Halle Butler, author of the intensely excellent new novel Jillian (Curbside Splendor), is at work on a movie called Neighborhood Food Drive, a dark comedy that she wrote with her partner, Jerzy Rose. They previously collaborated on Crimes Against Humanity. Halle and Jerzy need $$$$ to make the movie, and I really want to see it, so if you want to see it too, please check out and contribute to their Kickstarter. But first, here’s what Halle has to say about screenwriting.
Original drawings by Halle Butler for “The Restaurant Business”
How did you learn to do it?
I learned to do it by doing it, really. I was friends with a lot of filmmakers in college, and I worked with Jerzy on his first feature, doing costumes and props and acting (I played Amelia Earhart). When we finished shooting, I sat him down and said “You have to let me help you write the next one.” And, with that next one, Crimes Against Humanity, I just kind of jumped in. We combined our interests when we were outlining the script–Jerzy is into surrealism and absurdism, and I’m into something I would call “mean humor”–and then we took turns writing the scenes. I learned a lot from writing Crimes, like how to properly outline a long story, and weave a bunch of subplots together. It was and still is very intuitive, and I figured it out by failing and going back and doing it again.
How is it different?
It’s so different. When I write fiction I don’t share drafts until late in the game. With screenplays, I don’t write alone, so I have to share stuff immediately and talk about what’s working and what’s not. Also, in a lot of cases, I’ll be writing a scene that Jerzy came up with, or vice versa–so, it’s pretty fun to see him interpret what I mean by “and then there’ll be a psychotic training session” or whatever. And also, you know, you have actors performing your work. The whole process is really collaborative. And screenings! You don’t get to sit next to someone while they read your book and see if they liked it, but you do get to do that with movies.
How is it the same?
It’s still narrative. I love narrative. It’s still making characters up and putting them into situations that express something you can’t express in a casual conversation.
What has movie writing done for your fiction writing?
I think that there’s a kind of cutting in Jillian that’s very cinematic. I like putting very quick b-plot scenes here and there to keep things moving. I think it’s also helped me stay conscious of the fact that a novel is supposed to be entertaining–you know, I think my brutality as a self-editor has increased since working on screenplays, and I think that’s a good thing.
How was it to (co-)write this movie in particular?
I had these characters from a short, illustrated story called The Restaurant Business that Jerzy and I had wanted to develop into a movie for a while. We wanted to do something that was about ego-panic and a character who keeps strong-arming people into helping them, but who goes MIA as soon as the help is offered. We also wanted it to be weird and lean and funny in a non-traditional way. That was the start. We spent all last winter meeting with our friend Mike Lopez (a really, really funny artist who’s acted in most of Jerzy’s movies), board room style, with coffee and donuts, generating ideas and working on the characters and structure. We did three versions over the course of maybe 4 months, they all got killed, and then this final version of Neighborhood Food Drive was written shotgun style over a long weekend–which was great. Everything just kind of clicked and rearranged itself. So, a lot of initial leg-work, followed by a locked-in-the-office style frenzy.
What are some of your favorite movies?
Anything by Todd Solondz, but especially Life During Wartime. I really like the movie Safe by Todd Haynes, and Diary of a Mad Housewife by Frank Perry. Those movies all fall into the same category for me, of, like stressful-in-the-best-way–I’m laughing, but it’s really not funny.Catechism Cataclysm by Todd Rohal is one of my faves, the first time I watched it I think my jaw was just dropped–it’s sweet, hilarious, gross, terrifying–there’s really nothing else like it. And, um, um (sorry, I get list stress!): La Collectionneuse, Night of the Hunter, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Alien are some other recent faves.
Amy McDaniel teaches high school and runs 421 Atlanta, a very small press that publishes poetry and short prose. She is the author of two chapbooks, both with the words "Adult Lessons" in the title, and her writing has been published widely online and in print. She is the editor of Real Pants.
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