Jeffery Oliver

I make films, poems and music. I ride a bike and grow organic gardens.

Writing a Screenplay is Different from Writing Poems


Obviously writing a screenplay is different from writing poems but I’m a little surprised because I’m a poet and working now on a screenplay and find the process to be more different than I expected.

For example, when I’m writing a poem, it’s all about writing, the physical act of fingers and pen, hand and page, and breathing, and getting out of the way and letting the rhythm of the words be the rhythm of the ideas which are the rhythms of the great “I don’t know” that surrounds me when I’m in this space.

In this way, starting the screenplay for “Poco a Poco” was the exact same. I was writing in my notebook early on a Wednesday morning shortly after attending a Rebel Heart Film workshop in Portland which was really, really good and, for whatever reason got me off of working on “The Bailiff” film project and looking for something that is more personal to me. Something more like a poem.

So there I was early morning April 1 before work which is when I write and started writing sentences beginning:

  • Our protagonist takes a journey but in his mind. (I think the image here was a sequel to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”)
  • An old poet living out somewhere (I’m sure this meant something to me when I wrote it, but no images come to mind.)
  • Mounting a play—in the woods. (I see lots of imagery here but no story—I still really like this concept which led to):
  • A musician—in the woods—Pacific Northwest/Idaho. A young woman, after college, played professionally and was managed poorly—they made her look sexy and no one ever took her music seriously.

So that’s the idea and with a poem it would generally take another hour or so to get the basic concept and overall rhythm down.

This is kind of what happened to me in the next hour of writing but not fully formed as typical with a poem. And by fully formed I mean I get to a place where I understand the materials and concepts I’m working with enough that I can come back to them and remember intellectually and emotionally what it means.

Not so with a screenplay. Obviously. It’s a longer form. The rhythms are necessarily different. I still have no idea what happens to our lead cellist, but I do know that I was able to begin and commit to a concept as soon as I had both a concept and a character.

What is also interesting to me is that location, Idaho (where I live), provided a context in which only certain things can happen. In fact, I’m thinking that much of this film will take place in natural, outside settings around Idaho providing even more constraint for how the narrative and story must progress. This is really interesting to me (I’m in many ways a formalist). I enjoy finding the constraints that force creative solutions for myself as a storyteller which, I think, is how characters come alive too—if I have to work hard to understand narratively what’s next, this transfers to my characters. And I don’t mean some basic “A-Team” scenario where, and always, the military locks up the A-Team in a machine shop—I wonder how they’ll ever escape? I mean forcing myself into uncomfortable emotional corners that hurt to work through. It’s the working through that seems to be important and this rhythm falls out purely when I’m writing a poem. With the screenplay I’m finding that the conflict stays with me, sitting in my gut and I feel for the characters. Why can’t we all just get along?

Finally, a poem must supply all the specific ideas and images to inspire these in a particular way in the reader’s imagination. Sometimes the images presented in a poem are specific as in William Carlos William’s poem “The Wheelbarrow.” We “see” this poem in our mind and this image, when we really fall into the poem, helps us to image all the ways we depend upon a wheelbarrow–how interconnected even simple items can be to our lives. In other poems, what we “see” in our imagination is more abstract, more of idea than a thing, as in Mary Jo Bang’s “And as in Alice.”

A screenplay is similar except the screenplay itself should provide an inspirational context, which is the story and narrative (the way the story is presented), that inspires and attracts other artists to want to contribute their specific art and craft toward the details of realizing this narrative as a finished product we call a film. The details are in working together toward a singular vision that the story and narrative inspire.

I hope that’s what’s happening with the screenplay for “Poco a Poco.”

Poco a Poco Music Terminology – Poco a Poco

Poco a Poco

Poco a poco is an Italian phrase that literally means “little by little.” In music, poco a poco is used along with another musical term to mean gradually or over time. For example, to indicate that musicians should gradually become louder, we write cresc. poco a poco. In music, cresc. is an abbreviation for the word crescendo which means to get louder.

In the film, “Poco a Poco,” I’m exploring the idea that becoming our authentic selves takes time and usually little by little–poco a poco. And, it’s not the little by little alone that makes the difference, we must apply the little by little to an action over time.

Sound of silence, the sound of a film – Poco a Poco

sound wave

I really want the music and sound in Poco a Poco to be a kind of voice for Elizabeth–a language pre-lingual, a lyric language of emotion. And isn’t the really what music is? Music provides us a way to express something that doesn’t necessarily have a logical equivalent.

The narrative of the film though requires some thought about how music is used, how sound is used, how silence is used.

In addition to the music, I’m also very interested in the idea of “silence” in this film. And by “silence,” I mean scenes with no dialog and no music. Of course, these scenes will not be strictly silent, there should be environmental sounds, sounds close by, and sounds far away.

As I’m thinking about how to accomplish this, how to tell a story using sound, I ran across a couple of super helpful articles on sound and music design in film:

The Sorceress of the Wood – Poco a Poco

I’m working on my first feature-length screenplay for a film about a 30-ish-year-old woman, Elizabeth, who is a professional cellist. She moves to a small mountain town to get herself together and begins to find music again.

Yesterday, I talked with Eric Sandmeyer about composing music and providing sound design for “Poco a Poco” and he’s super interested! He asked some great questions that helped me to focus the concept and character of Elizabeth.

I’ve been listening to a lot of cello music, especially solo cello music and solo violin music. I’m listening for music that embodies a particular tone and feeling–something I can provide Eric as a reference for what we’re after in the film.

I really dig Nils Økland’s album, “Monograph.” He’s a Norwegian violin and fiddle player–mostly solo work. However, this morning as I was writing and listening, I ran across a band called Lumen Drones, a psychedelic drone band from Norway with Nils Økland.

It’s great music and reminds me of the sound of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” but while I was writing to this music, Elizabeth became a woodland sorceress! Definitely not the direction I want to go, so, no more Lumen Drones while writing.

Of course, it could have something to do with too much of the lovely Pelican Tsunami Stout last night.

Genesis and beginnings – Poco a Poco

the silence that turns the silence off…

– Charles Wright

I never know where an idea comes from that compels me to write. I like to think that I create a space for the universe, things I know, things I’ve seen, things I’ve felt, and hopefully things that are new to me to flow through me. It sounds grand. For me though, writing is more of a meditation–a spiritual practice. As the poet Charles Wright writes, “the silence that turns the silence off” (“Balm in Gilead” from Buffalo Yoga).

I’ve been trying to write a screenplay and have been working on one about a small-town bailiff who becomes a vigilante when the courts fail to protect the woman he loves. I like this idea, but it didn’t take hold for me.

This morning, Wednesday, April 1, I found and immediately connected with Elizabeth, a 30-ish-year-old cellist living in the woods after escaping a life of concerts, hotels and airports.

And that’s where the screenplay for “Poco a Poco” was born.

“Poco a Poco” is a feature-length, micro-budget film project I started on April 1, 2015, about a professional cellist trying to find herself again through music. Read about the story, music and how you can participate here.

On Watching “Annie Hall” by Woody Allen Analytically Because I Want to Make a Film

Last night I watched “Annie Hall.” Ms Lynn is out of town and I like Woody Allen so I watched “Annie Hall” and drank a Belgian farmhouse ale because Ms Lynn isn’t into Woody Allen.

And, because I want to make a film. I watched “Annie Hall” critically last night to see what is going on in this film and what I could learn from it as a filmmaker.

Right now I feel like Annie in the scene where Alvy is at her place for the first time and he notices and praises some photos she made. Annie defers the praise and makes the statement that she’s had no formal training in photography. Alvy recommends taking a class in photography—as “it’s a new art form”—so she can better understand the aesthetics of the medium. His argument is that to contribute to art one must understand the lineage, history and theories of the medium.

But what’s interesting is that Annie replies—using almost the exact same language as Frank O’Hara used in “Personism: A Manifesto,”—with something like, “I just go with my gut.” She just enjoys making pictures.

I agree with Annie in that one doesn’t have to go to school to enjoy making pictures or poems or music or maybe even films. However, I’ve studied music and poetry and I agree with Alvy Singer that I need to better understand the craft, history and theory of film in order to be the best cinematic storyteller I can be. I wonder if it’s the difference between making art for myself versus making art where (I hope) others can enjoy it as well.

How does Wood Allen use the craft and medium of film to tell a story? And these are just things I picked up as someone who is in the writing and concepting phase of making a film.

Meta: We see it more and more in various artforms but it’s really powerful in film and theatre becuase it’s so unexpected and the direct address makes the scene very immediate. I think I first remember this from Berman and Pulcini’s “American Splendor” and I’ll never forget the experience of watching Jodorowski’s (SPOILER ALERT) “The Holy Mountain.” I really like how Allen uses it to show Alvy’s inner dialog. Literature is really good at allowing us to see inside the mind and emotions of a character—it’s more difficult to show, literally, what someone is contemplating in film.

Subtitles as translation of interior thoughts: Again, Allen seems to be looking for a way to show us interiority in film similarly to literature. There’s a great scene where Annie and Alvy are on the roof and getting to know one another. We see the characters on screen and hear what they’re saying but Allen uses subtitles, as if translating from one language to another, to show us what the characters are actually thinking.

Form and content: I also enjoy how he weaves the narrative of his story with the cycles (narrative) of relationships together from possible interest to new love to committed love to either long-term commitment or abandonment of the relationship.

I’m trying to understand what it is I enjoy in film as a way to build my vocabulary as a filmmaker. As Tony Hawk said in “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography,” “Once you’ve seen something done, it’s just a matter of time before we can do it ourselves.”

« Older posts

© 2015 Jeffery Oliver

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑