By • Apr 24th, 2007 •

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Hilary Brougher, winner of the Waldo Salt award for Best Screenplay at The 2006 Sundance Film Festival recently spoke to filmmaking students at The City College of New York in Harlem. She brought clips of her new movie STEPHANIE DALEY starring Tilda Swinton, Timothy Hutton and Amber Tamblyn in the title role which opens in New York on April 20th. The film is about pregnant forensic psychologist Lydie Crane who is hired to learn the truth behind the case of 16-year-old Stephanie Daley, who is accused of concealing her pregnancy and murdering her infant. Hilary also offered her insight on the process of developing the Indie script.

M: What inspired you to write SD?

H: This is my second feature. My first feature was a very playful time travel movie called The Sticky Fingers of Time. With SD I wanted to write something more character-driven that would force me to work with actors in a different way. I was giving myself a challenge to do something I was afraid to do. I had this idea that I wanted to do a story about someone who was living two lives. A contrast between a secret internal life and the life presented to the outside world. This brought me to the idea of a teenager concealing a pregnancy. I researched a lot and came up with Stephanie who is fictional. As I was working with this story I realized a couple of things. The first is that a lot of people had stories that were related to Stephanie’s story. People who didn’t know they were pregnant and so on, but their stories didn’t always end tragically the way they do in the big headline cases. I also learned more about women closer to my own age who were getting ready to have their first child and were going through a fairly intense rite of passage. And it was usually a very quiet one, one they didn’t talk about. I thought this was particularly intriguing. Since I was working on a story about a teenager who doesn’t talk about being pregnant it became interesting to see grown-up women also choosing not to talk about it. These women were a little superstitious about the pregnancies they were going through, and of course what they were really going through was a real change in identity. They were nervous about how their pregnancies were getting ready to shift who they were. That’s where Lydie, (Tilda Swinton), the pregnant forensic psychologist, came into SD. I had wondered if this story was ever going to work. Both characters’ stories were very internal. Very subtle. It took me a long time to work out these subtleties. But the main points of the narrative were there from the beginning. What it really came down to was making the story work in how it intercut by creating tension between the two stories, each pushing the other along.

M: When you say it took a while to get the story to work, you’re talking about the script writing stage?

H: Yes, it took a very long time to write.

M: How long?

H: The script was being written over a period of seven years. Not seven years straight in one stretch. I walked away, I worked on other things. In all honesty it took about four years to write. It went through the Sundance Writer and Director Labs, and a few months after the script was pretty much where it was when we shot it. I then had kids. Twins. Three years passed. I did polishes. While I stayed home with my kids the script changed a little. But it pretty much had its bones and its shape and its nuances as of 2001. But I worked on it on and off for seven years.

M: It has been said that a typical period from conception to answer print is seven years.

H: It’s interesting because the body regenerates all its cells every seven years. A notable aspect about the timeline of this movie is it took forever to write and to find the right producers. But from the minute we had financing in mid-July in 2005 to the time we screened at the Sundance Film Festival took only six months. That’s everything: prep, shooting, post, print. Everything went very fast.

M: I imagine that the speed of getting the film done was due to the fact that the script was so well developed and worked out.

H: The script had been really thoroughly tested.

M: How did you test it?

H: It had been through the Sundance labs and the labs are an incredible development experience for an independent filmmaker. And I think that lack of development is the biggest challenge indies have to face. The Sundance Institute fills that need. The studio system has a development process, where scripts are rigorously worked out through this exhaustive pitching process, which includes creating a treatment, a draft and then lots and lots of people giving notes. Indie filmmakers are usually making films sort of on spec. We have to do all the development work ourselves somehow. We have to make sure the script is really working. It’s not an easy thing to do because you lose objectivity very quickly once you start working on your own project.

M: Who do you get feedback from on your scripts?

H: I’ve always been very rigorous using readers.

M: How to you go about doing this? Do you hire them?

H: I’m all for the idea of it, but basically over the years I’ve built up some people I trust and like. I don’t have a problem asking someone to read a script even if I’m not one hundred percent sure if I’m going to rely on them. I don’t mind off-base notes or criticism. I always give my scripts to three to five people and sometimes a few of them have never read a script before. And if they all have the same confusion or point where they get lost, or lose interest…then it’s a priority. Often that priority is something that’s not on my radar. And the other thing that I do is I’ve learned to be diagnostic. I’m not thrown if someone completely hates the script. I keep asking questions. I think one of the hardest things for someone who has just written a script is to hear suggestions. “Why don’t you change the ending to this?” or “Why don’t you change this character to a man?” What I’ve learned to do is to keep asking questions about these suggestions. “Where did they get lost? Or “Where did they stop liking the main character?” Often the scene before is off…or something is missing. And then I get my own answer. The suggestion is a symptom and I have to be very diagnostic to figure out how to get some results. It requires you to let go of your ego. It’s about getting to the root of the problem. It’s a really effective way of using any reader. I know at this point in my life not all readers are going to like everything. The three-to-five person rule gives me a sense of what I’ve written, is it working, are they getting it for the right reasons. They become a sounding board. I don’t have a problem using less experienced readers because I use them in an experienced way and the fact is I’m making films for all these people. Not just development people.

M: So let’s get back to the idea that the Sundance Lab experience emulates the studio development system

H: No, actually it is very different from the studio development system but the fact that any independent development system exists is essential. The way it works is in the Screenwriter’s Lab is that each lab fellow meets with two writers a day for two hours a day. And each day those two writers are meeting with all the other writers and talking about all the other fellows and their projects. This way there is an overall arc as you go from advisor to advisor. But the real beauty of the Sundance Lab is that everything gets put out in the open. You can’t hide any of your script problems or any of your own personal fears about what you are writing. It all comes out immediately. So you are very exposed, but at the same time it’s a nurturing environment, the advisors are tremendously professional. They have tricks and tools. What I found was I was assembling a toolbox. Every now or then someone would say something that would really strike me as a particularly great trick about the whole writing process. I would watch how the pros think. I started thinking about my own process and codifying it. I’ve made it into something I carry with me now. It was huge in terms of development of that script and it was also huge in my finishing my education as a screenwriter.

Let’s talk specifically about the writing process, outlining, treatment, index cards.

H: If I have an idea I make four Word doc files. They are: scene scraps, character arcs, back story, and finally plot, which essentially add up to an outline.

M: Where did you learn this? Did you invent it yourself?

This is just me organizing myself. If I have an idea for a scene, even if my three acts aren’t there I add it to the scene scraps. I keep working on the character arcs. I keep kind of shifting back and forth between the different files until the moment I feel that I’m ready to write the script. And that is when I have the basics of the plot down in its simplest form. That’s when it starts becoming a treatment. And then from a treatment I go and write the screenplay.

M: So you haven’t written a single screenplay line yet up until this point?

If I get hit with a bolt of inspiration for a scene, which is often where my films come from, the scene goes into my scene file. It can be a two-minute scene where characters have an exchange where something shifts. I certainly write them down and most of them make it into the finished script. But I don’t start writing the whole screenplay. I put those scene scraps separate so I can keep my left brain and my right brain both working. I try to respect them both.

M: That’s an excellent insight into the screenwriting process. Let’s talk a little bit more about the actual film SD. I felt that the film was balanced in terms of the issues. You could’ve come down hard and made “statements” but avoid doing so, which is what I liked about the movie. You leave it up to the audience.

H: I don’t think screenwriters should judge our characters because then we won’t be able to write about them in an honest, open-hearted way. SD starts out as a murder mystery and very quickly leaves the courtroom and goes into the bedroom and stays there. What it is really about is what do you do in the moral grey area, or in the judicial grey area. In the case of lot of these girls I researched…no one is ever going to know what really happened because they were alone, they were in an altered state, and there were no witnesses. And the evidence is ambiguous. And that’s pretty much the case with SD. What do you do in that situation? This is what I thought was very interesting. In SD what I’m trying to do is create accurate context. And I’m also trying to get people to bring their own experience to this film and start talking about them. It’s very much a film about not communicating and the power of what happens when you start communicating.

M: I felt there was a sadness in the fact that this young girl was dealing with this crisis all alone and how the lack of communication surrounding her was pervasive. Her parents don’t communicate with her, her friends don’t. She’s in a religious community that seems to be very alien and non-communicative. This leads me to the central idea of the story. William Goldman stated he will choose some central idea to “cling to” to help him get through a script. What idea did you cling to?

H: The central idea to me is how we deal with what we can’t control. That was really the burning thread for me personally. What do we do when we feel like we’re not in charge anymore and how do we react to how frightening this kind of situation can be. The big unknown issue of the story is pregnancy and the question for Lydie’s character is if her pregnancy will become unhealthy and for Stephanie the issue is she doesn’t want to be pregnant at all. They are both in denial about different things. Basically they are both in denial about something they are afraid of having happen. They are in denial of the fear. But while Stephanie is especially in denial about her physical state, Lydie is in denial of her own fear of her pregnancy? This is the big thread connecting the two stories. When we are faced with something much bigger than ourselves as people, what do we do? The thing that made it so worthwhile for me to keep working on it was the idea of people up against something bigger then themselves, coming to terms with such issues and ultimately communicating and facing where they were.

Michael Tierno is a filmmaker, story analyst, and the author of ‘Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters’.

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