From Concept to Final Cut: An Interview with MT Cozzola

MT Cozzola is a Chicago-based screenwriter, playwright, and actress, and a native of Oak Park, Illinois (the hometown of Ernest Hemingway). She has written the screenplay for the film Eye of the Sandman, which will appear in theatres in Fall 2009. Eye of the Sandman is adapted from a short story entitled The Sandman by German writer E.T.A Hoffman. I spoke with MT at the Cafe Neo in the shadow of the El tracks on Lincoln Avenue.

Michael: So, MT, I’ve read the script of The Eye of the Sandman. How did you get the idea to do the film, and where did you find the story that you adapted the screenplay from?

MT: Actually the project came about before the story. A producer, Dave Evans, wanted to do a horror film, and he approached me and two other directors, Jeff McHale and Dennis Belogorsky, about collaborating on a horror film. We tossed around some ideas, some serious ideas, some comedic ideas, and Dave was really interested in this story The Sandman, the E.T.A Hoffman story, and we all read that. He talked with another screen writer, who did a very serious treatment of the story. It wasn’t getting any traction –- it was interesting, but not something we were really interested in. So we started talking about other ideas, and doing more of a comedy. And I really loved the story, and I thought there was a lot of humor in it. Although it can be looked at as a very serious story, and there’s definitely some scary imagery and there’s serious themes in it, I thought that there’s also a lot of humor in it. There’s even that line at the end after the poor hero falls to his death, and the writer says something about how his poor bereaved fiancee shortly thereafter met someone else and is now living very happily with a big family — so that’s pretty funny. Anyway, I took a stab at just taking the elements from the story that I found interesting, that idea of obsessions and seeing in an object of beauty, in this case this man, and sort of pouring everything into him that you think you want in a lover. And believing because of his passivity that your love is returned. I started from there, and I wrote this story. Actually, I wrote the last scene first and then everything kind of fell into place, so then I wrote the opening scene, and then the scenes that happen in the middle, and I brought that to Dave, the producer, and he really liked it and the other directors really liked it. I knew because I was familiar with the production company, that if I wanted to get this made, I needed to give them something that was production-wise very simple. You’ll notice that it’s a single location …

Michael: Yeah.

MT: Very limited cast, those are all things that … I think because I was thinking about the production, and I wasn’t starting from “if I could tell any story in the world what would it be?”, that really worked out well in terms of the idea, but that was also where my focus was initially with the story — let’s really limit this to just a few characters in a single location, and let’s put these people together and see what happens. All of the characters in the movie are based on either a character in the story or a suggestion of a character. The main character in the film is a young woman, but she’s very much based on the hero of the story, who was a man.

Michael: There was a robot in both stories, as I recall …

MT: Yeah, there’s an automaton in the short story, but it was more complicated than the film, because there’s the young man’s father, and the mysterious Sandman (evil guy) who comes to the house, and then there’s another scientist that the young man meets later on in Germany who is the one who actually created the robot. But in my story, the robot was created by the heroine’s father and another scientist, and their relationship is very important. So, the elements are all taken from or inspired by the original story but just laid out differently.

Michael: So, the process then, as I understand it, is you took a story that everyone involved in this project was interested in, and you took a crack at giving it some shape, and then you took that back to the producer, and then he said yeah go ahead, and then from there you created a more fully fleshed story …

MT: Yeah, I think the thing that I gave him was like a treatment with a few scenes broken out, you know, with the opening scene and a couple of interior scenes and an ending scene broken out. In a lot of treatments I’ve seen … are you familiar with treatments or what a treatment is?

Michael: No, I’m not, actually.

MT: It’s essentially a kind of a detailed synopsis of the entire film. So you might think of each paragraph of a treatment as describing one sequence in a film. So you could write a very concise treatment and say, “Mike goes to the cafe, he finds the murder weapon, the owner doesn’t want him to take the weapon but he grabs the weapon and leaves.” Then the next paragraph is “Mike is in the car …” But you could also detail that treatment a little bit more, which I think really helps directors and producers and anybody reading it, and just throw in a little bit of dialogue, so you think of it more as when you’re telling someone a story, you know, “Mike goes into the cafe, he finds the murder weapon and the owner says ‘grab it and I cut your head off’, but Mike says ‘no, I’ve gotta do this for Julie’, and he runs out of there”. And like, suddenly, once you insert some dialogue into it, it becomes much more specific and real, and the characters become real, and it’s not just this and this and this.

Michael: So it’s kind of like when you are trying to pitch a book to somebody — you have a synopsis — you don’t have the whole thing written but you have a synopsis, and then you kind of walk them through it with a few details, to try to get them interested.

MT: Right, right. You’re giving them the flavor, it’s not just dry summary. So yes, the treatment I did had a few scenes broken out with full dialog and then other scenes where just this happened and this happened — that was what I did. And actually, I didn’t think they would like it because they were really talking about a serious horror film, and that’s just not what I’m into. I’m not a horror film fan, I don’t know most of the references — most of the horror films I’ve seen are from the 1930s. I don’t know Nightmare on Elm Street. So all I could really write was just, like, this is what I’m interested in –- this is what seems fun and interesting to me.

Michael: So after the treatment, the director or producer can either say go ahead write me a screenplay or …

MT: Or thanks anyway.

Michael: So is there a lot of rejection in film?

MT: [Laughs] it’s all rejection!

Michael: So it’s like any kind of writing, then, you write and you write and write, and you work and you work and work and …

MT: … and no one’s interested!

Michael: What’s the difference between adapting an existing story, versus writing something new?

MT: For me, when I’m adapting something I’m reacting — to an idea or something in the story. When I’m creating something new it’s more about discovery of a story. Not that there’s not a lot of discovery in adaptation but it is your spin, something that you see in another work.

Michael: For a new work, do you start with an idea and let that idea germinate over time and then at some point you feel like you can start writing it down, or …

MT: I usually start writing right away. I usually figure out what I think through the writing. For me that discovery comes from dialogue. And maybe to some extent I’m influenced by — maybe that’s why I enjoy improvisation, and when I performed more I did a lot of improvisation which is really, you know, discovering through dialogue, and letting something build in that way. I think with writing, even adaptation, it’s really letting the characters speak and kind of seeing where they’re going and who they are and what’s on their mind. And with the Sandman piece I didn’t feel bound by the story in any way – because I wasn’t using the plot, I didn’t have to end up in any particular place. So I could just go with that main character who so clearly has memories that he is not dealing with, and our heroine also — she has memories that she’s not dealing with, she sort of takes all her desire not to deal with what’s going on in the present and just project it onto something else, so you just start with that and go wherever, so you have a lot of freedom when you adapt.

Michael: So it sounds like rather than constructing a rather complex plot, you get the characters talking and interacting and then the plot sort of falls in behind? Is that right?

MT: Yeah, especially in the first draft. The first draft is all about the characters and the relationships that develop between them and yeah, you’re not so worried about the plot. Then you get through that first draft and you figure out who you’ve got and do you have something interesting going on. And then maybe in the second draft I focus more on the plot and the structure, and usually the second draft is kind of dry and icky because it’s all like “we’ve got to get to this point!” so you kind of lose something. But then when you get to the third draft that’s when things seem to coalesce. There are some things you can do in terms of the plot in that second draft because you know you have to get somewhere, and you write these clunky scenes to get people to the climax and then you come back to that a little while later and it’s “this is awful” — these characters — you’re just using them to get somewhere. So in the third draft you get away from it a little bit, and you come back, and you go –- oh, ok, he’s not going to get there this way — we know he’s got to get there, but he’s not going to get there this way. So I feel that’s it’s a three draft process.

Michael: Do you visualize what these characters are going to look like on the screen at this point?

MT: Oh, totally! I see ’em.

Michael: What is the process then that goes from getting a final script to a film — how does it get from that piece of paper, those pieces of paper, to the screen? Can you describe that process?

MT: [Laughs]. There’s a really long winded, rambling answer to that. That’s a tough question. Once you know you’re on the same page just in terms of the broad concepts. Like with this script — it’s campy but it’s serious, too. And I wasn’t sure if it would come across to the other directors.

Michael: It’s kind of a spoof of a horror story in a way.

MT: Yeah, there are a lot of spoofy references, but it was also important to me that what the characters were going through from their point of view was entirely serious and the stakes were high for them, and they felt this very deeply. So I didn’t want a film that was about laughing at the characters. So once it was kind of clear that the other directors were on the same page as I was about that – that they got it — you sort of trust that they got it. You don’t really know until you’re actually shooting it. Then there’s storyboarding and all of the production planning. Even before we got to storyboarding there was the concept of the art direction, and meeting with the production designer and that’s also again where you’re creating the world that your going to shoot in, so then things start to come out like “what does this world look like?” So, before storyboarding we talked about production design, talked about costumes, talked a little bit about music, although the music is just now being scored. So we were basically kind of creating the world where this is going to happen. And there was really another stage, preparatory to storyboarding the scenes — storyboarding is just basically, you know, whether narratively or just by quick sketches, showing how you see a scene being shot — before storyboarding we had a meeting where we all brought in images, scenes from films we liked and that was a great way of communicating some of the things that are really hard to describe such as how you feel this looks like. And I remember Jeff brought in some scenes from Moulin Rouge and Return to Oz which was a film I’d never seen. I brought in and the adventures of Mr. Toad –- you know The Wind in the Willows, the illustrations, and Fritz Eichenberg engravings of Jane Eyre. So it was all kind of show and tell –- this is kind of the feeling that I have. So we went into storyboarding, and especially when we started out we all brought in our storyboards for a scene, and I found that my ideas visually were a lot lest interesting than Jeff’s, because he has much more of a visual eye than I do. And because he is a great editor, he really sees things in sequence so he has a really strong sense of how this shot is going to tie into this shot and where the viewer’s eye is going to be and how this will all fall together, whereas I might just have a feeling of I can see this one moment, where he has a more comprehensive vision of an entire scene. So storyboarding was next. And then when it came to the actually shooting, Jeff and Dennis tended to be more focused on things like lighting and composition, and I tended to focus more on the actors and their relationships with each other and their interpretation of the dialogue and the characters. And that worked amazingly well.

Michael: So it’s quite a process, then.

MT: It’s a really long process.

Michael: You take this thing that’s your baby, and you hand it to a bunch of other people, and it turns into something else again.

MT: At least in low budget film making which is [laughs] my world. Which is –- what you really pay for in film making — that is, large-budget versus low-budget – is time. And on a low-budget film when you’re in the situation we were in where we’ve got this fantastic location to shoot in and we’ve got these wonderful actors; we don’t have a ton of money to spend on sets and costumes but we have wonderful designers, we’ve got everything that we need, but what we don’t have is time. Every day we have an assistant director who has a schedule for tomorrow. And at 9:00 we’re shooting this shot, and at 9:40 we need to move on to this shot, and at 10:10 we need to move on to this shot. So all of a sudden the limitation of time means that you may have this image in your head or this thing that you want and it may not happen. You might not have time to get the thing that you want. So you’re constantly battling with the clock. And depending on the kind of person you are it can be really easy to say “just screw it, let’s just get the shot and move on”, because you’re feeling all this pressure. And that I think is the most challenging part of this work.

Michael: To turn in something really good under a really tight time constraint.

MT: Yeah. And it’s really hard on the actors. Because they’re waiting around all day while you’re doing other scenes, and then it’s like come on and do this death scene. And you have to do it in 20 minutes because you’ve gotta get it, because the light’s going or whatever. That’s one thing, while working in theatre has its own limitations, I don’t think that there’s that fear of the clock like there is in filmmaking.

Michael: How long did it take to make the film.

MT: I think we had 22 shooting days total …

Michael: So from the script to the final cut, how long did it take?

MT: [Laughs] Forever! I turned in the script in June of 2007. Principal photography was October-November 2007. The film sat almost all of 2008. We had a music video sequence to shoot, but we couldn’t shoot this until the song was written — it was an original song — so we spent the first half of 2008 getting the song written and recorded — so we shot the music video in July of 2008 and then things sat around some more while Jeff finished editing another film. The rough cut of the film was just finished last month, in February. So we’re just now looking at some composers — there are a handful of composers that have just submitted a workup of a particular scene, to kind of say “here’s what I would do with the soundtrack.” And so we’re looking at those now and choosing a composer. And although we have a rough edit there’s been no audio correction, no color correction, there’s a lot of tweaking to be done, that’ll happen at the same time as we continue to work with the composer. And then the film is coming out in September this year. So 2 1/2 years from June of 2007 to Fall 2009.

Michael: It’s a long time, but there were a lot of gaps.

MT: Yeah, there were a lot of gaps in 2008.

Michael: So where will this play? Where will be the venues for it? Just in the Chicago area?

MT: They’ll premier it in Chicago, at a local theatre. We’re booked for the last week of October at the Center on Halsted, and I don’t know if that’s the premiere or if there will be screenings somewhere else before that. Split Pillow has also premiered stuff at Chicago Filmmakers and the Gene Siskel Film Center, so I’ll be curious to see how that rolls out. Anyway, it will be one or more local theatres here, and then they will try to get it into festivals and seek a wider distribution for it. I think the process is local showings, then hopefully festival distribution, theatre distribution, and ultimately DVD distribution, so it becomes available through places like NetFlix.

Michael: So eventually, October 2009 this year, we can see it at a venue here, and if it’s a huge hit, it will spread!

MT: That … Yeah!

2 Responses

  1. Good stuff. I got a better
    Good stuff. I got a better understanding of the term “treatment” from reading this, as well as much enjoyment. I especially like the discussion about characters, dialogue, relationships, and plot.

  2. The process of making a film
    The process of making a film is so complex. In the interview MT seemed so charming and funny and made the process appear to be accessbile and do-able in spite of great odds. It’s amazing what artists will do to fulfill their creative soul

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