Carter Blanchard is a great example of talent meeting persistence. His first writing credit is a short film he directed in 1989. Since that time, he has landed numerous writing assignments and sold multiple spec scripts including “Virus” (1994), “Frigid & Impotent” (1995), ”Bedbugs” aka “Dead Asleep” (2004), and “Near Death” (2007). For anyone working in the entertainment industry, that is a long stretch of time. However it is with his most recent spec script “Glimmer” that Carter’s fortunes took a quantum leap, the script selling in a bidding war and making the 2012 Black List and Hit List.
Today in Part 5, Carter shares his thoughts about some aspects of the screenwriting craft.
Scott: How do you come up with story ideas?
Carter: I think I covered some of this before, I write down ideas and file them away. I read the news every morning. I look for ideas in there. I listen to people talking about life when I’m out… like hiking Runyon Canyon when you hear someone bitching about their relationship or something. Little seeds can come out of overhearing people. Even if it doesn’t launch an idea for you, it can launch or shape a character.
When I came up with “Glimmer,” I don’t think I would have tried a time travel movie without the found footage element. Everybody wanted to do found footage, but time travel was something they hadn’t done in that genre yet. That made it compelling for me. When you mix genres up or you put an unlikely character into a familiar construct, sometimes that creates a whole new mechanism. I try to do that a lot. I try and come up with something familiar that is done in a way I haven’t seen before. That’s a big aspect of how I think when I’m trying to generate new ideas.
Scott: One thing I hear you are saying to yourself, “I need to feel some passion for the idea. I need to feel like this would be something that would be entertaining to me.”
Carter: Yeah, and that’s what I learned… a good metaphor is, I played high school football. In practice, I’d always try to implement exactly what the coach would tell us to do instead of just going with the flow of what would’ve been more effective, after getting that initial blueprint on how to run through a play. The same thing goes for screenwriting. When I went out pitching after “Bedbugs,” I was delivering what I thought they wanted from me, instead of making it my own and coming in with some real fire in my belly about telling a story that they weren’t expecting to hear.
They’re hearing pitches all day, all week long. Depending on the situation, they may have heard 30, 40, 50 pitches already on a certain project. And now they’ve got to sit through another one, and even a fairly brief pitch is going to last 15-20 minutes. Then there are people who pitch for 30-40 minutes, as I sometimes did. [laughs] It’s a great cure for insomnia.
But if you are not excited and you’re going through the motions and simply giving them a blueprint for a movie that we’ve all seen before… it can be well-executed and you hit all the right points along the way… but if it’s not exciting to you, then it’s not going to excite anybody.
Scott: I’m also hearing don’t be satisfied with just an idea. To look for something that makes it unusual and distinctive. You hit on a core concept, then you say, “Okay, so how can I take that and elevate it to something that makes it more attractive in a distinctive way?”
Carter: Yeah, and even looking back at “Frigid and Impotent” is a good example. It was just a lovers-on-the-run movie, but it was this totally weird black comedy about serial killers who killed out of sexual frustration and then they meet each other and finally have great sex for the first time in their lives. That’s when the cops catch up to them and they hit the road. Then they have to deal with being two completely broken people in a new relationship for the first time in their lives. That script served me as a great sample for a long, long time. People really responded to it. As a young writer, I had no idea why the story worked, I just got lucky. I tried to write even weirder darker stories after that and they all fell flat.
Scott: How about prep writing, brainstorming, character development, plotting, outlining? How much time do you spend prepping a story?
Carter: It depends. For “Glimmer,” probably three days, but normally I would say two to four weeks. The idea I’m working on now I’ve been at for a couple of weeks. It’s coming together in stages. I’ll get broadstrokes and run ‘em by Madhouse. They’re like, “Great, but you need to get things moving faster and find a better device to propel act two.” Then I go back and do more work. It will probably take a little longer on this one just because when I’m ready to go I really want to be ready to sit down and blaze through the script. I think the more time you spend developing a story the less time you’re going to spend writing it, which is a great way to write because then you don’t stop to figure out the next plot turn. Although I have some writer friends who don’t work that way, and they do fine.
Scott: Yeah, everybody is different. Right?
Carter: Yeah, but I think most writers work that way.
Scott: With young writers and students, I always tell them you at least owe it to yourself to work up an outline once. At least go through that process where you’re getting a scene‑by‑scene comprehensive outline. You may not end up working that way, but most professional writers, when the turnaround is eight to twelve weeks, you’ve got to have the chops down and the confidence that you know how to break a story.
Carter: Yeah, I’ve come to the point where I write a pretty detailed treatment. The thing I’m working now, it’ll probably be 15 pages long, the treatment I’m going off of. I usually start with a conceptual image or scene idea… “Glimmer” is a great example. The videotape in the safe deposit box. I put that down on a card, stuck it on my board and that’s going to be the beginning of act two. You build around that.
Next, what immediately pops into my head for this story? Introducing the characters, having some of them go back in the past and some of them staying here. Who are the two main characters to stay here? It’s going to be a boy and a girl. Okay, so they’re going to fall in love… That all goes on cards. Then come up with some wish fulfillment stuff. It would be cool if they go to Yankee Stadium in 1977, etc. Just start writing down all that kind of stuff… and the plot points that come out of necessity… and a structure starts to evolve. At the end of the day I can fill up half the board and get the rest of it down in another day or two and then go over it and make sure that it works. Then I’ll write it in long form, read the treatment. There will be lots of obvious flaws. Then I usually go back and start a new board with fresh cards, post all the stuff that I know works and pull the rest so there are new blank cards to fill. I might go through that process two or three times.
Sometimes you lose interest during this process or find you don’t have the solutions yet. When I was younger, I plowed ahead no matter what. But now it’s just like, eh, if I really want to do this I’ll come back later. But right now, I’ve got to come up with something new. There’s that part of it too, knowing when to cut bait on an idea that isn’t there yet.
Scott: How about developing your characters, any specific tools or techniques that you use to develop them?
Carter: It’s funny, because sometimes you write a script and people say, “Who do you see in this role?” It’s like, “I have no idea.” I’ll have images of people in my head, very vivid to me, but they aren’t anybody in particular. They’re just beings who have manifested in my imagination and they look a certain way. I can see them clearly when I’m writing. For me the story forms the character.
Say you’re going to be stuck in a car for a thousand-mile drive with three people. You want the driver to be the world’s worst driver who refuses to give up the wheel. It makes the other two nervous throughout the trip. So that character starts to take on qualities based on that first situation you came up with, which is also a story point. So as I pull the story together, the characters start coming to life and each informs the other.
But usually, the way I work, characters come to me later in the process. And then I get help. I get an awful lot of help from some really talented people who are always harping on character. So sometimes I’m forced into it. [laughs]
Carter has parlayed his success with that script into a high profile writing assignment, adapting the best-selling video game “Spy Hunter” into a movie for Warner Bros.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
Tomorrow in Part 6, Carter shares more insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
Please stop by comments to thank Carter and ask any questions you may have.
Carter is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.
You can follow Carter on Twitter: @CartBlanch.