Alisha Brophy and Scott Miles wrote the original screenplay “The United States of Fuckin’ Awesome” which won the duo a 2014 Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting. Alisha, Scott and I had a great interview which I will be rolling out in 6 installments this week.
Today in Part 5, Alisha and Scott answer questions about the craft of screenwriting:
Myers: Let’s jump into some craft questions here. How do you come up with story ideas?
Scott: We have a whole list, a running document that we’re constantly adding ideas to it. I’d say we have 20 on there now. Some are just a one sentence log line that’s in no way fleshed out.
Alisha: The pilot that we’re writing now is a version of an idea that’s been on that document for years. We just talked through a new fun way of breaking that story.
I highly recommend people keeping lists, because what doesn’t work now, a version of it three, four, five years down the road might be a really brilliant project.
Myers: Are you actually proactive on this? Are you every day trying to think of ideas?
Alisha: To be completely honest, Scott and I have both been working jobs all of these years, and then writing nights and weekends. Our output has been, unfortunately, very limited based on the fact that we had to keep a roof over our heads.
So, what’s been happening is that when we do have a project done, people get excited about it, and we have a bunch of meetings around town. The town asks, “What’s next?” And then we start pitching projects we haven’t written yet.
So, people get excited and then we get excited about how excited they are. We’re like, “Oh, man!” That cycle tends to inform what project we’re working on the most.
Simultaneously, we’ll have one that is in pages, one that is in outline form, one or two that are purely like, “Oh, we’re still trying to crack this. It will be something like…”
Fortunately, because of the Nicholl, Scott was able to quit his full‑time job. And I’m able to work around our writing schedules. So, we’re now really turning out material a lot faster.
So, we’ll add to the Google docs, but we are not in there trying to break any stories until we get another project off our current plate.
Myers: How important do you think the story concept, the high concept or the conceit of the story is to the overall strength and commercial viability of specifically a spec script.
Alisha: Recently, we spent months working on a feature that took us, I’d say, a paragraph to explain to people, because we’d go into the reason why we wanted to write it, and what we were exploring with it, and the gist of it.
We wasted months spinning our wheels, and then one day realized that this side character who’s only in two scenes was more interesting than anything else we were doing with this project.
We said, “Screw it.” Scrapped the whole feature. Started a new idea that was based on this one character because it was instantly like, “Oh, it’s this!” There was a single log line idea about this guy.
Now this is our favorite project. It’s so easy to pitch in one sentence. The writing, it’s coming more easily because the one simple log line gives you the through line for the whole project. When you’re writing the pages as long as you’re sticking to that through line, it’s sticking to the promise that you made in that log line. You’re golden.
Scott: I think for a spec, it’s crucial to have that clarity if you can. One, to help you actually finish it, but two, to help the readers know instantly what it is before they even pick it up.
I’ve got ideas floating around my head that I would never try to write on spec because, like Alisha says, it takes a paragraph just to do the set up and explain all that. It’s just not a commercially viable strategy. Not in the current climate.
Myers: Both of you mentioned something that most people will think of log line in terms of its marketability, trying to get the idea out and communicate the story to someone, a buyer or what‑not.
But you mentioned something that’s also important about the story concept. It becomes a touchstone for you, doesn’t it? It helps steer the entire creative process. If you’ve got something simple and fundamental that you can always have in place as you’re writing the script that can really help guide your process.
Myers: It’s a dual value.
Scott: It helps us keep everything straight, helps us finish the project. It has the added bonus of it being readable and more–
Scott: And exciting for the creative execs to read.
Myers: You’ve talked about how in‑depth your outlining process is. I’d like to pry into that a little bit more, your process in prep writing. How do you go about developing characters? Are there any specific tools you use there?
Alisha: Right now, we’re writing a feature. Our outline is 30 pages long, single‑spaced, and has morphed into a beat sheet. We have it all scene by scene.
The very first page is every main character, who they remind us of, maybe actors that would fit the bill. We put down their goal in the film. We put down their external want and their internal need. We keep putzing with it until those are opposite of one another. We also put down the theme of the project.
Myers: How much time do you spend brainstorming and what type of brainstorming do you do?
Scott: That’s pretty much our entire process because the nice thing about having our setup on Skype is we just talk through each scene. We may have a vague idea of our beginning, middle and end, but then we just go through scene by scene and brainstorm, “How does this look? What are things that we can do? How is this keeping on our theme and what our characters want?”
We’re also always looking for those setups and payoffs, so we may towards the end of a script be talking through a scene, realize, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if we had this here?” Then we’d jump back up and find a way to layer that in in a clever way so that it doesn’t seem like a setup. We work backwards in that way.
Alisha: What’s great about having a writing partner is that what goes on the page is never a true first draft. Because if you’re talking about something, you’ll be like, “Oh, what if blah, blah, blah,?” Then the other person says, “Oh, yeah, but what if it’s blah, blah, blah.”
By the time you’re like, “Yeah, write that down” it’s at least the third option from where you started. Everything that hits the page for us feels more like a third draft than a first draft, because we’re already talking through better versions before we type anything.
Myers: You mentioned theme. Are you the type of writers where you start off with a theme or themes, or do they emerge as you go along in the writing process?
Alisha: It definitely is something we solidify before we go to pages, but it usually comes out maybe a couple of drafts into our outline. With USofFA, it was very much about maturity and respect.
With the project we’re working on now, it’s all about control and who controls you. We have this fun, big broad concept about controlling the world. But, our character is all about, “Should he get married?” He’s fighting that because he feels like marriage is giving up all his control to someone else.
Myers: It sounds like you use that as a touchstone as well. That theme to align yourself to what’s going on at any given moment?
Alisha: Yeah. Your theme, and your character tend to be very–
Scott: –Closely aligned.
Myers: What do you think about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have any specific goals in mind?
Scott: I see it as us trying to make each other laugh while still not pushing the jokes so far out of what the character would actually do that it’s a joke for no reason. It still has to be character‑based. That’s the nice thing about comedy. We know, instantly, if it’s working or not.
If I write a joke, and she doesn’t laugh, it’s time for me to go punch up that joke.
Myers: That gets into this idea of your writing process. I’m sure people will be curious. You do Skype, but do you have a set time that you do? Do you work every day? I know now the job situation’s changed a little bit.
Alisha: Scott has been amazing over the years, and his wife, too, for putting up with his schedule. So, he would commute an hour to work. I’m going to tell everybody your life schedule, Scott.
Scott: Yeah, go for it.
Alisha: [laughs] He would commute an hour to work. Put in a full day at this insurance company, commute an hour back. Write with me for an hour and a half. Go have dinner, spend time with his wife. Come back online and try and get one more hour in, if we were lucky, before bed. Weekends, we would try and fit writing in around our lives as best we could.
Now we have our new schedule which is 10 to 4pm, writing straight through. It is amazing how much faster and better the ideas and pages happen, when it’s not having to come after a full day’s worth of work and frustration. When you can start the day fresh with your cup of coffee and dive into a scene, it is magical. I want this to never change.
Scott: That being said, I mean even when I had that crazy schedule, the only reason we were able to get so much done is because we stuck to that schedule pretty rigidly. It was pretty rare that we would take off time because we didn’t feel writing. That’s another nice thing about having a writing partner is that you feel, “Oh, I don’t feel like writing,” but the other person is so jazzed. So I’ll think, “I don’t want to let them down. So I’ll go write a few scenes.” Then once you get on the flow, you’re loving it just as much.
Having that checks and balances of, “Nope, I’m definitely writing tonight because the other person is waiting for me.” Without it, it would be too easy to just say, “Well, I’m not writing tonight. What’s on TV?”
Alisha: Though, I would like to point out that, the writing schedule was also a great litmus test whether a project is worth exploring and if you should continue working on it. That last feature that I said that we scrapped? We’d been working on the outline for months.
Our writer’s group told us, “It’s ready. Go to pages.” And it was. It would have been a perfectly acceptable, fine studio comedy. It worked on the page.
The truth was for about, I would say for about four days, I kept coming up with excuses as to why I couldn’t write that night. I just couldn’t bring myself to dive in. We finally just talked through why, and it turned out he wasn’t feeling it either.
We realized if we’re going to write for free, this is on spec, so no one’s paying us, we have to want to do it. It just wasn’t a strong enough project to keep us writing.
Fortunately, from that we have the feature we’re writing now that we love. As soon as we get off of Skype with you, we’re diving right back into our pages. We were already working on it this morning.
Tomorrow in Part 6, Alisha and Scott give their advice for aspiring screenwriters.
The duo is repped by Paradigm and Circle of Confusion.
Twitter: @alishabrophy, @scottmiles.