Friday, October 1, 2010

Day 176: The Usual Questions

On a screenplay of mine called The Detective I worked with a script editor - Matthew Dabner - on the second draft; Matthew is also a screenwriter in his own right (The Square) but was a diligent and thorough guide and companion, to this writer, on that draft. I’ve tried to secure his services since, on other pieces, but between his own writing and work at Screen Australia, Matthew’s dance card is pretty full these days.

At some point in the journey of that second draft, probably in the midst of getting lost, creating the Step Outline, Matthew gave me the following “usual” questions to ask of the story so far, in an effort keep me on track. I think these questions can be used as a litmus test at any point in the journey of a screenplay, even for analysis once a film is completed. Let me use the William Hurt film, The Doctor (1991), a redemption story, to demonstrate:

Dr Jack McKee (William Hurt) a successful and rich surgeon with no problems in his professional or personal life; he’s in a thriving practice with two other surgeons and in a happy marriage with a wife and child

WHAT DOES HE WANT (tangible goal/conscious desire/text):
Early on in the story, Jack is diagnosed with throat cancer; he, like all patients, wants to be cured

WHAT DOES HE NEED (intangible/unconscious goal/subtext):
Jack needs to get a “bedside manner”. Abrasive, arrogant, cold and unavailable - at work and increasingly home, once diagnosed with the cancer - Jack finds himself on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship, seeing hospitals. medicine and procedures from a very different perspective

His career (he can’t practice while going through the final stages of his treatment), his practice (when Jack begins to see things from a different perspective, he refuses to lie in order to back his partner up in a malpractice lawsuit) his marriage (during his treatment, Jack befriends a fellow cancer patient - a young woman called June - adding to the alienation and distancing Jack’s wife already feels), his life (this, of course, is cancer that Jack is dealing with).

Because, even though Jack McKee is an uncaring and, seemingly unfeeling guy, we all know what it’s like to endure invasive medical procedures, to be at the mercy of a medical system that sometimes forgets that we are human beings with lives and loved ones, to be around those we care for when they are sick, to be confronted with the prospect of our own mortality, and how it feels, in that fearful dark night of the soul when we are scared and alone during all of this.

In an operating theatre and a marriage where he has little compassion, pity and patience for those who need, trust and rely on him, espousing these character traits and promoting them in the interns under his care and guidance.

Taking the time to personally reassure a patient who is in his hands, about to have a heart operation, Jack does everything he can to allay the fears of the man and his family. In his own family life, through the recuperation and convalescence from his illness, Jack has learnt to open up to his wife and allow her into the vulnerable parts of his world. And at the hospital, Jack creates a role-play situation for his young interns whereby they will sample and endure many, if not most, of the procedures that they will be prescribing for those they are going to care for.

The ear, nose and throat specialist that treats Jack with an appalling bedside manner
June, the fellow-patient jack befriends, from whom he learns humility, kindness and courage
The young Jewish surgeon (often bearing the brunt of Jack’s mocking) who agrees - at Jack’s request - to operate on him
Being on the other side of the patient-hospital relationship
Undergoing illness and treatment
Living with the fear that the disease may consume you
June’s death
Jack being without a voice, post-operation
The very real possibility that they might not save his vocal chords in the operating procedure
Going through radiation treatment
Watching others, at close-quarters, go through the same treatment
Travelling alongside fellow-patients, watching them deal with their own fears
Lying to June to boost her hopes of recovery and being found out
Shutting off from his wife and not sharing his fears wife her
Helping a man - physically and emotionally damaged - because of his partner’s malpractice

I could go on and on with this list.....

Day #176 Tip: There’s always more to do
There are several versions of the questions Matthew gave me that are around in the industry - Robert McKee’s “Key Questions” and his “10 Commandments”, the examining questions offered by UK scriptwriting hothouse Arista - and they are all good tools that I use to to interrogate my own writing, that of others or scripts that I read & films I watch.

The job’s never quite done, there’s always further to go.

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