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.

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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.

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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.”


* 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: 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.

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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.”


* 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 4)

August 13th, 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.

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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. Yesterday we heard from writers who don’t do outlines. Today we explore the thoughts of writers who work up “preliminary” outlines as part of their story prep process:

Stephanie Shannon: ” Then I did a preliminary outline. I didn’t get too detailed into it. This was my first feature I had completed, so I wasn’t sure exactly the correct process. I just did whatever I thought necessary to organize my thoughts. I think what really helped me was actually just sitting down and writing. Once I typed “fade in,” it was like all of a sudden it just started coming together. I think it’s important for me to at some point just start and then adjust the structure as I go.”

Chris Roessner: “I get a general idea of what the beginning, the middle and the end will be. Then I want to plow through the first draft as quickly as possible, knowing full well that very little of it will survive. But I need something to work with.”

Chris McCoy: “If I’m writing a spec, my outline is looser than it would be if I was writing an assignment. Because you have to pitch to get studio jobs, it means that you’ve extensively worked out the beats of what you’re going to do, so you’ve got this long, in-depth document to use as a reference. But if I’m just at home fiddling around with an idea, I like giving myself some room to explore. What I typically do is have an outline with the big plot points – the inciting event, where we’ll be at the end of the first act, some of the second act rising action beats, the impossible situation at the end of the second act and what the climax will look like. And then I try to find the most creative path between those big moments. My feeling is that if I can surprise myself when I’m connecting these dots, then hopefully I’ll surprise the reader. If I’m just putting words on the page, I’ll always have a couple of weird ideas that pop into my head that I probably wouldn’t have gotten had I just been putting index cards up on a wall.”

Chris Borrelli: “I won’t set out unless I have a general idea of the three‑act structure. If I’m working with somebody, they’ll have at least a three‑page, two‑, three‑page outline.”

Aaron Guzikowski: “I usually write some kind of an outline, and I’ll spend a couple of weeks on that just trying to get everything figured out, but just enough so I know where everything ends up.”

F. Scott Frazier: “The first note cards I’ll ever put up on the wall are the end of act one and the end of act two. I like to know basically where I’m headed before I start writing the script, but my outlines are usually pretty light when I get into a rough draft. I’ll have a vague sense of what kinds of characters I need for the story — who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is — but I usually don’t plan anything beyond that. I also like to plan my set pieces pretty well in advance. So for something like LINE OF SIGHT, I brainstormed 100 different beats that I thought would be cool from a POV perspective. During the brainstorming phase (which I usually don’t spend more than a week on) I’ll also have random bits of dialogue, random scene descriptions, random character moments, random action beats written down on note cards or on a whiteboard to use as kind of like a road map through the rough draft.”


* These writers want to have worked out the spine of the story’s plot before typing FADE IN. Whether that means four major plot points — Beginning, Act One end, Act Two End, Ending — or some additional key beats such as the inciting incident, this at least provides some sense of the narrative’s direction.

* For writers such as these, a ‘preliminary’ outline provides a basic foundation for the story while allowing the freedom to explore the narrative in the actual writing process.

Here are a couple of variations on theme:

David Guggenheim: “If I have a really clean set up, I feel confident that I can just go ahead and start writing it. That’s all I really need is that clean set up, because I think in action movies that’s what is the most important thing.”

All David needs is a “clean set up,” then he’s off to the races. And how about this:

Declan O’Dwyer: “I tend to write my end first… Get my nemesis sorted, or my nemesis’ arc sorted, and where I want the story to end… I try and get their story sorted, so they’re a proper nemesis, not someone that you don’t fully believe. I just want to make them as real as possible.”

Write the end first including as a key part of that the Nemesis arc.

Again my point: There is no right way to write. While some writers can’t work from an outline, this group represents writers who need a bit more structure before going to draft, a ‘preliminary’ outline, a clean set up, or a clear ending.

How about you? Do you work out major plot points / three act structure before you commence the page-writing part of the process?

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

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Tomorrow we continue our survey of Black List writers as we visit with those who work up comprehensive outlines.

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 2)

August 11th, 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.

Today we hear from Black List writers who gravitate toward characters as a starting point of their prep-writing process:

Michael Werwie: “Probably plotting. That’s a tricky one, because it’s a function of character. You have to have a grasp on the characters because the characters will create the plot.”

Jason Mark Hellerman: “Characterization, to me, is the most important… If I figure out who the people are, then I can figure out what they’ll be going through.”

Joshua Golden: “Knowing my characters first, so whether that’s writing a paragraph on each of my characters, figuring out who they are, where they’re at, what they want, what they need. That’s usually where I start from.”

Barbara Stepansky: “Probably the most time I devote to is character. I think that plots develop out of character needs and wants. I think the most fun comes from watching people do something and spend time with them.”

Seth Lochhead: “Plot comes from the characters’ pursuits of their own end goals (whatever those may be), conflict can be found in those pursuits.”

Jeremiah Friedman: “We spend a lot of time talking about the characters and constructing character profiles, that probably comes first once we’ve already developed an idea enough to commit to writing it.”

Declan O’Dwyer: “It varies per project because a lot of the time I’m trying to find the character… I try and write my baddest character first, my nemesis first. I try to make that nemesis as human as possible and understand their decision‑making process.”

Some takeaways:

* Plot emerges from character. “Plotting… is a function of character.” If you can figure out who your characters are, what they’ll be going through will emerge from your character development process.

* How? One key is to ask: What do they want? What do they need? Want may dictate the story’s physical journey (Plot), but need can supplant want and alter the course of the Plot. Need can also indicate what the character’s transformation arc is about.

When I participated in the first NYC Black List mini-lab, Beau Willimon (House of Cards) was one of our fellow mentors. In each meeting he had with the five participating writers, he spent the entire hour probing into one question: What does your Protagonist need? Hugely important question.

* You can develop our characters by crafting profiles on them. These can vary and the tools you can use are numerous: Biography, Questionnaire, Interview, Monologue, Sit-Down. The more you learn about your characters in prep, the more the plot will come into being.

* Finally, whereas most writers likely begin with the Protagonist, how about focusing first on the Nemesis character? “I try to make that nemesis as human as possible .” Good advice as a more human Nemesis transforms them into a more dynamic, nuanced figure and less of a stereotype.

How about you? Are you a character-first writer? What techniques do you use to develop your story’s characters?

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

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

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 6)

August 8th, 2015 by

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

Black List logo

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

Here are a variety of takes on how to assess and develop the story ideas these writers generate:

Nick Palmer: “It’s one of the great benefits of having a writing partner.  You’re spending so much time together, you’re constantly in conversation so there’s just a lot of opportunity for developing new ideas. What we’ve found is that while we might get really excited about a character or a new take on a genre, a lot of our job is being able to pitch our ideas to other people and that’s where having a strong, clear concept really helps.”

Jeremiah Friedman: “It all really comes down to whether or not we can see it in our minds as a movie.  Has it been done before?”

Will Simmons: “After I’ve settled on an idea, I use a methodical approach during the initial stages of development. I try to be a ruthless and objective evaluator of my own writing, which probably stems from my work as a film editor.”

Rajiv Joseph: “We love to sit around and just talk about stories, and how we would write them. The ones that continued to interest us after about 10 minutes of talking start to find their way into our notebooks.”

Scott Rothman: “If it has legs, and it’s something that we continue to talk about as we’re going out and maybe sharing a few adult beverages with each other, then we know that it’s definitely something that is going to intrigue us and interest enough to actually sit down and write the story.”

Daniel Kunka: “For me, I usually find an idea somewhere out there in the ether and then I just jot it down or start a new document for it on my computer. Then I just let it sit for awhile, and if I find myself coming back to it and thinking about it more I know it might have a chance.”

Barbara Stepansky: “I start to pitch ideas to people once a kernel comes in. I’m not very shy about that… When I meet my friends, I usually talk about an idea. It helps me see if the idea is bigger than just a short story or what the possibilities are. Then I write them down and I keep them in an idea file, and see if I want to explore anything after a while.”

Justin Rhodes: “Most of the time, I get excited by something for about forty-eight hours before I realize that it doesn’t have all the elements it needs to become a movie. But every once in awhile the idea will stick with me. Usually the ideas I write as specs are ones that have managed to linger in my brain for more than a year. If I’m still not bored with it, there’s probably something to it.”

Declan O’Dwyer: “They gestate for a long time. They gestate for a very, very long time.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “Every once in a while a concept just gets stuck in your head and the only way to get it out is to turn it into a story.”

Two things here. First, one way to assess a story idea is to pitch it to friends and other writers. I’m reminded of an observation by the late writer-director Harold Ramis:

For me, a screenplay starts with something I can tell other people in five minutes. If you’re pitching a movie and it takes longer than five minutes, there’s something wrong.

Pitching not only helps you test the viability of a story, but also in wrangling it into a concise, tight shape, you can begin to see the narrative emerge into being.

The second thing: One key for many of the writers is if a story idea lingers with them. Do they keep coming back to it? Does it get stuck in their head? Does it have ‘legs’? Can it survive a gestation period? If so, that can be a pretty good indicator it’s a story which deserves to be written, the writer having enough interest in it to take it from FADE IN to FADE OUT… and hopefully their passion for the story will translate into a script which connects with readers.

How about you? How do you assess your story concepts? Head to comments and share your thoughts.

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

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Part 5, here.

Tomorrow we wrap up this week’s series.

Screenwriting 101: Declan O’Dwyer

May 13th, 2014 by

screenplay“It was never really about where it was going to end up. It was really about the journey itself. It’s inevitable in a genre piece. Cinematic language tells us there’s going to be showdown at high-noon. Not always the case, but it’s a fair assumption. So really, the interesting bit, though, is how they got there and the journey.”

— Declan O’Dwyer (GITS interview, August 7, 2013)

Screenwriting 101: Declan O’Dwyer

November 5th, 2013 by

“It was never really about where it was going to end up. It was really about the journey itself. It’s inevitable in a genre piece. Cinematic language tells us there’s going to be showdown at high-noon. Not always the case, but it’s a fair assumption. So really, the interesting bit, though, is how they got there and the journey.”

— Declan O’Dwyer (GITS Interview, August 7, 2013)

Interview: Declan O’Dwyer

August 11th, 2013 by

U.K.-based TV director Declan O’Dwyer (Robin Hood, Wire in the Blood, Merlin) wrote and sold the spec script “Broken Cove” to Thunder Road Pictures in April 2013.

Declan O'Dwyer

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

Part 1: “It’s trite – but my only escape from that shit was film and TV. That was it – they were gods to me up on those screens. When I’m working I still go to the cinema nearly every other night.”

Part 2: “There are no goodies. It’s intentional. There are no white hats in my film. They are all black hats, all of them. But just because one person falls on a particular side of the moral compass, it doesn’t necessarily make them evil, just because they’re not sticking to the law.”

Part 3: “It was never really about where it was going to end up. It was really about the journey itself. It’s inevitable in a genre piece. Cinematic language tells us there’s going to be showdown at high-noon.  Not always the case, but it’s a fair assumption. So really, the interesting bit, though, is how they got there and the journey.”

Part 4: “I kept clinging to the point that I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it, then it was like, you know what, I’m going to put it on the Black List and see what happens.”

Part 5: “I do things in photographs. I collect lots and lots of imagery. I find it much easier to write in pictures than I do in words because I don’t enjoy the writing process.”

Part 6: “If your script is good, it gets noticed. If it doesn’t, write another fucking script.”

Declan is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.

Twitter: @thelastsouthpaw.

Interview: Declan O’Dwyer — Part 6

August 10th, 2013 by

Declan O’Dwyer is a U.K-based TV director (Robin Hood, Wire in the Blood, Merlin) who wrote and sold the spec script “Broken Cove” to Thunder Road Pictures.

Recently I had a terrific conversation with Declan about his unusual path into the entertainment business and how he has added “screenwriter” to his resume.

Today in Part 6, Declan goes deeper into his approach to the craft of screenwriting:

Scott:  How about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have any specific goals in mind or approaches that you take when you’re approaching writing a scene?

Declan:  Yes, how does this move the story along? Does it need to be in it? Why am I doing this? Why is this character doing this? What is the objection in this scene to get them over? Does it move the character along? If it moves the character along, it will move the plot along. If it moves the story forward, it stays. If it doesn’t, I’m quite harsh. I edit quite heavily, even stuff I like.

Tarantino’s a master at it, an absolute master at this stuff. He writes what the scene is not about. I just admire how he can do that. All the stuff that you would get told to take out in a pre‑Tarantino era.

It’s crafting character by not talking about the story. If two hit men are going to kill someone, they don’t talk about it all the way to there. They don’t talk about, “We’re going to kill him and then we’re going to do this to him.” They talk about going to McDonald’s or Burger King. Their job is already afoot.

Scott:  Your scene description is quite entertaining. A couple of lines I pulled out as examples. “Joan, a strangled cigarette under her lip hacks at a block of ice with an ice pick, splintering shards.” You describe a sex scene here. “The couple in climatic vinegar strokes of passionate sex.” What keys do you have in your mind when you’re writing scene description to make it entertaining?

Declan:  It’s got to entertain me. I’m the first audience. At the same time, I want it to be entertaining for the reader because the audience is never going to see my entertaining introduction to a scene. They’re never going to hear that stuff, so it’s almost like ‘producer prose’ to a certain point.

Scott:  You said you had written maybe 19 drafts of “Broken Cove.” What’s the re‑write process for you? How do you go about figuring out what needs to be saved or what needs to be changed?

Declan:  That was one of the best things about putting it on the Black List. It’s one of the first times that I’d ever exposed myself to such criticism. I don’t agree with paying £500, $600 and often more, whatever, to one of those industry script reading services to get a generic script editor, ONE script editor, to go through my script and tell me what was wrong with it structurally and thematically and dialogue‑wise? I don’t agree with that – smacks to me as a fucking rip-off – preying on peoples hopes and aspirations. Many (not all) are just looking to tick certain boxes, to hand it to certain people who would like certain things. That’s not what I want.

The Black List is different. I put it up there and I paid for a couple ‘reads’. It’s a very small fee – especially when you think you’re getting people that do this for a living, reading your script, breaking it down, analyzing it, and putting up a review. Whether you like the feedback or not, that’s irrelevant – you learn much more from criticism that you do from praise.

I had some great, great reads for “Broken Cove.” First, a couple of 8’s and then I had a couple 9’s for dialogue n’stuff. Then I had a 4, man, from the dialogue. I was just like, “What? What kinda drugs are you on?”

Yeah man, I used the Black List as my script editor. I found when I got bad feedback and things, I was really honest with myself, really brutally honest, after having that initial, “What the fuck are they talking about?” moment. It was the, “Oh right, yeah, that’s what they’re talking about.” If I agree, I change it. If I didn’t, I didn’t. You’ve got to have faith in your story. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t have faith in it because my attention spans’ too short.

Scott:  Speaking of that, what’s your actual writing process?

Declan:  It varies, it varies. It varies madly. It’s been hard with the baby, to be honest. In the midst of school run, nappy changes, and all that stuff, it’s been a bit crazy just to try and get any time to write at all.

And now, I’m knee‑deep into directing this new epic TV show, so writing has kind of gone out the window a little bit.

Yet, often enough, you find yourself sitting there at two o’clock in the morning going, “I really need to go to bed. I’ve got a 5:30 call.” Those are the days that get you. You know, more than anybody, what it’s like. Two o’clock in the morning, you’re still sitting there -and suddenly, you’ve got a great idea, you write it. The following morning, you read it, it’s shit.

That’s the process. The thing is, it’s all good, man. I’ve got a good work ethic. I work constantly.

Scott:  So let’s say you had a stretch of free time to write, what’s your single best excuse not to write?

Declan:  Oh, man. Twitter. It’s evil. Twitter has been put on Earth by the Devil. No, do you know what? My excuse not to write is to go to the cinema, or watch a DVD. That’s my absolute flaw. The worst thing I can do is get back to the hotel room and not write. If I turn the television on, I’m screwed. Because on one of those bastard channels, I’ll find something that’ll probably be shit. It will be something that was made in 1982 and was terrible then. I’ll sit and watch it to the end. I’ll watch until the final credit goes up and go that was rubbish. But until that point, I’ll be lapping that shit up. I’m addicted. I’m a proper cinephile. The amount of movies I watch is my education. It’s always been my education.

Scott:  That’s what’s so tough about it. You can always justify watching a movie, right? You can always say, no, no, no, that’s all part of the process of… [laughs]

Declan:  Research, man.

Scott:  Yeah, research. [laughs] What do you love most about writing?

Declan:  When I find the voice. When I find it, and I have that moment of clarity. It doesn’t come often, but when it’s there, it’s like a tuning fork. That’s the beauty. It’s the clarity. Most of the time when I write, it’s a fog, and I’m trying to clear the fog away. The same as I would when I’m directing something. I just work at making it. Do I believe the story? Is this true? I’m the worst critic. I’m the first audience. That’s always my thing. Do I find this entertaining? Do I believe it?

I wrote a zombie film a little while back. Up until the point the zombie came through the door, I thought it was fantastic. The moment the zombie turned up, I was like, dude, seriously, this is a fucking zombie film. I’m trying to find the truth in this zombie film, and I’m struggling. I’m 40 pages in, and it’s gonna stay at 41 pages in. Ha! That should be my epitaph ‘The fucking zombie turned up, and all my reality just went out the window.’

Scott:  Finally, what advice can you offer to an aspiring filmmaker, a screenwriter, a director, about learning the craft and breaking into the business?

Declan:  I still feel like I’m an outsider. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I’m part of the business. Work hard. Learn the craft. Work hard. Learn your craft. You will break in. The Black List has been a joy for me, because it’s a level playing field, man. It doesn’t matter what your background is. It takes you on face value. If your script is good, it gets noticed. If it doesn’t, write another fucking script.

For Part 1, go here.

Part 2, go here.

Part 3, go here.

Part 4, go here.

Part 5, go here.

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

Declan is repped by WME and Energy Entertainment.

Twitter: @thelastsouthpaw.