David Gleeson Kills the Deadline

David GleesonDavid Gleeson is one of our members here at theOffice who makes very good use of his membership, meaning he’s ALWAYS here. When we probed him about his current projects, we were astounded (and inspired!) by just how much this guy is able to accomplish. In the last year alone, David has been juggling 5, yes 5, different screenplays – DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA (an airplane disaster movie for Focus with Morgan Freeman attached), RED GIANT (a sci fi epic for 20th Century Fox), a Biblical spec, a Christmas movie and his 3rd film as a director, DON’T LET GO, now in pre-production.

David, I want to talk to you about deadlines. I’m assuming they’ve been pretty aggressive. What were your deadlines? And did you hit them?

With the Focus feature and the Fox movie, my deadlines were very real indeed. Scarily so. I also had a very firm deadline on the Christmas spec in that I had originally intended to pitch it but that strategy proved risky as I had never worked in that genre before. So, I decided to write it. As it was a Christmas movie we needed to go out to the town in that sweet spot between Thanksgiving and mid-December, before the town goes on hiatus. I decided to write that movie in October!

Bottom line is – I wrote it in 8 days at my desk at theOffice and Paramount bought it in a pre-emptive bid!

But deadlines can be terrifying, especially for someone like me, used to writing on spec. A few years ago, I sold a pitch to Fox Searchlight. Suddenly I found myself in a situation where I had 6 weeks to write a screenplay. For a company which specializes in winning Oscars. No pressure. I didn’t think I could do it, but I had to. To my great surprise, I got it done and everyone was very happy with the results.

This was a great learning experience for me and now deadlines don’t phase me at all. Having been through the process so many times, I know that I can do it.

No matter how hopeless it seems, no matter how little connection I have with the material, I pull the juice from somewhere and I get my pages in and eventually, the work gets done.

What was the biggest challenge you faced with hitting the deadlines?

Thinking about it, I guess the biggest challenge is overcoming my own fears – Am I good enough? Am I finally going to be found out? These thoughts can be paralyzing. I remember speaking to friends who weren’t in the industry and telling them I had 6 weeks to write the Fox Searchlight movie (a complex historical biopic) and seeing the horror in their eyes — “6 weeks?! How are you going to do it?”. I found myself reassuring them that it would be okay.

Bottom line is, you get it done however you get it done. I always say to people that there are 2 things you do not want to see how they’re made – sausages and screenplays. On that particular Searchlight experience, I just wrote a lot with no clear daily page quota and eventually reached THE END.

Since then, I’ve refined my methodology and borrowed from George Lucas who said that on STAR WARS, he wrote 5 pages a day. If he finished the 5 pages in the first hour, he took the rest of the day off. But he rarely did. Instead, he looked out the window most of the day then wrote his 5 pages in the last 30 minutes.

This is now pretty much what I do all day at theOffice (hence my preferred seat with the panoramic view) and it works for me.

Was there anything that turned out to be easier than you thought?

I guess the thing I learned was how enjoyable it can be to write a script in a very structured and deliberate manner when you have a story which works.

The very word “deadline” sounds terrifying (it’s got the word “dead” in it), but in essence, all it is really is a construct in which you are mandated to work efficiently for a proscribed number of weeks.

When you embrace that, then it actually makes a nice change to engage with what you do as though you have a “real” job. So much of what we do can feel like a messy shot in the dark that it’s nice to feel like a professional occasionally.

Having a hard studio-mandated deadline won’t necessarily make you feel like a professional but clearly someone in a position of power thinks you’re a pro, so every once in a while (if you’re lucky) you’re expected to perform like one.

You go through that process once or twice and the work comes easier. That’s what I love about writing – You really are out there on the edge with no safety net. It’s a voyage of self-discovery and it’s never less than impossible. And yet we get it done.

Would you call yourself a fast writer? Is there such a thing as a fast writer?

I used to have a writing method – a tip I learnt from a successful writer – whereby I would check into a hotel for 10 days or so and have them remove the TV and all other reading material and then I’d just write. The premise was — as it’s costing money every night to stay there, you have an incentive to write faster.

I’ve written in hotels all over Europe at this stage and have usually managed to complete a first draft during my time away. Gradually though, as the right side of my brain cottoned on to what I was doing and held my left side hostage(or was it the other way around?), this method ceased working for me.

So now, I’ve become just another working stiff putting in normal office hours and, I’m ashamed to admit, it works for me. In short, my output in concentrated bursts has diminished but my productivity, working regular hours on a daily basis, has increased immeasurably.

When I’m actually writing a script, and not researching or rewriting or outlining, I’ll slog through my 5 pages a day and work 7 days a week. If I’m on a roll I’ll do as many as 15 pages a day or more. 5 though is a very manageable amount and if for some reason I miss a day, then it’s easy to catch up and I’m not so guilt-ridden that I become paralyzed. Been there.

They say that the work expands to fit the time allotted to it. This is soooo true! I’ve sat here all day trying to write 5 pages, then I’ve come in where I only have 35 minutes to work and I’ve completed my 5 pages in 20 minutes.

Having said all that, no matter how fast I write a first draft, I’ve found that the overall journey, i.e. getting from first draft to salable draft (with the exception of my Christmas movie), remains the same and usually takes at least 6 months. That involves working with script editors (of whom I’m a huge advocate) and working through many, many drafts.

What would you say trips writers up the most? What slows us down? And how do we avoid that?

I don’t have internet on my MacBook, nor do I own a smartphone. Sitting at my desk, a tablet in my pocket with the sum total of all the world’s knowledge and entertainment on it. And I’m not supposed to look at it?! Give me a break. So I do without.

All I’ve got on my computer is Final Draft and Word. If I need to research something, I just look it up later, at home. A nice side-benefit to this is that my MacBook will probably last forever. I’ve been using the same brick now for 7 years.

One of my favorite quotes re screenwriting is, “Don’t get it right, get it written”. I always bear this in mind as I slog through a first draft. It’s so much easier to rewrite something, no matter how bad, than to stare at a blank page.

I’ve also found that as I get more experienced, I’ve become less courageous. I’m often reluctant to follow new paths or take chances because experience tells me that particular idea won’t work. This can be quite debilitating, to the point where it becomes terrifying to face a new project – knowing that lousy first, second and third drafts are inevitable.

I’ve learnt to fight through this, accepting that not everything needs to work beautifully first time out. There’s a directing analogy to this, an anecdote I read once about Spielberg – When they were shooting AMERICAN BEAUTY, he visited Sam Mendes on set and watched him shoot a long scene in a single take. When the take was over, Mendes announced they were moving on to the next set-up.

“Aren’t you going to shoot any more coverage on that?”, asked Spielberg. “No, I got what I needed”, replied Mendes, to which Spielberg commented, “Oh, to be a first time director”.

It’s the same in writing and that kind of naive fearlessness can often lead to great things and new insights.

Another huge impediment to writing, and the most soul destroying, I find, is realizing that you’ve written yourself into a corner. In my own experience, this usually comes through lack of a cohesive outline.

I tried writing a screenplay without an outline once. After 200 pages, when I still hadn’t reached a turning point, I gave up. Never again.

Finally, David, you put in long hours at theOffice (as opposed to other writers who pop in for a couple of hours here and there). Would you say that’s part of your process – just showing up and being in the space. Or do you not have a home and secretly live here at theOffice?

The beauty of the Office is that it’s a place where you feel like spending a lot of time.

Writing is a very lonely experience. When I’m in writing mode I become quite moody and depressed. I don’t know why. In fact, if I’m not moody or depressed I feel I’m not ready to write yet. Working from theOffice, surrounded by other artists, removes some of the pain of the process.

Writing for me though is a deeply immersive experience. When I used to visit hotels to write I would live the script 24/7, emoting the whole thing, really living it in my head.

Clearly, I don’t have the same experience at theOffice but I do tend to enter a very creative headspace at my desk.  There have been many days where I’ve spent from 7am until lunchtime just looking out the window. That’s all part of the process and it can take me most of the day to enter a headspace where I can knock out a good page or two.

I see writing as a war of attrition against myself – One part of me refuses to write, while the other part insists I do. Most of my day is engaged in stalemate. The productive side inevitably wins but it’s usually an 8 hour process before that happens. That’s why my days are so long.

I once read an analogy about creativity being like a knight waiting to slay the dragon.  So, I show up every day and I sit around outside that cave. Sometimes the dragon shows.

I often come and go throughout the day however. My wife will call and ask me to pick up one of the kids from school or I’ll nip out and see a movie, just to remind me what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

My father (and his grandfather before him) owned cinemas in rural Ireland. I pretty much grew up in a cinema so I’m very much at home sitting alone in the dark. I find that I do my best thinking in a movie theater.

As a screenwriter, dealing with the minutiae of words on a page day in, day out, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the overall picture – that we’re creating the blueprint for a movie here. I need to keep reminding myself of that, so I watch a lot of movies and I try to read a lot of screenplays.

We are looking forward to seeing all of David’s hard work on the big screen in the coming years. Kudos, David, on continuously slaying the dragon!

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