Making Pictures out of Words
Writing a novel is the end product of a long creative journey. Much the same conclusion can be said about writing and directing a film. Since Monday I have been guiding Hollywood screenwriter Chase Palmer through Vincent Calvino’s world. Chase is writing the script for Spirit House. During the past couple of days, I have been thinking about how a novelist transfers and shares his world with a screenwriter.
The Vincent Calvino series—soon to have 12 novels—is over a million words spanning nearly twenty years. A screenplay runs about 120 pages in length. The film going audience will never read it. Instead they will watch the film. Their experience is what they see on the screen; not what is put on paper for the director, producer and actors. People who watch a movie (unless they are in the industry or writers) don’t understand or much care about the screenplay. Why should they? It is like the building you live in. How often to you think about the blueprints that were labored over, changed, revised in order to realize the physical structure. I suspect not often.
There is no brilliant film without a brilliant screenplay just like there is not brilliant building without a brilliant architectural blueprint. The producers of Spirit House brought Chase Palmer to Bangkok in order for him to get a sense of Bangkok and the world that Vincent Calvino occupies. Chase’s has just finished writing “Dune” a $150 million film for Paramount. Now he’s mentally leaving the science fiction and entering the world of Bangkok. Maybe that isn’t such a difficult journey.
It has been my task to act as a filter to that world. In the case of Spirit House, I wrote the book almost twenty years ago. Bangkok has transformed into a different place on many levels—from the skyline, to the politics, to the composition of the expats who live here. And Spirit House is a novel. Words on paper.
The film that Chase Palmer will write is the visual representation of those words, that world, and the people who inhabit it. I have concentrated on two central elements—People and enduring images. Each day has been a different round of setting and characters. From the Texas Lone Star Bar in Washington Square, Erawan Shrine, the Police hospital, police headquarters, Rajprasong, the Chao Phraya River, the Oriental Hotel, Lumpini Park, the Emporium, the sub-soi near Pan Pan on Soi 33, to the nightlife venues, including Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, Patpong, the Thermae, Klong Toey, Tonglor, and the Arab Quarter off Sukhumvit Road.
Is this the real Bangkok? Aren’t you missing things? Of course it isn’t the whole picture. A movie, like a book, captures an essence. The entire scope is elusive and beyond rendering. So one must choose. And choose wisely—people, neighborhoods, and street life. The story must work. The characters must have depth. The surroundings need to support the story and characters. These are the perimeters that drive the creative fiction writing process. Whether the result is a book or a film, there are limits as to what can be included. Every exclusion is a kind of death, a little piece of reality chipped off the vase, and the hope is that what is absent won’t undermine what is present.
The visual images wash over like waves as I walked Chase through this world.
More importantly, though, are the people—Thais and farang—many I’ve known for over twenty years have opened their hearts and minds when talking to Chase. He has managed to hear perspectives from the highest ranked people in Thailand to those who live close to the edge. These people occupy separate worlds, which rarely connect. One of the things I’ve appreciated during this process is how divergent these lives are from one another, yet how close in proximity these lives are led. In the Calvino novels, the detective moves in between these worlds, sees links which aren’t apparent from the outside, and draws (hopefully) into the interior lives of Thais and foreigners. That is the hardest thing to visualize—this core place inside the human that is heart often hidden from the outside.
But if I can approach doing that in words (I know that I don’t always succeed), then I have faith that Chase can capture the right images that will demonstrate the relationships, the emotions, and the connections that I’ve written about. Colonel Pratt, who is a key character in the Vincent Calvino series, brings a spiritual and cultural dimension to the books. Part of the challenge has been to bring Chase in contact with Thais who will give him an insight into Thai culture, language, and Buddhism. Today he met with a close friend, a retired policeman, who was able to create that cultural bridge that will allow Chase to write a part for a police colonel that will show his humanity and dignity.
Bangkok isn’t one book or one movie. It is a complex community with conflicting values, people of all views, shady characters, saints and demons. Each one brings something to the table. Creativity is the connection of things in ways that are unexpected, that open worlds we thought we knew but realize our knowledge was lacking. Most of us live on the surface. Few want to go deep inside. That takes time and energy and can be troubling as we find things that challenge our beliefs, values, and worldview. But that is the nature of the creative process—the production of new associations, connections, revealing an infrastructure of relationships, dreams, promises, and conflicts.
In the best films like in the best books, we find ourselves emotionally touched by the journey, and if it has been a great journey, in some ways our lives will be changed. My hope is that in the week I’m taking Chase around Bangkok that the people and images will cluster into a visual experience of Bangkok and the people who live here quite unlike anything that anyone else has ever done. And when people find themselves discovering a place for the first time and finding something true about the human condition that, for a moment, will rise above the daily noise of everyday life and embrace them like a mother’s smile.