The drive up Big Cottonwood canyon was a thing of beauty. Crystal clear air. Deep green trees. Winding, nearly empty roads.
As the valley floor faded in my rearview, so did the 101 details of things left undone at the office. I took a deep breath and noticed it smelled like the stuffy interior of my car. So I rolled down my windows and tried again. Much better effect this time.
I wondered if anyone else knew about the restorative powers of being in the mountains. Was this new? Why had no one mentioned this before? It’s up there with long walks on the beach, only quieter and with less sand.
I arrived at the condo in Solitude just before noon to set things up. Suzanne had kindly given me a couple of days of food supplies for everyone, including items labeled with little sticky notes telling me what went with what and when, so it was virtually me proof.
Shortly after setting up, I met our first two arrivals: Mahonri Stewart, who had written the screenplay we were here to work on, and Nate Drew, a friend of Mahonri’s and producer of some his past stage plays. Later, we were joined by Danor Gerald, a stage and film actor who had directed some of Mahonri’s plays, and my brother slash producer, Ken, the only one of this group I’d actually ever met before.
We had set aside the better part of two days to devote to the process of figuring out what we could do to take what was a powerful stage play and help it on its journey to become an even more compelling screenplay for a movie we hope to produce.
We started off by watching some powerful period pieces set in England. First up was The King’s Speech, followed by Finding Neverland, and concluded with Remains of the Day. We watched with one eye, while we collectively group analyzed the structure on a google spreadsheet. Each watching/analysis session was followed by a discussion of similarities between that story and this, and what lessons we could apply.
In the evening, we ate food, got to know each other better, discussed movies, and watched a table explode. (The short version: at dinner on the first day, it was a nice day out, so we chose to eat in the outdoor portion of a restaurant, which had glass tables with umbrellas in the middle of them for shade, and a gust of wind picked up an umbrella at an adjacent table, and our fellow diner grabbed it to keep it from flying away, but the glass couldn’t quite handle the torque, and in one loud crash accompanied by a gasp from everyone in the place, the table shattered and sent all of their meals crashing to the floor by way of their laps. I suspect they got their meal comped, but before we could do likewise, our server snatched and removed our umbrella, which resulted in my sunburn, which is not, apparently, a comp-able event. How all this is relevant remains for me to figure out. Open to suggestions.)
Midway through the second day, we welcomed a handful of actors for lunch and a read-through. We were fortunate to have Dallyn Bayles, David Smith and Marissa Scout Smith, all three of whom I had had the pleasure of working with in past Liken movies and had, dare I say, smashing accents. Mahonri had recruited a couple of other actors whom I had not met prior to this read-through: Heather Jones and Ted Bushman. As the read-through began, I quickly became fans of them both. It’s not a timid soul that can tackle a fairly cold read-through of new material and manage at the same time a variety of accents from the other side of the pond.
We got permission to use the lodge’s media room, which was busy showing Germany vs. Portugal soccer match to a roomful of no one. We rearranged the chairs into a circle, had some brief instructions, then basically pressed “play.” As the read-through began, I decided to set my script aside and just watch the actors perform “the movie.” It was helpful to hear the words, which I had read many times, come to life.
“Swallow the Sun” is a terrific story of “Jack” Lewis, as young C.S. preferred to be called. As a member of the “Inklings,” an informal literary discussion group, Jack rubbed shoulders with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, encountering for the first time believers in Christianity who were not only his intellectual equals, but perfectly willing to give as good as they got when it came to discussions of the existence of God and the validity of Christianity.
The story follows Jack from his first days as a student at Oxford, his near-death experience on the battlefields of World War I, the loss of both parents as well as his dearest friend, and his verbal sparring with his fellow Inklings.
Not one to be easily persuaded, Jack’s conversion occurred gradually and only after accumulating layers of life experiences that combined to persuade him that there was more to this life than what he could see and hear. Once converted, Jack commits with a conviction that goes on to make him a persuasive force for generations of those who may be reflecting upon their faith.
So, yeah, it doesn’t exactly scream low-budget feature, we know. But we feel drawn to the material and feel like if we do the best we can with the parts that we can, doors may be opened to us to help us take the next step. It’s a pattern we’ve noticed from our past projects, which gives us a measure of courage to stick our foot out there into the darkness, although it doesn’t exactly show us where that step is going to land.
When the reading concluded, there was brief applause and much gratitude to our actors. We put the room back together and the big screen back on (Germany won, 1-nil, by the way). (I love any opportunity I can get to use the word “nil,” by the way.)
Then the real work of the retreat began as we returned to our room and went through the script scene by scene, discussing what worked and what bumped us out of “the movie” and thoughts we had for how to make a good thing even better. Ideas were floated in a free and trusting environment, where nothing was shot down, but just taken in by a delightfully open to input screenwriter. A few hours later, Mahonri had a laptop full of notes to be processed over the coming weeks, and we made our way to Kimi’s for some excellent Swedish food (I had pizza, but it had a Swedish name that I couldn’t pronounce, so it counted, and it was delicious, and we met the actual Kimi herself, and no tables exploded).
A little bit of clean-up of our room later, and I was on the road, which became much narrower and windier at night, but I made it back down to civilization.
It is now Monday morning, and I’m about to head into the office, where I will resume work on those 101 undone things that need doing. But I am looking forward to picking up the “Swallow the Sun” journey again soon to see where that next step takes us.