Part III: Writing a treatment is like writing a short story. It must be complete, interesting, detailed-but-not-too-much, engaging, and must establish the “flow” of the entire screenplay.
The inciting idea for starting a screenplay is either a) a cool premise or setting, b) an interesting character, c) an important and stimulating theme, or d) an interesting plot. If your starting point is d, then you have to create (or discover) characters, themes, and settings to fit your plot. You have the spine; you need to adorn it with organs, muscles, and skin. If you starting point is a b or c, then you have your work cut out for you. You have the idea for an interesting eye, or a compelling person, and you need to invent (or discover) all of the actions that person will take.
We started with a cool premise. We came up with a related theme we liked. Now the plot.
The treatment demands that you translate all ethereal interesting abstractions into a scene-by-scene narrative. Sure the character is going to go through a worldview crisis, but where does he work, at what time in his life are we introduced to him, what seemingly insignificant events eventually culminate in this crisis?
Dizzy and I had our work cut out for us. David Allen once said that “leadership is the ability to turn ‘vague ambiguous stuff’ into action items.” We had a character, a theme, an idea… And we wanted a script. With manful self-will, we simply began.
According to the schedule, the treatment was to be completed with about two weeks of concentrated effort. It would define the beginning of the story, the introductory scenes and characters, and began defining the notoriously recalcitrant Act II, and would suggest (briefly) the climax, resolution, and ending of the story. Through an extended series of heated arguments and conversations, Dizzy and I created a 1st draft treatment, discussed it to death, and began the long, hard road to a Final Treatment.
On warm and windy July 4th, we met at Dizzy’s apartment in Los Angeles. We had six hours set aside, Wheat Thins, water, and two Macs. After three hours of difficult work, we had come to agreement on almost everything… The second Act would take place in the forest completely, good. The first act would begin with a dream sequence. Good. But the ending? Would he live or die? Would they escape quietly, or fight for their lives? Where does it end?
It was time for a break. While the rest of America celebrated its independence with exploding powder and bbq’d beef, we had hunched over computers and yelled over pacing and thematic unity. We emerged into the evening air with drinks in our hands and the smell of smoke in our lungs. We hopped Dizzy’s balcony fence to stand on the rock-paved roof of his apartment garage, overlooking one of the Los Angeles Valley’s. The Hollywood sign stood loud and proud in fading twilight to the North; the noble and austere Los Angeles skyscrapers grew dimmer and dimmer as each employee turned off his light and went home to be with family; the now-familiar and yet totally out-of-place California palm trees spotted the landscape… All around us, firecrackers exploded like little gunshots, with the sporadic regularity of popping-corn. Night fell. The Fireworks began.
We rubbernecked from extreme to extreme of the panoramic view of Los Angeles, trying to take in the three visible fireworks shows. The Hollywood Bowl show straight ahead, a show at a park to the South, and just over the hill, who-knows what show to the North. The wind blew and the reverberating shockwave from each seismic atmospheric
explosion massaged our ears and our hearts into patriotic fervor. As the Fireworks climaxed and subsided, Dizzy and I opened our mouths to sing out over the Los Angeles basin an impromptu duet composition of the Star Spangled Banner. Our patriotic sentiments discharged, we returned to the apartmental cave to finish our work.
By 2:00 AM our spirits were low. We exchanged angry critiques of each others suggestions, without offering constructive alternatives. The ending would not come; treatment was not done.
All human beings are unrealistic perfectionists… We are all, at bottom, optimists. Even the pessimists are dissatisfied with the way things are because of the heavy and vexing awareness of how they ought to be. Though this pervasive perfectionism is one of the greatest puzzles of and clues to our human nature (where did we get the Idea of Eutopia and Eudaimonia if we have never seen it before?), inappropriately handled, it is also a stifling source of despair and anger. No matter how good things our, our family, our job, our artwork, we can always seem to imagine it better. And sometimes it feels that, if something cannot exist perfectly, it ought not exist.
There is a tendency in artistic communities to indulge in this feeling completely. Stories of painters obsessively working on a single painting for years, re-painting what they have done, burning, white-washing, or otherwise trashing apparently masterful work, are common.
Though as an artist and a writer I feel this temptation strongly (on some occasions overwhelmingly strongly!) it must be guarded against. It is a parasitic distraction that has prevented numberless worthwhile pieces of art from coming to be, and would prevent all artistic creation, if it had its way, until death or the Kingdom come. But the perfect must not be the enemy of the good.
The greatest single practical strategy to prevent this feeling from overwhelming young artists that I can recommend is the universal, consistent, and strict use of deadlines. The psyche loves a deadline like the dog loves a bone. It gives us something to strive for, and a boundary against which our destructive perfectionistic tendencies must break.
July 4th was our deadline. Though, according to the clock, July 4th had passed, yet the day had not come to close for us. We awoke that morning, and not been to bed yet… Nor would we, until the draft was finished. Facing the impending threat of failure to achieve our goal, in the intense heat of the crucible of artistic disagreement, and under the pressure of our self-imposed deadline, we came to an agreement. We would provisionally accept one of the many proposed possible endings; we would put it on paper. We would write it down and call it complete.
With this decided, it was short work. The ending was drafted. Dizzy and I shook hands, congratulated each other, and collapsed into our respective beds. The treatment was done.