Over the weekend, an outstanding indie movie opened in select theaters in North America: The Keeping Room, written by Julia Hart, directed by Daniel Barber, and starring Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld. I interviewed Julia back in February 2013 and will be reprising that series this week, a terrific conversation well worth revisiting.
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?
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.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, here.
Part 3, here.
Part 4, here.
Part 5, here.
For The Keeping Room‘s website, go here.
Declare Your Independents! Watch for The Keeping Room when it opens in your local theater or on VOD and see it!