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.
Today 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:
Scott: You ratchet up everything in “Mississippi Mud” significantly by introducing the proverbial briefcase full of cash. Was that in your first draft or did that emerge later?
Elijah: That was in my first draft. Again, talking about what will take human beings to dark places and we all know that money, not to quote the cliché, but is the root of all evil. Sadly enough, it’s one of those things that will make human beings do ugly things they never thought they were capable of.
Scott: There’s a religious overtone to the story. I’m curious, did you grow up in a religious family? If so, did that effect your writing here?
Elijah: I didn’t but I’ve always been curious about other people’s interpretations of the world. If you take two people—one religious and one not—and present them with the same exact situation they may see it in two very different ways. So, once I knew I wanted to explore that philosophical question I would need characters on both sides of the argument. I wanted to explore religion and faith and the idea of fate and happenstance. What some call fate others call “the way shit is”. Naturally, I wanted it to be set, and I’m glad you picked up on it, in this part of the world where religion seems to be the guiding force for most of its citizens.
I wanted to be careful for it not to come across as preachy or didactic. But I did feel it was important that we were steeped in this very rich religious atmosphere and have characters on both sides of the spectrum trying to make sense of it all. At one point the cop, Sawyer, says of a shotgun that miraculously backfired “the papers called it an act of God. I call it good luck, or bad luck depending on the party concerned.”
Scott: You say you grew up in Massachusetts. Unless you spent a lot of time in the South, I’m assuming you had to do a fair amount of research. The dialogue in the script is remarkable. I’ve lived in the South and it certainly felt real. How much research did you do about the South, the subculture, and particularly the language.
Elijah: It’s interesting. You look at people like Woody Allen or Lena Dunham and notice they write about people who are like themselves or, more or less, they write about themselves and they do it ‑‑ very, very well. I tried that at first and I found that I wasn’t very good at it. I found that when I write I don’t like to write about what I already know I like to write about areas of curiosity. The unknown. I’ve found that I’m much better at writing about people and places that are not like me versus the old adage, write what you know.
To answer your question, no, I haven’t spent much time in the South but I’ve met plenty of southern people and I’ve read southern literature—Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy and I’ve seen southern people on television and movies and I think I’ve just always had an ear for how people speak. My mother used to tell me that even from a young age I was able to pick up people’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies very well.
There were a few occasions where I looked up some Southern dialogue just to make sure what I was saying was true to this region because it would be very ignorant and Yankee of me to be assume everyone in the South spoke exactly the same.
People in North Carolina speak a little differently than people in northern Florida who speak differently than Mississippi and west Texas. They all have different or phrases or colloquiums they would use. I did some research and I listened to some audio recordings of some of these people speaking just to further the ear for the dialogue.
Scott: It’s a terrific script. Before we move into “Hot Summer Nights” I have to ask, are you familiar with the book “Confederacy of the Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole?
Elijah: Yes. I’m familiar with it. I’m ashamed to say I have not read it, yet.
Scott: I want to nominate you to adapt that into a screenplay. It’s been around for 20 some odd years. A bunch of writers attached to it. It just seems like it would be right up your alley, because it’s a very ‑‑ it’s the same sort of structure, different kind of story. It’s a comedy. Really one of the best comic novels I ever read.
You should go to your reps and say, “Hey, what’s the deal with “Confederacy of Dunces,” because if you could nail it, I just think it would be great. Such a great book.
Elijah: Well, that’s awesome. I’m glad you have the faith in me. I’ll let my reps know that Scott Myers thinks I should adapt it.
Scott: Let’s move into “Hot Summer Nights.” The plot summary from the Black List.
“A teenager’s life spirals out of control when he befriends the town’s rebel, falls in love, and gets entangled selling drugs one summer in Cape Cod.”
I’ve got two pieces here that we know from your background. One you just said. There’s a theme, this burning desire to fit in. That was part of the inspiration for the story, but also Cape Cod. If you grew up in Massachusetts, I’m pretty sure you’re at least familiar with that area.
What other story elements and dynamics were at work that percolated into the genesis of this story?
Elijah: Well, it is based on two kids that I knew in college who were clearly up to no good. What really was interesting about them was how different they were as individuals. There was the more quiet, reserved, unassuming kid and then there was his counterpart, who was louder and cockier and more flamboyant in that sense. They were an unlikely pair.
They started selling weed small time around the dorms and then around campus. Then it blew up and it got way too big. They got in over their heads. It didn’t end well. I mean, they’re both still alive. I think. At some point they both dropped out of school and one fled across the country and the other one disappeared.
What really was interesting to me was the rise and fall of their drug empire, if you will, alongside the rise and fall of their friendship. I thought there was something so tragic and romantic about it.
When I sat down to write it at first it was very straightforward. It was almost documentarian in its view. It was set in contemporary times on this big college campus. It was spread across three years.
For some reason, it wasn’t clicking. It just didn’t feel good. I was trying to convince myself that it was working which is never a wise move.
I sat back and thought, ” What’s not working about this?” It was then that I realized I didn’t care about what was happening. It didn’t make me feel anything. I decided to condense the amount of time the story took place over, taking it from the course of three years and making it take place over three months. All the emotions were just burning a little hotter and everything was hitting a little harder.
Then I wanted to age them down. Instead of watching college students do this, we are watching 16 and 17‑year‑olds. Again, a time in life when emotions burn a little hotter and hit a little harder. Then I moved the story off a college campus, put it in a small beach town and set it during a brutal heat wave.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the small town fable and playing with those classic tropes. The James Dean rebel who smoked cigarettes and had sex before anyone else did and the girl that was so impossibly beautiful that she could break your heart just by walking into the room. Just the iconic figures that these small towns seem to have.
The story took on this life that it hadn’t had before. Then of course, I introduced the love story, because we’ve all been blindly and foolishly in love before. I thought this story was just asking for that.
I used the theme of wanting to fit in and of course, like any coming of age story, finding yourself and the idea of a self‑fulfilling prophecy. I took those three main things and built around them.
Then the idea we were talking about in “Mississippi Mud” of fate and chance and happenstance. That idea is always working on some level in every one of my scripts. I can’t seem to get away from it.
Scott: Why set it in 1991?
Elijah: That was more of a stylistic choice. I wanted this thing to play like a memory. The great thing about memory is that it is unreliable. There are things that we remember, for better or for worse, that have been embellished in our minds eye. This allowed me to play with some elements of magical realism.
For instance, there’s a scene in the script, it’s the first time boy kisses girl and fireworks go off.
Elijah: And then the narrator comes clean and admits, “OK. Well, there weren’t any fireworks.” It’s the idea of playing with this unreliable narrator who’s looking at this very powerful and transformative summer through this lens of nostalgic fog. I figured if it were a contemporary story you wouldn’t have the same nostalgic feeling that you would if this took place in a time and place that can never be again.
Looking back everyone always feels like, “Oh, times were simpler back then,” you know? I really wanted to tap into that.
Then I started thinking what this time period could be. Quite frankly I thought, “Well, the early ’90s is by all intents and purposes retro at this point. It’s over 20 years ago. It hasn’t been tapped into yet as a bygone era”. I knew a major part of the story would include a hurricane and as I was doing research I found that a huge hurricane slammed the coast of Cape Cod in August, 1991. I kind of clapped my hands together. There we go! That’s my time period.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Elijah digs into the two lead characters in “Hot Summer Nights” as well as some of the themes at work in the story.
Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.