Updating a Screenplay to Current-ish Day

screenplayAlmost two months ago, I finished revising a feature-length screenplay. It’s something that’s been on my back burner for a long time (six years) and I finally had the time to look at it again. One of the most interesting and challenging things about revising it was updating it to current day.

For a little background, I’ve been working on a lot of writing projects since early on in quarantine.

Even then, I often still feel like I’m not as consistent as I’d like to be–I don’t work on my writing every day, some weeks have more off than on days, and some have no on days at all–but even so, it’s the most consistent, longest stretch I’ve had of working on my writing in…at least a decade? Maybe more.

Oddly, since quarantine, none of my writing work has been generative writing, even though I was doing some of that back in December before I dropped off to study for my boards. In March, when we went on lockdown and I suddenly had all this unexpected time like almost never before in my adult life (because of how covid impacted my boards, a story for another post), my writing time has focused exclusively on revision of old work.

My friend Leo and I, who both listen to the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast and make “XX for 20XX” goal lists each year along with the podcast and share them and our progress on them in a google doc, made “19 for covid-19” lists after listening to an episode on that (I wrote about this here). It sounds sort of crass, to base goal lists after this deadly pandemic that has upended all our lives, and mostly it serves as a way to keep ourselves grounded in these uncertain times. We have all kinds of things on there–projects, habits we want to form or break or maintain in our lives that look different now, reminders to stay connected with loved ones–and they range from the grand to the mundane.

Not surprisingly, several of mine involved writing. The first several revolved around revising and submitting two long-form essays I’ve been tinkering with for years. Those were the first two things I tackled, writing-wise, and I posted about that back in May.

After that, my next project was to revise a screenplay. I have a handful in various stages of doneness (it sounds like hamburgers on a grill or something) including two that I completed first drafts of in 2014. Since then, I’ve often planned to revisit them and revise them and submit them. There was one time, in 2017, where I wrote down a bunch of screenplay competition deadlines in my writing notebook…and then never did anything with any of them.

Then in early 2019, while a med student by day, I took a screenwriting class on Monday nights. It was Andy Mingo’s Screenwriting class at Corporeal Writing, and it was meant for workshopping a screenplay that was fully or mostly written. I picked my screenplay called Live Through This (of course I’m going to name it after a music reference, always). The number one feedback I got from the others in the class (and there were so many great writers in the class, all working on such cool and interesting projects) was along the lines of “yeah, so, when is this supposed to be taking place?”

Oh yeah, that.

The screenplay (which is the first one described on my TV/Screenwriting page) is based on a true story that happened over the winter of 2002 into early 2003. It’s a fictionalized version of the one story of my life that fits the three-act structure of a screenplay almost perfectly, of when I moved out to Seattle and tried to survive.

The timing in the original version is messy at best, because the real story happened before smart phones, when we didn’t have the internet, or maps apps, or GPS, or transit apps or any of that in our pockets. I had written it like that, with lots of relying on old school scrappiness, with payphones and phone cards playing prominent roles. But then I’d also thrown in more modern things like scenes with video chats online. There were also a lot of music references that would be a bit more apropos to 2002 than current day.

he real story also involved a lot of using the sun and shadows to triangulate cardinal directions, and water (when I was close enough to see it) as anchor for west but I guess that was a bit too far even for the screenplay because I didn’t put that in.

So I had to pick. I could go the Lady Bird route and just set the screenplay in 2002 when the actual story happened, or adopt it to modern day. I opted for modern day. It just felt more right for a couple reasons. I wanted some of the modern tech for fictionalized versions of the story. The dialogue was more current than 2002. Mostly, there was a lot of the feel of the story that felt more current. There’s a bit of a bleakness for college grads aspect in the story–lots of job struggles, crippling student loans, people having to live with their parents long after they’d want to leave–that just more now than 2002.

So that meant a lot of work. There were times that I had to work modern tech in, and there were times I had to contrive ways to deprive Lily, my character, of access to tech. I had to ask friends about ways that parents could control cell phones (because I was 21 the first time I had one, which is a very different situation from people growing up now) and about how and if not particularly tech savvy young twentysomethings could convincingly spoof calls.

It was surprising how much work it took to update everything in the script to take place in current day, and what a mess of time periods the original version was.

I still left it one lone payphone, outside a 7-11, which featured so prominently in the real story and felt too symbolic to lose. There’s also a scene where Lily looks for one outside a bus station in Olympia but can’t find one.

In the action description, I was going to write that she couldn’t find one because it was 2020 and this wasn’t a 7-11. And then realized I couldn’t really set this in modern day because our real modern day is so different and this screenplay, like so many stories, couldn’t happen in 2020. So I changed it to 2019, figuring that was close enough, and conveyed where I actually wanted to set it, current day but before covid. It brought to mind in a crystallized way, the uniqueness of the times we’re living in.

I also found a place where I used the phrase “Trump card” as a single sentence. I thought, wow, I wrote that in 2014 and it had a completely different connotation now than I could have imagined it would when I wrote it. I changed that too–that was another way in which I had to update the screenplay for current day–because it felt like it couldn’t not conjure the person and distract with all kinds of implications that I didn’t want in my screenplay.

The screenplay still needs some work after this latest round of revisions. I didn’t just focus on the timeliness of the setting–there was a lot more–but that was a specific focus. So if nothing else, at least the time period isn’t ambiguous, or existing in two time periods almost two decades apart, anymore. That’s something.

-April

4 thoughts on “Updating a Screenplay to Current-ish Day

  1. Wow, sounds like quite an undertaking! It must be so satisfying to have finally completed that project. I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay – so cool! Now nothing is preventing you from submitting it for those contests! (Well, except maybe Corona if the contests aren’t being held this year…)

  2. Pingback: (Overdue) Writing Update: Second Place in Kay Snow | April Julia

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