Scott: I want to get to a little more writerly craft type questions. Liz actually had an interesting thing. If I can just paraphrase this, looking back from this year, and beyond, did you have a breakthrough, or realization about how to approach the craft, or it’s something sort of new thing? You want to expand on that a little bit, Liz?
Liz: I did, and it’s embarrassing to say this because I’m 38 years old. I’ve been being paid to be a writer in this business since I was 24, and I only recently really understood in my bones that this is a craft.
For many years, I viewed screen writing as my personal vehicle for expressing my vision which it is, but it’s also not just my diary, not just my chance to exercise demons, or write the things that come out easily, write the things that are made up of the parts of my life that I’m dying to process.
I have really needed to buckle down, and understand the bones, but also the tissue, and the cells of this craft, and that was how I was going to get better at it. For all of the years before, I was really chasing jobs, or the opportunity to write in a way that served both my ego, and my psychology.
Now, I figured out there are some things I write that are deeply personal, and I get to exorcise those demons, and then there are other things that I write that are more of intellectual exercise where I’m really concentrating on structure, and craft.
I avoided that for too long because I was trying to put myself on the page. It was actually freeing to go, “I didn’t go to grad school for this, and so maybe I never learned the specifics of the craft in the way that I need to to get to where I want to be. Now, I’m going to do it,” and it’s felt really good.
I was really curious if any of the rest of you had had moments like that where you reevaluated the way you were approaching the work, or your career, or had tips?
Stephany: For me, the big thing, being under such a pressure crunch with deadlines lately… I’ve always been a very much of a work horse where I would just show up, and do my pages every day.
I feel like I’ve lost some of the fear that something isn’t going to come to me. When you show up to that blank page, and you’re just sitting there, and you have to make something out of nothing. I’ve learned to have faith. As long as I sit there and keep doing it, and keep writing, that eventually something will come and will be good, and I’ll be OK.
No longer having a luxury of time, to do things at my own pace, has made me just realize that as long as you show up and do the work, you’ll eventually get to a place where you have something good to show. That’s been a little bit of my journey in the past year, learning to take leaps of faith.
Lisa: One of the things, that’s been interesting, is I’ve been working in some feature work and also in TV work, at the same time. One of the things I can speak to on the TV side, that has been truly fascinating, is unlike features, where you write your script and then let it go unless you’re directing it yourself…
The interesting thing about TV is it allows you to be in a little accelerator of craft where you’re literally writing the pages and then you’re seeing it shot and then sitting there with it in the editing room.
You get to see, immediately, critically, what on the page works when it comes down to the final execution. What ended up getting on the cutting room floor.? What, when I was on set, did the actors really have trouble connecting with, and what does that mean as a writer?
Does that mean that you have to dig deeper? Does that mean that it’s too expository? It’s like being paid to go to school, a little bit.
Lisa: Your own mistakes are your teachers and you’re flying to catch up with them.
For me, that has been invaluable in learning craft. I used to be a lawyer and so, for me, starting in this industry was like, “I don’t know how to transition into writing. I got the break of a lifetime to staff on Daisies off a sample I wrote but what am I supposed to do now?” I had no idea.
TV was a very fast teacher. But it’s been cool learning to let go of some of that, for feature writing, and say, “Well, you know, there are some lessons I can apply,” but some of it is you’re going to see what the director does, work with them, and hope for the best.
Julia: I had a similar epiphany this year with directing my first thing. Directing this movie which I also wrote was the best writing lesson I’ve had all year, especially the editorial process. Editing the film, it was enlightening in terms of what I’m now applying at the script level.
Obviously, not every writer wants to direct, but for me it was huge to see how the… I have a tendency to over‑write dialogue. My dialogue scenes end up being way too long. I’m now picturing when I’m writing a scene I’m picturing myself in the editing room cutting it. And it’s made me a much more efficient writer.
Stephany: I’d have to say the same, too, because this is the first movie I’ve been on, that’s going into production. While I’m writing, they’re storyboarding everything out. Once you see what was just on a flat page start to come to life, it’s a huge learning lesson. You’re like, “Oh wait, that doesn’t, visually lay out well, and that actor reading that line was just awful. I can’t believe I wrote that.”
You learn so much by actually seeing it come to life.
Julia: One of the worst things for a writer to have to do is watch a movie that they wrote. I had that experience, too. I had my first movie that I wrote come out. I was like, “Oh God! Did I really write that? Is that in the movie forever? Like, can I just change it, real fast?”
Jessica: There are three different movies, as the saying goes. There’s the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you cut. They’re all iterations and different forms. A friend of mine who created a show had a movie idea. He was like, “Can I go over this with you?”
I was amazed at how plotty his movie pitch was. I said to him, “You know what? Here’s the difference. Your movie has to be about something. A movie is not a plot. What’s it about? What is it about thematically?”
There’s a symbolic language in movies that works the unconscious. It’s the synthesis of being able to tell stories symbolically. Meaning is a rich thing we synthesize in movies and screenplays. That can be done in TV as well, because TV takes a longer view and writers have the luxury of time.
In film you’ve got to do so much heavy lifting in such a short period of time…
Stephany: Got no time.
Jessica: Right, the economy you have to use, it’s haiku. You have to trick people. You have to work their subconscious without being obvious. I’m always amazed when people think screenplay format equals a movie. Whether they’re writing for TV or movies. It’s like, “I did the format, therefore I know how to do it.” No, it’s beyond the format of Final Draft. You have to do all this heavy lifting in every single thing you’re putting on the page.
That’s what always blows me away, year after year. Oh my God, I’m really learning how get all the juice into that drop, so it’s so rich on the page. Then it will unfold into the beautiful expanded version of the movie. You’re expanding it out in the process.
It’s a process of concentration and expansion, like frozen orange juice. The screenplay is this concentrate. It has to be distilled down to its’ essence, yet still be robust enough to sustain inevitable interference as it gets made.
That’s what blew. That process is so educational, painful, and illuminating.
Each day this week, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Julia Hart. Julia’s 2012 Black List script The Keeping Room was produced in 2014 starring Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld. She co-wrote and directed Miss Stevens starring Lily Rabe which debuted at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March of this year. Other projects: The movie Beautiful Disaster and the TV mini-series “Madame X”.
Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.
Liz W. Garcia: @lizwgarcia
Tomorrow: Part 6 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.