Screenwriter Daniel Kunka wrote the 2009 movie 12 Rounds and has sold two high profile spec scripts: Agent Ox and Bermuda Triangle. In addition, Daniel is working on the project “Crime of the Century” with Chris Morgan producing.
Recently Daniel and I had an excellent conversation which I am happy to share here.
Today in Part 5, Daniel shares some insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting:
Scott: How about some craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?
Daniel: Who knows? It’s a lot of surfing the Internet, reading news articles, looking at old movies. For me, I like to marry ideas that might not have a lot in common. For Agent Ox, I love spy thrillers, so it was taking that but putting it on an alien planet. For Bermuda, it was the concept of the triangle but marrying it with a disaster movie.
I definitely think that it’s something you can train yourself to do. It’s about going to movies or reading scripts and seeing how ideas work. Once you learn to think critically about other scripts, you can start to see why the writer did this or that and that will eventually get you to think the same way about your ideas.
For me, I usually find an idea somewhere out there in the ether and then I just jot it down or start a new document for it on my computer. Then I just let it sit for awhile, and if I find myself coming back to it and thinking about it more I know it might have a chance.
Scott: How important do you think the story concept is to the overall strength and commercial viability of a spec script?
Daniel: It’s pretty darn important. I know when I was younger, I would be in writers groups or just talking to other struggling writers and there was always this feeling that “writing trumps all.” Meaning as long as the script was written well it would find a home. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in today’s marketplace, or if it ever really was the case at all, we just didn’t know any better.
Just take a look at scripts that are on the Black List that never get picked up. They’re exceptionally well written and publicized, but it doesn’t always equal success as a spec script. Now obviously the flip side to that – and this was the case for me in that the 12 Rounds opportunity came directly from a script that didn’t sell – is you take meetings, you meet the town, you can find rewrite gigs or land other jobs.
But my thinking is, if you’re going to take the time to write a spec, aim high. You want it to sell. And if it’s going to sell, the concept is key. It has to be a movie. To me that’s the path of least resistance to making screenwriting your career, by giving the buyers scripts they have to buy.
Scott: How much time do you spend in prep writing, and which of the aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most time to?
Dan: Every script I write, I start with a treatment. I open up a document and I just brain dump the idea. What’s the concept, who are my characters, what are some set pieces and plot. I just get everything I can about the idea down on paper.
Then I spend some time writing out the beginning and the end of the movie. I’m not usually as concerned about the second act. I want to make sure I have a sound first act, that I know where my characters start and how the action starts. Then I want to make sure I have a very strong end of the first act, that there’s an active decision that starts the second act and drives the rest of the script.
Then I focus on the end. This tends to be broader strokes, but how is the action going to dovetail, where are my characters going to end up, what’s the climax of the story. Once I have that written out – usually anywhere from eight to fifteen pages – I’ll start writing actual script pages. The second act I leave a little bit to self-discovery. I probably know a few things that have to happen, but as long as I know where my story and characters start and I know where they end, I’m confident that I can find the middle as I go.
Scott: What about dialogue? How do you go about finding the voices of your characters?
Daniel: It’s a process. For me, dialogue is the most revised part of a script, and I think for a first draft, what you want is to be as minimalistic as possible. So I approach dialogue on a “need to know” basis. Then in a second draft it’s rewriting and trimming and adding jokes where you need them and just figuring out exactly how your characters would react to situations now that you’ve gotten a whole draft to know them.
I think everyone goes through an Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino phase where they try to write these intricate dialogue passages but to me those guys are the exception and not the rule. Brevity is almost always better, especially when you’re a young writer, and bad dialogue kills, so a lot of time less is definitely more.
Scott: How about theme? How important is that to you? Do you hit it at the beginning of the process, during the process, at the end of the process?
Daniel: Through the entire process, really. But for me, theme is usually something I find as I write through the first draft. I probably have a general idea when I start, but theme becomes the unifying factor as I go. I always work better sort of discovering it rather than coming up with something early in the process or even before I start writing pages. That’s not to say it’s not there, but I don’t consciously make the decision “this is my theme.”
I think theme is directly related to voice. A lot of my themes are similar, because those are the stories I want to tell. And it’s not planned, it just is. Because of that I’ll sort of trust my theme to tag along with me until I’m done with the first draft, then the second draft is when I’ll go back in and add a few lines here or there to highlight some things that will help take the piece to the level I want it.
Tomorrow in Part 6, Daniel talks more about the craft of screenwriting.
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 Daniel and ask any questions you may have.
Daniel is repped by ICM Partners and Madhouse Entertainment.