I worked with Berkley Brady just once – at a one-day event I used to run called Writers’ Soup. It was a long time ago now, but her writing stayed with me over the years. I invited her into the spotlight this month because I wanted to see what she’s been up to more recently, in her screenwriting life.
In her introduction, Berkley says that in screenwriting you can’t mediate anything; “you can only show through action.” This is what I always try to do more of in fiction. But what is it like to write in a form where you cannot use exposition or summary?
What is an unmediated scene, really?
“Blow Out” takes place on an oil rig and bush camp in Northern Alberta. This excerpt is gritty and unflinching: a lot of drama packed into a small space. Watch how Berkley makes you jump: on the last page, while Mike is thinking about Shaun’s question, “…you guys really got nothing better to do than joyride up and down a logging road?”
I won’t spoil it for you. Just check it out.
Berkley Brady lives in Brooklyn, where she writes screenplays and works in various aspects of film, from script supervising to directing. She’s currently pursuing her MFA in directing and screenwriting at Columbia University in New York and interning as a reader for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s production company, Cooper’s Town. She hopes to direct her first feature, The Falls, shortly after graduation. After that her plans include adopting a giant dog and working in television.
Handwriting or computer? Both. Also notecards, journals, and the back of things like envelopes and receipts.
Page count or time count? Time and, these days, by scene.
First drafts or revision? Revision. It gives first drafts permission to have fun during their awkward, adolescent phase in a pre-Facebook, right-to-be-forgotten sort of way.
Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group? Solo for the first draft, although I’d love to find a writing partner one day. Groups for revision – if nothing else, they provide deadlines.
Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music? It depends on what I’m working on. Music is great for my intuitive writing, but can distract from the more conceptual, craftsman aspect of screenwriting that isn’t as easy for me.
How long have you been writing? How long have you known you wanted to be a writer?
I self-published my first illustrated book, Cocoa: the Rock-and-Roll Guinea Pig, when I was six-years-old. I have never looked back… or achieved such critical success. Actually, I was about that age when I learned that a writer was even something that a person could be – I’d never heard of that before and the idea just clicked. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to be a writer so much as feeling that I already was one. This was great until I heard about how difficult it is to earn a living as a creative writer. Then I was scared for about 10 years and tried to be other things. Doing my MFA at Columbia, a school known for its focus on narrative, was a way of committing to the craft of storytelling once and for all. I’m glad I did.
Who are you reading these days for influence, and why?
James Salter, Light Years. Reynolds Price and Alice Munro. Waldo Salt and Paddy Chayefsky for screenplays because of their attention to both organic character development and organic, but classical, structure. Eden Robinson because she’s dark, funny, and magical. Also, I look to contemporary television writing – everything from The Wire, Deadwood, and Remember Me to Louie CK and New Girl – when I need to focus on pacing, structure, quick dialogue and tone. Right now, the long-form storytelling of television excites me more than film. I’d love to be a writer on HBO’s adaptation of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Tell us about the excerpt you’re sharing today.
This sample is from my thesis script. It’s a short film I hope to shoot next spring, but I’m also adapting the story for a feature-length script, which I’m aiming to direct in 2015 or 2016.
On screenwriting vs. fiction/prose:
Like all writing advice, the difference between these two forms is easy to explain but incredibly difficult to understand. After four years at Columbia, I’m finally beginning to see what is and isn’t possible when writing in images and action, which is the language of cinema/television.
The best way to explain the difference is to first understand that… you can’t explain anything. Not your character’s thoughts, their feelings, their wants. You can only show through action. Unless you can guarantee that a note directly from writer to reader is something that an actor can use – and clearly communicate to an audience – there’s no place for your commentary. You can’t say “she was sad because…” Instead, you have to invent a way to put her present feeling and backstory into action. It’s the most demanding “show don’t tell” form of writing that I have found. It’s similar most to poetry, which is why it’s so darn hard.
It’s also incredibly structured, and I’m not talking about formulas such as “mid-point crisis on page 60!” Organic structure is something I study every day, and I liken it to the architecture of skyscrapers. If anything is done wrong at the base, the entire structure will crumble. You will walk out of my movie if you think it’s falling.
This has forced me to develop the conceptual side of my writing brain, the technical side of the craft. I have had to become a logical architect as well as a wildly free-form artist (my natural inclination!). So, what I really have to be is a good project manager between these two sides of my brain. I have to respect them both equally, even though they often despise each other.
Thanks to my teachers at Columbia – especially Eric Mendelsohn, Tom Kalin, and Trey Ellis – I’ve learned how to approach story and character wants with more discipline. They’ve also exposed me to incredible work I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. But it’s been a screenwriting teacher in Los Angeles, Corey Mandell, who helped me stop worrying about whether or not I had “talent,” and to just get on with the work. Columbia can be very “talent-oriented,” with each bright student trying to show how naturally gifted they are. This was tough for me. Thank goodness for Corey. He suggested a book called Mindset that I wish every writer could memorize; it’s a book that explains why hard, targeted effort is the path to good work, not “talent.”
Once I understood how to change from a fixed mindset to a growth one, I invested less of my identity in my success as a writer/artist and focused on looking at the effort I was putting into my work. Once I did, I worried less about being “good” and started writing more. Thanks Corey, and thanks Sarah – who was the first teacher to centre me in the present moment of writing, not the pre-writing fear or post-writing judgment. I think Sarah’s Writers’ Soup was the only time I had fun writing for several years, before graduate school.
Thanks for reading and best of luck to all of you – I can’t wait to read more samples of work posted soon.
Excerpt from Blow Out,
by Berkley Brady
Zoe Hill, 33, is a meticulous well-site geologist who’s been working all winter on a remote oil rig in Northern Alberta. She’s also an environmentalist, working within the industry to influence it. For months, she’s been the only woman in a bush camp full of frustrated roughnecks.
The rig itself – and it’s increasingly unruly crew – is run by drill supervisor Shaun Carr, 38. Zoe’s his boss. She’s also who he’s falling in love with. So far, the feeling’s been mutual and we sense that this is significant for them both.
In the scene before this, we learn that Zoe’s company is on the verge of bidding against a notoriously destructive mega-company for the drilling rights to the area she’s been studying for months. She’s relying on Shaun to keep his crew in line so she can have the exploratory data she needs to win the bid…
- I/E. ZOE’S TRUCK/ROAD – NIGHT
Zoe drives, Shaun shotgun. Ahead, the gravel road stretches into darkness. Above, stars in the huge Albertan sky. The mood between them is comfortable, playful.
You can’t say a refinery is as beautiful as the Sahara desert.
I didn’t say as beautiful, I said as awe-inspiring.
Zoe is about to reply when something she sees stops her:
Her P.O.V. through the windshield: the outline of 2 men standing in the middle of the road, their figures backlit by a lone pair of headlights behind them.
Are those our guys?
(off Zoe’s look) What the–?
Zoe takes her foot of the gas, pulling over.
EXT. ROAD – MOMENTS LATER
The men in the middle of the road are waving Zoe and Shaun towards what looks like a black mound in the middle of the road.
Closer now, we hear an animal’s short, labored PANTING.
Zoe looks past the men; a fatally wounded BLACK BEAR dying on the road; its back legs are broken, its abdomen splayed open.
His guts are, like, everywhere.
Zoe points at him, glaring.
That is a suicidal bear.
Zoe spins around, pointing at him, her voice rising.
(ignoring her, to Shaun) I’m telling you man, it jumped like thirty feet–
PING. A sharp shot followed by a sharp GROAN from the bear.
Zoe whips around to see Mike lowering a small shotgun from his side – the type a farm kid would have in his truck to shoot gophers.
She grabs the barrel of the gun.
Jake laughs as Mike tries to pull the gun out of Zoe’s hand.
Shaun steps forward.
Put it down.
(to Zoe) Let go.
Zoe shoots him a look of disbelief and walks away, on the verge of losing it.
(to Zoe) Hey, I didn’t mean it like that.
Before she knows it, Zoe’s facing the bear, walking slowly towards it, crouching close enough to see the bright pinpricks of the headlights in its dark eyes.
A moment between them as the animal stares back. Its breath coming in irregular HUFFS now, the sound of the MEN ARGUING FADES as flickers of the animal’s pain register on her face. Her eyes start to fill.
A voice from behind her breaks the trance.
It’s probably in shock.
Shaun rests his hand gently on her back.
I bet it doesn’t feel a thing.
Zoe shrugs his hand off.
She stands, turning her head away from him so he can’t see her face.
Zoe starts walking back towards her truck, discreetly wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
The bear GROANS.
Shaun watches her get into the truck. She slams the door.
He turns and walks towards his men.
Mike has to think about it.
Before Mike can reply, BANG! A thunderous shot from the truck.
The men turn to look in the direction of the shot. They see Zoe standing on the ledge of the truck, balancing her hunting rifle on the top of the driver’s side door.
Everyone looks at the bear. It lies still, silent.
I’m not touching that thing before I know it’s dead–
BANG. Zoe shoots the bear again. Pieces of its scalp flying across the road.
Now get it off. Please and thank you.
She gets back in her truck and slams the door.
INT. TRUCK – SAME
Zoe turns the truck back on, suddenly illuminating the scene with her headlights.
She sees Shaun frozen in her headlights, staring back at her, stunned.
She looks away, throws her arm over the seat, and throws the truck into reverse.
What remains with you after reading Berkley’s work?
Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?
How is your own writing practice like Berkley’s? How is it different?
Please leave a comment below.
And thank you, Berkley!
These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.