Love the Process: Jeff Stockwell on The Ottoman Lieutenant
Jeff Stockwell discusses using research to shape your project, not critiquing your first draft, avoiding the internet, and the importance of enjoying the process.
When The Ottoman Lieutenant screenwriter Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terabithia) was approached by producers and asked to write a story depicting a fictitious romance between a Muslim Turkish officer and a Christian American nurse in 1914, he seized the chance. Not only was the subject matter fascinating, but as a self-proclaimed “gatherer of information” Stockwell thrives on research, and this script offered him some irresistible opportunities to delve into history and culture.
Best known for his work on YA films and adaptations, The Ottoman Lieutenant also presented Stockwell with the chance to write a different type of story, and an original screenplay. Recently released in theatres, the film stars Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar and Josh Hartnett.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Stockwell about the project, his approach to research, and his writing process.
Is this the first time you’ve written a romance film?
It’s funny…I would actually say no. There are at least fifteen projects that I’ve done for every one that’s actually made it to the screen. For example, I spent a lot of time on a really wonderful adult romance between some conservationists in Kenya who are fighting to protect the elephant population. That film hasn’t yet found its way to theatres, but it means that this wasn’t the first time I’d written an adult romance.
And some of my screenplays that have been made, like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys or Bridge to Terabithia, have characters struggling to find a romantic connection.
But yes, this is the first time you’ve ever seen on screen anything by Jeff Stockwell where people are making love under a fishnet!
Of course, as a writer you get known for specific types of work – for me, that would be emotional, sometimes adolescent, angst. Or YA literature, with smart children as characters. I’m definitely interested in many other types of projects, but a lot of them are just so odd and offbeat that they’re taking a longer time to find their way to the screen. So I hope there’s a lot more of this in my future.
And is this your first original screenplay to make it to the big screen?
I wrote an original script that was in development for years. It finally made it as a television film, but it was an original movie script. It ended up being nominated for a Writers Guild Award, and certainly powered my desire to have more original stuff out there.
It’s funny because for the first several years that I was trying to pay my rent as a screenwriter, I was writing endless original works. So I’d probably say I’ve written 15 to 20 original scripts, but they were all on the path to getting hired to write other things.
Also, in terms of “original”, this movie didn’t come into being by me sitting around in my garden shed, thinking “what should I do next?” It was definitely a project brought to me by producers who had some ideas of what they wanted to play around with. And I knew the setting they wanted it to be in.
Let’s talk about that setting – wartime romance isn’t so unusual, but a story set in Turkey is unique. And the religious tensions addressed in the story are rather timely, despite it being set over 100 years ago.
Yes, the Muslim/Christian aspect of the story is what really got me interested in the project. I wanted to do a romance, but then when I started to research that setting and realized how complicated it was, I thought that if you could make a case for a Muslim/Christian romance in that setting, it would really be an intense thing to pull off.
I started to write it in 2014, which was before ISIS was in the news. But even then, there was already enough of a sense of mounting tension that seemed important. Again, I wasn’t sitting at my desk saying, “I want to write a Muslim/Christian romance” – but when someone came to me with one, I was intrigued by it. And then when I started researching what those characters might be, I just got more and more into it.
I think the draft I turned in probably had another 10 or 12 pages exploring that theme – I became fascinated by the Old Testament overlay, how that really is common ground, and those stories are shared between both cultures. There’s a little bit left of that in the film, but I did become a bit obsessed with it and chased it a little bit further.
How did you approach the research? What types of texts and resources did you consult?
When you’re trying to write something, and you can’t draw on some well of emotion or frustration or desire or experience that you have, then you’re obviously going to really be at sea.
The whole idea of a kind of naïve, idealistic, headstrong person going off and being in over her head and attracted to two very different people on different levels and the complications that grow out of that…I was really excited about playing with these ideas.
But of course I knew nothing about Turkey or eastern Anatolia. Or about being a missionary nurse in 1914. And especially not about what it would have been like to be in the Ottoman army.
Put it this way: I never set out to write a sort of Braveheart…It wasn’t my launch point to write a history of the lesson of World War I, and the complete storm that rose up among the Turks and the Christians and the Armenians and the Americans. But what if you just happened to be there as it was unfolding before you had any sense of it? And what would that mean for a missionary? What would it mean for an officer assigned to go into it?
So then I just started digging. There were a lot of missionaries who wrote journals or memoirs of their time there, mostly written by men about their experiences in that region. And because I was coming from a woman’s point of view, I spent a lot of time trying to find letters written by women missionaries. There was quite a good trove of letters from a woman missionary in the Philadelphia Historical Society. I don’t know why, but someone must have left them there.
And I read quite a bit about women who had worked under duress and extreme circumstances in World War II, because there were more women who had written about being a nurse as that war was unfolding.
You grab every rich moment you can from the research. For me, I put everything that catches my attention down on index cards, so at the end it’s like this pile of mosaic tiles. They’re things you grab from a hundred different directions and then weave together.
Tell me about your writing process.
My writing process is probably a little bit different for every project. I should note that with this project, I did all of the research and outlining and wrote two drafts, and then they used those drafts to find the director. And when he came on, he brought with him a writer he’s worked with on several other films, named David Loughery. Even though he doesn’t have credit, he made a lot of contributions to the script.
Other times, the writing process continues all the way through, to not only manically rewriting on set when you realize there’s not enough time to shoot what they thought they could, but even changing lines in the editing room, when it needs to be different and the actor isn’t facing the camera while speaking.
As far as sitting down and getting things going? I guess the big thing I’d say is don’t go into screenwriting unless you really love to write. If you’re going into it because you really love to make movies, you might end up being very frustrated. If you’re going to be a creative screenwriter, only a percentage of what you work on is ever going to actually become a movie. And even with the ones that do, you might or might not be invited to be part of that unfurling process.
When it comes to my process, I’m a big “gatherer” first of all. The approach might be a bit different depending on whether there’s a book and it’s an adaptation, or if there’s no book and it’s just an idea or a personality. But I go through and just glean everything that sparkles to me in that world.
Without even thinking yet about where the story’s going, or what the character arcs are going to be, or any of the structural elements, I just gather everything that catches my attention. Either from research or, if it’s an adaptation of a book, then every piece of the book that I like – every line, every description.
When I get all of those things down on separate cards, I don’t necessarily keep them in the order that they were in the book, or in the order that I found them in when I was researching. They just become this great pile of colored stones, if you will. Even just cruising around in life, talking to people, different ideas start coming to you. I like that. That whole not-fully-prepared, semi-unconscious gathering of stuff.
So a lot of times, before I even start anything I have this fat three-ring binder and a stack of index cards filled with loose ideas. Then I’ll use those to start trying to build the outline and the shape of it.
I never sit down and write “Act I” and think that it must have a certain number of scenes, and determine what it is that’s going to be accomplished. Not at first – that’s not how I start out. I just try to go with all of the little impulses that have come to around the project and see if there’s a shape.
The writing of it really is the ride for me, and I don’t want to know everything about that ride before I go on it!
The other thing I’d say about my process is that I’m my own worst enemy, in terms of critiquing what I’m writing while I’m writing it. I have to really fight that criticism and just get the draft done. You don’t have to show it to anybody, and even if it’s a piece of crap, it’s better than having nothing. And you work up from there, depending on how much time you have.
I have all kinds of tricks to subvert my own fantastic ability to procrastinate. That includes working in a place that doesn’t have any internet access. I use the internet heavily in preparing, but not when I’m actually writing. Once I get to the internet in the midst of my writing, I’m doomed.
It’s about keeping yourself at the desk, even when the words aren’t coming. I’ve taken the belt from my bathrobe and tied myself into the chair, so that when I started to stand up to go do something stupid, I’d sit back down and think “OK, I’ll stay here a bit longer”. Anything to keep from being distracted.
I spend a lot of time talking with other writers about process, and about how much to plan out. I know all about structure…but I really don’t want to be consciously in any way thinking about it. It’s just no fun. And if I’m not having fun writing a script, I really am in trouble.
What advice would you offer our readers?
It’s so important that you find a way of approaching your project and a way of moving through your day as a writer that you really enjoy.
I have so many scripts that are sitting in drawers or on hard drives that are not produced. And if you’re not careful, you can become discouraged and think “I do so much work and so little of it flickers up on the screen”.
But the reality is that when I look at them, I recall the intensity of the experience of writing them and being in them. This may sound kind of goofy, but the movies do exist for me. Because they really did exist in my head as I was writing them.
So love that process.
Featured image: Michiel Huisman as Ismail in The Ottoman Lieutenant. Credit: Property of Paladin