It all started while I was sifting through Twitter.
In March 2020, as the whole world faced the reality of a global pandemic, like many indie filmmakers, I was desperately looking for a creative outlet. And with lockdowns and so much uncertainty, the idea of shooting something close to others and showing films at festivals seemed to be on hold indefinitely.
Among the terrifying posts on my Twitter feed these early weeks was an invitation to Writer Twitter from Christian Elder, a well-known screenwriter whom I followed. Over the past few years, Twitter’s #WritingCommunity (or Screenwriting Twitter, as some call it) has grown to be an incredible resource for pre-WGA writers to share scripts, share tips and encouragement, and learn from more seasoned union writers.
And during the pandemic, that community exploded – it was like finding that film festival experience from the comfort of the couch.
OK. So I think that’s great. Base #PreWGA Zoom Writers Rooms is a cool idea.
I joined a room. But I’m also thinking of making my own – in case anyone is interested, HMU
– Christian elder (@Xian_Elder) March 21, 2020
I noticed Christian’s contribution. He wanted to put a team together to get one Black mirror-Anthology series based on film noir stories.
His idea was to have all of the stories set in the same fictional frontier town of Hell, California. I implemented this idea from my writing partner / wife Sara and we took the opportunity.
Although this was a little outside of Sara’s wheelhouse (we usually write lighter, more comedic fare) we were up to the challenge. Because hey, it would not only keep us occupied and scratch that creative itch, but it would also distract us from the bare grocery shelves and 24 hour news.
A total of five authors were selected as part of the base space, and the group was as diverse and colorful as the fictional city we wanted to create. Sara and I came from a film and production background, mostly short films like this one that was shown at No Film School. The faceless man.
Christian Elder is an accomplished screenwriter and playwright. Ryan Riddle was an award-winning journalist who shifted his focus to writing on television. Jimmy Hurt attended military school and is a retired athlete. And Christian Martin had a background in special education and is a self-proclaimed video game and D&D enthusiast. These different perspectives and life experiences came out later in our individual episodes.
Neither of us had ever been to a writers’ room before, and as the studios and mainstream shows figured out how to run remote spaces, we learned the dynamics of being in a room and how to work virtually with a ton of people we’ve never met.
Christian Elder took on the role of show runner, set the tone and led our weekly meetings. He gave us thought exercises (like identifying the greatest strengths of each other’s scripts and then challenging us to incorporate them into our own, or dreamed of casting leads to deepen our characters and think about them from an actor’s perspective) and his guidance enhanced all of our work.
Since this was an anthology series, we didn’t follow a typical author space model, but adapted it to what would work for our format. Each person’s episode should be a standalone and their own work, so we didn’t break open the stories all together. Instead, our collaboration focused on building the world of the city.
These were real team building moments because we could expand each other’s ideas while working out the history and lore of Hell. There were places that we all picked up, like the Shell on the Beach Hotel or the Crimson King Bar, that would appear in several episodes. We came up with an annual Founders Day celebration where the city celebrated the ruthless way Hell came to be. And then there was the shadowy Brimstone corporation that towers over the city and its politics.
The size of the city, its population, the different neighborhoods – everything was covered in these early sessions.
Write the episodes
After the city became a reality in all of our heads, we broke off to write our individual episodes, exchange updates, and continue to exchange ideas in our weekly meetings. In essence, it became a mix of a writers’ room and a writing group because one room worked with the independence of a group while keeping each other motivated and accountable.
We guided our designs through the reading and note taking team and received feedback that was quick, constructive, and most importantly, reliable.
We all sent scripts to people who said they would read them and then disappeared like they owed us money. So it was a great relief to have a group that we could count on and that were invested in something bigger than ourselves.
But the biggest benefit of all was that our weekly meetings helped us get through the turbulent 2020. It was comforting to know that despite what was happening in the world, our team would be on Zoom every Sunday.
We talked about our writing and what current TV shows inspired us, but also about life and whatever was going on in the news – be it the summer protests, the elections, the uprising or the various upsurges of the pandemic. There have been many ups and downs: some of us lost our jobs, some of us got a new one, one of us has COVID, one of us got pregnant (we’ll let you guess which one).
But during one of the strangest years of our lives we supported each other and became friends.
Creation of the scripts
After our scripts were ready, we started working with a talented group of actors to do live zoom readings of the episodes and are now using those recordings in an ongoing podcast. The episodes span various sub-genres of noir stories, from dark to humorous, from a cheat story to a classic private investigator, all of which are linked together in the mysterious city of Hell, California.
And seeing how an idea and a city that once only existed in our minds was turned into a truly tangible piece of entertainment was incredibly rewarding.
In retrospect, the most important thing I’ve learned from this whole experience is that there are always ways to keep that indie DIY film spirit alive. I would never have tried a project like this if we hadn’t had to stay creative in the face of isolation.
And even if the world opens up again and the production and authoring rooms return to a form of normality, the real possibility of teleworking remains. Your employees no longer have to be in the same room, in the same city or in the same state. No need to wait to join an author’s room, you can create your own room.
Use the #WritingCommunity on Twitter to find your team. We I hope everyone reading this will be inspired by our story to go out (or stay) and create!
And we hope to see you in hell.