Fifteen minutes of frame: On writing my first (REALLY) short film

I’ve blogged here about the challenge hubby and collaborator Steven Barnes and I faced when we were asked to chop our new novel From Cape Town with Love (Atria Books) down from 350 pages to 85 pages to squeeze it into a new video e-book format called a Vook.

But writing the screenplay for the webisodes that would replace some of the novel’s text in the new format was its own challenge—and a heck of a fun ride.

Both formats were published almost simultaneously in May—the hardcover is in bookstores now, and the Vook is on sale for download at or as an iPhone and iPad app at iTunes.  (As for the latter, I really can’t get over the idea that our book is an app.  Trippy!)

Steve and I have written feature-length screenplays together—we sold three drafts of an adaptation of my novel The Good House to Fox Searchlight.  We’ve also written a TV animation scripts, and pitched TV series treatments.

But we were in brand new territory when Blair Underwood—who “produces” our NAACP Image Award-winning book series as the face of main character Tennyson Hardwick and gives us input at every step—was ready to direct and star in the Vook webisodes for From Cape Town with Love.

When Blair contacted us last fall with the notion of a Vook, I had never bought an iPhone app.  And what the heck was a video e-book?

By March, it was time to write the screenplay for the six video vignettes that help tell our story in the Vook.  Blair had found his producer, Cynthia Graner, and put together a crew and a cast that included Kellita Smith (“The Bernie Mac Show”).   It was starting to feel like a movie shoot…but without a script.

In From Cape Town with Love, Blair’s character is an actor-turned-bodyguard and private detective bent on rescuing a celebrity’s adopted South African child after an abduction.

Vook screenshot: Ten and Nandi in From Cape Town with Love

Our budget, in Hollywood terms, was nada. (And even much of that went to insurance.)  Blair found free locations and pulled in favors.  We knew we could only write a limited number of vignettes on that budget, so we chose pivotal scenes.

The scripts started as emails back and forth between three of us as we brainstormed on a list of up to 10 scenes. As we cut down the number of scenes because of budget, we fleshed out more detailed sketches.  Next, dialogue.  (My favorite part:  when the characters come to life!)

Even in miniature, the scenes were a terrific lesson on the art of film adaptation.

First, we had to figure out what exactly what the scenes were supposed to look like in a format that was brand new.  Our first pass felt more like movie trailer clips, very short—and Blair told us to add more.  “More like the book,” he said.  (A note screenwriters don’t often hear from the director, trust me.)

Some of our scenes were too steamy, and the dialogue was too forward.  “Make it more subtle.  Trust the actors,” Blair said.

Vook screenshot: Ten and Sofia Maitlin


Sofia Maitlin:

Sit down, I won’t bite. (Beat)  Not hard, anyway.  But you’re a big boy.  You could take it.


Sofia Maitlin:

Sit down.  I’m not going to bite.

We needed both action and sex appeal to represent the Tennyson Hardwick series.  Steve, who is a fourth-degree black belt, choreographed a fight scene days before the shoot (which they had to modify on the set, so Blair and Steve ended up fighting while Blair was holding the child actress, Karli Llorens.)

Vook screenshot: Ten fights the bad guy (co-author Steven Barnes)

One of the scenes that never made it to film is when Tennyson is swarmed by paparazzi—and I would have had a speaking part as a reporter.  (Ah, well.  Kevin Costner’s part was cut out of The Big Chill.  It happens.)   We also lost a scene with Ten and a favorite character:  his father.

As the director, Blair added flourishes we didn’t anticipate, like typewriter sound effects and text bridges at the end of the scenes to help the videos flow back into the text.  The overall effect still has me grinning.  I even had a cameo as a jogger!

Vook screenshot: A puzzled jogger (co-author Tananarive Due)

Steve has written produced scripts for several TV shows, including “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” but until now my only experience with seeing my work translated to film had been a short story my film student friend shot in college.  Together, the six Vook vignettes are only about 15 minutes long.  The longest is about five minutes.

Fifteen minutes of footage is still a dream come true.

Vook screenshot: Can Ten trust Marsha (Kellita Smith)?



Filed under On writing

4 responses to “Fifteen minutes of frame: On writing my first (REALLY) short film

  1. Deacon

    OK someone has been working out and did not tell us..Miss T? 😉

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