or fire I light is going to cost someone money and potentially put someone in danger. I'm writing stunts that real people have to then perform in real life (although that was actually true of Master Merlini too, and on a much larger scale). Lines that read fluidly or rhythmically on a page can feel weird and clunky coming out of a real human mouth, and a scene that takes three panels to show on a comic page can take several minutes of screen time to get to the same place.

That's probably the biggest difference I've noticed over the course of this project so far. In comics, your primary currency is page space. You measure your plot beats out by the page, and every word you insert into a panel obscures some of the artwork. It's this enormously complex balancing act where a slight wobble in any direction results in the story falling apart. With a screenplay, it feels much more like your currency is time. The expectation going in is that every page of the script will average out at a minute of screen time. It's a useful enough rule of thumb, but it doesn't really tell you anything. How much of the story needs to be told in that minute? How flexible is the running time of the finished film going to be? Factor in that there are human performers involved - not to mention numerous editing, scoring and other processes and you can easily end up with a film that bears very little resemblance to the script it came from. My job, as I see it at this stage, is to play my part in the process as well as I can, and to be as surprised as anyone at what comes out at the other end.

Given the nature of these things, that could well be nothing at all. Money dries up, timing windows close and projects wither on the vine every day. But maybe, just maybe, it could be something else. Maybe it could turn out to be something every bit as grotesque, sickening and beautiful as I'm imagining. Maybe, with a little nurturing, this awful, monstrous thing that my brain has vomited into my computer will seep its way out into the world, onto a screen and into your hearts.

Huh - now I'm hungry again. Onward!

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