From Shane: It took me awhile to adjust to writing 90,000-word book manuscripts after years of popping out newspaper stories that averaged, oh, 500 to 1,000. Did you have a similar experience going from your tightly coiled screenplays to nearly limitless novels? Also, Das Boot is one of my favorite movies ever. Did you work with Wolfgang on that?
Stephen: Oddly, I didn’t have a problem adjusting to the size of novels after writing screenplays. The process is very similar for me. I wrote outlines and treatments before sitting down to write a screenplay, and I do the same thing when I write a novel. What I did have to adjust to was writing in past tense, since screenplays are written in present tense. I also have trouble “filling out” a scene with all the little actions that characters do when they talk to each other. You don’t want to spell that out in a screenplay, you leave it up to the interpretation of the actors. And you don’t want to over-describe your characters in a screenplay, because it’s not your job to cast the film. So, my editor had to make me add more to my scenes, until I got the picture. It still doesn’t feel natural for me, however. I like to write long, run-on descriptions, a la Jack Kerouac, and counter that with rapid-fire moments of tight dialogue. I also like to mix it up a bit with tight scenes of action or description.
I resist describing every little movement or action a character makes in a scene, even though I know those bits of information reveal character tone and perspective. It just feels like I’m making shit up. Like, okay, the guy scratches his knee, wipes his sweaty palms on the sides of his pants. I’d rather infer his nervousness by how he responds through dialogue. I don’t know, it’s all hard stuff. Sometimes I want to set a camera in there and film it, and say, “Just watch the footage!”
I’ve got this odd sense of tempo that definitely comes from having read thousands of thriller screenplays. The Three-Act Structure is firmly etched in my mind. I think it’s very strange that Boulevard came out to be 335 pages in print, and Beat came in at 336. This was not intentional. But something in my brain tells me this is the proper length for a thriller. I come from the Jim Thompson school of writing, where character and psychology give dimension to a fast-moving plot. I read a lot of Thompson as I wrote my last two drafts of Boulevard, and I learned to cut and tighten and cut even more. Thompson is a good teacher.
I think writing short stories would be another great way to hone my skills. As the great writer once said, “If I’d had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter.”I don’t know who that great writer was, but I agree with him.
As far as Das Boot goes—it’s one of my top ten favorite films of all time. If you haven’t seen the director’s cut—see it. Sub-titled, not dubbed. Never see dubbed. The director’s cut is 3 ½ hours of pure fucking edge-of-your-seat action. That was the film that really brought Wolfgang to the U.S. He was becoming a sensation in Germany before that, but Das Boot took him international. So, I didn’t get to watch him at work on it. But I was working with him when he did the director’s cut (he did this while he was directing Air Force One) and I had the pleasure of going to the Director’s Guild premiere, with folks like Harrison Ford and every studio exec in town. They filled us full of food and champagne and then Wolfgang stood at the podium and said, “Now, there’s no intermission in this thing, so I better not see any of you getting up to use the bathroom.” Now, I’ve got a notoriously small bladder and those words began to torture me as soon as he said them. Half-way through the film I couldn’t take it anymore. No one had gotten up and I didn’t want to be the first. But I also didn’t want to be the first one to pee in my pants. I stood, burying my head in my chest, and walked up the very long aisle, not looking at Wolfgang as I passed. When I got to the top of the theater I turned and saw that I’d opened the floodgates. Probably thirty people were coming up behind me.
Great, great film. Although, I’ll never know what happened during those six minutes I spent in the can.