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Friday, 17 January 2014

02. The Script: Making the Ledge End Legible (Part One)

I realise alot of people reading this won't have actually seen the film yet, so for now what you need to know is The Ledge End of Phil (from accounting) is the story of Phil, a meek office worker who after chasing a page onto the ledge of his building finds himself trapped outside. Phil quickly realises his only hope of getting back inside is a seagull who has conversely been trapped inside. The gull however is too busy picking apart Phils life i.e. the items on his desk. But as night falls Phil begins to take notice of the world beyond his office.

Up until now my focus had been on writing funny scenario's for Phil as he tries to get back inside. But now there was a chance i may actually get the film made I started stripping down the story to find what it was beneath the surface I was connecting to. Not just that, i realised i wanted to make a film i'd like to see. This seems obvious, but the shorts i'd made in the past where film's i wanted to make, but not necessarily watch. So i wrote some guidelines on what i did and didn't want to do

No dialogue. Phil never had a voice in any version of the story. He never needed one, it was more about his actions and reactions
No narration. I find narration is used too often as a crutch for poor storytelling. There are of course great examples (Gerald McBoing Boing is still a masterpiece) but Dr Seuss i am not.
A film that is self contained. That all elements of the film would be organic to the story. No references to popular culture or other films. (ok i got this one from pixar, but i agree with it) and that it would be a world existing within it's own time and place.
Character evolution: I realised i was writing the story to show Phil grow as a person, i wanted to push him outside his comfort zone and force him to confront himself.
The story to be about five to six minutes in length. I like to have boundaries when i write, it's nice knowing i have 5 pages to fit everything into, it forces me to cut things out. Which is a lot harder than putting more in.

As the adage goes writing is rewriting. I went through at least twenty drafts of the script boiling down the ideas before we came to the pitch version. Along the way there were lots of variation on the characters, how cartoony the animation would be, who the emotional focus was on from scene to scene.

At points there was an oblivious janitor character. Stylised animated dream sequences showing phil's inner monologue. The seagull going on a wild ride through the office on a fire extinguisher powered office chair. Two other seagulls who sat on the ledge above Phil watching his ridiculous scenario unfold who in subtitled french conversed on the futility of man's endeavors, and then were crushed by a rock. I even at one point had the idea for a woolen stop motion puppet playing the part of phil's ulcer... These were all cut because they were funny but none made the story stronger.

Even though it's Phil's story I at one point rewrote the entire script from the seagulls point of view, it wasn't a bad idea, he's a fun character to follow, but in a strange way it dampened the seagulls character and left us feeling a detatchment to phil.

The page you see Phil follow out onto the ledge in the trailer caused rewrite after rewrite because the film originally began like this

In the script there was never an opening shot of Phil inside the office (it came later in storyboarding). This being the case we needed to understand why Phil would risk his life for a sheet of paper. What the page represented to him. One of many variations on the page was a version where a girl he like's in his office gives him her phone number on the piece of paper with a lipstick kiss, she leaves and the page ends up getting blown out of the window, later when Phil's trapped out on the ledge it became about him trying to get her attention as she waits on the street corner for their date looking at her watch etc. When Disney's Paperman came out we were about half way through production, really glad we didn't go down that route!

The seagulls awareness/sentience were also a big talking point at the beginning. The gull was kind of the fly in the ointment for phil, his alter ego, completely free and constantly messing up phil's opportunities to get back inside. But how aware was the seagull of phil's situation? in some scene's he seemed to be purposely helping him in others hindering him. The question became if the gull is sentient why is he choosing not to help phil? This being the case he seemed a little malicious which didn't make sense for his happy go lucky character. Nora Twomey gave me a great note on this which was “Make a logline for your film and stick to it. If you find yourself writing about sentient seagulls with a vendetta against office workers ask yourself what it has to do with your logline.”

Also in the early drafts Phil was much more daring, he would run wildly around the building swinging around corners almost falling off. Though they would have been great fun to animate and watch they confused Phil's growth and caused a more serious problem, if the animation can be this wacky how do we know if Phil fell off the building he couldn't just get up and dust himself off ala wile e coyote? Your world needs rules and it need's them early. In animation we are world creators. We control gravity and wind, so if a character can get hurt we need to show that through the characters reactions to physical events. There's a great scene in the Iron Giant where Hogarth terrified runs straight into a tree branch. It's set-up so well that the whole audience really feels the hit with him, and when we see Hogarth again there's no cartoon stars twirling round his head, he lies on the ground with his nose bleeding. That's the physicality of this world, if he can bleed then he can die.

IRON GIANT REF from The Ledge End of Phil on Vimeo.

password: PHIL_BLOG_IG

Each one of these ideas and a dozen others were crucial to the final story because of the questions they brought up, forcing me to get a clearer image in my mind of the story i wanted to tell. In the end it becomes not about adding things but about taking them away. To quote Mamet “Take everything out of a story til you get to the point where if you took out one more thing it wouldn't make sense.”

After awhile though i realised i was committing the cardinal sin of screenwriting, i was writing and rewriting the 1st and 2nd act, over and over again... there was never an ending. It would come to a point where Phil had realised the error of his ways but then i would just try to make the realisation stronger or the pacing tighter, anything was easier then actually finishing it. I'd love to say i wrote 20 versions of the ending too, but in reality one night as i was drifting off to sleep it came to me all at once, i thumbnailed the 3rd act out on a scrap of paper beside the bed and it stayed pretty much unchanged all the way into the finished film. Every element in the script should be scrutinized but when it feels right it feel's right.

In part 2 i'll be talking about musical influences on the script, my trying to address the problems in the story rather than just talking around them, writing a script not a shotlist , and where the name came from

see you then!

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