The Story Behind the Creation of THE PASSING SEASON
After writing so much about the journey that led me to write the script, I though it would be worthwhile to share some of it. For the next two days (the end of the Kickstarter campaign), I'll be posting excerpts. Here is the opening sequence.
If you'd like to help make this movie happen, please support the Kickstarter campaign here: bit.ly/passingseason
I'm a great procrastinator. It took me half an hour of watching the cursor blink to come up with that sentence. And it's very easy to procrastinate about filmmaking. Between writing the script, finding the money, hiring the crew, and actually filming the thing, there are endless opportunities for time-wasting activities whose primary purpose is to distract from the task at hand.
Deadlines are the only thing that work. The idea that I will post this essay, whether it's great or a total piece of crap, gets me to 1) write it and 2) try to make it good enough that I won't be embarrassed to post it. Deadlines in moviemaking are more complicated.
The deadline at the front of my mind is midnight December 2nd: the end of the Kickstarter campaign for my movie. I feel pretty confident, but I know it's possible that we won't make our goal. If I don't raise the $32,000, I won't get anything, and it will be significantly harder to make this movie. Nonetheless, I've given myself a deadline: I'm making this movie in June. The script may need to change, the funding process may become more complex, but I'm doing it. I know a lot of filmmakers who've gotten films made simply by setting a shoot date and going for it with whatever resources they have. It sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, a little motivational speaker-y, but I believe we have no idea what we're capable of until we're forced to do it.
If you'd like to help make this movie happen, please support the Kickstarter campaign here: bit.ly/passingseason
Colson Whitehead wrote a great essay after 9-11 called “Lost and Found.” He talks about how we define ourselves based on our memories of home, and how we navigate our relationship to our home when it changes and when we change. Here’s a piece of the essay:
Go back to your old haunts in your old neighborhoods and what do you find: they remain and have disappeared. The greasy spoon, the deli, the dry cleaner you scouted out when you first arrived and tried to make those new streets yours: they are gone. But look past the windows of the travel agency that replaced your pizza parlor. Beyond the desks and computers and promo posters for tropical adventures, you can still see Neapolitan slices cooling, the pizza cutter lying next to half a pie, the map of Sicily on the wall. It is all still there, I assure you.
He’s talking about New York but the idea holds true anywhere. Everywhere we go, we're building landscapes of memory, tacking emotional significance onto physical locations. But what happens when the place we hold dear changes radically? What happens when we change radically and are forced to find a new relationship to the memory of the place? Our sense of self is based on our relationship to these memories, but it's not a relationship we necessarily control.
My main character, Sam, returns to his hometown hoping to escape into an earlier, simpler time in his life. But his experiences force him to confront questions to which there are no simple answers: How do you hold on to the past without getting stuck in it? How do you leave the past behind without losing your sense of self? These aren’t questions with definitive answers, but through his journey I’m interested in exploring the complexity of memory, identity, and the necessity of moving forward.
Author's note: I had a lot of help from Rebecca Atwood on this one.
If you'd like to help make this movie happen, please support the Kickstarter campaign here: bit.ly/passingseason
#11: Getting Cut
Below is an excerpt from the script, the scene where Sam gets cut from his team.
#10: Identity and Fear
My main character, Sam, is afraid that without his identity as a hockey player he is worthless. I wrote this script because I'm fascinated by self worth. Specifically, how we find it and how we lose it.
A side effect of the competition in American culture is perpetual doubt. We used to have the midlife crisis, now it's given way to the quarter life crisis. Our interconnectedness allows us to track the rocket-like ascension of former classmates to the top of their fields, emphasizing whatever shortcomings we perceive in our own lives. And so the timeline we give ourselves to achieve success gets shorter and shorter.
The possibility of changing careers (not switching jobs, but actually moving from one type of career to another), is becoming a pipe dream, reserved for the very rich and the very lucky. So what do you do when your career comes to an end at 28? That's the question Sam faces. But in his story I've tried to address a broader issue: When the thought of reinvention is so loaded with fear, that fear lurks in the background of our lives, menacing us with the possibility of a layoff, preventing us from considering the possibility that what we want now is different than what we wanted at age 20.
#9: "You've got to sell your heart"
Rebecca, who is producing this movie (and marrying me), sent me the following letter. It's probably the most important advice I've ever gotten on storytelling. It's easy for me to get lazy or distracted and forget about it, so I read the letter over and over and over. It never gets old.
A young family friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wrote to him for advice on a story she'd written. This was his response.
November 9, 1938
I've read the story carefully and, Frances, I'm afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child's passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway's first stories "In Our Time" went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In "This Side of Paradise" I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he'll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is "nice" is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the "works." You wouldn't be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
In the light of this, it doesn't seem worth while to analyze why this story isn't saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,
Your old friend,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.
Special thanks to Letters of Note for making this letter accessible.
"I'm very aware that what I do doesn't change the world. It doesn't cure AIDS. It doesn't feed the homeless. I try to do a lot to inspire people. That has been the best thing in my life." -Vinny Pazienza, boxer
I've love this quote, and I think it applies equally to art and sports. "Inspiration" in the world of filmmaking might bring to mind Rocky or Remember the Titans, but I don't think it's that simple. If your movie makes people think differently, see the world through new eyes, or consider their lives in a new way, your movie is inspiring them to do these things.
Then there's the famous quote "If you want to send a message, call Western Union," variously attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, Moss Hart, and several other people. I look at these two quotes as balances on the scale of good drama. Pay too little attention to theme and you're just narrating a sequence of events, inspiring no one. Put too much focus on theme and you're simply "sending a message."
I think of good stories as Trojan Horses. It's the riveting narrative that draws the audience in. Only once they're hooked does the larger significance of the story reveal itself. When I was writing this script I felt it was critical to create a simple, engaging story: a minor league hockey player gets told that his career is over and, at a loss, he returns to his hometown to try to escape into an earlier, simpler time in his life. With that as the backbone, I tried to explore themes of nostalgia, regret, masculinity, confidence, and identity. I hope I got the balance right.
#7: Me and My Main Character
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Michael Bednarsky from Patch.com. The full interview is available here: bit.ly/pspatch
MB: Sam Alden, the main character of the film, is a hockey player from Little Compton. Besides your history with hockey and Little Compton, how else is The Passing Season autobiographical (if at all)? Is there some late-twenties or post-quarterlife crisis concern in there?
Me: I wanted to write something that I knew to bring authenticity to Sam's character, but I wanted to avoid creating a fictionalized version of myself. Once you do that it's easy to lose perspective and start writing a fantasy version of your own life that won't be very interesting for anyone else to watch. So I was careful to create Sam as a character who is quite distinct from me, but certainly the root of Sam's struggle is based on my feelings and experiences and those of my friends. I never had the rug pulled out from under me in terms of a career the way Sam does, but I saw that happen to friends and watched them really struggle with the idea of "If I'm not working as a (fill in the blank), then who am I?" These are interesting, smart people who have a lot going on, but suddenly the question "So what do you do?" becomes terrifying. My struggle was, in a certain sense, the inverse of Sam's. In my early and mid twenties I'd bounced around between jobs and apartments and there was freedom in that. It felt like nothing counted that much. There was this idea in the back of my mind that in the future I'd figure out who I wanted to be, but I didn't need to worry about that now. Then I got engaged, and in a variety of other ways my life suddenly became much more settled and I had this moment where I realized, wow, ready or not, everything counts now. Being intimidated by the fact that your life is taking shape is obviously a great problem to have, but it was a moment where I had to do a lot of growing up and there was a temptation to undermine things in my life as a way of escaping responsibility. Thankfully I didn't, but Sam in some ways follows through on taking a road that was tempting to me.
#6: The Decisive Moment
In high school I started taking photography classes. I thought it was great because you could make something good without having the kind of artistic talent you need for drawing or sculpting. I liked Henri Cartier-Bresson, who took street photographs and talked about capturing "the decisive moment," the single image that captures the whole story playing out in front of the camera.
In college I got into filmmaking and read Walter Murch's book about editing In the Blink of an Eye. When he's editing a film, he picks a representative frame from each shot to help him organize the footage. He writes that while he was editing The Unbearable Lightness of Being he noticed that his representative frames often came very close to his cut points. I thought that was a lot like Cartier-Bresson's idea. Snapping the shutter to capture the decisive moment is very similar to cutting off the end of a shot just after the critical frame.
When I write, I try to picture the scene and keep these ideas in mind. I think every scene has a decisive moment, an image that captures the essence of what's happening. Is it when the character looks up in surprise? The moment he hesitates before walking out the door? I'm always trying to find that and highlight it.
I started playing hockey in middle school and got pretty good, but when I got to high school it was much more competitive. Freshman year I was one of the worst players on the team. I threw myself into it anyway, and slowly, I improved. By my junior year I was the starting goalie, and then senior year, working harder than ever, I was a captain and we won the state championship. I took this progression as absolute proof that if I applied myself, I could achieve anything I ever wanted. And I desperately wanted to keep playing hockey.
I applied to Cornell, got in, and deferred for two years to play junior hockey in the hopes of getting recruited by a college team. I tried out for junior teams all over Canada, then wound up playing in Boston. Determined to succeed, I continued to push myself. I played well in a couple games, but I never got to be the starting goalie. By the spring I had no real prospects, and I decided to give it up.
I called Cornell and told them I wanted to come in the fall, rather than defer for another year. Then I sat down with my girlfriend, watched Gattaca, and cried like a baby. I was heartbroken that Ethan Hawke could overcome his genetic inferiority and make it into space, while I, genetically just fine, couldn't take my hockey career any further no matter how hard I tried. The absurd humor and monumental cheesiness of this moment was, sadly, lost on me at the time.
In the years since, I've realized that life is a lot more complex than I thought it was. I've learned that the lessons contained in my high school hockey success don't apply to everything. But, like Santa Claus, the memory still holds magic, and I try to believe in it as much as I can. And I still like Gattaca.
I obsess about structure. People who sit down and write a story without knowing where it's going amaze me. I plan, make notes, and decide on turning points before I start writing. Then I write tons of drafts, twisting and melding old scenes into new arcs. I have to fight to smooth it out and avoid formulaic constructions, but it's the only way that works for me.
One of my favorite stories is the one Bruce Springsteen tells as an introduction to "The River" on his Live 1975-85 album. "When I was growing up, me and my dad used to go at it all the time, over almost anything" he begins, "I used to have really long hair, way down past my shoulders…and oh man, he used to hate it." It's a great setup, quickly sketching the nature of his relationship with this dad and laying the foundation for the story. He paints vivid scenes: huddling against the wind in a phone booth talking to a girlfriend for hours to avoid going home and confronting his dad. Returning home and tucking his hair into his collar in the driveway before walking inside. The tension between father and son builds until his father tells him "I can't wait til the army gets you…They're gonna cut all that hair off and they'll make a man out of you."
The backdrop for this comment is the increasing fear, among Springsteen and his friends, of getting drafted. Each scene builds on the last: a former bandmate stops by the house in uniform before leaving for Vietnam, other boys from the neighborhood get drafted and never come home. Finally the draft notice comes and Springsteen hides it from his parents. He dissapears, meets up with his friends, and stays up for three nights before the physical. He fails the physical and returns home, where his mother and father are sitting in the kitchen waiting for him. Springsteen narrates the dialogue between him and his father:
- Where you been?
- I went to take my physical.
- What happened?
Everything in the story has built to this moment. You picture a long haired, nervous, and sleep deprived young man, equally elated that he won't be going to Vietnam and terrified of his father's rage at his having dodged the draft.
- They didn't take me.
- That's good.
It's an incredibly eloquent evocation of teenage alienation and of a father's love, buried for so long under misguided ideas about raising his son, showing through at a critical moment. And it's a simple story, told in a style that suggests these scenes are coming to Springsteen as he's telling them. But the casual tone belies the story's carefully crafted structure. The payoff is built from the first words, each scene leading to the next with no extraneous parts. It's captivating without appearing to try to be. And that's what I'm always striving for in my writing.
My first dream was to be a hockey player. In the film, that's my main character's dream as well. For me it ended early, but Sam, my main character, goes a long way with hockey and winds up suffering for it. I played in high school, then played a year of junior hockey after graduating, but I didn't get recruited to play in college. I gave it up at 19 and started college looking for something else to focus on. Sam is 28 when he gets told that his career is over, his whole identity is wrapped up in hockey, and the end of his career completely upends his life.
The tricky thing about dreams is that they pit you against the world. For every prodigy who has the makings of a star in childhood, there are hundreds of other people who get told over and over that they're not going to make it, but keep pushing forward until they achieve success. These people aren't the exception, they're the rule. So you're fighting for something that lots of people are telling you is out of reach, and the only way to get what you want, the only way to become a success story, is to keep fighting, keep ignoring the voices telling you it's not going to happen. But the flip side side is that if it doesn't work out, there's not only the disappointment of having fallen short, but also an overwhelming "I told you so" echoing at you from every direction.
So what are you supposed to do? Only try for what's reasonable? Second guess yourself at every turn so you won't be disappointed if it doesn't work out? Accept crushing failure and humiliation as part of life? If there's a good solution I haven't found it. But I wanted to talk about it, so I wrote this script.
Reinvention is terrifying. And the older you get the harder it gets. But it's the natural state we exist in. There are greater and lesser degrees of it, but it's always there. I used to think that if I achieved certain things, got the right job or found the right girl, my life would be settled.
Then I fell in love. If you've also done this then you know that a relationship isn't something that's ever permanently settled. Relationships are constantly in flux, reinventing themselves on the fly like diabolical sci-fi creatures. We examine our romantic histories by looking at the starts and ends of relationships, but that synopsis ignores the many different relationships we've had with each person. There are the obvious dividing lines, the night you said you loved each other, the day she moved out, but there are also less obvious shifts: the moment you first thought you might spend your life with this person, the moment you realized that would never happen, which was a whole year before you broke up.
Reinvention's inevitability doesn't make it any easier. Not only do we have to figure out what comes next, but we have to say goodbye to what we're used to, and that may be the hardest part. I thought about that a lot when I was writing this script.
My main character's struggle and mine are the same: to embrace the necessity of reinvention. My main character, Sam, loses something huge, and his initial reaction is to retreat. He tries to evade the perpetual forward-spinning cycle of reinvention by going home to reinhabit one of his former selves and repeat a cycle he's already been through. That fails, and he ultimately recognizes the need to push forward but - like I've done, like a lot of people do - he creates an enormous amount of collateral damage in his fight to avoid moving into the unknown.
Most people have a special attachment to their hometown, and growing up in a coastal Rhode Island town certainly had a big impact on me. When you grow up in a beautiful, pastoral place and wind up living in a city, there's a seductive quality about the place you come from. You remember the beaches, the afternoon light in the trees, the sunset bike ride you took with your high school crush when everything seemed possible. You break out of there, but there's always a little part of you that stays behind. You remember it as a magical place. That's how it feels for me and how it feels for my main character, Sam. He goes back home to try to escape the difficult realities of his adulthood and try to recapture that magic. When he makes the decision to go home he doesn't acknowledge how much the magic had to do with youth as opposed to location.
I went to high school in Providence, and that was my first experience with getting out. In high school I got into writing fiction. I didn't write a lot, but when a fiction assignment came up I was drawn to storytelling. In one class we read William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Here's a little bit of it:
[The writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
It wasn't some kind of "ah ha!" moment, but from then on, in the back of my mind there was this idea of, "ok, what I'm interested in is telling stories." And as I worked through Sam's story I kept returning to this, asking myself what the "universal bones" of his story are. And that kept me focused on the idea of home. For Sam it's strongly connected to his hometown, but I think everyone has a memory of some moment in their youth, even if it was fleeting, when they felt safe and protected and at home. And there are inevitably moments later on when we desperately want to go back there, even though we know it's not possible.