Every script can (and should) be a learning experience for the writer. The more we write, the more we experiment and stretch, and the quicker we learn what works and what doesn't. We take these learnings to our next script, where we build on them and learn more. And then we do it again. And again.
Writer/Director Stefan Schaefer learned a lot while working on the script for his movie, Confess. He benefited from public readings, workshops, and mentors. But he didn't stop there. He continued to refine his script all the way through production and post-production, and in the process produced a small but powerful movie that went on to win the Best Screenplay award at the 2005 Hamptons International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Film and Best Screenplay at the 2006 Method Fest.
Confess is a movie about technology that uses that same technology to tell its story. Or, as Marshall McLuhan used to say, the medium is the message. This is a political story, about Terell, a young man who uses video confessions first to avenge wrongs in his own life, and then moves on to gathering confessions for all of society's sins.
Author John Gaspard speaks to Stefan Schaefer about the screenwriting process.
What was your screenwriting experience before starting Confess?
I wrote my first screenplay in 1995, and of course like most first-timers I thought, "Oh, this won't be so hard." I'd read a bunch of screenplays and thought I had a decent understanding of structure and how to subvert structure.
How did you come up with Confess?
In about 1999, I read this article in The New York Times about these young hackers who were being hired by security firms and the government to counter-hack and protect corporate and government assets. I thought it would be an interesting documentary to pursue. I started meeting with them, and they were all really reluctant to be interviewed and to go on tape. So I thought this was a great world, but it was hard to get access to it.
At the same time I was reading about the revolutionary impulses happening in Southern Mexico and about Subcomandante Marcos, this charismatic revolutionary figure down there. He was using the media in an interesting way, writing these weekly treatises to the newspapers in Mexico City, and he became this underground media figure and revolutionary. And I got to thinking what could an anti-corporate, anti-establishment quasi-revolutionary movement look like in the U.S.?
These two influences led me to the idea that one of the few viable options for voicing political dissent and undermining government and corporate agendas is via the Internet.
So I began sketching out a story about an ex-hacker who begins a series of abductions and forced confessions which, when he broadcasts video clips of them via the Internet, gives him a mythic status among those who are disaffected, disillusioned, angry at the status quo.
What process did you go through writing the script?
This was a script that helped me come up with the way I write now. I gave myself deadlines that I wanted to meet; I wanted to get a first draft done in X amount of weeks. So I would try to write every morning, five days a week at least.
It doesn't have to be that way. Things have evolved; I have a kid now. Now I go to a writing space, the Brooklyn Writing Space, that's the most productive place for me to be. It's a 24-hour access carrel situation, with no Internet access. I just find that without the distraction of a phone or checking e-mails or going on-line to do research and ending up deep in some Internet tangent, it helps me focus.
I also used an outline/step sheet structure with Confess as we did revisions. I did a lot of drafts of this script. And I would go back to the Step Sheet and try to re-organize things.
One of the tools you used very effectively in the shaping of this script was gathering information and reactions from public readings of the script, in particular the Fifth Night reading series. How did you get into that reading?
I submitted it, randomly. They had an on-line submission and I sent it in, and like most of these things you submit to, after months you think it's just fallen into an abyss. But then I got a call from Alex, who runs it, and she was enthusiastic about it. So I was lucky enough to do it.
What were some of the benefits of having that reading?
There were two or three hundred people there, so I got a lot of feedback just in terms of the script, but also working with actors even just for an afternoon and hearing their feedback helped me.
It was painful; there were moments where I remember standing up in the balcony watching and I just thought, "Oh my god, some of these scenes are just deadly." I wanted to hurl myself from the balcony.
So you saw some immediate changes you wanted to make while watching the reading?
Oh, yeah. And also having people react to it, laughing where you didn't think there should be a laugh, or just noticing people not being so engaged or really being engaged. I saw a lot of potential to make cuts, where scenes dragged on too long, the point was made, or ways that I could just jump right into a scene as opposed dragging it out as I had.
Taking a script through a workshop can be another valuable tool, and you had the good fortune of doing just that at the Hamptons Screenwriting Conference. How did that come about?
Going to The Hamptons came out of the Fifth Night reading as well. They were interested in projects that involved technology, and so they asked me to submit it, and I guess it fit into that category.
They gave the script to two mentors, and I spent a full afternoon with Larry Lasker (War Games, Sneakers), talking about it. He'd read it in advance and gave me feedback. He helped me a lot with the structure of it, but he also said, "Up the stakes. Have him target higher-profile people."
What was interesting was that I saw parallels in the feedback I was getting, and they came from people from different backgrounds. I figured if these people who are much more experienced are seeing similar possibilities and problems, then I have to suck it up and realize that I need to look at it again.
This was also true when we had a rough cut put together and started showing it to people. My feeling is that if three-quarters of the people are having a problem with a scene, then you've got to look at it.
Did you do any re-writing once your cast was in place?
Minor re-writing. More of the re-writing took place in post-production than on set.
There was one scene that I'd rehearsed a couple of times, and in the rehearsals it just didn't seem to be working so well. It was the first scene where Terell and Greg re-meet each other. The actor who played Greg, in particular, wasn't happy with the climax of the scene. So I listened to that and wrote another version and we all felt that it worked a little better.
So that was something that we rehearsed and then the day before we shot it I gave them the changes. It wasn't in the moment of actually shooting. There is some ad-libbing in the movie, but by and large it was shot the way it was written.
It what point in the process did you decide to open the movie with the flash forward of the senator's kidnapping?
That was in post. That was driven by the whole idea of editing and re-editing, and the idea that it's kind of an edited universe and that Terell is editing what people are saying to make a point. We thought that would be an underlying idea while people are watching this movie.
That was one of the first structural changes that we made in post. We screened it for a few other filmmakers and that was an idea we had after hearing their comments, and we decided we'd try it. And we liked it.
What other structural changes did you make in post?
There were some second and third act scenes that we cut, sub-plots. They worked, the actors were good and the production value was good, but for the sake of moving the story forward and wanting to move toward the climax and resolution, they just seemed extraneous. It was hard for me, but in hindsight where I have a little better perspective, I feel like we made the right choices in terms of those scenes.
We had always scheduled in a couple days to some pick-ups and re-shoots, and so that scene with Eugene Byrd and Melissa Leo on the pier, that was something that I wrote during post-production and had them come back.
Jonathan Stern is a pretty experienced producer and he budgeted that we would have two extra days to do some pick-ups around the city but then also maybe do some re-shoots. So we were fortunate enough to have Eugene and Melissa come back and shoot that. I think it helps the emotional arc of the story.
What did you learn from writing Confess that you'll take to future projects?
I find that the more I write, and the more I write in a collaborative way -- working with producers -- the less angry I get when I hear criticism. That's just the evolution of it all. You get so attached to something, and it's great to be able to step back and hear comments and not see it as an attack.
I don't know if it came specifically out of doing this project, but I feel like the more scripts I write, the better I am at hearing people and assessing whether I'm holding onto something for emotional reasons or whether it serves the story.
I learned the value in having mentors look at it or having a staged reading of it. It's interesting, this script has opened up a lot of things for me. People like this script and I got several jobs out of it, just the screenplay.
What's the best advice you've ever received about writing?
Keep doing it, very consistently, over and over. I think I've written fourteen screenplays, and most of them will never be produced. But I learned something from every one of them.
Do you have any advice for someone starting a low-budget script?
I would encourage people not to worry so much about the budget. Write the script, get your ideas down, and then you can always tweak it. You can always change the location of a scene, you can always tone down the more expensive aspects of the script.
I think it's pretty common that someone imagines it will be a 5 million dollar movie, and then all of a sudden two years later they get $500,000 or $300,000 and they're shooting it HD or in DV.
It works differently, but it still works.