Interview (Video): James Ponsoldt, Donald Margulies (“The End of the Tour”)

July 26th, 2015 by

A DP/30 interview with The End of the Tour writer Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt:

For more DP/30 interviews, go here.

Daily Dialogue — July 26, 2015

July 26th, 2015 by

“Shut up and deal.”

The Apartment (1960), written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Last Line.

Trivia: The film’s classic last line was thought up by the writers at the last minute on-set.

Dialogue On Dialogue: The greatest last line of any movie ever!

The Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Madness

July 25th, 2015 by

The Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Madness.

Howard Beale, Network (1974)

The usual drill:

* Copy/paste dialogue from IMDb Quotes or some other transcript source.

* Copy/paste the URL of an accompanying video from YouTube or some other video source.

I’d also ask you to think about why the dialogue is notable. Is there anything about the dialogue which provides some takeaway related to the craft of writing? If so, feel free to lay that wisdom on us.

Our upcoming schedule of Daily Dialogue topics:

August 3-August 9: Call to Adventure
August 10-August 16: Adultery
August 17-August 23: Callback
August 24-August 30: Hysterics
August 31-September 6: Monologue
September 7-September 13: Betrayal
September 14-September 20: Minimum Words, Maximum Impact
September 21-September 27: Depression
September 28-October 4: Opening Line
October 5-October 11: Rivalry
October 12-October 18: Cross Dressing
October 19-October 25: Selflessness

If you have some Daily Dialogue themes to add to the roster, be my guest to post in comments. But be sure to post your ideas for this week’s theme: Madness.

Thanks to all you loyal Daily Dialoguers! You rock!

Interview (Part 6): Gary Whitta

July 25th, 2015 by

A few months back, I had the opportunity to interview screenwriter Gary Whitta whose movie credits include The Book of Eli (2010), After Earth (2013), and the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One (2016). Having recently seen his first novel “Abomination” published, Gary and I had a wide-ranging conversation touching on a host of subjects which I think readers will find quite interesting.

Today in Part 6, Gary offers advice on the single best way to learn the craft of screenwriting:

Scott:  What do you think about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have specific goals in mind?

Gary:  It’s good to know your basic input and output. What do you have coming into the scene and what do you want to come out of it with? What do you want the scene to achieve? Sometimes it’s about servicing a single idea. Often, when I’m in the very, very beginning of the story process, I’ll write a little note, a little idea. It could be a specific line or a moment or a scene or a twist. I don’t even where or how it’s going to fit into the story, but I know I want it in there somewhere. With Abomination, there’s a moment like that, an idea I had very early on that I knew I wanted in the story no matter what. And I was lucky to be able to keep it in there because often the development process doesn’t allow it. Sometimes, you have an idea like that for years, that little moment or line or idea that you really want in the story. When you finally get to the point where you’ve developed the story enough to write it, you realize the greater demands of the story don’t allow you to have that moment anymore. It’s got to be sacrificed.

Scott:  You say you tend to write long, maybe even a 180‑paged script. So you finish the draft. Now you’re facing the rewrite. Do you have a rewrite process?

Gary:  The first draft is what I’ve come to know as the vomit draft or a dump draft because it feels like it comes out of me so quickly… well, you get the idea. It used to be with me that I’d start each writing day by reviewing the previous day’s pages. But that would usually wind up with me, spending the whole rest of that day rewriting them and I’d not get any new pages down. I’ve since learned not to do that. Never look in the rear view mirror. Keep writing, keep moving forward. So I don’t review the previous day’s work anymore. Vomit out that draft, let it sit for a bit, and then come back and take a look and see where you are. Then you can start the process of initially trying to get it down to some length.

I tend to write my first drafts very, very long, throwing in everything, and I’ll take a saw to it later. A scene that might start as 12 pages of dialogue might end up back down to two or three pages, or even no dialogue at all, or maybe I’ll just cut the whole scene. It’s surprisingly satisfying to write a bunch of stuff and then realize later that the script’s better off without any of it and just kill it.

Scott:  This isn’t so much a craft question, but it’s one I get asked a lot by aspiring screenwriters, which is, “Do I have to move to LA?” You live in San Francisco. That doesn’t seem to inhibit your ability to work in Hollywood. I’m interested what your thoughts would be on that whole “You have to live in LA” thing.

Gary:  I personally don’t think that being in LA is necessary to break in as a writer, but it certainly can’t hurt. I would hesitate to advise anyone to just quit their job and throw everything into a U-Haul and drive off to LA on a wing and a prayer. There are too many sad stories that began that way. If you want to be an actor, then you do need to be in LA, because you are the product. You have to go to auditions. You have to do that stuff. But you can write a decent script from anywhere. The difficulty begins once people start to get interested in your script. At that point you are going to have to go LA to go to meetings and for development.

Scott:   You’re very active on Twitter. What is it for you that works about Twitter?

Gary:  Part of it is because I work from home, as many writers do, and it’s a very solitary experience. I used to work in a collaborative office. When I edited magazines for a living, I was surrounded by 10 or 12 other very creative people, and we used to goof off and mess around and chat while we were working. Once I moved away from that and sat in a little private office on my own, just me and the screen, I started to realize how much you rely on having other creative people around you to feed your own creativity, to keep the motor running. When you sit in a vacuum and you’re staring at a cursor blinking on a blank page, it can be much harder to start that engine.

Even though it can be a tremendous tool for procrastination and distraction, I became quite active on both Twitter and Facebook because that is my way to supplement what I no longer have, which is other voices around me when I’m working, to stimulate my creativity. And it really has become a very legitimate networking and business tool. I’ve met and become quite friendly with a lot of other writers and filmmakers and people in this business that I never would have met otherwise. I’ve had several legitimate work opportunities that have come up purely through the contacts I’ve made on social media that absolutely would not have happened otherwise.

Scott:  I would certainly recommend people to follow you on Twitter (@garywhitta) because you post some really interesting things and get into some good conversations.

Gary:  It’s mostly stupid stuff about cake, but every now and again there’s something in there that might be worth reading.

Scott:  Or darts. You did this thing when you were over in the UK recently, and you were obsessing about watching darts on TV.

Gary:  Oh, you’ve reminded me. I’ve got to find a way to try and find a way to get darts on American television. It’s going to be a struggle.

Scott:  We started off the interview with all these things you’ve done in your life, and now you’ve added novelist. What’s next for Gary Whitta? TV? Directing? Poetry?

Gary:  [laughs] I have a comic book that’s coming out next year. Again, talking about projects having a second shot at life, the very first thing that I wrote even before Reaper, the thing that first got me into the business, was post‑apocalyptic Oliver Twist story called Oliver. I mentioned before the frustration of when you write a spec script and you put a lot of work into it, and it’s something that’s just not destined to ever really be seen by people. But with Oliver I was determined to tell that story in one form or another, so years later I revisited the script and reverse‑engineered as a comic book story. I found a very talented artist by the name of Darick Robertson, who is now the co‑creator of this with me. I’m writing it, and he’s drawing it. That’s going to be coming out from Image Comics early next year. I’m glad I will finally get to scratch that particular itch because there’s nothing worse for a writer than an untold story.

Scott:  One last question, Gary. It’s the obvious one. I’m sure you get hit up with it all the time, which is what advice can you offer aspiring screenwriters, TV writers, comic book writers whatever about learning the craft and breaking into the business?

Gary:  I just tell people to read really great scripts. I do think there are some books that are worth reading. I’m not aggressively against the how-to books, but I think you can get too caught up in the world of screenwriting gurus and people that profess to have the secrets to writing a blockbuster movie. Mostly those people are full of shit. There’s one book I really like called “How Not to Write a Screenplay” by Denny Martin Flinn, who wrote Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and that was one of the few that I read that I felt like had really good, practical advice. It wasn’t necessarily telling you what to do, but was making you aware of various pitfalls and how to avoid things that aspiring, newbie writers very easily fall into. I thought that’s one of the few screenwriting books I ever read that made an impression on me. And if a writer is trying to give me advice, I’m always looking at their qualification to give that advice. Denny Martin Flinn wrote one of the best Star Trek films, so I’m much more likely to listen to him than the guy who’s got no writing credits but apparently holds the secret keys to Hollywood success. I always find that very strange.

I’m quite envious of writers starting off nowadays. They’ve got this vast resource through the Internet of great, great screenplays that they can go read and learn from. And I encourage people not just to read scripts of great movies that they’ve seen. It can be very instructive to look at a movie that you love and then read the original script and see how what was on the page was translated into the screen and what changed and what didn’t. But when you’re reading a script for a film that you’ve seen, your memory of the film is always there informing what you’re reading on the page. So I think it can be much more instructive to read great scripts for films that haven’t been made, or that you haven’t seen. Read those because the objective of a screenwriter, of a screenplay, is to communicate and paint a picture of what the movie is going to look and sound and feel like and the emotions it’s going to evoke in your mind purely through words on a page. And it’s a very, very difficult job to do, but when it works well, when you’ve read a great screenplay, you feel like you’ve seen the movie.

Jon Spaihts’ Passengers is a script that I point a lot of people to. Just a tremendous, tremendous script. I read that script, and it felt like I had seen the movie. That’s one example, but there are many others. Look at the Black List every year and read those scripts. Read The Imitation Game. Even without seeing the movie, that’s a fantastic script. So that’s my advice, devour really good scripts from really good writers and learn from them. By all means read the books, learn about formatting, learn about three‑act structure and that stuff, but don’t feel beholden to it. Allow yourself to experiment, to bend and break the rules you’ve learned. The more that you try to adhere to some kind of screenwriting formula, the more likely you are to end up with a formulaic screenplay, and who wants that?

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Part 5, here.

To learn more about Gary’s 400 page historical fantasy novel “Abomination,” go here.

To purchase “Abomination,” go here and here.

Gary has graciously agreed to answer reader questions, so if you have any, please post in comments.

Gary is repped by UTA and Circle of Confusion.

Twitter: @garywhitta.

Saturday Hot Links

July 25th, 2015 by

Time for the 196th installment of Saturday Hot Links.

25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2015.

A Massive List of Summer 2015 Grants All Filmmakers Should Know About.

‘Trainwreck’ Box Office Success Pushes Amy Schumer on Hollywood’s A-List.

‘Jurassic World’ Passes ‘Avengers’ for No. 3 on All-Time Box Office List.

Why Universal Is Breaking Box Office Records.

U.K. Box Office Up 9 Percent Mid-Year.

Google’s YouTube Signs Up Everyone But TV for New Paid Service.

Amy Winehouse Film Becoming One of the Biggest Docs in Years.

Screenwriter Billy Ray Wins Seat on Academy Board of Governors.

Just For Laughs: ‘The Big Lebowski’ Live Read With Michael Fassbender & Jennifer Lawrence.

100 Great Movies By Female Directors.

A New Renaissance For Giant Monster Movies Is Almost Upon Us.

There’s A GOONIES Reboot Brewing.

Director Christopher McQuarrie’s unlikely path to ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’.

‘House of Cards’ Writer Beau Willimon Joins BAFTA/BFI Lecture Series.

The State of the Movie Fan Union.

6 Of The World’s Greatest Writers Explain How They Deal With Writer’s Block.

Garrison Keillor Announces Retirement From ‘A Prairie Home Companion’.

‘Southpaw’ Producers on the 5-Year Fight to Make Jake Gyllenhaal’s Boxing Movie.

Why Europe Is Kicking U.S. Series Out of Primetime.

Critic’s Notebook: Todd McCarthy on BBC’s Bizarre Poll of Best American Films.

Check Out This Helpful Guide to All of Disney’s Sequels, Remakes and Spin-Offs.

Here’s How ShareGrid Plans to be the Airbnb of Production Equipment.

Tax Breaks Bringing Hollywood Productions Back to Italy.

George R.R. Martin Is Tired of Marvel’s Movie Bad Guys Already.

HBO Signs Bill Simmons For Weekly Talk Show As Part of Broader Pact.

PewDiePie: No. 1 in #Famechangers Digital Star Ranking.

Michael Jackson Wanted to Play Jar Jar Binks in ‘Star Wars’.

AP to Put Nearly 17,000 Hours of Archival News Footage on YouTube.

‘Transparent’s’ Jill Soloway Wants to Stop ‘Perpetuating Male Privilege Through Protagonism’.

Average Movie Ticket Price Hits Record High.

Meet Your New Fantasy Man: The Emotional Bodyguard.

5 Reasons Movie Ticket Prices Have Gone Through the Roof.

IMAX Celebrates Highest Sales Quarter Ever Thanks to Record Box Office.

Movie Admissions in U.K. Surge 10% in First Half of 2015.

25 Valuable Lessons from Seriously Successful Writers.

How ‘Paper Towns’ Screenwriters Got John Green’s Blessing to Make His Bestseller ‘More of a Fun Ride’.

‘Sharknado 3’ Screenwriter Says Franchise ‘Saved the Entire Human Race’.

Terry Huang (Black List blog): Go Big (Screen) or Go Home (Video).

The Black List Table Reads: Mr. Malcolm’s Table (Part 3).

Chicks Who Script: Episode 50.

Scriptnotes: Episode 207.

Doug Richardson: Development Notes – Killed by the Bell.

Billy Mernit: Trainwreck & Catastrophe: Things Are Looking Up.

Bob Saenz: The Acting Screenwriter.

Watch: Video Essay Explores The Art Of Anti-War Films [video].

Watch: 10-Minute Video Essay Breakdown Of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ [video].

Watch: ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’ Star Wars Western Mash-Up [video].

Douglas Cook Dies: Screenwriter Of ‘The Rock’, ‘Double Jeopardy’ Was 56.

Screenwriting Master Class tip of the week: I’m in the middle of another amazing Quest Writing Workshop here in Santa Monica. For those of you unable to travel, I have two upcoming online courses which lie at the heart of the Quest workshop:

August 3: Core III: Character (Scott Myers)

August 17: Prep: From Concept to Outline (Scott Myers)

Core III: Character is a 1-week online class covering the fundamentals of Character Based Screenwriting, a process which not only shows you how to develop compelling, multidimensional characters, it also elicits the plot to emerge from your characters.

Prep: From Concept to Outline is a popular 6-week online workshop which does precisely what the name says: You take a story from its core idea and through a series of weekly writing assignments develop it all the way to a scene-by-scene outline. Not only that, you learn a proven, professional approach to ‘breaking a story’ in prep.

These online classes are fantastic in their own right, amazing how participating writers from around the world join together to learn, share ideas, ask questions, and elevate their individual and collective understanding of the craft.

As always, I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

30 Things About Screenwriting: Set-up and Payoffs

July 25th, 2015 by

One of the most important narrative elements screenwriters have available to us is set-ups and payoffs. The basic idea is this: We establish something that pays off later. Here are some examples:

  • Aliens: In an attempt to make herself useful, Ripley sets up how she can control a power loader. This pays off later when she engages the alien ‘mother’ in combat and delivers her classic line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
  • The Dark Knight: At dinner with Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent provides a set-up when he says, “You either a die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” By the movie’s end, Dent pays off the truth of his own words.
  • The Shawshank Redemption: Warden Norton creates a set-up when he returns Andy’s Bible and says, “Salvation lies within.” This gets paid off when Norton opens Andy’s Bible which is inscribed, “You were right. Salvation lies within,” and Norton sees the hollowed-out pages Andy used to hide his rock hammer.
  • Magnolia: The numbers “8” and “2”. There’s an 82% chance of rain. Science convention begins at 8:20. That’s a set-up tied to Exodus 8:2: “If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.” Which pays off at the end of the movie.
  • Fatal Attraction: Alex creates a set-up when she tells Dan, “I’m great with animals and I love to cook.” The boiled bunny rabbit serves as the payoff.

Implicit in the set-up / payoff dynamic is the idea of foreshadowing whereby the writer gives the script reader an insight into events that will happen later on before they understand the significance of those occurrences. It can be an especially effective psychological ploy for several reasons:

  • It can get the reader’s attention: Presented without context, a foreshadowed event can surprise the reader as the opening of The Hangover.
  • It can raise the reader’s curiosity: A foreshadowed moment can cause the reader to wonder what is going on, what is the significance of this, why am I seeing this now, like the cold opening of Fight Club.
  • It can create a sense of mystery: A foreshadowed image can generate a riddle we carry with us all the way through the script as in perhaps one of the most famous set-ups of all time — this “Rosebud” scene in Citizen Kane.

A great example of set-ups is the opening of Back to the Future [you can see an homage by high school students to that scene here]. Consider all the details that pay off later:

  • The coffee maker with no pot. This sets up the fact that Doc Brown is not at home, indeed, hasn’t been here for at least a few days.
  • A TV Anchorman talks about the theft of plutonium from a research facility and suspected Libyan terrorists. That sets up the fuel rods for the DeLorean time travel machine and the men who shoot Doc Brown.
  • Einstein’s overflowing bowl of dog food. This sets up Doc Brown’s dog who does the first time travel experiment.
  • Marty’s skateboard. This sets up a whole runner for how Marty gets around in the present – and then in an improvisational fashion in the past.
  • The skateboard rolls across the floor and hits a container marked “Plutonium”. See above.
  • Marty playing guitar. Loud. This sets up the fact that Marty is a musician [another runner] and that he likes to show off when he plays [which we see in the present and the past].
  • Phone call from Doc Brown. This sets up two things. One: He asks Marty to meet him at Twin Pines Mall at 1:15, which Marty does. Two: The clocks going off at 8AM confirms for Doc Brown that his experiment worked. And as a nice grace note, when Mary discovers the clocks are 25 minutes slow, he hustles out of there — late for school – into the movie’s opening credits.

Another good example is The Sixth Sense. Look at this scene at the very end and consider how this series of payoffs [told as flashbacks] lead Malcolm to the startling conclusion that he is a ghost:

  • Cole: “I see people. They don’t know they’re dead… they only see what they want to see.”
  • The kitchen table where Malcolm’s wife Anna has been dining… alone.
  • Their meeting at the restaurant where Anna picked up the tab.
  • The basement door with the red handle Malcolm couldn’t open.
  • The frost emitted from Anna’s lips.
  • And of course, the gunshot to Malcolm’s abdomen.

The Sixth Sense is one of the most notable examples of what is known in Hollywood as a Big Twist movie. To pull that off, the writer needs to set up those surprising payoffs [see also The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Psycho, Memento].

Set-ups and payoffs are terrific tools for screenwriters. Don’t forget to use them!

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 25, 2013]

Interview (Written): Kurt Sutter (“Southpaw”)

July 25th, 2015 by

KPCC’s John Horn interviews Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”) about the first feature film he wrote, the newly released Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

I wanted to talk about your body of work, and this may be kind of too broad a generalization, but I’m going to try it anyway. Part of what you do and have done is to take stereotypes and put a human face on [them], often with people that society doesn’t often hold in the highest regard, so that audiences can understand the myths. (a) Do you think that’s fair? And (b) Is that what you’re trying to do with Southpaw?

No, I think that’s fair. In fact, I think I’ll steal that from now on when people ask me what my body of work is. As a writer, I like to bend genre a little bit. I like to take things that people might expect to head in one direction and then twist it up a little bit. That’s especially true of Sons [of Anarchy], where people had to understood outlaw motorcycle culture two ways, and one was either sort of the cuddly, goofy, teddy-bear one they would see on sitcoms, and then the other one was sort of the white-trash, meth-dealing, darker version. And the truth is, like most things, it lives somewhere in the middle, and they’re human beings with somewhat complex lives, so it was sort of fun to go in there and kind of blow up some of those myths and educate people about a world.

The title of your movie is Southpaw. Some people who haven’t seen the movie have just seen Jake Gyllenhaal and said, “Well, he’s not in a southpaw stance.” Does the title mean anything beyond being a leftie?

Yes, I think … and for me again, the origins of this project go back a few years. I wrote the script originally for Marshall Mathers …

… who we know as Eminem.

Right. Marshall, who’s a bit of an outcast and an outlaw, obviously, in the hip-hop movement when he showed up. And a leftie, I believe. The idea was to tell the second half of his life story through the analogy of boxing, and that was the origins of the piece. And then, you know, as things happened, he decided not to do it, and it moved forward and TWC, the Weinsteins, picked it up and liked it for Jake. It was interesting for me because initially it was very difficult to see it as anything else other than what I had written it for, and I was like, “Ah, I don’t know. Jake, I love him as an actor, but, you know.” And then I met with Jake and Antoine [Fuqua], who was attached to direct at that point, who was incredibly passionate about the project, and Jake had all this insight into who this guy was. He had done a lot of research. And suddenly I saw it as not necessarily an allegory or a biographic piece, but as sort of a stand-alone story of redemption. So I got excited about it again and went in and did some more drafts. But, yeah, Jake was not a southpaw, and he’s an amazing athlete, but he wasn’t a boxer. I think they felt it would’ve been too difficult to not only train him as a boxer but train him as a boxer that goes against his natural strengths. So that sort of got put to the side and then worked into the story line later. But just in terms of what Southpaw means, you know, to the boxing community, not so much now, because there’s a lot of southpaws out there, but initially, no one wanted to fight a southpaw because they were dangerous. They had a different style. A lot of promoters would avoid them, and they really were sort of the outlaws of the boxing community.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

Daily Dialogue — July 25, 2015

July 25th, 2015 by

“I’m not even gonna swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.'”

Psycho (1960), screenplay by Joseph Stefano, novel by Robert Bloch

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Last Line.

Trivia: First American film ever to show a toilet flushing on screen.

Dialogue On Dialogue: The mother of all last movie lines!

Reader Question: How much do I need to focus on “stylized writing”?

July 24th, 2015 by

Question from Thomas:

Hello Scott,

I’m beginning to write screenplays; however, I wanted to know how good at stylized writing do I need to be to become a successful screenwriter.

I aim to describe everything clearly. Clear enough for the cast and crew to understand and see the story in their minds.

Most scripts I read are so colorful and stylish. Is that something I should work on or do I just focus on telling my story clearly?

Thomas, your question goes to the heart of a writer’s voice. So a few things.

First, we have to draw a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. The latter is a blueprint for the production team to make a movie. The former is what we, as writers, write to sell the project and move into development.

They can be two different beasts.

Whereas as shooting script (or production draft) may be much more about being “clear enough for the cast and crew to understand,” a selling script has one audience: The buyer. We are trying to engage the hell out of him/her.

Which leads to the second point: Entertainment is at a premium with a selling script. You may have heard of David Mamet’s one rule for script-writing: “Never be boring.” We have zero chance of getting a script to a production draft state unless we get it set up in the first place. And to do that, while clarity is important, entertaining the reader is more important.

This, Thomas, is why you see “colorful and stylish” writing in the scripts you have been reading. At this stage, we want to do whatever we can to excite a script reader about our story.

So yes, my advice is you do have to pay attention to your script’s style.

And this leads to the third point, something I raised earlier: Voice. Specifically what I call Narrative Voice.

Whatever the script’s genre is, the style exhibited primarily in scene description should reflect that genre. An action script should read hyperbolic. A comedy script should read funny. A thriller script should read intense. A horror script should read scary.

Here’s the thing. A novelist has a lot more leeway to convey their voice to a reader. Not so a screenwriter. Dialogue, yes. But not much else. So we need to embrace scene description as a platform to entertain and engage a reader.

Hence stylish writing.

With a selling script, clarity is important. Establishing a voice which entertains the reader in scene description, more important.

How to learn to do this? Read scripts. Focus on spec scripts which have sold in the last few years. Then test it out. Experiment with your own writing.

Give expression to your own Narrative Voice. It’s a major selling point for any spec script.

Interview (Part 5): Gary Whitta

July 24th, 2015 by

A few months back, I had the opportunity to interview screenwriter Gary Whitta whose movie credits include The Book of Eli (2010), After Earth (2013), and the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One (2016). Having recently seen his first novel “Abomination” published, Gary and I had a wide-ranging conversation touching on a host of subjects which I think readers will find quite interesting.

Today in Part 5, we delve more deeply into “Abomination,” the experience Gary had writing a novel in contrast to a screenplay, and some questions about the craft of writing:

Scott:  You’ve got another theme at work, too, with the magic that’s involved in the discovery of these nine scrolls with ancient incantations. Once mastered by the archbishop, they have a shocking transformative effect.

You mentioned Frankenstein. That echoes the original Frankenstein story. The archbishop in effect Dr. Frankenstein, right? He starts off with good ambitions whic gets consumed, that whole absolute power corrupts absolutely thing.

Gary:  What you see in stories like Frankenstein and The Fly is, in part, the idea you can stumble on idea that is so powerful that it’s very easy to become corrupted by it. Our technological development often outpaces our moral and ethic development. As soon as we develop a new technology, one of the very first things that we figure out to do is how to we weaponize it. Very, very quickly, after we split the atom, we had figured out how to make a bomb out of that technology and on and on it goes.

Scott:   What was the process like for you writing novels as opposed to screenplay? You’re freer from a page count perspective. You don’t have to worry so much about the narrative being an externalized reality. Did you enjoy the process?

Gary:  Yeah, it was really nice that to not have to worry about page count for once. Often, my first drafts of screenplays are really, really long. Close to like a 170 or 180 pages when really it should be close to 110‑120. Then, a lot of what I do in the rewrite process is trying to cut it down and figure out what I do and don’t need. That’s not to say that when you write a novel, you’ve instantly bought yourself license to warble on and on — you still want to cut the fat and make the story as lean and as well-paced as possible. But it was nice to be free of that numerical restriction.

In many ways it felt like starting over. A lot of what I have learned in fifteen years as a screenwriter went out the window because it didn’t apply to the story I wanted to tell in the form I wanted to tell it in. Writing in prose is very different, and I had to give myself the license to do things that usually I wouldn’t be comfortable with, like spending time in the head of a character or devoting a whole chunk of the story to background. It took a little while to get comfortable doing that because all those years of screenwriting conditioned me to avoid those things. Once I got past that phase… it’s like breathing liquid oxygen in The Abyss. The initial panic subsides and you acclimatize to your new environment and you realize it’s actually pretty cool, this new environment. By the end of it, I probably had more fun writing it than I have any screenplay that I’ve written — with the exception of Star Wars — because I was able to give myself so much more license dramatically than I usually would in a script.

Scott:  So, the book’s rolling out and you decided on this really interesting publishing strategy. In fact, I’ve never heard about it. I’ve read an article in the Wall Street Journal about it. Inkshares, could you describe what that’s about?

Gary:  Yeah, Inkshares is very new. They’re based here in San Francisco, where I live. And their approach appealed to me for a couple of reasons. They’re an online startup and since I come from kind of a techy background I liked what they were trying to do. The internet has created this tremendous democratization in the creative marketplace where a lot of the gatekeepers who traditionally decide what gets presented to an audience have gone away. Now you can fund a project on Kickstarter, you can create a show on YouTube and just get it out there. And now it’s the audience that decides if it’s something worthy of success, not the old gatekeepers. We’re seeing this in publishing too, with a huge surge in the digital self-publishing movement, and now with Inkshares, with offers all the benefits of a traditional publisher with a lot of the freedom you’d associate with self-publishing. Abomination, like all Inkshares books, was crowdfunded. We put up a couple of sample chapters and some stuff about what the book was, and people could decide if they wanted to pre-order a copy. If enough people pre-order to fund the initial publication of the book, it gets published. And Inkshares is then able to tap into the resources of a “real” publisher — distribution, production, marketing, all the stuff that is often very difficult to do when you self-publish without any support.

Scott:  It sounds like a terrific idea, and hopefully Abomination will be a big success. Before we get in some craft questions, I’ve got to ask you one question about the Star Wars movie. You worked on Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One, the film that Gareth Edwards is directing. It’s due out in 2016. What was your experience working on that project?

Gary:  As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m really not in a position to say very much about it. But I worked on it for the better part of a year, breaking the story and writing the initial screenplay, and I had a fantastic experience. Gareth is one of the most talented filmmakers I’ve ever worked with, and he’s going to make a terrific film.

Scott:  You’re also doing an adaptation of Mark Millar’s Starlight. how’s that going for you?

Gary:  It’s been going really well. Basically I came right off of Star Wars and went onto Starlight. It had been waiting in the wings for me to finish on Star Wars. And it’s a big relief to go from a project where I’ve been able to say literally nothing to one where the whole story has basically already been published in comic-book form. There’s a lot of secrecy around Star Wars, but you can go buy the Starlight comic right now and essentially see at least in its original comic book form the story that we’re going to be telling you this time.

Scott:  That’s great. A few craft questions for you. It’s interesting to hear you talk, because several times you’ve mentioned putting on the producer or studio executive hat when you’re looking at story ideas. How important do you think the story concept is to the overall strength and commercial viability of a spec script?

Gary:  It’s funny, you don’t really hear that term “high concept” so much anymore. It was a big thing in the ’80s, and then it kind of went away. Put the thinking still very much prevails. If you have any ambition to see your story realized as a big movie, something that is not going to be super‑cheap to make, I do think you have be able to boil that idea down into one or two sentences that makes people say, “I would see that movie”. Because there’s nothing more depressing than pouring your heart and soul into a story and writing a script, and then seeing it not sell because at the end of the day there was never a simple, compelling idea at the core that people can grasp and get excited about.

So, I do try to submit everything that I write to this test before I really invest in it. Is this something that has a realistic chance of getting made? Is it something that people would want to see? I try to always take into consideration before and during the writing, simply so that I’m giving myself the best chance of seeing some satisfaction at the end. I don’t want to spend my life writing movies that I deeply care about, but which have no chance of anyone ever seeing.

Scott:  I’ve read when you were first starting out, you didn’t do much in the way of outlining or prep writing. But I’m assuming that’s evolved over time. So, which aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most time to?

Gary:  It went back and forth. When I was just starting out, I didn’t prep or outline at all. I would just dive straight into writing the script. And of course, that is not the way to do it. You will very quickly write yourself into all kinds of corners It’s a very amateurish way to do it, born of impatience and enthusiasm, but a lot of writers probably start out that way.

From there, I kind of rubber‑banded in entirely the opposite direction — I would very, very rigorously structure things. And I would write these really long, 30 or 40‑page treatments. Once the treatment was done, I had the satisfaction in knowing I wasn’t going to write myself into a corner. I know exactly where the story was going. The problem with that is that that made the writing process itself a little bit boring, because I had the story so well worked out ahead of time I hadn’t left myself anything to discover while writing. Trust me, writers hate writing treatments. It’s like writing the script but without any fun of writing the script. It’s helpful but it’s a joyless process, because the fun part is having the idea. The fun part is figuring out when a story clicks into place and you have that “eureka” moment. It’s really, really edifying. It’s so much fun to do that. That’s what we love about writing, when you get that little adrenaline hit. If you do all that in the treatment and don’t leave any of that for the actual script, the emotional process and the fun of writing the script can be quite flat.

Where I’ve ended up now is somewhere in the middle of the two, where I will outline and I will give myself a basic backbone of where the story is going. I’ll leave enough open and vague so that I still have latitude in the writing of the actually script to make those discoveries and find the little things as I go along.

With Eli, the outline was literally one page long, just a simple beat sheet of the 10-12 key story points that laid out the basic structure. So I had a handrail as I went along. As long as I held onto that through writing a story, I wasn’t going to get lost. But a lot of the cool little details and specifics and things that happen in the film came through in the actual writing of the draft. Because I tend to be most creative and have my best ideas when I’m knee-deep in the real writing rather than one step removed from it, which is where you are when you’re doing a treatment or an outline.

Scott:  Does that extend to developing characters?

Gary:  With Eli, yeah. I’m much, much more interested in character than I am in plot. It’s why Eli has a really simple plot. Abomination has a really simple plot. I like to think of the best stories as thin on plot but thick on character. Look at Beverly Hills Cop. Can you remember what the actual plot of the film was? Very few people can, but they all remember the character of Axel Foley. Because he’s what was what made the movie fun. We all remember that character. What was the actual plot of Pirates of the Caribbean? Do you really remember? Probably not, but everyone remembers Jack Sparrow.

So for Eli, all I had written for the story was that one‑page beat sheet. But I had pages and pages of character stuff written about Eli and Solara and Carnegie, who they were, where they came from. I wanted to know the characters really, really well before I started writing. By having just the basic outline of a plot and a really deep sense who the characters were, I felt the actual writing the movie became much easier.

Because if as a writer you’re in a situation where, for example, your character walks into a room and there’s a guy there pointing a gun at him, if you don’t instinctively know what your character would do, how they would react, I don’t think you’ve done enough work. You should know those characters as well as you know yourself.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Gary offers advice on the single best way to learn the craft of screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

To learn more about Gary’s 400 page historical fantasy novel “Abomination,” go here.

To purchase “Abomination,” go here and here.

Gary has graciously agreed to answer reader questions, so if you have any, please post in comments.

Gary is repped by UTA and Circle of Confusion.

Twitter: @garywhitta.