How to Write A Screenplay in a Café
Note: this piece was originally published elsewhere.
You have decided to write a screenplay in a café. You may be in Los Angeles and have decided that The Bourgeois Pig is the right place for you to accomplish this task. But, really, you could be anywhere reading this, and you have to go with what you know works for you: I know of one café in Edinburgh where I could duck out of the rain and listen to Fabrizio De André and let a spoon clink around a wide white mug like a kid swimming in a small hotel pool. I know of a handful of coffee places in Austin and Portland that caught my eye that I didn’t have a chance to visit when I was there. There’s a place in New York where breakfast coffee hits the angle of the opening eyes just right, a place in London whose artisan aspirations struck me as being almost gaudily surreal (the shop was housed in an Inception-like open cube of a space near the Thames and a nearby market), and I know of a coffee place in Boston where I can lose hours as easily as a cup lets loose steam.
It’s about layers: Ultimately, you’re not going to be writing just for yourself. You may be doing this at the beginning, and that moment is vitally important and worth taking as much time with as you’d like (and there’s a degree to which that never really goes away either), but you’ll soon be writing for people who have a particular sense of what they see and how they see the world; you’ll be writing for people who have a certain range as an actor; and more.
If you’ve never had the experience of writing for an actor, I’d recommend it. I once took great joy in writing for someone who I knew was capable of taking a Chris Farley or John Belushi-like level of energy and landing it with great precision on the head of a very small pin, both behaviorally and verbally. I knew he was capable of a decent range of emotion: His face could convey wounded surprise, muted disappointment, and a brow-furrowing miniature adventure of egoism collecting itself to come roaring back in the face like Quixote leading a charge. He could take that Farley-like energy and use it to convey authority.
To play off of #3 for just a moment: As good a show as Westworld happens to be, the script takes pains to come across as fairly plain and restrained, which is how — as The Nerdwriter highlights here — we get to see how good Anthony Hopkins is at his job.
Beware in-script characterization — not only because it’s limiting, but because it’s not worthy of what your script can be. If you’re writing a screenplay, you’re not expected to be a novelist, but it would be a welcome change of pace if more scripts took the step to acknowledge that the characters depicted were characters worth caring about. Consider the example given here, which can sometimes be far, far too typical —
LOUISE is a waitress in a coffee shop. She is in her early thirties, but too old to be doing this. She is very pretty and meticulously groomed, even at the end of her shift. She is slamming dirty coffee cups from the counter into a bus tray underneath the counter. It is making a lot of RACKET, which she is oblivious to.
We’re given thirty seconds to learn something new about a woman, and the screenwriter opted to tell us us within three sentences that Louise puts an importance on being “very pretty and meticulously groomed, even at the end of her shift,” as if she was nothing more than an early Don Draper fever dream. There was nothing about where she came from, whether or not the nub of her formative experience came from perhaps something more Toni Morrison-like (“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order”), or whether or not she was thinking of the last film she saw, like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles or similar.
Take a break from writing the screenplay in the café and listen to what’s going on around you. Take time to engage with what’s happening around you. It could be more important than you might realize. In The Los Angeles Review Of Books, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft wrote of how Hemingway characterized himself as “a charging rhino when he wrote” in the café, adding that, when he wrote in cafés himself, he found that “without all that noise I could never recognize a signal.”
Just as it’s important to realize that you’re writing for different actors, so, too, is it important to realize you’re writing for different eyes, too. For months in college, I kept trying to figure out how to film the outro to “My Iron Lung” by Radiohead as I walked across the Salt and Pepper Bridge and over the Charles River to class: What change would mark the shift between quiet and the frenetically loud? It would have to be at night, but what sort of night? Who would be out? A camera floating down the Public Alleys wouldn’t match well with the ultimate jump of the track, so what was needed? What part of the city? Where? I flicked through the legion of streets I knew and kept coming up empty. Had I been working with someone at the time, they could well have had a solution, perhaps offering up a fantasy redesign of a street corner somewhere the way The Departed turned a dry cleaners on Charles Street into a bar. (And, for what it’s worth, all that ended up happening with the Salt and Pepper Bridge was I took part in a scene in which I rounded a corner on the bridge in my boxer shorts in a deep February cold that left me cursing repeatedly in-between takes as I pretended to be a bourbon-soaked comedy enthusiast.)
Here is the most recent café I went to: a place called LOKAL, where there’s a small front, a large basement with a hidden yoga studio right near it, and a few tables that linger outside. In the basement, where I sit, the wall opposite is covered in chalk, quick proclamations like ACHIEVE THE STARS, GOD IS BLACK AND I MET HER, a Grateful Dead wash of colors striking a yoga pose.
Here is the café I dream of: somewhere perched near the top of Paris, a skylight, a large and quiet room of studio-like stucco, and steam from my cup making its way up to the skylight, where — perhaps — a bird or two have gathered to warm themselves in the rising steam.
Whether or not I ever find the café I want, the screenplay is waiting — yours, too — so do me a favor and get back to work.
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