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.

—-

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.

Interview: Arash Amel — Part 2

July 2nd, 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 2, Arash shares background on how he came to be involved in Grace of Monaco:

Scott: So, you write these 13 scripts and the script that became Erased, that was a spec script that sold?

Arash: Yes. It was in 2005. It was a period of time where I was in England and I’d become extremely disillusioned. My ‘American’ voice didn’t fit the UK and they didn’t want to make the sort of films I wanted to write. The UK film industry is a cottage industry which thinks very parochially, has no infrastructure, and offers very little opportunity to new voices. It’s the same five guys who make the same five movies and every once in a while they stumble on a Four Weddings and a Funeral, and they milk it until it’s run dry. I suppose, they would love to be Hollywood, but as a country can’t embrace the idealism and flashiness of Hollywood. If you didn’t want to tackle social issues or make romantic comedies with Hugh Grant, you were kind of screwed. Films like Shallow Grave for example were very rare. So, I was feeling really, really disillusioned.

At that time, I had written a script which I believe was my 11th screenplay. I managed to get it optioned for £10,000 to Ealing Studios … and then sent it to a couple of agents. One of the agents never wrote back. The other agent called me in for a meeting and said, “I want to represent you.” A great guy called Nick Harris who used to be at AP Watt in London. We spent a couple of years trying to sell stuff in the UK and get me jobs, but it wasn’t working. One day he called me and said, “I’m moving to Hollywood to be an agent there. You love American movies, and I think you could tell a good American story. Do you want to write something?”

So, I went away. I had this idea that I always wanted to write … I’ve always loved Three Days of the Condor. So, I went, OK, I’m going to write a screenplay that’s in that Three Days of the Condor mold. I had this idea, a father and daughter conspiracy thriller where the father is trying to save the daughter. But the daughter and the father are actually going through some life changing relationship, and the daughter ultimately ends up redeeming the father. It was a relationship drama within a conspiracy thriller. I think I pitched it as Paper Moon meets Three Days of the Condor.

I thought that I don’t have a clue as to whether or not this thing’s going to work or not. It was a drama in an action-thriller. So, I just wrote it. I wrote it, and it was May 2006 when the fourth draft was done. I had been working on it for about a year and a half. And when Nick got the script he said, “You know what? I think this is good. I’m going to send this out to a bunch of producers and see what they think.” And that script brought me 40 meetings in like 10 days and they said, “Get on a plane and come out to Hollywood.”

And so, I was nervous [laughs] but excited, 9 producers took it to 11 buyers… the most high profile producer was if I remember Di Bonaventura Pictures who took it to Paramount, which led to my first executive meetings at the studios. 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. The script didn’t work out at Paramount for one reason or another, but Millennium Films picked it up on an 18‐month option. It wasn’t the big spec sale, but it was my first taste, and I kind of went back home to London. I said to my girlfriend at the time – now my wife – “Right. Pack your bags. I’ve seen the future. We’re moving to Hollywood.” It was a risk. But the risk was that if the Hollywood dream failed, if I ended up doing some crappy job living on the west coast, at least we’d get some sun.

Just as we moved, the option on the script ran out. Millennium tried to renew it for free, which I didn’t want to let happen. And then a very small producer, a lovely man called Harry Winer showed up … he directed “Space Camp” in ’85 and worked on JJ Abrams’ TV series directing … and he said, “Look, I really love this script. I think we can make an international co‐financed/produced movie with this on a budget. ” And in the end the budget was a little north of 10 million dollars. The option was about $2,000. And that went its merry way. So … it was May 2009 I’d moved out to the U.S. I was living in L.A., and Nick, who was my agent friend who had moved over here decided to become a manager at Jimmy Miller’s Mosaic. He said, “Look, you don’t have an agent anymore. I’m now your manager. I think we should get an agent.” And I suppose the second chapter of the journey which began with me writing “The Expatriate” closed I would want to say January 2010 when that script got me meeting three agencies CAA, UTA, and ICM. CAA were the most aggressive…actually they really blew me over. It was the classic kind of you walk in and there were four agents, and they’re all still my agents with the exception of one who just moved to Resolution, but they…it was kind of like, “Wow, OK.” So this is what the real movie business looks like on the inside.

Scott: That speaks to the power of a spec script, doesn’t it? I mean that whole process derived form that one script you wrote.

Arash: I couldn’t agree more. I think the spec script is the life’s blood of the screenwriter because the one thing…and it may sound like a cliché, but no other artist in the movie value chain can just go home and start working on something which they then sell. And what you find is that…and there’s this fallacy I think that sometimes the spec script is the last bastion of the guy that can’t get the assignment or can’t sell the pitch. That’s not true at all. Since “The Expatriate,” I’ve written two more specs. I’ve sold all three. There’s “Grace of Monaco”, and another spec which hasn’t been announced yet which I just sold to a studio with a big producer and an A‐list star attached. Two got made and the third is on its way, hopefully.

Scott: Wow.

Arash: And it’s simply a process of understanding that as a writer your capital is your screenplay. It’s the screenplay as a movie. And it’s such a commodity, now more than ever simply because the studios have hit a rocky patch. They have less development money now than ever before, and the pot is shrinking. The power is now much more in the hands of the writer than it’s ever been, because buyers need to make what they buy, which means they’re looking for stuff they can just go make. And that makes you a business partner to the studio or the buyer. If you can deliver material to them they can make, or be the guy who can help them get stuff made, it’s an entire business model. And if you write a good script off your own back that the agents are able to package with a a director, a star, you suddenly have a movie. And in the end, that’s what we’re writing — screenplays thats are movies. Not just well written screenplays. I couldn’t emphasize the power of the spec enough. If anything, “Grace of Monaco” taught me that lesson very strongly.

Scott: That’s a good segue. Let’s talk about your script, “Grace of Monaco.” I think you did a superb job with really challenging material. What drew you to the story? What was the original inspiration for it?

Arash: It actually has…it’s a funny journey, because everything I’d written up to, “Grace,” was a…was really genre material. It was thrillers, science-fiction and historical action movies. In 2011, I just finished my first studio assignment at Fox, and I’d just sold a time-travel thriller pitch to Summit called “The Infinity Principle”, which only just got announced actually with Basil Iwanyk producing … and I was about to start that and that was also within the science fiction realm. And I was like creatively I feel like I’m almost going to burn out if I don’t do something totally, totally different. And the idea of taking a very limited period of somebody’s life — a snapshot — and also a female character, something that I hadn’t actually explored before, was really interesting to me. There’s a long story behind why Princess Grace — but to cut it short, she was the first media princess before the concept had been invented and the last true fairytale princess, to a whole generation she was an icon and totally forgotten and such a great tragic story never really told.

And so I went off, and I literally read 10, 15 books on Grace, everything that I could get my hands on. And I went and looked at loads of archive searches, and a lot of magazines.

The story of Grace is really, really fascinating. Because she was the most famous, most successful actress at that point in time. She had just won an Oscar, and she suddenly decided to quit. She decided to get married to this guy — Prince Rainier III — who lived in this castle, in this run-down village on the coast of the South of France, with 5‐6,000 people with their peculiar ways that goes back 800 years. And who really wasn’t the best looking guy, wasn’t the most charismatic guy. And it always seemed really odd to me that when I looked from his side of the story, where he was this damaged guy who grew up in boarding school in England where he was bullied, and then became this playboy prince of a non‐state, being mentored by an Irish American Chaplain, Father Tucker, who became his Spiritual Adviser. And then was faced with the choice get married, have an heir, or the French were going to take his country because of some ancient law. He would end up identifying the most beautiful Oscar winning actress of the time and say “I want her.” [laughs]

The story was fascinating, and I said “Well, maybe this is a story. And maybe the story is he sees her, courts her, the classic fairy tale”. Then there’s her father … this fantastic character who was self‐made bricklayer from Philadelphia who became extremely wealthy, was desperate to legitimize himself to the point that he ended up paying a $2m dowry at that time, so that she would marry this guy so that they could get the Royal title. Then throw MGM into that and they said “OK. In return for releasing her from her contract and letting her get married, we get the rights to the wedding, we get to make the costumes and we get to create the wedding of the Century and we create the first Media Princess, and everyone’s a winner.”

But then … as I was reading the books, I would always get beyond this, and would get to six, seven years later in 1962, and they all had a moment which…and it’s interesting with any kind of biography…they are always written from a point of view with an agenda. There is no such thing, in my opinion, as an impartial biography. I don’t believe there is an absolute truth to history; it’s all a question of interpretation.

But yet regardless of what point of view they were looking at it from, there was always this one year in 1962 where Grace faced ultimately a question that faces, I believe, every woman, potentially every married woman, and not that few men either. It’s a question of your identity, being married, of having kids, of not being the person you once used to be, having the freedom you used to have, questioning your role in life for the rest of your life. Maybe having given up your career, maybe having given up a home, friends, a country or culture even. And suddenly, I didn’t see a biopic at all. I saw the chance to paint a portrait. Kind of like a dream in a way … in a Hitchockian way … examining a woman’s struggles for her self and her identity … thrown up against this lavish backdrop of the Mediterranean in a time of crisis — with a strong thriller element in there — but the ethereal story of a Princess trapped in a castle. That was when I thought “That’s the movie”. It’s an elegy. A dream. A real life fairytale.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Arash delves into the story and writing of Grace of Monaco.

For Part 1, 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 1

July 1st, 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 1, we talk about how Arash wound his way into screenwriting:

Scott: Where did you grow up and how did you find your way into writing?

Arash: My background is a little varied. I was actually born in a small coastal town called Aberystwyth in Wales, but ended up growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution, before moving back to England when I was around seven. It was definitely a very formative childhood.

My father was a producer for Iranian television. Some of my earliest memories were actually when I was four or five being with him on these documentary location shoots in the deserts, with the revolutionary guards. I can quite vividly remember it still.

But when we moved back to England, he didn’t pursue that career. He’d left television all together. I think, for me, it was in the blood. I actually started writing when I was about 14. I was a real product of the ’80s, initially, in terms of the movies that inspired me. I was this little kid that was growing up in London. I would see big American movies, and then that expanded to Hollywood movies from the 60s and 70s. It was always a comfort of familiarity, especially when you’ve been moving from one country back to the next.

I’ve now grown up being a shameless populist at heart and it goes back to that, to the beginnings, and those formative years watching Hollywood. They were more the classics in the ’80s. They were all mixed up in there somehow. Even K‐9, you wrote that right?

Scott: Yes.

Arash: I love that movie. There was a real style of filmmaking in the ’80s, which was before Hollywood became corporate in the ’90s and onwards. There was an innocence and naivety to making high-concept movies, a purity to the way genre movies got made.

That really influenced me, the joy that I got as a kid, from these movies. It was just the nature of commercial filmmaking in Hollywood at that time.

I was living in London, so I was 14 or 15, when I started writing scripts. I bought three books. I bought “Screenwriter’s Workbook”, “Screenplay” [both by Syd Field] and I bought Robert McKee’s “Story”. I taught myself. And I wrote my first ever feature length script when I was 16. It was awful. It was derivative of everything I’d ever seen. Then when I was 17, an agent, who I only heard about again recently, like a few months ago, called Valerie Hoskins, who I believe was the agent that sold “Fifty Shades of Grey,” she took me, when I was 17, and didn’t really rep me but said she was repping me, for a year. She was interning me.

I would drop by the agency once a week, this little boutique London agency, and I would read the screenplays from guys like…who would I read? They weren’t the biggest of writers or directors, but I remember there was a guy called Ben Ross who made a movie called “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” at that time and then went on to direct the John Logan spec “RKO 281” – back before anyone knew who John Logan was. I’d look at Hollywood and it seemed like this place that was a million light‐years away.

Then when I was 18, I went to college and I studied law. I didn’t see Valerie again after that. I went to college. I moved on. I just kept writing. I kept writing and fast forward, 13 screenplays later — all not quite right. Then in 2005, I wrote a screenplay that was called “Nation State,” which became The Expatriate, which was made into a movie retitled Erased in the US, and became my first movie. I lost track of it a couple of years ago, so it’s an out of body experience to see it out there now as a motion picture.

It was 13 scripts of executing everything that I’ve learned through Syd Field, everything that I’ve learned through Robert McKee, over, and over, and over, and over again. I’m a big fan of screenwriting books and I’m a big fan of screenwriting theory. It’s something that I feel is really important because I’m completely self‐taught. There was “The Writer’s Journey” and all of those books, all the way through to even now, to a couple of years ago, before I got my first studio job, it was all going back to even “Save the Cat!” and stuff like that. In a nutshell, that was my journey, from London to my first Hollywood script that got made.

Scott: Do you think there are some advantages about going the non-film school approach as opposed to getting a classical education in screenwriting?

Arash: I’m sure there was a quicker version than the 20‐year journey that I took [laughs]. 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.

I’m still amazed, and I will forever be a student this of how you see two writers come on board a project at a studio, and they will execute completely different drafts purely from the experience of who they are as people, how they see the world, how they process and analyze information. I think so much of life is about analysis and then how you execute that and the emotions of who you are as a human being and your personal values.

Maybe when I was younger and I didn’t realize I know as little as I do today, [laughs] I would have said, “Oh, absolutely my way was the best.” But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the liberating element of being a screenwriter is that there is no wrong way to do something or to get to a result. The benchmark is do you think it’s good, does your audience like it.

Scott: It’s like if you go to a school and they have an approach that can benefit you perhaps in helping you focus and find your footing. On the other hand if you’re self‐taught and you take a longer course of action learning the craft, there is a way in which you probably do feel a little freer to try things, just experiment, and not feel bound in by any rules.

Arash: Yeah…there was one phrase, I think it’s in McKee’s book, “The artist masters the form.” I think you have to learn the rules in order to be able to break them, but breaking the rules is part of finding your voice as a writer. the psychological and craft approach to screenwriting is really no different to learning a sport. It’s a process of learning the habits, learning the patterns, and probably understanding what the rules are before you then start trying to break them.

Whether or not being a classically trained screenwriter from a school with a teacher is any better than actually learning it yourself at home is entirely down to how willing you are to disobey your teacher when you think that your teacher may be wrong because ultimately they’ll have their own way of doing it and it’s not the same as yours.

Tomorrow in Part 2, Arash shares background on how he came to be involved in Grace of Monaco.

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

Arash is repped by CAA.

Twitter: @arashamel.