Screenwriters Roundtable, Part 1: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John SwetnamFebruary 4th, 2013 by Scott
A special treat this week as each day 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 second screenwriters roundtable, following up on one we did last year [which you can read here]. Hopefully this will become an annual event as it’s a great way to take the pulse of what’s happening in the screenwriting universe, as well as benefit from the many insights into the craft these writers share.
I will be running the series all week long. Here is Part 1:
Scott Myers: Really appreciate you all being here. I brought the virtual Wild Turkey so we can break that out any time. Now where to start…
Chris Borrelli: This whole Middle East thing, politics, best way to fix a carburetor.
Scott: How about something I picked up from social media. Most of you are on Twitter.
Chris Borrelli: I’m on Friendster.
Scott: Frazier tweeted something the other day that surprised me.
F. Scott Frazier: Wait, can I live Tweet this?
Chris McCoy: That’s sort of like a snake eating its tail, isn’t it?
Scott: Lately Frazier has been reading some screenwriting books, just to see what’s there, then commenting on them on Twitter. And amidst all that, you said that basically you don’t have a set approach to writing a script, it varies from project to project. Is that accurate?
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah, that is absolutely accurate. I think it actually has more to do with my personality. I get bored very easily, which turns into me writing scripts really quickly. So any time I approach a project, I want to be writing the pages as quickly as possible. Whatever I’m feeling that day is usually how my process plays out.
Sometimes I do note cards, sometimes I do a written outline, sometimes I just write the first act. While I’m figuring out the movie in my head, I already know what the first act is, so the first 20 to 30 pages usually go quickly. Whatever I’m feeling that day is usually my process.
Actually a lot of the books I’ve been reading have a line in the sand that says, this process is the way that you are going to write a million dollar script. This is the secret formula, and you have to use this formula, and here are all of my examples of other scripts that have used my formula, and if you are not using it, you are wrong. That is just a weird way to go about it. Honestly, I think you have to be able to create your own process along the way, otherwise you can get caught up trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
Scott: Do the rest of you have a similar thing where you basically approach different stories in different ways? Or do you have a specific approach to your writing?
John Swetnam: I pretty much do whatever Frazier says to do and that’s worked out really well.
John Swetnam: It’s funny. I actually went about it the opposite way of Scott. The summer before I moved to Orange County for the graduate program at Chapman for screenwriting, I literally knew nothing about it. I had never written anything resembling a screenplay in my life. Chapman just kind of accepted me for whatever reason, maybe because I’m half Asian and they needed to fill up a quota, I’m not really sure. That summer I worked at a book factory where if you ordered a book on something like Amazon, I would find the books, put them in these big bins, then ship them out. Basically what I did, I took every writing book I could get my hands on.
Scott: You stole them?
John Swetnam: I was a terrible person, and I feel bad about it, but yes, I would just grab them, and take them to my car. I still have these books in my living room, it’s literally every screenwriting book you can possibly think of. I remember I was so terrified of coming to California and not knowing how to write a script that I just consumed these books. I read every single one of them. And when I look back, I feel like it hurt me so bad that first year because every time I would try to write, it was nearly impossible. There were so many fucking checklists in my mind.
I play golf. And if you think too much when you golf — thinking about your back swing, keeping your head down and all that — it can ruin your swing. That’s what happened to me in the first couple of years where I was so clogged by all these rules. On page 12 this had to happen and all that shit. Maybe that’s why it took me 20 scripts to finally actually sell one. I look back and I’m glad that I have that base of knowledge. But I wish I would have just started writing, just found myself and enjoyed the process instead of trying to be so mechanical and strategic..
I’m like Frazier now, every script I write, I come at it very organically, and depending on how I’m feeling, or what the script’s about, or the vibe of the script will normally dictate the way in which I write it. Sometimes I’ll just jump right in if I’m feeling it, or just beat sheets, notecards, whatever. It just depends on the script. I don’t really have a process.
Scott: Where do you others come down on this question of approach or process?
Chris McCoy: First of all, I want to nominate Scott Frazier as the Miles Davis of screenwriting. Hearing his free‑form approach, I kind of love it. My approach to every script is similar. I lay out the big plot points – the inciting event, the end of first act, ideas for reversals to sustain tension through the second act, and ideas for the ending. I usually don’t outline every single scene unless I’m doing a pitch. Then, once I have these big moments, I try to find the most creative way between them. I feel like if I’m surprising myself during the writing process coming up with new ideas along the way, the reader is also going to be surprised. I’ve never used many of the screenwriting books aside from “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” which I think is the best. And I try to adhere to Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing a Short Story, which are incredible and apply very well to screenwriting.
F. Scott Frazier: To me, the biggest thing about anybody’s process is that they wake up and do it every day. That’s it. Whatever you want it to be, it can be, just as long as you’re writing every day. That’s the secret.
John Swetnam: Frazier, drop the mic, drop the mic. That was it. That was perfect.
Chris McCoy: And making sure to finish the script you’re working on, too.
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah, absolutely.
Greg Russo: I side with McCoy in that I always have a process, every time I crack into a new story. That process acts as my safety net. When I approach something new, a new idea, a new IP… I have a certain ritual I like to go through. First, it’s just sitting with the material, just living with it for a little bit. For a few days, I don’t really write anything if I can. I just sit with it and try to answer some questions: What do I love about it? What excites me about it? Why did I want to write this in the first place? Then when I start going into the outlining and ultimately the writing phase, I’m like a dam ready to burst… it starts to flow out… It helps me get over that initial shock of staring at a blank page.
Another little thing that I’ve changed over the past year, is that I used to start with plot. I would really worry about the big plot points. I now start with the character and build the plot around that person, tying everything into his or her journey. It’s been interesting. I really like what I’ve found.
Scott: Would that be the case, Greg, that you would… I know some writers do this. They will write scenes that they really like, they’re really excited about. Not necessarily in linear fashion, but they’ll just grab a scene that they really want to write, and they’ll write that, even if it’s Act Two, Act Three.
Greg Russo: For outlining, absolutely. Wherever my mind goes in the story, I follow.
F. Scott Frazier: When you write the script, do you write out of order, Greg?
Greg Russo: No. That would be impressive though.
F. Scott Frazier: Does anybody write out of order?
Chris Borrelli: I don’t, not really.
Chris McCoy: No.
F. Scott Frazier: I’m kind of OCD about writing in order, and I’ve met very few people who write out of order. It’s just this mythical type of writer. I don’t know.
Scott: I think John August posted something like that. I don’t know if he does it routinely, but to jumpstart the process, he will pick out his favorite scenes, or scenes that excite him. I think speaking to what Greg was talking about, doing that to try to find points of emotion connection to the content.
John Swetnam: Just to jump in real quick, after talking to a lot of writers, the thing I think is the only truth about process, and everyone telling you this is how you should do it… it’s like a buffet. You go and try all these different ways, and you hear how other people do it, and you’ve got to make your own plate. Nobody’s is the same. Everybody I’ve met, every single writer that I’ve met has a different process, and I just think that’s the coolest part.
There is no, do this, this, this, and this. Do whatever you need to do to write your story the best way you write it in your voice. Listen to how other people do it, and if something works for you, that’s great, but at the end of the day, do what you want to do. Do what feels right for you. There’s a lot of these aspiring writers and stuff, they’re always, “Tell me how to do it,” or “which rules do I follow?” Follow your own rules. I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to others, you should, but it’s a process of just doing it. You’ll figure out your own way, if you just continue to do it. There’s no way one way.
Justin Rhodes: For me, the thing that’s always the most important to start out with is just to ask myself what the script is about in very clear thematic terms. I really want there to be some kind of process I adhere to, but the truth is I feel like I’m always stabbing in the dark with every project, and just kind of finding it in whatever way I do. That sense of desperately needing to know exactly what I’m trying to say is what grounds me, or at least gives me some kind of a sense of what are right answers and what are wrong answers, so you have a rubric with which to weigh things against.
Scott: When you say that, are you talking about theme, are you talking about plot, characters? What exactly are you talking about when you say, what’s the story about?
Justin Rhodes: Yeah, theme, and just the simple emotional journey. For me, writing is conceptually like a journey through complexity to get back to simplicity. Ultimately, you want to say, “It’s about a guy who experiences this, and now feels this way.” Just understanding that that’s what it’s about. Everything that follows needs to stem from this simple emotional idea. Sometimes when you’re buried in a pitch, or you’re looking at a sprawling book adaptation, or something that has some level of complexity, something that’s kind of wide and sweeping, it’s easy to get lost. For me, the secret to turning your narrative payload into something you can deliver is to ask yourself “What is the simple emotional journey that grounds everything?” That gives me a compass point, and permission to jettison what isn’t going to help me get to where I’m going.
Thematically, but I hate to use the word theme sometimes, because you don’t want to get precious. It’s like… I’m writing a script right now, and it’s a sci‑fi thing. We were going around, and around. What is this about? How are we going to tackle this? On, and on, and on, as a rewrite. Finally we had the idea, this is about a haunting, and that finally unlocked the right way for us to look at the story and understand it, even though there are no ghosts in the movie. It’s about finding a simple idea that tells you what the story is and what it isn’t.
F. Scott Frazier: It’s like that one or two word kind of, it’s not a theme, and I totally get what you’re saying. It’s a kid leaving home. It’s not really a theme, but that’s what the movie’s about, right? It’s father and son. No, I totally get that.
Justin Rhodes: If you talk to Kurtzman and Orci about “Transformers,” they finally cracked it when they figured out that it’s really just about a boy and his car, essentially the relationship between boy and his dog. You find a way to say “this is what it’s about” and that becomes the emotional center that everything else is going to resonate around. You know who the characters are and what the point of view is and what the tone is from that emotional idea, which is not like saying power corrupts or love conquers all. Thematically, I don’t tend to think that way.
John Swetnam: Can I just say, Justin, if you’re tweeting, you need to tweet that. That was fucking awesome. Journey through complexity back to simplicity. That’s amazing. I’m gonna tattoo that on my back.
Chris McCoy: One thing I find to be helpful when beginning a script is to just write down what every character wants. I think if everyone in the script has a clear idea of what they want, a lot of stuff snaps into place because every scene becomes about them trying to get what they want. It’s a simple trick that has been useful for me.
Scott: It provides a touch point for you for every scene, right?
Chris McCoy: Yeah. You know what every scene is about if you establish an overarching want.
John Swetnam: This is, again, a great thing for me. When I hear about people’s processes like that, I learn so much. Every day I learn from listening to other people and their process, but then I try to infuse that into my own process. Like right now, I’m going to take that idea, because I think what both Justin and Chris said is fantastic. That’s great. Thank you guys.
Chris Borrelli: I find screenwriters, in a way, we’re very clinical and yet we’re artistic. Screenwriting, films are art and a business. Each script is a little bit different for me. I really do try to discover some of the movie, some of the script as I go along, but I usually have a very rough framework, as rough as they’ll let me be. If I’m hired on something, the execs really want to hedge their bets as much as possible, which is their nature anyway, and control it as much as possible. But my favorite version is usually, and it can change, is three pages of very thin scenes of ideas and roughly where the midpoint is. I only started doing the midpoint even a couple years ago and I only understood what a midpoint was three or four years ago. It’s really this discovery as I go and each script is a little bit different. I just handed in something on Friday that I’m very happy how it went over and that was only a couple of pages, the actual outline. I discovered it as I went.
What Frazier said, we’re in real agreement about — you’ve got to write. I get up in the morning and I write. That script is in my head for weeks and weeks and it develops, takes life of its own, and the characters get a little fleshed out. That’s part of the discovery for me as it goes. I think a lot of people on here are saying they have maybe a touch of ADD or whatever, and I’m one of them. It helps me. I don’t enjoy putting together outlines and beat sheets and long things like that. I’ll do it, but I do enjoy being in the shower and thinking of something cool the character is going to say or some little bit that comes to me. Sometimes my scripts can honestly feel like it’s twenty callbacks and twenty moments I love and that’s almost the movie. The idea that a great film is three great scenes and a good ending. Sometimes it’s as simple and basic as that, and other times it has these levels to it and it just takes on a life as it goes.
Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Chris Borrelli.
Christopher Borrelli wrote the 2007 Universal / Gold Circle horror thriller Whisper and co-wrote the 2009 Fox / WWE action film The Marine 2, sold the spec scripts “The Vatican Tapes” [Black List script] to Lionsgate and Lakeshore in 2009, “Wake” to Hammer Films / Exclusive Media Group in 2010, and “Sad Jack” to Code Entertainment in 2011. In addition he wrote a remake of Bad Influence for MGM, an adaptation of the French horror film ILS (“Them”) for Gold Circle, a live-action series “Necessary Evil” at the Cartoon Network with partners Jonathan Davis and Max Burnett, and earned a blind deal at Focus / Rogue. In early 2012 Borrelli adapted Joe Hill’s “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” for Mandalay Pictures and was also hired to create a new horror franchise for Michigan Motion Pictures Studios.
We can look forward to an interview with Chris later this year.
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
Chris McCoy: @thatthere
Justin Rhodes: @twopointfour
John Swetnam: @JohnSwetnam
Many thanks to Laura Stoltz (@LeStoltz) for logistical help with the roundtable. Laura is one of my UNC former students, currently an assistant at Haven Entertainment, and a talented writer in her own right.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.