David Guggenheim broke into the business in February 2010 by selling the spec script Safe House which was produced and has grossed $208M worldwide. Since that time, Guggenheim has sold two more spec scripts: “Black Box” to Universal and “Narco Sub” to 20th Century Fox, as well as the pitch “Puzzle Palace”. With several other projects in development and having made the Black List twice (2010, 2012), it’s safe to say Guggenheim is one of the hottest action-thriller screenwriters in Hollywood today.
I recently spoke with David about his background, some of his writing projects and the screenwriting craft. Today in Part 5, David digs into some specifics of the screenwriting craft:
Scott: Let’s get into some craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?
David: They come from everywhere really. For example, I had read a bunch of articles about narco trafficking and reading about these narco subs, I just said “Well that’s a movie.” Right then and there I knew that’s a movie. I was going to do a story about transporting drugs on narco mini‑submarines. The concept that drug cartels had submarines blew my mind. That got me really, really excited. The idea of doing a twist on the submarine genre. “Run Silent, Run Deep” scenario but with drug lords.
Scott: How important do you think the story concept is to the overall marketability of a spec script?”
David: I think it’s critical for a spec script. I think you need that strong hook. I think there’s a lot of things you can get away with in other assignments that you can’t get away with in spec and vice versa. I think in a spec you need to make sure you’re hooking your reader in that first 15 pages, and that it has a strong enough concept. Because your concept it what’s going to set it apart. Because you don’t have a title like “Batman,” or you’re not based on preexisting material, you’re selling point is the concept.
Scott: How much time do you spend on prep writing, on brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining?
David: It depends on the project.” Safe House,” didn’t require that much. It required a little bit of outlining and reconceiving the set up of the movie. But if I have a really clean set up, I feel confident that I can just go ahead and start writing it. That’s all I really need is that clean set up, because I think in action movies that’s what is the most important thing. A clean reason for why all this is happening so you can get your heroes on the road.
As far as research, I do as much as I can to make sure I have a working knowledge of the world I’m writing but if I’m feeling inspired I’ll do the research as I go or sometimes after I get a draft down. But usually I’m too excited to write, and I just want to get it down on paper and see if I have a movie there first before I actually look stuff up and realize I don’t know what I’m talking about at all.
Scott: Do you do a formal outline when you write a script?
David: I’ve been outlining more and more, for sure. I think definitely when you’re dealing with studios and producers, they want to see an outline. And if you’re doing a pitch, the pitch is the outline. You have to go in there and be able to say, “Here’s your first act, and here’s your second act, and this is where the movie is going to end up.” However, I don’t love pitching or writing in an outline what the action is going to happen, because I do like writing action as it’s happening. That way I’m putting myself in the shoes of the main character. It’s just as surprising to the character as it is to me, and I think that’s key to good writing.
Scott: How do you go about developing your characters?
David: For me, it either comes out of the concept — who is the most interesting person I could drop into this specific scenario or I first start with “what type of person interests me” and build a story around them. Then I put a lot of time into the first 15 pages,so I get a really good sense of who they are and what they stand for and what they want. Then that tells me where they’re going.
Scott: What about dialogue?
David: Dialogue, for me again, is something I get down as quickly as possible, then go back and play with it and fix it where it needs fixing or let it lie. If you have a good enough sense of your characters, the dialogue should come easier. I’m a very instinctual writer. If I’m having a lot of trouble coming up with dialogue for a scene, I realize the dialogue is not the problem, the problem is the scene. If it’s the scene, then it’s the characters in it or the story beat.
You have to be able to be flexible and go back and say, “Alright. Why is this section not working? Why am I not writing well today?” There’s got to be a reason.
Scott: Let’s talk about scenes. Are there some questions you ask, or think points you want to hit, when you’re writing a scene, or constructing a scene?
David: You definitely always want a scene to have point, to be able to move the story forward and have conflict. Lately, I have been starting to write little bullet points for myself going, “This is what needs to come out of the scene. Emotionally I want this, thematically I want this, and if it’s a big plot in the scene, I want this.” You also have to be very aware of the scene that came before it, and maybe the scene that came before that.Where’s your character in the story? If there’s a scene later on, you have to infuse the dialogue and the scene with everything that happened before it. What they’ve been through. The stuff they’re going to say now is not going to be stuff they would have said 60, 70 pages earlier.
Scott: You mentioned theme. How do you work with theme? Do you have a working understanding of what theme is, and then how do you apply that when you’re working with a script?
David: If you come up with a really great, strong concept, hopefully a lot of that stuff is coming together with it. It brings with it who your characters are going to be. Then…like, Air Force One goes down, OK. Well, my main character, I know, is going to have someone on that plane. Now I have that, and he’s going through the grieving process. I now know, and guess what, America’s going to be going through a grieving process. I think thematically, I’m going to make the movie about that. You never want to hit it too much on the head. It’s a balancing act, so it’s all about picking and choosing and sprinkling in the moments. Sometimes it happens organically if you’re in a good place. It does the work for you.
Tomorrow in Part 6, David delves into more aspects of the screenwriting craft.
For Part 1, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank David and ask any questions you may have.
David is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.