Writing the Aftermath of a School Shooting
William H. Macy, co-writing, and finding the perfect twist in Rudderless.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison have been writing partners for over a dozen years, and several years ago it appeared that the music-based drama Rudderless would be their first produced screenplay when the script began to attract interest from actors, musicians, and investors. But getting the project on a stable path to completion proved elusive. It was not until they sent the script to actor William H. Macy that Rudderless began to find its footing. Though primarily known for his roles in films like Fargo and Magnolia, Macy has written for film and television before, including the 1995 film Above Suspicion, the 2008 film The Deal and a 2012 episode of the television series he stars in, Shameless. Macy decided to make the project his directorial debut and encouraged Twenter and Robison to keep rewriting the script. It was during this period that Twenter came up with a mid-story twist that fundamentally changed the tone of the entire screenplay.
During the long process it took for Rudderless to finally go into production, the duo wrote and directed a low-budget thriller titled The Jogger, and took it several festivals. The Jogger was awarded Best Heartland Narrative Feature at the 2013 Kansas City Film Festival and Best Narrative Feature at the 2013 L.A. Indie Film Fest. As Twenter and Robison worked on The Jogger, the stars finally aligned on Rudderless and the film went into production. Rudderless debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and had a limited theatrical release in October 2014.
Rudderless stars Billy Crudup as Sam, a father whose life is still in shambles after his son Josh was killed in a school shooting two years previous. Sam discovers a box of demo tapes recorded by Josh and decides to show the world the talent that his son had. However, Rudderless is not simply a feel-good celebration of a father’s love of his deceased son as more information about Josh’s final hours becomes apparent later in the film. Creative Screenwriting spoke to Twenter and Robison together about their approach to collaborating on screenplays, the many rewrites of the Rudderless script, and how to use music as a character.
How did the two of you begin collaborating on screenplays?
CASEY TWENTER: Like all great creative relationships, ours started with fantasy football. We were in a league together and we were having a conversation about film. Jeff was talking about how he always wanted to go to film school, which was a passion from when he was a kid doing Super 8 movies. He said that he had finally written a screenplay, and he suggested that if I were interested in film that I should try it too. It was like going out and playing golf for the first time, we were hooked. At least I know I was, though I think Jeff was already addicted.
JEFF ROBISON: I had been writing my whole life, but had never written a screenplay formally. I went out and bought Final Draft software after I got married and wrote one. Casey read it, and probably because we’re both competitive thought he could do a lot better. He leaned on me for a little, but he wrote a script that was actually really funny and we decided to write one together.
How would you describe your writing process?
ROBISON: We live only six or seven miles away from each other, but we’ve only been in the same room to write maybe a handful of times. We talk on the phone and we e-mail, and whoever comes up with the idea that we both like will start the project. We’ll send each other five or six pages to see what the other thinks, and we’ll give notes, tweak it, and send it back. It’s really kind of amazing, especially since we’re both so stubborn, that we’ve been writing together for close to thirteen years and there were only a few times that we’ve gotten really heated about a disagreement. There’s a reason I’m writing with him, and it’s because I think he’s good and he has ideas that I respect. So if I’m really adamant about something and he feels differently, I’m going to fight for it for a little bit and then calm down and listen to what he has to say. Like all relationships in general, you really have to pick your battles. If it’s something that I don’t just feel burning inside of me that I need to fight for, then I’m willing to cede a little bit because I know there’s going to be a time when I’m really going to want to fight for something. That goes both ways.
TWENTER: Film is the single most collaborative artistic process there is. Even on a film as small as ours, there are a hundred people who are all going in the same direction. The people who are in charge of locations, or makeup, or wardrobe are putting their best efforts forward and they’re completely relying on everybody else to do their jobs so there is this finished product that is amazing. I feel like that’s how Jeff and I collaborate because we do a lot of passing off, and if we didn’t trust each other implicitly the way everybody on a film crew does we wouldn’t trust each other to rewrite our stuff. It’s very common for Jeff to completely cut or rewrite a scene that I wrote, and vice versa. If we’re trimming down a story, there may be a scene that I feel is really important and Jeff feels like we’re rehashing something on a beat that we already hit really hard. You have to have that trust to allow somebody to take your words and completely change or delete them.
You’ve indicated that it took about five years to make this film. Could you take me through the timeline of how the script developed?
TWENTER: It was probably a little bit more than five years. Jeff and I had done the dance of writing our scripts together and sending them off with query letters to try to get an agent or a producer to read them. We decided that we were going to make a film on a lower budget. We were inspired by Once. I had read that it was made for $200,000 and that the actors in the film were actually musicians. Since we couldn’t get the attention of directors, actors, agents, or managers, we thought we could get through to musicians. We let the ideas percolate for about three to four months and we had different ideas for settings, like a guy who lived on a boat in a landlocked state, and we were both new fathers so we were inspired by this really dark idea of what if your child was cut down before the world got to see his or her talent. It took about six months to write the first draft, and in the original draft Josh was just killed in a school shooting.
We got it to a point where we felt we could start looking for musicians and directors. At one time we were going to make the movie with Keith Carradine in the lead and Ben Kweller was going to be Quentin. We just couldn’t get all of the pieces in place, but we were unwilling to give up. The next move was that we reached out to William H. Macy about two years in and sent him the script because we read an article where he said he wanted to direct. We were emboldened because the feedback we were getting on the script was really strong. We got it to Macy, and he reached out to us saying he wanted to make it on April 1st. Jeff thought it was an April Fool’s joke that I was playing on him, and it took a week until we realized that it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. However, Macy said that he felt like there needed to be more to this story and the stakes needed to be risen a bit. We worked on it for about two or three months with him and then came up with the idea that Josh was the shooter. It turned it from a nice, earnest film with a happy ending to something that we all really wanted to explore and dig deep in.
We took another six months to write that and it took another two years while getting different people attached like Laurence Fishburne and Felicity Huffman, but we still couldn’t get the money. Meanwhile, Macy was making Shameless and at the end of each Shameless season he would be very tired from the grind of that. One time he actually did back out for about three months because he was just so spent from Shameless. Then in June 2012 we thought we had the money together, but very quickly it all fell apart right before Bill went into another season of Shameless. We thought Rudderless was dead and Bill had decided that we should just put it aside. We made a movie called The Jogger and shot it in October. In early January when we were editing The Jogger, Bill gave the script to Keith Kjarval, who ultimately ended up producing it. We didn’t believe Keith when he said he could get the money together because we had heard it before, but we had applied for the tax incentives in Oklahoma to shoot and we had this window of needing to be shooting by May of that year, and it was January. We told Keith that if he wanted to run with it he could because we had to go to festivals with The Jogger. One month later he had the money together, a month after that we were location scouting, and we were rolling cameras in early May. It went from being dead in January to shooting in May.
ROBISON: There were so many ups and downs and heartache. We had a guy tell us around 2009 or 2010, “You know what? This is going to be the year of Rudderless!” and we were like, “Yes! It is!” And then he never called us back. That stuff happens all the time, so you get excited and you wait a month and then you don’t hear anything.
You mention that you didn’t come up with the idea of Josh being the shooter until after William H. Macy was involved. How did that story element fundamentally change the script?
ROBISON: Bill very much took on a mentor role with us. The vast majority of what we wrote still made it in there, but he kept pushing us to go further. We had this upbeat story – and I think it can still be perceived as upbeat at the end – but Casey called me one morning and said, “I got this crazy idea and you’re going to hate it, but what if we switch it and make Josh the shooter?” I almost had a fit. You become attached to these characters and I said, “No, this kid wouldn’t do that and that’s not the movie we’re making.” We called Bill and the first thing I said was that I hated this horrible idea because it changes the tone. But after Casey told him the idea Bill was silent for about five seconds – which felt like an eternity – and he said, “You know, Jeff, perhaps these emotions you are feeling are a good thing.” Then I sat there for five seconds and said, “Well, he is William H. Macy. He’s probably right.” It took me a while to fully come around to this drastic change, but I started thinking that you always tend to root for the protagonist if the screenwriter is doing his job right. But what if we find out that the protagonist is responsible for bringing into the world a child who did a horrible thing. Am I still going to support this guy? The first thought you think of is that maybe he was a bad parent. Being that I am a teacher and a coach, I know a lot of problems stem from the home. But that’s not always the case because the parents are doing everything they can. I was really intrigued by the idea of whether I could still root for this guy and I finally felt comfortable with the way I was writing and the way I resolved it.
TWENTER: Once we made that change we had things that we needed to do. We knew that we didn’t want to manipulate the audience. Bill is an expert in how you lay out the facts and leave the crumbs of the story to let the audience find their way. With Jeff and I being new fathers, we wanted to have a theme of unconditional love. We’ve written a lot of things and all of them end up having a theme of some sort, but once we made that change it really allowed the theme to affect the way the scenes came out. It made all the characters stronger. For example, the Kate character was always there but giving her a moment of her saying “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel” because Josh was the shooter heightens it and makes everything stronger, especially when the scene plays through.
Naturally, you mentioned having to rewrite the script. What is your rewriting process?
TWENTER: Typically it’s a lot of conversations to figure out what we feel is wrong. One of us typically ends up with a better perspective, like sometimes we’ll know that there’s something wrong in the first act and one of us tends to have a three-dimensional view of what the solution is. Whoever has that grasp will take the first stab at it, just like how we write the first draft of a script. From there it goes back to trading back and forth. On the first draft of Rudderless, before Bill was involved, Josh had a brother and Sam and the brother started the band. When Jeff read it he said, “I get what you’re doing here, but it can’t be a brother,” and he gave all these reasons that I didn’t see until he started working with the script.
ROBISON: It’s very organic with us. Casey and I are always spit-balling ideas, and that’s how Rudderless happened. You get like a hundred ideas, and of those five of them you can work with. We collaborate by letting the other guy fill the gaps.
For example, we were so frustrated and disappointed with the way Rudderless was going and it was becoming a $3-$5 million dollar movie. I just said, “Let’s just go in the backyard and film something. I just need to make a movie.” I just had to get this out of my system. Casey then suggested we try to do something in the $300-500,000 range. You know, you go into the video store and the walls are just lined with horror and thriller movies, and we knew we could do that because we had written some monster movies. Casey likes to jog and he came home one night and called me out of breath, saying, “Jeff, I have the greatest idea for a script! A guy goes for a jog and a car passes that he recognizes. He keeps jogging, but then the car comes back and a guy gets out and starts chasing him into the woods.” That was it. And I sat there for however long it was and I went, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” He said, “But there’s more, I just can’t figure it out. But wouldn’t that be great?”
Then we went to a film festival and we were meeting some people and talking about Rudderless. We were asked what else we were working on, and although we have about thirty ideas for scripts Casey launches into the idea about the guy jogging. And the first guy we told it to looks at us and says, “I love it! That’s a great idea!” So I perk up and say, “Yeah, isn’t it?” and we start making up the story as we’re talking to this guy, and that’s our process. Our rewriting process is just like our beginning process – we talk, we share notes, we share ideas, and all of sudden something will click.
Even though Rudderless is closely tied to its soundtrack, you did not have specific music before you wrote the script. How did you work around that while writing?
TWENTER: One thing that’s fun with writing is throwing yourself challenges. When we first came up with the idea of Josh being killed, we thought the best thing about it is that we would never see the son – we’d only meet him through his music. There was no face to him; his songs were the only way to carry that character through. From the first draft all the way to the last draft the way we handled the music was almost like you’d use a notecard for a scene to describe what that scene meant to that character. We had a detailed description for each song – like we wanted the first song to be about how alone and lost Josh is, which would also resonate for Sam. We had no idea how the song would sound. If it ended up being country music, it could be a country song. If it were rock music, it could be a rock song. The context transcended genre. We didn’t want the songs to be overly angst-full or Josh to be a kid who was wrapped in darkness, we always imagined him of having more of a sickness. It was very much like writing a character, except the songs were the character.
It’s different than writing a biopic of a musician and having a catalog of songs to cherry-pick from.
ROBISON: Nobody likes to be told no, but Casey is willing to go through all that if he feels passionate about something. When we came up with the idea to make this movie ourselves, Casey starts going to fan pages and somehow gets ahold of Gene Simmons from KISS. The band in the movie was going to be a cover band that did a few originals, and we wanted to use some music that people would recognize. We wanted to use one of the more obscure early songs, and Gene said, “You might have some trouble with the studio, but as far as I’m concerned you have my blessing.” That just blew me away, and that’s exactly how Casey got Ben Kweller. Casey reached out and told him we were making a movie, and then all of sudden you’re hanging out with Ben Kweller. It’s fascinating how it works. You don’t know if you don’t try.
Did you do any research on school shootings?
TWENTER: We did quite a lot. We even read articles on Jeffrey Dahmer’s father, who said he always knew that his son had this horrible dark side. I think one that really resonated with me was the Virginia Tech shooter. Similarly, if Josh doesn’t see his parents often and only talks with them on the phone, even if they’re in the same city, they’d have no idea that he’s off his meds, or hearing voices in his head, or having deep depression, or whatever it is. We also did research on how alienated parents feel. After the Columbine shooting there was a tree planted and a memorial put down that had the shooters’ names on it. That memorial was torn out of the ground, as was the tree, so they redid it without the shooters’ names on it. Ideas like that influenced the script.
What scripts influenced you, either on Rudderless or your work in general?
ROBISON: I watch as many movies as I can with two kids and a job. My first memory is from when I was three or four and watching the 1933 version of King Kong and just bawling at the end. Probably a lot of guys my age would say the same thing, but I was five years old when Star Wars came out and that changed everything for me. I knew immediately that I wanted to do that someday, though I didn’t know if I wanted to be Han Solo or George Lucas. Some of my influences are Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, but the filmmaker at the top of the list for me without question is Steven Spielberg. As for writing, Lawrence Kasdan is a genius – Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie of all time. I also get inspired by smaller films as well, like the writing style of Dan Fogelman. I read some of these scripts and they’re such good storytellers, and then I read a Charlie Kaufman script and I don’t think I could even write that well! So you aspire to do certain things and get inspired by other people.
TWENTER: I get inspired by scripts and story that play a lot of notes. While working on Rudderless, I drew inspiration from films that aren’t one note. For example, I don’t like movies that deal with death where everything has to be dour or a comedy where nothing can be dramatic. When I look at films I like ones that cross genres. The ones that inspired me when working on Rudderless are ones that have a few different things going on. When you get at the end of Rocky, you realize it’s a love story. Cool Hand Luke is a funny movie, but it’s not a comedy. Those are the kind of films that I surround myself with when I’m writing.
ROBISON: The human element has to be there. Yes, Rudderless is a drama, but there was one day after filming and I was walking with Bill and he starts chuckling. I asked him what was so funny and he said, “This is the damndest thing ever. I don’t know if we’re making a comedy or a drama.” It was after we shot the scene where Billy Crudup comes out of the bar drunk and rides his bicycle into the van. It’s this kind of slapsticky moment, but that’s real life. Obviously there is very sensitive subject matter, but life goes and you can still laugh when there is drama and turmoil in your life. I love seeing humanity in films, and I have a lot of respect for those who can do that effectively.