Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 1)

August 24th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Some writers start with theme. Some find themes during the story-crafting process. Some don’t even think about it. But today, we start off a basic question: What is theme?

Geoff LaTulippe: “Theme, to me, is the ultimate notion that you’re trying to get across with your story. Love is Hard. Space is Dangerous. Hope is Lost. Whatever it is, you have to ask yourself, ‘If I had to give it to the audience in one sentence, what would be the POINT of all this?'”

Will Simmons: “Theme is the nucleus for every screenplay. Each scene should be an exploration of the thematic undercurrent. A poignant theme will lend itself to a variety of interpretations, which the characters can embody and externalize. It should grow in complexity as the story progresses and characters struggle to survive the journey.”

Chris Borrelli: “For me, I would almost say, what am I trying to say? What am I trying to…and there is something I’m trying to say, in whatever I…and sometimes there’s multiple themes…one will stand out for me.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I wish I had the best way to define what theme is. I know what it means to me, I guess. If you look at the main character, what is the story really about to that person? Why are we going on this journey with them?”

Arash Amel: “For me, personally, it grows out of my characters. It’s, ‘What is my character trying to achieve? What do they love? What do they exemplify, and what are they afraid of?’ Those questions lead me to answer what the theme for the character is, for the lead character, and then that comes in and underpins pretty much the whole of the movie and then flavors the subtext.”

Rajiv Joseph: “I feel that every story has to have an idea that transcends the action and the characters… We can both write funny, cute dialogue until we’re blue in the face and it’s not going to mean anything. Always, no matter how silly a movie might be, I think there has to be some deeper idea that’s its soul.”

Lisa Joy: “For me, theme is the soul of a script. It’s the sense or feeling stitched in fine thread throughout the pages. It’s the part of a script that a reader can take away and relate to or apply to their own lives long after they’ve forgotten the snippets of dialogue or plot points of the script itself.”

Stephany Folsom: “To me, stories are supposed to convey something about our human experience and why we’re here. Theme isn’t what I lead with. But theme has to be there or else it’s not a movie. What’s the point of telling a story if it doesn’t have something to say about life?”

Takeaways:

* Theme has something to do with the point of the story, the meaning of the story, the “nucleus” of the story. This take embraces the intellectual / thoughtful aspect of a story.

* But there’s also this: Theme is the “soul” of the story, something deriving from the characters which ties into our “human experience.” Here theme is more about the emotional / psychological dimension of a story.

This aligns with my theory: That a script’s central theme is best understood as the emotional meaning of a story. But here is another actionable take on the concept:

Ashleigh Powell: “Theme is something that has always felt very elusive and intimidating to me. Maybe it comes from reading a lot of literature, having to dissect and analyze and write serious essays on the importance of ‘THEME’ in a story. But I recently read a piece of advice… this comes from Tawnya Bhattacharya from the Script Anatomy blog… that has really struck with me: ‘Theme is the opposite of your main character’s flaw.’ You start the story with the main character’s flaw, you show how that character is transforming over the course of their journey, and by the end of it they’ve completed an arc and realized the theme. I think there is something beautifully simplified about that approach.”

Identify what the Protagonist’s Disunity nature is, jump to its opposite nature (Unity), and that informs what your story’s central theme is.

No matter the various interpretations put forth by Black List writers I’ve interviewed, they all agree on one thing: Theme is critical in writing a story.

How about you? What’s your definition of theme? How do you go about working with themes in your stories?

Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 4)

August 6th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you come up with story concepts?

In this set of responses, the writers express how they find inspiration from feelings:

Nikole Beckwith: “I really think that ultimately any story idea I ever come up with comes directly from an emotional experience. It just like manifests itself in different ways… Regardless of the actual story it all comes from somewhere inside of you, so your perspective and your story will reveal itself… you have it. Your stories are already in you. You don’t have to press yourself for them to appear. They will appear if you just let them.”

Jason Mark Hellerman: “A lot of times, it’s what I’m dealing with in my personal life, but it’s what I want to talk about, but I’m too afraid to.”

Seth Lochhead: “And then there’s music. Sometimes music creates a feeling and I am compelled to capture that feeling.”

Arash Amel: “I start with a feeling. I try to listen to sort of the voice in my head that kind of goes, ‘What kind of a movie do I feel like writing now? What haven’t I done?'”

Something personal. An emotional experience. Capture the feeling. And this: “Your stories are already in you… they will appear if you just let them.”

When I read these comments, I’m reminded of this:

“Trust your feelings.”

Who knew that in addition to being a Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a screenwriting guru, too!

Using source material or real life as inspiration for story ideas seems pretty logical. Coming from a more emotionally grounded perspective feels more right-brain. Intuitive. Instinctual. The Heart in contrast to the Head.

There’s a clear upside to this approach. The final question I ask in assessing a potential story concept is, “What is my emotional connection to the material?” Starting from that place puts you squarely on target to answer that question.

How about you? Do you look to feelings and emotions for inspiration for your stories? Have you written stories arising from feelings? If so, please stop by comments and share with us.

For Part 1 of the series on story concepts, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Tomorrow and for the rest of this week, we will learn how other Black List writers I have interviewed generate story concepts and the variety of ways they engage in that practice.

Writing and the Creative Life: One key to creativity… naps?

October 31st, 2013 by

I was doing my usual thing yesterday, working my way through a virtual pile of emails, organizing my daily To Do list, and generally being a productive busy bee when I saw this tweet from fellow screenwriter Arash Amel:

Writing tip for the day: sometimes when you don’t feel like writing, just stop. Have a nap.

Have a nap. That jarred something in my memory, so I started digging into the archives of my blog and found a post I wrote over 5 years ago called “Naps: Key to Creativity?” The piece cited a New York Times article which examined scientific research between the connection of sleep and creativity:

“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.

Steven Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.

So some scientists and entrepreneurs think sleep is beneficial. But what about arty types? Again from the NYT article:

“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”

And how does that “reset work:

“Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.

Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.

“When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.

When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are. Like when you are dreaming:

Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.

My predominant instinct when writing a story is to immerse myself in it in the most comprehensive fashion possible. Oftentimes that involves endless hours devoted to research, character development, brainstorming and plotting. I know the value of a direct approach to the creative process, slogging into and through the story universe with lots of intentional effort and thought.

Yet I know that in some intangible way, writing a story involves a type of magic, a metaphorical way of referring to an indirect approach to the process.

And what could be more indirect than giving oneself over to a nap?

So the next time you are stuck or feeling uninspired, consider doing what Arash Amel suggests: Take a nap. The answers you seek may be lurking in your dreams.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

Spec Script Sale: “Soldiers of the Sun”

August 14th, 2013 by

Universal acquires action science fiction spec script “Soldiers of the Sun” written by Arash Amel. From THR:

Sun is set in a post-apocalyptic future and focuses on a squad of soldiers that searches for a fabled city of gold while on a tour of duty in Mexico liberating it from an alien race known as Orcs.

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Sun is the third spec Amel has sold in as many years and marks a return to the sci-fi action genre. The rising screenwriter has been generating buzz for his true-life bio-scripts, including the upcoming Grace of Monaco, which began life as a spec. The movie now stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly and will open November 27 in limited release.  He also has scripts centering on actress Ingrid Bergman and war journalist Marie Colvin in development but initially broke through with his sci-fi and action screenplays such as The Infinity Principle.

This project is an original franchise. Vin Diesel is attached to star and he knows something about franchises [see: Fast and Furious].

Amel is repped by CAA.

By my count, this is the 64th spec script sale in 2013.

There were 69 spec script sales year-to-date in 2012.

To read my exclusive interview with Arash Amel, go here.

Congratulations, Arash!

Screenwriting 101: Arash Amel

August 6th, 2013 by

screenplay“I am a great believer in the psychology of character in screenplay. I think that almost any story becomes a visual enactment of the psychological dilemmas faced by the lead character. If you can make that connection, you elevate your characters to a mythic level.”

— Arash Amiel [GITS Interview, July 3, 2013]

Interview: Arash Amel

July 7th, 2013 by

Arash Amel is one of the bright new talents among Hollywood screenwriters, having penned the 2011 Black List script Grace of Monaco which has been produced starring Nicole Kidman and will be released later this year, as well as set up several high profile projects including “Seducing Ingrid Bergman” and “The Infinity Principle”.

Recently I caught up with Arash for an extended interview in which we covered a whole host of subjects.

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

Part 1: “I’m a great believer in breaking rules, and I’m a great believer in one size doesn’t fit everybody. We’re not lawyers. We’re not accountants. There is no right way of learning how to write a screenplay.”

Part 2: “So after 20 years of basically kind of being the ugly duckling in one country, suddenly in one screenplay everybody in another country opened the doors and said welcome…it made me believe in the Hollywood dream. And I still remember the first time I stepped onto Paramount’s lot in 2006 — it was like stepping into a fairly tale.”

Part 3: “I am a great believer in the psychology of character in screenplay. I think that almost any story becomes a visual enactment of the psychological dilemmas faced by the lead character. If you can make that connection, you elevate your characters to a mythic level.”

Part 4: “The essence and what fascinates me as a writer is that human condition. I think movies, for me, are always a metaphor for internal conflict. That’s how you get to actually really truthful and genuine characters that audiences can relate to.”

Part 5: “Every screenplay is a movie, every movie is at minimum a $10 to $20 million dollar start-up enterprise. For a brief period of time, you’re the general manager. No one can move unless you’ve written.”

Part 6: “I find that the theme grows from the characters… It’s, ‘What is my character trying to achieve? What do they love? What do they exemplify, and what are they afraid of?’ Those questions lead me to answer what the theme for the character is.”

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

Arash is repped by CAA.

Twitter: @arashamel.

Interview: Arash Amel — Part 6

July 6th, 2013 by

Arash Amel is one of the bright new talents among Hollywood screenwriters, having penned the 2011 Black List script Grace of Monaco which has been produced starring Nicole Kidman and will be released later this year, as well as set up several high profile projects including “Seducing Ingrid Bergman” and “The Infinity Principle”.

Recently I caught up with Arash for an extended interview in which we covered a whole host of subjects.

Today in Part 6, Arash drills down into some of the key aspects of the screenwriting craft:

Scott: What about dialogue? How do you go about finding your characters’ voices, and how do you think a writer can develop their ability to write dialogue?

Arash: I listen but I’m also influenced by the history of movies that I’ve seen. I don’t believe the people in movies talk like real life. So, real life doesn’t really influence me as much as being attuned to and sensitive to movie-speak.

My characters do like to talk. I love words, and I love the rhythm and musicality of words. But dialog, for me, at its core, is all about subtext. It’s totally the question of not just conveying what you can’t convey in images, but also playing to metaphor. To the point that we were discussing earlier about the final speech, the entire subtext of that speech is about marriage.

Scott: That opens the door to the concept of theme. How important is that for you? Do you start with themes, or do you find they arise as you’re developing and writing the story?

Arash: I think theme is actually a signpost for every other creative decision that gets made. Theme is so closely linked to tone, and tone is so closely linked to marketing, that even without realizing it, the buyers and the studios are totally dependent on your theme, and what underpins it. I find that the theme grows from the characters more often than not. For me, personally, it grows out of my characters. It’s, “What is my character trying to achieve? What do they love? What do they exemplify, and what are they afraid of?” Those questions lead me to answer what the theme for the character is, for the lead character, and then that comes in and underpins pretty much the whole of the movie and then flavors the subtext. That’s more of an iterative process, where you may start at one place and end up somewhere else.

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

Arash: Change and transformation. I think scenes, good scenes, are about change. It’s about change of character, and characters who change as a result of choice. Really, the best scenes are where you emotionally start in one place, and you can track the beats, and you’re emotionally at a very different place. That comes in supremely handy when you’re sitting with the director and the editor and you’re trying to capture the heart of the scene in the editing room.

Obviously, you have interconnecting tissues of scenes, the small scenes, but I’m talking about a big, three or four page scene. And I don’t think it’s a question of just dialogue scenes but also action. I always compare good action scenes to a good song in a musical. The rule they always tell you in musicals is that the song is transformative. You start at one emotional point in the song, and when you finish, and the story has moved on as a result of that song. I think action set pieces are exactly the same in those things. It’s change and transformation.

Scott: What is your actual writing process like?

Arash: I write every day. It’s a sickness. If I don’t write, it’s like I haven’t had my shot of whiskey in the morning. By the way, I don’t drink when I write. Except coffee. Two espressos, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. [laughs] I write 9 AM through 6 or 7 PM. So, it really is a job, with it’s own structure and pace.

Then at the weekends, I’ll probably…I have a young son now, so it’s not as it used to be. At the weekends, I’ll probably write maybe a couple of hours in the morning, simply because my natural state is to write.

20-years ago I started writing in my bedroom, then it became my living room, then the dining room, but now I have an office. I will go in and I’ll shut the door. I have to play music. That’s the one thing. I will be blasting soundtracks and I like to make playlists of soundtracks and all kinds of things for a particular project. It’ll be of practical film music, stuff without words, which kinds of sets the mood, and so on. I’ll compile those playlists, and they’ll keep evolving for each particular project.

So, it’s coffee and music and my own creative space.

Scott: What is your single best excuse not to write?

Arash: [laughs] Not to write? I have never in my life made an excuse not to write. I basically go into such a degree of self‐loathing if I’m not writing, it feels … it feels like I’m trying to shirk an obligation to myself and now my family.

See, this is the thing. Because I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, it feels unnatural not to do it. Before I was driven by this need to succeed. And that’s actually still here, you can always be better, you can always strive for a greater achievement, I’m my own worst enemy. I never compare myself to anybody else … but I’m aware and I set very tough benchmarks for myself. If I’m not writing, I sit there and go, “What am I going to do?

Maybe I’ll go and hit some golf balls … but I’ll get bored of that in about an hour. So, for me, the problem is the opposite. It’s having to find excuses to write and then being dragged away from it by my family.

Scott: Conversely, what do you love most about writing?

Arash: I love having written. The feeling of having broken a scene, having scored a minor victory, having written a screenplay that you give to somebody, and they come back and they go, “I read that. I really liked it,” those are the moments that I write for … the moment when you’ve actually got that manuscript in your hand and you’ve given it to someone, or you’ve scored a minor victory on a scene that you were trying to break for like a week, and you go, “My God, I’ve got it.”

You know what it is? It’s the problem‐solving aspect of writing, and blended with the creativity. Once you get a result, whether it’s internal or you give it to somebody, you just…For me, that’s what I write for.

I think I’m probably writing for a cookie. [laughs] That’s when somebody can say, or even to say to myself, “You did great.” It’s that feeling of, I guess that maybe a sculptor or painter feels at that moment when they feel they’ve captured something true.

Scott: What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood?

Arash: Firstly, don’t be disillusioned, and don’t quit. Because I see it so often that everybody wants to write, and everybody has a story to tell, but whether you make it depends on your dedication.

There is always a struggle to be had. We work in the movie business. Even if you’re a famous director, you find yourself sitting at the Academy Awards with 10 nominations and nobody gives you anything. You don’t feel too great. It’s the nature of the business we’re in. It’s a way of life.

Don’t be disillusioned. Don’t quit. Keep doing what you love doing. I did it from 1990, that was when I was 14, before my first screenplay was even optioned in 2003 and my first real screenplay picked up in 2006. That was 16 years, and a lot of it wasn’t fun, it was a struggle, but it was very formative.

And you know what? You look back and just go, I don’t remember the bad times. I just remember the fact that I took huge pride that I didn’t quit, and I did it and I did it, and when it wasn’t working in England, I moved to America and I did it here. It’s persist, persist, persist, because, ultimately, those are the stories we’re telling, as well. We talk about “writer as hero,” and Joseph Campbell, and all of these things. It’s a “Physician, heal thyself” kind of thing. The writer is the hero. The hero that persists. You never know if that next spec may actually be the one.

Then, treat it like a job. When it does happen, the difference between being a professional writer and being a hobbyist is, you get up, you go to work. You write. You write when you don’t want to write, and you learn the craft, and you execute the craft, and you’re a craftsman.

People pay you a lot of money, eventually, for your craft, for your skill, because there aren’t that many people in this world that can do what you can do, which is craft stories and tell stories that inspire people, that tomorrow will then hopefully follow in your footsteps to also want to tell stories, or even if they don’t do that, will take hope and inspiration from your stories into their own lives. The privilege of being given this opportunity to tell your stories for money, is an honor. So treat it with respect, and be professional.

The third thing, for me, is, learn the business. It’s not about selling screenplays. We’re in the business of making movies. The business of making movies is as much about the art and the creativity, and all the voice and everything want to say and we love, and why we got into this world in the first place. It’s also about studios, financiers, marketing movies, selling movies, knowing, understanding where the investment comes from. Who’s paying me for your screenplay? Learn once they take this manuscript, where it’s going to end up, and which poor guy had the job of trying to create the poster for this movie, [laughs] and actually go out there and convince enough people in the world, or even just in this country, to pay $10 each, to make up $30 million or $1 billion even. That’s a lot of people. And that means realizing you’re not selling it to studios, you’re selling it to people. Audiences. Ultimately, studios are just trying to tell stories and movies that will sell. At some point, your interest in telling a great story, and their interest in selling a movie and making a lot of money, your interests do align and do combine. The skill is how to talk to them.

One of the things that I’ve actually really, really enjoyed, and I’ve found has been really helpful on getting assignments or selling pitches or anything like that, was speaking the same language as the producers in the studios. They don’t have the money that they used to have. They’re cutting back on all the middlemen, and executives have even less time that they used to. The studio executives are now, believe it or not, more underpaid, if that’s the phrase, but more underpaid and overworked, I think, than ever before, compared to the executives of the ’80s or the early ’90s. The money simply isn’t there like it used to be. They’re cutting back. The movies are now smaller. DVD money has dried up. There’s less money going around. They need to make stuff they develop. What they need more than anything else is writers who walk into the room, understand the business, know where the pressure is on the studio executive, know where the pressure is on the producer, can take the idea and hand back a movie. And when you come in, you see it not so much as an “us and them” but we’re all trying to make a movie even if we all may have a different agenda for what we want from the movie.

I found on Grace, as a producer, the very fact that I was also a writer, I’d just got called in, and suddenly you’re standing there and you’re with the director and you’re with the actors, and the actors really trust you because you’ve got the text, but then you also have this link to the rest of the production.

Start to think of yourself as more than just a screenwriter, but actually a partner in the movie making business. Because I think that’s a new paradigm that’s actually taking shape, both in Hollywood and also in the international co‐financing space, where Grace got made, and The Expatriate got made, where studios are increasingly dipping into to pick up movies to make up the gaps in the supply-chain for all the movies they’re no longer making themselves but still need to distribute to justify their pay-TV commitments to HBO and the like. The international indie sector is increasingly filling the studio distribution pipes, and in there lies the opportunity for the business-minded screenwriter.

Scott: With the model changing, in some ways while it still is as competitive as it has ever been and as hard as it has ever been to make a movie, in some ways doesn’t it feel like there’s more openness for new writers? There are more avenues in for new writers than there used to be?

Arash: Oh, absolutely. I love it. I love it. Now, more than ever, I’m seeing opportunities for new voices and new writers. More than ever.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

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

Arash is repped by CAA.

Twitter: @arashamel.

Interview: Arash Amel — Part 5

July 5th, 2013 by

Arash Amel is one of the bright new talents among Hollywood screenwriters, having penned the 2011 Black List script Grace of Monaco which has been produced starring Nicole Kidman and will be released later this year, as well as set up several high profile projects including “Seducing Ingrid Bergman” and “The Infinity Principle”.

Recently I caught up with Arash for an extended interview in which we covered a whole host of subjects.

Today in Part 5, Arash goes into great detail about how a writer can stack multiple writing projects:

Scott: You’ve got five or six projects going over a period of 12 to 18 months, how do you manage all those? The idea of stacking projects, which is something that screenwriters do, how do you approach working on multiple projects over a period of time?

Arash: I’m notoriously neurotic when it comes to what’s in front of me. I know some writers like to do one project at a time. I like to multitask. If I have free time I end up thinking too much. [laughs] I just need to be focused, and also focused for a long period of time. So I like to double or triple book. It’s a question of discipline. When it comes to craft, and it is craft … craft is discipline. It’s knowing that me, the screenwriter, now that I’m at a point where I’m out of my bedroom, and I have an office, and I go and sit in the office, and I have an assistant, I’m a professional. This is my job.

You have a lot of hungry agents to feed and a lot of attorneys to feed. The way to see it is, you’re the center of your own private enterprise. You’re the CEO of your own company. And you make start-ups. Every screenplay is a movie, every movie is at minimum a $10 to $20 million dollar start-up enterprise. For a brief period of time, you’re the general manager. No one can move unless you’ve written. You’re managing studios. You’re managing the producers. You’re, maybe, managing talent and other cast, directors. You have to treat it like a job. And if you’re also producing it, you’re doubly a general manager.

I treat it as my passion, but if you treat it like a passion too much you can lose focus. It’s all about that conflict between passion and discipline and making yourself write when you don’t want to write. That’s the difference between the professional screenwriter and a hobbyist. That’s, really, the big leap that I made over the last couple of years. I now know, like the athlete who gets up and goes ” I don’t really feel like racing today, but I’m at the Olympics. I kind of have to race.” It’s exactly the same as a screenwriter. I’ll spend two days of the week going “I really feel like working today.” Or I’m tired. But I still write.

It’s tough, you have to write. My dad, when we moved to England, became a store owner. He had to open the store every day, and that’s what it is. It’s that discipline. Once I have the concept, I will meticulously, totally outline to a 30‐40 page treatment. I did it with Grace. I learned to, actually, on the first Fox assignment that I did.

I know now it takes four to six weeks to do that outline. You get notes on it. I know, depending on who it is, it might take them two to four weeks to turn those notes around. Then when I have those notes I know I can start the script, and because I have such a meticulous outline with all the annotations and I know where all the beats are going to go. It takes me about six to eight weeks to execute the first draft, which was…actually, Grace, took me six weeks to write that, to write the first draft, and then was a two‐week revision period, and after…so eight weeks of actual work post outline that was the script that sold.

I’ve basically managed to develop over time a very consistent structure of, OK, how do we break it down? And so how do we then execute the outline, what do I need to be able to get this down into the backbone and the structure and eventually the character beats and the turning points and everything, and you’ve got studio notes in, you’ve got the producer notes in.

Everyone feels like they have their say, and it’s great, because then it makes the studio feel very good, because you go, “This is the screenplay you’re going to get, and it’s going to be about maybe 20 percent different from this. If you have a problem with it say now.”

And I’ve actually managed to walk out of projects where they’ve said, “You know what? We’ve got a problem with this.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to write the screenplay, then, because it’s going to look exactly the same.” So, it’s that process which will probably allow me to do a project from idea to first draft with revisions probably in between four and five months. And that kind of allows me then to stack projects …it’s a bit like a puzzle, a puzzle with time and pace [laughs] . At any one time, I’ll be working on one, developing another. I won’t write two screenplays at once. I think that’s asking for trouble, but I will be writing one and developing one into an outline at the same time so that I can move from one screenplay to another without any gaps in between.

Scott: You said something interesting there. It’s not only just about expediting the process of breaking the story, but you can also present that form of the narrative to buyers and producers, and say, “Look, this is the story I’m going to write. If there’s a problem let me know about it now,” as opposed to going all the way to a first draft.

Arash: Yes. Totally. I mean one of the things that I’ve learned and I will never do again is when you have those meetings where they go, “OK, we’ve had a couple of development meetings. We kind of have an idea of the beginning. We’ve got a couple ideas about the first plot point and into the midpoint. And, OK, go write it.”

And you’re like, “Well, I don’t even know who these characters are. I don’t know what happens. I kind of know what happens. I’ve got a little card that has one sentence on it that tells me what happens at minute 10, but I don’t really know.”

And when you leave too much gray area for discovery like that, for me I’ve found that it’s created too many questions, and I try to second guess myself and also second guess what I think the buyer wants, or what the producer wants, or what the studio wants, and the worst is they never want the same thing.

So you may write the most brilliant opening sequence, but if you don’t have both parties who are invested in your script saying, “That’s it. That’s what we’re going to get when we sign off on it,” then you’re kind of rolling the dice while you’re writing the screenplay.

And what I’m doing is saying you need to take the chance out of the picture …you need to make as much of the creative decisions before you start the screenplay and have everybody sign off on it so that when you start the screenplay you’re starting with solid concrete, and you’re going, “This is a detailed outline that everybody has signed off on. If I deviate from this, then I’m in trouble, but invariably, if I’ve signed off on it, it means I believe I can make this work,” and then it’s your job to make that outline work.

And if you haven’t got everybody signed off on it then you’re leaving yourself open to basically building a house without having somebody signed off on the architectural plans, and they might not like it, and then it’s always easier to actually cross out something on a piece of paper then it is to rip down a whole wing of a house because someone doesn’t like it.

Scott: How do you go about developing your characters in that prep process?

Arash: I think story is character, and I think story in movies is internal struggles externalized. And so everything has to start with the character …I’m not the guy who writes sort of outside in kind of going, “OK, what happens to the character, and then what kind of character do I need to fit that?” I will always start with on every screenplay with maybe two pages on the lead character, who they are, where they came from, what they want…what are their goals and what are their aspirations, what do they excel in, and really looking at what are their internal obstacles and their ghosts, and what are the things holding them back, and looking at them on a very conceptual level.

And then I’ll go in and flesh them out and then do that also with some of the other characters …at least the main ones. And once I have strong sort of grasp of those, at the very least my lead character, my villain ‐ and, Grace actually does have a villain. De Gaulle was designed as your classic fairy tale ogre…

Before this process actually, I would have just the log line of the movie or the three sentences of what the movie would be, and then I’ll go and I’ll just insert them into that story and start to play in the sandbox.

Scott: Sounds like a key for you is curiosity, just asking a lot of questions about the characters.

Arash: Yes, as writers we’re naturally curious people, and we want to ask questions … anyone who’s studied music will tell you that a certain part of writing musical composition is about questions and answers and counter melodies and juxtaposition and so on. And really I think writing a movie is exactly the same. It’s curiosity of…well, the curiosity the character, fascination with the human condition. Why we are the way we are, and why do we make these decisions the way we do, how can we aspire to make the decisions better or cope better, and really trying then to hone that out into specific people and their challenges, and I think that’s what makes characters universal. What elevates them to mythical levels. We’re all searching for that universal truth, and I think it all begins with those universal questions.

Scott: Speaking of curiosity, I’m curious. How do you come up with your story ideas?

Arash: [laughs] I wish I knew. Do you mean like the concept of a movie or the actual story?

Scott: Say for example, the last spec script you sold to the studio, which you can’t talk about, how did you come up with that idea?

Arash: I start with a feeling. I try to listen to sort of the voice in my head that kind of goes, “What kind of a movie do I feel like writing now? What haven’t I done?” I believe as a writer you should always challenge yourself and not get pigeonholed. I know there’s a lot of views like whether pigeonholing is a good thing because it’s branding.

Pigeonholing is a bad thing because it limits you and stops you exploring or growing as an artist. I fall in the camp that says there’s another pigeonhole which is the pigeonhole guys like John Logan, David Koepp and Bill Goldman fit into, which is the versatile writer able to span genres comfortably. There’s no reason why directors can do that but writers can’t. Absolutely no reason. I’ve had people try to argue with me and say, “Oh, but it’s different for directors because you’re interpreting.” I said, “Well, as writers you’re not making stories out of nothing. You’re interpreting all your influences and all your experiences, all the cultural influences and observations, and you’re also responding to your creative needs.”

My favorite movie is Lawrence but my second favorite movies is Back to the Future, but at the same time, what else? I love a movie I saw yesterday for like the third time. It was on HBO, and it just suddenly came on. I kept watching it. The Help. Very different movie. And I would equally loved to have been able to write all three.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Arash drills down into some of the key aspects of the screenwriting craft.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

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

Arash is repped by CAA.

Twitter: @arashamel.

Interview: Arash Amel — Part 4

July 4th, 2013 by

Arash Amel is one of the bright new talents among Hollywood screenwriters, having penned the 2011 Black List script Grace of Monaco which has been produced starring Nicole Kidman and will be released later this year, as well as set up several high profile projects including “Seducing Ingrid Bergman” and “The Infinity Principle”.

Recently I caught up with Arash for an extended interview in which we covered a whole host of subjects.

Today in Part 4: Arash discusses the challenge of writing the pivotal final sequence in Grace of Monaco:

Scott: Let talk about the final scene because that is an amazing moment. Not to give away the whole ending, but basically everything comes to a head in this big, huge set piece. Grace Kelly has been immersing herself in what it means to be a princess. And in point of fact, will save Monaco or not. So there’s a lot weighing on this moment, and also on the speech she makes. And I was thinking, “That’s an interesting synergy there, isn’t it?” She had a lot of pressure on her, you as a writer had a lot of pressure on yourself to write this speech. What was that like?

Arash: [laughs] You have no idea! I’m always my own biggest critic, and when I said to myself, as crazy writers tend to do, “I’m going to end this movie with a three‐and‐a half page speech,” I just sat there and thought if I get this wrong, it’s going to be the most incredibly boring end to a movie. And I always said, “Look if it doesn’t work, we’ll cut the speech. If it doesn’t work I’ll just cobble together an ending and I’ll cut it.”

What was interesting was, probably more so than any other script than I have written, I kind of felt like I had gone through such a journey with Grace, I’d done so much research, it was one of those moments when I genuinely felt like I was in her shoes. I rewrote the Tucker-Grace scene from the mid-point. It was a process of discovery, and it was one of those moments when I said, “I’m just going to sit down. I’m just going to write what this woman is thinking and go against the grain of everything I have been told as a screenwriter” [laughs] Everything I have been told that I shouldn’t do, that I shouldn’t write words on the page for people to say, unless it’s absolutely necessary. What I’m going to do is stick this woman up in front of the world after she’s been battered and beaten, and everything that’s happened to her and say she is going to speak from the heart, to the people, to the audience. She’s going to speak to these people and she’s going to say… you know what? I’m just going to set her free.

It’s one of those moments when you’re so into the character now that the character is speaking. It’s like magic when it happens as a writer. She spoke and I wrote it, and I rewrote it, and I rewrote it, and I rewrote it. I gave it to Nicole [Kidman], and she was like, “It’s a beautiful speech, but what does every line mean?” As a great actor does, she came to it and challenged it. She challenged me. I had to stand up for it and convince her why she should say every line.

Now Olivier, from the very beginning said “I want to shoot the whole speech. And I’m going to shoot it with three cameras, and we’re going to do it over and over and over again, and it’s going to be from beginning to end, rewind, beginning to end. And it was up to me and Nicole to make it work. For me to make it work for Nicole, so she can make it work for Olivier. And that was one of the moments when, genuinely the relationship between the writer and the actor really came into its own. Nicole and I read it from beginning to end. We pushed and prodded the text, until … just through the process of me, Olivier and Nicole reading it and going through it, something just clicked and one night it hit me — that this whole speech was a metaphor for marriage. Every single line I’d written for Grace here was about being married. All in the subtext. It was all about believing the love can conquer all. And Nicole embraced it, embraced my words, became really very enthusiastic, and one of those moments when as artists you click into the same level and it cements friendships and collaborations … we modified it maybe 10‐15 percent and Nicole performed it beautifully, and you’ll see it in the finished movie. Yet there I was, a year after I’ve sold the screenplay and we were halfway through production, I finally discovered what that speech was about.

Scott: There’s a line she has in the speech…I’m going to give you a surprising movie association. She says, “I chose the House of Monaco. It may not be a noble place. It may seem pompous and circumstantial. I may not speak its language, and, heavens, it may frustrate me at times, but it’s my home.” When I read that, what movie I thought of, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Arash: That is so interesting.

Scott: Dorothy said, “There is no place like home.” In some ways Grace Kelly in this story goes on a real life adventure, has all these remarkable experiences in an almost fantasy-type land – Monaco akin to Oz – then realizes by the end, “This is my home” much like Dorothy does. At the beginning of the movie she says it doesn’t feel like her home. By the time she is done she says, “This is my home.” Do you see any comparison in those two movies?

Arash: I had never made that association, but I can see it. When I first started looking at this, interestingly I always said, “This movie, it’s a real‐life fairy tale.” It plays into a lot of the fairy tale archetypes, in terms of the mentor character, and the fairy godfather who shows up and teaches you to be a princess, and the being stuck in a castle, and all those things.

This is so interesting. I’ve never thought about the “No place like home” but I guess it is. Yeah, absolutely.

Scott: It’s Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.”

Arash: Did that come through?

Scott: Absolutely. When Hitchcock shows up with the script and the million dollar offer to do the movie, that’s the Call To Adventure. That’s a chance for her to start her journey, it’s one path or the other.

It’s one of those Hero’s Journeys that’s more internal. She doesn’t go off and fight dragons or whatnot. Much of it is a very psychologically based drama. That’s the beauty of the Hero’s Journey, it doesn’t have to be all externalized. It can be more psychological in nature.

Arash: Absolutely. I think that probably comes from my approach. Even in classical Lion King type of hero’s journey movies, the concept of the Hero’s Journey for me is actually a metaphor.

My interpretation of it, is that it’s a metaphor for what are normal people’s everyday internal struggles. Throughout our lives we are faced with choices that dictate our lives. They may be the simplest, and most domestic, and mundane, seeming of choices, but they could be potentially life‐changing.

For me, it was do I stay in England or do I heed the call of adventure and go to Hollywood?

I think the reason why, for me, I love the archetypes, and I love the fact that they can be internal and they can be external. I think for audiences, what you have to give them is that thing that they can apply, and they can take away for their own lives.

That’s when audiences can sniff out something that’s truthful or something that’s bogus, where you’re trying to feed them something that’s more cynical, in an attempt to make money rather than tell a story and move them.

The essence and what fascinates me as a writer is that human condition. I think movies, for me, are always a metaphor for internal conflict. That’s how you get to actually really truthful and genuine characters that audiences can relate to.

Scott: That’s great. So your script made the 2011 Black List. What did that mean to you?

Arash: It was significant. The interesting thing was that it made the Black List after it had been sold, and Olivier had already come on board. It wasn’t the catalyst for getting the script off the ground, but what it did do was it changed the perception of me in town. I have to give total credit to Franklin and all of the guys at the Black List. In terms of, what they’ve been able to do is create I guess a badge, a standard, in a town where awards and monitors and badges of honor and all these things are everything. They all make that little bit of difference.

I remember the week really well. It was the last working week of 2011, Olivier had come to town and we were due to meet a slew of actresses for Grace. Everybody was talking about the Black List, and the script being on the Black List – we landed number 12 if I remember right. I also had pre-booked studio meetings that went from generals to “We really want to be in business with you.” That’s huge, for a writer who’s struggling and making it and working up the ladder. For them to go from leaning back, to sitting forward now … that’s what the Black List played into, a sign of quality. That’s what I view it as. I felt like I didn’t have to explain myself so much anymore.

Scott: You’re involved with a number of other projects. There’s a mysterious studio project, the latest script that you sold. How soon are we going to be able to hear about that?

Arash: I hope soon. I’m very excited about it. I’m the guy with all the projects that I can never talk about. [laughs] Everything is always under wraps.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of five projects of which I’ve sold or been signed for at various studios. There’s one assignment in there … I know we did six deals in the last twelve months in total for new stuff which takes me off the market for the next year or so.

They are going to slowly, one by one, be announced. One is the follow up to Grace, which I’m doing with the same financiers, and there was the The Infinity Principle which is actually done in terms of scripting, right now I’m scripting for Fox a pitch that we just sold them, which one day they might announce. [laughs] You know how these things are. Everything is under wraps until one day you turn on your computer and there’s a headline announcing it.

Tomorrow in Part 5, Arash goes into great detail about how a writer can stack multiple writing projects.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

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

Arash is repped by CAA.

Twitter: @arashamel.

Interview: Arash Amel — Part 3

July 3rd, 2013 by

Arash Amel is one of the bright new talents among Hollywood screenwriters, having penned the 2011 Black List script Grace of Monaco which has been produced starring Nicole Kidman and will be released later this year, as well as set up several high profile projects including “Seducing Ingrid Bergman” and “The Infinity Principle”.

Recently I caught up with Arash for an extended interview in which we covered a whole host of subjects.

Today in Part 3, Arash delves into the story and writing of Grace of Monaco:

Scott: What’s so great is that the story Grace of Monaco is on a very personal level about self‐identity. Who is she? She’s a Princess, a wife, a mother, an actress. You got this incredible backdrop of this geopolitical thing between France and Monaco, between Charles de Gaulle and the Prince, and so you got these dual narratives going on.

How soon did you strike on that and see that as a way that you could bounce those two off against each other and create this wonderful whole of a narrative that you did for the script?

Arash: Well, there was a little bit of moving some timelines around. But by and large everything happened in 1962. The 1962 Franco‐Monaco crisis is actually really well‐documented, even though the French tried to bury it for many, many years, and this was the year that Monaco became Monaco just through serendipity crossed with the story of this woman who was in a personal crisis and thrown a lifeline by Alfred Hitchcock to say “Come back home. Come back. Be Grace Kelly again, I’ll give you a ridiculous amount of money.”

At that time they offered her $1 million which in today’s terms is about $10 million. Unheard of back then, and she said OK. And Rainier said “Yes” though he didn’t like the idea of his wife acting. He’d actually said no to her playing the Virgin Mary the year before but he was happy now to say yes to her playing a frigid, compulsive thief, just because he could see how unhappy she was.

So it all kind of came together in the history, but what didn’t exist in the history books Olivier and I, the director Olivier Dahan, we talked a lot about these scenes, I invented …and when I say invented, I mean imagining the moments that would have taken place within the grey areas that no‐one has documented. But also being free from the constraints of what actually happened, to get to the feelings of the woman and the emotions of her struggles. That’s the importance of cinema and it’s distinct from history.

But from very early on I said “There are two movies here. There’s effectively My Fair Lady, sitting on top of Godfather II.” That was a tremendous help, on set actually for the actors and the director … there was always a female group and there was a male group, and you could see the actors all getting into character all sort of drawing their own sexual politics lines, which was all very interesting to see.

Scott: These snapshot biopics, we seem to be seeing more of that. Jackie, The King’s Speech. I don’t know if you’ve read “McCarthy,” that script?

Arash: Yes. I have.

Scott: It makes a lot of sense because as opposed to trying to do the traditional biopic, which covers a lot of time, people’s lives don’t play out necessarily in the way a movie would play out. So, what you are able to do here is crystallize in a six month period these two storylines that really very effectively, not only tell the Monaco story, but use that as a metaphor in a way, and a backdrop, for what Grace Kelly in a relationship with a Prince was.

And this question, of like you said, Hitchcock offers her this gig with money, “You can go back, you can reclaim that part of yourself.” Or, at first she thinks that she can stay there, but it really isn’t that. It’s really about the choice between going back, and going forwards, which really happens about mid‐way through the story when she starts to embrace this idea about not just being a princess but actually, like, becoming a princess. Is that accurate do you think?

Arash: Yes it is, and it was very conscious. I don’t consider Grace a biopic. It’s a portrait. And when you see the movie, it’ll be very clear how much it’s a piece of cinema than a –what I would call dull — historical biopic. I’ve just spent some time with Olivier in the editing room in Paris working on it, and his style, framing and composition has drawn from Kubrick, Hitchcock and even elements of Lean and Spielberg, all in his own unique blend. There’s as much thriller there as there is drama, so it’s a blend.

But my favorite movie of all time is Lawrence of Arabia. And I think Lawrence of Arabia, people forget, is a biopic. In every shape or form, it’s a biopic. It uses the Arabian Campaign as a construct to paint a portrait, and there’s a lot of invention in it. The family sued Columbia Pictures actually. David Lean’s reply was, “It’s a movie. I’m telling the story of Lawrence within a very compact period of time.”

I think it kind of goes back, and I was very conscious on my part in putting together Grace. I am a great believer in the psychology of character in screenplay. I think that almost any story becomes a visual enactment of the psychological dilemmas faced by the lead character. If you can make that connection, you elevate your characters to a mythic level. If you actually look at the Grace script, the script has a number of strong older male characters who, play for archetype or even try to defy archetype. Whether it’s Rainier, whether it’s Father Tucker, whether it’s Count Fernando who Derek Jacobi plays, whether it’s President de Gaulle, whether it’s Alfred Hitchcock. They are all thematically recurring ghosts in Grace’s own life and her relationship with older men which defined it.

At its core every story for me is really a self‐realization movie. You are looking at somebody who starts with some very clear insecurities, and inabilities to perform certain tasks because of certain personal ghosts and obstacles that stand in their way, and they have to confront them, throughout the course of the movie.

Scott: The Father Tucker figure you talk about is really a mentor figure, and he has a conversation with Grace Kelly where he says “When people dream of marrying royalty they rarely comprehend what it means.” That’s a description, in a way, of the first part of her experience in the script.

Then he gives her a piece of advice, “You came to play the greatest role of your life Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco, Duchess of Valentinois more titles that come with it.” That really set the stage for the rest of the story. That’s a pivotal point in the story, is it not?

Arash: It is and that specific scene, which I believe when we first edited actually I was told it ran at seven minutes but now runs to just over four minutes … sets up the back half of the movie structurally. First and foremost, if your structure isn’t right, I think you’re basically writing yourself into a hole. I always knew that the structure of this movie would be you kind of reach a complete dead end, a nadir for Grace at the mid-point, and then she’s presented with a choice. That choice scene is a classical mentor presenting the dilemma, presenting the obstacle, presenting what the stakes, and then presenting the solutions if she’s prepared to take it.

I think that you can only get a character to truly grow when they are faced with these types of choices. When he says to her those lines…I won’t often lay claim to everything being planned, because I think the beauty of screenwriting is that it is full of surprises and full of happy accidents, but that moment of choice and that moment in that scene is actually one of my proudest. That and the speech at the end.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Arash discusses the challenge of writing the pivotal final sequence in Grace of Monaco.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

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

Arash is repped by CAA.

Twitter: @arashamel.