The Black List is a pretty exclusive club, especially so for those writers who manage to land two scripts on the List in a single year. That’s what Elijah Bynum did in 2013 when two of his original screenplays — “Mississippi Mud” and “Hot Summer Nights”. I sought out Elijah to see what sort of creative mind could manage that feat. He was kind enough to give me an hour of his time in what turned out to be a great conversation about storytelling and the craft of screenwriting.
Scott: Let’s jump into these two scripts of yours. First “Mississippi Mud.” Plot summary:
“In the middle of major financial problems, a down on his luck southerner’s life begins to unravel when he accidentally runs over and kills a runaway girl.”
What was the inspiration for this idea?
Elijah: Well, it was a number of things. First of all, just naturally the way I approach story, I always have a question I want to explore. I never want to answer the question. I want to raise the question and present both sides of the argument and let the audience drawn their own conclusion.
In this case, it was one of those cosmic or philosophical conundrums that I think all human beings deal with. At least I know I deal with it. It’s the question of does everything happen for a reason or is life completely random? Not exactly a novel idea, I know, but fascinating nonetheless. I don’t think there will ever be an answer to as long as I’m alive. So I wasn’t going to dare try to answer it.
In addition to wrestling with that over arcing question I also like to dig for the human story. I ask myself, what are the human truths or the elemental human experience that we’re tapping into? In the case of “Mississippi Mud” that was desperation. Desperation is the narrative through line for every character.
So I had those two ideas bouncing around in my head for awhile but couldn’t find a way to explore them. Then one day it all crashed together.
I was flipping through a magazine during a cross country flight and I stumbled across an article. It was about a guy who was tending one of those gigantic 500 acre orange groves down in central Florida. He was an elderly man. The story has it he had a stroke or a heart attack or something and he fell off his tractor where he stayed for 18 hours.
The question entered my mind… If tragedy happens in the middle of nowhere, how does the universe sort itself out?
Right away I had this image of a man hitting a human being in his car.
Somehow I came up with all the other pieces and crafted what turned out to be “Mississippi Mud.”
Scott: It sounds like what you’re talking about in terms of these really philosophical questions ‑‑ does everything happen for a reason or is it just random? What are the elemental experiences of human life? In this case, desperation. You’re starting off with a kind of thematic perspective. Is that fair to say?
Elijah: Yeah. I see how it could sound overbearing but it’s actually quite comforting. I imagine it’s how old hunters felt during dark and cold expeditions knowing they had a warm bowl of soup and a loving wife to come home to. I’m only half kidding.
Once you know what your theme is—once you know what you’re trying to say and what is grounding your story—you can come back to it whenever you’re stuck. Every scene you write, every character you write, every word of dialogue you write, you’re able to go back to that theme.
It’s much better than finishing your first draft and realizing it’s simply not working and trying to reverse engineer a theme. I always think it’s easier from the onset. You know where everyone’s coming from, what’s driving everyone and what the story is saying.
Scott: It reminds me of that quote I have on the blog from Francis Ford Coppola, who says, “When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was. The core in one word. In the Godfather, it was ‘succession.’ The Conversation, it was ‘privacy.’ In Apocalypse Now, it was ‘morality.’”
And you have “desperation” going on for these characters, right?
Elijah: Yeah. That’s a great quote. Coppola actually stole that from me but who’s counting? Not to leapfrog, but “Hot Summer Nights” is about that burning primal desire to belong and the depths we’ll go to achieve it. I had a happy childhood so I really don’t know why I have this dark cynical mind when it comes to writing, but I always think “Okay, what’s the fundamental human condition at play here and what happens when it all goes south?”
That’s what really draws me to characters. What happens when we’re pushed up into the wall and we’re faced with this decision? What is the darker path that we might go down?
Scott: I definitely want to get into that because if these two scripts are reflective of your overall creative sensibilities, that definitely shines through. There’s a darkness to them. Even the humor there is rather dark.
But let’s dig into “Mississippi Mud” in terms of characters so we can get a frame of reference. Some of the key characters, the main ones are Chase and Riley, a young married couple. They’re suffering financial distress. She’s six month’s pregnant. How would you describe this couple?
Elijah: I was very careful when I was writing this not to make them too “likable”.
There’s this book, and I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I’m sure most screenwriters have heard of it. It’s called “Save the Cat.” The big premise there is have your character do something within the first five pages or so that make the audience like them and make us connect with them and sympathize with them.
If we can do that, then we’ll follow them to the edge of the earth. I was thinking about that. I was like, “Well, there’s a difference between sympathizing with someone and making them likable.” Here we have this couple, they’ve been struggling for years, they’ve never had a lot of money, they’ve never been in one profession for long, their house is being foreclosed, they have a child on the way and life just won’t quit being unforgiving.
At the same time, they’re not the most honorable and likeable human beings in the world. I really wanted to make that clear because I didn’t want it to be too neat and too clean. I didn’t want it to be like “look at these wonderful people and look at this terrible thing that’s happening for them, feel bad for them, damnit, feel bad”.
That’s really how I approached them. As far as who they are and what they represent, I always think it’s fun to take a societal norm or a cliché and flip it upside down and see what happens when you have the domineering wife and the more submissive husband.
Scott: They get involved in a rather labyrinthine journey because there’s several other moving parts in terms of characters and their subplots. There’s this little girl, the runaway girl, and then there’s a big event which happens, which we’ve already seen in the plot summary so it’s not giving away anything, but basically Chase runs her over.
We are introduced to the father of this runaway girl, a character named Luther. There’s also a banker named Webb who Chase and Riley have gone to. Basically, he’s told him there’s nothing he can do for them, their house is going to be foreclosed on. Then you have a policeman named Sawyer and his partner who are trying to track down this missing girl.
How did that specific alignment of characters emerge in your creative process?
Elijah: That’s a great question. Building out your cast of characters is always a different process. Webb initially, after the first draft, he only had one scene and it was the second scene of the movie when Chase and Riley go into the bank and find out their house is being foreclosed. That was it. He was a plot contrivance. Poor guy.
I’ve always been fascinated with chaos theory, with the butterfly effect and the idea that we’re all, as human beings, interconnected somehow. And I think that’s even more prominent in a small town such as the one in “Mississippi Mud” so I felt Webb deserved a more integral role.
I think whenever you have a runaway girl it’s essential to show how her parents are being affected. So that’s how we get Luther. What would they do if their girl had run away? They would call the police. So that’s how we get Sawyer. I think a lot of it became logical in that way. I’m not sure if that answers your question, but that’s what I can remember my process being.
Scott: I’d like to follow up on that Webb character because he’s actually quite an interesting figure and there’s a significant plot twist involving him. What I hear you saying is you had him in mind essentially to function as the voice of authority vis‑a‑vis the financial situation that Chase and Riley are at, but then over time that character emerged into a pretty substantial player in the plot.
Can you break that down, go into your memory a bit and see how that works? To me, that’s the most wonderful stuff about the story process, when you have a character that arrives for one scene and then all of a sudden they evolve.
Elijah: Again, going back to what the anchor of the script was, and in this case it was desperation, as desperate as Chase and Riley were, who were our main characters, Webb was just as, if not even more, desperate. It was playing with those levels of desperation. Of course, Luther, the runaway girl’s father, the runaway girl’s mother, and even the cops were desperate on their own level. It was looking at the spectrum of desperation of these characters.
I realized had potential to be the most desperate character in this whole story and even though he’s not our protagonist we can show that morally he’s willing to descend even further than Chase and Riley were. Of course they killed the runaway girl and decided to cover it up, which is horrible in and of itself but Webb was willing to take it even a step further.
Again, it was going back to that question of how far will human beings and mankind go when they’re desperate and pushed up against the wall and all hope seems to be lost. He was just sitting there asking to be utilized and I hadn’t realized it until after the first draft. When it hit me it hit me pretty hard. It was one of those moments when the clouds open up and little angels sing down at you. Those are always fun.
I remember changing the story very quickly. It was over the course of one night and I was able to write in all of the changes that you’re alluding to that became part of his much bigger story.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Elijah discusses how he managed to write dialogue set in the South when he has rarely visited the region and why he set the story for “Hot Summer Nights” in 1991.
Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.