Interview: David Guggenheim (2010, 2012 Black List) — Part 6

April 6th, 2013 by

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 6, David delves into more aspects of the screenwriting craft:

Scott:  Obviously if you traffic in action writing, you’ve got to be very good at writing entertaining, compelling scene description. How do you go about doing that?

David:  Again, you learn from the masters. Shane Black was the master, I think, of that. But that style was very specific to him so I wouldn’t recommend emulating it too much. So you look at how other people write. You look at the way that Tony Gilroy writes all the action of Bourne movies, it’s exactly how it is when you’re watching it. It’s just as frenetic and just as quick and exciting and pulsating. You want to infuse that into your action scenes.

Scott:  When you finish a first draft, and you’re faced with the inevitable rewriting process, what are some of the keys for you that you take into consideration when you’re rewriting your script?

David:  I go into it, with any rewriting process, or any note process, of going I’m not the smartest guy in the room. I will take any idea and I will try it. I may not agree with it when it’s given to me, but I always give the idea a chance, and I’ll try it. If it doesn’t work, then at least I tried it, and I can make an informed argument why it doesn’t work. But I’m not afraid to do a lot of heavy lifting. That’s part of it. Writing is rewriting, for sure. I think you have to be ready to tear apart anything that doesn’t work on your script, and start from scratch. It’s pretty amazing to go back and see the first draft of the scripts, after you’ve seen the movie come out…see how much work was involved in changing it. But at the same time, most of the time I would say, the core spine stays the same, and the concepts stay the same. You have to be able to make all the important chances without what people liked about it in the first place.

Scott:  That’s an important point, isn’t it?

David:  Yeah.

Scott:  You give it a clean read, but you want to make sure you also pay attention to what works and preserve that.

David:  Right. There’s time where you can go too far, for sure. That’s happened to me…you write…you can tell on the fourth draft I’ve went too far, and I changed more things than I had to. Because by the time you’re there, maybe you’re too close to the material and you lose sight of what’s important. But it’s all part of the process.

Scott:  What is your actual writing process?

David:  I write everyday…The benefit of living in New York, is you get to almost live on LA time and when you’re a night writer, like me, it helps that you don’t really have to get up until 9 AM, LA time, which is noon my time. So I can write until like 6 in the morning, which I like to do a lot. My process, really is that I like to write the script, or as much as I can of the script, and as fast as humanly possible. Literally…don’t worry about descriptions…don’t even really worry about so much the choreography, the action…it’s strictly bare‑bones as possible. Don’t even worry about the dialogue…just getting all the information down on the page, just so I know that I can tell the story.

I’ll do that for one night, and then the next day, I start‑up back on page one, on a new file, and I start writing the script based on those “sketches”. Most of the time I don’t even have to look at the other page, I do it from memory, and I’ve been finding that the more fleshed out version comes out so much easier because I’ve already done a first take on the script.

Scott:  So literally at night, you’ll do what Darren Arnofsky calls a ‘muscle draft,’ where you’re just muscling it out. Then in the next day, you’ll go and rewrite those pages?

David:  Yeah, and usually I’ll muscle out, let’s say like 16 pages, of a script, and that will actually end up, usually, turning into my first act. That’s how little I’ll have actually written of the descriptions and the dialogue, but I’ll have every single important piece of information on that page. I’ll know what the character moments are and what scene goes after the next, and if there’s going to be a twist in the scene, I’m going to know that as well and so forth. But I don’t want to slow the process down with other factors. Some people say my scripts, they read really, really, really fast, and the actions are fast, and it’s very, very intense, and I think that all comes out of the style that I do it in now.

Scott:  If you were writing a drama, maybe you wouldn’t have that same approach?

David:  Exactly, but with writing an action movie, it needs to get on its feet very, very quickly, but logically and the story after that needs to keep moving like a freight train, but then…like a roller coaster…it has to have those quiet, lull moments, where you can take a pause and really make it about the characters.

Scott:  Do you and your brothers ever share scripts…look for advice from each other?

David:  Oh yeah, I take advantage of them, more than they take advantage of me. I wish that they would give me more stuff of theirs to read. I would love to do it, although they’re better than I am, so I think they’re fine. I’m the youngest, so I do pass up stuff to them. They’re so busy though.

Scott:   What is your single best excuse not to write?

David:  Oh man, I guess I could say it’s the kids. I got two now. That’s my excuse. I can’t write, I got the kids today. If I didn’t have the kids, there’s a good movie on, I’m just lazy. I don’t even need an excuse, I just don’t do it.

Scott:  What do you love most about writing?

David:  I love it when it works. I love the nights where you really just get an incredible amount of work done, and it’s work you’re really happy with. You may hate it in a week, but for that moment, you’re like I’m a writer. It’s working, this is great. I’m doing what I love and I’m delivering on what I promised the studio and the producers I could do, and I love that feeling.

Scott:  In an ideal world, where are you in five or 10 years?

David:  In an ideal world, I want to keep doing what I’m doing, I want to still be here in New York, hopefully. I just love it here. I think I’ll never stop writing specs, because I think I just love the process of it so much, and I get too excited about coming up with my own stuff and seeing if that works. But hopefully we’re in production on Black Box and we’re in production on Puzzle Puzzle and Narco Sub and hopefully just churning out more and more material. Hopefully I’m just going to get better and better and better. Really, that’s my goal is that every single script, I hope I learn from the mistakes I made in the previous one and evolve.

Scott:  Finally what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking in to Hollywood?

David:  I’ll tell you this, and I think this is always the case, I think screenwriting is the cleanest and quickest way to break into the industry. I think it’s much harder to make a short film than it is to write one. I do think that all writers, they should learn from reading other scripts. I think that’s a key part of the education process. It’s also watching the movies that are getting made, I think is very important too.

I think you have to almost be scientific about the movies that are being made and watching them and saying, “Why did that movie get made, and why didn’t that other one get made?” It informs the stuff that you’re writing. I do think you learn the craft by failure. I think it’s all about writing drafts and seeing what’s wrong with them, and analyzing them, and then fixing them and repeat, wash, rinse, repeat.

I think looking at scripts, scripts that have gotten made, is a great way to learn things. It teaches structure and it teaches you how to construct a scene. It shows you this is what worked. There’s something about this writing that got studios to respond to it, that got actors wanting to do it, the directors wanted to do it and they put millions of dollars behind it. That’s all free education that you can do on your own.

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.

Please stop by comments to thank David and ask any questions you may have.

David is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.

16 thoughts on “Interview: David Guggenheim (2010, 2012 Black List) — Part 6

  1. Debbie Moon says:

    Sme great advice this week. Thanks, David!

    1. David Guggenheim says:

      My pleasure!

  2. Zaike Airey says:

    Where the hell are all the commenters?!

    Anyway, second-time caller here! Thanks for the wonderful interview and if questions are still getting answered, I’ve got one more.

    I’m an introvert. I don’t like telling jokes. I don’t even like telling people about what happened during my day. And I hate pitching. I hate it, hate it, hate it. It scares me and the fear of the blank stare shakes my soul.

    That being said, I’ve been practicing. Forcing myself to explain stories to my friends and really KNOWING the story I’m telling. I’m getting a little better, slowly.

    I’m curious about your relationship to pitching either one-on-one, or to a room. Any techniques or things you do to psych yourself up? My beta-blocker and coffee speedballs are not the most healthy method.

    Thanks again!

    1. David Guggenheim says:

      Hey Zaike Airey,

      First off, good for you for facing the fear! Fact is: pitching isn’t an easy thing to do and first few times, I definitely stumbled. You just gotta pretend like you just saw the best movie you ever saw and now you’re telling your friends all about it. Bring that same enthusiasm to it and you’ll see how infectious it becomes — whether one-on-one or to a room. Hope this helps and good luck!

  3. David & Scott, thanks for doing this interview.

    I was wondering about David’s process with regards to action set pieces.

    David, do you just write and let the action beats emerge naturally, or do you have heuristics like George Lucas/Lawrence Kasdan did with Indiana Jones where they knew upfront that they wanted to have action every 10 or so pages? How do you deal with the continuity and tension buildup of your action sequences and the pacing of your movies?

    many thanks.

    1. David Guggenheim says:

      Thanks! I personally just let the action beats emerge naturally. They’re born out of the story and the characters. But in an action movie the moments tend to happen every 15 pages or so anyway, so there’s really no need to declare a plan. I think pacing is incredibly important — especially in an action movie. You want it to move fast (but never at the expense of logic or character or emotion) and how I deal with the tension buildup, I think, depends on the actual type of action scene I’m dealing with (which I know doesn’t totally answer the question, sorry).

      1. David, many thanks for the reply. This was very helpful.

  4. Another fine interview from another fine writer. My thanks once again to you, Scott, and to you, David.

    1. David Guggenheim says:


  5. Thanks a million !! David and Scott.
    For such a detailed interview. People like you are true inspiration.
    One quick question though.
    While writing specs, who do you cater to in your mind? The reader or the audience ?

    1. David Guggenheim says:

      Thanks so much! I’m not sure I see a real difference between the two. Obviously one of the main differences between a spec and an assignment is with a spec the reader doesn’t have to read it so you want to make sure that reading the script is as enjoyable an experience as watching it. Otherwise they put it down.

  6. Hey David – thanks for doing the interview. Like you, I currently work and live in NYC. From your own experience, how important do you think it is to be in LA to break in? If you didn’t have the benefit of your brothers already working in the biz, would you have needed to be in LA to get your scripts into the right hands? Also, would love to read the selling (not shooting) draft of Safe House. Is there anywhere online where we can download? Thanks man!! -Brian

    1. wow, for some reason when i re-read my question it came across kind of jerkish. Totally didn’t mean it to be!! :) If I may rephrase…

      Most industry insiders say that you really should be based in LA to break in. Can you please comment on your experience breaking into the business and being a working screenwriter being based in NY.

      Thanks again!!

  7. David Guggenheim says:

    Hey Brian,

    No worries. The truth is — you don’t have to live in NYC to break into the business. You can write specs from anywhere. However, once you do — it is to your benefit to be out there to take meetings, etc. And if you wanna do TV, you definitely have to be there. I made a personal choice to stay in NYC because I love the city, but I’m sure there’s a side to the business I’m missing out on — but not enough that it makes me wanna move. However, if you have no problem living in LA, I would suggest you move there at some point — just for access alone (I personally have to fly out every month or so).

  8. Hey David, Great interview. Question, how long after you sold Safe House did you find it safe to quit your job and write full time?

    Also, are there any versions of your scripts online? I tried searching for them but I didn’t have any luck

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