On May 2, 2019, New York City-based actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez uploaded a short film titled A Simple Ad to the online video-sharing platform YouTube. Produced by his wife, actress-producer-editor Adria K. Woomer-Hernandez for their indie film company Popcorn Sky Productions, A Simple Ad is a brief but poignant story about loss, grief, and the resiliency of love.
A Simple Ad is also my first-ever produced script; although I’d co-written a script with Juan – who I met 38 years ago when we were both students at South Miami Senior High – before, it never made it past the pre-production phase because we couldn’t get the financing for it.
I wrote A Simple Ad early last year after Juan asked me for a script for a short film, ideally with a running time of two minutes. It could be a comedy, a drama, a horror story, or a comedy-drama. Genre didn’t matter; but it could not be a long script.
Now, for those of you who are not film buffs or screenwriters, the basic formula for estimating a film’s running time is based on how many pages your script has. The rule is one page of properly-formatted screenplay = one minute of screentime. Thus, a two-hour feature film is based on a 120-page script.
The only other prerequisite was that the story – regardless of genre – had to be written for two actors. No more, no less.
I, of course, accepted Juan’s challenge. But as I did, I wondered how on Earth I could tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and an end…with only two minutes’ worth of screen time – two pages in screenplay format -to play with?
The first day of writing the screenplay was marked by frustration, a desperate search for story ideas, and quite a few discarded first drafts on my copy of Write Brothers’ Movie Magic Screenwriter 6.0, the screenplay formatting and editing software I’ve used for the past 10 years. I’d open a new file, type a few elements (action,dialogue, and shot descriptions) on my computer screen, and then discard what I’d just written because I wasn’t happy with what I was reading.
I don’t remember how many ideas I considered, tried out, and figuratively wadded up into balls to toss into a virtual wastepaper basket that first day. Suffice it to say that by that evening, I was sure that I was the wrong man for the job.
Still, I had been dreaming of one day seeing the credit “Written by Alex Diaz-Granados” on a flickering movie screen since I was 14 years old. I refused to give in to the constant choruses of “This is too freakin’ hard. I can’t do this” that echoed in my head whenever I hit the “Delete Draft” button on Movie Magic Screenwriter.
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon of Day Two of working on the script that inspiration struck. As I kept on wondering how in the world I was going to tell a believable, relatable story featuring two realistic characters in two minutes, I remembered an apocryphal story about Ernest Hemingway and how he allegedly wrote a short story that’s only six words long.
According to the legend – and it is a legend – Hemingway was in a Paris bar, hanging out with some of his fellow “Lost Generation” American ex-pats and drinking a lot of wine. The ever-confident “Papa” Hemingway then made a bet with other writers that he could write what we would call today a bit of flash fiction in only six words.
“Oh, Ernie,” one writer is supposed to have said. “No one can write a complete story in six words!”
Papa Hemingway simply smiled and asked for a sheet of paper and something to write with. When someone proffered those two items, he wrote something in longhand in less than a minute’s time, then showed it to his fellow authors.
On the page, the legend goes, Hemingway had written: For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.
For some reason, the notion of writing a story very loosely based on this myth, which surfaced some time after Hemingway committed suicide at his Ketchum, Idaho home in 1961, struck me as a good starting point for my screen story and script.
Now, I couldn’t simply adapt the actual myth and make the story about a young Hemingway in Paris, even if I made it a two-character mini-drama. If I did, it would have to be a period piece, and that required costumes, sets, and the right 1920s-era props and other things necessary to put the Hemingway myth to life on screen.
However, the pathos of the six-word classified ad (“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn”) lent itself to, shall we say, possibilities.
So, via email and texts, I pitched the idea to Juan even before I wrote the first “FADE IN” on Movie Magic Screenwriter. Happily, he liked the concept and gave me, as we say in the biz, the green light to proceed.
Well, it took me two days to come up with a reasonably good first-draft screenplay, so I emailed it as an attachment to Juan, who was waiting for it in his New York apartment. He, too, has Movie Magic, so a couple of days later, he sent me my draft back with some notes and suggestions for minor changes.
We went back and forth over the script for several days, tweaking a line here, changing a prop there. Then, in the last weeks of March 2019, Juan and Adria went from pre-production to principal photography, and, after that, to editing, doing the sound mix, and all the other processes involved in post-production.
Normally, most screenwriters don’t get to choose the music for a film unless, of course, they are also directing or producing, but I suggested that we use the traditional Welsh lullaby “Suo Gan.” Steven Spielberg, who is one of my favorite filmmakers, used it as the main title theme song in Empire of the Sun (1987). I’ve always liked that song, especially the melody, and I thought it matched A Simple Ad‘s story and tone perfectly.
The film is 99% faithful to what I wrote on the page; Juan and Adria didn’t cut anything out of the script; however, during the filming of A Simple Ad they shot several different takes of a specific scene in the movie and, in order to lighten up the mood of the piece, turned a line which was originally intended to be bitter and angry into a lighter, if still dark, bit of humor.
If you want to watch A Simple Ad, I’ve included the YouTube video on this post. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.