Postville Script Reading

March 8, 2011

Had my script reading of Postville on Sunday. Went a lot better than expected. The rewrite process was way tougher than I anticipated, as I agonized over how to restructure this part, and where to put this scene, and how to fit in this plot point, etcetera, etcetera.

In sending the script to my dad (who wrote the play) a couple of weeks ago, one of his comments was that in the play, Avram (the lead) and Ray (the antagonist) were both assholes, but the way I’d written the screenplay, Avram was ten times the asshole, and Ray not so much. It was a note well-taken, so I toned it down quite a bit, removing some of the more unscrupulous things Avram does and adding some bigotry to Ray. In the end, at the reading, we took a vote. About half of the people felt that Avram was unsympathetic, and they had a hard time rooting for him, and the other half thought I should leave him just the way he is (more or less), as a morally ambiguous antihero. I’m okay with that. I did get an idea for a Save the Cat moment I can add in as the second scene, which may take care of some of the “unsympathetic” votes, but even if it doesn’t I’m good with people disliking him, because he’s there to be disliked.

Also interesting was people’s attitudes toward the treatment of the different races/cultures. At one point, my actor friend who I brought in to read the part of Avram pointed out that I managed to fit every Jewish stereotype into the first 12 pages. Then, somewhere around page 65, he told me, “Oh, I was wrong, there’s another one.” But then afterward, he said he loved it, because every ethnic group has characters who fit the stereotype and characters who don’t. I’m calling attention to the stereotype by having it in there and then saying, “but see, not everyone’s like this.”

On the flip side, one person in the group pointed out to me that the Latinos are treated as a prop, rather than as characters with their own issues who actually contribute to the cultural conflict. A point well taken. It was suggested that I could combine the two waitresses, keeping only the Latina and giving her a little more screen time. I’d already thought of this, and I think I could make it work. It was also suggested that I could use a Quinceañera to demonstrate cultural conflict and/or connectivity between the Hispanics and everyone else, that I could use the younger generations in general to show rebellion against their cultural traditions and expectations.

The biggest problem is structurally, which I already knew. The false defeat happens about 5-10 pages after the halfway point of the script, and isn’t really treated as a false defeat. Then the third act is blown through incredibly quickly, with the no real attention toward resolving the “Dark Night of the Soul,” which also happens 10-20 pages too late. Which means I need to condense the heck out of what I already have, which will then accommodate the suggestions.

In the end, this reading was incredibly valuable. Most pages had several laughs (or at least chuckles), and people kept coming up to me afterward telling me how much they enjoyed it; that they were impressed by my ability to bring such humor to serious subject matter. At first I thought that it was only dad’s writing that they really liked, that that was where the most laughs came from, but looking back at my notes it was about half and half. When immigration raided the plant, there was an audible groan, “Oh, no!” People argued over whether or not I should keep the scene showing the workings of the meat packing plant, because it was so graphic and visceral, it took them a while to get back into the story; but they wondered aloud at the symbolism of it. And I’m okay with that.

So ultimately, success. Now I just have to gut the thing and rewrite it once again. *Sigh*


Postville Part II – The Screenplay

February 7, 2011

To date, this has been my most successful screenwriting endeavor, which only serves to confirm the suspicion I had from many years ago that I should really start my career as an adapter of screenplays, rather than generating original concepts which is so much harder.

To walk you through the process by which I started working on Postville:

2000 – Stephen Bloom publishes Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,  a nonfiction book that recounts the author’s move to Iowa from San Francisco to be a college professor, and his two years investigating the cultural conflict that’s occurred between the Postville locals and the Lubavichers who had moved in to open a kosher meat-packing plant.

2008 – My father, Don Fried, reads the book, options it, and writes the play, Postville, a fictionalized retelling of the conflict. A few things look strikingly similar: a journalist moving to Iowa to be a teacher acts as the vehicle for the exposition, someone for everyone to tell their backstory and their problems; an Easter headline that reads “He Has Risen,” which violates just about every rule of journalism you can imagine (it’s not breaking news, it’s not impartial, and it hasn’t been verified by two independent sources); the Hasid who buys the plant is the son of a New York butcher who was having trouble getting his meat; the locals battle for annexation, and a terrible tragedy occurs on the day of the referendum. The names, of course, are changed. He takes dramatic license with the characters. The best scene in the play — near the beginning when the locals welcome the Hasids with a big sign that reads “Welcome Jews” — was not mentioned at all in the book. The tragedy that occured on the day of the referendum — a train derailment — was combined with an event that actually occurred while the play was being written — a raid of the plant by Immigration & Customs Enforcement for some 389 counts of illegal workforce violations. But the spirit, so I’ve heard was similar.

2011 – Here come I, moved by this play and the potential that its story presents. I re-read the play a few times before I start. I write down what happens in each scene, as well as what happens offstage – the things that the characters say they’re going to do, or the things they say they have done. I put these on index cards, that becomes my beat board, used to inform the outline. I start reading the book.

And here’s the critical piece … I schedule a reading, to be conducted at Austin Screenwriters Group, for March 6th, just two months from when I began writing. And lo, I realize I need to bust my butt to get this screenplay written by mid-February, so I have time for a rewrite or two before presenting it to the public. In the mean time, I take ScreenwritingU‘s class on rewriting, which proves to be the best three hours I’ve spent on my education in a long time.

What’s made the process easy, though, is having all the source material to draw back on. Although the majority of the dialogue is original, I’ve been able to lift entire scenes from play. In that way, a week after starting the “writing” process, I already had over 40 pages complete, spending only an hour or so a day.

From there it started to slow down, but reading the book helped, as did having the deadline to work toward. No time sit down and spend an hour crafting the perfect line of dialogue. Just gotta get it down on paper. In that way, I’ve now reached 103 pages, with one more scene to add at the end, and a couple more to add in the middle. I need to visit the local Chabad to ground myself in some Orthodox traditions — how a mikvah in a small town like that would ordinarily get set up; what role the father might play in the birth of his child. I also need to visit a slaughterhouse to see for myself what the slaughter and processing might look and feel like (recognizing, of course, that any slaughterhouse I visited would not be kosher).

But even with all of that, I should have my first draft done by the end of the week, as planned. There’ll be a ton of work to do in the rewrite process. I’m clear on that. But fortunately I’ve got a process to follow, now, which I’m convinced will move the screenplay miles forward in the next three weeks.

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