Frederick Mensch is the writer of the feature film Nightingale, which premiered at the 2014 LA Film Festival. He’s also the founder of MovieBytes, an online resource for writers that features a database of over 300 writing competitions.
We talked to Frederick about Nightingale, his creative process, and how he manages his busy schedule.
BLUECAT: Tell me about Nightingale.
MENSCH: It’s about a 37 year old Army wash-out who lives with his devoted Christian mother and is forced to murder her in order to pursue an obsessive relationship with an old Army friend. The murder takes place prior to the start to the film, then we sort of convey it through a series of confessional Youtube videos. He talks a little bit about what it is that he is trying to accomplish with his friend.
I can tell you that it is by far and away the least likely of the scripts that I’ve written to get produced and there it is, you know – produced. “Nobody knows anything” is I guess what this proves.
I had written a script in which this character appeared as a supporting character. He was just a character who stuck in my head and I had more to say about him and so I started thinking of stories I could tell about him specifically. And at the same time, I was setting up a different independent film and then just having a big struggle — it was a small film but I was still having trouble getting it financed. So I was thinking about ways that I might get around that, and one of the ways obviously is to just make the budget so low that there are no obstacles. I sort of latched onto the idea of telling a story with just one character, one location. The idea I had for Nightingale was perfect for that because it was a story about isolation and loneliness and the form and the theme just worked perfectly for that type of micro budget production.
BLUECAT: Can you talk a little bit about the difficulties of writing something that takes place in one location, with one character? Were there any movies or books that kind of paved the way for you?
MENSCH: There are huge obstacles, obviously, and I don’t know that I could do it again. It was perfectly suited for this particular story, but it would be very difficult to tell a different story this way. I don’t know if I could do it, but you know, the way I was able to do it was primarily through Youtube videos. That was something I used that is part of culture right now and it was a good way for him to express himself without requiring any additional characters. So that worked out very well, conveniently for this particular story. But it’s a huge challenge. I mean I did look at some other films — Castaway is another film with sort of a large section with just one person but that movie doesn’t have much to do with mine. Buried I think was another one with just one person, but again, those movies are pretty much unrelated to what I was trying to do.
BLUECAT: Tell me about premiering Nightingale at the LA Film Festival.
MENSCH: It was awesome. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the screening was sold out. It was a little nerve-wracking for me because I wrote the film to be a bit of a page turner. It should be very suspenseful and I wasn’t sure if I had pulled that off — whether the audience would be engaged through 90 minutes of one guy on the screen, but they really seemed to be. They really seemed to be with it. There was some laughter — there’s some dark humor in it and we got the laughs we were looking for. The reviews were great. The Hollywood Reporter really loved it. It was very gratifying. We got good reviews and a good response to the film.
BLUECAT: How do you go about writing a first draft?
MENSCH: That process has evolved for me over the years. I used to outline everything profusely and then I found that I was writing rather predictably when I did that. So now I just kind of jump in. I jump in and I write without an outline and I surprise myself whenever I can. That makes it exciting for me and that translates into a more engaging experience for the audience when they can’t necessarily see what’s coming either. I just like the direction that the script can go when I improve the story process towards dialogue. So I’ll just be speaking words out loud and when I come up with something that surprises me it can take the story in a completely different direction than I ever would have come up with in an outline. I like working that way.
BLUECAT: How do you attack crafting characters?
MENSCH: You know it sounds kind of goofy but I let the characters introduce themselves to me. I don’t have a lot of success saying, “okay, this character is going to behave in this way.” I kind of like to just base it on my imagination and who knows what. I just let my imagination run with it. I don’t try to shape the character, I try to let the character tell me what he wants to tell me.
BLUECAT: Once you have that first draft, how do you attack the second draft and subsequent drafts?
MENSCH: Because I work without an outline, there is a lot of circling back and rewriting and rewriting as I go along. When something surprises me and I go off in a direction that was unexpected, very often that necessitates going back to the beginning and rewriting some stuff so it makes a little more sense. So when I have a first draft, it is really is more like a 4th or 5th draft by the time I finish that first one because I have circled back and rewritten and rewritten and rewritten so often. That’s the downside of working without an outline — you allow yourself to go down a lot of rabbit trails, but for me it’s worthwhile. By the time I’m done with a first draft it is generally pretty polished. Obviously it’s not done, but at that point I am ready to show it to some other people and get some feedback and see where things are working and where they’re not.
BLUECAT: When did you realize you wanted to be a screenwriter and what was your first script?
MENSCH: You know, I probably realized I wanted to be a screenwriter in high school and I went to film school. What was my first script? I can’t even remember. I’ve written dozens of them. Dozens and dozens and then didn’t sell any of them. I’ve probably written forty scripts and I’ve sold two of them and had one produced.
BLUECAT: How did you stay motivated?
MENSCH: It’s just who I am. I mean, there were plenty of points along the way that I would have been delighted to quit. My life would have been easier. I would have been happier, but it just doesn’t work that way for me. There’s always something that’s like, “Oh, I need to tell this story. I need to find a way to tell this story.” At a certain point you stop worrying about whether you are going to sell it or not, you know? I just stopped caring about that so much. It was helpful for me. I lived in Los Angeles for 6 years or 7 years or something after film school, and I liked it well enough, but I was living hand-to-mouth all the time and I felt like my life hadn’t started yet. You know? I felt like — when I sell my first screenplay, then my life will start — and that was a terrible way to live. So I finally just said “to Hell with this” and I moved back to the midwest, where I’m from – Chicago, and I got married, had kids, and then I started to have something to write about. Not that I’m writing about my family or my kids, but I felt like I was growing up a little bit and I didn’t worry about what was hot or what I thought this producer would want to see or anything like that. I just don’t worry about that stuff anymore. I just write what I want to write and if there’s a market for it, great. And if there’s not, well, maybe there will be for the next one.
BLUECAT: What were the big lessons you took away from scripts you’ve written in the past that you applied to Nightingale?
MENSCH: While I was in film school, I wrote what I wanted to write and I got a lot of affirmation for that. I came out to Los Angeles and I got an agent right away and they took a lot of meetings. I got off to a good start, but I kind of lost my way a little bit because I started worrying about what the market was and what might actually sell. I think the lesson that I’ve learned in the last few years is: as writers I think we need to embrace our individuality and nurture the things that make us unique. Too often we’re given advice that sort of pushes towards the middle and we wind up making safe choices about the things we’re writing that don’t really inspire passion. They don’t inspire passion in us and they don’t inspire passion in the people who are reading our scripts. But, I think sometimes it becomes important to make choices without regard to the marketplace — bold choices that are going to be exceptional, where people are going to say “wow.” And that’s what happened with this script. Everyone I pitched it to said it didn’t sound like a movie — either it sounded like a play or that it just wasn’t going to work. Earlier in my career I probably would have said, “eh, I better right something else,” but since I’ve grown up a little bit I just don’t care anymore. I knew it was a good movie and I felt like if I could get what I had in my head down on the page that other people would see that too.
BLUECAT: When do you find the time to write? How do you divvy out the time in your day?
MENSCH: I wake up at 5 in the morning and I write for an hour. Then I start my real making-a-living day. On the weekends I write for 3 to 4 hours on a Saturday. That’s pretty much it. I’m very methodical about it. You can get a surprising amount done in an hour if you don’t let yourself get distracted.
BLUECAT: Do you have writing goalposts that you like to hit?
MENSCH: I do. I always set goals like that. I almost never meet them. I just try to make progress every day. I might write three pages in a day and then the next day throw them out. That’s not to say that those three pages were wasted. I needed to write them to figure out that that’s not what I wanted to do. I just try to keep moving forward every day. I think it’s valuable to get the first draft written as fast as you can, but you can’t put a time train on that. It’s just depending on who you are. Some people can get a script written in two weeks and it might take a year for someone else, but the point is just to keep moving forward every day.
BLUECAT: How do you know when a script is truly done?
MENSCH: I think you don’t. You just have to trust. Every script you get to the point where any further revisions are just as likely to make it worse than to make it better. Instinct tells you when you’ve reached that point. It really is impossible to tell exactly when that time has come.
BLUECAT: What’s next for you?
MENSCH: I’ve got another indie film that I have written called Supreme Ruler. It has Ron Livingston and Marcia Gay Harden attached to star. Hopefully going to shoot it in the fall. We’re putting the final pieces of financing together and hopefully that will fall into place and we’ll shoot it in the fall here in Chicago.
BLUECAT: Tell us about MovieBytes.
MENSCH: MovieBytes is a website for screenwriters. Mostly we focus on screenwriting contests. It’s a resource for writers who are looking for places to submit their scripts. We keep our databases with 300-400 contests and we allow writers who have entered these contests to evaluate them and share their experiences.
BLUECAT: Do you have any final tips for aspiring screenwriters?
MENSCH: Embrace who you are and make your script as specific and as quirky as you are. Don’t try to write somebody else’s script, write your script — and be as aggressive and bold as you can be in writing your script. Not anybody else’s.