A special treat this week as I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. How good are they? Between them, they have sold more than a dozen spec scripts and have multiple original screenplays on the Black List.
This is the third GITS screenwriters roundtable, the first two of which you can read here and here. Hopefully this will continue as an annual event as it’s a great way to take the pulse of what’s happening in the screenwriting universe, track the careers of these talented writers, and benefit from the many insights into the craft they share.
Scott: Continuing with some craft questions, what about dialogue? How do you go about finding your characters’ voices?
John Swetnam: What does Channing Tatum sound like?
F. Scott Frazier: I’d just hire him to come in and read all the lines for me.
John Swetnam: That would be awesome.
Scott: I’m serious. For an aspiring writer, they’re sitting there like how do I do this? Is it just an innate thing? Do you even think about it? How do you go about finding the dialogue?
Chris Borrelli: I think how can someone get a point across in as few words as possible? Not making every character into a Clint Eastwood-like character. Again, the dialogue is just an element of it. We were mentioning earlier, I forget who mentioned, go out in the world and see how people do that. Go out in the world and see how people talk to each other.
Maybe that biography will help. If your character comes from the South or he comes from the Northeast he or she is going to speak in a different way. Dialogue, to me, is natural and it takes time. I think more people can do it than they probably realize. For me, it’s always been a natural thing.
Greg Russo: I think you’re right. I think it is natural. I think that’s one of the inherent things about being a screenwriter. There’s a rhythm to it. And some people have an ear for how that rhythm ebbs and flows.
F. Scott Frazier: The only thing that we’re writing that people experience is dialogue. I come at it from a I’ll do my vomit draft and then I’ll just overwrite the dialogue and the scenes are really long and then I’ll just go back in and edit. I think a lot of my dialogue just comes out of the editing, and being like, that sentence is terrible, so I just delete it.
You’d be surprised how many lines of dialogue you can fix just by deleting sentences and words and that sort of thing. For me, character voice is weird. I don’t know if I think about it that much just because the character voice is going to be whatever the actor is that they hire. Obviously, people have different ways that they talk and characters have different ways that they talk.
When they hire Bradley Cooper he’s going to say the dialogue how he wants to say it. The exact same words given to Channing Tatum are going to sound completely different. To me, I always focus more on making sure that my dialogue is funny and it gets the point across and there’s as little exposition as possible.
Otherwise, I feel like if I think about it too much more than that I just overthink it.
Justin Rhodes: I feel like the better you know the character the more specific that dialogue is going to be and it’s going to flow. You’re going to know what that character is going to say next. That comes from being as specific with that character as possible.
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah, I guess I’ve noticed that. When I go back and I’m in the seventh or eighth revision of a script dialogue is just coming out really, really fast whereas on the first draft it’s almost a chore to just get out one sentence. The further that you get into those characters you kind of know just how they’ll respond.
Chris McCoy: I also write comedy, and a good rule of thumb is I try to think about what would make my sickest friends laugh. That seems to work pretty well.
Scott: Do any of you read your scripts or read your dialogue out loud?
Chris Borrelli: Oh, yeah, I look insane. I do voices, like women’s voices. It doesn’t matter. I absolutely do that. I think it’s contributed to me talking to myself, just more regularly. I look absolutely insane sitting there at my desk, like reading out the dialogue.
I’ve had times, before I was at a career at this, and I’d just go to friends for advice, who weren’t screenwriters. I would read them the script, the entire script, because they wouldn’t feel like reading, and I’d get advice that way. Anyway, I think it’s good to hear it. That’s just me, but I do like to hear it out loud, and usually I’m the only person around.
Chris McCoy: I’ll read with you, man.
John Swetnam: I think it also comes down to everybody’s process is completely different. I know some writers that do three, four, or five-page bios on their characters. Some can just do a paragraph. When I was first writing a lot of specs, I would actually cast them myself. I would, even with Evidence, I had pictures of the actors above my computer that was my dream cast.
I would always, at least, have kind of a touchstone, like if I was in the middle of a scene, I could look up and see, “Oh, it’s Kyle Chandler. OK.” It would just help me to keep that character consistent. That was a little trick that I did for a long, long time.
It was fun to, when you’re sitting in your room, to cast your movie, and imagine the best possible actor. Your character will become its own person. But it helped me stay consistent through the scripts.
F. Scott Frazier: I’ve actually gone one step further, and I’ve given characters names based off of the actors that I think would be good in the roles. Just like first names, so that when somebody’s reading it, it’s almost subconscious that they think of that actor that I’ve associated with that role.
Scott: That explains why you have so many characters named Scarlett.
F. Scott Frazier: Oh, yeah.
Scott: What are your actual writing processes like? Borrelli was saying he writes five days a week. Do some of you not do that? Do some of you tend to write in clumps, or do you write every day, or do you write in public, or do you write in private? What are your writing processes like?
F. Scott Frazier: I do five days a week, Monday through Friday. I have an office at my house. I tend to start in the morning. I’ll write through lunch, and then stop in the mid‑afternoon or so. For me it’s more about page count every day than time. I give myself six pages a day to get through. If you do six pages a day you have a script in a month that way. It’s a pretty simple process.
Justin Rhodes: I write every day, even if I just do a few hours. I feel like the way that you get to do this for a living is that you treat it like a job. Everyone, in L.A. especially, everyone is always “working” on a script, but nobody knows what that means. You’ve just got to look at it as a job, as a career. Do it every day for at least a few hours. It’s always surprising how much product you end up generating because of that.
John Swetnam: I agree, you do have to treat it like a job. But for me, I just hate the word “job.” When I moved out here, my main dream was I just don’t want a job. That’s all I ever wanted was to not actually have a job. I think when you do what you love it isn’t a job. For me it’s more of an obsession. That’s probably why I’m such a fucked up person.
It’s an obsession. I can’t stop. For me it’s not a nine to five. It’s a 24/7. In the back of my head there’s something, some story, some idea, some actor, some packaging, some shot, and I can’t stop it. Luckily, I’m not in a mental institution. For me, I treat it like an obsession more than a job. I love it though. It doesn’t feel like work. It’s about the coolest thing ever. I’m afraid it’s going to end, so I don’t stop.
Scott: Do you not say, “I’m going to write one to five today.” I mean just like, you actually sit down, butt on chair, you write whenever you feel like it?
John Swetnam: Yeah, I’m in my chair, on the phone all day. But again, it’s not just typing pages. It’s thinking about stuff. It’s coming up with ideas. It’s meetings with finance people, writers, directors, actors, or other producers. The whole moviemaking machine, and television and all of it. I just love it all.
Scott: Justin, how about you? What’s your writing process?
Justin Rhodes: The honest answer is, “Who the hell knows?” I’m not a morning person, so in the morning, I hang out with my family. I do an early lunch. I usually write from about noon to five or so, and then I go home and I have dinner, and do the family stuff. Then I come back and I do another session from eight or nine o’clock to whenever I get tired, so around one or two.
Scott: Do you have an office?
Justin Rhodes: Yeah, I have an office, like in an office building. My old office used to be in my house, and then my daughter was born. Now everything’s pink with curtains. I had to come here. I’ve actually found it’s nice, because I get in a car and I drive to work. I feel like a grownup, finally.
F. Scott Frazier:What’s the space like? I’ve actually been thinking about that.
Justin Rhodes: You mean like what is the office like?
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah.
Justin Rhodes: I’m in Burbank. I’m right by Warner Brothers. I’ve got three big windows looking out at the mountains, which is kind of nice. I’ve got, I don’t know, I’ve got a couch, a desk, a credenza and a fridge in there. It’s not huge. It’s like 13 feet by 10 feet maybe. It’s big enough just for me to come in here and do this. It’s like I read on the couch, and I type at the computer. It’s been good for me.
F. Scott Frazier: Nice.
Scott: Greg, how about you? What’s your writing process like?
Greg Russo: Silence and solitude. I could never understand how someone could go and work the trenches of a coffee shop with all that godawful noise. To each his own, but that sounds like torture to me (literally). I need a lot of silence. My wife and I have a place in L.A. and in Brooklyn.
For me, if I’m feeling stuck, I’ll just fly out to New York, or vice versa and work there for a little while. I’ve come to learn over the years, that I work best, when I can get out of my space every now and then and return to the living world.
I’m a daytime guy and I try and go at it every single day if I can. Of course there are days when you can’t get the creativity going. But as writers, we’re blessed with these awful guilt complexes, these internal critics that keep us in constant check.
If I’m not working, the guy inside my head will tell me that I’m lazy and a terrible person and to get back to the keyboard. So if procrastination happens, it doesn’t last very long.
Scott: Greg, that reminds me. I worked on a pilot for NBC, a one‑hour pilot, with Roy Huggins, who created the “Rockford Files” and “The Fugitive.” He used to get in his, I think he had a Jaguar. Whenever he was stuck on a story, he would just get in his car and drive. One time he said that he drove, and finally solved the problem, and realized he’d driven to Arizona.
Greg Russo: It happens! I’ve spaced out behind the wheel and almost killed multiple people. Luckily, it’s L.A., so psychotic driving doesn’t warrant much attention.
F. Scott Frazier: I’ve solved so many problems in the car than any other place, easily.
Chris McCoy: I run every day. I live on Venice Beach, so I just run the beach. I feel like you could probably gauge how effective my writing is going by how thin I am. You can tell from my body if I’m going on an eight‑mile run because I can’t figure something out, versus if I’m happily sitting and eating Twizzlers and writing away.
Scott: Is this like a spiritual thing, or is it just the physicality of moving?
Chris McCoy: Sorkin does the same thing where he says that he writes in the shower. I think it’s that thing where your mind is just focused on something else, like a mundane task that you have to do. The machinery behind-the-scenes is working and spits out answers for you.
Scott: I’d like to ask one last question. Then if you all have something you want to talk about go at it. We talked about there were so many great movies last year. I think this year has actually had a lot of great movies, too. Is there one particular movie, or maybe a script that you’ve read this year that just really inspired you? You just thought, “Wow, that is just great.” Any things jump to mind from what you’ve seen or read in 2013?
Chris Borrelli: American Hustle, because not only did I love it for so many reasons, but it really is, I mean every performance is so on, but the dialogue is fantastic. I loved it. In a smaller way, Nebraska, as well, for a small movie. I thought it was terrific in its simplicity. But I came out of American Hustle on a small high.
It was just a really enjoyable experience for me. It was kind of a classic film. In some ways even simple and sort of good‑natured. I loved the dialogue, and I loved the characters.
Chris McCoy: I’m still recovering from Her. Just blew my mind. I’ve been trying to process it. I can’t get it out of my head, so that’s the one.
F. Scott Frazier: I think for me, maybe Pacific Rim. Just because I think it’s so damn hard to get a movie of that size and that quality made, and just be the level of imagination that was on the screen, and on the page. That thing was just awe‑inspiring. If I set a goal for myself, it would be to write the next Pacific Rim.
John Swetnam: I think for me it was, I’ve been trying to figure out, everybody always talks about elevated genre. So the two movies for me this year that I just have been studying a lot are World War Z, which I just thought was, if you really look at the structure and the plot, it’s actually, in my mind, seems like a pretty simple sort of movie.
It’s an A to B kind of thing, but it was just so elevated in my mind. I mean the dialogue and the character work and the little subtleties. The other one was The Conjuring, which I thought was amazing.
Greg Russo: For now, it’s Fruitvale Station, it just blew me away. The way that they were able to take a day of this guy’s life, and you felt like you knew him for 20 years. I thought it was remarkable. Quite an accomplishment.
Justin Rhodes: The movie that I think impressed me the most was All is Lost. The way that you felt and understood, pretty much, everything that was happening in a meaningful way, without any dialogue. That’s amazing, like the script for that is something like 30 pages. That’s the one where I just came out of there going like, “Holy shit. This is like a feat.”
Scott: Have any of you seen Short Term 12?
F. Scott Frazier: It’s terrific.
Scott: Let’s end it with that pull quote: “F. Scott Frazier says Short Term 12 is terrific!” A nice plug for a wonderful movie. Thanks, everyone! Continued best of luck with all of your projects!
Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: John Swetnam.
Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.
F. Scott Frazier: @ScreenWritten
Many thanks to Wendy Cohen for logistical help with the roundtable.