In December 2011, writer-director Spenser Cohen sold the action-thriller spec script “The Driver” he wrote with Zach Luna. In November 2012, Cohen sold the action spec script “High Value Target”. Then in January 2013, Spenser sold another spec script: “Pantheon”. A writer who sells 3 spec scripts within 2 years is someone we need to hear from, so I’m pleased to present my interview with Spenser.
In Part 5, Spenser discusses some important aspects of the screenwriting craft:
Scott: Let’s shift if we can into some specific screenwriting craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?
Spenser: I’m a workaholic, so it doesn’t matter if I’m in my car, or whatever I’m doing, I’m always, always thinking of ideas. I’ll text myself ideas, or email myself ideas. I think story ideas really come when you’re not trying to think of them, which is weird. But I feel like when you try to sit down and come up with an idea, you spend 10 hours and nothing happens. But, if you just go do something, if you go for a drive, all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, that’s what it should be,” or, “That’s a great idea.” I really get ideas and inspiration from everywhere.
Scott: How important do you think the story concept is to the overall strength and marketability of a spec script?
Spenser: It’s everything. You need an idea that’s simple. I don’t mean boring or dull. I mean simple. Even movies that are complex have very simple stories at the core. Look at Inception or The Matrix or Children of Men. The stories and characters are complex, but the big ideas are simple. You can pitch The Matrix to anyone in a few sentences and they’ll understand it. I think you have to be able to explain any idea in a couple sentences, and if you can’t then I don’t think you have a movie yet. But, a strong, simple idea is really everything.
Scott: How much time do you spend in prep writing?
Spenser: A lot. I feel like most of the work happens before you actually start writing and not just in outlining. But for example, on HVT we had gone into so many rooms and I had pitched it to so many people verbally that I could just sit down and start writing. I mean, I probably spent 30 hours pitching it to people at that point. At least in my head I knew the whole story from beginning to end. But I think I’ve also written scripts where I just jump in, and on page 60 I’ll spin out and I don’t know where I’m going. I think you really have to know your end point. You really have to know where you’re going, and I think the more you do up front the better the process is going to be going through the first draft.
Scott: How do you go about developing your characters? Do you have any tried and true tools or tips that you find yourself using regularly?
Spenser: They sit in my head for awhile, and they slowly start to take shape. One thing that I do when I first start writing is to put the outline aside and just start trying to find the character’s voice. I’ll give myself space to explore, and I just let the characters go. No one’s going to see it. No one’s going to read it. There’s no pressure. It’s their story, and I let whatever happens, happen. I’ll often make up a scene that’s not in the outline and might not even make sense for the story. Other times I end up writing the first ten pages over and over again. Once I feel good about the first ten pages it’s easy to keep going. But if your characters don’t work in the first ten pages, then they’re not going to work on page fifty, or a hundred. It’s almost like a rehearsal before you jump in and start doing the real work. Just exploring. Often in these rough passes the characters start to take shape. And sometimes just getting through the first draft, gives me a much clearer picture of the characters. So there’s really not one way that I do it. It’s always different. I’m constantly adapting.
Scott: What about dialogue? How do you go about finding the voices of each of your story’s characters?
Spenser: Again, I think that comes down to research and just having thought about these characters long enough. If you do enough prep work and understand the characters they start to speak to each other.
But you can’t just start and expect dialogue to come out that’s going to be great. A lot of times dialogue is the last thing that gets perfected. Even while you’re making the movie, you are reworking, rewriting dialogue. You should never want to be locked in on anything, especially dialogue. You always want to have flexibility on changing things and opening things up and coming up with other possibilities.
Scott: One aspect of screenwriting that I find a wide divergence of opinion about is theme. What is your understanding of theme, and how important is it to you when you’re writing a script?
Spenser: For me, theme is very important, but I’m never thinking of the theme right off the bat. I think the theme comes out while you’re writing. But I never go into a project thinking about it. Movies are there to teach us about the human condition, what it’s like to be in difficult or impossible situations. Theme is very important, but it’s definitely something that comes later in the process for me and is often times invisible. It reveals itself as I go. Every writer has their own life experiences, their own point of view, so the way they see the world often dictates the theme.
Tomorrow in Part 6 of our interview, Spenser talks more about the craft and offers advice for aspiring screenwriters.
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 Spenser and ask any questions you may have.
Spenser is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.
Twitter: @IAmSpenserCohen / @AnnaHalberg
Six Foot Turkey Productions website here.