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 6, Daniel talks more about the craft of screenwriting:
Scott: What do you think about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have specific goals in mind?
Daniel: “Start late and get out early,” right? That’s the old adage and you might think it’s hogwash but it’s one hundred percent true. I’m a big believer in making sure every scene has a purpose. So usually when I’m staring at the blank page it’s “what are we doing here and what’s the point?” Some scenes move along the plot, some scenes move along character, but good scenes do both. I try to write those scenes as much as possible.
I was talking to someone else the other day about this, but one of the best examples of screenplay scenes I’ve seen is, oddly enough, in the children’s book Goodnight Gorilla. I know that’s a strange example, but each page of that book is a picture of a scene, and what’s great about it is there’s very little dialogue. So you’re forced to connect the dots of what’s going on as the story moves forward. And that’s a lot like screenwriting. You want to construct your scenes in a way that moves the story forward but it’s not just telling, it’s showing and connecting. Goodnight Gorilla forces you to be an active participant in putting the story together.
The hardest scenes to write are exposition, and unfortunately when you write about the Bermuda Triangle going crazy or a human spy on an alien planet, there’s a lot of exposition. For those scenes I always look to find a way to get the exposition to come out of conflict or character or something else that’s just not “hey, can you tell me exactly what I need to know here?” Those scenes always take the longest and are the most frustrating to write. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times if a scene is flat it’s cause there’s no conflict or no purpose to the scene. Even one line of dialogue that hints at an underlying goal for your character can be enough to turn an entire scene around for the better.
Scott: Since you write action, and action‑adventure‑science fiction‑science projects, this is an important question: What keys do you have to write entertaining scene description?
Daniel: Again, brevity is key. You don’t want to bore your readers with details. I think you always start with more than you need, then each draft you make it tighter and tighter as you go.
What I try to do is paint a picture with as few brush strokes as possible. So instead of writing out an entire fight sequence between two guys, I’ll keep it very general except for two or three key moments that make the fight unique. Just something for the reader to grab on to. When I had to describe an entirely new world in Agent Ox, I was very conscious of choosing two or three specific details that stood out, and even then I made sure to describe enough early on so people had an idea of the world, then let them fill in the rest of the details as we went later on.
Scott: What is your actual writing process?
Daniel: I write alone. I’m not a coffee shop writer. When I was younger I would write at night a lot, but now that I have a family I’m more of a nine-to-fiver. I’m usually at my computer by nine o’clock, do an hour or two of emails and other things, then start in writing from about ten to two. Then I break for lunch, maybe do a little swimming, then back at it from about three to seven before I have to put my kids to bed. When I’m really on a roll, or I’m on a deadline, I’ll add a late night writing session to that as well. I’m not one of these guys who can lock in for a few hours, do an awesome amount of work, then just check out. I tend to live my scripts when I’m in them, for better or worse.
Scott: What is the single best excuse not to write?
Daniel: It’s hard? Yeah, I don’t know. You don’t need an excuse not to write. It’s pretty easy to watch TV or watch movies and convince yourself your furthering career. Or you know, you take your kid to Disneyland and you’re like “I’m a great dad today, who needs writing?”
The thing for me is – this is my job. I tell people I write everyday, and even if I don’t turn out actual pages, it’s the truth. There are very few days where I don’t have some sort of writing orientated goal I’m not focused on, whether it’s brainstorming ideas or reading scripts or catching up on movies and TV. When you’re a younger writer, you have to push yourself to make this your habit cause it’s so easy not to do it. Then once you get used to it, you can’t think of working any other way.
I guess truthfully the best excuse not to write for me is when the Chicago White Sox play games on the east coast that start at four or five here in Los Angeles. Those games kills me. Thankfully we suck this year.
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Daniel: What don’t I love about it? It’s the most frustrating thing in the entire world. It’s exceptionally difficult, which all sound like things I don’t like about it. But to me, that’s what makes it so satisfying. I can’t think of doing anything else.
And what better way to spend an afternoon then by going to an alien planet or having the Bermuda Triangle swallow the northern hemisphere? It’s an amazing life and I’m blessed I can earn a living doing it.
Scott: Finally, what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood?
Daniel: There’s the stuff we covered. Reading screenplays, seeing movies, learning to think critically about why movies do and don’t work. Then there’s the nuts of bolts of the actual writing. Learning how to convey your ideas in the most dynamic way possible, figuring out and trusting your voice, seeing how stories are told concisely.
Then there’s the business side of things. You’ve got to know what’s selling, what movies are getting made, which ideas are out there. I know not everyone will subscribe to this, but I think it can be a real asset in furthering your career, so if the opportunity is out there, I strongly urge you take it and learn about the business.
And then it’s just about the work. Being a writer is like being a company. You need to turn out product. You need to come up with ideas. You need to write specs. You need to prove to people you can write. And spec scripts are great because it’s one of the few ways a writer can actually have the upper-hand in a relationship with a producer or studio. It’s your script, and if they want to buy it hopefully, you have the power.
For those that have had some success but are still struggling to break through, I would say don’t chase open writing assignments. Don’t focus on pitches. Just write ideas that people want to buy. And if it doesn’t sell, write some more. Learn to rewrite. All these things will help put you in position to find success.
It might seem like a lot, but this is an all-in kind of endeavor. You need to do the work to really get to that point where you can ask “Do you want to say goodbye to your old career and say hello to your new one?”
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 Daniel and ask any questions you may have.
Daniel is repped by ICM Partners and Madhouse Entertainment.