Suddenly, out of nowhere, a feeling appears. It might be scary, it might be happy, it might be warm, or rather cold, but what you do know is that it is perfect. Whatever fire has started in your head burns so brightly that you know it is worth writing. All you need to do is get it out onto the page. Then you actually write it, and you realize that you didn’t really have what you thought you had. Maybe the character flaw isn’t strong enough, maybe you’re just not that good at writing dialogue, or maybe there aren’t enough symbols.
Slowly, something kills that fire, and you’re left with the disparate story elements you saw fit to conjure.
The most constructive filmmaker for learning screenwriting for me was Terrence Malick. To anybody who knows what any of that means, it might sound like an oxymoron. While he began with them, Malick has become infamous for all but abandoning his scripts.
There was a time a few years ago, when my reaction to that fire dying was utter panic. After all, I was supposed to be able to create this perfect thing. I knew how it felt, I knew what it was about, but I wasn’t able to see the forest for the trees. Even when I finished a screenplay, I didn’t care. It was something that felt manufactured. Writing was not emotionally satisfying.
So, I did what I always do when life gets hard—I re-watched some of my favorite movies. As I circled through the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Kelly Reichardts, and the Stanley Kubricks, I came around to Malick's 1978 film Days of Heaven.
Days of Heaven is one of those movies you wish you’d written. One of those perfect (to me) emotional experiences that gives you something beyond the physical realm.
It’s nice to know that something of such immense power was also born out of a fraught situation. The film’s editor, Billy Weber, is famously quoted saying, “When we had cut it together as a full-on dialogue movie, it wasn’t turning out the way that we hoped ... so we wanted to take a different approach to it ... but we didn’t know what that approach should be” (1).
That approach eventually became the flurry of rhythmic and emotional montage that make that film as powerful as it is.
Similarly, there’s a segment in a 2017 SXSW interview with Malick (a RARE thing, to say the least) about Song to Song, where someone in the audience asks rather candidly why he used a piece of music. That it had left them, “... shocked.” Malick replies simply that, “We just wanted to use it to represent Michael [Fassbender]’s character suddenly haunted by the death of his wife ... we didn’t expect that anyone would understand the words” (2).
It’s a moment of shocking honesty from the writer/director. He’s simply saying that it felt right, and hopefully that was enough.
It was in the mixture of all of this that I came to a shocking realization. That maybe, as long as I know what feeling motivated the writing, it didn’t matter where it went.
I started writing again. I wrote until I couldn’t write anymore, and then I made something up. I made up a new symbol or a new plot point just to give the story a little bit more gas. As long as it fit that initial perfect feeling, I trusted that it was going to be okay. Sure, many of the drafts went unfinished, but with every new start, I’d have a new symbol or plot point to bake in. I’d have a richer script to write.
This did two things for me: it allowed me to write more expressive work, and it allowed me to enjoy the expressive work that I was writing.
Something that you’ll hear a lot is that because most stories are the same, it’s the way you write them that makes all the difference. What you won’t hear so much is that a good way to make a story your own is to spitball whatever you want into it. Something Malick is often accused of is being repetitive. This is true, but what makes each film similar separates them from anything else you could be watching. Sure, your spitballs might have some of the same DNA (for some reason, a repeating thing in my work is dead children during the “All is Lost Moment”), but they’re yours. You can feel them.
It makes writing—and creating—an adventure, too. If a script is completely planned out, it can often be a means to an end. The fire is suffocated before it can even burn. A lot of the joy that comes from writing for me comes from that “EUREKA” moment where I suddenly figure out a new angle to the writing. What Malick’s process taught me is that the sloppiness of this approach is okay as long as you’re consistent.
This is where knowing theory can help you, too.
Completely embracing any particular model for the writing process and structure can make your idea wither on the branch, but having a vague concept of the direction you can go allows you to work within those parameters. With each new spitball, each new angle, the script gets stronger and stronger.
And what’s better? You enjoy writing it.
This extends beyond writing, too. I wrote/directed a film back in January of 2019 that I initially had no idea what to do with. It was too dialogue-heavy, and it felt too heavy-handed. Every new edit just made the film longer and less compelling. That was until I decided to focus the edit on just improvising the emotions of the film.
What’s fun about visual language is that as heavy-handed as something is in dialogue, the same idea conveyed by two different images or symbols contrasted against each other will always obscure some of the bluntness. It’s a truly beautiful thing to see when you’ve achieved that.
If there’s a reason that I write a screenplay, it’s because the intensity of that initial feeling compels me to do so. From Malick, I learned that the best way to be creative is to protect that at all costs. I’ve seen a lot of writers discuss the efficiency of the outline. I’ve seen a lot of writers discuss just pushing through the first draft.
I’m here to suggest that you do whatever makes you feel good. Whatever feels right. For me, what Malick represents is a filmmaker who has found a Zen in his process. He taught me that freely creating can result in something that isn't messy.
You just have to know where the feeling is.
- Beyda, Kent. “Billy Weber on Days of Heaven.” Cinemontage.org, 1 Sept. 2013,
- “Michael Fassbender & Terrence Malick Talk about ‘Song To Song’ at the SXSW (Austin, Texas).” YouTube, 11 Mar. 2017.
*Feature Photo: scene from Days of Heaven / Paramount Pictures (1978)