For this week’s piece, I’d like to share my “Introduction” to my recent CONTENTION Episode One publication, which further explains the idea of releasing a script as a paperback and more details about the writing process for our Western series. If you haven’t yet, order your copy here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B4K1BXKM
Why publish a script in paperback form and, more importantly, why am I doing this for the episodes of our Western series Contention?
I see untapped potential for scripts to be read for entertainment, not just by the professionals working on these projects but the public. The Swamp Fox Brigade, a feature about Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, was my first attempt at this idea of “Scripts as Literature” and I am expanding the concept to include Contention.
It also provides you, our audience, with an exclusive look at our Western series as we continue to move through months of pre-production towards a filming start date. Contrary to the secretive policy on Hollywood productions, I’m a big believer in pulling back the curtain to show the creative process. I would like to explore that notion further with Contention and that begins with an inside look at the script for our first episode.
There is still a long road ahead to bring our Western series to life but it has already been on quite a journey. At the tail end of the 12 Westerns project, I proposed the initial idea to John Marrs, my collaborator on several of those films. What could be my next ambitious undertaking? It had to be a series. And I mentioned the idea of using the setting of Contention City, a place of Western folklore mentioned in 3:10 to Yuma among many other classics.
From there, we started crafting a story and characters, taking some inspiration from Deadwood, older Western shows like Gunsmoke, and the underrated feature Warlock. We worked fast, probably too fast, mapping out a series outline of twelve episodes and even some ideas for a second season. Our plan was to take turns writing episodes: John would take episode one, I’d tackle the second, and so on as we followed the basic structure agreed upon. We had a small group of readers who provided feedback on each draft and gave each other notes.
In July 2021, John and I got together for a few days in an attempt to revise all of the currently written ten episodes before we took on the final two. Going through the scripts and fixing everything from typos to continuity errors in our story, I remember feeling underwhelmed by what we had created thus far. It was decent but was that good enough to pour a year or more of my life into this endeavor? We ended those few days with most of our goals accomplished but I was uneasy about the future of Contention. At that point, production was still planned to start in early 2022.
A few weeks later, I was directing/producing a film in Idaho called Treasure Valley when our lead actor/producer Jay Pickett had a heart attack and passed away on the seventh of our production. We had actually written a character for Jay in our series. His death was shocking, sad, and the final blow to make me realize that I was burnt out. After three non-stop years, it was time to re-evaluate my life and creative process. I called John and told him Contention had to be put off. He suggested we push it back to the fall of 2022 and I was adamant that it most likely wouldn’t happen till 2023, trying to help John understand my state of mind.
It turns out that this delay was a wise decision. If I consider we would have already shot most if not all of the show, it’s hard to believe that it would be as good as I want it to be. The time gave me the space to put what we’d written so far in perspective. It was clear we hadn’t paid enough attention to our characters, their history, and their relationship to each other. When looking back on the 12 Westerns and thirteen features I made prior, I see the writing as being one consistent weakness. Yes, I think we had some solid scripts but again, is that good enough? I want to make something unforgettable. I want to astonish the audience.
So what you see with this first episode is a new direction for Contention: my attempt to deepen our characters and simplify our narrative in the most effective ways. To give you a brief example, the events which originally took place in Episode One and Two have now been expanded to cover the first three episodes. I may share more about the rewriting process with our next publication. For now, I hope you enjoy this Western world we have created.
Welcome to Contention.
Photograph by Todd South