Know the Rules, Then Bend Them: Ben Ripley on Source Code

This great interview from the WGA talks with Ben Ripley about the writing of Source Code. Ben wrote the script on spec and had to complete a few full rewrites before getting to the structure you see on screen:

When Ben Ripley first came up with the idea for Source Code, in which government operative Colter Stevens repeatedly relives the eight minutes leading up to a terrorist train bombing in hopes of finding the bomber, he had no intention of writing it on spec. Having established himself in Hollywood largely doing “studio rewrites on horror movies,” he felt a solid pitch would do the trick. Unfortunately, it didn’t. “I sat down with a few producers, and the first couple just looked at me like I was nuts,” confesses Ripley. “Ultimately, I had to put it on the page to make my case.”

So he wrote it on his own dime and, given the idea of a parallel universe-bending time traveler was already pretty esoteric, he played it safe with the structure, churning out a standard Syd Field-style script. As the writer puts it: “It was very plodding and things happened in a completely comprehensible way.”

And how’d that work out? “It was underwhelming. We thrashed around with rewriting that, and it was still underwhelming.”

Suddenly, Ripley seemed a lot like his protagonist Colter, rewriting the same train crash over and over. It was only when Ripley took a page from Colter’s playbook and started breaking some rules that the screenplay came together.

“I hit on the idea of him going on the mission but not knowing that he’s on the mission,” explains the writer. “It became alive to me, with the audience seeing it from his perspective and his questions are our questions, and then I had the structural concept of going back and forth from the train to the isolation pod and back to the train. Doing that takes a big chance, but what it also did was differentiate it from every other tricky, high-concept sci-fi procedural out there.”

And differentiate it did. First, the inventive structure-bending screenplay showed up on the Black List, the influential annual sampling of Hollywood favorite unproduced scripts. Now it’s in theaters starring Jake Gyllenhaal as the perpetually reincarnating Colter.

Photo: © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC
Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code

Recently, the talented Mr. Ripley spent some time with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site talking about his screenplay and why, in his words, “You have to know the rules and apply the rules, and when they aren’t working, you have to look for some other tricky way to do it.”

That must have taken a lot of patience to break down your entire script and put it back together sideways.  

Yeah, it was agony. And I wrote it on spec. I wasn’t certain it would ever see the light of day. One thing that kept me going though was that I had a suspicion that if I got this right, it could really open a new level for my writing career. At that point, I’d spent about four years doing studio rewrites on horror movies that were never getting made. I knew that if I showed up with another spec script, I’d have to show up with something very different that took chances. That motivated me to keep going until it seemed right.

I should also point out that I was very lucky to have a very good producing partner at the Mark Gordon Company who also saw how good it potentially could be, but knew it wasn’t there yet. I was writing very much to fulfill their ambitions as to fulfill mine.

So the script wouldn’t have become what it was had you not written the bad version first.  

That’s why spec scripts are always great to do and should be part of your output, because you can incubate them until they’re ready, whereas with writing assignments, you get that assignment from the studio, they want to see that first draft. They’re paying for that. Most of the time, they’re underwhelmed because, unless you’re very lucky or massively talented, first drafts are works in progress.

And studios don’t understand that.  

I don’t know why people don’t talk about that more. You get a couple guaranteed steps and maybe you get an option, but I would have burned through that on Source Code without it arriving at the draft that got everybody excited. All you can hope for in assignments is that you crack enough of it that they feel there’s promise at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, what they conclude is, “This could be really great! Let’s get a new writer” rather than, “This could be great, let’s take a few more whacks at it with the existing writer.” Because when you bring a new writer on a project, that writer has to go through their own process, which might take three or four more drafts. That’s why it tends to get kicked around so long.

How much of the quantum physics is real and how much is stuff that’s made up?  

The only thing that I could point to as being somewhat part of the current pop culture dialogue is that our past can be accessed not by traveling back to our literal past, but by opening up a parallel past, whether that space exists in an alternate universe that’s hermetically sealed from our own past. By definition, you can’t change the past. I took that concept from conceptual physics. Physicists are getting more comfortable with the idea that there are parallel universes out there. That was the only scientific stuff I used. The other stuff, the eight minutes, the terminology, that just sort of comes from liking science fiction. My wife works with a lot of biomedical engineers, so I understood a little bit about that culture and how it would work and the type of people who would work in those environments. You do research on a culture to invent within it.

Were there specific tricks you used to make sure you got the continuity on the repeated visits to the train right?  

You want to have some markers in there, so we know how far we are into the train ride. You have a few little things happen, where someone gets a call or someone opens a can of soda. They’re going to happen every time. They just orient us, as does the arrival at the station and the announcements. I can’t tell you how many times I had to trek back through the pages on my script to cut and paste the exact terminology. “This is a Chicago-bound train,” worrying that I only had four minutes page time before they had to hit that station again. I fudged it here and there, but you want to have that plot continuity.

The more challenging part was keeping it fresh because you’re in a repetitive situation in both settings. What I finally hit on as a way to keep it fresh was to give the main character a slightly different way of thinking about each time he goes on the train. So if he goes back on the train for whatever reason on page 32, you know on page 30, where he’s in the pod, you’re going to have to set up whatever his experience is going to be. You have to give him a specific task within the goal of finding the bomber, the task changes each time in terms of tactics. Look in the bathroom, try to find the bomb, see if you can find someone on the cell phone for the next pass through. You have to give the guy specific tasks to hit the ground running that aren’t the same tasks as before. Added on to that, you have to give him a deepening awareness of what his own situation really is.

What are some of the tricks you use for establishing the arcs of the people on the train who live the same moment over and over?  

I looked at the people on the train in two categories. One was Christina, the woman across from him. Two was everybody else, and everybody else had to be a cast of characters who could equally be a plausible bad guy, so you didn’t want to shine too much of a light on any one character because you wanted just enough of six or seven characters and their repeating actions to have properly planted them in the audience’s point of view. That wasn’t too hard. We just thought of who are the people on the train, which one’s the bad guy? How can I cover that up but not fully hide him and have each person do a distinctive thing or have a distinctive persona.

The harder one was Christina. I struggled the most with her. In earlier drafts, they didn’t know each other. They were strangers on a train. He opens his eyes in this existential crisis and tries to get her to listen to him, tries to manipulate her, tries to recruit her. We kept running into the problem that she just didn’t know him. And even if he was able to get her to listen to him, she’s never going to care about him, so eventually the decision was made – and this was well after the script was bought and directors were coming on board – what if they had a pre-existing friendship? To me, that really freed them up to get a lot closer. We didn’t realize that in the earlier drafts. We just kept getting that note from the studio: “We just really want to care about these people more.”

I detected a lot of religious symbolism and dogma here. Was that intentional?  

No one’s asked me that before. I think your situation, your particular scenario of your movie, is going to determine your themes. I’ve never been able to start with themes and find the story. So any time you have a guy who’s coming to terms with his own life and then you have a mechanism that’s endlessly killing him, yeah, between the train and the pod, there is Something Else. And that Something Else becomes important to him later, not as a religious symbol, but as a destiny. I’m a pretty spiritual guy, and I think about that a lot, and I’ve always been drawn to projects that let me express a little bit of that, but if there is a little overt dogma in there, it might have come through without conscious intention.

For example, there’s the whole Buddhist thing about acceptance.  

Yeah, that’s true. He goes from thrashing about and agonizing about his own situation to accepting his own situation. A movie that does transcendently well, in a comedy way, is Groundhog Day.

I was going to mention Groundhog Day.  

I absolutely love that movie. It’s the perfect movie, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of Groundhog Day when I was writing. I was much more thinking about films like Run, Lola, Run and The Matrix, which are much harder genre films. But whenever you have a recurring event movie like Groundhog Day, you inevitably draw comparisons to it, and you’re probably unconsciously thinking about that as you work.

But if you notice, Groundhog Day has no scientific or spiritual explanation for why it happens. It just happens. Sliding Doors has no explanation. It’s just two different destinies for Gwyneth Paltrow. Same for Run, Lola, Run. So one thing that Source Code does a little differently is it’s much more technical. If there is a salvation mechanism, it’s got circuitry and wires.

How did getting on the Black List influence this script?  

To be honest with you, I didn’t even know about the Black List until I showed up on there. It was a flattering thing to be included, but I didn’t sense that it had any impact one way or the other except the producer periodically shaming the studio into moving the project along by saying, “This is a Black List script! Why are you sitting on it for so long?”

It’s interesting to think if there was some kind of mandate that came down to Hollywood that said, “You have to take all the scripts that are on the Black List, and that’s only what you can make every year.” I don’t know if that’d make for bigger box offices, but you’d certainly get a lot of interesting stories out of that.

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