The Screening Room by Doug Magee
Doug Magee is a 51-year-old screenwriter with four produced screenplays, a photographer, author, and children’s book author. A graduate of Amherst College and Union Theological Seminary, he lives in New York’s East Harlem and is the father of three boys. We are made aware again of the frequency of use by professionals as a stimulant to the imagination. Plunged more deeply into the maelstrom of creativity by his use of cannabis, he awaits the muse’s gift.
I don’t remember my dreams. I think that has something to do with pot because on the rare nights I don’t smoke, I’m often aware of the dreams I’m having. I’m a middle-aged, middle class, white male with a couple of small children, an adult son (who, despite a very ordered life, likes to describe himself as a pothead), and a loving marriage to a gorgeous woman who has never inhaled.
I usually smoke late in the evenings, good stuff that only takes a few tokes to set in. The usual fare for these late hours is music, sex, and movies. The music and sex enhancement marijuana brings are sort of standard issue. The movies are a little different. The screen is inside my head. These are the dreams I remember.
And it’s a good thing too because I make my living as a screenwriter. I can’t write an e-mail stoned and wouldn’t think of writing professionally under the influence, but pot has proved to be a wonderful part of my work. I’ll try to describe how this works for me. But I’m a bit leery of doing so for two somewhat contradictory reasons. First I don’t think pot is essential to what I do and so I don’t want to make what I say below seem in any way necessary. I’ve done some very good work without a toke involved. But I’m leery of trying to elucidate the process because it is ineffable and therefore fragile. I wouldn’t want to make pot’s benefits evaporate because I’ve tried to plumb their depths. However, let me throw caution to the wind and try to give an account.
Screenwriting, at its heart, is not writing. William Goldman and others like to say screenplays are structure and I’ve found this to be true. My part in the process of filmmaking is that of an organizer. I gather characters, situations, incidents, images, dialogue, and technical considerations such as possible locations and seasonal weather and mix them into a coherent blueprint for a film. Despite what the screenwriting gurus would have you believe, there are no formulas for this sort of work. Or rather, if there are, you break them every time out. Even though the cookie-cutter nature of much of today’s movies would seem to indicate there are most definitely formulas, no two stories are exactly alike and so can never be shaped in exactly the same way.
Organizing a screenplay, structuring the film, sounds like an activity for an orderly mind, someone who manages to pay bills on time, remember birthdays, or at least has a neat desk. I’m none of those, and I doubt many screenwriters are, because way down deep, at the place where screenplays begin, there’s a wild swirl of nonsense that daunts the mind bent on corralling thoughts and images. What is needed for the work is a rather peculiar mindset, one that wades happily into the chaos of the imagination, seeks nothing in particular, yet returns with an assemblage of particulars that are the basis of a film.
I think this is where pot comes in for me. I usually leave my computer late in the afternoon, run, have dinner, put the boys to bed, read, maybe watch some television. But throughout this the day’s work, the film I’m writing, is not far away. So when I get high it’s not a stretch to go back to the film in my head and let it unspool some more. I have found that there is no way to induce the film to come to life. It either does or it doesn’t and no amount or type of pot will make a difference. But when the film does hove into view, the high is extremely helpful.
As far as I can tell, it does so in three ways. First, pot kind of empties the mind. This may sound like stereotypical stoner behavior, dazed and confused stuff, but it’s not that way for me. Pot stills the noise of thoughts so I can hear and see the film more clearly. And not just one film. I’m often working on more than one story and I like to think of my head as a multiplex. I go from room to room, theater to theater, and see which one is working for me at the time.
While screenplays are structure, there has to be a passion driving the structure and I think pot plays a part in this for me. I could be working on the most mundane aspect of the screenplay, a reordering of scenes, the “shoeleather” of getting a character from point A to point B, and yet with pot it seems fresh and interesting. More positively, “watching” these films form while high invests them with the magical, dreamlike aura they have for the young, first-time viewers, or those confronted with true cinematic genius. Not that what is forming is spectacular cinema but the drug’s mild euphoria keeps alive the passion that originally attracted me to the story.
Finally, and to the general non-smoking public, incredibly, pot’s place in these nascent films is that of an organizer, a juggler able to hold many balls in the air, whirl them in front of me, and indicate how they all fit together. This is probably the most difficult part of the process, the most ineffable part, the one I dare not say too much about. Suffice it to say that the altered brain chemistry promotes a flexibility that is absolutely essential to “seeing” an unborn film. You don’t go to the film and pluck it from the imagination. It comes to you, in bits and pieces, and, if you’re lucky and perhaps stoned, you let the pieces fall where they want, not where you want them to. They are pieces of you, of me, of course. But I can only watch.
With delight. Once I have seen or heard or understood how the film or the next few pages of the script will run, I celebrate. I’m grateful for the gift, for the pleasure, for the anticipated revenues, whatever, but mostly it’s just the primal joy of watching a film. A premier. All by myself.
What happens next might surprise some. I don’t take any notes and yet the next morning, when I go to the computer I rarely forget anything of importance that has shown itself the night before. Some parts of the experience might not hold up when I start to write, but usually I’ve tossed the bad parts long before I get to the keyboard. The good stuff is easy to remember because I’ve seen it, the connections between various elements are now obvious to me, and all I need to do is write down what I’ve seen and heard. Dialogue is usually sketchy but the overall sound and tone of the voice is clear. I just have to listen as I write.
That’s about it. As I say, no extravagant claims and certainly no prescriptions for others. I’m not a wildly creative person and the scripts I’ve written and films I’ve had produced are far from indications of genius. Yet I have traveled a lot farther in the arts than I ever would have imagined in my youth. Then I was an Eagle Scout who understood the imagination as some sort of wanton luxury to be avoided by all the dutiful. Pot and experience changed that and pot continues to move me ahead in unexpected ways. I respect it for that and know when I abuse the drug that I’m trying to take advantage of a friend.