I’ve just spent five days in Guthrie, Oklahoma — the first week of filming my first feature film, the thriller BLACK BAGS. Though there were mercifully no more dumbbell missions, the whole experience remained equally weird and wonderful.
The Biblical phrase that comes most often to mind is “stranger in a strange land,” but if I’m allowed a little literary license, I’d say it’s closer to being a tourist in a land of my own creation. Because that’s one of the most interesting aspects of screenwriting: we spend hours, days, weeks, and even years world building — imagining fantastical places and filling them with characters we create. Tess and Sara, the protagonist and antagonist, were just two people I invented, not remotely related to anyone in my own life or experiences, who meet on a bus heading from Detroit to the tiny town of Boon, Michigan, and end up switching luggage (the Black Bags of the title).
Thematically, I thought it would be interesting to have two complex, resonant women forced into conflict by circumstances, but most emphatically not fighting over a man. And to my great pride, that central focus remained from the first page I wrote back in 2015 right through the first day of filming on May 10, 2021.
But, of course, many many other things had to change, not least being that filming took place in Guthrie, Oklahoma, not Boon, Michigan (a place, admittedly, I picked on a map and have never been), and the scenes had to reflect not only the budget the filmmakers had, but also the available locations in and around Guthrie. As with all locations not created on a green screen, Guthrie itself became a major character in the film, a character I could never have imagined. Because while a screenplay is allowed to remain amorphous around the edges, an actual film has to take place in actual locations. And while I certainly knew that would happen on a theoretical level (I joke that screenwriters go from being essential at the onset to irrelevant by the end), it’s something else entirely to have it unfold in living color across the course of dozens of scenes shot during three weeks in May.
Fortunately, the world I created was in very good hands — not only the incredibly talented director Josh, but also our leads Olesya and Laura, both actresses of astonishing range who clearly loved their roles and brought everything they had to every single scene.
Still, there’s no denying that the whole experience, while thrilling, was also disorienting. It’s like walking today around the neighborhood in which you grew up, constantly reminded how much has changed from when you knew it, while also constantly having to prevent yourself from informing everyone around you!
Or maybe I was like the author of an old travel guide, whose words more accurately described what a place had been rather than what it had become.
No matter. I may spend more time musing over the most appropriate metaphor (that’s what we writers do). But I will never forget the great kindness and enthusiasm shown Angela and me by both cast, crew, and the town of Guthrie. That, and the tasty milkshakes. If you ever take the BLACK BAGS tour of Guthrie, don’t neglect the brownie milkshakes at Mark’s Drug and the chocolate concoction at the Boomarang diner. Yum!