Tze Chun is a talented young filmmaker who first gained attention with his indie drama Children of Invention. Indiewire describes his latest movie Cold Comes the Night, starring Alice Eve and Bryan Cranston, as a “tightly wound noir thriller.” Having screened the movie myself, I concur wholeheartedly. It opens in theaters and on VOD on January 10.
I caught up with Tze as he was driving from LA to San Diego for a screening of Cold Comes the Night. We had a great conversation covering how he wound his way into filmmaking, three of his movies, and his thoughts on the craft of screenwriting.
In Part 5, Tze answers some questions about filmmaking and the craft of screenwriting:
Scott: I’d love to ask you some craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?
Tze: When I want to come up with a new project, I will sit down and I will try to write 25 ideas a day for a week or two. So that I have 100, 150, or 200 ideas. Some of them will be TV ideas, not all of them will be feature ideas. A lot of them will be bad ideas. I find that out of 100, there’s one that I can’t stop thinking about. Then I start taking more notes and find the story.
Scott: How about prep writing?
Tze: I always outline. Once I have the idea and I’m confident there’s a thing I want to go to script on, I fill out a spreadsheet that I’ve created that helps me brainstorm. 15 to 20 bullet‑points that I will fill out.
Some of those are character notes. Some of those are notes on the visual style of the movie. A lot of them are structural notes.
Then, once I’ve filled out that spreadsheet, that’s pretty much my brainstorming on the script. I’ll have 10 or 15 pages of notes, and then I will go in and start structuring the movie, writing out every scene.
Once I have a 15‑page beat sheet with pretty much every scene on the movie laid out, then I’ll start writing. Things change but I find it helpful for my confidence to start with a structure in place, then if you have to change it, you change it, no big deal.
When I was out of college I just wrote from page one. I’d just start writing a script, having a vague idea of where things were going. I’ve always been a fast writer but when I wrote scripts that way, the script might be done in two or three weeks, the rewriting process took vast amounts of time. Whereas now, because I structure stuff out in advance, the writing takes the same amount of time, but the rewriting process is a lot faster because at least I’ve worked from a road map.
Scott: You mentioned character development. Are there any specific tools or approaches you use to develop your characters?
Tze: Yeah, I do. I have a character file for everybody. When I work with a writing partner it’s different than working on my own. When I am working on my own, I’m used to writing everything out. With a writing partner, it’s more of a talking about a character as opposed to writing a bio for that character.
Scott: How about dialogue? How do you go about finding your characters’ voices?
Tze: I’ve heard so many different opinions on this. Some people say that dialogue is not the way people talk or shouldn’t be the way people talk. Some people say that they try to keep the movie dialogue very close to the way people talk in real life.
I just try to do what feel the most natural. I think it helps if you’re a writer who has traveled to a lot of places, talked to people from different backgrounds, thought about what their concerns were, and how, by talking, they went about getting what they wanted.
For me I think, Children of Invention and Windowbreaker were very observational and very much based on things that I remembered and I still think about, that’s how I wrote dialogue for those movies. It was more like channeling people I remembered.
Scott: How about this concept of theme? Do you consciously think “I want to explore these themes” or do they emerge as you’re writing this story?
Tze: I’ve done it both ways. Sometimes I think of the theme that I wanted to explore and start writing and the story stays as close pretty much to that theme. Windowbreaker and Children of Invention were that way.
Cold Comes the Night, I started writing the script, thinking first that I wanted to make a genre film with an out-of-the-ordinary protagonist at the center of it and then started talking to my co‑writers about the type of person that she is. Certain things interested me and certainly I found a lot of those things overlapped with Children of Invention kind of subconsciously. If you look at Children of Invention, it is to some extent about the fallout from opportunism and that is exactly what Cold Comes the Night ended up being about. A lot of the stuff that I am writing or have written about revolves around that theme. I certainly didn’t go in start writing the story in order examine that particular theme, it just happens sometimes.
Scott: How about when you write a scene? Are you conscience of certain goals you’re trying to accomplish or is it more of an organic type of thing?
Tze: Yeah, part of it you know what is going to happen in the scene because of the outline. After I’ve created the outline, I know generally what every single scene is there to do. And sometimes when you are writing a scene you realize that is not the truth of the character. Then you have to deviate your outline.
I find that it’s hard to write a scene without a goal. It’s not necessarily your goal. It’s the goal of the people you’re writing, your characters and you’re checking in on them for these two pages because they’re either going to get what they want or not.
Scott: You’ve written and directed a lot of movies including about a dozen shorts. Has there been anything that you’ve learned in that process that has impacted your writing?
Tze: Yeah. Actually it was so funny. When I wrote Children of Invention. I was very worried for whatever reasons that audiences wouldn’t know how characters got to a location, or where the characters were in a certain scenes, so the script had all these transition scenes with people entering and exiting buildings. I think there were 200 scenes for a 100 page script and when we edited it down, there were probably 20 or 30 scenes of people entering and exiting buildings on the cutting room floor. So yeah, you learn something every time you make a movie. A lot of it you don’t really learn until the movie is edited together, to see everybody’s reaction.
I am constantly learning. I certainly don’t know everything. In fact, every day on set is a reminder of how little I know. I’ve learned a ton about production from my DPs, from my ADs, my producers. Every production I do, and I think every production is different, I am constantly embarrassed by the feeling that I should of learned certain things 15 years ago.
Scott: What’s your actual writing process?
Tze: My writing typically involves long stretches. The brainstorming process happens in short bursts, like an hour or two and then a break. But going to script is usually 10am-6pm until it’s done.
When it comes to writing, I usually sit down with my outline and write the rough draft in about 10 days. Then you start the rewrite process, which takes a couple weeks before you get to the first draft you’d actually show anyone.
Scott: What is your single best excuse not to write?
Tze: Now I have an infant son, the best excuse is to play with him, make him food, take him for a walk. That’s pretty much it. Back before he was born, I tried not to make many excuses, I just tried to write as much as possible.
Scott: What do you love most about writing?
Tze: For that time, at least, there is no one really looking over your shoulder. Anything is a possibility and it’s fun to create something. I don’t know, it’s always has been like that for me. I don’t really have the feeling that writing is painful the way some other people do.
Scott: One last question. What advice could offer aspiring filmmakers about learning the craft and about breaking into the business?
Tze: Five years ago, 10 years ago, I would say just write everyday and make as many movies as you can. If you make some bad movies, some of them could be good. Now I have to say before you do any of that, have an honest conversation with yourself about what your pain threshold is for rejection and weigh it against your desire to make movies.
While you want to be a filmmaker, there’s a lot of rejection out there and there’s a lot of waiting and at times it can be really damaging to your psyche. If you have a low threshold for something like that, then you’re probably not going to make it.
That’s just the truth. It’s too difficult to do if you have issues there. It may be depressing advice, but it’s something I’ve learned by having a lot of rejection over the years. If your desire and love to make movies is higher than the pain that’s going to come with it, then yeah you should do it. Just know that that’s the case. Know it’s the case for the rest of your life.
I’m not far along in my career, but I’ve talked to people who are much further along than I am. It doesn’t stop, you know? It’s always rejection after rejection, it doesn’t matter if you’ve made movies that make millions of dollars at the box office.
I think if you’re a creative person, you want to do that next thing. You’re always pushing yourself to do something that’s harder or bigger, and when you do something that’s harder or bigger, you have to prove yourself to the people around you and to the industry over and over again.
But in the end, if you feel like the work is worth it, and the process of creating that work is something you love, all that is bearable.
For Part 1 of our interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
Tze is represented by WME.
You may check out the Facebook page for Cold Comes the Night here.