[OR HOW THE HARTCHART WAS BORN OUT OF A CREATIVE CRISIS]
1992. I get a phone call at midnight in NYC. It is Francis Coppola. He has been in post production on Dracula for several months and it is not going well. Another disastrous preview has the studio on edge. He asks [politely commands] me to get on a plane and come to San Francisco. He hates the film, hates the script, hates me for writing it, hates the cast, hates the studio, and he wants to show me the film to prove it.
It had only taken me 15 years of rejection and failure to finally get Dracula produced. And now one of the greatest directors in history of filmmaking was at the helm of a disaster in the making How was that possible? What had gone wrong?
The next night I met Francis at the Zoetrope building on Kearny St. in San Francisco. He escorted me to the basement screening room, the Godfather room, with big leather couches, cigars, wine, brandy, two women who spoke only Romanian, and made sure I was comfortable.
He was right. For 2 hours and 10 minutes I watched the worst piece of crap shit film I had ever seen. I was comatose, destroyed, drunk, and pissed. Coppola finally called the screening room since I had not made contact.
This is midnight now and Francis descends from his mountain top penthouse and joins me for the aftermath.
I confirmed his opinion; ‘I hate you, I hate the script, I hate the actors, I hate the studio, I hate myself for writing it…etc. etc.”
And then with complete delight and enthusiasm, Francis Ford Coppola tells me the story of the script I thought I had written, and the film I thought FFC had directed as I had seen the dailies and been on the set for much of the production. A little late to start over with an October release date less than 4 months away.
Coppola invited me into the editing room to spend the next week reviewing every scene shot, other footage not used, etc. in service of the narrative Coppola had pitched and the script we shot. We revised the shooting script with the existing footage in the editing room and wrote new pieces, bits, inserts, tags, beginnings and ending of scenes into the narrative that we had somehow missed in the scripting and shooting stages of the production.
Coppola skillfully convinced the studio that he needed to bring the cast together and shoot these narrative revisions at a substantial cost to deliver the audience a satisfying end (and help the studio recoup their substantial production costs).
THE SATISFYING ENDING AND GENESIS OF THE HARTCHART
The best example of the problems the original shooting script did not reveal is the ending as the film was viewed in its initial release. The solution to the ending came from an unexpected source – a “Resurrection Opportunity” in HartChart language, a true “Cinderella Moment” to invoke another HC signpost.
Coppola screened an improved cut for George Lucas and Mike Mignola, then an up and coming graphic novel artist who created Hellboy. Lucas nailed what was wrong with the ending. We had broken the rules of how to kill a vampire that we had established in the film; the only true way to kill a vampire is to cut off their head and cut out their heart, then burn it. Which is exactly what Van Helsing and his Vampire Killers do to Lucy in the film.
Lucas was spot on. The rules were right there on the screen. In order for Mina to give Dracula peace, she has to cut off his head with the Bowie knife she had plunged through his heart.
That meant bringing Winona and Gary back together to shoot the new moments and bits we needed to complete the narrative. Gary and Winona had literally been at each other’s throats since the second week of shooting. They would not pose together for the photo shoot with the famed Albert Watson to be used for the poster promoting the film.
I remember Coppola calling me with this proposition –
“Do you think we can get Winona back to cut off Gary’s head?”
“It’s the only way you will get her back.”, I replied.
Coppola’s mastery and execution is seamless. In the film’s climax when Mina decapitates Dracula and sets him free, there are close-ups, medium shots and high angles that were filmed almost a year apart. The same for many other narrative pieces Coppola captured and edited into the final version.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula opened in October of 1992 to a record breaking 32m and went on to gross 215M worldwide on a 40m dollar budget. It was the 9th highest grossing film that year.
But what haunted me was the nagging questions about the faults and inadequacies of the script during principal photography that were only discovered in the editing room during post production. There had to be a method, or a tool, or a program that could be applied in the development stages that could potentially head off these kinds of CREATIVE CRISES. And if there wasn’t, there should be.
THE THREE MAGIC QUESTIONS???
Certainly, lower budget Indy films do not have the resources to bring together cast and crew a year later to re-shoot and/or shoot new material like Coppola did with Dracula. Indy filmmakers would kill for a way to get it right on the page and save time and money during principal photography and post production.
I was determined to find, steal, or create a method, a tool, a philosophy that could highlight these problems in the script development stages and address them prior to production.
In my discussions with Coppola he gave me the key: the three magic questions to ask and answer about your characters before writing the script.
- Who is the main character(s) and what does he or she want (note: what they need is different)
- Who are the obstacles the main character(s) must encounter and overcome to get what he or she wants?
- In the end, does the main character get what he or she wants or not? Is this good or bad for them if they did not? [i.e., did he or she get what they need?]
I realized that by answering these questions about each main character in my narrative, I would be creating a character driven 3 act narrative [or 7 or 10], rather than plot driven.
The emotions, desires, wants and needs of the characters would be the story engine instead of a plot imposed on the characters by the writer.
My characters would pull me through the story rather than push me.
By adding more questions and narrative signposts, I had a toolkit different than any screenwriting dogma I had encountered that presented rigid rules and formulaic results: “By page so and so you must do this. The inciting incident must occur before x.”
I was liberated to let the characters structure their journey, (not the self-imposed plot line).
FINDING THE PULSE OF YOUR STORY
Literally my own heartbeat added the final ingredient to the story brew of the HartChart. While having my annual heart exam and EKG, I watched the needles tracking my pulse on the graph and posed to my Cardiologist I should wire myself up when I watch a film [or now binge watch TV] and see how my heartbeat is effected by what I am seeing and experiencing.
Then the epiphany, lightbulb, aha moment: could I measure/forecast the heartbeat of my characters as I was writing the script and plot their emotional journey on a chart like my EKG?
i.e. take the pulse of my characters in any scene or sequence and measure their ups and downs, victories and defeats, progress and setbacks from beginning to end!
These early charts of scripts by writers at the Austin Writer’s Ranch, Sundance labs, eQuinoxe workshops, and the Columbia Graduate Film School in active development were hand drawn.
The HartChart became popular with writers and directors in Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, and at the original Austin Writer’s Ranch where the chart was born and given its name by the writers in this workshop.
The presentation of the HartChart at the Austin Film Fest is a favorite for this writer and has been a regular feature at the AFF for 10 years.
ENTER THE APP
Developer, Guy Goldstein, the creator of the popular screenwriting program, Writer Duet, approached me in 2015 at the AFF and proposed developing the HartChart as an online screenwriting tool using all of the components I had developed over the years, so writers could chart their own scripts and stories online and create new charts at will that would be readily available on their ipads, laptops, and mobile phones.
Guy’s version of the HartChart is available at www.hartchart.com. I am amazed and most appreciative of the care and attention to the writing process Guy has built into program.
Now, writers, directors, actors, authors, editors, etc. can visually see the emotional journeys of their characters on one big picture page from beginning to satisfying ending.
I can honestly say that I use the toolkit and the HartChart everyday in my own struggle for survival in the writing process. Using this story mapping tool and tool kit means I never face a blank page. Ever. [hey, shitty pages count too].
It works for me.
I hope it works for you.
Remember, you are the composer, not the conductor. You are the job creator. No one in this industry has a job until you type “The End”.
To be continued…