SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Writing The Tunnel

Paul Peditto shares the process of how the screenplay came to be for Muhammad Bayazid’s The Tunnel and his amazing journey to make this film.


Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago and has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.

Previously, I wrote about The Tunnel, a film on which I’m currently working. The first article was about Muhammad Bayazid, the writer/director, and his amazing journey to make this film. He literally put his neck on the line to get this movie made.

This is Script Magazine, so today we’ll concern ourselves more with the process of how the screenplay came to be.

I first met Muhammad when he reached out to me at Screenwriters University. The class was 10 WEEKS TO A FINISHED SCREENPLAY. The journey of writing this screenplay took just a bit longer—more like 18 months, to be exact.

Muhammad had several previous credentials as a filmmaker of short narrative films and TV. His series of PSAs Save The Rest was watched on several US networks and was screened to some members in Congress, spurring debate on United States foreign policy concerning Syria.

Meanwhile, he was working on a feature-length script called The Tunnel. Without much experience in writing features. Add to that English being his second language and a chunk of the story taking place in New York, Muhammad felt he needed to “Americanize” the story.  So, he took the class at Screenwriters University, and we met.

We made a good match, though at face you’d think we have nothing in common. I’m a chunky Type-A Southern Italian from New York. Muhammad is a rail-thin, laid-back guy from Damascus.

The class at Screen U is designed to push out a first draft in 10 weeks. After that you rewrite it, nail it down. We worked on Muhammad’s second draft and workshopped it, challenged it, asking some hard questions. The story is inspired by the true stories of survivors of the Syrian prison Tadmor.

Yusuf, 28, a Syrian-American pianist who visits Syria in the eighties to see his dying grandmother one last time, finds himself imprisoned for twenty years in Tadmor, one of the most notorious prisons in the world. Laws of civilized world don’t apply in Tadmor– no rights, no visitations, no trials, 24/7 ruthless torture. We follow Yusuf’s struggle for survival…

I recently heard that they shot the first draft of Taylor Sheridan’s Hell Or High Water. Ever hear about a major Indie shooting a first draft screenplay? It (almost!) never happens.

The class ended after 10 weeks, which was not enough time to finish what would become the shooting script. Muhammad came over to my blog at Script Gods and we continued to pound on it.

I questioned Muhammad on several issues: Remembering that this was inspired by true stories of Tadmor survivors—was it important that everything in the script actually happened? What if we had to write scenes that didn’t happen—was he good with that? And how was he planning on mashing all these survivor stories together into a single protagonist?

If you check out my webinar, there’s one thing you always want to remember about writing based on a true story scripts…True story characters should serve the fictional story.

This is something I learned from Jane Doe—which wasn’t just a true story, it was my true story. You might want to think twice about directing a movie based on your own life.

I dedicated the movie to the memory of my girlfriend who died of a drug overdose. Jane Doe movie would come as close as possible to how we lived it, down to shooting in the same places we lived in Atlantic City. I wanted it to be close as possible to real events.

Noble sentiment… which doomed the movie.

If only someone, anyone, had whispered in my ear: “Ah, Paul, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a fictional film.” If only someone had whispered “click your heels three times and say this isn’t a documentary, this isn’t a documentary, this isn’t…”

Passion is fine, but when it comes time to making a damn movie, to be fully in control of the movie-making mechanism, to be a leader to the cast and crew, you need objectivity… to mix passion with objectivity.

Here are two other bullet-points you might want to consider if you’re writing a movie based on your own experience:

 Just because it happens to you, doesn’t make it interesting.

Just because it happens to you, doesn’t make it a movie.

The audience won’t know what actually happened in real life—unless you tell them at the end of the movie. All people care about, all you owe the audience, is a good story.

Ever see Captain Phillips? Tom Hanks plays the heroic captain, fighting off crazy pirates off the coast of Somalia, putting his life into the hands of these madmen to save his crew. Funny thing is…the movie is bullshit. In real life Captain Phillips got sued  by his crew for being a company man who chose profit over safety and got them all kidnapped. Don’t believe me? Check here, or here.

Wow, never saw that in the movie! No, pretty sure you don’t snag Tom Hanks if you show what actually happened. Speaking of Tom Hanks… How about Saving Mr. Banks? From Wikipedia:

“The dramatic premise of the script—that Walt Disney had to convince P.L. Travers to hand over the film rights, including the scene when he finally persuades her—is fictionalized, as Disney had already secured the film rights when Travers arrived to consult with the Disney staff.

 The film also depicts Travers coming to amicable terms with Disney, including her approval of his changes to the story. In reality, she never approved of the dilution of the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins’ character, felt ambivalent about the music, and hated the use of animation. Disney overruled her objections to portions of the final film, citing contract stipulations that he had final cut privilege. After the film’s premiere, Travers reportedly approached Disney and told him that the animated sequences had to be removed. Disney dismissed her request, saying, “Pamela, the ship has sailed”.

Although the film portrays Travers as being emotionally moved during the premiere of Mary Poppins, presumably due to her feelings about her father, co-screenwriter Kelly Marcel and several critics note that, in real life, Travers was in fact seen crying at the premiere out of anger and frustration over the film, which she felt betrayed the artistic integrity of her characters and work. Resentful at what she considered poor treatment at Disney’s hands, Travers vowed to never permit The Walt Disney Company to adapt any of her other novels in any form of media. Travers’ last will bans any Americans from adapting her works to any form of media. According to the Chicago Tribune, Disney was “indulging in a little revisionist history with an upbeat spin”, adding that “the truth was always complicated“.”

Back to The Tunnel, Muhammad and I realized quickly that this was an Extraordinary Event-Ordinary Man story. Yeah, the Tadmor survivors were jammed into rooms so filled with prisoners that they had to take turns sleeping and standing; or jammed into a tiny 5 X 5 solitary cells in 120 degrees and starved to death; or crammed into tires feet beaten; or cattle prodded; or just freaking shot or hung. The torture was relentless, but how much could an audience take? We didn’t want to make this movie into a root canal. Finding the balance was key. We want empathy for Yusuf, but didn’t want to write a sell-out happy ending.

Also, the antagonist needed work. He was the Tadmor Commander—similar to the Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler’s List.  Sending men relentlessly to their death, how do you make him 3-dimensional? How do we pour some good into a man who kills every day he breathes?

This character, himself, is used and abused by a superior. The General saw the lion’s share of the money and glory, leaving the Commander to run Tadmor, to live hip deep in the shit and death of an unending trail of political prisoners. It took some time to get right. Overall, we wrote 4 drafts in the 18 months we worked on it.

Muhammad and I didn’t (and don’t!) always agree. I’ve talked about collaboration before (*LINK) at Script Mag, and it’s never easy.

But the script has universal themes and it’s just too important a message to ignore in today’s political environment. It’s a movie that needs to be made.

There are prison movies out there, so how is this one different? This movie is primarily set in Syria. It’s essential because it will put the audience right into a true to life house of horrors that is Tadmor. Living in there with this innocent man, inside a place rarely discussed in Western journalism, unknown by most Americans.

Bottom line: Never lose sight of why you wrote it. The goal here was always to honor the men who escaped Tadmor, and to honor those who didn’t make it out.

Wish us well, Mockingbird.

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