When my writing partner, John Chriss, and I finished writing our thriller western feature, Echoes of War, we felt really good about it.
Our two years pounding the script into place felt like they had paid off: from each character to each scene, we felt we had conveyed what we wanted to say about this story and this world.
Except for one scene. One scene that, no matter how many times we rewrote it, we just couldn’t seem to get right. They say that if a scene isn’t working in a screenplay, just cut it out. We really wanted to do. The problem was it was the most important scene in the whole script: the turning point from Act 2 to Act 3, the tipping point for our main character. There was no way around it—the scene had to happen (and it had to happen spectacularly). The problem was, we had built this story cohesively up until that point, and felt great about the scenes that followed after it—scenes that took us to a conclusion that we had wanted to write before we even knew what the rest of the story was—but couldn’t get there without this scene connecting the pieces.
There should have been a simple solution. We knew where we had to get to, how the scene had to end, so all we had to do was connect the pieces. We just couldn’t execute it in a way that didn’t feel forced, like those pieces were obviously being connected by a scene that is tonally asynchronous with the rest of the film.
Without giving away any spoilers, the scene went a little something like this:
Wade (James Badge Dale), the Confederate soldier who recently returned home to his farming family in rural Texas, discovers that his neighbors have been stealing from his family while he’s been at war. Some back and forth, some cause-and-effect, some doling out of revenge and dealing with the consequences, ensues. But this time, Wade has done something that has drawn the true ire of neighboring father Randolph McCluskey, who’s come looking for blood. Randolph and his two sons show up at Wade’s front door on horseback, sporting rifles, shouting Wade’s name. Wade appears, along with his family, who seem dangerously close to being caught in the crossfire. Stuff goes down and the script shifts gears, heading furiously toward the climax.
As you can see, it’s a crucial scene and as writers, we knew we had to deliver on it. It’s the scene the audience has been waiting for the entire movie and to not pay it off would be disastrous. We did our best, but we still didn’t like the scene when it came time to hand in our shooting script as pre-production began on the ground in Austin, Texas. We continued to rewrite it in between meetings with producers, heads of department, location owners and actors.
I guess I felt that, as the director, I would make it work when it came time to shoot it. The scene was always in the back of my mind as shooting began and we started moving through the schedule.
Well, it came to the night before the shoot and John and I still hadn’t cracked it. We were hanging outside the production office after a long day’s shoot with our producers Dave Szamet, Kyle Fischer and Steven Berger when James Badge Dale ambled on over and asked what the plan was for the “big scene” tomorrow. I admitted to him that I wasn’t happy with how it was scripted and we talked about why.
Badge, being the incredible collaborator he is, got everyone up on their feet and performed a rough staging of the scene as it was written. I told him I wasn’t happy with how convoluted the scene felt, how much dialogue there was, so he said, “Well, let’s see how it plays when we say nothing!” So we walked it through silently—and, for the first time, it felt pretty good! When we cut the dialogue, we lost a huge chunk in the middle of the scene that involved a Mexican stand-off, with guns drawn on one another and threatening lines spoken from one party to the next. When we played the scene without this, however, we realized we didn’t need it. The scene became much simpler: McCluskey wants revenge on Wade for what he’s done, and wants to face him one-on-one. The other characters being centrally involved in initiating this conflict was what was feeling forced. This was between the two men and everyone else was just collateral. We simplified the hell out of it, slashed the page count in half and, in that moment, fashioned something leaner, meaner and more effective.
In the car home that night, I called each of the actors one by one and told them that the scene had changed a little. They were all on board with the new direction, even if it meant they all lost lines of dialogue. I got home and furiously rescripted the scene according to what we had worked out.
The next day on set, we gathered the crew and did a full walk-through of the scene with the cast, as Badge, the producers and I had staged it the night before. Of course, when you have seven actors, a cinematographer, a production designer and a first assistant director all weighing in on how to best achieve this new direction, things can get complicated. As director, you want to hear all of these people out, because they are key collaborators and are looking to make the scene as best as can be. Most importantly, they all had good ideas and I wanted to try out as many of these suggestions as I could, knowing that we had a short window of time to lock the plan in place and get shooting.
We spent almost half the day blocking the scene and then shot for the second half, but because we planned it out thoroughly and every actor felt comfortable with their newly truncated roles, we blew through the actual shooting of it. We overlapped our angles, made sure to get a working wide shot (which was not so easy, considering the amount of characters involved and the physical distance between them all) and covered every character with medium shots and close-ups. By the end of the day, we all felt we had the scene in the can.
I went home that night feeling great. It was like I had finally gotten that monkey off my back. The most difficult scene in the entire script had been filmed, and I knew it was better than how we had written it. The original scripted scene was still crucial—it showed us what beats we had to hit, what the beginning, middle and end of the scene was, and most importantly, how it had to end so that we could connect it to the following sequence.
Although the script was our map, we had to divert off the planned route in order to get to where we were going. MM
Echoes of War opens in theaters and on VOD May 15, 2015, courtesy of ARC Entertainment. All images courtesy of ARC Entertainment.