Michael Werwie’s original screenplay “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” not only won the young screenwriter a 2012 Nicholl fellowship, it also landed on the 2012 Black List, garnering 31 votes, the 7th highest total of any script on the list this year.
Michael was kind enough to agree to an interview and recently we had a wide-ranging hour-long conversation in which we covered a lot of territory related to screenwriting. I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week, definitely a Q&A you will want to read in its entirety as Michael offers some terrific insight into the craft.
Today in Part 5, Michael shares his take on more key aspects of the screenwriting craft.
Scott: Let’s shift the dialogue because I was impressed with that aspect of your script, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” There’s that phrase, “great ear for dialogue”. In your opinion, is that something a writer is born with, or can it be developed, and if so, how does a writer go about developing the ability to write dialogue?
Michael: In my case it’s developed because I can look back at my early work and see the shift. I don’t know how it happens. I know that at one point I was watching a lot of “West Wing,” and so my dialogue started to sound like Aaron Sorkin. Then it was Tennessee Williams. It’s kind of influenced by whatever you’re obsessed with at the time, I think. Now, I like to think I have a better ear for it, but it’s probably developed through practice. Like so many elements of the craft, it’s important to practice, practice, practice. The more you do it, the more you internalize it on a subconscious level and you don’t have to think about it too much anymore. It just comes out, and you’re not even aware that you’re employing certain rules of the craft.
Scott: How about bartending? Has that been a helpful experience in terms of your ability to write authentic‑sounding dialogue?
Michael: I’m sure it has. I don’t think about it specifically like that, but you’re always absorbing things. I constantly find myself writing things down that I overhear, or things that I like the sound of, or the rhythm of a sentence. I don’t usually go back and use those things, but it does keep me the habit of keeping an ear open to anything that sounds good.
Scott: How about theme? How do you work with theme?
Michael: I’ll probably get crucified for saying this, but I don’t really think about theme anymore. In my early scripts I put a lot of thought and a lot of energy into crafting and shaping theme, weaving it through the story to the point where it got heavy‑handed and preachy. I just stopped thinking about it and started trusting that it will reveal itself at some point along the way. I trust that it’s going to naturally be within every character and every scene and running through the spine of the script, because it’s this mysterious, intangible element that’s driving the writing already.
So I don’t put too much thought into it, at least in the early stages of a script. Once I finish a script, I’ll have read it through many, many times while I’ve been working on it, and certain things will start to emerge and certain ideas resonate, and so I’ll eventually develop or deepen those ideas. Other ideas that seem like they stray from the spine of the story, I’ll take out.
Scott: What’s your actual writing process?
Michael: I try to write every day. I love listening to music and I like being out of my apartment, among people, so there are a few different places I’ll go. I rarely wake up and feel like writing. I know that sounds horrible, but I’ve made it a discipline, where I sit down and do it, and trust that over a period of time it’s going to add up to something, but I would say that if somebody was watching me while I was working, it wouldn’t look like I was actually writing. So much of it is thinking and being frustrated and staring at the wall.
Scott: Do you have any screenwriting principles that you hold near and dear?
Michael: I think two things. When you’re first breaking a story and when you’re doing that first pass, it’s important to not really censor yourself too much or judge yourself or the work. It’s important to just get it out and get to the end. Now that’s much easier said than done, and it’s something that I still struggle with because I’m a perfectionist and I want to write it perfectly the first time through, but that’s never how it works. On the other hand, I think the analytical part of writing is just as important, if not more important. I think rewriting is more important than first‑draft writing and that’s the place where I really excel. So if I can force myself to crank out a first draft, it becomes a lot easier for me to go back and assess it in an analytical way.
Scott: Finally, you’ve won the “Nicholl.” You’ve gotten on the “Black List.” You’re right on the front end of hopefully a long career as a screenwriter. You’ve made that transition from being outside to inside. What one piece of advice could you offer to aspiring screenwriters?
Michael: I would advise anybody who’s serious about it to persevere, and be in it for the long haul, because I speak from experience. It takes a lot of work to get there, and don’t be afraid if doubt starts to creep in, because it certainly does, and if it doesn’t I think you’re fooling yourself. So just be prepared to invest your time and energy into a very, very long process. And do it out of love.
That wraps up my interview with Michael Werwie. Please stop by comments to thank Michael for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
Michael is repped by UTA and Evolution Entertainment.