What I’ve Learned about Writing from Movies

GrubStreet Instructor, Ben Berman, discusses how we must learn to shift between different mindsets throughout the writing process.

My five-year-old is obsessed with Kung Fu Panda – though the scratches all over my neck are not from her best impersonation of Tigress but because every time we try to watch the movie she gets so scared that she clutches onto me for dear life.

I thought that it might alleviate her fears if we watched some behind-the-scenes videos of how the movie was made, and she loved seeing Jack Black dance around the microphone with wild eyes, as animated as his animated counterpart.

The second clip that we clicked on, though, was of three editors examining a scene frame-by-frame to make sure that the sound effects perfectly matched the images of Po jiggling down a mountain. I was amazed by how complex and precise of a process it was, though it only took about thirty seconds before my five-year-old asked if we could go back to watching Kung Fu Panda.

Seeing these clips reminded me of that old saying that a movie is made three times – once by the screenwriter, once by the director, and once by the editor – and got me thinking about how this plays out in the world of writing.

When we write with Screenwriter Mind, we know that much of what we produce won’t actually end up on the screen. This can be frustrating, of course, but it can also feel liberating to write without the pressure of getting every scene perfect.

For once we hand that initial script over to Director Mind, we know that they’re going to shoot every scene from seven or eight different angles, will encourage the actors to extemporize and embrace what George Saunders has described as “the improvisatory energy [of] figuring out how [we] get from one marker to the next.”

It’s dynamic and thrilling because at this point it’s still not about getting it right; it’s about collecting footage and playing with possibilities.

Then comes Editor Mind. Editor Mind is a control freak except without the sense of humor. Editor Mind has an autographed picture of Gordon Lish on their wall and a pencil drawer filled with erasers. Editor Mind used to be a tax attorney but wanted a career with a little less excitement.

The challenge, then, in writing – where you often have to play all of these roles by yourself – is figuring out how to transition between these very different mindsets throughout the creative process.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is to try to keep Editor Mind at bay for as long as you can. It can be tempting, at times, to send them dailies but nothing freezes Screenwriting Mind as much as having Editor Mind looking over their shoulder.

On the other end, it’s also important to try to keep Director Mind out of the editing room until they’re no longer attached to the process of filming – until they no longer care about how hard the worked on certain shots.

Better to lock all that footage away, once you’re done shooting, and let Director Mind move on to the next thing. Director Mind is relentlessly interested in this world – give them a week off and a cup of strong coffee and they’re ready to immerse themselves in an entirely new project.

And once Director Mind has spent a few months on something new, you can break out the old footage from the previous project so that Editor Mind can make the hard decisions of what to cut, reorder and fine-tune without Director Mind constantly interfering.

It’s not easy keeping all of these mindsets separate or constantly transitioning between them, but it’s also what keeps writing interesting – this complex and dynamic process that demands that we bring our full self, or perhaps many selves, to whatever we create.

Check out more of Ben Berman’s posts, here.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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