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 4)

August 27th, 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. Tuesday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Yesterday we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process. Today we consider writers who carry a concern about theme: Not to come off as “preachy”.

Michael Werwie: “I’ll probably get crucified for saying this, but I don’t really think about theme anymore. In my early scripts I put a lot of thought and a lot of energy into crafting and shaping theme, weaving it through the story to the point where it got heavy‑handed and preachy. I just stopped thinking about it and started trusting that it will reveal itself at some point along the way. I trust that it’s going to naturally be within every character and every scene and running through the spine of the script, because it’s this mysterious, intangible element that’s driving the writing already. So I don’t put too much thought into it, at least in the early stages of a script. Once I finish a script, I’ll have read it through many, many times while I’ve been working on it, and certain things will start to emerge and certain ideas resonate, and so I’ll eventually develop or deepen those ideas. Other ideas that seem like they stray from the spine of the story, I’ll take out.”

Spenser Cohen: “For me, theme is very important, but I’m never thinking of the theme right off the bat. I think the theme comes out while you’re writing. But I never go into a project thinking about it.”

Scott Rothman: “I’ve got to say, just as a counterpoint, theme is something that I’ve never thought about that much. I would have it in the back of my mind, or I’d develop a theme as I went. It was never a guiding principle that I had spent any time going back to. I never wanted to appear didactic, or I was screaming in the reader’s ear what the message was or what the point was. It’s something that I really learned from Rajiv [Joseph], and writing with him. He takes theme very seriously, as he’s just pointed out. I’m sure I don’t obsess over it, to the point he does it naturally, but it’s definitely something now I’ve learned to pay more attention to. I do think my writing has gotten that much better because of it.”

Joshua Golden: “I don’t want to beat the audience over the head with it, though.”

Julia Hart: “I think that if you think too much about, at least for me, if I think too much about what my themes are, it becomes laborious, over the top, like hitting you over the head.”

Chris Roessner: “I think one of my deficiencies is allowing theme to drive my story too much from the outset. I think that, from the beginning, you should know what it is, on a very emotional level, about your story that appeals to you. You want to declare it specifically, and then put it away. Then think about character, think about character, think about character. Then theme will naturally start to weave itself in there and give you an opportunity to shape it in future drafts. Theme’s obviously important. It’s what elevates your work. But I think if you let theme drive your story instead of character, you’re going to find yourself in no man’s land.”

Takeaway:

* It’s possible to overthink theme. If you focus so much them that it restricts your creative exploration… stifles your characters and their voices… bogs down scenes and the plot… and comes across as beating the “audience over the head with it,” a good idea to lighten up. Remember it’s a story about characters. Their world, their lives.

I am reminded of a quote attributed to one of the original Hollywood movie moguls Samuel Goldwyn who told the writers he head under hire at the studio: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

After all, movies are ultimately about entertainment.

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

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

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

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: Characters (Part 4)

August 20th, 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. Tuesday writers zeroed in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters. Yesterday we checked in with writers who use biographies as a tool for character development. Today we see how some Black List writers use scene-writing to find a character’s voice:

Ashleigh Powell: “For me, how my characters speak informs a lot about who they are and how they see the world. Really nailing down that voice helps me shape their character traits from there.”

Spenser Cohen: “One thing that I do when I first start writing is to put the outline aside and just start trying to find the character’s voice. I’ll give myself space to explore, and I just let the characters go. No one’s going to see it. No one’s going to read it. There’s no pressure. It’s their story, and I let whatever happens, happen. I’ll often make up a scene that’s not in the outline and might not even make sense for the story… It’s almost like a rehearsal before you jump in and start doing the real work. Just exploring. Often in these rough passes the characters start to take shape.”

Julia Hart: “Just through writing the scenes of their dialogue. I write a ton and then I’ll cut a bunch of it out. I’ll write like seven lines where there needs to be one and just cut around that one right line and keep going. I find their voices by having them say too much, by writing down every thought that would be in their head and then cutting off the fat.”

No matter the writing, the goal is to get inside the character’s head:

Eric Heisserer: “If I need to develop the character further, typically that’s the harder work of trying to figure out what part of the story I’m not writing about. If I have to…and I hate it, but I’ve had to do this before…I will write act zero—what happens to a character before the story in my script begins—so I have a deeper understanding of where this character came from.”

James DiLapo: “Whenever I struggled with lines in “Devils At Play” I would stop and would run the whole story in my head from the character’s perspective, trying to feel what they are feeling and thinking how they would. It’s not always easy. I think that’s probably the hardest element of screenwriting. You have to find a way to stretch beyond your own understanding and become, for a moment, someone who is so foreign to the way you live your life. In my experience, however, the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

Takeaway:

* Feel free to write free. Free-standing scenes. Free-standing monologues. Give yourself “space to explore”. Write down “every thought” the character has and see what sticks.

* For some writers, a character’s personality may shape their voice, however the inverse can work, too. Nailing down their voice can “shape” their character traits.

* Do what you need to do to get inside their head. Feel what “they are feeling.” Think how “they would.” Write “act zero,” exploring what happened to the character before FADE IN. To riff off the name of this blog… go into the characters.

How about you? Do you write free-standing scenes to explore your characters? How do you go about finding a character’s voice? What do you do to get inside their head?

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

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

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

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

August 14th, 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.

This week, I’ve been presenting an array of takes from Black List writers about outlines. On Wednesday, we heard from writers who have an active aversion to outlines. Yesterday we learned how some writers work from a minimal ‘preliminary’ type of outline. Today writers who embrace the idea of working with an extensive outline:

Julia Hart: “Outlining. I tried to write something without an outline and my husband [producer Jordan Horowitz] just laughed at me. I find that outlining is just so incredibly important.”

Joshua Golden: “Tying each character’s journey in a way to what the overall story is about, whether it’s the importance of imagination or identity, that’s where I’d start from. Then I will usually do a pretty thorough outline, beat by beat of what’s happening in the story. When I first started, I would jump into a script without that. I don’t think staring at that blank page helped my anxiety. So, going forward, it’s a pretty thorough outlining process.”

Spenser Cohen: “I feel like most of the work happens before you actually start writing… You really have to know where you’re going, and I think the more you do up front the better the process is going to be going through the first draft.”

Ashleigh Powell: “Usually I’ll start with a one page synopsis, just the basic beats of the story. Then I go to note cards, and then I go to a full outline. What I’ve discovered recently, now that I’m able to collaborate with people on projects and I’m not just writing in a bubble, is that the outlining process can be very, very, extensive. It can take months and it can involve a 10 to 20 page beat sheet where every single moment is right there on the page. Whereas if I’m writing a spec and working it out on my own, then I might stop after a 4-5 page basic outline of the story and then just dive in and start writing and make discoveries in the draft as I’m going through.”

Scott Rothman: “To answer your question, yeah, we both believe in a very thorough outline, of really cracking the story. I think that’s where you make your money. That’s where the thing either dies on the vine or becomes something special. If you can break it there…you’re going to have surprises when you go to write the draft, but to me if you don’t have the underlying structure of the thing, you’re just running around in circles.”

Nick Palmer: “I think we really learned to appreciate prep coming off the first script we wrote together and we now dedicate a huge portion of our work time, probably close to fifty percent, to prep of one kind or another.  When you have a writing partner, the most important thing is that you’re both telling the same story at every step of the way.  The more you invest in prep at the top, the smoother and faster the actual writing will go.  For us, it’s really crucial that we map out every scene, every beat really, before we ever sit down to write.”

Jeremiah Friedman: “We formalize it and write it all down because we need to make sure we’re on the same page about who these people were before they show up on page one.  Once we’ve got those down, we head into a pretty extensive outline and then we break down the script on a board using index cards so we can kind of see the entire movie and visualize the structure.  We also devote a couple of days to studying whatever genre we’re working in, which helps us get a sense of the rules and conventions and also helps us talk about tone, which is pretty huge for us.”

Justin Marks: “I’m a huge proponent of outlining and note cards. I use Scrivener to pull together story structure, and annotate it, if there’s research. Eventually, I’ll resort to hard note cards that I can post on a bulletin board. I also use a Dry Erase board to gather thoughts. Organizationally, it really just depends on the project.  There have also been scripts where I just dive right in, and I just actually try to write a couple scenes, knowing full well that I shouldn’t be doing it.  Then, eventually I pull myself out, and I go to the outline.”

Takeaways:

* These writers appear to share the belief that outlining is not only necessary, it is important. That without that work, their creative process will be stymied.

* A comprehensive outline may involve 10, 20, or more pages, a beat-for-beat accounting of the story in full.

* Index cards are some of these writers’ best friends, an important tool in the plotting process and in helping to visualize the story’s structure when pinned up on a wall, laid out on a table, stretched out across the floor, etc.

All in all, these writers seem to be saying that prep-writing is every bit as important as page-writing, indeed the more time spent breaking the story, the easier it is to write the script.

Then there’s this:

Scott Rothman: “I spend a ton of time in prep-writing, but that’s mostly because that’s just the way things work these days. If you’re pretty much anything but an A-list writer (and sometimes even then), you’ll end up having to generate a detailed treatment explaining every aspect of what you’re going to do between pretty much every step of the process. You’re rarely allowed to commence anything without a detailed plan that outlines what the draft is going to look like in excruciating detail.”

I brought this up in comments the other day. If you’re writing on spec and want to dive into page-writing with little or not prep work, go for it. It’s your dime and time. However if you have aspirations to work on assignment in Hollywood, you will become quite familiar, if not friendly with outlines and treatments.

This is pretty much all about the comfort level of the buyers, the studios, the producers, the financiers. To minimize the possibility of not being on the same page with writers, they want to see the whole story laid out for them. So if you hate outlining, you’re going to have to come to terms with this part of the process, like it or not.

How about you? Do you work up extensive outlines? What does that process look like?

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

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Tomorrow we continue our survey of Black List writers as we visit with those who have a comprehensive prep process.

Feature: Julia Hart (“The Keeping Room”)

September 6th, 2014 by

Nice feature on screenwriter Julia Hart in the L.A. Times, whose new movie The Keeping Room premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday.

The movie’s plot summary: Left without men in the dying days of the American Civil War, three Southern women – two sisters and one African-American slave – must fight to defend their home and themselves from two rogue soldiers who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army.

An excerpt from the feature:

“I so rarely see women talking to women in film,” Hart said. “It started from a place of race and gender, but also just wanting to see women talking to each other. It couldn’t just be one woman defending herself against the men. I wanted it to be a group of women together. Because that relationship, to me, is the center of the film.”

For the rest of the article, go here.

For my February 2013 interview with Julia, go here.

Screenwriting 101: Julia Hart

May 7th, 2013 by

screenplay“I write a ton and then I’ll cut a bunch of it out. I’ll write like seven lines where there needs to be one and just cut around that one right line and keep going. I find their voices by having them say too much, by writing down every thought that would be in their head and then cutting off the fat.”

— Julia Hart [GITS interview, February 22, 2013]

Interview: Julia Hart (2012 Black List)

February 24th, 2013 by

Julia Hart’s original screenplay “The Keeping Room” put her on the Black List in 2012. The movie is in pre-production starring Olivia Wilde, Hailee Steinfeld, and Nicole Beharie, directed by Daniel Barber. In addition, Hart’s screenplay “Miss Stevens” recently landed Anna Faris to star and Ellen Page to direct. Plus Hart is adapting the Jamie McGuire novel “Beautiful Disaster” for Warner Bros.

Hart Julia

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

Part 1: “If you really believe in it despite what conventional wisdom says, just write it.”

Part 2: “I deeply love women and in this type of movie, in an active thriller, the intimate complexity of female relationships is rarely explored.”

Part 3: “The first draft was 65 pages. I was like, ‘I think I’m done, but this is really [laughs] short.’”

Part 4: “I think the one thread thus far is that they all have complex female protagonists. I love writing about them. I love figuring out what they do and what they say.”

Part 5: “Character development for me is all through dialogue. I think about the idea of who this person is, what their job is, where they live, what they look like… figuring out what they say and how they say it.”

Part 6: “Story is ultimately innate. And being aware of what’s innate, I think it’s so important when it comes to writing.”

Julia is repped by WME and Anonymous Content.

Thanks, Julia, for the interview. We look forward to tracking the progress of your unfolding screenwriting career!

Interview: Julia Hart (2012 Black List) — Part 6

February 23rd, 2013 by

Julia Hart’s original screenplay “The Keeping Room” put her on the Black List in 2012. The movie is in pre-production starring Olivia Wilde, Hailee Steinfeld, and Nicole Beharie, directed by Daniel Barber. In addition, Hart’s screenplay “Miss Stevens” recently landed Anna Faris to star and Ellen Page to direct. Plus Hart is adapting the Jamie McGuire novel “Beautiful Disaster” for Warner Bros.

Julia and I had a great one-hour conversation covering a lot of territory. Today in Part 6, Julia delves more deeply into her approach to the craft of screenwriting.

Scott:  We haven’t really talked much about your training. I know you’ve written plays, I think, is that right, in college? Yes?

Julia:  Yes.

Scott:  What sort of formal training other than having your father read your screenplays as a child did you have in terms of screenwriting? Were there any books or seminars or any of that stuff that you did to kind of learn any of that?

Julia:  I was one credit shy of being a creative writing minor at Columbia, but there was a science class that I wanted to take instead of my final creative writing class. So, it was more important to me to take this class than to have the degree. I definitely had some great creative writing lessons at Columbia. And then other than my dad, my husband gave me The Writer’s Journey and basically said to me, “This is all you need to know.” And it was hugely helpful. I deeply love this book and I recommend it to any of my friends when they ask me if there’s a good book on screenwriting to check out. I really loved it.

Scott:  So just gathering from your reaction to The Writer’s Journey, do you subscribe to the idea that there are these universal patterns like the Hero’s Journey, three basic movements in a story: separation, immersion, return, that type of thing?

Julia:  Absolutely, and it’s funny, I actually wrote “The Keeping Room” before I read The Writer’s Journey. And going back through it, once I had a better understanding of story structure, was like an epiphany, a huge realization of the fact that not in a bad way but that there is a formula. And I love that he does use mythic structure because it’s just so translatable, so universal. It didn’t feel like I was learning something new so much as discovering something that I hadn’t named. Story is ultimately innate. And being aware of what’s innate, I think it’s so important when it comes to writing.

Scott:  The dialogue in “The Keeping Room” is compelling, entertaining, and it feels really authentic, both to the period and to each character. Is the ability to write dialogue something you feel like a writer is born with as sort of an innate talent or can it be developed and learned?

Julia:  My dad thinks I was born with it.  You know when you’re doing that thing, that thing you feel like you’re specifically good at? That one specific, little thing? That’s how I feel about dialogue. And I wouldn’t even say that about screenwriting overall. There are certain parts of screenwriting I still don’t think I’m very good at, but just always felt like I knew how to write dialogue. I think that was also very helpful in terms of being a teacher. Just finding the right way to express things verbally is, obviously, a huge part of that job.

Scott:  How about theme? Do you think about the theme when you’re writing, and if so, when does that part of the process come up, up front in the story or in the back end of the story?

Julia:  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. And I think that if you think too much about, at least for me, if I think too much about what my themes are, it becomes laborious, over the top, like hitting you over the head.  I just try to think about a cohesive world, and I think that ultimately themes arise from that.

Scott:  I was struck by an earlier comment you made, how the original vision you had about these three women in “The Keeping Room” and wanting to explore that set of relationships, a lot of the stuff I would look at from the thematic point of view, really arose from that foundation. Is that a fair assessment?

Julia:  Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. It didn’t come from wanting to explore the theme of women versus men, but that just arose organically from exploring the relationships between women in a world without men.

Scott:  What’s your actual writing process?

Julia:  I have an office in our house. I really like my house. I don’t really like leaving it. [laughs] I’m a very introverted person and having to go to work with a big community every day my whole life, was actually a little bit tough for me, so I love that I get to stay home now every day. I write for about 6 to 7 hours everyday. I’m trying to be better about taking breaks, but that’s the part that I’m working on, is figuring out where to take the breaks during the day. I write pretty solidly every day, all day.

Scott:  One last question: What advice can you offer to an aspiring screenwriter about learning the craft?

Julia:  It’s funny. My husband and I both watch so many movies. We probably watch five, six movies a week, and I watch a lot more movies than I read screen plays. I think that, yes, you can learn a lot about the craft from reading screenplays, but I also think you can learn a lot from watching. I think that the two need to be companions. Just watch anything and everything. It’s one of the blessings I think of the access we now have via Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon streaming. You can watch so many. There are so many hidden gems.

This is the last part of the interview. Please stop by comments to thank Julia for taking the time to share her insights and post any follow-up questions you may have.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

For Part 5, go here.

Julia is repped by WME and Anonymous Content.

Interview: Julia Hart (2012 Black List) — Part 5

February 22nd, 2013 by

Julia Hart’s original screenplay “The Keeping Room” put her on the Black List in 2012. The movie is in pre-production starring Olivia Wilde, Hailee Steinfeld, and Nicole Beharie, directed by Daniel Barber. In addition, Hart’s screenplay “Miss Stevens” recently landed Anna Faris to star and Ellen Page to direct. Plus Hart is adapting the Jamie McGuire novel “Beautiful Disaster” for Warner Bros.

Julia and I had a great one-hour conversation covering a lot of territory. Today in Part 5, Julia talks about her approach to the craft of screenwriting.

Scott:  I’ve got some craft questions for you.

Julia:  Sure.

Scott:  The main reason I posted that anecdote we discussed earlier from your father on the blog was that he had those magic words in terms of generating story ideas: What if? Like, “What if Peter Pan grew up?” How do you come up with story ideas? Do you think in terms of what if or do you have a different process?

Julia:  I should do the ‘what if’ thing more often. I should listen to my own father. A lot of stuff is drawn from real life for me. I’ll just use, “Miss Stevens,” as an example. That world of a school is just so rich and complicated, and the relationship between a young female teacher and her students is so complicated, but I again, I did a lot of inventing and imagining for the sake of drama.  What would this sort of normal everyday world that we all think we know so well, what would happen if she was this instead of that?

Scott:  So it is a little bit of ‘what if’ thinking there.

Julia:  Yeah, I guess it is. It’s just not directly asking the question.

Scott:  No.

Julia:  And then it’s definitely also characters. Like I’ll literally be on the treadmill watching the news at my gym, and I’ll hear someone say something about a certain type of person, and I’ll think what would happen if this person was in this other world? So it’s definitely a lot of pulling from what’s around me, and it definitely usually starts with people. “The Keeping Room,” is an exception, because that started with the setting, but it’s usually people or types of people that I find interesting, and then finding a world to drop them into that can create a certain amount of drama.

Scott:  So you’ve written, is it two spec scripts at this point?

Julia:  Yes.

Scott:  But now because you’re a valued commodity in Hollywood, you’re getting assignments and whatnot, do you think that in the future you’ll continue to write on spec?

Julia:  Oh, absolutely. I’m already working on a couple of other things. I feel so, I can’t believe I’ve already gotten a couple of jobs. I feel so lucky.  Between pitching and assignments, that can be your entire world. But, I love writing my own stuff and I definitely intend to keep doing it. It’s important to carve out that time. I don’t want to lose that voice.

Scott:  Yes, you’re into that whole thing of ‘stacking projects,’ where you’re maybe working on a polish for one thing, you’re developing another thing. How is that panning out for you?

Julia:  It’s hard because you hear about this other project that sounds really cool but you would need to spend all this time developing a pitch and going into pitch on it. You also need to be rewriting this for production and working on the job that you already have. So, this summer when I was unemployed, it was great cause I was just pitching all this different stuff. And learning so much. But now that I’m actually on assignment, I’m finding it very difficult to think about what’s next.

I’m on my first assignment right now. I’m being very precious about it. Like I just, I don’t want to think about anything else but getting this exactly right which I’m sure would make Warner Bros. very happy.

Scott:  How much advice seeking do you do with your dad or your brother?

Julia:  Oh, my gosh, so much. My dad has been… it’s been so awesome. We’ve always been very close but I think it’s been really fun for him to be able to talk to me about the business in a totally new way. And he’s been a very, very good adviser thus far. And he also works a lot with young screenwriters, so he’s already very good at it.

Scott:  How much time do you spend on prep writing, brainstorming, character development, plotting all the research? And which aspects of prep do you tend to devote the most focus to?

Julia:  Outlining. I tried to write something without an outline and my husband just laughed at me. I find that outlining is just so incredibly important. And I kind of do research as I go. But the only thing that I actually physically researched for “The Keeping Room” was how they treated bites from rabid animals in the 1860’s.  I find that that’s a nice give and take so that you’re not just you writing all day but that you have these other worlds to dip into around you as you go. And character development for me is all through dialogue. I think about the idea of who this person is, what their job is, where they live, what they look like. But, the development for me really comes through figuring out what they say and how they say it.

Scott:  Are you doing character monologues or interviews with them? How are you finding their voices?

Julia:  Just through writing the scenes of their dialogue. I write a ton and then I’ll cut a bunch of it out. I’ll write like seven lines where there needs to be one and just cut around that one right line and keep going. I find their voices by having them say too much, by writing down every thought that would be in their head and then cutting off the fat.

Scott:  Then in an outline would you literally have it like scene by scene broken down before you start your first draft?

Julia:  And sometimes, as I said, lines and dialogue will eke into it but it’s mostly just describing the action or the scene and the emotions of the scene.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Julia delves more deeply into her approach to the craft of screenwriting.

Please stop by comments to thank Julia for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

Julia is repped by WME and Anonymous Content.