Interview: Writer Adam Dickinson (part one)

In early October, local film production company Words Pictures Movies will premiere their first feature Everything Fred Tells Me is True. (For those of you who haven’t seen it–that’s almost everybody, at least so far–here’s the trailer.)

This is the first part of an interview with Adam Dickinson, who wrote the screenplay.


Magnificent Nose: Adam, I’d like to say again that I’m truly impressed by the script for Fred, and have been since I first read it last year. I think our readers can learn quite a bit from this successful example of a well-written story.

Adam Dickinson: Thanks! I really appreciate the kind words.

MN: What was the genesis for Everything Fred Tells Me is True? What prompted the basic ideas behind the story?

AD: This was a script that really wrote itself from the outside in. After we’d made a few false starts with screenplays for very high-concept ideas, it became clear that leading with the story idea first always seemed to be a recipe for creating something completely unfilmable on our modest budget. The conclusion we came to was to figure out what kind of movie we could actually make for no money and tailor the script to that. The first step was for the three of us to shoot off brainstorms of all our favorite ideas. Then we weeded through to figure out which ones were filmable, could work well in the context of each other, and most importantly, fit together to make a coherent and entertaining film.

MN: In the film, Philip has recurring dreams with this guy Fred who gives him hints about the future. Maybe Fred is actually telling Philip the future, maybe Tracy is manipulating Philip with her interpretations of what Fred says. Where did the idea of this “prognosticator” come from?

AD: We knew that we wanted to feature Bruce’s artwork as a basis of dream sequences early on. He was the one who proposed that these could be based on some kind of psychic premonition. This rang a bell with all of us on many levels. For years before we began this project Eric and I had had many conversations about how psychic premonitions only worked when you completely forgotten they’d been made. Bruce and I had similar discussions about the concept of how we believe in the supernatural even when there is a scientific explanation because sometimes the supernatural answer is just more interesting, more palatable, and easier to base life decisions on.

For me, the thing that tied the concept together was a book I’d read about Nostradamus which was written in 1994. What fascinated me about this book was that despite the incredible accuracy of all of his predictions, they were only accurate up to and including the time when the book was written. All the chapters interpreting historic events through the lens of his predictions showed eerie similarities to the original predictions. But the chapter about “What the future holds” got everything completely wrong. Somehow, miraculously, the greatest prognosticator the world has ever seen was completely unable to predict a single thing that happened after any interpretation of his predictions.

MN: Before tackling the feature, the three of you sensibly made several short films to learn the craft of committing the world to tape. An Excellent Lover is clearly the party scene from the film (still to come at that point), and Dead People Making People Dead is Devon’s film-within-a-film in Fred. From the standpoint of plot and script, did these movie-mcnuggets feed into the story of the feature, or was everything all planned out meticulously in advance? Were these simply a way to learn technical skills (like greenscreen shooting in Zombie Happy Hour) or did how these turned out feed back into the final story and script for Fred?

AD: When we did our first short, Territory, it was all very spur of the moment. This was done as part of the First Sundays film festival’s “So You Wanna Be a Star” contest, and really what it showed us was that the three of us could work together. After that, every short we made was pretty much an assignment we gave ourselves to contribute toward learning a skill we’d need to make a feature film. The Frequency of Damnation was about filming movement and action. An Excellent Lover was about establishing characters in the context of a love story. Ultimately, we felt that this was our most successful short story-wise, and liked the characters enough that it became the basis of our feature. A lot of the others were really experiments in combining artwork and story in ways we really thought gave us a unique look that really defined Words Pictures Movies.

The later shorts we did were specifically shot to be films within the film. They served several purposes–to flesh out aspects of the overall story, allow some of our low-budget silliness to seep through into the final product in a non-intrusive way, and to keep Eric and Bruce’s creative juices flowing while they waited the painstakingly endless months it took me to complete each draft of the script.

MN: Since Words Pictures Movies’s resources are limited, how much of the story derived from stuff you knew would be available? Did you write the story knowing what you’d be able to do technically?

AD: To steal a quote from Jon Stewart, I’ve always told people we could spend up to and including zero dollars on this film. In reality, costs will always creep in, but when making a movie, you have to be shamelessly unbending on that just to keep the cost even remotely affordable.

The entire structure of the film came from our budgetary limitations. We knew that we wanted to go for the half-drawn, half-live-action look a number of our shorts used, but we also knew that had to be a really small overall percentage of screen time. We also knew that the bulk of the story had to be something that could be carried out by actors just acting, and really needed to be very performance and dialog driven. This gave us the structure of having the dream sequences acting as the visual anchors in the script, with episodic sections in-between to really drive the story forward.

MN: I know you didn’t write the parts for any particular actors, but what about settings? Eric’s directing style? Bruce’s surreal, cartoony backgrounds? Did knowing these would be involved play a role in the story you crafted?

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AD: Absolutely! When you have no budget, really you’re limited to keeping things incredibly flexible and accessible, location-wise. I wanted to break up scenes, since I know there’s a tendency for zero-budget films to be set in a single location, but I was careful to keep 90% of the life-action parts of the story in people’s houses. We agreed to deal with the logistical challenges of adding the outside location of the coffee shop, just because the story seemed to need some kind of reference to the outside world. As for Bruce’s drawings, they absolutely drove the story, so there was never a question that they would be involved.

In the end, the biggest way the budget shaped the film was that it forced a process–from the start of the project, even before the script, we realized that having no money meant we couldn’t let preconceived ideas get in the way of completing the film, so we adopted the following mantra:

“Do Not Make the Movie in your head. Make the best move you can with what you have.”

The danger here is that if you limit yourself too much, you may end up throwing out anything that’s interesting. This also led to the second mantra suggested by Eric:

“Thou Shalt Not Be Boring.”

This really meant that at every step of the way, we had to evaluate where we were, what was possible and what wasn’t, and rather than force ourselves to figure out how to pay for or do the things we couldn’t do, we’d figure out what we could do instead, that had to be at least as interesting as the thing we were replacing. As limiting as this was, it in some ways led to more creative decisions, since sometimes taking the easy way out would have meant throwing money at a problem.


Next Monday: In part two of this interview, Adam tells us about his writing routine and his future projects.

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