The Mennonite Screenwriter

Screenwriters tend to spend a lot of time thinking about titles.

In the image-conscious and attention span-challenged world of popular movie-making, a script’s title is the shorthand the reader or producer uses to infer all sorts of things about a script without having to turn a single page: genre, commercial viability, stakes, story hook, character.

A good movie title will tell you exactly what the movie is, and will do so with very few words.

Jaws...good. Ghostbusters...good. Titanic...good.

Potential ticket-buyers don’t even have to look at the poster or watch the trailer to know that they’re probably going to see lots of teeth and people fighting ghosts and a really big boat that’s going to sink in the end.

The Mennonite Screenwriter...well, it merits a closer look.

The genre certainly isn’t clear. Is it a comedy? A tragedy? Perhaps a farce? But there is some measure of tension and ironic potential in the pairing of the two words.

On one hand, “Mennonite,” which much of the ticket-buying public will associate with modesty, humility, utility, thrift ... You know what the rest of this list looks like.

On the other hand, “screenwriter,” at least the “screen” part, connotes the world of movies – of vanity, glamour, artifice, vainglorious ambition... You know what the rest of this list looks like.

And irony in a movie title can be a good thing. It can pique the curiosity, maybe even propel a potential viewer to consider if and how seemingly incompatible terms or ideas will be reconciled by the end of the movie -- or in this case, in the course of a brief essay.

I’ll go ahead and violate one of screenwriting’s inviolable rules by removing the element of suspense and revealing the answer early: not really. But maybe something along the way will interest the reader before the piece of work is ultimately discarded -- which is really all any screenwriter has a right to hope for anyway.

My foray into the world of screenwriting, or more accurately, filmmaking, began in pretty typical fashion: I liked movies. Well, I didn’t really like movies -- not compared to true cinephiles, at least, the ones who’ve seen each of Hitchock’s movies half-a-dozen times, and then dubbed in different languages, just for fun -- but I enjoyed the medium, in less of an “I really liked watching that” kind of way, and more of an “I really gotta try that” kind of way.

So I decided to try it, and during my final semester at Goshen College, I started working on a historical documentary about the life and disappearance of Clayton Kratz, teaching myself what I could about cameras and sound recording and non-linear editing, and along with several friends and classmates spent the better part of the following year working on this project. Yes, a year. Do-it-yourself filmmaking is a ferociously time-devouring endeavor.

All of this eventually resulted in a 25-minute finished product titled “A Shroud for a Journey.” It’s an earnest, heart-on-its-sleeve effort that is really more about Mennonite memory and myth-making than it is an assured piece of filmmaking.

But here’s the thing: this modest little video got seen. By thousands of people, in fact.

I know, because I was there, in the churches and civic centers and auditoriums as these thousands of people watched it. And after the screenings I shook their hands and answered their questions and listened to them tell stories of their own. And all of this left something of a lasting impression on me.

A few thousand viewers is not a lot compared to, say, Avatar or an episode of “Glee” or “Monday Night Football,” but it was a lot compared to every other athletic or academic or creative endeavor I’d undertaken up to that point.

With that experience still drying on the wall, I drifted into graduate school in a few baby steps towards pursuing a Life of the Mind, and toiled away on papers and coursework and comprehensive exams and eventually on a thesis. As the hours I was spending on my thesis started getting awfully long, I began to consider that the final product would, at best, be read by a handful of people (most of them members of my thesis committee), and even that was an optimistic estimate.

I am most certainly a believer in the merits and value of academic work and academic progress, but I wasn't a firm believer in my ability to contribute meaningfully to it. My mind kept stubbornly drifting back to the audiences in those hushed auditoriums and the flickering projectors and the caffeine-riddled nights as I molded the moving images and sounds together into something of a story. That was fun. Showing the results to audiences was fun. Getting letters from people I’d never met but who in some way responded to my work was fun.

So, in between frustrated bouts of working on my thesis, I started scratching away at a screenplay called Pearl Diver. This script was also something of an effort to explore Mennonite myth-making and buried trauma, as well as a few other themes that collectively will very quickly doom a film to commercial failure.

Pearl Diver ended up consuming several years of my life. The result was in some ways mixed, but again, it got seen. This time, by bigger audiences, in bigger theaters.

And it won some awards along the way -- not exactly career-making or life-changing awards, but who doesn’t like to get a trophy if they’re handing out trophies? Seeing the crowds line up outside the theater at a film festival felt good, and seeing the film’s title on the marquee of actual theaters and on the shelves of Blockbusters felt good. Yes, it felt good in a way that working on an academic thesis did not.

For a Mennonite that’s something of an uncomfortable realization. Am I completely missing the call to . . . humble service? When is the drive for validation and recognition constructive and when is it corrupting and corrosive? Is it good when it’s about creating something of redeeming value, but not so good when it’s about creating something frivolous or disposable? And ultimately who decides what’s frivolous and what’s redeeming? Are these even interesting questions? I don’t know. It’s not really something Mennonites like to talk about.

Most screenwriters (aspiring or successful) would laugh at the poor Mennonite boy pulling his hair out because he’s worried that being a screenwriter is an indulgent and vainglorious pursuit. Everyone knows that among the echelons of creative principals who make movies, even the successful screenwriters are criminally underpaid, overworked, overlooked, exploited like circus elephants.

Many jokes (not always unfunny) capitalize on this state of affairs. There’s the one that depicts studio executives and directors and producers as packs of dogs, and the punchline is something about how the screenwriter is a fire hydrant. Or the one about the fame-seeking Polish actress. (She slept with the screenwriter).

So, if a good Mennonite boy or girl raised on a steady diet of community-first humility wants to somehow be involved in the seductive process of movie-making, being a screenwriter might be a pretty good fit. We’re not the coolest kids in the room, we’re not paid very much, and we don’t get the girl.

But all of these concerns are relative to the company you keep. A working screenwriter may feel homely and poor standing next to a movie star, but compared to someone roofing houses in Buffalo, they’re doing OK.

So what about the craft itself?

Well, we are talking about the form that leads to degraded products such as Freddy Got Fingered and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, and may even feature an appearance by someone named Kardashian or Hilton.

But the writing itself -- well, it could hardly be more Mennonite. It’s plain, it’s modest. It’s as stripped of artifice and decorative flourish as a piece of Shaker furniture. and it’s the first concrete step in a building process that’s as collective and communal an effort as a barn-raising. You’ve seen the credits at the ends of movies.

The screenplay does not stand alone in the way that a poem or a novel or an essay can. If it’s not made into a movie, i.e., if it’s removed from the community, it’s worthless. It certainly doesn’t make for enjoyable reading, nor is it intended to.

No, the finished screenplay is a document meant for others -- initially for people who decide which movies to devote their time and talents and financial backing to, and later, if the stars of Jupiter align, for people who build sets, stitch costumes, and drive stunt cars.

At every stage in the process the screenplay is evaluated on the merits of its usefulness to others, never on its own inherent aesthetic value. Poets and novelists, by contrast, who care deeply about beauty and form, are downright self-indulgent and solipsistic with their work.

Screenplays, even the really good ones, often contain virtually none of the things readers typically value in quality writing. There’s no lyrical imagery, no clever turns of phrase, no singular literary “voice,” and sometimes no evidence of a facility with language at all.

Even the “smart” screenplays are often chock-full of underlining and CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks!!!! (in case the reader is getting bored) and Batman-style “KA-BOOM!” and “KA-POW!” sound effects, and other formatting tricks designed to elicit a visceral response, and also to









Because who wants to read dense blocks of text (or “writing”) when you can read white space instead?

These screenplays are often riddled with formatting and grammatical errors, and most of them you can read in about an hour. And yet . . .

And yet some of them accomplish things verging on miraculous. Spectacles such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lawrence of Arabia are produced from these slim stacks of plainly written and mostly-white space.

A close reading reveals that those scripts aren’t mere thumbnail sketches or launching pads for the ideas and contributions of others. No, the great scripts accomplish some remarkable feats of reverse loaves-and-fishes conjuring. Read closely and you’ll see that virtually all of the vital information that ends up on the screen is somehow mysteriously, almost magically, crammed into those mostly-white pages.

Hollywood is littered with the efforts of magnificent writers, including critically acclaimed and commercially successful novelists and playwrights, who are capable of creating multi-dimensional characters, richly-imagined worlds, labyrinthine-yet-engrossing plots, but prove completely incapable of writing a half-decent screenplay.

What to make of that?

Perhaps just that novelists and playwrights and poets and screenwriters are all writers in the same sense that blue whales and tree shrews and odd-toed ungulates are all mammals. At the very least these writers are working with vastly different tool kits.

Screenwriters, for example, are denied many of the writer's most powerful tools. With a few ill-advised exceptions, such as the voice-over or characters talking out loud to pets, we are completely shut out of the interior world of the on-screen character.

We watch these characters on screen, but we don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling. Films that are foolish enough to try to tell us tend to fail. A screenwriter is left with action. It’s their most powerful tool and it’s one that the good ones learn how to wield with deadly effectiveness.

Problems and obstacles that we can readily see and grasp, characters whose responses we see and understand – those who show us who they are by what they do -- that’s usually pretty good screenwriting. It’s not always High Art, but it often makes for good movies. It’s why James Bond and Indiana Jones are among cinema’s iconic characters and Holden Caulfield is not. (Of course, J.D. Salinger’s intransigence in not relinquishing the film rights is a factor as well).

In screenwriting, character is action. Expressions of emotion are shifting sands, not to be trusted. Even when we see a character laugh or cry, that doesn’t necessarily correlate with what’s going on in their inner world.

We really only see that they’re laughing or crying. The director or editor or composer may certainly suggest why this character is laughing or crying, but do we really know? Ultimately, in both movies and in real life, we don’t.

Action, on the other hand, doesn’t lie, and in this sense action and horror movies are the purest of cinema; they certainly exploit the strengths of the medium in a way that other genres don’t. They’re often regarded as the most stupid of movie genres, and perhaps by some criteria they are. But they’re usually the most honest, and they are, perhaps not coincidentally, the most popular forms of cinema the world over.

By extension, they are also the most promising areas of the marketplace for a fledgling screenwriter to explore. And so of late I’ve been focusing my energies on writing thriller and action scripts (two of the more decidedly un-Mennonite of genres) -- scripts that include people jumping from moving trains and occasionally firing automatic weapons.

In my most recent script, *SPOILER ALERT* the Horrible Villain gets pulled into the whirling blades of an airboat fan during a high-speed chase across the rivers of Belize. (He was a really bad guy, though.) Don’t worry. By the end of *SPOILER ALERT* the corruption is exposed and the plucky good guys win.

My Aunt Gladys in Peoria, who just loved Pearl Diver, is probably not going to like this movie, should the stars of Jupiter align and it ever actually becomes a movie. In fact, most of the people who responded to Pearl Diver, and whose responses helped make that filmmaking experience a creatively rewarding one, will probably not like this movie.

There are quite a few Aunt Gladys’s out there. “My church library has a copy. It’s always checked out!” is something I’ve heard more than once. I’ve also heard, “Our small group watched it, and then I loaned it to another small group and then loaned it to my reading group!”

That’s great. Hearing about my work connecting with and perhaps even moving audiences is tremendously gratifying. At the same time, in my mind I’m counting up to several dozen people watching a single library copy probably purchased from the used section of amazon.com. Perhaps the revenue stream from that chain of viewers was enough to pay for one of the grip’s morning cups of coffee on set . . .but probably not. (Coffee was $2 a cup, even in 2004).

Perhaps the good folks who passed that single copy of Pearl Diver around their church may cringe at my Belizean airboat chase action movie, but making a movie that’s the most-checked-out DVD in the Hartville Mennonite Church (a hypothetical example) doesn’t pay the water bill.

Part of me also cringes. Because I would love to continue making documentary and narrative films about Mennonite memory and myth-making and buried trauma with lots of talking, set on farms and exploring all kinds of commercially unappealing themes. But the Mennonite tradition does not include generous patronage of cinema, and filmmaking is no different from painting or poetry or throwing pottery or making furniture; the artist finds sustainable ways of creating it, or stops creating it. Even “low-budget” filmmaking is a tremendously expensive proposition.

So I’ll try my hand at a few action and thriller scripts, and hopefully they’ll be “elevated” scripts -- to use an industry code word for “not schlocky” -- and possibly even have some redeeming value. Perhaps I can find a way to leverage success from these scripts into the ability to make movies with more talking and more explicitly redeeming qualities. Or maybe I’ll end up with a career writing crappy and disposable action movies. Or maybe I’ll end up roofing houses in Buffalo.

Ultimately none of that matters. The intentions and the plans and the possibilities don’t matter. The action matters. Don’t believe the laughter, don’t believe the tears.

Here Mennonites are on more comfortable terrain. Theologically, sure, Anabaptists are into solo fide and grace alone and not by works and all that. But c’mon . . . Menno Simons said it himself: “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.” Mennonites place a high value on the actions part. They certainly like building houses when they’re blown down by storms.

Believe the action. You either stop the speeding train or you win the footrace or you cut off the soldier’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane or you don’t. You either clothe the poor and feed the hungry or you don’t.

Ultimately this is all to say what, exactly? That being a Mennonite screenwriter means . . .what? I don’t know. But it usually involves some crying.

About the Author

Sidney King

Sidney King, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, graduated from Goshen College in 2000 with majors in music and German, and then studied folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition to the awards for his very successful Pearl Diver, as described in “In This Issue,” in 2006 his script “Beautiful Swimmer” was nominated for the Emerging Narrative Award by the Independent Feature Project, New York. And in 2007, for his script “Kalona,” Sidney won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Out of 5050 submissions, only 5 won that $30,000 award. The fellowship will help Sidney complete a full-length screenplay based on the Kalona script.

Pearl Diver the Movie

Pearl Diver reviews

Pearl Diver Movie