Writing Cat And Trolls; Scene Cards and Visualization
by Michael Amundsen
I have been writing screenplays for a little over 30 years and I still feel like an amateur. The ultimate outcome of a screenplay is something to be watched, not something to be read. But a screenplay is not so much visual in and of itself as it lays down a visual foundation for the movie that is to spring from its pages. So with each successive screenplay, I explored writing strategies that would distance me from needing to think and bring me closer to needing to see. CAT AND THE TROLLS was a big step in that progression.
I spent about ten years writing and re-writing a screenplay in development called BIG ENOUGH aka TEACHING TOOTS aka MIDNIGHTS LAST RIDE, until I sold it outright to director Euzhan Palcy. The producer had feedback. The director had feedback. We’d have a table read and all the actors had feedback about their respective characters. Or we would want to attract a certain actor and it was back to the keyboard.
Under the gun as I was, there was no time to explore the rewrites. There was only time to put words on paper and hope for time to visualize it later.
But CAT AND THE TROLLS was different.
Coming off three straight features with very low budgets, 15 day shooting schedules, lots o’ speaking parts and extras, and way too many company moves, I was determined to avoid such craziness in my next movie. I wanted few locations, actors and no extras.
Plus, I had wanted for years to do something that would honor my immigrant grandparents who homesteaded southeastern Montana. And in doing so, I would utilize my favorite themes of themes of faith, forgiveness, self-reliance and redemption.
I settled on the main characters: 13 year-old Siri (the protagonist), her brother Toad, and two strangers who would bring some violent conflict into their small homestead shack. And I knew one of them would be a young cocky but troubled bronc rider.
Before I ever began to type a word of dialogue or a line of description, I wanted to be able to be able to create a mental hologram and visualize this movie in my mind.
I poured through dozens of books on the homestead period in the West. I turned to first aid books and medical studies about hypothermia and frostbite and amputation to give me ideas on how to structure the conflict. I was much inspired by the excellent book THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD, David Laskin’s harrowing account of a devastating blizzard in 1889 that killed close to two hundred school children on the plains of Nebraska and the Dakotas.
And I kept track of every fact and every inspiration that came to me while doing the research by writing them on a stack of 3×5 index cards, limiting each card to as little information as needed.
I engaged my other senses. I listened to music. The beautiful Hardanger fiddle arrangements of the Norwegian musician Annbjorn Lien never left my ipod.
I even built a scale model of the shack with balsa wood and Popsicle sticks and dressed it with tiny furniture.
A JAM SESSION WITH CARDS
Armed with my stack of research cards, I took up residence on the bed in the guest room accompanied by my cat, Olive. I reviewed, juxtaposed, and rewrote the cards over and over until I saw connections as a story began to take shape. I had a young cowboy in my story suffering from severe frostbite. I made choices about what course of action was open to the suffering cowboy and to the children whose home he’d invaded seeking shelter from the storm.
That’s when that rough jumbled jam session of research cards began to be replaced by actual scene cards. Each card declared the location, time, characters and conflict specific to that scene. And I numbered them so I could keep the order intact.
I thought of the first scene. I wrote its location, time it took place and who was in the scene and what happened in that scene on a separate card and numbered it. If I thought of some mighty line of dialogue, it went onto its very own card. If I conceived of some sequence of events, that too went onto a scene card.
New ideas would suggest themselves. I would set aside cards that I found repetitious. I played with their order because cards can be moved around or put aside when no longer needed and new ones written. With scene cards, nothing is set in stone. Their non-linear nature makes it possible to improvise their order, searching for better juxtapositions.
Multiple drafts of scene cards were written. I continued to go through them over and over until with familiarization, I freed myself from the cerebral written details and opened my mind to visualize the story as if I watched it on a screen inside my head.
There is the story that when Walt Disney was in development on a new feature, he would tell his daughters the story of that upcoming movie as a bedtime story, and in so doing was able to identify the slow spots and the moments of confusion.
That’s what I was doing, repeatedly telling the tale over and over until I knew it well enough that I could spot the weaknesses and strengths. And it was not until the story was clear in my mind, not perfect in detail but in spirit, did I sit down at the keyboard and begin to write the screenplay. And I wrote what I saw in my mind