In May of last year, after nine solid months of editing and input from many trusted friends, it became clear to me that there were fundamental flaws in how I had constructed Sweet Old World. So for a brief period we suspended editing and I took a hard look at what we had done and what I wanted to do. The following outlines what I saw as the problems and solutions to those problems. As a result, I wrote several new scenes and we were fortunate enough to be able to bring the actors and crew back together to film for an additional week (although we had to hurry because Julia had just learned that she was pregnant!).
I’m posting it now because it provides a window into the process that we all went through to make this film a reality.
What is the story of this film?
–This is the story of what happens to a father and son when the best friend of the son’s brother, who was tragically killed in an accident eight years ago, suddenly shows up after disappearing in the wake of that accident.
What is the film about?
–It’s about facing your past, no matter how painful, in order to really live in the present.
Who are the characters at the start of the film?
–Brian was destroyed by Michael’s death. Cynthia blamed him for the accident, and that is the source of deep bitterness toward her. But while he knows intellectually that the accident wasn’t his fault or even Jimmie’s, he can’t help in fact feeling guilt himself, because he had welcomed Michael’s friendship with Jimmie who even then was a wild kid. After all, Brian was wild himself–a well-known photographic chronicler of the punk rock scene in L.A. He withdrew from that world after Michael’s death and has been hiding from life ever since. His “drug” is the hours he spends on railroad tracks at the edges of the city, photographing trash—the abandoned remnants of life once lived. Because of his torn feelings and devastation from Michael’s death he has no emotional room for Ethan, and their perfunctory weekend visits are empty and painful.
–Ethan has very little memory of his brother or the accident that took him. He was eight then, and his parents’ grief and endless battles shut him out. As kids often do, he buried his own pain in trying to please his mom, and forgetting. He poured himself into his musical talent and “moved on” in his life. His weekends with his dad are emotionally draining, and after every visit he grabs his cello to wash away the emptiness. Other than that, in many ways he seems to be a happy, well-adjusted teenager. But there is an empty hole there, one that he has covered over and camouflaged in order to avoid its darkness and pain.
–Cynthia blamed Brian for Michael’s death, and her grief turned to fury–a fury that she must always struggle to keep buried for Ethan’s sake. But it’s right under the surface, ready to burst through at the slightest provocation. She too has “moved on,” remarrying and surrounding herself and Ethan with material comfort. She walks on eggshells around Ethan, reveling in his music and afraid of smothering him with her pain.
–Jimmie’s parents pulled him from school and moved to Arizona shortly after the accident and the inquiry that absolved him of responsibility. But he always knew he ran when he could have helped his friend, and he’s buried his guilt with bravado and toughness. He’s found a lucrative and exciting life in stealing and reselling electronic devices to kids at school, but he got kicked out in Arizona for that and came to live with his sister and finish school.
–Ruth is a popular, dynamic teacher at Ethan’s school. She has no connection with or knowledge of Michael’s death, but Ethan is one of her favorite students. Despite her beauty, she is still single–having found herself in a string of bad relationships, one of which almost reached marriage.
What do the characters want?
–When Jimmy shows up, he unleashes a flood of buried memories in Brian, Ethan, and Cynthia. What each of them wants at that point flows from their individual relationship with the tragedy of Michael’s death.
–Ethan wants his brother back. To him, Jimmie is like his brother reborn–could Jimmie fill that hole that Ethan will never be rid of? He’ll do anything to make that happen, including letting Jimmie lead him down a dangerous–but exciting!–road.
–At first, Brian is scared–scared of the memories and feelings that he has buried, scared of the scab being ripped off the wound, and scared of how Cynthia will react to Jimmie’s return. His explosion with Cynthia only bears this out, and he begins obsessively following and photographing Ethan and Jimmy. But when he finally sits down and looks at the photographs he’s been taking of the two of them, he sees in Ethan’s face a kid he realizes he doesn’t know, who’s been lost to him in the fog of grief he’s enveloped in. No longer scared, he doesn’t see danger in Jimmie, but an embodiment of the life he lost eight years ago. Because of that, he suddenly sees in Ethan the son that he desperately doesn’t want to lose.
–Jimmie wants to keep the guilt that eats at his gut buried. Having to move back to South Pas has also brought up memories, and befriending Ethan is his road back to the days before Michael’s death, his way of redeeming himself.
–Cynthia wants Jimmie to disappear. His return has torn her carefully constructed shelter asunder, and she fears it threatens Ethan’s future.
–Ruth wants to find a man with some depth and substance–something in short supply these days. It’s exactly the bizarre circumstances of meeting Brian, and what she learns about his past, that initially attract her and open her up to him.
How does the story unfold?
First of all, the story is not about what happened in the past, it’s about what’s happening now and the consequences of not facing that past. The backstory drives and gives it its tension, but the mystery here isn’t what happened then, it’s what will happen now? So the film should open with the accident, immediately bringing the audience into the terror and pain that all of the characters have gone through–including hearing Michael screaming for Jimmie to help him as the train bears down and Jimmie runs away.
This itself is a huge change from how the story unfolds now. I think we have created more of a distraction than a guide with the hints we are throwing out now, and it causes people to both lose the thread and not become fully engaged with the characters and their journey. Having set the stage this way, the dream and flashback moments will have an emotional power that they don’t have now. Also, when Jimmie shows up to register and we hear his sister say his name after we heard Michael screaming it in the beginning will have an electric effect and make this moment that starts the story much more emotionally charged.
I actually think that, especially with this change, act 1 is pretty strong through Brian and Cynthia’s fight (with some changes proposed below). There’s a motivation and drive that every character is acting on, and there’s a definite and satisfying tension that builds and explodes in that fight.
From the scene when Brian goes to Ruth’s classroom to explain himself (which starts act 2) it begins to fall apart, because there is no strong direction to the storytelling. Things happen–Brian’s attracted to Ruth and they start a relationship; Ethan becomes Jimmie’s sidekick and they both have kid fun and do dangerous things; and Brian continues to secretly photograph Ethan. But these things all feel like they are just placed back-to-back with no real direction until they slam together after the bingo scene. At that point it picks up momentum, but there again the tension started there has to build more organically, culminating in the drug deal.
The key to resolving this is, I believe, Brian. Here’s the problem: In the key relationship of the film, Brian and Ethan, from the time Brian first shows up at the football game–a change–he doesn’t do anything. This is exactly what Bob was talking about–something happens, and then it gets dropped. What needs to happen, and what in fact both Brian and Ethan would do, is for this to be the beginning of a dance between the two of them, one where Brian attempts to change their relationship (because of what he has seen in the photographs and then gets thwarted by his own failings (especially, and most significantly, the very photographs that opened him up). It will be much more powerful if at the time Ethan finds the photographs he thinks that his dad is making a real attempt to change their relationship (which in fact he is doing). Finding the photographs–the evidence that Brian has been spying on him at the same time–will be far more of a betrayal in that context and Ethan’s actions will be much more motivated. Also, if we have created a situation where the audience is on some level rooting for Brian, which they should be, then the emotional impact of his failings will be much stronger.
Here are thoughts on structural changes and possible additional scenes (this isn’t every scene, but the new ones that shape the direction more):
–After Jimmie catches Ethan in his garage, we go to the scene in the band room but without Brian in the tree. The entire scene there (and the sequence from the garage to the end of the Shaker’s scene) should be about Ethan and Jimmie. Brian showing up at the end of Shaker’s should be more powerful this way.
–The tree scene should happen after Brian and Cynthia’s fight. At this point he is more motivated to see what’s going on with Ethan and Jimmie, and here he takes the shots of the two of them playing in the band room. This is when he falls out of the tree and “meets” Ruth.
–The Color Day and rope scenes should come after this, followed by Jimmie’s threat to Jonathan. In order for this to work, I want to try putting the uniform fitting scene in between Color Day and the rope. This makes the whole sequence revolve around the three of them and the threat has to come after the fitting, not the other way around.
–A big part of the dynamic here is Brian only seeing one side of Ethan and Jimmie’s relationship. He only sees the bright side, not the “dark” side. And he is photographing Ethan doing things he’s never seen him do, both on and off campus.
–At this point there needs to be a scene that really marks the change in Brian from fear of Jimmie to recognition that his son is going through a profound change. This revelation has to come through the photos. He is sitting at Shakers by himself with a stack of photos that he looks at one at a time. They are his spy photos–Ethan and Jimmie at Shakers, in the band room, walking on campus, and lastly on the rope. The shot of Ethan and Jimmie on the rope is the one that grabs on to him and won’t let go. He stares intently at the photo while we move in closer and closer on Ethan’s joyous, laughing face.
–With this leading to it, the first meeting with Ruth needs much more nuance. Brian is realizing that he really does want to find a way to his son, and he’s come to her in the hope of getting some help. He is aware that being up in a tree was weird, so he has to work harder to make her see that he’s not a stalker. To do that, some real charm has to come out, but more importantly some openness about Ethan and how much he wants to connect with him–openness that stops short when she gets too close to the real cause of their distance. At one point he shows her the photo of Ethan and Jimmie on the rope and tells her that he has never seen that smile on Ethan’s face. A door between the two of them needs to definitely be opened by this conversation (and she has to tell him to take
–Brian then shows up at the football game.
–The next day, Brian and Ethan are back at the same table in Shaker’s. This time Ethan (or Brian) is in the middle, not on the end. There’s a thaw going on here. Brian could tell Ethan a story about when he was in high school, or something along those lines. Ethan tells Brian that the next game is this coming Saturday and Brian promises to be there.
–We should see how the date/warehouse scenes play in this context. Should Ethan be more freaked out about Jimmie putting him in danger like that? Look at bringing back in the scene of Ethan being uncomfortable in Jimmie’s place, bringing in his discomfort with Jimmie’s world.
–The bingo/football game scene is now different. It’s here that we need to build a scene of Ethan scanning the stands, looking for his dad. His dad not showing up at this game (because he’s at Bingo with Ruth) now means a lot. When Ethan runs into them after the game, his anger has real emotional content.
–Ethan and Ruth’s confrontation remains the same, but now something has to happen with Brian for Ethan to allow him to be the one taking him to his audition. This needs to be a real effort by Brian, something that takes him outside of his comfort zone and convinces Ethan to give him yet another chance.
–This is a pivotal moment and should definitely have some humor in it. It should be a series of encounters, somewhat montage style, between Brian and Ethan as Ethan leaves Ruth’s class following the fight and heads home. Brian has summoned up the courage to try and talk with Ethan, but he’s the last person Ethan wants to see or talk to just then. So when he leaves the classroom building, there’s Brian waiting for him. But he turns and quickly walks away (which Brian sees). Then he’s going in to Menchie’s, and Brian comes in just after him and makes a lame joke about how much stuff you can put on your yogurt. Again, Ethan turns away and won’t even acknowledge him. Finally, as Ethan walks up to his house there he is again, in his car. During all of this Brian isn’t like a stalker, but a puppy who won’t go home or give up following you no matter how much you yell at him. Ethan finally leans in his car in front of the house and demands “What!?” This gives Brian the opening to apologize in his own inimical way, finally disarming Ethan’s anger. Brian could even start saying something about how beautiful Ruth is and Ethan cuts him off–way too much information. The end result of this encounter, while very brief, should be a moment of connection between father and son–one that leaves Ethan really wanting to give him another chance.
–Ethan’s confrontation with Jimmie about the accident is still right on. I believe that Ethan’s burgeoning connection with his dad will give his need to find out what happened in the accident more force.
–When Ethan comes back after Jimmie was arrested, we should look for ways to strengthen Ethan’s rejection of Jimmie’s demand that he go with him to the drug deal. This isn’t a wholesale change, but more strengthening of what’s there now.
–Ethan finding and tearing up the photos is still right, and again Ethan’s anger and sense of betrayal will now be much more palpable.
–The wedding scene is still good, with one big problem. My intent in that moment of Brian freezing is that when he sees the boy, it knocks him into paralysis because he’s so much like Michael. That’s what starts everything off on the wrong foot, which only gets worse. But it clearly isn’t reading that way. This isn’t a scene we can re-shoot, so we have to look at what we can possibly do in the editing to at least imply more strongly what’s going on in Brian’s head. (Note: in the current re-edit, the scene also doesn’t work after Brian’s first explosion. The rest of the argument runs counter to what he has been trying to do in act 2. We are now ending it with a long uncomfortable moment of Brian and Ruth sitting there very uncomfortable after the explosion.)
–In the drug-deal scene, Brian should show up at the very end, not earlier. Earlier, try a moment or two of him driving, looking around. If we can’t show clearly that he’s following Ethan and Jimmie, maybe having him drive around searching will then more understandably lead to him arriving at the scene, then quickly screwing it up.
–We need to find a way to make Brian not look like he’s there to take photographs, but still have the camera so that Lyle is convinced he’s been set up. Brian could have the camera with him but in a brief scene put it down. Then when he gets caught he picks it up again. The key thing in this scene is Brian’s fear about what is going on, and his struggle to find the courage to do something.
–When Brian calls Ruth, what he says needs to be more confessional. I didn’t realize how much rage I had in me, I haven’t been able to say Michael’s name since the accident, etc. Not necessarily longer (although a bit longer), but more specific and referencing what Brian knows now is the source of his anger.