Screenwriting as Love Drug Mania Part 1 – The High

Holy fucking roller coaster, Batman. And the ride isn’t over.

screenplayimagesThe last two weeks have been a completely new kind of writing experience for me. It feels a little weird to be able to say that at 33 years old, especially considering I was writing little stories since, like, first grade. But it’s true.

It was so intense. It felt kinda like how I imagine being manic might feel. It felt like being in love. It felt like being on reeeeeeeally good drugs. It was all rushing and inspiration and not being able to sleep and waking up early with ideas and thoughts of how to work parts of it together. And it was a lot, lot, lot of writing.

Here’s what happened. For my university, there is a requirement called a senior capstone. I’ve resisted it as long as I could, putting it off term after term, imagining the anonymous diatribes I wanted to write against the requirement in the school paper as if that could somehow exempt me from having to take a capstone class. But this winter, I had to sign up, so I picked Research Experience for Science Majors, hoping to, you know, get some research experience.

It didn’t really work that way. The people in the class who already had research projects got to use that as their project for the capstone. The rest of us, well, had to find other things. So my project ended up being study groups that I teach at the tutoring center where I work. Basically something I was doing outside the class anyway. So it made it kinda easy to fulfill this capstone requirement, but didn’t offer anything new. And for the end of the term, we have to write a paper, and it’s supposed to be in the writing style of academic journals. Kind of hard when you’re not actually researching anything.

So one day, two weeks ago, I was hanging out after my shift ended, bitching about the capstone and the paper to some people at work. I said something like, “I just wish I could do something totally different, like a creative project, for my paper.” And my fellow chemistry tutor at my job, let’s call him Tucker (who is in the same capstone class) told me I should do it, our prof would probably be fine with it.

The wheels started churning. I really wanted to do it. I thought it would be a great challenge, to have to come up with some new story or lyric essay or screenplay that was at least somehow related to science. I wrote an email and asked my prof if he’d be okay with it, but even before I heard back from him, I kinda knew I was going to do it anyway. And I really liked the idea of doing something completely unexpected. We all have to present our “projects” to the class and I had this mental image that I would go in there, with everyone expecting another boring talk about study groups (we had to present a much shorter version of our projects last term as well), and then just read some entirely different writing than what anyone would expect. I wanted to go in and just OWN it.

Yeah, sometimes we imagine ourselves as so much cooler than we really are. More on how that didn’t exactly play out in Part 2. My presentation was scheduled for yesterday, May 13.

So the day I emailed my prof asking if I could do a creative project for the class, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking, what could I write about? I’d already written an essay about my love for organic chemistry (read an excerpt here), and yeah, there’s so much more that I could add to that now–me and chemistry have a love story of many epic volumes–but I wanted to do something different. And I already wrote a lyric essay type thing on the organic chemistry topic of chirality that is like, how I would write an organic chemistry textbook if anyone was ever crazy enough to let me do that.

But what kept coming to me was this idea I’ve been tossing around in my head for about two years now. It grew out of my complete obsession with Breaking Bad. I always had the idea of writing something about me and my friend, I’ll call her Lenne, as drug dealers. I know Lenne from an organization for blind people, and we love to cook up CRAZY schemes.

I apologize in advance if this is offensive to anyone because it probably is, but I want to give an example of the kind of shit we like to cook up.

There was this one time we were shopping at Target and complaining about the lack of romance in our lives and discussing how sometimes it’s the people who seem so religious and chaste that end up being the freakiest and we came up with this idea of how we would infiltrate all these Christian groups to pick up guys. We postulated that our disabilities might work in our favor, people might want to save us or some shit and be all overly helpful which we could, you know, parlay into some kind of sexual encounters. We wove this elaborate story of how we would explain away the obvious things about us that make us not look like good Christian girls (tattoos, etc), with some crazy story about how we used to be drug addicts and our drug of choice was robo-tripping. For the record we never actually did this. We just had a blast coming up with the idea and practically pissed ourselves riding home on the light rail and adding more outrageous details and coming up with other types of groups to infiltrate, like sex addicts’ groups and the rival blindness organization.

Now that I’m putting that all in writing, I’m thinking maybe the screenplay I just wrote needs a prequel, the previous crazy adventures of Violet and Lenne.

So anyway, for a long time, I’ve had the idea of this story of me and Lenne as two blind girl drug dealers. Because, really, what?! No one does that. And it would be awesome. And could kind of say a lot about disability. Not that I want to represent all people with disabilities or blind people as drug dealers but that it goes against the idea of people with disabilities as overly heartwarming and saccharine. Which is something I feel pretty strongly about. And I knew immediately, that my character’s catalyst (see what I did there?) to start making drugs would be getting rejected from med school because of her blindness. Lenne also has a P.I. friend who I knew would make an amazing character. She has too many crazy stories that would make her perfect for this blind girls as drug dealers story.

Oh and I wanted to have them make acid. That just seemed more…me, even though I still have never tried it (yet). But when I looked into it, I realized it was too difficult to use, there was no way my character could realistically get or make precursors and such. And then something someone said on a Breaking Bad forum gave me the perfect solution (chem pun) of what I could use in the script as something more psychedelic but manageable to make. I am so on a DEA watch list, especially after all the research I just did for my project. I also looked up a lot of experiences on said drug because I’ve never tried that either and I wanted to be accurate.

In my mind, over the last two years, this blind girls as drug dealers story was a TV show. And then, this past summer I was watching Season 3 of The Killing. And let me just preface this next part by saying that I am a total Shipper. As in I always want couples on TV shows to get together. Mulder and Scully, Angela and Jordan, Meredith and Derek, Booth and Brennan, House and Cuddy, Jim and Pam, you get the idea. So naturally, and I think I’m in the minority on this, and I don’t think it will happen but I reeeeeeally want Linden and Holder (the two lead characters in The Killing) to have a love story. In my heart of hearts, underneath all my cynicism and rough edges, I’m such a sappy romantic.

So I was watching The Killing this summer, and felt really compelled by two things that happened. One was Linden getting kidnapped and how Holder was with her afterward. The second was how Holder tried to kiss Linden after he went through a really bad loss. I just kept replaying those scenes in my mind after those episodes and kinda rewriting them in my head to how I would write it if I was writing it as a love story. And I always thought of that as a storyline that I could work into my blind girls as drug dealers TV show. I had no idea who the guy would be or how he’d fit into the story but that storyline was in my head since summer as something to incorporate into this TV show idea.

I just had to write it down is all. But I never did.

psulibraryindexSo laying in bed trying to come up with what creative project I could do for my capstone, I thought, what if I go back to that idea? Blind girls as drug dealers, and a love story. And then, I think because my original project for the capstone had to do with my work at the tutoring center, or because I sometimes feel like I practically live there these days because I’m working so many hours, it just seemed a natural place to set parts of the story. So, all of a sudden, all these ideas were coming together. I wanted the drug manufacturers to be chemistry tutors, and cast my real life chem tutor friend as the drug-making partner, Tucker.

I wanted the love interest, Silas, to be chemistry-related too because I wanted to make chemistry sexy, and I liked the idea of the love story being between two people who were kind of equals to each other in the science way. So the story idea became populated with chemists–Violet, Silas, Tucker, and even the kidnappers are also chemists. So I was getting more characters and more ideas of how their stories would intersect.

I also really wanted to make this story a real girl story. I mean, yeah, there are several guys in it, but for example, when my character, Violet, gets kidnapped, she gets rescued, and I didn’t want it to be the love interest guy who rescues her (which really wouldn’t even make sense in the story) even if that’s the expected thing. Instead it’s the P.I. girl who has been underestimated up until that point because she does some crazy shit.

Oh yeah, and my character is a total disaster. I was starting to draft a fair number of real people into this crazy idea for a story–Lenne, her P.I. friend, my chem tutor friend Tucker, his girlfriend, and a few co-workers who play background roles, so I figured if I was putting real people in it, I wanted to make my character to be the one who would be laughed at or ridiculed, not the other real-life people. And because I can be a total disaster in real life.

So Violet is kinda nuts, and has, like, the worst dating history on the planet, which is not that far off the truth.

The next day, after not sleeping with all of this on my mind, I sketched out the arc of the story, the scenes as I saw them. I was thinking at this point, that I’d write it as a short story, even though in my mind, I kept seeing it as a screenplay. But I’m a slow screenwriter, I thought, and would never finish a screenplay, which I imagined would be about 20 or 30 pages, before my presentation on the 13th. So I decided to stick with a short story. I wanted to at least get started that day and slaved over trying to write one paragraph. It just wasn’t flowing. It was a screenplay.

The next day I said fuck it, I’m going to write a screenplay, that’s what this feels like in my mind. I put on a CD and wrote five pages. Put on another CD and wrote 5 more. By the end of the day I had 25 pages and wasn’t even a quarter through my sketch of the scenes.

I didn’t even try to hide that the main character, Violet, was based on me. I mean, there are certainly things about her that aren’t true–I’ve never applied to med school, I’m not ever planning on making or selling drugs, I don’t have Violet’s more extensive history of experimenting with psychedelics (though I have some), I’m not in love with a co-worker, and I like to think that in real life I’m not quite as crazy as she is–but I did use a lot of real life stuff. And she’s an albino with purple hair. So yeah, not even really trying to disguise it.

The next day I got an email from the prof saying he liked the idea of me doing a creative project, that it was out of the box. I really don’t think he had any idea what he was saying yes to, though! Was I really going to turn in and present this crazy screenplay where chemistry tutors manufacture drugs, a rival gang of chemists pose as a student organization, blind girls sell drugs, etc, to a class where some people are doing serious scientific research? Was that a kinda fun idea that appealed to my rebellious nature and would be so different and unexpected it would blow people’s minds? Or was I going a little nuts?

I kept writing, and writing. In 9 days, I wrote 149 screenplay pages. So much for being a slow screenwriter! Also, there were days in there that I didn’t write at all, so there were some crazy days. One day I wrote 59 pages. On the 12th, the day before I was supposed to present, I finished the draft at the tutoring center after work, and that felt fitting, since that’s where the idea to do this creative project for my capstone all started and where several scenes in the script take place. I decided to call it, at least for now, Sweet Acid.

And yes, I’m well aware that my screenplay is now too long and will need some serious cutting back. But this was the creative phase, editing would come later.

Basically, I wrote Breaking Bad as a chick flick indie comedy. If it had a tagline, it might be “Girls are fucking crazy.”

I mentioned that I listened to a lot of music while writing. This wasn’t planned at all, and in general my music listening is fairly mixed between male and female but I listened to all girl music while writing, and a pretty big variety of it. The CDs I listened to while writing included: Rid of Me by PJ Harvey, Sarah McLachlan’s new CD Shine On, Lights Out by Ingrid Michaelson, Speak Now by Taylor Swift, Celebrity Skin by Hole and Freaks of Nature by Drain S.T.H. I mean we are talking some wide variety in genre and style here. But all girl music.

For those nine days, I was riding the spiral. I didn’t sleep all that well most nights, and one night, a Saturday, I took a break to watch some old episodes of House, fell asleep mid-episode, and then slept for ten hours. On most other nights, I kept waking up putting other pieces of the story together, improvising on my original structure, figuring out how to stage certain things to get characters to where they needed to be at certain places.  Or I would just imagine certain scenes several times to get it clearer. I didn’t want to spill too many details but I kept talking about it at work all the time. I was totally obsessed and saw everything in terms of how it related to my screenplay.

I got so excited about some of the funny stuff. It’s so funny. Probably my favorite scene is when Lenne and Violet try to sell drugs on the street corner in Portland and are absolutely terrible at it. And the next scene where they go to a hippie party and have more success may be even funnier. And I got to throw in so much crazy shit about my, I mean Violet’s, disastrous romantic past, and that shit, some of it which was really fucking painful at the time, all just struck me as hilarious when writing it. I mean, if you don’t have a good love life, it might as well at least be entertaining. There were so many times, rereading parts of the screenplay where I would just sit here in fits of uncontrollable laughter.

I also got to work in a lot of blind shit. I used a real scenario that once happened between Lenne and an ignorant mofo, which I witnessed a few years ago. I got to include one of the most uncomfortable tutoring scenarios I ever had in regards to eyesight stuff where I had to really try not to lose my shit (and even though I kept my mouth shut, I know my rage was showing on my face, and to this day I still dread seeing that student’s name on the waitlist). I also got to put in a lot of fears like what if/when I ever applied to any kind of professional school for science, how people could react to blindness. And I put in some fears about how other students might react.

And of course, there’s chemistry. My organic chemistry-loving side really came through. There is even the phrase “molecule porn” in the screenplay. And remember how I said I had given a very short presentation about study groups for the capstone class last term? Well, in that presentation, I had talked about what three organic chemistry topics people asked about the most. And all three of those topics are in the script. Two happened very naturally (one was actually a huge surprise to me, total synchronicity), and the third I just worked into a tutoring scene where I needed a student to say a certain thing at the end. I made this third topic be that student’s tutoring question.

It was also kinda fun to write a love story. God though, Violet is kind of impossible. All cynicism and rough edges, or as she says, all caustic chemicals and acids. I feel sorry for Silas in some parts. But there are some really sweet parts. And I think it’s different, not the usual love story in some ways. And it was fun to write sweet. And to write romance. I don’t usually indulge in that side of my nature, on paper.

Basically, it was a thrill ride. It was crazy fun, and I was psyched about it.

It was total writerly obsession. And it felt reeeeeally good. Like good love or good drugs. Or both at once.

Until it didn’t.

~EJ

Continue to Part 2 – Coming Down

And Part 3 – Return to Normalcy

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17 thoughts on “Screenwriting as Love Drug Mania Part 1 – The High

    • Yes on the dopamine! I was actually going to say something about the biochemical similarity between love, drugs and mania.

      Being in the zone did wear off though, and that’s the next post coming up. Hopefully I’m getting back into it, or back to something more neutral and normal.

      ~EJ

          • That’s cool.

            It’s funny, that actually wouldn’t work for me at all, because albinism is a problem on the tyrosine pathway. I don’t have the enzyme that converts tyrosine into anything useful (good thing there are other ways to make dopamine, and good thing there are love, drugs and mania, hahaha) like dopamine or melanin. In fact, one time a doctor told me to take phenylalanine, which then gets converted into tyrosine in the body, and I never felt sicker on any meds. It probably gave me a buildup of excess tyrosine before I could piss it all away.

            Sorry, I’m nerding out a bit here…

            ~EJ

              • Hahaha well the sad thing is, it was a DOCTOR who told me to take the phenylalanine, and I kinda feel like, okay, as a doctor I’m sure you don’t remember every detail about every condition, but if you know a patient has a certain condition, wouldn’t you refresh yourself on it or something? Albinism is soooo straightforward, biochemically speaking. I was taking a human genetics class, going over the pathway, and just had this revelation of, ohhh that’s why that f’d me up when I took it.

                ~EJ

              • I know. Sad story.

                It’s funny, when I think about career path, I have sometimes thought about pharmacy. I LOVE the chemistry of that stuff so much, and even drug development. But you know, ethically I feel a different way.

                ~EJ

    • Zombie Symmetry! Yes, it’s mescaline that they’re making. And actually, I sort of got that idea from you. I don’t know if you remember we were talking about this on the BrBa board and I think I was even talking about this screenplay idea and saying how acid wouldn’t work and you brought up the mescaline thing. So I did some digging into that. It ended up working up PERFECTLY in terms of including certain organic chemistry topics too.

      Here is the question I had for you: What solvent should one use when running NMR on mescaline? In real life, I’ve done spectroscopy lab but when we didn’t know what solvent to use on our unknowns, we had to do an actual test with several different solvents. And I don’t want to actually make mescaline and then run a solvent test, hahahaha. So, would DCM work? That would be ideal, storywise, but I’d rather be chemically accurate.

      I was also wondering–and you do not at all have to do this if you don’t want to–if you would look over some of my chemistry lab scenes when I’m done and correct them. I’m just an undergrad and I don’t have that much actual lab experience. Just one year of gen chem lab, one year of o chem lab and spectroscopy (and a whole bunch of bio labs that don’t apply), so though I feel pretty confident about the chemistry on paper, I’m not entirely sure what glassware/etc would be correct at certain parts in the lab scenes. And like I said, I care about chemical accuracy. I can contact you through your site too, just been so wrapped up in writing and editing the screenplay over the last two weeks!

      ~EJ

      • I vaguely remember talking about it in the forum. It makes sense … I know I’ve talked about the idea of making mescaline on and off the forum a lot. Not that I would actually do it, but it seems to me that would be the one I would make if I wanted to make some fat stacks.

        Deutero-DCM would not be common. I used to use deutero chloroform for virtually everything. Thing is though, mescaline is an amine, and sometimes amines are a little wonky in halogenated solvents. Safest choice would be deutero-DMSO (DMSO-d6).

        I’d love to read over the lab scenes and check them. Actually, I consulted for a movie once (really low budget cheesy sci-fi) and did the same thing there … checking over the lab scenes for accuracy and stuff. It’s kind of fun! :-)

        • Thanks man!!!

          Hahaha, you know what’s funny? I originally had DMSO as the solvent! Probably because that’s what I ended up using in real life for my solid unknown for my big end-of-the-term spec lab assignment. And because it made sense that mescaline might be soluble in DMSO. Deutero-DMSO it is.

          Cool, thanks so much! I’ll let you know when I have it a little more edited and ready to be looked at. I kinda half-assed a lot of the lab procedure crap because I just wasn’t too sure how to actually do it. Yeah on paper, I know the reactions and mechanisms, but that’s pretty different from knowing what to do in a lab.

          I went off of the synthesis in Phenylethylamines I Have Known and Loved, and also had them make the precursor used in that synthesis from vanillin. I liked having them start with vanillin because that seemed readily available (I know they have it in the stockroom on my campus, anyway, it’s used in one of the organic chem labs). So I can give you the complete (paper) synthesis if that helps to figure out exactly what they should be doing in the lab. Or if you have improvements on that, that’s great too.

          As far as the spec stuff (which I did put in there, I loooove spec), solvent choice was my only question.

          But yeah, you totally get credit for helping me out of my “drug of choice” jam on the BrBa board once I realized LSD wasn’t all that doable for amateur chemists.

          And I probably should state, for the record, that I have never made drugs, and don’t ever intend on it. Just to be clear. It’s all for the sake of the story…and intellectual curiosity.

          ~EJ

          • I used to teach the spec lab. :-D

            It was a 500 level lab – senior undergrads and some new grad students. I had some wicked unknowns … weird allenes and stuff.

            Whenever you’re ready, you can go to my contact page at http://zombiesymmetry.com/contact-feedback/ and send me message from there. I’ll send you an actual email address in reply. That way, I can avoid putting my email address in a public forum. :-)

            If your characters are going to work in a good scale, I would recommend some nice big Chemglass reactors … they are quite cool!

            http://www.chemglass.com/product_view.asp?pnr=100L%20JACKETED

            • Nice! I took a 400-level spec lab. It doesn’t sound quite as challenging, no allenes (those really would be a little harder to elucidate). My unknowns turned out to be trans ethyl cinnamate and trans diphenylethene. So, not too crazy or too hard to figure out. We ran mass spec, IR, carbon and proton NMR, COSY and HSQC, so with all that info, it wasn’t bad. One of my favorite classes ever, and one of my favorite things to tutor. I just love the kind of thought process that goes into solving spectra, esp NMR. Basically, I like puzzles.

              Okay, I’ll definitely contact you on your page when I’m ready for a ore thorough review. I am the same way about putting email address in public, so no problem!

              ~EJ

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