Breaking the Jump, Breaking the Story: Parkour and Screenwriting

I recently watched a fun little video about gymnasts and parkour experts sharing the basics of their disciplines with one another. I absolutely love cross-pollination between disciplines, and because I have some (minimal) experience in both parkour and gymnastics, this was especially fun – when I was teaching at Synetic I would incorporate elements of both disciplines in training for combat and stunts, and was always fascinated to see who would take to the different forms, and in what way.

But the big thing both disciplines teach, in different ways, is an approach to fear. A traceur (parkour practitioner) must always approach a new jump or a new move, a gymnast must approach a new combination or tricky movement. Both, if they really mess up, can end up seriously injured.

In parkour, landing a tricky jump for the first time is called “breaking the jump.” Overcoming the fear of approaching that jump is a first step – then you can repeat the jump, or others like it, and perfect it, incorporate it into the flow of your movements.

This is interesting to a filmmaker because writing the first draft of a screenplay is often called “breaking the story.” Yes this term can mean a couple different things, but in this context I’ll keep it to the act of blasting through a first draft, often without editing along the way.

Having done both of these things, I can say the sensation at the end is somewhat the same. After you break a jump for the first time, often the first thing you want to do is go at it again, preserve the adrenaline and bravery you’ve just built up and get the jump deeper into your nervous system. Screenwriting can be much the same – as soon as I finish a draft, I’m eager to get feedback and start cracking on the next pass.

But deeper than this, there’s a feeling of relief as well. A story that’s gnawing at my insides is deeply uncomfortable. Getting a first draft out is a kind of a release. I end up feeling un-knotted just by getting it out on the page. A jump that has always bothered you, intimidated you, is still waiting for you to crack it, can be a little source of madness – you HAVE to break it.

It’s funny, but this discomfort is probably a good sign. It means you have something spring loaded with enough tension that if you lean on it it’ll start becoming something. A jump. A story. A set of characters.

This discomfort is something I listen for now, I try to become aware of in my day to day, because discomfort can signify an opportunity.

ITERATE or…What is Up With Storyboards Anyway?

When I was rehearsing a show with Synetic Theater, we’d often stumble upon a novel idea or concept – usually a potential solution to a problem we were having with the story. Because theater is a risky act, even in rehearsal, we’d often start chatting about an idea for a while. Eventually someone, usually Paata, would throw up their hands and say “let’s just do it!” and we’d try it out and usually the answer of whether it was valuable or not would be made apparent.

A few minutes in rehearsal to show off a simple idea can save lots of discussion time.

As the technical demands grow, this kind of showcasing becomes more costly. Films are full of technical demands, and most of them are quite expensive – so often the idea is “whatever lets us do it more cheaply in advance will better guarantee the product.” The many forms of director’s preparation are all lumped into this “pre-making” concept, from script analysis, to rehearsals, to pre-viz and storyboards and shot lists and pre-shoots and overheads…and more. Some people hate some of these things and love others, and for some it’s vice versa.

I think what we’re often chasing, as directors, are ways to iterate our way in to the story. A script is an iteration of a story, and shot list is an iteration of the points of view of the story. A set of storyboards is also an iteration, though often it’s interpreted as though it is a blueprint, rather than an iteration of the story with some of the crucial parts missing (like, say, sounds and actors and motion).

Iterations, even those with flaws, allow us to step back and see not “what we’re working with” but something like what we’ll be working with when it comes time to shoot (or edit, or write…).

And when something is working, you can sometimes see it in these “pre-iterations.” They’re not the thing itself but versions that you can quickly re-do.

So I try to get better at pre-iterating, and seeing the opportunities and pitfalls of a production within those iterations, but also trying to remember this:

The map is not the territory.

The script is not the play. The play is the play.

The screenplay is not the movie. The storyboard is not the movie.

The rehearsal is not the movie. The dailies are not the movie.

The movie is the movie.