By Rebecca Chace
I didn’t know anything about writing screenplays, but the novel first appeared in my head as a movie. At the time I was a working actor who had grown up in a family of New York writers and didn’t think of myself as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote constantly: backstage between scenes, in trailers when I was working in film or television; writing filled up the time when I was unemployed and making the rounds of auditions in New York, not exactly infrequent in the life of an actor. But I didn’t take my writing seriously. It was something I did nearly every day, but then, I had grown up in a home where that seemed like a normal activity.
Then a story came into my head, and I knew it was a movie. So I just started typing. I knew nothing about screenplay format or structure (I teach screenwriting now in the MFA program and the City College of New York) so I simply wrote it as I heard it — the script actually looked like a weird hybrid of a stage play and a screenplay. I titled it “Capture the Flag” after the game that is the story’s central event both literally and thematically. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but in fact this was the beginning of my career as a writer.
The first stage of the journey of the movie of “Capture the Flag” lasted about a year, and I got an education about how incredibly difficult it is to find a producer to make a feature film that is a character-driven, period piece about teenagers in New York in the ‘70’s. In the story was unplanned teen pregnancy, drugs, lesbian affairs and quasi-incest, but none of that was really the point. That was simply the fabric of a certain kind of adolescent life in 1970’s New York. The point of the story was that a group of teenagers managed to create their own enduring relationships and sense of family when their nuclear families had fallen apart and nobody was paying much attention to what the kids were up to — and they were up to some serious trouble.
Despite a talented young director, and a string of potential producers, after a year I put the screenplay in a drawer.
But something had changed over that year — I had been convinced by people who read the script that maybe, just maybe . . . I could write. A short while later, I published my first book, Chautauqua Summer, a memoir about running away to the circus: I had trained to become a solo trapeze artist, traveled with the vaudeville troupe, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, and fallen in love with one of the founders of that group along the way. It made a good story, and people liked the book enough for my editor to ask me: So, what about your next book? Of course, I had no idea. But I had learned that publishing a book, while not easy, meant that you didn’t have to convince a whole team of people that you were the one to hire. I could simply sit in a corner and write.
It was still a long shot, but it seemed much more possible that a book might someday sit on a shelf than that a film would actually get made. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if a big Hollywood producer offered me a large sum for any of my books — that is a problem I am more than prepared to wrestle with (please, go ahead and option my new novel, TODAY!). But so far I haven’t written the kind of stories that Hollywood studios line up to buy — not enough murder for sure (no murder, actually) and though there is certainly sex in all of my books, perhaps there is not enough of the right kind of sex.
I kept mulling over the “next book” question. Would there be a next book? Then I remembered “Capture the Flag.” I knew immediately that I still wanted to tell that story. I chose not to re-read the original screenplay. The forms of a novel and a screenplay are so different; I wanted to approach it as a novel, and not be seduced by any “good ideas” I might find in the screenplay that would never work in a novel, but could take up a lot of my time figuring that out. Anyway, I didn’t need to remind myself of the plot — this was a first novel and it was close to home. I knew the story. Capture the Flag was published in 1999 by Simon & Schuster and did quite well. I was very happy to have published my first novel and by this time I had two plays produced as well; it seemed that perhaps I was a writer after all.
What came next was an unexpected turn. The book fell into the hands of Lisanne Skyler, an independent film director and screenwriter, whose most recent feature had been “Getting to Know You” an adaptation of two stories by Joyce Carol Oates. Lisanne loved the book, and wanted to meet me. I saw “Getting to Know You” and wanted to meet Lisanne. In the first five minutes, we realized that not only had we both grown up in New York, we had gone to the same school — though she is younger and we never knew each other in school, we realized we had the same English teachers!
We found that we could practically speak in code when we were talking about writing. Thus began a nearly decade long collaboration — it’s still very difficult to make an independent feature — and in that time we both brought other projects to fruition: books, films and even babies! But Lisanne has as much tenacity as talent, and she is the one who has given me my real education in the screen trade. We adapted the feature script together, we got in and out of bed with many producers (only metaphorically of course) and finally after the latest economic downturn, Lisanne got fed up. She raised grant money, she got Kodak to donate 16 mm. black and white film (she was determined not to shoot in video, to recreate the visual feeling of the period) and we shot a short film last summer that brings to life the world of the book and the characters we have been living with for years now. “Capture the Flag” is now showing in film festivals, and our plan is that this short film will be a platform for the feature.
The feature script is not the book, the short film is not the feature, and the book is on a shelf. But I have come full circle, still not having re-read the original screenplay, not even sure where it is anymore — but we work from the book, and I have quite happily cut whole characters out of the story, changed relationships and above all tried to remind myself that nothing in the book is too precious not to be considered on the chopping block of an 103 page film script. Learning a sort of ruthlessness with my own words has changed my prose, and I believe that my new novel, Leaving Rock Harbor, published this month by Scribner, has a more muscular and leaner prose style in part as a result of essentializing my first novel, which oddly enough, had its gestation as a sprawling, half-formed gesture toward a feature film.
The film “Capture the Flag” will be featured as at the Nantucket Film Festival, running this June 17-20.
Author photo credit: Nina Subin
DISCUSS: What novels would you like to see adapted to film?
VISIT: Rebecca Chace’s website