Posts Tagged ‘owings mills’

A Writer’s Journal – Creativity and Screenplays

February 15, 2018

Recently, someone asked me for a personal example of what a writer goes through to write a script for TV or for the cinema. In answering the question I re-discovered these excerpts from a production diary I kept while writing and directing Urban Paradise (originally called The National Arboretum) for Maryland Public Television/PBS. The 8-minute movie was a segment for the Emmy-winning series Outdoors’ Maryland, a narration-driven look at Maryland’s outdoor life. It premiered June 21, 2011.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how one writer tackles the challenges of creating a new story.

~Steven Fischer


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The script for The National Arboretum, like most scripts, is the result of many months of questioning and exploring and deliberating.

When I was first introduced to the Arboretum in October 2010 and given a tour by Gardens Unit Leader Scott Aker, the immediate impression was how motherly the public garden was. But it was more than just the garden’s obvious relationship to Mother Nature. I could not define it completely, nor could I shake the interpretation, so I continued to explore it as the project developed. As I collected facts, stories, and relevant information for the script, everyone I interviewed about the arboretum agreed that there was a connection between the arboretum and something matronly. With that encouragement I established “motherhood” as the central theme, basing all my creative decisions about scenes, stories, photography, lighting, narration, and perspective around motherhood and all things motherhood represented to me: strength, dignity, protection, nurture, beauty, unconditional love, etc.

This was a tremendous help in writing the script, but the process, as always, was a labor of trial and error, questioning and experimenting with answers. I was still at the beginning of a long journey.

In my early research of arboretums I discovered the writing of Laura Barton. Laura is an English writer on staff at The Guardian. Her work, especially on the Westonbirt Arboretum in Tetbury, England, was instantly inspiring. She is a natural writer and clearly in love with words. Her poetic description of Westonbirt, cut to the thoughtful cinematography of Felix Clay, influenced the poetic direction I intuitively wanted to go.

For further influence  I returned to two sources that never fail: Charlotte Brontë and Shelby Foote. Passages from Jane Eyre always leave me breathless while Foote’s mastery of the historical narrative is a model – and the early versions of the Arboretum script were filled with many stories from its very interesting history.

As time went on and I began collecting on-camera interviews and editing the beauty shots of the gardens, it became apparent that the original structure I had wanted to follow (interweaving history and stories with the research unit, the social value of the arboretum, and beauty shots) was producing a work much longer than the 8-minute run time we were assigned.

I also needed to keep in mind what would best serve the Outdoors’ Maryland series. The answer was: a focused piece on facts, the research unit, and the social value of the Arboretum. So I honed the script to meet that framework keeping in mind that every word of narration must reflect the central theme of motherhood. It was a matter of working and re-working the script.

Then there was a little matter of the ending. I could not find one of any real significance. The frustration was agonizing.


At this point the structure was established and I had the sequence on the research unit next-to-last in the segment. To jump from the research unit to an ending that wrapped up everything was jarring and felt uncomfortable. It also didn’t make any sense.

We were now in January, 2011. The deadline was approaching fast, and a suitable ending was still elusive.

On a walk one January day, I pondered the problem of how to end the script when I asked suddenly an unexpected question: “What is the ideal ending?” That simple question sparked an inner response that stimulated the imagination!

The ideal ending, I reminded myself, thinking back to earlier ideas, was either a poetic line that made the audience feel good or a line that wrapped up the whole motherhood theme. The rest of that day was spent experimenting with those ideas. That session helped define the arboretum in human terms: the personality of the place, its usefulness to society, its qualities, etc. This led to a memory of lines spoken to me by Dr. Griesbach, a former Arboretum staff member I interview weeks before. I asked: “If the Arboretum was a person, how would you describe her?” Griesbach gave one of the best answers: She has many personalities: flaunty and gregarious like the Bonsai, refined and shy as the Asian garden…

The line had potential for the ending. I recorded a scratch track of it and, not fitting as well at the end as I imagined, found a useful place for it in the middle (which later had to be removed for time’s sake). But adding that line forced me to move a couple of other sequences around and that rearrangement, after living with it four more weeks, led to a discovery that has become the ending.

While in conversation with Dr. Margaret Pooler, head of the research unit, I mentioned that the Arboretum seemed to me a grandmother people go to for a hug. Pooler was struck by the line and commented on its sweetness. I agreed. It was a moment of epiphany. That was the line! That could be the final line of narration. I wasn’t sure how exactly, but I knew it was an important piece of the puzzle.


The original line ending the script ran something like, The National Arboretum provides sanctuary for human and plant life alike. She might very well be the nation’s grandmother, offering those inner comforts that make visitors feel loved.

When I recorded the scratch track and played it back it sounded like, “love” instead of “loved”, so I amended the script, preferring the misinterpretation. Removing this one letter may not seem like a big deal, but it re-positioned my mindset for the next discovery that was about to come.

As the next couple of days went by I began thinking more in terms of the beauty of nature and the beauty of truth. This led me to the work of the poet Keats and then to my well-read edition of Philosophies of Art & Beauty edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns. The volume collects writings from all the major thinkers, from Plato to Heidegger, each answering the questions what is art? and what is beauty? As I read Ficino’s contribution I came across the second chapter of his treatise on Plato’s Symposium. The chapter title read: How Divine Beauty Inspires Love. That did it.

“Inspires love.” What a turn of words! That was the ending; the ending wasn’t “inner comforts that make visitors feel love”, but inner comforts that inspire love.

All of this came about in the past couple of days, exactly one month to the day I took that walk in January and posed that simple question to myself.