Questions for screenwriters roundtable

December 17th, 2013 by

This Friday, I will be conducting a third annual roundtable with 6 top young Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. Between them, they have sold over a dozen spec scripts, have multiple Black List scripts, and are involved with numerous film projects.

The 2011 roundtable is here.

The 2012 roundtable is here.

Do you know Michael Apted’s fantastic “7 Up” documentary series wherein he visits with the same group of 12 participants every 7 years? I see this in a similar light, a chance to see how this group of young screenwriters makes their way through life in Hollywood, observations they have, lessons they’ve learned. It’s great they take the time to do this and it’s proven to be a really popular series.

If you have questions you would like me to consider raising in the discussion with this group of talented writers, please post in comments.

Interview: Laura Colella

December 15th, 2013 by

Recently I had the pleasure of screening a wonderful indie feature called Breakfast With Curtis, written and directed by Laura Colella. Some background on Laura:

Laura studied filmmaking at Harvard University. She has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants and was one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. She freelances as a screenwriter, cinematographer, camera assistant and editor and has been teaching part-time at Rhode Island School of Design since 1996. Her other feature films are Tax Day and Stay Until Tomorrow.

Colella Small

I had the opportunity to talk with Laura about her approach to filmmaking and Breakfast With Curtis, a movie about which Paul Thomas Anderson has said,”I absolutely love it. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a smile from beginning to end.”

Here are both posts in this 2-part series.

Part 1: “It feels, to me, more like anybody can come of age at any time because have the potential for transformation, for growth, for giving up grudges.”

Part 2: “My hope is that we would revolutionize the film business and figure out a way to make it a viable, exciting industry that caters to the audience in terms of content. I feel like there is so much regurgitation and recycling in movie making nowadays. I hope for more support for people who are breaking new ground.”

For a feature on Laura in Interview magazine, go here.

For the Breakfast with Curtis website, go here.

Interview (Part 2): Writer-Director Laura Colella (“Breakfast With Curtis”)

December 12th, 2013 by

Recently I had the pleasure of screening a wonderful indie feature called Breakfast With Curtis, written and directed by Laura Colella. Some background on Laura:

Laura studied filmmaking at Harvard University. She has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants and was one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. She freelances as a screenwriter, cinematographer, camera assistant and editor and has been teaching part-time at Rhode Island School of Design since 1996. Her other feature films are Tax Day and Stay Until Tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to talk with Laura about her approach to filmmaking and Breakfast With Curtis, a movie about which Paul Thomas Anderson has said,”I absolutely love it. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a smile from beginning to end.”

Today in Part 2, we dig more deeply into Breakfast With Curtis and Laura’s creative process:

Scott:  One of the charming things about the movie is the way it flies in the face of Hollywood conventional wisdom. You just mentioned conflict. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that a movie has got to have lots and lots of conflict. In Breakfast with Curtis, after the opening incident, there’s very little of it. Basically, these happy people living in this sort of idyllic charmed life. Yet, it works as a story.

Laura:  That’s nice to hear. What I think is funny… I feel like because the audience is sort of trained to have those expectations for things to go wrong. People have told me this, “Oh, I thought the old woman was going to die” or “I thought something inappropriate was going to happen with Syd  here.” They’re really glad these things didn’t happen.

It’s like the viewers imagination becomes part of that, their mind goes towards bad things that could happen. Then, when they don’t, most people tell me that they’re happy that those kinds of events didn’t happen. They’re actually relieved.

It’s interesting, too, that seems to actually be part of the viewing experience, which is everybody else’s previous viewing experience. The things that we’re used to seeing. Did that make sense? [laughs]

Scott:  I get it. Like when I saw the old lady, I immediately thought, “Oh, she’s going to die.” It’s like you tapped into a way of telling a story that takes the conventional wisdom and common expectations, and subverts them, and the fact that they don’t happen that makes the story more surprising.

Laura:  That’s good. [laughs]

Scott:  Again conventional wisdom of Hollywood, you have to build to a big Act Three ending, some sort of final struggle. In Breakfast with Curtis, there’s really only this tiny, little moment where Curtis has found out about his father’s “medicinal activities” next door and he says, it’s all OK. That’s about it.

Then you go on this wonderful extended denouement where you get to see how everybody’s lives are continuing on, and Curtis is now going to school. The movie’s a total delight. And I’d like to believe it says something about, look, there’s no one right way to make a movie, that stories are organic and they can exist in a multitude of ways. Would you agree with that?

Laura:  That’s music to my ears. [laughs] Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. I’m really happy to hear that. Again, I didn’t consciously try to intend this…In retrospect, I feel like the ending focuses on the changing of the seasons.

Like you said, time continues on. This can make it apply to everybody and not just Curtis. It’s the opposite of the idea that there was this great moment in time, and now it’s gone. Time just is always passing and part of our challenge and our human condition.

Paul Thomas Anderson (left), Laura Colella (right)

Scott:  Breakfast with Curtis won the 2013 Indie Spirit Find Your Audience Award. Also this praise from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s quoted as saying about your movie, “I absolutely love it. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a smile from beginning to end.” What’s your reaction when you heard that comment from such a talented filmmaker as Paul Thomas Anderson?

Laura:  Of course, I really love his work and respect him a great deal. That’s kind of the best thing. Anytime anyone comes up to me and tells me how much they like it, that’s the great reward. It hasn’t been financial, I’ll tell you that. [laughs] Making a movie that people will really respond to is nice. It’s been my reward so far.

Scott:  Well, speaking of that, what’s next for Breakfast with Curtis? What’s the release pattern for you?

Laura:  We are doing a small theatrical release. Providence, where the film was shot, New York at the IFC center, L.A. at Downtown Independence, and the Six Foot Center in Chicago. Those are happening starting next weekend in Providence. Then, on the fourth, New York. On the 20th, L.A. On January 3rd, Chicago. Then we have a digital release, that happens on January 14th.

Scott:  What’s next for you?

Laura:   First, I have to do a play as part of my writing program, that I’m writing and directing. Then right after that, I have to turn my attention to the film project. One of them is scripted and ready to go. The other one is something that could either go in a micro‑budget direction, or get a budget with cash and such.

Scott:  Do you think you’ll always stay in that indie film world or do you have any aspirations to go to something any bigger or more mainstream?

Laura:  I just want to keep making films that I’m really passionate about. That usually means things that aren’t formulaic. I try to do things that feel authentic. If that becomes mainstream or Hollywood, great. I don’t think I could go Hollywood! [laughs]

Scott:  Finally, you’ve been a student, a teacher, and a filmmaker. I would be curious what advice you would have for aspiring filmmakers, writers, or writer-directors. Any advice you would have being on the front lines now, doing this for several years?

Laura:  My hope is that we would revolutionize the film business and figure out a way to make it a viable, exciting industry that caters to the audience in terms of content. I feel like there is so much regurgitation and recycling in movie making nowadays. I hope for more support for people who are breaking new ground.

For Part 1, go here.

You can visit the Breakfast With Curtis website here.

Facebook page here.

The movie will be screening at the Downtown Independent in L.A. on December 20th.

Interview (Part 1): Writer-Director Laura Colella (“Breakfast With Curtis”)

December 11th, 2013 by

Recently I had the pleasure of screening a wonderful indie feature called Breakfast With Curtis, written and directed by Laura Colella. Some background on Laura:

Laura studied filmmaking at Harvard University. She has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants and was one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. She freelances as a screenwriter, cinematographer, camera assistant and editor and has been teaching part-time at Rhode Island School of Design since 1996. Her other feature films are Tax Day and Stay Until Tomorrow.

I had the opportunity to talk with Laura about her approach to filmmaking and Breakfast With Curtis, a movie about which Paul Thomas Anderson has said,”I absolutely love it. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a smile from beginning to end.”

Today in Part 1, we learn a bit more about Laura’s personal history and the inspiration for Breakfast With Curtis:

Scott:  Obviously I would like to talk about your movie Breakfast With Curtis, but first I thought maybe we’d start with your background. When did you catch the movie bug?

Laura:  I grew up in theaters, and then I discovered film‑making really my first year in college. I went to Harvard undergrad, and I joined the film department there and started making 16 millimeter films.

Studied with some amazing visiting professors. It was a very hands‑on department. Production‑oriented, surprisingly for Harvard. Once I graduated, I worked as a camera assistant for a while. Then I kept prioritizing really trying to continue to making my own work, and I got a half hour short after college. Then I made three features over a period of 15 years or so.

Scott:  How did you get into the screenwriting part of that? Was because you wanted to direct and decided you wanted to write your own material, or did you do get into the writing independent of directing?

Laura: Writing and directing always felt tied together for me. I never thought of them as separate with my work. I think in college I started writing my script, and I never studied screenwriting. That just came together more intuitively I guess, from the beginning.

Scott:  You’ve written, directed, and produced three feature length films as well as several short films. I understand you freelance as a screenwriter, cinematographer, camera assistant, editor and you’ve been teaching part time at the Rhode Island School of design since 1996. With all of that going on, how do you find time to focus on your own projects?

Laura:  That’s a good question. These projects are all multi‑year projects and I edit them myself, and I in the past have been alone in terms of promoting them, and getting them out to the world. This project I had some help with that, luckily. But it’s still a lot of work. I guess, I tend to do a lot of things at once.

I’m also in an MFA writing program right now. Part of the reason now after having been out of college for 20 years, and never thinking I’d go back to school is that I just really wanted to carve out more time for writing, and break up my writing practice.

I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in that yet, I think I have been open to paths for how to view it, but basically I’ve always been a binge writer, and I’d write my scripts all at once. I’m trying to get into a more regular writing process and be a more prolific writer, rather than burst out these things that I then neglect for years and years as they keep going through production.

Scott:  Let’s talk about Breakfast with Curtis. The summary on IMDB: “Syd is an eccentric bookseller with delusions of grandeur fueled by red wine. He caused a rift five years ago between his bohemian housemates and the family next door, but now tries to recruit his 14‑year‑old neighbor Curtis as a collaborator.”

As I understand it, this is based on real life in the sense that there’s this house known as the Purple Citadel and this house next door, and the characters are actually like real people.

Laura:  Everyone who is in the film, everyone who lives in the purple house actually lives in those apartments in the purple house. Everyone who lives next door actually lives next door.

Curtis and his parents are actually my neighbors and their son. The boy who played young Curtis is Curtis’ little brother in real life. There’s fortunately a couple with two sons next door, and everybody who lives in my house. We are the cast.

Scott:  Do you remember the very first moment that you said, “You know what? I think there’s a movie here” or was this something that grew organically over time?

Laura:  It happen actually pretty quickly. I was trying to get another project off the ground for a few years. This was born out of frustration with that process, and feeling that I had to go into depression or something.

What could I do? It was very hands on going back to my roots of someone who often shot my own film, my school days, and the first project I did after school. It was a way to say, “What can I do for nothing?”

I still wanted it to be something that I knew no that matter what I would invest probably two years of my life. I felt like I had to be really in love with the script for it to be worth pursuing. I first introduced the idea to everybody in June and then I brainstormed with them about what the movie could be about. Went off and wrote the script in July, and then we started shooting in August. It was a very quick process between idea, and going into production.

Scott:  Let’s go through these primary characters in the story. There’s this three story purple house that’s been divided into these apartments. On the first floor, there’s Syd who lives with his girlfriend Pirate. Syd is a kind of philosopher king.

On the second floor there’s an older single woman named Sadie, and then the third floor’s occupied by a younger couple, Frenchy and Paloa, the latter played by you, the couple basically whiling away their time doing yoga, gardening, and having sex. I read a review where they describe this place as an adult Never Never Land, and I thought that was pretty appropriate. What’s your reaction to that assessment?

Laura:  Part of my hope was to capture what’s it’s like to sort of spirit around these two properties. Which we do just hang out a lot, and have fun, and goof around, and we know each other really well.

While capturing that warmth, and teamwork, and camaraderie in our kind of day to day experience I think was something I was hoping to capture. I like that. I wanted it to feel like a nice place. It’s something anybody can have. Not something inaccessible. It’s something anyone could kind of have if they live their lives well.

Scott:  This house next door occupied by Simon and Sylvia, the husband and wife, and their son Curtis. Simon’s basically, the only white color worker out of this whole group, and the mom, Sylvia oversees Curtis’s home school education. He’s obviously a gifted young boy. Plays piano, but he’s very isolated from life. Both physically in a separateness, and emotionally removed as well.

That’s not really reflective of the actual kid next door. I’m guessing that fictionalizing part of it was where you went in terms of how can I make a story out of these two environments. Is that fair to say?

Laura:  I think so. I think that helped the story. I don’t know if you know this, but that little bit of video that you see in the film that are the web episodes. Those are actual videos that Jonah, who plays Curtis, and Theo, who plays Syd, started making when Jonah was 13.

They made these episodes together they put on the web called “Breakfast with Theo.” I took little bits from those, that was kind off a piece of reality that’s in the story.

I was so amazed that they were making those videos together and how good they were, because Jonah just shot them with a snapshot camera that also took video.

He edited them himself with iMovie and put visual effects on them. I just took little clips and put those in the movie.

As far as fictionalizing the story, I wondered about that incident of Syd yelling at Curtis. How that could have actually affected somebody who wasn’t as well adjusted as Jonah. Where it could have actually had a real impact on his young life. To be yelled at like that. Being a traumatic thing.

I’m not sure where that decision came in. Part of it was the idea of making it feel like Curtis would be going through a transformation by being exposed to the people next door. Maybe that helps enhance the feeling of that.

A lot of reviews have called it a coming-of-age film. For me it’s a little bit of that. Not just for Curtis. For everybody in the film. It doesn’t really tell the story from Curtis’s perspective so much.

A traditional coming‑of‑age film, I think, would be more imbedded with the young character. It feels, to me, more like anybody can come of age at any time because have the potential for transformation, for growth, for giving up grudges. For embellishing their surroundings. Things like that. Yes, that’s good for me.

Scott:  It seems though that if you do isolate on Curtis and his story, it is a little bit like a hero’s journey. He’s got the old world, where he lives with his family. Then there’s this new world, which is next door. They even have this fence and it’s overgrown, like a symbolic threshold crossing. I can see why people would say it would look at the movie as an innocence to experience or coming‑of‑age story.

Laura:  There are also sections of this film where we lose Curtis’ story completely. There the whole ladies lunch sequence that has nothing to do with Curtis really. It’s just showing the kind of hijinks that go on next door. I feel like it doesn’t really follow a traditional structure.

There’s this conflict in first few minutes of the film. There is no real conflict after that. The rest of the film is the unraveling of the norm. Everybody’s heads coming together gradually, through the rest of it. I didn’t consciously think about structure when I was writing it either.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we dig more deeply into Breakfast With Curtis and Laura’s creative process.

Here is the trailer:

You can visit the Breakfast With Curtis website here.

The movie will be screening at the Downtown Independent in L.A. on December 20th.

Interview: Kelly Marcel

December 8th, 2013 by

London-based writer Kelly Marcel wrote the 2011 Black List screenplay Saving Mr. Banks which was produced starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, and Paul Giamatti. She is involved writing several other high profile movie projects including The Little Mermaid and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “Working in that video store was my education. Nothing is going to teach you structure like watching endless movies and TV shows. Seeing what’s good and why it’s good. Seeing what doesn’t work and figuring out why it doesn’t.”

Part 2: “I loved the idea that this sweet film, this huge part of all of our childhoods, was born out of terrible tragedy. I was taken with the idea of redemption and the effect that our parents can have on us all the way into adulthood.”

Part 3: “I loved it, I wanted to write it, and that was that. It was only afterwards that I thought: ‘Oh fuckitty shitballs! This ain’t EVER getting made.'”

Part 4: “It cannot be said enough that no matter how good anyone thinks a script is, if you don’t have the right director -­- a person who will love it and own it as much as you have up to this point -­- then you are completely screwed.”

Part 5: “I wrote everything I wanted to say, it ran to 17 pages or more and then I cut it down and then I threw it all away and then I started again.”

Part 6: “I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along.”

Kelly is repped by WME.

Twitter: @MissMarcel.

Interview (Part 5): Kelly Marcel

December 6th, 2013 by

London-based writer Kelly Marcel wrote the 2011 Black List screenplay Saving Mr. Banks which was produced starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, and Paul Giamatti. She is involved writing several other high profile movie projects including The Little Mermaid and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Kelly and I engaged in a wide-ranging Q&A, the focus of which is her thought process in writing Saving Mr. Banks. You will find her responses insightful, frank and hugely entertaining. Today in Part 5, Kelly reflects on the psychological dimension of Saving Mr. Banks and some of her other movie projects including Fifty Shades of Grey:

Scott: Perhaps the central theme of the story is implied in the title itself: Saving Mr. Banks, referring to the father character in “Mary Poppins,” but symbolically representing Ginty’s father, who was also a banker. Could you touch on what is going on psychologically with regard to Pamela in relation to her father as she endures the script development process with Disney?

Kelly: Psychologically, she is struggling to let go. She associates her own father with Mr. Banks; she is breaking down and realizing that she has created a fiction of Travers that she now cannot bear to see as a character through anyone else’s eyes. He was everything to her, and so Mr. Banks is everything to her now. But Disney as Disney’s own salvation, his own homage to the father that had caused him such pain, has also adopted Mr. Banks, the character. It’s a fight over this one man. They’re battling over their legacies subconsciously, and neither one of them can bear to let Mr. Banks be what he needs to be, which is simply Jane and Michael’s father.

Scott: Walt Disney has to go through his own psychological journey in that over time, he comes to understand what “Mary Poppins” really means to Pamela, how it is tied to the redemption of her own father. In fact, at the movie’s most critical moment, Disney has a monologue in which he has to sway Pamela and he says about the proposed movie version of “Mary Poppins”:

In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

Two things. First, given the fateful nature of this moment, how difficult was this monologue to write? Second, how much of that last point – “That’s what we storytellers do… restore order with imagination… instill hope again and again” – reflects your own attitude about your role as a writer?

Kelly: Writing Tom’s speech about his dad was very very tricky. How could I say the words that would allow PL to give up her precious creation? He had to be convincing, he had to tell her something that would unlock her. She had to know he understood.

Not that they would ever be pals, but that he knew. He knew how hard this thing was to do. That he felt her pain. I don’t know how that got done. The little boy in the snow was all I had; I knew I wanted to build it around that. It happened over a period of days. I wrote everything I wanted to say, it ran to 17 pages or more and then I cut it down and then I threw it all away and then I started again. One night, late, it just metamorphosed on the page. Talking about writing that speech is hard, because I don’t know how it came. It just unfolded from a mish mash of thoughts and half-sentences.

Scott: Here’s an off-the-wall observation: Compare Pamela to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Both were young girls ‘victimized’ by the traumatizing loss of a father, and the psychological point of their respective stories is to confront and deal with the unfinished business of those deaths. Clarice has to kill Buffalo Bill in order to ‘redeem’ her father’s death. Pamela has to allow the movie to go forward, as Walt Disney points out, to ‘redeem’ her father (via Mr. Banks). Again totally different genres and tone, and one story involves destruction at the end, while the other’s climax is about creation, yet the net effect (psychologically) is pretty much the same: Both Protagonists have in effect confronted, then moved through the pain of their past and can now have a ‘new’ life in the present.

Kelly: Woah! That’s deep! Yeah! Silence of the Lambs. It’s exactly that. I’m gonna take this analogy and run with it and tell everyone that that’s what I meant to do, that I totally saw that comparison from day one and you ain’t gonna tell no one you came up with ya hear? I’ma hurt you bad if you do.

Scott: Saving Mr. Banks soon will be rolling out in thousands of movie theaters across the United States and around the world. You wrote and rewrote the script, you’ve tracked the project’s development from pre-production through post, and now you’ve seen the movie and heard the crowds react. If you had to choose one word to describe what you’re feeling about the entire Saving Mr. Banks experience, what would that be?

Kelly: Grateful.

Scott: There are some other high profile projects you’re involved with including The Little Mermaid, based on the Hans Christian Anderson story with Joe Wright attached to direct. What’s the latest on that?

Kelly: Little Mermaid is still in progress. Joe is a genius and Working Title are wonderful people to work with so yeah, you know how long these things take to figure out. It’s still an ongoing project and one that is so bold it hurts my brains when they show me how they’re going to make it work. What I can say is that it’s a much darker take on it than we have seen before and it’s all live action.

Scott: Of course, I have to ask about Fifty Shades of Grey, which you were the first writer chosen to take on the adaptation of that hugely popular book. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in writing that project?

Kelly: Well, it was quite difficult to write the sex stuff because I am a virgin, so I don’t know anything about what happens in the birds and bees department. Luckily some very nice people told me all about it. There’s some kissing and such and then someone  sits on a rabbit or maybe it’s a duck, I don’t know but then you rub a bald man’s head and you either get pregnant or you get some flowers. So hopefully what I’ve written will ring true.

Scott: Do you have any plans to explore TV again or are you satisfied just now to work in feature films?

Kelly: I do I do! Get this! Westbridge came back around and we are finally getting to make it. The good ole BBC stepped up, and I start work with Tommy Schlamme – who I developed it with – next week. It’s so nice to be back working with him. We spent a lot of time together developing the pilot and took a trip to Texas to research it, so it feels like coming home to be able to rejoin him and his producing partner Julie.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Kelly provides her take on several aspects of the screenwriting craft.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Please stop by comments to thank Kelly.

Kelly is repped by WME.

Twitter: @missmarcel

Interview (Part 1): Kelly Marcel

December 2nd, 2013 by

London-based writer Kelly Marcel wrote the 2011 Black List screenplay Saving Mr. Banks which was produced starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, and Paul Giamatti. She is involved writing several other high profile movie projects including The Little Mermaid and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Kelly and I engaged in a wide-ranging Q&A, the focus of which is her thought process in writing Saving Mr. Banks. You will find her responses insightful, frank and hugely entertaining. Today in Part 1, Kelly discusses her background as a writer, her alternative approach to film school, and her first break as a screenwriter:

Scott: Your father Terry Marcel has been a director and writer, both in film and TV. What influence did his work have on you becoming a writer?

Kelly: I think it was less his work and more his work ethic. His longevity in the business is extraordinary. He’s still producing at 71 years old, and I have a huge admiration for that. He has always created. Even when we were little he would draw pictures for us to color in, and they were so much more intricate and inventive than coloring books from the store. His influence on me has always been to believe in imaginary worlds and to live outside of the norm. At no point did he ever tell me to go out and get a 9 to 5 job. He always said: “There’s no such thing as impossible, there’s no such thing as can’t.”

His influence reaches into my screenplays as well. A few of the things Travers says in Saving Mr. Banks are words from my father’s mouth.

Scott: You had a stint as an actor and you sister is an actor as well. What lessons about writing did you pick up along the way through your acting?

Kelly: I learned the difference between written dialogue and say-­‐able dialogue. What looks eloquent and smart on the page can often come out of a mouth as stilted and artificial. As an actor I tried to get my head around lines that felt peculiar in the mouth, so I am always on a mission to try to make every line as true to the character as possible and as easy to articulate as I can make it.

I am also aware of mannerisms. When I acted, I always felt like my hands and arms weren’t part of my body. They were these big flapping things with their own minds. If possible I will always try to specify physicality. With Pamela, for example, it was feet together, hands in lap a lot of the time.

Scott: As I understand it, you had a Tarantino-­‐like approach to film education, working part-­‐time in a movie video rental store and immersing yourself in movies. How important has watching and studying movies been to your development as a writer? What do you look for when you screen a movie?

Kelly: Working in that video store was my education. Nothing is going to teach you structure like watching endless movies and TV shows. Seeing what’s good and why it’s good. Seeing what doesn’t work and figuring out why it doesn’t. I was immersed in film for 12 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week and it is the most significant part of how I learned to get from page one to page 110.

I don’t look for anything in particular when I screen a movie. I’ll watch anything and everything. Like everybody else, I want to get lost in it. I want to be taken on a journey. I want to be told a story, to learn something, to feel an emotion, to be entertained.

Scott: What are some of the movies that have been the most significant to you?

Goddammit Scott! Seriously? This is always such an impossible question to answer because every movie is significant in its own way. Okay if I had to choose a bunch— Harvey (sod off Craig Mazin, it’s MY favourite – Craig thinks he knows everything about Harvey. He is wrong.)

Harold and Maude and Being There also rank as movies I could watch over and over and over again.

I was fed on a diet of old black and white movies and a lot of musicals by my dad in my formative years, so I’m going to go with: Showboat, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Some Like It Hot, Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind, Princess Bride.

We were always screening movies he’d worked on when he was a first AD so all the Pink Panthers, Straw Dogs, The Duellists, The Carry On films. Some of which should have been off the menu for a kid, but there was never a moratorium on what we could watch at any age in our house.

And then there’s ET! Fucking ET! Oh my god! Bugsy Malone!

In my teens and 20’s I was all about The Goonies and pretty much everything John Hughes made. The Godfather, Silence of The Lambs, Spinal Tap. God, I’m just listing movies now. I’m gonna stop. This is a preposterous question.

This year the movie that’s shouted to me more loudly than any other is Her. I fell in love with it completely.

Scott: You are also co-­‐artistic director of “The Bad Dog Theater Company” founded in 2010 along with actor Tom Hardy and fellow writer Brett C. Leonard. How did you  become involved in that and do you continue to write plays?

Kelly: I met Mr. Hardy whilst I was working on a staged musical version of “Debbie Does Dallas” for the Edinburgh Festival, and we were immediately simpatico. Both of us were interested in developing a space where actors who were not working could flex and hone their craft between jobs. We started out at the Latchmere theatre in Battersea -­‐ opposite the video store I worked in. Tom could often be found behind the counter with me, hatching plans for our endeavor and handing out DVD’s. In the midst of developing what would ultimately become Bad Dog, Bronson came along and took Tom away. Shortly after he started filming, it ran into a bit of trouble, and I went up to Nottingham to rewrite for him and Nic Winding Refn. Bronson became what it did and propelled Tom across the pond, followed in quick succession by myself, and so Bad Dog took a bit of a back seat. However, Tom was over just the other week, and we both have plans to take time off in the near future and kick start our company. I would imagine that our first play will be a collaboration by all three of us. Though Brett is the one of us who is the SERIOUSLY talented playwright, so I’m a little bit scared to go toe to toe with him.

I do still write plays. They are all half finished!

Tomorrow in Part 2, Kelly talks about the TV series “Terra Nova” and how she got involved with Saving Mr. Banks.

Please stop by comments to thank Kelly.

Kelly is repped by WME.

Twitter: @missmarcel

Interview: Seth Lochhead

October 27th, 2013 by

Seth Lochhead’s original screenplay Hanna made the Black List in 2006 and was produced, then released in 2011, the movie starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, and Eric Bana. Seth’s background is an interesting one, so I was pleased when he agreed to do a Q&A with me. I was even more pleased by Seth’s responses which I am sure you will find both entertaining and informative.

Here are links to the five installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “As I’ve gained experience, I really try not to be too conscious of my influences because I don’t want them to stifle whatever thread I’m trying to explore.”

Part 2: “One breakthrough was a memory of a psych class I took and something B.F. Skinner said, “’Give me a newborn and I’ll shape it into anything.’”

Part 3: “I’ve always thought of HANNA as a fairy tale, something you could literally rip from the pages of the Brothers Grimm.”

Part 4: “I think it’s a dangerous thing to answer questions in your written work, but I think it is imperative to always ask the questions. That’s our job, to spark curiosity and emotion from an audience, to allow them to discover what’s going on inside their own heads.”

Part 5: “If it’s commissioned work and people read it within a week of me finishing it and they have “thoughts”, I’m fucking useless. I need time away. Months in some instances.”

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

Will is repped by WME.

Twitter: @SMLochhead.

Interview: Seth Lochhead — Part 5

October 26th, 2013 by

Seth Lochhead’s original screenplay Hanna made the Black List in 2006 and was produced, then released in 2011, the movie starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, and Eric Bana. Seth’s background is an interesting one, so I was pleased when he agreed to do a Q&A with me. I was even more pleased by Seth’s responses which I am sure you will find both entertaining and informative.

Today in Part 5, Seth talks about the craft of screenwriting:

How do you go about developing your characters?

It starts with behavior. Specific ticks and eccentricities. We all have them and we can all relate to them (no matter how specific, we’ll always find a corollary to our own experience). These, as well as appearance, build up the outward persona (and the outward persona is truly how we get to know each other – the only way, in my opinion, you can understand someone – people telling you who they are on the inside parts is boring, if you give me enough time, I’ll figure out who you are just by watching you… that sounds creepier than I intended… so be it!!).

The character’s depth comes as you begin to layer in these specific traits and from these traits, as you get to know your characters, you, as the writer, can anticipate how they will react to certain stimuli. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. A fireman will put out a fire a lot differently than a waitress. A schizophrenic, as R.D. Laing would say, can see the cracks in reality the rest of us are unwilling to see. And from understanding this, you can build an entire world through their eyes.

What about dialogue? How do you go about finding your characters’ voices? How can a writer develop their ability writing dialogue?

You find their voice as you find them. I know, not helpful. But it’s true. Human language is a finite spectrum. There are only so many ways to communicate something and most of us learn from an early age to communicate in a way that other people can understand us. It’s social programming with, of course, variation. Like Hanna, we’re all clay. The outside (language in this instance) pushes in on us, forms us. But that doesn’t mean we’re not pushing back. It comes down to the character you’re writing. How did he/she push back? How did his/her language become specific (subjective) as they were exposed to different stimuli? There is variation and, of course, there is innovation (I always think of Milch or Mamet) but it is all based on a core (objective) idea of communication (I may or may not be alluding to Plato right now… mother fuckers). Start with simplicity (communicate what needs to be communicated or what’s trying to be communicated). Each character might have his or her own way of saying the same thing, like us all.

How would you define theme? How important is it? Do you start with themes or do they arise in the context of developing and writing the story?

I leave theme to my subconscious (I’ll let it come out as I pursue the more tangible elements of the story – although according to my previous answers, tangible doesn’t seem to be one of my writing pursuits). If I’m obsessed with something, if I’ve noticed something, some illness in the world, some crack in reality, I let it in and if it wants to come out in my work so be it.

What do you think about when writing a scene? What are your goals?

My main goal is to get it all down. In any shape or form. David Milch uses this writing exercise (one of the few I still use on regular basis): You take two voices and you start a clock for 20 minutes, and you write a dialogue. At the end of the 20 minutes, you seal the dialogue in an envelope. There’s only two hard rules: 1. Do not think about what you’re going to write before you write it and 2. Never ever open the envelope. There’s a few things at work here. Milch is compulsive. Left on his own, he can spend months revising a single page. So he does a few things to remedy this – he doesn’t write alone or with a keyboard or pen (things he can fiddle with), he narrates to an audience while a fellow writer types up his work, and he works to a hard, no look back deadline (up until the crew is sitting and waiting to shoot the scene). He controls his compulsiveness by being forced to let go. As for the rest of us, we have the symbolic envelope. That’s how I write a scene. I write it like it’s going to be shot in 4 hours and when those 4 hours are up I seal the envelope and don’t look back. Or, like all good religious folk, I try to be good, but the demons come and I am forced to grab my letter opener and, sometimes, I get sucked into the fire pit of hell. A good example of this would be this here Q and A. I’ve been working on this section for three weeks.  :/

When you finish a first draft, you are faced with the inevitable rewriting process. Are there some keys you have to rewriting your scripts and if so what are they?

Once I write the end, it’s the end for me. I follow my instinct, I seal the envelope, I open the envelope, I lose months, and then I write ‘the end.’ From there, I find it hard to even think about the script. I have a physical revulsion to it. If it’s commissioned work and people read it within a week of me finishing it and they have “thoughts”, I’m fucking useless. I need time away. Months in some instances. Luckily, I’ve worked with a few busy cats with schedules that accommodate my queasiness (whether they’re aware of it or not). Once I have the distance, I get “audience eyes.” I’m not quite objective, but I’m also not nauseous anymore. And that’s the trick to rewriting I think. It’s to get yourself into a state where you can approximate the emotional journey of someone who has never experienced this story before. And based on that, your best instinct of what fresh eyes might see, subjective objectivity, you get to work. Someone told me once, in regard to Sitcom writing, to mark down where you laughed. That’s pertinent to the rewrite process (not only for the writer but for his and her collaborators who will be reading the script dozens of time). Mark where you laugh (cry, get angry, aroused, intrigued, etc.) and, at all cost, protect the laughs (even 12 reads in, when it all feels crusty and everyone who’s read it 12 times thinks it’s stale, it’s your job to protect the laughs).

What is your actual writing process? Every day? Sporadic bursts? Work in private? Go out to coffee shops? Music? Quiet? How do you write?

All of this. Tony Gilroy said it best, be able to write anywhere (and if you can’t, and you’re David Milch, figure it the fuck out).

What is your single best excuse not to write?

Going to the gym. I work out a lot.

What do you love most about writing?

Writing is the closest I’ve ever got to ecstatic trance. It asks you to be extraordinarily present. You have to concentrate so hard, sometimes, that all else (worries, loved ones) falls to the wayside. It’s oddly primitive. Fight or flight, baby. It’s like you’re a tiny monkey being chased by a jaguar and you’re leaping through the trees and you feel like you’re going to die and two hours later, sweating, having escaped that bastard jaguar, you realize your four shot latte has gone cold and you have to go and get another one. And a muffin while you’re at it (to reaffirm life!!). And then, when you’re full of espresso and chocolate chips, and you’re sleepy, and you’re having a hard time remembering what that bastard jaguar looked like, and all you can remember is the hard work and the sweat and the disappointment of that cold latte and the exertion it took to get another one, you do your best to avoid the ecstatic trance and, instead, watch movies or surf YouTube or stare at a light bulb (to reaffirm life!!). That’s writing in a nutshell.

Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years? In an ideal word, what are you doing?

Living in Vancouver or LA or Paris or New York or Berlin, writing shit, eating muffins and drinking lattes, working out, watching an over abundance of good TV (it’s getting to the point now that I can’t keep up… and I love it!), experiencing new shit, walking off cliffs, buying shoes (I have a problem), did I mention eating muffins? Hot air balloons!

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

Try.[1]

1 Damn, son! Profundity…. Did I ruin it?

For Part 1, go here.

Part 2, go here.

Part 3, go here.

Part 4, go here.

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

Will is repped by WME.

Twitter: @SMLochhead.

Interview: Seth Lochhead — Part 4

October 25th, 2013 by

Seth Lochhead’s original screenplay Hanna made the Black List in 2006 and was produced, then released in 2011, the movie starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, and Eric Bana. Seth’s background is an interesting one, so I was pleased when he agreed to do a Q&A with me. I was even more pleased by Seth’s responses which I am sure you will find both entertaining and informative.

Today in Part 4, Seth talks about why he chose a girl for the Protagonist in Hanna and answers some craft questions:

There is a funny moment that is actually pretty revealing where Hanna has the opportunity for her first romantic adventure. And when asked by the boy if she’d like to kiss, Hanna says, “Kissing requires a total of 34 facial muscles, and 112 postural muscles. The most important muscle involved is the orbicularis oris muscle, because it is used to pucker the lips.” That demonstrates her book knowledge and lack of street knowledge. But instead of going, say, the Disney route whereby she would kiss the boy and that would somehow become a transformational moment, instead Hanna flips the guy over and flops him to the ground, responding like the trained killer she is. How do you interpret that moment?

At some point in the development of the script, someone decided that Hanna should kiss a boy and that this would some how turn her “sexually feral” (which is really fucked up on so many levels). It went entirely against: 1. My stylistic thesis (behaviorism – an act must be rooted in a precedent), 2. Implied a subtext I didn’t want implied and 3. Was contrary to who Hanna was as a human being. So I said fuck that shit (or a polite equivalent there of) and started my campaign to change it. I was in luck when Joe and Saoirse signed on, because they agreed with me and that was the end of that.

But, as we dug back into the script, it became apparent that, sure, Hanna might be intrigued by the romance of some of her fairy tales and the science of kissing. What she lacked, and what we see in the scene described above, is the cultural influence that tells a young girl that she must, when a boy desires it, especially at a campfire, suck his face. So, even if, intellectually, she knew what the boy was doing, instinctually (based upon her experiences up to that point), he was assaulting her. And once that happened, I figured if Hanna was going to kiss anyone, it would have to be on her own unique terms, removed from too much cultural influence, and with someone she loves (Sophie in the tent).

Two more things about Hanna. The first line of the movie occurs after Hanna fires an arrow into a reindeer who runs away, Hanna chasing the wounded creature. When the animal collapses, Hanna says, “I just missed your heart,” then calmly shoots the reindeer dead. The last line of the movie occurs after Hanna has wounded Marissa, and paralleling the opening, she says, “I just missed your heart,” then shoots Marissa. What layers of subtext do you think are at work in that line? Why do you think that line is so effective as a bookend?

If I haven’t disclaimed it already, let me disclaim it now: my answers to these questions are as relevant/irrelevant as anyone’s analysis of HANNA would be. I get a lot of discomfort in having to explain or analyze my own work (not because I don’t enjoy it – I do – but because my analysis has the tendency to be read as gospel). I am not the final word on this, neither is Joe, or any one person – or corporation – associated with HANNA the movie. I am happily (if anxiously) only a viewer now. So what follows is just my reading (to be discussed and debated ad infinitum)…

It was all a dream. ☺

The second thing: Was it always a girl assassin?

Yes.

Were you aware of the conventional wisdom and predisposition against female leads in action movies?

Not at first, but I was made aware later in the process (by managers and requests from producers).

At any point along the way did anybody suggest changing it to a teenage boy?

Yes. But notes like those, that fundamentally fuck with my intuition, I tend to ignore.

Assuming it was important for you for Hanna to be a girl, why is that the case?

It’s what was in my head. It’s what felt right. The more I thought about it, the more people were opposed to it (managers, producers, etc.), the more I became aware that it irritated a cultural prejudice. Unfortunately, boys and violence is a natural context for film (a cliché even). It’s something people expect and are comfortable with. By accident, her gender/sex added a layer to the film, just a little something extra to make the reader/audience uncomfortable/intrigued and something, if they so chose, to examine deeper (why can’t a little girl be strong?). I think it’s a dangerous thing to answer questions in your written work, but I think it is imperative to always ask the questions. That’s our job, to spark curiosity and emotion from an audience, to allow them to discover what’s going on inside their own heads.

Some craft questions.  How do you come up with story ideas?

Lately, they’re sent to me in the mail. Previously, it starts with different motivations. I’ve been inspired by great films and wanted to homage them in someway (I turned The Searchers into a Zombie movie). I’ve been inspired by great books (I turned Turn of the Screw into an action movie and wondered what would happen if the creatures in the Island of Dr. Mareau spawned and became a sub-class of humanity). I’ve been intrigued by news items and then there’s just the stuff that comes to me in my sleep: a kid’s fingers playing the piano at a recital, his dad’s hands covered in blood. Or a bot fly impregnating someone’s forehead. And then there’s music. Sometimes music creates a feeling and I am compelled to capture that feeling. In all instances, it’s not necessarily a concrete idea. It’s more like a starting point, a drive to articulate something that could not possibly be articulated. 

How important do you think the story concept is to the overall strength and commercial viability of a screenplay, specifically a spec script?

I think story concept is important to the commercial viability of a screenplay because we all say it is – that’s the culture of Hollywood. Concept is king because we perpetrate and support its absolute monarchy. People can’t sell complicated, but they can sell “It’s Leon, but in reverse.” I think, in the long run, quality has more value (at the screenplay level and at the film level). It’s what I’ve based my career on and the fact that I’ve had a career (no matter how modest it has been, and it has been quite modest) speaks to a quiet resistance in Hollywood (a counter-culture where quality is king). Of course, saying this now, I can see how HANNA’s simple concept opened doors and, I suppose (a simple concept coupled with inspired work – not perfect, mind you, inspired work that put its heart on its sleeve- will open doors and keep them open).

How much time do you spend in prep-writing (i.e., brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining)?

All of the time. None of it. I tend not to write shit down unless it’s requested (and for a job, it’s always requested). I do a lot of my work on the page, within the script, scene by scene. It’s the only way I can ‘see’ it and ‘hear’ it and ‘feel’ it. I’m that writer that keeps rewriting the first page over and over and over again. And then the next page. And the next. I re-read what came before and continue on. My first draft is usually my thousandth revision. Research, character… that comes as I move. I will remember a little piece of something I read or I saw and it gets absorbed into the work. For example, I saw a trailer for a film called COME AND SEE and that had a huge impact on how I wrote SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS. Plot comes from the characters’ pursuits of their own end goals (whatever those may be), conflict can be found in those pursuits. I try not to be conscious of my end goals (outside of the fact that I am chasing something to its logical – emotionally logical – conclusion). 

Which of the aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most time and focus to?

It’s just exposure really. I try to expose myself to life, to a multitude of experiences. My brain and my body take notes, I hope, and then I use them in some way (consciously, unconsciously). Now, this might seem a little whishy-washy, a new age-y way to think about writing, but it’s what I learned, through trial and tons of error. After I sold HANNA and I began to believe my career was set, I shut down the experiences of my life, my exposure to the world at large, and tried to focus just on the work (on generating sellable product). It was stifling. I became Charlie Kaufman, in a bad way. I was climbing a Penrose staircase, going nowhere. My world became a 400 sq foot space, a double bed, and 800 cal. muffins my girlfriend would bring me at lunch. I grew a very long beard, I gained 100 lbs., and I tried my best to isolate myself inside my tiny apartment. The brain, without the outside world, without experience, is not a pleasant place to live. Left to its own devices, it becomes a cannibal. And then something changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but, at some point, I realized, for my work to flourish, I needed to expose myself to the world again, to people. I realized it was my job, as a writer, to see the world and to report on what I saw.

Tomorrow in Part 5, Seth talks about the craft of screenwriting.

For Part 1, go here.

Part 2, go here.

Part 3, go here.

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

Will is repped by WME.

Twitter: @SMLochhead.