The Importance of Questions | Script Revolution

The Importance of Questions


One of the most courageous filmmakers I know, Ronika Merl, returns once again with an insightful post about finding the right process through trial, error, and mostly inspiration. In this article, she highlights the importance of interrogation; inspecting the inspiration, investigating the material, and questioning.. well... everything. Being asked "why" can be a writer's greatest fear, but ultimately is healthy to ponder those questions at every opportunity. Screenplays tend to be incredibly lightweight forms of story, and thus everything that's there must be there for good reason - CJ

Almost a year ago, an actor got on a boat. Braving the stormy seas around the North of Ireland. He wrapped himself in his shabby old brown coat - a piece of clothing he’d carried with him far and wide. He held his phone up, smiled at the camera and waved at his social media followers.

It led to a series of events that would culminate in an Oscar winner writing an email to me. 

Shane Robinson, the actor in question, is a quirky young man. Full of idiosyncrasies and weird little things that he likes to do. He played a role in my first feature film, and that’s how I knew him. 

And then, he went on a boat. Waved at the camera. And thought nothing of it. 

Miles away, I was scrolling through social media, saw Shane on a boat, smiled a little at his silly antics, and tried to move on with my life. 

But I couldn’t. 

I could not move on. I replayed the Instagram Story again. Looked at the way that silly old brown coat blew in the wind, thought about how cold that water looked. I replayed it again. Where’s Shane going on that boat? 

I knew the answer of course, he was going to a shoot, out there on an island, but the more intriguing question, the more pressing question was - where is that character going on a boat? 

Because all of a sudden, I did not see the actor. I saw a character. I saw David. I saw David Taylor, clear as day - shabby brown coat, and silly long hair, and uneven beard, and that necklace, and the bracelets, and the ripped faded hipster jeans and the yellow flannel shirt and the… All of a sudden, it was no longer Shane on a boat. 

It was David. But where was he going? Where had he come from? 

What lay out there, waiting for him beyond the waves? What darkness was lurking, and what sadness was awaiting him? 

Inspiration. Execution.

It strikes when you least expect it. And I’ve said it a million times before (and if you read my previous blog posts on Script Revolution, you will know this about me): if you’re only writing when inspired, you will not be a very good writer. 

But if you don’t write when this inspiration hits - you won’t write at all. 

So after I’d replayed Shane’s silly lil Insta Story 20 times, I put my phone down and stared out the window. 

Where’s David going? 

18 hours later, 60 pages had been written. The first draft existed. 

He was going to an island, it turned out. And he was going to discover… secrets. Darkness. And the silly lil smile and the silly lil wave at the camera would be gone. And his return journey would be different - he’d wrap himself in that brown coat, and he’d have seen things, and felt things that he was not ready for. 

The brown coat, naturally, was written into the script, as were the necklace and the bracelets. But now they weren’t just stuff Shane likes to accessorise with. Now they had meaning. Now they were important character traits - moments of character development. 

I know, as writers, we’re tasked with creating unique characters. And ideally, they should be original. But nothing ever is. Originality does not exist. 

Our more important task, I think (especially as screenwriters) is to create characters that are innately human. Fully fleshed out. We don’t write novels, where all the work is done inside the minds of our readers. We write film scripts, where the work is done in the soul (not on the face!) of the actors

So when I sit down to create a deeply rich character, I will always aim to write for the actor. Even if I do not yet know who will be portraying said character. 

Character. Development. 

So when that first draft existed, and the idea about what the story was going to be, I picked up my phone and I called him. 

“Remember when you went on a boat?”

“Uhm… yeah.”

“I wrote a movie about it.”

“You wrote a movie about me going on a boat, Ronika? Why are you the way you are?”

“Yep. It’s quite dark”

“I like dark.”

“You have no idea…”

I pitched it to him. 

Silence engulfed the conversation. He sat there, contemplating. And then, from the depths of his soul came the sentence that he would repeat for the entirety of the process. A sentence that fills me both with dread and joy at the same time. A sentence that has since become the running joke of our working relationship, and the very mantra that keeps me going. 

“Ronika… I have… questions.”

And he posed the questions. Again and again, he dissected every inch of the story I had created. And with each and every question, the story became stronger. 

He asked the questions an actor asks: What’s my motivation? What did I do just before this scene? Where am I going after this scene? Is my throat itchy? Why am I being such a baby here? Why does it matter that I’m scratching my beard in this way? 

Draft after draft, I presented to him. And for draft after draft, he had… questions. Some of them, I was able to answer. Others, I refused to answer. And others again, didn’t need answering. 

During the process, I pitched the project to a producer in LA, where it caught attention. We attached a production company, got the film greenlit, and started working on getting everything aligned. 

But throughout it all, Shane asked questions. 

Now, there is a point I’d like to stress here. A lesson I learned in this process. The most important lesson this process has taught me when it comes to writing a good character. 

Collaboration. Trust. 

Your character is not yours. As a writer, you can provide the skeleton, you can do whatever it takes to give structure, and plot, and hints, and everything you think you need in there. But without the director’s vision, without the actor’s interpretation, without the eye of the editor, without the sound, without the theme tune that plays when this character comes on screen, you will not have created a person your audience will fall in love with. 

I could have taken Shane’s questions as a sign of criticism. I could have told him to shut up and fuck off and that this was MY vision, and he better play Dave exactly how I want Dave played. 

It would have made for a very very shit film. My first draft of this story was a very very shit script. 

We’re on draft 6 now, and working it into a shooting script. We have really found David. And around him, we built a whole host of other characters who serve as his antidote, his mirror, his counter-balance, his inspiration, and his devastation. 

I trust Shane will portray this man in exactly the way Dave needs to be portrayed. 

I trust that Fiona, my DoP, will create visuals that capture the atmosphere perfectly. 

I trust that my composer will create the music that will haunt the audience in just the right way. 

I trust that my editor will create a thrilling pace that the viewers can get lost in. 

Yes. A year ago, I wrote down a story about a guy who has to go on a boat. We get to witness as he wraps his shabby old brown coat around himself, fearing the thing that lies beyond the waves. We get to witness as he disembarks, we get to see just why he wears that necklace, just why he keeps his hair long. 

But none of those whys would be answered, if I hadn’t allowed other people into the process. If I hadn’t listened to the Muse that is Shane On A Boat. If I hadn’t opened up my world to others, and accepted that their creativity and greatness is as important as mine. 

And then I received an email from an Oscar winner. And they had questions. I got this far in the process, because I allowed other people to ask questions. And because I had the answers, the film will be made. 

About The Author

Ronika Merl's picture
Real name: 

Ronika is an award-winning screenwriter. She also directs, and runs the Wicklow Stories Film Festival.

Having placed highly in both the Academy Nicholl Fellowship as well as the Austin Film Festival in 2019, she has since expanded her slate to contain more than 22 feature-length scripts. She has lectured at Griffith College and has given multiple workshops in Ireland and the UK.

In addition to this, she is the artistic director of the Wicklow Stories Film Festival, which was...Read more