Author Q&A: Filmmaker Tracey Jackson, “Lucky Ducks”
Tracey Jackson just released the DVD for her documentary: Lucky Ducks. She is is a screenwriter and filmmaker who has written more than 15 feature films and 14 television pilots, including The Guru (the first Hollywood Bollywood crossover feature) and the adaptation for Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopholic. Jackson has a great blog, and has penned a book to be released by Harper Collins next year. Jackson speaks with Write On! about the process of creating Lucky Ducks, the writer’s voice, the benefits of “hiring yourself,” and more.
Why inspired you to make Lucky Ducks?
The kickoff point for me was when I read The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine. It was the summer between my daughter’s freshman and sophomore year in high school. She was going through the really terrible teen phase. I was also noticing that many of her friends and peers were having all sorts of issues and it seemed odd to me that this generation who has so much is by far the most unhappy.
I also couldn’t get a Hollywood job at that moment, so I needed the work. I decided to hire myself. I include this anecdote for all the writers and directors who are in down-phases. We all go through them and sometimes you just have to move forward and make things happen for yourself. So the concept and the need for a job were the inspiration.
How did you decide what to include in this documentary?
Docs I learned–and this was a learning process each and every day–dictate what they want to be. I had one idea and the film ended up being vastly different from that original idea.
Much like a screenplay you don’t include anything that doesn’t propel the story forward. Once you land on a theme and storyline, if the material doesn’t support that, out it goes, no matter how much you might love it. There were several bits we kept trying to slip in, but they so glaringly didn’t belong we had to let them go.
The biggest difference is in a screenplay you write pretty much what you need. You don’t write a 600-page screenplay then whittle it down to 110 pages.
I shot 180 hours of footage and ended up with a 90-minute film. So do the math. When you start eliminating you eliminate days and days of material. It’s not an issue of a joke here, a joke there, that funny scene in the bar. You eliminate entire months worth of work. I went to Spokane, Washington, and shot two families for four days. It was a big undertaking, and I ended up using none of it. But you learn.
What was your favorite part of the process? The greatest challenge?
Producing and directing was the best. Having been the one taking orders over the years–and having my work mauled and pulverized and my intent obliterated nine out of ten times–really took a toll. To be the one who got to say, “yes, no, we wait til sunset, I like that take, that frame, that song”–that was the BEST!!!! To have a vision and see it realized down to the fonts the way you want it is a big deal after being part of the studio system for so many years.
I think the greatest challenge was keeping on keeping on when the festivals didn’t respond as we had hoped. The initial reaction was so positive and powerful I really had high hopes. Rena Ronson, who at that time was one of the heads of the Indie Division at William Morris took it on right away and felt it could be the next Capturing the Friedmans. The first programmer to see it was a wonderful woman called Hannah Fisher, who felt it was one of the bravest films she had seen in years. I had people like Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols calling me after watching and telling me how much he liked it, how great it was. So I really thought I would get a great response from the festival circuit. But It turned out to be a case of wrong film, wrong time. The stock market crashed ten days after we finished the final edit and suddenly the plight of the privilege was not any one’s favorite topic.
So I had to swim upstream for a whole year with that and to keep on believing in what I made, and see it as an accomplishment when it was not being embraced, though it has been adored by those who have seen it.
I will include this other anecdote from Sidney. I had run into him at a screening and he said “How is that wonderful film you made?” And I started bemoaning my fate–”we’re not getting into the good festivals, we’re not getting picked up by the big distributors (mind you at this point the indie market was bottoming out) he said “Did you make the film you wanted to make? Are you proud of what you have done?” And I said without hesitation “Yes,” and he said, “That’s all that counts.” And that is Sidney Lumet.
So I say that for everyone out there who goes through this. You sometimes just have to rely on your instincts, your vision and your passion and the let the rest of it go and keep moving forward.
How is doing a documentary similar to/different from writing a screenplay?
They are very different. A doc writes itself. You have a concept and you figure out what you need to capture on film and you go and shoot it. And if you’re me, everyday opens a new door and you decide, “Wow that’s cool, now I need to go investigate that” and shoot 30 hours of that idea. But everyday is a surprise, and that surprise leads to another surprise. And unlike a screenplay, where you work from a very solid blueprint, the doc is written in the editing suite. That is where the storyline comes together. The only thing I would say, and this might have hurt me coming from the three-act structure format, and the fact that is how I think: I think in three acts. Docs are not really three-act structures, they are more free-form. I ended up making a documentary film that is a three-act structure story. I think it’s the reason audiences respond so positively to it and they do. It’s amazing. But in the doc world , I broke rules, so for very hard-core doc-programmers that was I imagine a turn-off.
Your personality comes through in your work. Do you have any tips for how a writer can find his or her voice?
That is a hard one for many reasons. I teach screenwriting and you can’t teach voice, either you have a voice and you know instinctively how to tap into or you don’t. I do not believe you can teach voice. You can teach format, structure, discipline, and certain techniques. But voice is the way you see things and in turn hear them and are able to take that sound and emotion and weave it into a story and get it onto to the page.
I think it’s why good writers end up sounding horrible when they are rewritten. Strong voices in writing are like musical voices they are unique and they are melodic. If you ask any writer with a strong voice, they will tell you they hear the words, they hear it like a beat or a song and so that is something like any skill you can’t teach–it’s a gift.
I think to find it you have to listen to yourself and really write what is true to you.The easiest way to find out if you have one is write what is uniquely important to you.
I think the biggest mistakes writers make, and I have been guilty of this, and its the fastest way to lose your voice, is writing to the marketplace. Do not write to the marketplace unless you are suited to do.
If you are blessed with a voice for horror, this is your time. If you are blessed with a voice for suspense or fantasy, this is your time.
But if you aren’t, you cannot pretzel your voice to fit the market. It never works. The late Blake Snyder and I–he was the only person I ever wrote with–used to try, and we would always fail. It becomes really to thine own voice be true and if you venture away from that the work will feel false and forced. And even though these are times when the majors want the big tent poles, a strong voice and a powerful story will often be noticed or, I should say, eventually be noticed.
You have a great blog, as well. Why is it important for a writer to have a blog?
I think the blog has become the medium. Books are stemming from blogs, films are coming from blogs. If they are well-read blogs they come with a built-in audience and that is ultra important for buyers. They want to know now that you have a built in fan base. They want to know you have a niche. A blog is a niche.
I have just completed a book that is coming out next January with Harper Collins. I had to fill out a long questionnaire, and I cannot tell you how many of the questions were about your online persona. It is very important when you are selling yourself and it is the easiest way for you to sell yourself without being hired by a big company.
It is also a wonderful way to write each day, to establish your voice and quite frankly it’s the most fun writing I have ever done.
It’s addictive. Everything that happens in my life now is filtered through the scrim of “Would this make a great blog?” I leap out of bed every morning to write it.
How do you approach a new project?
I approach each new project the same way: Will this be the time they find out I really don’t know what I’m doing?
I think all writers do that. But if you’re asking how I choose them, at this stage in my career it has to be a subject matter that resonates with me on some deep personal level. I just don’t have the time or the interest to churn out product for the sake of churning out product. I did it. I did it for years. For the most part now I generate my own product, be it a book, a doc, the blog, or anything, so it’s all deeply personal for the most part or something that is really on my mind and I feel is important to explore.
Additional advice for writers?
Just do it. It’s what I tell my students. Writers write. I see a lot of people tap, tap, tapping away at computers but are they doing it for the right reasons? If you have to write to survive then you are a writer. But thanks to blogging and self-publishing and the low-entry cost for making films these days, plus, the way little shorts get noticed online, there is no reason not to just do it. Jump into the waters. You will get rejected. We all do. Who cares? Just write. Sit down each and every day and have something on the page to show for it.
If nothing else I tell writers to keep a journal. The only way you get better is by doing. So do.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I think quite frankly my survival has been due to the fact that when I started, I knew nothing.
I think often times the more you know, the more you are afraid. I had a sort of ignorance is courage thing going.
I didn’t know what to be afraid of so I was afraid of nothing. I just have always thought why can’t I do this?
Why can’t I write a play? Why can’t I get a show on the air? Why can’t I sell a big spec? I think I’ve always thought if others were dong it why can’t I? And I think if I had gone to college and taken writing, not that one shouldn’t do that, I just didn’t, but I think I would have been shackled by rules and on some level that would have crippled me.
I just run into every situation with enthusiasm and hope for the best, and know actually if the best does not turn out–which it often times doesn’t–a new situation will present itself and, if it doesn’t, I will make one happen.
Original article appeared in Write On Online.