Making a Book Trailer (2): The Script

Pillai, the director of the trailer, made the following proposal for the script: “You can write a three-minute narration, which could be personal and subjective like the trailer for If You Knew Then What I Know Now, or have both the subjective and the objective (like blurbs from reviews and comments) juxtaposed together, as in the case of the trailer for I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl. I know that Companion to an Untold Story is poetic and subjective, and visceral in its attention to details.”

With no firsthand knowledge of filmmaking or script writing, I first read through Companion with the example of Terrence Malick in mind. I had imbued animals, objects, and images with complex emotions, and the book is densely populated with birds, deer, binoculars, spoons, windows, egg coddlers, stamps, and descriptions of spaces. They were ready to film. And yet some of the most powerful spaces and scenes in the book were impossible for us to record as images. Since we were working in the summer months, we weren’t going to be able to re-create the scene of a boy riding his bike in the snow or the line of deer walking through our yard in February. Nor were we going to film scenes involving Joel, whose suicide, and the absences it created, is the subject of the book.

I was concerned about being too grim in introducing a book about a suicide. The viewer should be drawn to read it, not pushed away. Nor did I want to create a version that mistreated the material or tried to explain what I couldn’t explain. Pillai agreed with me on this.

I made a rough sketch, breaking the time, video and audio into different columns, using a narrator and images we could film.  This first version was suggestive, plotless, and short, one minute and forty seconds, and Joel’s name doesn’t appear. It seemed movie-trailerish to me.The key images: breeze disturbing papers on a desk, birds flying, empty room bright with light, gun, death certificate, wind, cover, more wind blowing through trees, more birds flying, blaze of light, blurbs.

I sent it off to Pillai.

Time

Video

Audio

Music

1.

00:00

Blank screen Throughout: Nico Muhly, “A Hudson Cycle”

2.

[Image needed] Narrator: I remember nothing about those days. I am invisible to myself, like a spoon dropped into a pan of dirty dishwater.

3.

00:05

Narrator: There were signs of what was to come.

4.

00:10

Breeze disturbs papers on a desk. Sound of breeze.

5.

00:15

Bird flying as in “Augury.” Crow caws.

6.

00:20

Empty room bright with light. Narrator: The room was filled with light, unabsorbed by furniture, drapes, of objects of the living. Rid of the clutter of connection, was the final stage a fitting image of his life?

7.

00:25

Gun on counter. Close in.

8.

00:35

Gun fade out. Narrator: But I did not see what was to come. What I saw was people going about their lives like clockwork. No skipped beats. No one suspended in time. No one poised in the in-between. If someone drove aimlessly about after work, not wanting to go home, I didn’t know it. If financial disaster loomed, of jobs were dreaded and children were crying themselves to sleep, I didn’t know it. If suicide was being contemplated, planned, or executed, I didn’t know it.

9.

00:43

Music off.

10.

00:45

Telephone rings [i.e., the one in “Thanksgiving”]

11.

00:50

Pan over death certificate so specifics not legible but can see “Certificate of Death.” Music on.

12.

00:55

Close-up of cause of death = suicide in death certificate

13.

01:00

Wind Narrator: I had to put my arms around it, small it was . . . near the end . . . there had been so much more in my memory, and I had to embrace it, hold it, not let it go.

14.

01:10

Companion [text from front cover]

15.

01:12

Trees blowing in wind. Narrator: The wind picked up.

16.

01:17

Birds flying.  Narrator: A bottle far away rattled as it rolled down a hill, the way things that need to flow downward do, and the sparrows were up and swooping.

17.

01:22

Companion to [text from front cover]

18.

01:25

Blaze of light. Narrator: The sun came out from behind the clouds, everything ablaze with light.

19.

01:30

Companion to an Untold Story [text from front cover]

20.

01:33

by Marcia Aldrich [text]

21.

01:35

“… lyrical and daring …” [text]

22.

01:38

[Another blurb snippet]

23.

01:40

Book cover

Selection from text

Pillai wrote back: “I like your (beginning) draft.” I noted that beginning was in parentheses. Did he want to communicate gently that there was lots of work ahead before we had a workable script? I admired his tact.

When we met to discuss a revision, he encouraged me to write much more than I had, not to worry about how long the script was because we could cut it later. I was reminded of comments I make to students who are underwriting: it is much easier to delete than to fill holes.

I wasn’t giving a full enough portrait of the book; I was erring on the side of too little, too suggestive. Pillai wanted a narrative arc—that magic rainbow. “A good trailer,” he said, “must focus on giving the full picture of the book as well as an insight (as much as possible) into the spirit of the book and preoccupation of the artist. Weaving the significant moments in the memoir (through poignant narration, subjective interpretation, and mise-en-scene) and interspersing them with evocative images (from the memoir) to a carefully chosen/composed music track would be the key, I think.”

“Full picture”: these words were worrisome, given the singular book I had created. I had rejected a linear narrative and scattered significant moments throughout. Now I was being asked to produce an identifiable sequence—that is, the untold story for which I had written a Companion.

Pillai threw out some ideas about anchoring the trailer. His first thought was to have me reenact the scene in which, driving my daughter to a Friday night football game, I strike a boy who suddenly runs out into the street. Though the boy was uninjured, I was shattered. I never imagined I could cause harm, yet I could be implicated in something terrible—a foreshadowing of Joel’s suicide a month later. (Ultimately Pillai did not film this scene. However, my implication in terrible events does make its way into the final script.)

Pillai’s second idea appealed to me. We would film at my house (the “river house,” as I call it in the Companion). We could use the frame of a window, looking out and looking in, as the trope for the trailer. I liked this idea because the book is preoccupied with what we can see and what we can’t, why I could see something of Joel’s intentions, but not enough. The story also concerns the limits of what a person can do. Even if I looked deeply into Joel’s heart, what could I do about his plan?

After this brainstorming session with Pillai, I went back into the Companion to find the arc of the trailer and narrate some of its objects. This experience of continually going back into the book was emotionally difficult. I had had enough of my feelings of guilt and grief—and yet back I went into my heart of darkness.

I cut the images and sound that had appeared in the first version, since Pillai was going to film freely and choose what worked best. Loss of some of these abandoned images pained me—the breeze and the papers, the people going about their lives like clockwork. I expanded the elements of a story, expanded again, and sent another version, number 3.0, to Pillai.

Time

Video

Audio

1.

  Narrator: Joel was born May 23, 1949, and died, according to the official determination, on November 20, 1995, at age forty-six.

2.

  Narrator: My husband was Joel’s oldest and best friend. The two grew up in Los Angeles, went to the same schools, walked the same orange-tree streets.

3.

  Narrator: He worked as a substitute teacher and home tutor in a school district south of San Francisco, riding on the lip of indigence just ahead of flat broke.

4.

  Narrator: He was nothing of a golden boy.

5.

  Narrator: The project of his last months was to get rid all of that he had accumulated. We were the recipients of objects Joel no longer wanted. Never one to throw things away, he shepherded his treasured possessions eastward to our home. He was simplifying his life—that’s how he explained his gifts. In October he drove across the country in his Ford Escort wagon with bad tires, having stuffed it with belongings he wanted us to have. Later we saw that he was giving us more than his things—that some indestructible property was being passed along.

6.

  Narrator: He stayed a week, a life shared in our life. He held all the cards. He knew he was saying good-bye for all time, and we did not.

7.

  Narrator: There were signs of what was to come.

8.

  Narrator: But I did not see what was to come.

9.

  Narrator: When almost nothing was left in Joel’s apartment, he sent the remainder to me. On November 17, a package arrived. Inside were a small box and short letter, really just a list of the objects. there was an egg coddler, “with a surprise inside” of a thousand dollars, and two commemorative spoons.

10.

  Narrator: Joel became Coroner’s Case No. 1475-95. The mode of death was determined to be: suicide.

11.

  Narrator: The spoons and the egg coddler now rest on a bookshelf behind my desk. When I look at them, I think of the tangle of his death, think that I don’t know what he felt or intended for me, won’t understand my role in his life or his death, what purpose I served in his story. Emotional turmoil swoops down and seizes me.

12.

  Narrator: We did not see the subtext beneath Joel’s extraordinary behavior, but I ask myself what we would have done if we had.

13.

Narrator: Joel didn’t ask me to remember him. He didn’t ask me to take a single action to salvage his life from suicide. I just can’t help myself.

14.

Narrator: I have to put my arms around it, small it was . . . near the end . . . there was so much more in my memory, and I have to embrace it, hold it, not let it go.

15.

Narrator: The wind picks up.

16.

  Narrator: A bottle far away rattles as it rolls down a hill, the way things that need to flow downward do, and the sparrows are up and swooping.

17.

  Narrator: The sun comes out from behind the clouds, everything ablaze with light.

18.

Narrator: I have found a place where I would have liked Joel to be buried. It’s a small sanctuary called La Resolana, meaning reflected sunlight. I have no rights to say where Joel would be disposed. But I have rights to where I imagine him, what I do to keep myself alive and lay him to rest.

Pillai’s response:

I went through your version 3.0 and am happy about the way it is shaping up, and I feel we can incorporate the segment of people going about their lives like clockwork through the objects or as a film running on the television screen inside the house—using your narration over 4 or 5 images.

I like the idea of the reflected sunlight (through the window): we can use the sun rays and beams throughout to bring in seemingly disconnected but relevant poetic lines from memories, emails and letters (even a dramatic line from Joel teaching in the class or asking for help with respect to his car) which come together in the end when juxtaposed with the objects and the linear narration.

Think of the lines, even the most difficult ones to visually capture, which you like most, and want to have in the film; we could use the sunlight (dancing through the trees and leaves) seen from the window to structure the interiority, while the objects could help us narrate the events or help us with plot progression. Cutting back and forth from the sunlight or television screen or patterns on the bed sheets to the objects will help us give the audience a flavor of a novel, and the cutting back and forth must not give a feeling of disjunction; instead it should be a response or a reaction or a progression of what the objects hint at/narrate.

I was getting closer to providing a full script to work from, but I still wasn’t there—wherever there was. Pillai wanted something both brief and complete, conveying the essentials of the story concretely and intimately—a 280-page book distilled to a few minutes.

I produced a still fuller version, which, in Pillai’s opinion, had a shape and parts that flowed together. He asked me to read the script aloud and time it, to get a rough idea of how much video he’d need.

The script took between seven and eight minutes to narrate. My two-minute trailer had morphed into a short film.

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2 Comments on “Making a Book Trailer (2): The Script”

  1. David Isomaki says:

    I really enjoyed this second post about the making of the trailer. I think it’s smart to name Joel and give a history to who he was versus the more abstract version 1.0. Excited to see the finished trailer!

  2. I liked reading about the cycle of collaboration as you and Pillai share more of the book with each other and continue to give shape to this story that is so hard to tell. Agree with David on naming Joel and on being eager to see the trailer!


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