Screenwriting 101: Christopher Hampton

January 20th, 2015 by

“I’m not sure I’ve ever written a film with a traditional structure–I don’t believe in any of those rules for writing screenplays. What that gives you is a formula, and inevitably the result will be formulaic. I’ve always refused to do treatments, but I can do outlines: ‘This happens in this scene, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens.’ That way, you’re liberated within the scene, but you have your milestones along the way. If you do it right, the audience doesn’t feel the presence of a structure–if you’ve done it subtly enough, it won’t impose itself on them. But if you don’t have some kind of structure, they’ll feel there’s something lacking–I mean, I do as an audience. Whenever I think, ‘Well, why wasn’t that as good as I thought it was going to be?’, it generally turns out to be something to do with the structure and the fact that it isn’t properly organized. The foundation and the organization are something that should be invisible, but they’ve got to be there.”

— Christopher Hampton (FilmCraft | Screenwriting, PP. 102-103)

Screenwriting 101: Jean-Claude Carrière

January 13th, 2015 by

“All the great filmmakers from all over the world have developed the language of cinema. They have refined it–sometimes they have perverted it–but our main task is not only to know the language we are going to use, but also to try to make it better, if possible. The reason why so many novelist friends fail when they try to make a film is that they’re using a language they don’t know anything about. The language of film is very complex. It is made up not only of images and sounds, but it also includes acting. The actors and the actresses–they are part of this language. You must absolutely know if what you are writing can be transmitted by actors. The main question you are asking all the time when you’re working with the director is, ‘Is it possible to act this or not?’ … The world is changing all the time, and so is the movie language–it’s impossible to stop it. You must be in the flow of the river, not looking at the river passing by–you must be inside, you must dive.”

— Jean-Claude Carrière (FilmCraft | Screenwriting, P. 63, 65)

Screenwriting 101: Mark Rosenthal

January 6th, 2015 by

“The joy of screenwriting comes from its pure narrative requirements. It’s a little like haiku in its need for compression (prose is an expansive art form, by contrast), like comic books in the tumbling out-of-control gait that forms the rhythm for each beat, and, most of all, like storytelling as it first must have developed along with language–a secret shared that seeks to elicit ‘Tell me what happened next!'”

— Mark Rosenthal (Why We Write)

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Screenwriting 101: John August

December 30th, 2014 by

“While working on Big Fish, I got very Method: I’d stare at a mirror until I could get myself crying, and then I would start writing. It was literally days of just staring at a mirror and crying, but it works–something about that process captures the right feeling. And by getting myself to the point of crying, it helped me get other people to that point. I had done it before with another project, a horror movie, so the process for that was to get myself terrified and then write. A lot of writers will play music while they’re writing, or they’ll have a scent that reminds them of the movie’s world and smelling gets them back into it. Anything’s fair game as long as it works.”

— John August (FilmCraft | Screenwriting, P. 43)

Screenwriting 101: Mark Bomback

December 23rd, 2014 by

“A big misconception that people have about these franchise movies is that all the studios care about is the action. It’s very cynical and untrue to believe that studio heads don’t care whether the movie has a solid story and real characters… when they speak with the writer, they are focused almost exclusively on issues of character and narrative to make sure that the story really is working as best it can. It would be easy for me to sit back and flame the studio system and say, ‘Well, how could you make a great movie in this system? All they care about is the explosions.’ They do want movies to be big and spectacular, but they desperately want their movies to have stories populated by characters with which people can related. They’re hiring a screenwriter to make sure that happens. I try my very best in every film I’m working on to try to make you fall in love with those characters. I feel like my number one job, regardless of the genre I’m working in, is to get you to care about the plight of the person whose story I’m telling. I want my audience to be able to answer the question ‘Why did this movie have to happen to this person?’ And so when I’m writing, I’m constantly answering that question for myself. The wonky development term for this is, of course, the character’s ‘arc,’ but it is, for me, a crucial component to a successful film.”

— Mark Bomback (FilmCraft | Screenwriting, P. 55)

Screenwriting 101: Stephen Gaghan

December 16th, 2014 by

When I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec screenplays. I was really poor, and I thought I was just gonna do this for a while to make a little money so I could write novels. I thought movies were a second-class art form.  I condescended to it—I didn’t know enough to know it was really gonna be hard.

Things changed around the time I met Michael Tolkin. When I saw “The Player” (1992), when I was still living in New York, I had thought, “I wonder if I could do that.” A couple of years later I had become friends with an executive who was working with him on a project for HBO about Microsoft, and she put the two of us together. When he and I first met, we talked about Proust, and we both loved Tolstoy, and we had a lot of similar references. So we ended up spending the whole meeting talking about “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I was just so happy. I didn’t care what happened after that—it was just the greatest afternoon. I thought, “I love this guy. He’s so funny and so cool, and just an absolutely first-rate artist in all of his thinking.”

We teamed up on the HBO project, which was a satire about Bill Gates and Microsoft, a sort of “Dr. Strangelove” piece about technology, called 20 Billion. We’d break up the scenes, we’d write our scenes, we’d get back together, and his scenes were just so much better than mine that I couldn’t believe it. I’m lucky I could see how much better his were—I mean, that’s the first real break, realizing how not-good you actually are, and cutting through all the nonsense smoke that’s usually being blown at you in the zip codes around Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. But I knew—I knew he was great and I was terrible, so I started literally sitting behind him and watching him type when he would write his scenes. We’d keep reworking the story, and this went on for a long time. And then one day, I riffed out a subplot involving two characters who were sort of like the girl I was living with at the time and myself. I wrote the scenes, maybe 15 pages, in a few hours. I showed Michael the scenes, and I saw it in his face: “Hey, this is actually pretty good. That’s gonna be in the movie.” And he was happy for me, too. And when it was over, I was at the point where I felt like, “Wow, I’m writing scenes that should be shot.” Three years of my writing career had gone by—I used to think, “I’ll just dash off some Simpsons episode and make some money and come back to fiction”—and in that time, I had written volumes of terrible stuff. But watching Michael changed my approach to everything. I realized that this was a real art form and that I didn’t understand it. I had to prostrate myself before it and study it if I wanted to be good. I had some other friends around this time, too, who were doing very interesting scripts: Charlie Kaufman and Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. We traded our stuff back and forth. I saw early drafts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Rushmore (1998). I saw fully formed film artists who were my peers and I wanted to do what they were doing—get my own voice or vision of the world out into that world. I had no clue how this was going to happen, but suddenly I just really loved this fucking art form. It’s like haiku repeated 10,000 times in one document. The bar was set way higher than I thought.

Stephen Gaghan

Screenwriting 101: Larry Gelbart

December 9th, 2014 by

“I just know when you’re in trouble at the end, it’s because you were in trouble in the beginning. There’s no point in writing the end over and over again; you have to go back and see how well you’ve given yourself the opportunity to finish successfully.”

— Larry Gelbart

Screenwriting 101: Larry Ferguson

December 2nd, 2014 by

“There’s only one difference between a writer and somebody who isn’t a writer. One writes. In the final analysis, you are a writer because you write. But more than that, you can write with courage just the same way you can do anything else with courage, or you can worry about not being any good. Start writing now. And when you do write, write from your heart with courage.”

— Larry Ferguson

Screenwriting 101: Guillermo Arriaga

November 25th, 2014 by

“I’ve written novels and screenplays, and with a screenplay you are writing something that’s going to be filmed, and you have to understand that. But, for me, both are forms of literature. I hate when people say, ‘When are you going to go back to literature?’ I say, ‘I never left.’ You never say that to a theater writer–I don’t know why drama for the cinema is lesser than drama for the theater. So I feel that I’m always doing literature. I put every effort in a screenplay to having beautiful language and a beauty of structure and a beauty in the construction of characters. To make a film requires the interest of a lot of people–actors, directors, producers, financiers–and the way to draw them in is to write a beautiful piece. So this is literature.”

— Guillermo Arriaga (FilmCraft | Screenwriting, P. 28)

Screenwriting 101: Ron Bass

November 18th, 2014 by

“If you read my novels, you’d see a lot of sentence fragments. And there are some punchy phrases that are meant to light the mind. I’ve always felt that writing was communication — not showing off how articulate you are, or showing off your vocabulary. It’s about making your reader see in his or her mind exactly what you see in your mind. And when I say ‘see,’ I don’t mean just intellectually. I mean emotionally and viscerally as well as with the mind — ‘see’ with feelings. It’s an attempt to communicate. It doesn’t have to be grammatical. Just the fact of breaking grammatical form helps communication because it forces the person who’s reading it to look at it differently. It does jar you and it does jolt you and it does stick out and you don’t get to put yourself to sleep with the rhythm and flow of normal prose.”

— Ron Bass