Go Into The Story Black List Writer Interviews

August 31st, 2015 by

In the month of August, I have been featuring insights on the craft from Black List writers I have interviewed over the years. That inspired me to complete something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Aggregate links to all of the Black List interviews I have done.

Black List logo

Here they are:

Arash Amel (2011, 2014 Black List)

Nikole Beckwith (2012 Black List)

Roberto Bentivegna (2012 Black List)

Carter Blanchard (2012 Black List)

Christopher Borrelli (2009 Black List)

Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List)

Damien Chazelle (2010, 2012 Black List)

Spenser Cohen (2013 Black List)

James DiLapo (2012 Black List)

Geoff LaTulippe (2008 Black List)

Brian Duffield (2010, 2011, 2014 Black List)

Stephany Folsom (2013 Black List)

F. Scott Frazier (2011, 2014 Black List)

Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer (2010 Black List)

Joshua Golden (2014 Black List)

David Guggenheim (2010, 2012 Black List)

Julia Hart (2012 Black List)

Eric Heisserer (2012, 2014 Black List)

Jason Mark Hellerman (2013 Black List)

Brad Ingelsby (2008, 2012 Black List)

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman (2012 Black List)

Lisa Joy (2013 Black List)

Kyle Killen (2008 Black List)

Eric Koenig (2014 Black List)

Justin Kremer (2012, 2014 Black List)

Daniel Kunka (2014 Black List)

Seth Lochhead (2006 Black List)

Kelly Marcel (2011 Black List)

Donald Margulies (2013 Black List)

Chris McCoy (2007, 2009, 2011 Black List)

Jeff Morris (2009 Black List)

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 Black List)

Declan O’Dwyer (2013 Black List)

Ashley Powell (2012 Black List)

Chris Roessner (2012 Black List)

Stephanie Shannon (2013 Black List)

Will Simmons (2012 Black List)

Chris Sparling (2009, 2010, 2013 Black List)

Barbara Stepansky (2013 Black List)

Michael Werwie (2012 Black List)

Gary Whitta (2007 Black List)

I consider interviews to be the equivalent of primary source material. In other words, when you read interviews with writers such as these, you are getting information from people who are on the front lines of the movie and TV business.

Interviews with over 40 Black List writers. You should read them. Who knows you may gleam some key insight which could transform your approach to writing.

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3)

August 26th, 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. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Yesterday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Today we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process.

Eric Heisserer: “Theme. That’s something that I have such a hard time engineering. If I were given nothing but the tool of ‘Here’s the theme. Write something with this theme,’ that’s an impossible task for me. I can’t start a story with that. I can figure out later on, after I’ve written a story, what the theme is. I can’t start with that in the forefront of my brain. It doesn’t work for me as a storyteller. I think other people can. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anybody else. I’m just saying it’s not how I’m wired.

James DiLapo: “I think theme is immensely important, but for me, it’s not always readily apparent when I begin the process. With ‘Devils At Play’ we were talking about the idea of redemption, that there can be angels and devils inside our own personalities and societies. That, for me, is the theme of the story, but I didn’t know it when I began. Eventually the story itself will tell you what the theme is.”

Nikole Beckwith: “I think it definitely evolves over time. I’m sure that there are things that I carry around with me while I’m writing and they emerge on their own, I don’t say, ‘I’m going to write something that explores identity.’ That’s all I do, immerse myself in it.”

Aaron Guzikowski: “Definitely that they emerge whenever I’m writing the story. I definitely think a little bit about it at the beginning, but usually it’s more after you’re writing the story, the theme just emerges. If it’s a story that’s working, then themes generally just start to bleed out of it, and they just present themselves to you. They just appear.”

Julia Hart: “My students would always get frustrated when we would talk about the themes that the author was using. They would always ask, ‘Did they really think about all this before they started writing it?’ And I don’t think that they do or I don’t think that good writers do. Of course when you’re writing a cohesive world the themes are going to rise out of it.”

Lisa Joy: “I don’t necessarily start with theme, but by the time I’m done – I always have one. And often, writing a script shows me what my theme is and allows me to deepen my own thinking on that theme. Writing becomes, in its own way, a philosophical investigation into theme. Sometimes I go back, once I understand the theme more fully and use it in the rewrite to enrich the scenes.”

Chris Borrelli: “If you don’t have a theme as you write, then you are writing blind… Sometimes the theme presents itself. Usually other themes present themselves as I write, and I’ve had a theme or two change as I write, but still become something I care about…I want to say. That’s the jumping off point for me…something I care about…something I want to say.”

Justin Marks: “I think theme comes very late in outlining. I don’t think it comes immediately at the beginning. I think at the beginning it’s a character that you really like, or it’s a hook that you want to figure out.  I don’t think it becomes a movie, though, until you find that theme.  Until it centers on some idea that is not specific to the plot. I think you need to know theme before you start writing dialogue.  I think you need to know theme before you start writing scene work.”

Declan O’Dwyer: “Thematically, I try to be governed by what my character is telling me it should be and not what I’m deciding it is on the outset, because it will grow and it will change as they grow and change.”

Daniel Kunka: “For me, theme is usually something I find as I write through the first draft. I probably have a general idea when I start, but theme becomes the unifying factor as I go. I always work better sort of discovering it rather than coming up with something early in the process or even before I start writing pages. That’s not to say it’s not there, but I don’t consciously make the decision ‘this is my theme.’ I think theme is directly related to voice. A lot of my themes are similar, because those are the stories I want to tell. And it’s not planned, it just is. Because of that I’ll sort of trust my theme to tag along with me until I’m done with the first draft, then the second draft is when I’ll go back in and add a few lines here or there to highlight some things that will help take the piece to the level I want it.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I don’t like to go into a script saying, ‘I want to write a story about forgiveness,’ and then try to fit forgiveness into every single scene. That feels maudlin and a bit silly to try to imbue every scene with a theme. It feels like a homework assignment and it doesn’t allow for much discovery or revelation. After all, you’ve already told yourself what the movie is about. You’ve limited yourself. What I prefer to do is say, here’s a character. I like this character and I know the journey I’d like him or her to go on. And then I write that journey, that arc, and then I let the audience or reader decide what the theme is. Let them take what they want from the story. If you say a movie is about forgiveness, then an audience or a reader is only looking for that theme in the material and there’s no discovery. But if you present them with a character on a journey, they’re able to take away from that character and that journey what they want. It’s less limiting, I think. Stories mean different things to different people.”

Justin Kremer: “With ‘McCarthy,’ people have said things to me on the thematic level — “oh, I enjoyed this thematic element of the script” — and I’m surprised by it. Often, that thematic element wasn’t even something that was intentional on my part. Reading is obviously inherently subjective and people can take away so many different things from a work. As long as you have a strong character and a clear arc, it tends to come together organically. Look at a classic like The Godfather, it can be this intimate father son story or an epic about American capitalism and the American dream.”

And why is theme so bloody damn important? How about this:

Stephany Folsom: “I think when I first find an idea that I’m not like, ‘Oh, gosh, let’s find the theme in this.’ But as I go through my steps to see whether or not this idea is going to be something that can actually make a good movie, one of my steps is, ‘What is going to be the theme?'”

And this:

Jason Hellerman: “I think theme is super important, but I let myself find what I’m afraid to talk about, and I let my fears and my own inhibitions dictate the theme of what I need to get off my chest.”

And this:

Chris McCoy: “A story theme is tremendously important, because it’s what you’re trying to say with the work as a whole. If there’s no theme, there’s nothing holding the script together.”

And there’s this:

Justin Marks: “Look at how Chris Nolan writes. Everything is written to theme.  Everything comes back to that.  That’s what makes the Batman movies so great is that they’re always about theme.  Every scene is about guiding itself towards theme.  When you don’t know what a scene is supposed to be about, the answer is theme. Yeah.  I think if you’re getting away from it, that’s when you ask, why doesn’t this scene feel right?  Or, why doesn’t this sequence feel right? Or, why does the third act feel right?  Oh yeah, because it has nothing to do with my theme.  It has nothing to do with what I wanted this story to be about in the first place.  If a script starts to meander beyond theme, I think you lose your reader.  Because they start to wonder, ‘Why am I reading this? What am I getting from this story?’ You’re getting theme.  If you don’t get it, you’re not going to read it.”

Takeaway:

* Trust the process: If you go in the story… if you engage your characters… if you live in, then reflect upon the narrative… the themes will emerge.

* Use your themes as a touchstone: For everything including how you approach scenes to how you handle character relationships to how you write scene description, from big to small, themes can help you expand your understanding of your story and focus how you convey it emotional meaning to a script reader.

How about you? Do you discover theme in your writing? How is theme important to you in your writing?

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

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

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: Characters (Part 3)

August 19th, 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 develop your characters?

Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.

On Monday, we featured writers who start their character development process by focusing on real people. Yesterday writers zeroed in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters. Today we check in with writers who use biographies as a tool for character development:

Jason Mark Hellerman: “I have detailed bios of all the characters, and I think about what they need to get over because so much of movies is what these people are going through.”

Elijah Bynum: “Even when I’m not writing, I walk around thinking about who these people are and what they are doing at that moment as if they really exist.  It’s sad, I know. I always write a little bio on them before I write the script. Their back story, their personality, some of their character traits. I know what food they like, what kind of cigarettes they smoke—but there’s a difference between characteristics and character. It’s not until you really throw yourself into the story and throw your character into the story that you can genuinely understand who they are.”

Justin Marks: “I really love to write a character bio.  I think it’s important to do that kind of thing because you find all kinds of contradictions in characters, and that’s what makes them feel alive.  Like, you can write a character who’s a neat freak. We’ve all seen neat freaks on screen.  But then you write a neat freak, but who also has a really messy personal life, or a really messy bedroom.  There are contradictions to it.  That’s what makes people feel real. The more contradictions that you can find in your characters, the better off you are.”

Stephany Folsom: “I approach my characters like I’m writing their biographies. I write up where they were born, what their favorite food is, all kinds of crazy stuff. I try to envision them as people with full lives, so that I know how they will organically react to anything in the story. When developing my characters’ personalities, I try to give them traits that will create more obstacles in the plot. You want to create as much conflict as possible, and you can do that by giving your characters conflicting personality traits and motivations.”

Chris McCoy: “Before I start writing, I create character profiles that I’ll refer back to throughout the process, describing what the character wants, what the character does for a living, what he or she looks like, and so forth. After I construct these basic bones, I’ll start fleshing them out with more unique personality traits, which can come from anywhere – something you noticed in somebody on the street, something you read about in a magazine. I collect books of anecdotes and miscellanea, which always seem to give me a lot of character ideas… Once I’ve come up with a rough sketch of the characters, I’ll write out what their relationships are to each other, and how they’ll complicate each other’s lives. Once I have those dynamics figured out, I’ll start writing, and that’s when the character will invariably offer up more information who they are.”

Here’s an interesting variation:

Brad Ingelsby: “One of the things I like to do is write about the characters and what they were doing before the story starts and where they will be long after the story ends. Doing that educates me on dialogue choices. If I know where they’ve been and I know where they’re going, I can write about them in a way that doesn’t feel just about the present situation. It involves characters’ dreams and sins and damage and hope. Things that we can’t always see, but we can feel.”

Takeaway:

* When writing a character biography, focus on macro items like big events in their lives and micro things such as personality tics and traits.

* Treat your characters as if the biography is about a real person because you know what? In that magical way a story’s character exist, they are real.

* They are real enough to discover “what they were doing before the story starts and where they will be long after the story ends.”

Character biographies can inform you in multiple ways, even down to aspects of their lives which you can’t even see, but you can feel.

I am reminded of a quote from Quentin Tarantino:

I need to know where these people [his story’s characters] come from. It’s a universe I’m creating, and I have to know my universe backward, forward, and sideways. The audience doesn’t need to know, but they need to know I know.

How about you? Do you write up biographies or profiles on your characters? If so, how extensive do you get in your write-ups? How do you go about working up your bios?

For Part 1 of this week’s series on character development, go here.

Part 2, here.

Tomorrow we take up another angle on prep-writing as reflected on by Black List writers.

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

August 17th, 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 develop your characters?

Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.

Today let’s start where many of the writers begin their character work: Real people.

Chris McCoy: “If I’m creating a character from scratch, I’ll usually start by thinking about people I know, or I’ll use some version of myself, mining my own fears and neuroses and building outwards from there. I’ve never really been somebody who writes with an actor in mind, because my feeling is it’s better to create someone on the page who an actor can inhabit. ”

Declan O’Dwyer: “They’re nearly always somebody I know or knew or something somebody has said to me. I find old people fascinating. I’m a people watcher. A voyeur. Mannerisms, tics, tells – anything.”

Eric Heisserer: “If I just go out to a coffee shop for a day I tend to come home with a handful of observed behaviors that I’ll decide I want to use for characters later. Sometimes it’s just grabbing a behavior based on a friend or family member, like I have a friend who believes that he sees celebrities just about every time he and I go out somewhere. He always says, ‘Hey, was that…? That looked like Tom Selleck, didn’t it?’ or ‘I think that’s Anne Hathaway.’ They never are. [laughs] He’s always wrong, but he has this way of thinking that he’s always close to a celebrity. There’s something about that behavior that I think, ‘That’s going to end up in a character at some point.’ Those get me a good deal of the way.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “Mostly, think you just have to be a student of people. If you know people, you will NEVER lack for characters, no matter what genre of script you’re writing. It helps to know unique people, and it helps even more to engage them and peel back their layers. I firmly believe that the more you have this outlook, the better your characters will be and the more the audience will cling to them. Moviegoers want to have a visceral experience – they want to feel like they know these characters onscreen. So what better way to accomplish that than work from people we all know?”

But there’s a whole other way to use the concept of ‘real people’ when working with your characters… and that’s to embrace them as real people.

Stephanie Shannon: “When you have it in your mind that your character is a separate entity that’s not just something abstract in your head, that’s a good place to start. The supporting characters, I think it’s really important to know if they do something, why are they doing it. You have to think about what would be going on in their head and why they would make a decision as opposed to any other decision they could make and how that relates to their personality. Just thinking of them as real, living, breathing people that exist somewhere outside of your imagination is really helpful for me.”

Nikole Beckwith: “I feel like when I’m writing a character it’s not all that different from meeting an actual person, you learn them as you go… I think that for me writing is definitely I get to live in a different world. As much as I might be the creator of that world, I definitely often feel like a guest in it, so I like to step in there and see what I see.”

Elijah Bynum: “I have a very distinct idea of who this person is, but the first third of the script is always the toughest to write character‑wise, because I’m still getting to know this person. Then as the story unfolds, their dialogue and their actions becomes much more natural, because this person has become, in my mind, fully realized.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I always want to know something about them before I meet them and I want to know exactly where they’re going to be a couple years after I leave them. I think that’s really important. I’ve found that audiences appreciate films where they leave the theater and say, ‘I really got to know those people.’ If there’s a history that an audience is privy to, they feel comfortable.”

Lisa Joy: “Creating a character is almost like getting to know a person. You start with the generic pleasantries, the how-are-yous and observations about the weather. But then you spend a bit more time; you dig a bit deeper; and you get to really know that person – their history, their dreams, their secrets, their fears, their tiny tics and idiosyncrasies… that’s when a character comes alive.”

Takeaway:

* If you’re looking for a starting point to develop a character, you may need to look no further than the people around you. If our goal is to create characters who come alive in the mind of a reader, absorbing the unique behaviors and personalities of the people around us can translate into our characters and help breathe life into them.

* At the end of the day, however, as writers we are compelled to a belief that our characters exist, their story universe exists. Therefore much of character development derives from spending time with them in their natural habitat.

But how? In the next few days, we will explore many different ways to do precisely that as practiced by these Black List writers.

How about you? Do you draw inspiration for your characters from real people? Are you able to think of your characters as ‘real people’ themselves?

Come back tomorrow for some brainstorming tips as well as the singular importance of getting curious about our characters, then how to use questions to pry into their inner lives.

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 3)

August 12th, 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: What aspects of story prep do you devote the most time and focus to?

I often say this: There’s no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. Going through these interviews, I doubt there is an area of the story-crafting process where this statement is more apt than in relation to story prep. As we will see this week, there is a big divide between Black List writers who embrace working up a comprehensive outline and those who take a considerably less formalized approach.

Over the next few days, I’m going to present an array of takes from Black List writers about outlines. Today we will explore the thoughts of writers who do not work up outlines as part of their prep process:

Nikole Beckwith: “I’ll take little notes here and there, but I’ve never written an outline or anything like that. I envision my mind as the rock tumbler. I throw these little rocks in and these ideas and I tumble them around and every once in awhile, one of them will get shiny enough for me to take out and really look at. When it’s ready to really look at, that’s when I start writing and I write in sequence from beginning to end. I don’t write out of order. If I’m stuck on a scene, I don’t move on to the next scene. I wait until that scene reveals itself.”

Brian Duffield: “If it was a spec, or now just ideas that I hope to get a chance to direct, I’ll sit on them for as long as I can until they feel cooked. I loathe outlining and like to find my way once I start writing, but by the time I start writing I usually will have had a good six months plus of just thinking about these characters, where I assume they’ll end up and what obstacles they’ll find along the way. It’s really just an internal thought process. I almost never even mention something out loud to anyone until I actually start writing it after all that time.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “Generally, I just start with some scribbled-down notes and a general idea of where I want the story to go and how I want it to end up. Then I just go. I generate my best ideas (or at least the ideas I like the most) on the fly. If I pre-plan too much of a script, I start to feel constricted by what I’ve predetermined and my creativity suffers. Most of the fun of writing, for me, is discovering MYSELF where the story is going to go. Hell, that’s ALL the fun of writing. Getting to be party to that surprise. If I outline, I deprive myself of that. And then writing becomes a job, and it’s less fun and I’m just not as good at it.

Seth Lochhead: “I tend not to write shit down unless it’s requested (and for a job, it’s always requested). I do a lot of my work on the page, within the script, scene by scene. It’s the only way I can ‘see’ it and ‘hear’ it and ‘feel’ it… Research, character… that comes as I move.”

Elijah Bynum: “The problem with me is when I have an idea and I have a character, I get really excited. At first, I go, ‘Well, I’m going to do it right this time. I’m going to outline. I’m going to know exactly what’s going to happen on each page. I’m not going down that path that I did on my other script’. Then I just get too excited and I start writing… I don’t front load everything. I think there are two kinds of people who can know their entire story up front—geniuses and hacks—I don’t think I’m either one.  I’m sure there will be a project some point in the future where I really need to delve into the research and the outlining before I even think about writing one word of the script. But so far it hasn’t been that way.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I’m not really an outline guy. I typically have an idea, a central character, a few secondary characters and a few set pieces in mind. Then I usually just dive into the script. Sometimes that works and sometimes it backfires. I’ve written some god-awful scripts this way. But I’ve found that I’m a terrible outliner. Whenever I outline a story, it invariably changes while I’m writing the script. That’s just the way it goes with characters. They have to be unpredictable. And you have to be open to them pushing back, to them telling you that the direction you thought they would go isn’t really the direction they want to go. They need room and time to grow and change. And you have to listen to them. They don’t always want to say what you want them to say… Outlining makes me feel like a slave to an outline rather than a writer searching and following and listening to a set of characters I want to spend time with.”

Kyle Killen: “I’m really a mess when it comes to process. TV was the first time that something structured and rigorous was demanded of me, and I still tended to start writing before I really knew what I was writing about. I’ve never done outlines because I’m never sure what a scene really is until I try to write it. The flip side of that is that a lot of what I write turns out to be overwritten and unnecessary, to make the same point multiple times, and generally read like I’m working it out as I go, which I am. I hope I’m getting better through the sheer volume of things being asked of me, but only time will tell.”

Kelly Marcel: “Much to some people’s chagrin, I don’t outline, and it drives them nutso. But I don’t. I cause myself a lot more work by doing it the way I do it, but I often let the story tell me what it’s going to do. I am sort of coming round to the idea that outlining might be helpful, and I think I may have to do it on one of my next projects because I am going to write it with someone else and they are a stickler for outlines (because they are boring and anally retentive), but yeah, I’m gonna cave.”

Some takeaways:

* Some writers don’t outline because they “loathe” the process. Some because they aren’t any good at it. Some because their excitement for the story propels them into the writing. But what seems to unify the anti-outline writers is outlines inhibit their creativity. They want to have fun in the writing process and outlining runs counter to that. They want their characters to surprise them and outlines detract from that.

* Notice how some of these writers acknowledge it takes more time and effort to write without an outline. Getting stuck on scenes. Pages which are “overwritten and unnecessary.” Creating a “lot more work” sans outline.

Then there’s this complicating factor:

Brad Ingelsby: “It’s a problem for me actually because when you go up for a studio assignment you’re always asked to write a treatment or an outline and often times when I get to the script, it changes in some ways. Sometimes the story changes in very small ways and sometimes it changes in larger ways. And sometimes people aren’t happy when it changes. And I totally get that. They paid for a certain story and you’re now handing them something a bit different. The frustration is understandable.”

With studios increasingly demanding outlines and treatments before sending writers to draft, it’s becoming more of a challenge for those disinclined to break their story in prep to survive in Hollywood.

However one message is loud and clear: Each of us has to figure out our own way to craft and write stories. If outlining does not facilitate our creative process, indeed, gets in its way, then we have to listen to our gut.

How about you? Are you one of those writers who just cannot outline? If so, how do you go about the prep process?

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

Part 2, here.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Black List writers who have adopted a kind of ‘preliminary’ outline approach to their prep-writing.

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 5)

August 7th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. For the next 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?

Here three writers zero in on questions as a starting point for generating story ideas:

Elijah Bynum: “It comes from a place of some question or theme I want to explore. And then, just by keeping my eyes peeled– listening to music or reading books or articles or documentaries–something will stand out. And it will present itself in such a way that it lends itself to fitting into this theme that I want to write.”

Will Simmons: “Story ideas usually begin with a burning question or a visual motif. If you’re about to spend months writing and developing a script, you want to be certain that the central concept is worthy of your time. So I look for ideas that haunt me and keep me up at night. If you can find a question that gnaws at your creative subconscious and refuses to fade away, then you’re primed to write a story from a position of strength. This is a profession of obsessions. As writers, we’re stalkers of the written word, always hunting for the perfect combination of ideas and phrases to express images flickering in our mind’s eye.”

Brad Ingelsby: “It starts with a character, I think. It starts with a character, and then an arc, and then I sort of build the story around that arc. In Run All Night, it was Jimmy, an aging hit man who has to reconcile with his son and his past. And then what are those conflicts that I can begin to place around Jimmy to have an exciting story? So, it starts with a character, then an arc, and then how do I visualize that arc in a way that feels exciting and interesting to an audience.”

A question or a theme. A burning question. Some central thesis which can serve as a cornerstone for a plot. We have visited this approach before through the use of two simple words: What if?

Consider anecdotes from three screenwriters:

“The inspiration for coming up with the story [Back to the Future] is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old… The question came up in my head, ‘gee, what if I had gone to school with my dad, would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.” — Bob Gale (1941, Used Cars, Back to the Future I, II, III)

“The secret, the great key to writing Hook, came from my son. When he was six, he asked the question, ‘What if Peter Pan grew up?’ I had been trying to find a new way into the famous ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’ tale, and our son gave me the key.” — James V. Hart (Dracula, Contact, Hook)

“The Shakespeare in Love screenplay was written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard, although the original idea was rooted in a third creative mind – one of Norman’s son’s, Zachary. It was in 1989, while studying Elizabethan drama at Boston University, that the younger Norman phoned his father with a sudden brainstorm of a movie concept – the young William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan theater. The elder Norman agreed it was a terrific idea, but he hadn’t a clue what to do with it. Two years later, with bits of time stolen from other projects, the notion had formed – what if Shakespeare had writer’s block while writing his timeless classic, ‘Romeo and Juliet’”? — Marc Norman (The Aviator, Cutthroat Island, Shakespeare in Love)

What if I had gone to school with my dad? What if Peter Pan grew up? What if Shakespeare had writers block? Each the basis of a successful movie. Each a strong concept.

So a question can be the inspiration for a story concept. But why did I include this in the mix: “It starts with a character, and then an arc.” Because when you start with a character, some inkling of a figure, that immediately leads to questions. Who is this individual? Why are they the way they are? What is their personality? What is their backstory? What do they want? What do they need? Who might be providing opposition to them?”

Start with a character. Questions arise. With it… a plot and everything else.

How about you? Do you look to questions and characters for inspiration for your stories? 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.

Part 4, 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.

Interview: Brad Ingelsby (2008, 2012 Black List)

March 8th, 2015 by

[The movie Run All Night rolls out in theaters on Friday, March 13, reason enough to reprise my March 2013 interview with the movie’s screenwriter Brad Ingelsby.]

Brad Ingelsby is one busy writer with at least six projects in various states of development and production including Hold on to Me and Run All Night [both on the 2012 Black List] and The Raid. Plus he sold a high-profile pitch “Merry Men” to DreamWorks.

Ingelsby Trimmed

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

Part 1: “You need people like that in your life, I think. People who say ‘yes’. People who to tell you to jump. Luckily I’ve had a few over the years.”

Part 2: “That’s what you really want in a central character, I think. When you review the character’s arc at the end of the movie it feels like he’s traveled a long distance to get there.”

Part 3: “With “Run All Night” I knew where it started, I knew where it ended, and I knew I wanted it to take place essentially over a 24‑hour period of time. What’s nice about that constraint is knowing you can’t go outside that time frame.”

Part 4: “That’s just the way it goes with characters. They have to be unpredictable. And you have to be open to them pushing back, to them telling you that the direction you thought they would go isn’t really the direction they want to go.”

Part 5: “What does this character want and more importantly why do they want it? Those are the things that I tend to look at as I’m writing my dialogue. If I’m not hitting one of those at the moment — moving a story forward or revealing character — then I’ll try to get rid of it.”

Part 6: “If you’re passionate about the material and the story, and you believe in yourself then it can absolutely happen to you. I’m the perfect example of someone who got extremely lucky, so I always tell aspiring writers, ‘If you work hard enough and believe in the story, then there’s a place for you.’”

Brad is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.

Interview (Part 6): Brad Ingelsby (2012 Black List)

March 7th, 2015 by

[The movie Run All Night rolls out in theaters on Friday, March 13, reason enough to reprise my March 2013 interview with the movie’s screenwriter Brad Ingelsby.]

Brad Ingelsby is one busy writer with at least six projects in various states of development and production including Hold on to Me and Run All Night [both on the 2012 Black List] and The Raid. Plus in a nice bit of synergy for us, he sold a high-profile pitch “Merry Men” just last week to DreamWorks.

Brad was kind enough to do an interview and we had an excellent conversation. Today in Part 6, Brad talks about working with his managers and agents. Plus Brad answers some follow-up questions I posed to him about his most recent project “Merry Men”:

Scott: Given the fact you’ve got so many projects going on, how do you manage it all, the practice of stacking projects, handling multiple projects at once?

Brad: Obviously, there are times when you have to work on two things at once. That’s just the way it is. If you’re lucky enough to be working in this business, you have to just make it work. I try to line them up back to back. I’m not good at working on multiple projects at the same time. There are writers who can go from one script to the next to the next in the same day without the quality dropping off. Not me. It takes me a really long time to figure out the characters and the world.

I want my scripts to feel rich in detail and the only way for me to achieve that is to spend time with the characters. I’ve learned that if I’m working on multiple things at once they tend to feel thin and don’t have the detail or richness that I want.

Scott: When you’ve mentioned the writing process, you’ve say the word “we,” and so I’m imagining that involves your representatives WME and Energy. Can you describe what those working relationships are like?

Brad: I’ve been with Mike Esola and Brooklyn Weaver ever since “The Low Dweller”. I think what I value the most about them is their loyalty. I had a pretty big spec sale, and following that there was period of about a year or two where I wasn’t able to get new work. To many people I was a one-hit wonder. “The Low Dweller” wasn’t going anywhere at that time and I didn’t have another spec ready to go, so I wasn’t hirable. The few projects that I thought I had never came to fruition and I was scrambling to figure out what to do.

The assignment business can be extremely difficult and time‑consuming. You’re asked to do an initial treatment. Sometimes it takes the executives a few weeks to read that treatment. Once they’ve read that treatment, you’re asked to make changes. Then it takes them another few weeks to read that. And on and on and on. And at the end of all that free work, there’s no promise that anything will go to script. There’s no guarantee. That’s the business. I understand that better now. But it can be a frustrating process, especially when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You feel a bit like a hamster on a wheel.

But Mike and Brooklyn have stood by me in the darkest and brightest of times. That I guess is a sign of loyalty. They returned my calls when I was making them money and they returned my calls when I wasn’t making them any money. And they believed in me when I sent them “Run All Night” as a spec. They immediately got behind it and believed in it and got it out to Roy Lee, our producer, who made the deal happen almost overnight.

It’s an incredible asset to have people who believe in your work and your ability as a writer even when you’re not working.

Scott: How much interplay do you have with Brooklyn when you’re writing?

Brad: Brooklyn is very involved. He reads everything I want him to read, really. If I’m developing an outline for an assignment, he reads that. If I’m struggling through a script and want another set of eyes on the pages, he’ll read those and offer an opinion on what’s working and what’s not. He’s very accessible and willing to dive in and try to figure stories out. It’s a huge benefit in that you don’t always feel like you’re alone. He’s a great advocate and a great ally.

Scott: One last question: What advice do you offer people who say, “How do I become a screenwriter? How do I learn the craft? How do I break into the business?”

Brad: It’s funny. A friend of mine and a very good writer, Adam Moore, teaches a class at the New York Film Academy. He asks me to come in every semester and talk to his group of writing students. He always asks me that same question and I always respond the same way, which is, “It can absolutely happen to you. You can absolutely make it in this business.” I was working as an insurance salesman in Pennsylvania when I got the call that “The Low Dweller” had sold. I had very very few industry contacts. The one contact I had, Mike Pruss, who is now a great friend and a producer at Indian Paintbrush, I met through a teacher at AFI. He sent my script to Mike and Brooklyn and got the ball rolling. But Mike was the one contact I had, really. All it takes is one champion to see something in your work and pay it forward.

Anyway, I was selling insurance when it happened to me. And “The Low Dweller” isn’t commercial and it’s not high-concept at all. The logline is basically ‘a brother seeks revenge after his younger brother is brutally murdered.’ That’s it. If I pitched that logline at a studio I’d be laughed out of the room.

But if you’re passionate about the material and the story, and you believe in yourself then it can absolutely happen to you. I’m the perfect example of someone who got extremely lucky, so I always tell aspiring writers, “If you work hard enough and believe in the story, then there’s a place for you.”

Brad sold “Merry Men” to DreamWorks after our interview. He was kind enough to respond to a couple of questions about the project I sent to him via email:

Scott: Robin Hood is an iconic figure in Hollywood, the subject of multiple movie treatments. Is there something unique you discovered in working up “Merry Men” compared to previous iterations and if so, could you give us a hint what that angle is?

Brad: You’re right. There have been countless films about Robin Hood and I wasn’t interested in telling the same story. There would have been no point. Toby Ascher and Elizabeth Buraglio, two executives at Original Film, approached me with a completely new way into the legend. To be honest, it’s not really about Robin Hood at all. Robin Hood plays a small role, but the story primarily focuses on Robin’s band of Merry Men led by Little John. We let them take center stage for the first time. And while Robin Hood isn’t our main character, all that he stands for — justice, loyalty, camaraderie — lives on in these characters. So everything that audiences have loved about Robin Hood over hundreds of years of stories and films — action, adventure and romance — will be a part of this new version.

Scott: Are we talking Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian and all the rest of the characters associated with the Robin Hood story world?

Brad: Yes. They all will play a role.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Part 5, here.

Brad is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.

Interview (Part 5): Brad Ingelsby (2012 Black List)

March 6th, 2015 by

[The movie Run All Night rolls out in theaters on Friday, March 13, reason enough to reprise my March 2013 interview with the movie’s screenwriter Brad Ingelsby.]

Brad Ingelsby is one busy writer with at least six projects in various states of development and production including Hold on to Me and Run All Night [both on the 2012 Black List] and The Raid. Plus in a nice bit of synergy for us, he sold a high-profile pitch “Merry Men” just last week to DreamWorks.

Brad was kind enough to do an interview and we had an excellent conversation. Today in Part 5, Brad talks more about the craft of screenwriting:

Scott:  How about dialogue. Do you think this is a talent writers are born with or is it a skill that can be developed?

Brad:  I’m sure there are some that are born with it. I know I wasn’t. It’s taken me a long time to get to a place where I feel comfortable writing OK dialogue. I don’t think I’m quite at the place I want to be, but one of the lessons I learned, especially at AFI and later working with producers and directors, is to get rid of all the boring stuff. Everyone knows the rule that a scene has to be moving the story forward or it has to be in some way developing a character. If you can look at all of your scenes and say, “A) You’re moving the story forward in some way or B) It’s developing a character, then it’s worthy to stay in the script. If it’s not then you need to get rid of it.”

The same with the dialogue. Is the dialogue moving the story forward or is it revealing something about the character? Also, what is it revealing? Why is it important to reveal this? What does it tell us about the character’s journey or the character’s flaw or what the character wants?

One thing Len Schrader said to me sticks out, ‘Every story needs to be about life or death.’ Every story. That doesn’t necessarily mean a physical death, but it needs to be that the hero wants something so desperately that it’s life or death for him or her.

That has to come out in the dialogue as well. What does this character want and more importantly why do they want it? Those are the things that I tend to look at as I’m writing my dialogue. If I’m not hitting one of those at the moment — moving a story forward or revealing character — then I’ll try to get rid of it.

Scott:  What is your understanding of theme and does that play much in the way you think about and develop your stories?

Brad:  I think it does. I think it sort of has to. 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? I don’t like to go into a script saying, “I want to write a story about forgiveness,” and then try to fit forgiveness into every single scene. That feels maudlin and a bit silly to try to imbue every scene with a theme. It feels like a homework assignment and it doesn’t allow for much discovery or revelation. After all, you’ve already told yourself what the movie is about. You’ve limited yourself.

What I prefer to do is say, here’s a character. I like this character and I know the journey I’d like him or her to go on. And then I write that journey, that arc, and then I let the audience or reader decide what the theme is. Let them take what they want from the story. If you say a movie is about forgiveness, then an audience or a reader is only looking for that theme in the material and there’s no discovery. But if you present them with a character on a journey, they’re able to take away from that character and that journey what they want. It’s less limiting, I think. Stories mean different things to different people.

Scott:  When you finish a first draft and you’re faced with the inevitable rewriting process, are there some keys you have or approaches you use to bring that script home?

Brad:  I think it really varies with each script. With “Run All Night” we actually didn’t do a lot of rewriting at all. I felt the script was in a good place and my manager, Brooklyn, and my agent, Mike, agreed. We got Roy Lee involved. He was a great advocate and believer and he submitted it to Warner Brothers.

With “Hold on to Me” that was a much larger revision. The initial draft was 150 pages long. It was a real ‘Boogie Nights’ style epic that took place over a number of decades. In earlier drafts we showed a lot Nancy growing up, as a young girl and then as a teenager, in an attempt to introduce the audience to her world, her stage mother, her absent father. We wanted the audience to understand why Nancy wanted so desperately to break away. Because the movie gets dark and Nancy’s desire to break away leads her down a really really dark path, we had to understand her and sympathize with her. So when she finally does go down that dark path the audience doesn’t lose her. They remember that pageant girl getting her hair done inside a shitty bathroom by her mother. They remember the girl everyone called a slut at the country club. Without those scenes the audience loses sympathy and then the movie’s over. Everyone’s walking out of the theater because they think she’s a monster. So those scenes of Nancy as a youngster were incredibly important, but we had to pick and choose the ones that were most important. And James Marsh was particularly great at picking the gems.

I think it varies, really. I don’t have a method of going back in and looking at stuff. It’s just dealing with, “What’s this story about?” and if a scene or a character or a sequence isn’t aiding us in that character’s journey then we need to get rid of it.

Scott:  What’s your actual writing process like?

Brad:  It’s changed a bit because I have a daughter now. That throws things off a little bit. I’m at home and I have a little one running around and when she comes up and pulls at my shirt and wants me to push her around on a bike, I can’t resist. I usually get up around 6:30. I’ll write until about 10:00, maybe. I’ll go for a run. I’ll maybe do a little work in the afternoon, and then I usually start back up at night. I’m sort of an early‑morning writer and a late‑at‑night writer. If the writing’s going good I could start at 8:00 or 9:00 and go until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Those are usually the hours that I like to write, early morning, late at night.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Brad talks working with his managers and agents.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Brad is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.