The Boneyard: From Notebook to Silver Screen

By Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy

Sean Tuohy: Picture this: Your book is purchased by a studio and is fast tracked into a film. Casting is okay, director is okay, and the screenwriter is okay. Nothing special but they have a good staff.

They make the film and you go and see it. The movie is all right, but nothing like your novel. They got the message and some of the characters, but overall it’s not really yours.

How do you react?

Daniel Ford: Well, first of all, I think I'm lighting hundred dollar bills on fire in the theater lobby. You're telling me I got a novel published! A lifelong dream?! After that, the rest is gravy. I'd be overjoyed even if it sucked. Probably exactly how Nicholas Sparks must feel.

Plus, I'm going to make you and Stephanie Schaefer write the movie. I'd be like the Fifty Shades of Grey author demanding her husband write the next batch of crappy, soft porn movies devoid of chemistry, but with two people who actually know how to write.

What about you? If you write this screenplay and then see the movie and they cut some of the things that you really love, would it lessen the experience for you?

Sean: "Sir there is no smoking allowed here in the—"

Dan spits in usher's face, "Dan Ford! That's my movie!"

Just how I see it going down. Also, I would write that film in a heartbeat. I will say this about the Fifty Shades writer—she is demanding and crazy.

For screenwriters, it is a different relationship with a screenplay. A writer's relationship to his novel is one-on-one. You write it, edit it, and take all the steps.

With the screenwriter, it is a very open relationship. A script is going to be handled by actors, directors, producers, and studio heads, all who want to change this or that.

So as a screenwriter you have to be ready for change but you can't just lie down and take it. If there is a scene you believe that needs to be in the film you have to fight for it.

Daniel: Before I reply, I should mention I'm listening to Ennio Morricone's "Ecstasy of Gold" from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" soundtrack.

Sean: Awesome soundtrack. Currently bouncing to “X Gon’ Give It To You.” Take a listen to “Brothers In Arms” from the “Mad Max: Fury Road” soundtrack.

Daniel: How often do you read something and think, "Hm, that would work great as a screenplay."

Sean: Hm, not often. If I am reading something I am doing it to relax or to learn something. So my mind is a different gear. If it does happen normally it’s because there are three or four stand out scenes or one really strong character. Not the story as a whole.

That being said, I am in the process of purchasing the rights to a short story that I read. After reading the story I looked up and said, “This could be a movie," and I began to break the story down into a three-act screenplay. Because the story is so strong and the tone is so powerful, it might be pretty easy to switch it over to a script.

Now the hard part is writing the screenplay. Since it is a short story, I don’t have to cut down a 300-page novel to a 120-page screenplay. I have to beef up a 40-page short story to a 100-page screenplay. This will take time. Also deciding what to keep and what to cut is hard and also trying to keep the story's tone.

Hopefully I get the rights—that is the easy part—the hard part is turning the story into a script.

Daniel: This is truly fascinating. Isn't it incredible how a short story has that kind of power? I've been floored by more short stories in my life than full novels. There's something about the brevity of a short story that allows for a bigger emotional punch.

And I think you nailed the most difficult part of the writing process: the actual writing. Editing, revising, and rewriting aren't easy, but at least you have something to work from. When you sit down to create a world or a character, it's like you're making a batch of chocolate cookies without a recipe.

Now, is it weird trying to get your mind into a world someone else has already created? Or is it freeing to go in fresh and extrapolate other threads the original author didn't have space to explore?

Sean: A short story is such a strange and difficult art form to master. It is like baking. You have to have the perfect balance. You can't go heavy on this or that. You have to be right in the middle to make the perfect serving. I agree, I have been floored by more short stories than full novels.

When you sit down to write a short story what are you focusing on? The scene, the character, the dialogue? What goes through your mind?

I would say it is weird but I have been reading this story for more than 10 years. I picked it up when I was 14 years old. I found it in a collection of pulp fiction short stories and I read it, and reread it, and reread it. At one point I tried writing a story similar to it, like most writers do when they first start out. So the story has been with me for a while but it wasn't till recently that idea of turning it into a film came in my mind.

Daniel: Regarding my thought process for short stories, it depends. There are times when the events come to me as an individual scene. I don't have much more to go on than a few lines of dialogue and a setting. I hear my characters talking to each other well before anything else. There are times though that the characters come to me more fleshed out and I have to figure out what hell to put them through (life can't be easy for any of my main characters). 

Once I have the kernel of the idea, it has to marinate for a bit. I have to play around with it in my head. Sometimes it's easy, like in the case of "343" and "Cherry on Top," and I can write for a couple of sleepless nights to get the story out of me. Other times, like in the case of this quasi-drug addled short story about a criminal named Mel, it takes months for me to generate a story.

Good thing I'm a writer because otherwise these would be considered the ramblings of a mad man. 

Sean: Hearing your characters talk. I just got stuck on that because I feel like all authors do this and it’s insane. We hear voices in our head. That is what crazy people do.

What is more draining on you as author the story that comes out in a couple of sleepless nights or the story that takes month?

Daniel: Probably the sleepless nights only because I have to get up for my day job in the morning. But then again, there's this adrenaline rush that comes along with that, which propels me for a good long while.

Is it the same for you writing a screenplay? Or does the structure give you set milestones you can work toward without completely killing yourself?

Sean: You do have set a milestone, which helps a lot. It feels good knowing you hit your first action beat or you are almost done with act two.

Act one and three are easy to finish; it’s act two that is draining. Two is the biggest section of a script and the easiest place to get stuck.

I have taken a new process up recently. I used to create thin outlines and then start writing. Now, I’m writing a thick and detailed outline. I’m not touching a keyboard until the notebook outline is complete. And yes, the notebook looks like it belongs to the killer in “Seven.”