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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