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  • Fred Smith

The Closet: From Page to Screen

I wrote “The Closet” as a short story in 2012 and was considering adapting the material—a about two students hiding out during a school shooting— into a film when tragedy struck in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. 26 people—20 of them children—lost their lives that day during the kind of mass shooting that nearly four years later has become all too familiar in our country. The gruesome news at Sandy Hook was tough for anyone to swallow and proved to be too distressing for me as the parent of a then three-year-old daughter to continue creating a film whose story is set at a school in the grips of an attack. My daughter is in kindergarten now and tells me that her class of fellow five and six-year-olds regularly practice what to do when a “bad person” enters the school. I’ve learned that her class rehearses this scenario as often as they do fire drills, because the likelihood of a gunman terrorizing their school is every bit as probable as the school erupting in flames—maybe more. I knew then that the time had come to bring “The Closet” to the screen. I needed to tell a story whose focus was not on the “bad person”—who so often gains national notoriety at the behest of the media in the wake of tragedy—but on the real victims of school shootings—those who perish senselessly, and those who survive and must make sense of the chaos. That explains why I made the film. Let’s take a look at how the prose of the short story relates to the screenplay that will become the film. Here’s the opening paragraph of the short story: Lisa heard the screams and tried to make herself as small as she could. The closet she was hiding in was pitch black, not much bigger than a phone booth and smelled of bleach. But for now, it was her only refuge from the terror that reigned just beyond the darkness of her sanctuary. The sheer panic that owned Lisa in the moments leading up to now had waned, as she realized the frequency of the screams from the nearby hallways had decreased in the last few minutes. But she was still every bit as scared as when the whole thing began. She could hear her own breathing and wondered how loud it may sound to the outside world. The great thing about writing stories as opposed to movies is that the former knows no limits of resource. Short stories don’t have budgets or other practical reasons for narrowing a narrative’s scope. That’s damn liberating for a writer, yet here I am enclosing my main character in a pitch-black space with only her hearing available to paint the picture of her situation to the audience. Good thing I can let readers into Lisa’s head, where they’ll stay for the duration of the short story as though they’re in the closet with her. Now let’s look at how the first half-page of the screenplay compares. A bit of technical explanation before we do. The initial line of the screenplay is script-speak for letting the reader know we’re indoors (INT.) in a closet, during the day. This shorthand lets those tasked with making the film immediately understand what kind of production effort might be involved with a given location. For example, when would-be producers first read a script by a little-known filmmaker named George Lucas in 1976 that began EXT. DEEP SPACE—NIGHT, they had at least some idea of what they were getting into. INT. ClOSET—DAY Darkness. Shallow, erratic breathing pulses underneath the darkness. The chilling sounds of chaos and mass panic reverberate somewhere nearby, far enough away not to pose an immediate threat, but close enough to instill terror. Two gunshots RING in the distance, echoed by more cries of unfortunate souls whose only sin was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A pair of eyes open, wide with terror. They’re lit by a tiny slash of illumination, the only light in an otherwise dark chamber. The light dapples the face of a teenage girl, hiding from the danger. Her pores ooze with sweat and dread. This is LISA CAPEHEART. We stay on her eyes. That’s all we can see, and it’s clear that’s the way Lisa wants it. Legendary filmmaker Robert Altman once called screenplays the blueprint of a movie, formal plans—to be argued about for sure—that ultimately propose a guideline for how the movie should be made. Writers tend to consider screenplays ironclad masterpieces whose integrity shouldn’t be compromised by even a single word. As the writer, screenwriter, director, producer, and editor of “The Closet,” I don’t have to compromise. It’s my film. I do, however, have budgetary limits. Big time. So anything I write into the screenplay must be something I can also put into the film, given my limited resources. This is why my films tend not to open in outer space. Asides aside, before we can make a movie, we need the screenplay to inspire others to join our project. We need a cast. Actors tend not to be inspired by blueprints. An actor (Hollywood stars and community theater denizens alike) will judge a screenplay and whether or not she wants to commit to being in a given film because of the story the screenplay tells. How many times have you heard an A-list actor say of a hit film, “It’s such a great story. I knew I had to be in this movie the moment I read the script. I couldn’t put it down.” So let’s look back at the screenplay for “The Closet” and read its opening scene as an actor or any key participant might. We care about story. Does it hook us? Does it make us have to know what happens next? If it does, our chances of securing an actor’s services go into outer space. Unlike novels or short stories, screenplays can’t spend much time in a character’s head. They have to explain, above all, what an audience will see and hear. “The Closet’s” opening scene does that. We’re in “darkness.” We hear “shallow and erratic breathing.” “The chilling sounds of chaos and mass panic” is a bit of cheating on my part as a writer. I’m getting in the character’s head by painting a picture in the reader’s. The line describes a series of audio cues that are crucial to the story’s setting. I need the reader to imagine what they sound like, without describing every detail. This is what writers do. We give just enough information so the reader’s mind and imagination can take over and fill in the rest. Movies don’t work this way. In a movie, everyone in the audience hears the same thing, an audio track created by a team of sound engineers and foley artists under the director’s guidance. A good director tasked with turning “The Closet’s” screenplay into a movie might think about “chilling sounds of chaos and mass panic” for weeks on end. He might even curse my name as a screenwriter, because he has to endure the painstaking process of creating these sounds because they’re crucial to the story. One line of prose in the screenplay has turned into potentially weeks of post-production work that will cost gobbles of money, all because the writer couldn’t resist getting into the reader’s head. In this case, I tied my own noose, dug my own grave. Cliches abound as to the hole I dug for myself by writing into the screenplay a heady audio cue that turned out to be one of the most challenging parts of the editing process. (I think I auditioned every chilling scream the internet had to offer before settling on the shriek in the final cut.) “We stay on her eyes. That’s all we can see, and it’s clear that’s the way Lisa wants it.” So much of what makes “The Closet” work as a film relies on the audience feeling like they’re in the closet with Lisa. My mission is to use the medium to create a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer. We open with an extreme close up of a terrified girl in a place so dimly lit we can’t know where we are. After some “chilling sounds of chaos,” I cheat again with the above line that offers a glimpse into Lisa’s head. The line intends to let readers of the screenplay immediately know that it may be dark and scary as hell in here, but Lisa prefers this hell to the one that lies just beyond the closet door. In half of a page of screenplay (roughly 30 seconds of screen time) I’ve established what the short story did in its opening paragraph.

A pair of eyes open, wide with terror. They’re lit by a tiny slash of illumination, the only light in an otherwise dark chamber. The light dapples the face of a teenage girl, hiding from the danger. Her pores ooze with sweat and dread. This is LISA CAPEHEART.

In the film as in the story, the closet is more than a setting. It’s a character. It has an arc. It’s dark and tight on page one, but slowly opens up as another character enters its confines on page 2. It opens up even more when the Ricky hits the lights on page 5. All the while, its hellish quality wanes, only to return again (for reasons I won’t explain, lest I spoil the story). Writers make choices. So do screenwriters tasked with adapting the writer’s short story into a script. The screenwriter’s primary task is to distill onto the page only what is needed to make a compelling movie. He must have the courage to cut the wonderful passage from the story because it doesn’t drive the movie’s narrative. This is easier said than done and near impossible when you’re both the writer who’s proud of the passage and the screenwriter who has to cut it. If you think that’s internal conflict, try being the editor who has to cut the screenwriter’s brilliant dialog because it makes the movie too damn long.

Two brilliant young actors--Travis Brown and Keira McCarthy-- bring "The Closet" to life in a scene consisting of a long take that satisfies the writer, director, editor and audience.

“The Closet” first appeared as a short story in the book How Long Can a White Girl Last on Nebraska Avenue? and other stories of wayward youth. You can read the story HERE.

Take a look at the screenplay HERE. Pay attention at what I, the editor, cut: dialog that made sense in the short story and screenplay, but made an already dialog-heavy movie drag. The short film adaptation stars Keira McCarthy as Lisa and Travis Brown as Ricky. Watch the film HERE.


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