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