The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wisdom From Mick Jagger...

"You can't always get what you want" sang the Stones.  But you CAN get what you need.  Thanks, Mick.   This was never more true than on the DANGER WORD shoot...

It was 12:30 am Sunday night, and the crew was exhausted.  The cast was exhausted.  But the great Frankie Faison was driving us on with energy and clarity.  “Motor through it!” he insisted, and we did.  What a guy!    But we had another major sequence to film after this, and I saw that we were in trouble.  By the time we got through set-up, and changing location, and lighting (we had to fake daylight!), and everything else…multiple takes of a CRITICAL emotional sequence, without which DANGER WORD simply wouldn’t work…the risk of injury or hell, MUTINY was very real.   And Tananarive and I went into a huddle.  This is where it is useful to be a writer/producer.  We understood the moral and emotional core of our film.  We knew that the purpose of a story is not to supply information, but to convey an emotional charge.  Information that does not change emotion (and therefore, influence action) is useless.   Pointless.  Trivial (why do you think they call it “Trivial Pursuit”?)

 Tananarive was exhausted, nodding off between takes.   But when she sat up and focused, a possibility occurred to her: with some re-jiggering,  we could play the entire outdoor scene indoors.  Right here on the set.  I was shocked, but then thought about it (and yes, I’m being artfully vague here).   I thought it through.

1) Did it make story sense?  Would viewers “miss” the missing set-up?  Would they say: "gee, I wonder why they didn't do X?"  No.

2) Did it make “reality” sense?   A modification was needed to the actual way the zombie disease attacked the system.  Did it make sense?    Immediately, I saw that it damned well could.  In fact, it made perfect sense, even though we’d never stated it in the books.

3) Did it make logistical sense?   Oh, yes indeedy.    So much so I was gobsmacked.

4) Was there a way that it made the sequence BETTER?   Yes.  And this is critical.  Nothing ever comes out the same.  In general, it’s either better or worse.   THINK OF THE WAY IT CAN MAKE THINGS BETTER.   And I could: simplicity, directness, speed.

5) Did it make emotional sense?  Yes.   It allowed us to play out a major emotional change without a shift in location.  It allowed the actors to “flow” from one powerful moment to another, without an hour-long break during which their exhaustion would sap their energy.  That energy would transmit to the audience (“sales is a transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another”—and trust me, children…storytelling is sales, and sales is storytelling.)

I tested it.   Looked at it from every direction, and oh my God, it made perfect sense.   I kissed T, and went to our director.   She was in the middle of putting out a half-dozen fires at once as the makeup people made magic.  People were pulling at her, but I pulled rank on them.   “Luchina,” I said, “give me sixty seconds, and I’ll make you very happy.”   She trusted me.    I told her our idea.  It took a moment to sink in, and her eyes lit up.

With her permission, I went to our little star,  Saoirse (SEER-SHAH) Scott, and told her.  The little trooper had been game for everything, hadn’t ever complained about anything, no matter what we asked her to do.  But when I explained my plan, and she realized that instead of another two hours of filming WE WERE ABOUT TO FINISH she hugged me and said, with simple sincerity: “I love you.”

We powered through that last sequence, the entire crew energized.  Emotions were at a peak.  Tears flowed.  Then Saoirse’s mom said “she wants to hear the words.”   Luchina paused and said: “It’s a wrap!” and the crew applauded.

Oh, my God.  We were done!    And there was a lesson there, an important one.   You MUST be able to tell the difference between what you WANT and what you NEED.   We WANTED the scene the way we wrote it, but it was becoming logistically nightmarish.  What Tananarive saw was that the emotional core, represented in a few critical lines of dialogue, and the emotional peak we’d been working toward for two days, could be maintained even though the way it “looked” was different.

YOU CAN HAVE ANYTHING YOU NEED, IF YOU CAN LET GO OF HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO LOOK.  Go deeper into the actual meat of it.  What is it you really need?  What is the emotional hunger you are feeding.  Go far enough, into its emotional roots, and you’ll find that the external aspects are often just “presentation,” the box it comes in.  I love fancy boxes.  But if you are starving, you don’t care what color the plate is.   If you’re putting out a fire, you don’t give a #$%% about the wrapping the extinguisher comes in.   Find the “fire” you are actually putting out, the “nutrients” you are actually seeking to ingest.  While satisfying every basic NEED…begin to sacrifice your WANTS.    Feed your emotional “children” but don’t let them dominate you into putting smiley-faces onto every damned pancake.

We won.  Because we weren’t afraid to lose what was non-essential.    I may be happier with that single insight of T’s than any other she ever made, other than deciding to marry me.
Jeeze, I love that girl.    Well done, baby.



Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


My name is Clint Fluker. I am an origami artist and I am also a phd student in Emory's ILA program. The subject of my research is black authored Science Fiction film. As there are very few black filmmakers who have the opportunity to work on Hollywood SF, I am focusing my attention on indepedent films and filmmakers.

At the moment, I have two major spheres of interest when it comes to these films. First, Im curious as to the struggles black filmmakers face as they attempt to make SF films. Why are there so few black auhors/auteurs in this genre and what is holding them back? Second, SF narratives, in general, tend to feature 'the other' as deviant bodies( aliens, monsters...). Im very interested in the deviant bodies portrayed in Black authored SF films vs. White authored SF and determining what the differences are, if any.

Your work in SF and your wife's work in Horror is very exciting. In fact, I met Tananarive Due at the 2013 Octavia Butler Celebration. That panel was truly incredible!Im particularly interested in the work you both have been doing on your upcoming zombie film, Danger Word. Ive been following your blog and your facebook pages for information and it has been very helpful.

Might you and your wife be available for a more in depth conversation on the phone or at Spelman? I would benefit greatly from a conversation where I could ask more specific questions about the production of this film and some of your other works of literature.

Thanks so much for your time,
I can be reached at

Clint Fluker
To see my artwork visit:

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Great stuff! Wise words.
Best regards!

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