On our latest podcast, Jim discussed his story mapping tool The Hart Chart, how it came about when re-writing Dracula with Francis Ford Coppola, and how he has used it ever since in his own writing and to help other screenwriters through workshops.
“When I was working with Coppola on Dracula, which was probably the single most complete experience I’ve had in my career as a screenwriter, I watched him prep to shoot a film the way I’d never seen anybody prep. We did radio plays, we videoed rehearsals. He would build a storyboard with a live recording. So we always had a running time of the film. And I watched him walk onto the set, knowing exactly what he was going to do every day.”
The ending of Dracula didn’t work in the previews. The audience didn’t like it. Even George Lucas mentioned that Jim broke his rules on the ending. Lucas said: “in order for her to complete the mission, she’s got to cut off his head. That’s the rules you set up in the movie. He was right.”
And so after two disastrous previews, Francis and Jim sat down to discuss the movie that they both hated (at this point). Francis pitched the story that he wanted to tell, and for the next two weeks they sat in the editing room together.
“We reviewed all the footage and we kept identifying pieces of narrative that we didn’t shoot or didn’t know to shoot. The footage informed us of a different way to look at the film. We literally rewrote the film.”
“I’m sitting there making notes. I would write beginnings and endings, or scenes, or middles of scenes, or pieces of narration. We didn’t reshoot one scene in the film, but we had to go back and reshoot to fill in the gaps in these pieces of narrative.”
The whole time, Jim kept thinking that there had to be a way to pick up issues during the scripting stage, before getting to editing. “Especially for independent filmmakers, they can’t call up Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder, and have the studio put the sets back up.”
After shooting the extra scenes, and changing the character’s narratives, the ending was complete “the way the audience wanted them. But somehow we missed that in the writing of the script.”
Developing The Hart Chart
Francis gave Jim three questions to develop his screenwriting and in order to analyse his scripts. “And then I expanded it to 10 questions. It was beginning to teach me to write character-driven narratives, as opposed to plot-driven. The plot dictated what the characters did and when they did it. And what I learned from the experience on Dracula, was that by shifting all my focus to the character-driven narrative, it opened up another world.”
Jim who regularly gets his heart checked, and was used to watching the cardiograph ticking away, wondered whether he could find a way of tracking the character’s journey.
“Can I measure the heartbeat of the characters on the page, as they go through the narrative? And will that inform me as to pace, what I’m missing, what I’m losing, what I’ve lost, what I need more of? We developed The Hart Chart and it literally was drawing a map of your character’s emotional journey through a series of signposts and measurements, so you could come to a satisfying ending.”
It’s a screenwriting toolkit (and app) that allows you to “never face a black page” again. “This gave me confidence; when I take on a new project or do a revision or rewrite, I now know exactly how to analyse. It forces you to write. As soon as you start answering the first question, you’re writing.”
“Don’t wait around for inspiration. I hear so many people say, ‘I don’t know what to write. I get lost. I get stuck’. Everybody thinks that the chart’s going to write their script. It’s not going to write the script, but it’s going to reveal the emotional journey, the ups and downs, the heartbeat of your characters.”
Jim’s Last Piece of Advice
“Read the book” more than once, if you’re doing an adaptation. You need to “read it and do your notes while you’re reading it. You see all kinds of adaptations that go off the rails. The book is the wellspring. The author has more answers than you do. Respect the author and go back to them.”
There is a wealth of tools and support available for screenwriters now – ISA (International Screenwriters‘ Association), Screencraft, The Black List, fellowships from studios, and IMDb. Use these tools to share your work. “Enter those contests. You will get networked.”
“If you’re reluctant to write, if it’s hard for you to get up the guts to write. Somebody is going to come in and take your place.”
Frank Pearson gave Jim some advice that has always stuck with him. “Nobody has a job in this business until some writer types The End.”