No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.
Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 6, Justin talks about more aspects of the screenwriting craft:
Scott: How about dialogue? They talk about some writers having a good ear for it, or may be born with that talent at an innate level. Do you think that’s the case, or do you think it’s something that writers can develop their ability with, to write good, effective dialogue?
Justin: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think what I’m thinking of when I’m writing dialogue is, “Don’t overwrite.” That’s always on my mind. I tend to underwrite rather than overwrite, just because I hate exposition. I think what I learned, actually, from reading so many scripts is that there’s nothing better than subtext, that it’s something you see in not that many scripts, and things tend to be much more explicit and on the nose. But if you can create dialogue that is more nuanced and actually says more than it does on the surface. That is invaluable.
Scott: How about theme? What do you understand theme to be?
Justin: That’s the ultimate question. It’s interesting because some guys ‑‑ like I listened to an interview with Steven Gaghan — he is one of those guys I have in my Writers Rushmore. — he operates very much from the theme first. Then he’ll draw his narrative from that. I think what I found to be most helpful is to find the arc and work on the character and then the theme will organically emerge. That’s been my experience.
Scott: Yeah. I think that’s probably the case with most writers, is that they just want to dig around in the dirt a bit, get to know the lay of the land. And I concur with you. I think if you zero in on the characters, particularly what is going on, where they start and where they end up, that that will inform and hopefully just generate naturally some of those thematic elements that are in a script.
Justin: Yeah. With McCarthy, people have said things to me on the thematic level — “oh, I enjoyed this thematic element of the script” — and I’m surprised by it. Often, that thematic element wasn’t even something that was intentional on my part. Reading is obviously inherently subjective and people can take away so many different things from a work. As long as you have a strong character and a clear arc, it tends to come together organically.
Scott: That just resonates with me. It’s like you give yourself over to this story universe and these characters and you act in some ways as if they are real. That’s why I don’t think in terms of theme. I think in terms of themes. Stories have multiple layers and levels to them and multiple themes because you see that. I could watch a movie or you could watch a movie and we’d have completely different reactions to it, in terms of what we pick up and identify with. And that’s often times the case, isn’t it, that we have no clue? I had no idea that that was in there but, you know, now that you mention it, yeah. It is there and I see it. So there’s that wonderful kind of magic that happens when you’re writing.
Justin: Absolutely. Look at a classic like The Godfather, it can be this intimate father son story or an epic about American capitalism and the American dream.
Scott: That’s why movies are so terrific when they’re done well because they have so many different layers and levels of meaning and understanding, and ways of connecting to them. How about this? What’s your actual writing process? Are you everyday? Sporadic bursts? Do you work in private? Do you go to coffee shops? Do you like to listen to music? Does it have to be quiet? How do you write?
Justin: I tend to write every day, usually about 11 to six. Music at the beginning to kind of set a tone, but then silence. Sometimes the light’s off if the stuff I’m writing is particularly depressing (as it often is). I try to make it my day as structured as possible because, as a writer, you know there’s nothing easier to do than not to write.
Scott: OK, just a couple more questions. Let’s see. You went to NYU. You went to Purchase. You’ve studied this. You’ve read all these. Do you have any screenwriting principles that are really important to you?
Justin: Always be aware of your arc. Underwrite and don’t overwrite. I’d rather leave something open to interpretation and ambiguous, than have it explained in painful detail, although not to the extent that underwriting leaves it confusing, of course. Keep your tone consistent. Looking at a guy like Terrio again, one of the things that amazes me about “Argo” is that it is so totally consistent, and yet if you look at the script, the film could be so manic and messy. There’s an interesting, diffuse blend of comedy and drama. The first act is much more comedic. The third act is very tense, incredibly dramatic. Terrio (and Affleck) knew exactly how to balance the tone, so the work doesn’t wildly vacillate back and forth. That, I think, is the sign of a master.
Scott: Finally, here you are, as recently as gosh, Justin, three months ago?
Scott: You were not necessarily outside looking in because you’ve been involved in the film business and whatnot, but you weren’t, at that point, an established screenwriter, not represented. Now, here you are. You definitely made that big leap. This is the archetypal question, but it’s a critical one. What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about the craft?
Justin: Above all, write something unique that showcases your voice. Readers read so much – at times four or five scripts a day. So many of those scripts become one blob in your head – a singular voice. It’s the scripts that really strive to do something unique, whether it works or whether it doesn’t, that stick with you. As long as you’re writing something that is representative of your voice and your experience, I think you can’t go wrong.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
For Part 5, go here.
Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.