D.J McPherson and Jack Christian On “The First Law”
After another round, our judges faced another struggle deciding on the winning script for the 2019 Creative Screenwriting Unique Voices Screenplay Competition. The grand prize went to screenwriters D.J. McPherson and Jack Christian with their sci-fi screenplay The First Law. Let’s hear what they had to say about the project.
What inspired the story that became The First Law?
We just wrote what we loved. Jack and I are both huge sci-fi fans with a keen interest in bioscience, bionics, and medicine, so we knew we wanted to write a genre piece that featured these elements. We also wanted to make sure it was a complex story, grounded in real human emotion, with themes to contemplate long after the movie finishes.
How does it fit into the genre of similar films?
The First Law is an indie art-house sci-fi thriller. It’s cerebral and cryptic, and permeated with an ominous mood and creeping dread, taking influence from films like Arrival, Signs, Midnight Special and Ex-Machina.
What are you exploring thematically?
An essential theme in the movie is one of grief, acceptance, and the lengths humans will go in an effort to escape painful self-truths. The story opens on a world where a global pandemic has wiped out millions and remains a menacing threat to all those who have survived. Life is a grim, grey shadow of itself, a place where people are grieving the dead and frightened of the living.
Our protagonist Amy, a brilliant robotics engineer, has just lost her husband to suicide. The ravaging pandemic sets the perfect stage for Amy’s journey from denial to acceptance in the face of immense grief.
What aspects of your life experience found their way into the story?
Amy’s struggle in the wake of her husband’s death mirrors my own personal journey following the sudden death of my brother. Like Amy, denial was my survival mechanism. I wouldn’t talk about it – I wouldn’t think about it. I did anything I could to distract myself from the painful reality. Writing The First Law was cathartic and deeply personal, and I ended up using my own raw grief to underpin the protagonist’s emotional arc.
How did you approach the writing process?
Jack came up with the initial story idea, which he fleshed out into a treatment. I took it from there – developing characters, setting up the world, exploring themes, beating out the scenes and finally, writing the first draft. He trusted me and gave me full creative freedom to take his initial idea and go in any direction I wanted.
What feedback did you get during development and how did it contour the story?
Once we were happy with the first draft, we sent it out to a couple of our most trusted fellow writers. We sat down with them and heard their thoughts face to face. We always prefer to have a conversation about a script; it’s more fluid and nuanced than written notes. It gives us an opportunity to ask questions and drill down on the notes. Jack and I never fight feedback, but we don’t automatically take it on either. With The First Law, we took our time and let the notes sink in.
We analyzed their feedback looking for common notes, before deciding if we wanted to incorporate them. In one instance, we both felt differently about a particular story note, so I rewrote a couple of key scenes to test it out. It’s a balancing act because we didn’t want to be swayed by someone pulling our story into a different direction, but we didn’t want to be stubbornly resolute either. At the end of the day, we tried to trust our gut instinct and remember why we wanted to write the screenplay in the first place.
How did you settle creative differences as a writing duo?
Jack and I are very different people, with very different perspectives and life experiences, but we have absolute respect for each other’s ideas and thought processes. It’s not just about supporting each other. It’s about challenging each other – that’s real collaboration. When storylining together, we tend to leave the office and go to a café or park. Somewhere neutral.
Sometimes we butt heads, but we’ve found the best way to find a solution is to sit down and talk it out. I think defensiveness is the death of a writing duo – so too is submissiveness. When there’s something either of us truly believes should be in the story, we’ll fight for it. It can be challenging because often, there is no right or wrong – there are just different choices. So it’s essential to put aside ego, not take anything personally, and always do what is best for the characters and the story.
What inspires your screenwriting?
Screenwriting is an itch I have to scratch! I have to do it. Once a story idea starts to gestate, it swirls around in my mind until I just have to put it down on the page. It’s an escape from my life and my problems – I guess you could say, writing is my drug of choice.
What is the status of The First Law now?
Since winning the Unique Voices competition, momentum and heat around the screenplay have built. Jack and I are in LA taking a lot of meetings and things are starting to come together.
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