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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Re-Search and Ye Shall Find

Without saying too much specifically (yet), I'll just say that I'm deep into some research at the moment. And it got me thinking that I have never really posted about the research process. Which is somewhat peculiar, because I love research. It is actually one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

About the closest I got to posting about research was HERE, where I discussed some of the research I did for Hell in Wheels. But the details of that post might tell you a bit about my process.

When I'm beginning work on a screenplay, it usually starts from a mere kernel of an idea. Some cool little tidbit I heard about, or a "wouldn't it be cool if..." kind of concept. Once I decide to start focusing more attention on that, and wanting to develop it more into a screenplay, I do what I would call "immersion research." What I mean by that is that the research is less focused, and more about learning the subject and world of the idea. This research focuses on two distinct methods and areas.

The first is research for subject matter. I read everything I can about anything connected to the world of the film. I pick up books and watch TV shows or videos that focus on the subject matter. I also do lots of web searches for various terms, letting one thing lead me to another with a decided lack of focus. When I'm involved in this phase of research, focus can be a negative. I am not trying to learn specific details, but rather aiming to become a junior expert in the subject.

This purpose of this research is manifold. Firstly, it helps me become more comfortable writing about the field. But more importantly, it will often supply me with details that aid me in developing my kernel of an idea into a full-fledged outline. Many of the specific plot points that happen in Hell on Wheels, for example, came from such immersion research. Specific weapons, set-piece scenes, and minor characters all grew out of details I came across during my unfocused research on the Transcontinental Railroad specifically, and western frontier life in general.

In another script that I had done research for (and which remains unwritten to date, but which I still hope to write eventually), I made a more significant discovery during the research process. I had started from a really interesting kernel for a period romance film set in a cigar factory in Cuba at the turn of the 20th Century. So I set about reading as much as I could about cigars and Cuban culture. A short passage I read in one book was excerpted from another book, but I found it intriguing, and set about tracking down the slightly hard to find book. When I finally got my hands on it, and read it, I realized that it actually supplied the perfect thematic background for the film. And from that theme I was able to develop characters and plotlines.

Other good methods for this type of research include visiting locations, or maybe even volunteering for work in a certain field. These certainly require more effort, but can prove well worth it. I have an idea for a film on modern piracy which I may or may not ever end up writing, but if I do proceed with it, I intend to take a trip down to the docks in San Pedro, and possibly see if I can arrange a few visits on board some commercial ships.

In addition to the subject matter research I do during the immersion phase, I also do genre research. I watch lots of movies, both good and bad, that relate to the screenplay I want to write. They might be in the same genre, or they might cover similar subject matter. My point is not to copy from them. In fact, I usually try to do the opposite -- see what has already been done and try to avoid doing it again. This happened to me in the first screenplay I ever finished. I was writing The Joint Effort, a "weed comedy" (of which you can read the first page HERE), and had a lot of funny tidbits that I wanted to put in. But then I sat down and rewatched Half Baked, which I hadn't seen in a very long time, but which I consider the best of the genre. To my chagrin, I realized that a number of the cool ideas I had were actually from that movie, and simply buried in my subconscious, origins forgotten. So I had to eliminate them, and find more good gags to include.

I also watch as many related movies as possible to discover what makes the good ones work, and the bad ones fail. That helps guide me in my development process as well. This is not the same as copying details from other films. Rather it helps aim development efforts in the right direction.

So that's the "immersion research" phase. Following that, as the concept kernel continues to gestate, and I start to put the pieces of my initial outline together, my research becomes more focused. For example, I might try to learn how specific weapons work, or how a specific type of job is performed. It is during this phase of research that I will begin to do interview research as well. Were I to meet with a person with some expertise in a certain field, it would waste both of our time if I arranged to meet him/her during the immersion phase. That would entail just sitting down to "shoot the shit." And while that might be entertaining, it would presumably be less effective. But once I'm looking for more specific details, meeting with experts can be quite helpful and beneficial.

For The Joint Effort, I met with an editor from High Times to ask some specific questions about cultivation and breeding (and before you ask, no -- I never put this knowledge into practice in real life, just in the screenplay). A different time, I met with a well-known creative executive from the advertising world in order to learn more about the way a certain character would do his job. And by the way, in both of these cases, all it cost me was a coffee or some sushi. People are generally happy to talk about themselves if you just ask.

Anyway, that is my overall process in research. I hope it gave you some good ideas, or inspiration. What other types of research do any of y'all do? Any favorite researching stories?

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Blogger Christina Shaver said...

So far (one spec and one idea still brewing), I haven't done much research. But that's about to change.

I'm re-writing the spec from top to bottom, realizing that there are holes I need to fill.

I think the bulk of my research will be in chat rooms online asking people who've "been there, done that." I'm not looking for journalistic facts here, but what kind of emotional responses people had to events like miscarriage and giving up a baby.

1:10 AM  
Anonymous Joshua James said...

Just tagged ya, bro . . .

5:22 PM  

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