Sean Robert Daniels’ original screenplay “Killers” is a taut, finely crafted thriller that won him a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. And for those of you toiling away on spec scripts outside the United States, Sean can be an inspiration for you as he lives 10,364 air miles away from Los Angeles, all the way in Centurion, South Africa.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week.
Today in Part 5, Sean shares some thoughts about the craft of screenwriting.
Scott: OK, some craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?
Sean: I come up with ideas in a variety of ways. A lot of it comes from reading. I’ll be reading a short story or, and Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite authors, said it very well in the introduction to one of his books. He said, “Often a lot of his stories come from how he would have loved to have done something different in another story.” And I don’t mean it in terms of, like, “Oh, OK, your character did this. I’ll make him do that,” but I can’t help but think the subconscious goes on about different ideas.
Like, just a completely random one, but I was reading a short story about a world where there was sentient technology and somehow couches that could think would accidentally meld with fridges and create all sorts of wonderful technological creatures. And then my idea was, what if a girl and her vibrator started talking to each other and they fell in love?
You know, that kind of random process. And equally, I love trolling the Internet with things like StumbleUpon. I love looking at websites that tell you old jobs like, chicken sexing and things like that. And it’s the wonderful thing about playing the “what if” game, what if a chicken sexer fell in love?
Scott: OK, so let’s say you come up with a strong idea. What is your prep writing process like?
Sean Robert Daniels: OK. Well, I think a lot. I mean, I really think about an idea a lot. I don’t immediately rush out and start writing. I let it play in my head for as long as I can. I imagine that when I’m driving to work, I think about it. I play scenes out. I start watching the movie in my head. And I start poking holes into the story. Would this work? Have I thought about this? You know, start imagining the characters. It’s very cerebral at the start.
I’ve never been someone who likes research simply because, for me, that would be the best way of not actually ever finishing a script. I’m very prone to procrastination in that sense.
My father and I were talking years ago about writing a film about the Boer War and the concentration camps. And he said he would like to do a little bit of research before we started writing it and it’s six years later and he’s still researching.
So, when I’m writing, I like to research second. Steven King said this amazing thing in his book on writing. Don’t write what you know. Write what you believe is true. So I kind of run with that. I write what feels right. And in the middle of the script I’ll do something like in dialogue or in the action lines, insert researched point here, or insert jargon there. And then I just move on.
For me, the important thing, the very important thing about discovering the story and the characters is getting that first draft done.
Scott: From what I understand, the only time you’ve ever written an outline is when your computer was stolen. All your stories, gone. And before you called the police, you had to jot down an outline for “Killers”.
Sean: Exactly, yeah. That was the only time. When I was studying at university and we had to write outlines, I’d write the script first and do the outline to it.
Scott: That being the case, your first draft is basically where you discover your characters and you story.
Sean: Very much so. I’ll give you an indication. Just quickly, did you read the 102 or the 80 page [of “Killers”]?
Scott: 80 page.
Sean: OK. This will give you an indication. One of the notes that I got from Josh was he felt the relationship between the priest and the woman was a little too easy. She came into the chapel a little too easily, which I agreed. I thought that there could have been a bit more tension at the start of that. He said to me, “Can she accidentally get into the church, into the hospital chapel?” I thought about this and I was like OK. I could do the easy way of that would be to have her just walk in accidentally, but then I didn’t like that. In essence, I sat down and I had the scene in front of me and then mentally it was as if I was standing across the hallway from her watching and going what are you going to do next? How am I going to get you into this room? I can watch you walk past, I can watch you choose to go in, but that’s not what we want.
Then in my head I look around the hospital room and I see I’m in a hospital and I saw this nurse pushing a gurney with a patient fountaining blood down the hallway. I thought, perfect. I wrote that she pushes the gurney past the woman, the blood is spraying everywhere, so the woman steps backwards into the church. She’s just trying to get out of the way.
It’s really that fly on the wall being in the scene and watching it and it happens a lot with my dialogue in that the conversation starts and I only feel the most tenuous hold on what’s going on, at least in the first draft.
Scott: What I’m hearing you say is that in terms of character development, just focusing on that, it’s really about immersing yourself in that story universe, putting yourself there so that you can really, in a way, experience them in that context?
Sean: Very much so, yes. I do a similar thing when I’m directing. Once I give a script to an actor, I tell them that you need to know the character better than I do. When we’re rehearsing, I don’t give them any directing at the start. I let them basically do what they want and then I see if they like it. If I like what they’re doing, I add it into the overall goal of the film. If I don’t, then I make adjustments. I have the same approach as I’m writing.
Scott: I was going to say, that initial approach when you’re directing with the actors, let them take a first crack at it, that’s almost like that’s first draft and then you adjust as you go along?
Sean: Very much so, yeah. One of the things that made me, I think, a better writer and a quicker writer was being very comfortable with the idea of writing crap in that getting that first draft down almost no matter what. If the scene was terrible, if the characters were not entirely comfortable in their skins I would just push past it to the point where I typed fade to black. Once we had it all down then I could almost do a debrief with the characters. I see you’re not particularly comfortable in this scene. Let’s look at why you’re not comfortable. Is it because there’s not enough motivation for what you’re doing or have we missed the motivation or is this actually going against your character?
Scott: I have the same philosophy. There’s that saying: Seeing is believing. What about believing is seeing? What if you believe those characters actually exist, that story universe actually exists? Treat them as human beings, as sentient entities. By doing that, they come alive in your imagination and inform your process. Is that something similar to what your experience is?
Sean: Very much so. I’ll give you a perfect example of this. I didn’t know until I wrote it that the client had hired the woman.
Scott: That’s a big twist.
Sean: I think it’s a big twist because it was a twist to me.
Please stop by comments to thank Sean for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
To see Sean’s acceptance speech at the Nicholl Fellowship ceremony, go here.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
Sean is represented by Kaplan/Perrone.