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.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Yesterday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Today we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

And this:

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

And there’s this:

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

Takeaway:

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

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

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

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

Part 2, here.

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

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 2)

August 25th, 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. Yesterday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Today we look at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme.

Joshua Golden: “I typically start from theme and character. I don’t want to start writing and halfway through, ultimately figure out what the story is about. I mean thematically, what it’s about. I need to know that going in… I want everyone’s journey to be reflective of whatever the theme is. Some might argue that maybe it’s not as important or as necessary. But theme and character, for me, are my two starting points.”

Brian Duffield: “I almost always start with the theme. I can’t even really think of a situation where I didn’t (if it was an original). Usually it’s a theme I want to explore because it’s really locked into my head as a person, as something I’m going through or struggling or interested with, so even if I throw out the characters or genre surrounding that theme a dozen times, the theme stays intact because it’s an itch I need to scratch. I think theme is deathly important. I read a lot of scripts and watch a lot of movies where I couldn’t tell you what it was really saying beyond a couple of interesting characters doing something interesting. Which is fine sometimes, but it always feels a little surface level to me.”

Kelly Marcel: “I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”

For some writers, whether they start with theme or not is an open question:

Barbara Stepansky: “It really depends on the script. Sometimes I have a very clear theme in mind and I know this is a story about these people discovering a certain aspect about life. Then every scene has to be geared toward that. Then sometimes, like with “Sugar in My Veins,” honestly no, I never spend much time on theme with “Sugar in My Veins.” I just wanted to tell this particular story and so it didn’t bother me that thematically, it wasn’t that clear in my head at the beginning. It became much clearer later on.”

And some may wonder about starting with theme, but it’s just not their thing:

Justin Kremer: “It’s interesting because some guys — like I listened to an interview with Steven Gaghan — he is someone I have in my Writers Rushmore — he operates very much from the theme first. Then he’ll draw his narrative from that. I think what I found to be most helpful is to find the arc and work on the character and then the theme will organically emerge. That’s been my experience.”

Takeaway:

* Knowing your theme is important in shaping the narrative, understanding the characters and their purpose in the story, and tying together every scene into an organic whole.

* If you start with theme, you have some company…

…But honestly, most writers I’ve interviewed, like Justin Kremer, discover their story themes in the process of working out and writing the story, seeing it “organically emerge.”

How about you? Do you start with theme?

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

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

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 1)

August 10th, 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.

Today let’s consider what some writers had to say about what is a key starting point for many of them: Research:

Stephany Folsom: “I’m really methodical in how I write. I do a ton of research up front.”

Stephanie Shannon: “For ‘Queen of Hearts,’… I researched for about two months. I researched the whole time, but I didn’t start writing, just purely researched, for about two months.”

David Guggenheim: “As far as research, I do as much as I can to make sure I have a working knowledge of the world I’m writing, but if I’m feeling inspired, I’ll do the research as I go or sometimes after I get a draft down.”

Will Simmons: “I try to become an expert on whatever subject I’m writing about. It’s a fun part of the process. I’ll consume everything from biographies and memoirs to archival news clipping and documentaries. It’s about mastering a field of study, so that you can write with confidence and verisimilitude. After you’ve thoroughly researched a topic, the writing becomes second nature.”

Chris Roessner: “I love research intensive things. I think I have somewhat of a journalistic approach, at least from the outset. But I try to limit myself on how much time I’m going to spend doing research, because it’s one of those things that can be arresting. It can prevent you from sitting down and writing. So for me, I spend however much time researching as I think the particular project merits.”

Justin Kremer: “I’m heavy on research. I spend as much time researching as I do outlining, normally a couple weeks for each. ‘McCarthy’ was particularly heavy on that front, because I had to figure out exactly what time period I was trying to tackle. To figure that out, you have to know exactly where Joe was in each part of his life and what best encapsulates McCarthy’s arc as a character. I had legal pads full of notes, creating a timeline of Joe’s life and trying to figure out what was most suitable for adaptation. It’s so clear when you’re reading scripts what’s well researched and what has had less thought put into it. The scripts that tend to amaze me are so detail‑oriented. It can be the littlest detail that grounds me in the world of the piece.”

Some takeaways:

* In part, research is about being able to “write with confidence”. Readers can detect that. They need to trust the writer knows their way around their story universe.

* In that vein, research can help a writer achieve a sense of “verisimilitude” in their script pages. What transpires – everything from settings, customs, dialects, and more – has to feel real to a reader.

* Research can also enable the writer to immerse themselves in the story universe, making it come alive in the writer’s imagination. That sense of connection can get translated onto the page.

* By extension, if a writer does enough research so they really know that story universe, they can surface the “littlest detail” that “grounds” the reader in the story.

* However a cautionary note: A writer may get caught up in research which can “prevent you from sitting down and writing.” So be cognizant of that during the research phase.

Speaking of which, every writer I’ve interviewed who has discussed research has talked about it as something they do in the front end of the prep process — except one:

Aaron Guzikowski: “I don’t do a hell of a lot of research. I usually research after I’ve written the script to make sure I haven’t gotten anything too terribly wrong.”

For some writers, it’s possible research may get in the way of their creative instincts. But even then, it’s important to do due diligence at some point, even after a draft, to make sure what you’ve written passes the authenticity test.

Do you do much research for your stories? If so, what type of research do you focus on? What resources do you use? If you have some thoughts on the matter, please head to comments.

Tomorrow and for the rest of this week, we will learn how other Black List writers I have interviewed approach story prep. It’s a fascinating look at a key part of the story-crafting process. I look forward to exploring the subject with you.

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

August 4th, 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?

With this next set of responses, we see writers who take a more proactive approach to generating and developing story concepts, here most notably using what they read as source material and inspiration:

Barbara Stepansky: I read a lot. I surf the internet. If there’s a post that interests me, I think about it and see if there’s a story there.”

Carter Blanchard: “I read the news every morning. I look for ideas in there.”

Stephany Folsom: “I’m an avid reader. I’m constantly reading articles. I’m constantly reading books. I devour information like crazy, and I’m always running across interesting ideas. Being open and being curious brings so many great ideas to your doorstep.”

David Guggenheim: “They come from everywhere really. For example, I had read a bunch of articles about narco trafficking and reading about these narco subs, I just said, ‘Well, that’s a movie.’ Right then and there I knew that’s a movie. I was going to do a story about transporting drugs on narco mini‑submarines. The concept that drug cartels had submarines blew my mind. That got me really, really excited. The idea of doing a twist on the submarine genre. Run Silent, Run Deep scenario, but with drug lords.”

Ashleigh Powell: “I was an English major, and I was a total bookworm growing up. So I’ve read a lot of stories over the years and I’m fascinated by this trend of taking classic mythologies or classic stories and finding new ways to reimagine them or reinterpret them. I think there’s something very cool about that.”

Seth Lochhead: “I’ve been inspired by great books (I turned ‘Turn of the Screw’ into an action movie and wondered what would happen if the creatures in the Island of Dr. Moreau spawned and became a sub-class of humanity). I’ve been intrigued by news items. In all instances, it’s not necessarily a concrete idea. It’s more like a starting point, a drive to articulate something that could not possibly be articulated.”

Justin Kremer: “I find myself consistently attracted toward source material, not just because there’s stuff already there for you. I think it’s just the most rewarding to crack. There are a bunch of sites I like to read every day that just kind of stimulate the mind and get you thinking about stuff. One of those that has been an invaluable resource is a site called Longform, which posts these amazing long-form articles about everything from crime to science. It has everything from that initial “Wired” article that inspired Argo, to the more contemporary stuff. It really gets you thinking about character and story in a different way.”

Source material. Whether it’s magazine or Internet articles, news stories or books, there is a whole world of preexisting content writers can adopt and adapt into a story concept. All it takes is for you to have part of your brain in a state of awareness so that every time you read something, you think, “Can this be a movie”? Hell, any article or news snippet can become source material for a hit script idea.

That said in my interviews with Black List writers, they shared a lot of other ways to generate story concepts including observable real life experiences, something we will delve into in tomorrow’s post.

How about you? Do you use reading news items and books to inspire your creative process? I’d love to hear from you, so please head to comments and share your thoughts on the subject.

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

Tomorrow and for the rest of this week, we will learn how other Black List writers I have interviewed generate story concepts and the variety of ways they engage in that practice.

Interview: Justin Kremer (2012 Black List)

March 3rd, 2013 by

Kremer Clipped

No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.

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

Part 1: “I wrote my first script when I was 16 on Microsoft Word with no formatting, no margins. It was 80 pages and a disaster.”

Part 2: “It’s something that’s at the forefront of your mind because you want the audience to feel like they’re on one continuous journey as opposed to a disjointed narrative that’s all over the place.”

Part 3: “The first draft took about three months, and that was just spewing it all out on the page and seeing what I had.”

Part 4: “I’m glad that all of the representation stuff has been settled because I can finally get back to doing what I love – just getting in there writing.”

Part 5: “I’m more character driven, but to be able to pitch your idea in a really concise and concrete way is something that is unbelievably important.”

Part 6: “As long as you’re writing something that is representative of your voice and your experience, I think you can’t go wrong.”

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

Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.

Interview: Justin Kremer (2012 Black List) — Part 6

March 2nd, 2013 by

No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.

Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 6, Justin talks about more aspects of the screenwriting craft:

Scott:  How about dialogue? They talk about some writers having a good ear for it, or may be born with that talent at an innate level. Do you think that’s the case, or do you think it’s something that writers can develop their ability with, to write good, effective dialogue?

Justin:  I think it’s a little bit of both. I think what I’m thinking of when I’m writing dialogue is, “Don’t overwrite.” That’s always on my mind. I tend to underwrite rather than overwrite, just because I hate exposition. I think what I learned, actually, from reading so many scripts is that there’s nothing better than subtext, that it’s something you see in not that many scripts, and things tend to be much more explicit and on the nose. But if you can create dialogue that is more nuanced and actually says more than it does on the surface. That is invaluable.

Scott:  How about theme? What do you understand theme to be?

Justin:  That’s the ultimate question. It’s interesting because some guys ‑‑ like I listened to an interview with Steven Gaghan — he is one of those guys I have in my Writers Rushmore. — he operates very much from the theme first. Then he’ll draw his narrative from that. I think what I found to be most helpful is to find the arc and work on the character and then the theme will organically emerge. That’s been my experience.

Scott:  Yeah. I think that’s probably the case with most writers, is that they just want to dig around in the dirt a bit, get to know the lay of the land. And I concur with you. I think if you zero in on the characters, particularly what is going on, where they start and where they end up, that that will inform and hopefully just generate naturally some of those thematic elements that are in a script.

Justin:  Yeah. 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.

Scott:  That just resonates with me. It’s like you give yourself over to this story universe and these characters and you act in some ways as if they are real. That’s why I don’t think in terms of theme. I think in terms of themes. Stories have multiple layers and levels to them and multiple themes because you see that. I could watch a movie or you could watch a movie and we’d have completely different reactions to it, in terms of what we pick up and identify with. And that’s often times the case, isn’t it, that we have no clue? I had no idea that that was in there but, you know, now that you mention it, yeah. It is there and I see it. So there’s that wonderful kind of magic that happens when you’re writing.

Justin:  Absolutely. 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.

Scott:  That’s why movies are so terrific when they’re done well because they have so many different layers and levels of meaning and understanding, and ways of connecting to them. How about this? What’s your actual writing process? Are you everyday? Sporadic bursts? Do you work in private? Do you go to coffee shops? Do you like to listen to music? Does it have to be quiet? How do you write?

Justin:  I tend to write every day, usually about 11 to six. Music at the beginning to kind of set a tone, but then silence. Sometimes the light’s off if the stuff I’m writing is particularly depressing (as it often is). I try to make it my day as structured as possible because, as a writer, you know there’s nothing easier to do than not to write.

Scott:  OK, just a couple more questions. Let’s see. You went to NYU. You went to Purchase. You’ve studied this. You’ve read all these. Do you have any screenwriting principles that are really important to you?

Justin:  Always be aware of your arc. Underwrite and don’t overwrite. I’d rather leave something open to interpretation and ambiguous, than have it explained in painful detail, although not to the extent that underwriting leaves it confusing, of course. Keep your tone consistent. Looking at a guy like Terrio again, one of the things that amazes me about “Argo” is that it is so totally consistent, and yet if you look at the script, the film could be so manic and messy. There’s an interesting, diffuse blend of comedy and drama. The first act is much more comedic. The third act is very tense, incredibly dramatic. Terrio (and Affleck) knew exactly how to balance the tone, so the work doesn’t wildly vacillate back and forth. That, I think, is the sign of a master.

Scott:  Finally, here you are, as recently as gosh, Justin, three months ago?

Justin:  Yep.

Scott:  You were not necessarily outside looking in because you’ve been involved in the film business and whatnot, but you weren’t, at that point, an established screenwriter, not represented. Now, here you are. You definitely made that big leap. This is the archetypal question, but it’s a critical one. What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about the craft?

Justin:  Above all, write something unique that showcases your voice. Readers read so much – at times four or five scripts a day. So many of those scripts become one blob in your head – a singular voice. It’s the scripts that really strive to do something unique, whether it works or whether it doesn’t, that stick with you. As long as you’re writing something that is representative of your voice and your experience, I think you can’t go wrong.

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.

Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.

Twitter: @Kremsicles.

Interview: Justin Kremer (2012 Black List) — Part 5

March 1st, 2013 by

No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.

Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 5, Justin talks about some aspects of the screenwriting craft:

Scott: How about some craft questions here, Justin?

Justin:  Sure.

Scott:  OK, let’s start from the very beginning. How do you come up with story ideas?

Justin:  There’s rarely one concrete way. I find myself consistently attracted toward source material, not just because there’s stuff already there for you. I think it’s just the most rewarding to crack.

With “McCarthy,” obviously, I had at least some structure and some narrative already in place, but it can really come from anything.

There are a bunch of sites I like to read every day that just kind of stimulate the mind and get you thinking about stuff.One of those that has been an invaluable resource is a site called Longform, which posts these amazing long‑form articles about everything from crime to science. It has everything from that initial “Wired” article that inspired “Argo,” to the more contemporary stuff. It really gets you thinking about character and story in a different way.

Scott:  What’s your take on high concept?

Justin:  I’m more character driven, but to be able to pitch your idea in a really concise and concrete way is something that is unbelievably important.

I know, for example, that when John Logan was trying to figure out his next spec would be in the mid to late 90s, he told his agent that he wanted to write “King Lear meets football”, That became “Any Given Sunday.” If you can very simply describe exactly what you’re trying to do and give someone else a clear sense of that, that is so valuable.

Scott:  How much time do you spend on prep writing, like brainstorming, character development, plotting, research, outlining?

Justin:  I’m heavy on research. I spend as much time researching as I do outlining, normally a couple weeks for each. “McCarthy” was particularly heavy on that front, because I had to figure out exactly what time period I was trying to tackle. To figure that out, you have to know exactly where Joe was in each part of his life and what best encapsulates McCarthy’s arc as a character. I had legal pads full of notes, creating a timeline of Joe’s life and trying to figure out what was most suitable for adaptation.

It’s so clear when you’re reading scripts what’s well researched and what has had less thought put into it. The scripts that tend to amaze me are so detail‑oriented. It can be the littlest detail that grounds me in the world of the piece.

Scott Myers:  In terms of outlining, are you one of those three‑by‑five inch index card guys or do you have some sort of sophisticated software you use to wrangle the plot?

Justin Kremer:  I’ve tried index cards, never really fell in love with them. I’m more of a big Microsoft Word document kind of guy. “McCarthy” was interesting because I didn’t outline nearly as much as I did on other projects. It was more research heavy. With “McCarthy,” I gave myself three to four major points to hit in the first act, six in the second, and another three in the third, to know “This is where I need to go”. The rest is up to you. I left a lot of room to play around in between those beats.

It was interesting to work like that. On one hand, it’s frightening, but on the other, it really gives you a lot of room to play and be creative.

Scott:  For years, I’ve had the same approach, where I figure out 10 Plotline points. That gives enough structure. You have these sign posts where you know where you’re going, but then that also allows you the freedom to have the story emerge in a more organic fashion. Is that what I’m hear you’re saying, a similar approach that you did with “McCarthy”?

Justin:  Totally.

Scott:  How about character development? Now, this is a little different because you’re adapting a biopic here, an actual historical figure. Yet, you’re opening up a side of the figure that the world had not quite seen. How did you go about developing the characters in your script “McCarthy”?

Justin:  I think each character had a very distinct arc from the jump except for Don Surine, who was Joe’s confidant. Don is a creation of a few staffers that Joe was close with. He required quite a bit of creative license. I think Joe and Jean, their arcs were very clear. Part of what fascinated me about Joe, and this is eventually something that I took creative license with as well, was how unrepentant he was. I decide to present him with a climactic choice in the third act – a chance to apologize for his actions.

What happens is that Joe is essentially given two choices. He can be censured by the Senate and publicly disgraced, or he can stand up on the Senate floor and he can say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” and this venom will go away.

Joe didn’t have that choice in real life, but I wanted to give him that choice. He’s presented with this decision and ultimately, he unleashes on his colleagues…ranting and raving. Telling them-  “I’ll never apologize for what I did. How dare you try and criticize me when I’m trying to protect the country?” I thought it was a great character moment, and I think it was really crucial for him to be presented with a choice.

Scott:  Are some of the projects you’re considering now, are they completely fictional, not based on historical characters?

Justin:  Yes.

Scott:  What lessons will you take from “McCarthy” in terms of developing entirely fictional characters, or have you thought about that process?

Justin:  I’m not sure that I have. I think what’s most important to me is entering with an understanding of exactly what the arc is, because without that, I feel lost. Knowing where our characters are starting up and where they’re ending reigns supreme for me. The impotence of providing your protagonist with a climactic choice was one of the bigger lessons of this script. Some of my writing unfolded with this banal inevitably prior to McCarthy. My protagonists didn’t always have to be active – to make a crucial decision. That has changed now. When it comes to the idea of the climactic choice, I always think of “Apocalypse Now” – which is one of the greatest examples of how much tension can be derived from that moment.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Justin talks about more aspects of the screenwriting craft.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.

Twitter: @Kremsicles.

Interview: Justin Kremer (2012 Black List) — Part 4

February 28th, 2013 by

No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.

Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 4, Justin shares insights into his first experiences of making the rounds in Hollywood and yet another reason why screenwriters should be reading scripts:

Scott:  Eventually you meet with a bunch of managers and agents?

Justin:  Yep.

Scott:  What were the key elements of the script they were responding to when you were having these conversations?

Justin:  Yeah, I think the the Kennedys of it all was something that people were really surprised by, as was I. As a whole, it seemed like people just responded to a new take on someone they thought they knew so much about, which was what attracted me to the material.

The agency and managerial process was overwhelming and gratifying, because you get to meet so many amazing people who are so kind and intelligent. It’s definitely tough to navigate when you’ve never been in that position before.

Scott:  Who did you settle on in terms of your representation?

Justin:  I ended up signing with CAA ‑‑ Matt Rosen, Jon Cassir, and Ali Trustman, and Madhouse Entertainment on the managerial side with Adam Kolbrenner and Chris Cook.

Scott:  The next thing, you make the 2012 Black List. You already talked about it a little bit. Let’s roll that out a little bit more. Where were you when you found out and what was your immediate reaction?

Justin:  I was on the LIRR, on the train… about to go through a tunnel. I got to the train station. My train was at 12:30, and it takes a half hour to get to the station, so I was like, “All right. I don’t want to be on the road when the list starts getting announced.” I woke up early, got to the station, and sat in my car for a half hour updating the Twitter app on my phone every three seconds.

Every minute felt like the longest minute of my life. Time passed. I had to get on the train. It was, like, 12:30. The first 30 or so scripts had been announced. I think it was around 12:50 or so ‑‑ just when I was about to get into Penn Station and my cell reception was going to cut out ‑‑ that I saw a notification pop up on Twitter. I was amazed.

Scott:  That’s funny. Franklin just started that this year where he was announcing the scripts, before the full list went out, on Twitter. I was following him trying to accumulate them all, updating them on my blog. While we were doing that, you were on Long Island and watching all this. Right?

Justin:  Oh yeah. I could not get off the phone.

Scott:  How has it impacted you, being on the Black List?

Justin:  It was great. I actually went to LA the week before the announcement, which was the first time I had been there since I was a little kid, to take some meetings and meet my representation in person, since I’m all the way over here in New York. It was a fantastic trip.

I’m amazed by how wide the site’s reach is. I had heard from a couple production companies, before I had any representation, who had just read the script from the site. There just seemed to be so much goodwill towards what Franklin was doing. After the Black List announcement, it was incredible. I had an opportunity to meet with a few more companies. Hopefully, it will turn into even more good things.

Scott:  What’s the current status on “McCarthy”?

Justin:  We’re looking for the right team, whether it’s a producer or a director, or an actor, it’s about finding someone who’s passionate about the material. I know it’s not the most commercially exciting property, but at the end of the day I think it’s a compelling story.

Scott:  What projects are you working on currently?

Justin:  At the moment I’m actually in a fairly embryonic stage. I’m working on a treatment for a company based on an original idea that I pitched. Hopefully the stars will align there. I’m in the midst of basing out a new spec idea, and still scouring websites and books for interesting material.

I’m glad that all of the representation stuff has been settled because I can finally get back to doing what I love – just getting in there writing. That’s what the next few months will be all about.

Scott:  This first go‑around of those meetings, what are some of the things you’ve learned off that process?

Justin:  You know, I think my first meeting I was pretty nervous because I just didn’t know what to expect, but it quickly becomes comfortable and natural. Everyone treats you really well and you just need to tell them your story. Some meetings will be very brief, ultra professional half hours, and others, when you really connect with someone, will last a lot longer.

Generals aren’t nearly as daunting as I thought they would be because everyone’s so intelligent and sweet. You just need to give people a good idea of who you are and what you’re trying to do.

Scott:  What I’m hearing is two things. One, have a narrative, have your personal story in order, and two, be flexible because you never know which way the meeting is going to go. It could just be, as you say, a 30‑minute meet‑and‑greet or it could evolve into something more substantive where you’re actually batting around ideas at a creative level.

Justin:  You don’t even need to know exactly what you want to do next, because that’s what everyone will ask you when you’re on that first round of generals, “What’s next? What are you working on?”

It’s great to have ideas. That certainly helps, but you also just need to give them, I think, a sense of who you are from a writer’s stance, who you admire and what kind of stuff you want to do.

There were a bunch of guys I talked about — guys that I admire so much — like Chris Terrio, Steve Zaillian, and John Logan. That gives people a tangible sense of what you’re aspiring to do as much as any idea might.

Scott:  That’s a really good point because that’s what they traffic in: scripts and movies by these other writers. So if you’re well versed in the content and material that screenwriters are producing nowadays, that’s a really good shorthand for the people you meet with on the other side, producers and studio execs, for them to be able to grasp your sensibilities.

Justin:  Exactly. There’s no one who knows those guys’ work better than these execs, and so to give them a really concrete example of what you’re striving to do, it really helps.

Scott:  Well, I’ve got to thank you for that because it gives me yet another way I can promote the importance of reading scripts. You can become familiar with current screenwriters, and that provides you not only with their talent, and how they write their various styles, their approaches, their voices or whatnot, but also enables you to have more of a base of communication with the people you’ll be meeting with at these general meetings and whatnot.

Justin:  Yeah.

Scott:  Thank you.

Justin:  I actually ended up sending execs writers’ scripts… writers that I’ve never met in my life and would have no idea who they were if I walked by them on the street — scripts that I loved, that we kind of connected about. The more you know about what’s out there, what the marketplace is like, the better. It only serves you well.

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

Tomorrow in Part 5, Justin talks about some aspects of the screenwriting craft.

For Part 1, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.

Twitter: @Kremsicles.

Interview: Justin Kremer (2012 Black List) — Part 3

February 27th, 2013 by

No matter what other good things happen to screenwriter Justin Kremer, he will always have this fact as part of his personal history: His script “McCarthy” was the first one to generate enough interest in the new Black List script-hosting site to land the ‘new’ writer representation — with CAA and Madhouse Entertainment no less. The heat generated off that resulted in “McCarthy” circulating rapidly around Hollywood, leading to it making the 2012 Black List.

Justin was kind enough to do an interview and we had an extensive conversation. Today in Part 3, Justin rounds out his insights into the writing of “McCarthy” and how he got his script into the hands of people in Hollywood.

Scott:  There’s a pivotal set of scenes in the script early on toward the end of Act One between McCarthy and General Dwight Eisenhower, then a candidate for president. The first scene is a contentious private meeting between them in which Eisenhower essentially said, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” The second turns out to be a surprising public endorsement of Eisenhower of McCarthy’s efforts to ferret out communists. First of all, is that historically accurate?

Justin:  It is. That was one of those moments where when I stumbled upon that, you just laugh because it’s too good to be true. Eisenhower and Joe, shortly before Eisenhower was set to give a big campaign speech in Joe’s backyard in Wisconsin, meet privately. There are no public accounts of what happened inside this hotel room. But those on the outside, waiting by the door, say that all they heard was Eisenhower screaming and screaming and screaming nonstop for 15, 20 minutes, and Joe did not say a word.

Eisenhower just ripped him to shreds. When Joe exits the hotel that they met at, a reporter asks him, “Hey Joe? How was your talk with Eisenhower?” Joe says, “It was very nice.” They head to Eisenhower’s campaign rally. What happens is that instead of publicly rebuking McCarthy, as he was allegedly planning to do, Eisenhower essentially bends to Joe’s will and gives him the ultimate endorsement in many respects. That’s a real moment for Joe, where he realizes that, “I can’t be stopped.”

This guy, who’s going to be the next president of the United States, doesn’t even have the fortitude to criticize me. I think now he becomes even more consumed by hubris. His dream, in many ways, is to become the man Eisenhower did – to become the president of the United States. To have that constant fawning and love and attention. But now he’s seeing that, well, even the president’s afraid of me. That’s a good step, right? Because, if he’s afraid of me, it’s a testament to my power. I’m only going to get more powerful, and I’m going to be in his seat some day.

Scott:  I can see why you would be excited about having seen that, discovered that historical set of events. It really is a capstone on act one and springboard into act two. But if there was no actual accounts of what went on in terms of the dialogue, so you really felt, you knew the kind of arc that went on in there but you had a kind of a clean slate didn’t you, in terms of the actual dialogue?

Justin:  Exactly. It was kind of the opposite of what happened in terms of the hearings in the script where the dialogue is partially verbatim. In this case, I knew the tone of the meeting, and ust played around with it in an attempt to make it as honest to the accounts as possible.

Scott:  There’s an interesting subplot involving McCarthy and his relationship with the Kennedys, in particular Robert Kennedy. Thematically what was the point of that subplot do you think in your view?

Justin:  I was struck by Joe’s relationship with the Kennedys. That was one of the first jumping off points for the script. I picked up this book and in the foreward was an anecdote about Bobby Kennedy, a guy who I was taught was the paragon of good in politics, and a guy that I never thought existed in the same world as Joe. I couldn’t even imagine it.

Bobby is off the coast of Hyannisport with a couple of reporters and it’s the day after Joe’s death. The reporters are asking Bobby, “McCarthy’s dead now. Isn’t this kind of a good thing? Aren’t we better off? It’s sad, but he’s done some horrible things to this country.” Bobby says, “He was a complicated man.” That’s all he says. That was the moment I realized I knew nothing about McCarthy.

Bobby’s presence in the script changed a lot as the piece evolved. I think initially he was a background figure. There was less of the Kennedys. But that stuff just became so compelling to me. I think Bobby provides Joe with a moral compass. Because he’s one of these few guys who’s willing to say to Joe, “What you’re doing is wrong and I can’t be a part of it. I have to leave before this becomes toxic.” He’s foreshadowing what’s to come.

Joe’s relationship with the Kennedys was intimate. He dated two of Bobby’s cousins and they worked together for a brief period. I think Joe Kennedy saw something in McCarthy as well. There were very few Irish Catholics in power at the time, and they shared a real kinship in that respect. That relationship really fascinated me because Joe Kennedy is the first one who puts the idea of the presidency in McCarthy’s head. That becomes a key aspect of the script.

Scott:  It has a kind of a Shakespearean quality, doesn’t it, their relationship? Particularly as a way of measuring their respective rises and falls where there is a meeting between Kennedy and McCarthy early on in their relationship where one’s in a position of power, and the other is seeking some help. Then that’s completely reversed at the end of the story.

Justin:  Exactly.

Scott:  Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of this process. How long did it take you to write the script and how many drafts do you think you wrote before you were able to send it out?

Justin:  The first draft took about three months, and that was just spewing it all out on the page and seeing what I had. To become what it did, it took a little over a year and a good five drafts of comprehensive passes. There were a number of things that changed. I think the second act, for the most part, stayed entact, but the first and third acts underwent enormous shifts throughout the process.

Because I started initially in that first draft with Joe at the top, what became the first 20 pages or so of the script now did not exist until many months in. There’s something in the third act that I had always tried to squeeze in that I found interesting. Joe and Jean adopted a child. Shortly after the censure, when Joe fell out of favor with the Washington elite, he adopts a child. It was this tragic and heartbreaking attempt to revive him. To give him some hope again.

By all accounts the child actually did. Joe loved the girl. But at the same time he just couldn’t stop drinking, and was only alive for I believe the first nine months of her adoption. That was always an interesting moment that I tried to encapsulate in the script, but ultimately like you said, it’s as much about what you omit as what you put in. That was something that had to be omitted.

Scott:  You’re working on this while you’re working at Black Bear?

Justin:  I had finished the script right when I got to Black Bear. It’s been done for a little over a year now.

Scott:  At this point in the process, how are you getting feedback on the script?

Justin:  I had an incredibly valuable mentor and teacher at Purchase named Dean Bell, who’s an excellent screenwriter in his own right. He gave me notes and operated as my sounding board. Outside of that, I showed it to a few friends and family, but Dean was  the central person that shaped the script in terms of getting notes.

Scott:  Two points for a teacher who has committed to his craft beyond the student getting their degree.

Justin:  Absolutely.

Scott:  You had this done for a year. What did you do with it after you wrote it?

Justin:  I submitted it to a contest, to the WriteMovies contest. At a certain point, you lose all objectivity and perspective when it comes to your work. I wanted to use the contest to gauge the quality of the script. I submitted it to the contest and ended up receiving an Honorable Mention and placing as a Finalist, but there was no attention generated from that.

I felt like the script was at a dead end. I started working for Black Bear, but I loved those guys too much to show them the script and was too intimidated too, so I put it in a drawer. It stayed in that drawer until October of 2012, when I submitted it to the Black List site.

Scott:  At some point, you intersected with Franklin Leonard.

Justin:  I did. I’d always followed the Black List and loved it. I left Black Bear in June and was looking for a new opportunity, trying to find something in development because that was as close as I could get to the writing process.

I saw Franklin post a Black List internship notice, I think, in early July. It was a remote internship, working from home, and I loved what the Black List was doing and what Go into the Story was doing, so I figured why not? I’ll send my resume over, I’m not doing anything else.

I connected with Franklin and was lucky enough to work on a few little projects. I transcribed your interview with Elgin James, which was great. One of the most exciting projects that I got to participate in was reconstructing and updating a big spreadsheet of what Black List films were produced, and breaking those films down in two dozen categories to chronicle what awards they won, what festivals they played, how much money they grossed at the box office.

It sounds tedious, but to a movie geek, it was really interesting and drilled certain names and figures into my head. It was a valuable experience.

Scott:  That was remote. You were living where you were living and Franklin’s out in LA and that was the nature of the participation, right?

Justin:  Exactly. I still haven’t met Franklin, which blows my mind, but hopefully we’ll rectify that soon.

Scott:  Then Franklin and the Black List, they launch this new service where essentially people can submit scripts, anybody can submit scripts to be reviewed by professional readers. For a nominal fee, have the script hosted where industry insiders can read it. When you saw that, you took advantage of that. What was it about that you figured this would be something smart to do?

Justin:  I trusted Franklin and knew the brand so well. It seemed like too interesting an opportunity to pass up, especially when for $75, you’re getting so much in comparison to so many of these contests, whose fees are just as expensive, if not much higher in some cases.

I already had a Black List account from my time doing little projects for Franklin. At one point, Franklin even offered to read any of the interns work and provide notes. I was intimidated. This was the guy that created the Black List. I nixed the idea of showing him the script.

I created a new account when the site launched its writer initiative and submitted the script blind, hoping I would get a decent rating and some good notes. I figured that would be that, and was completely amazed by what happened next.

Scott:  What happened next?

Justin:  I submitted the script on a Saturday night. I got my notes, I want to say three days later and received a positive rating I was really surprised and happy with. The script was highlighted in the first Black List email blast. These are the first high‑scoring amateur scripts on the new site.

I think because the site was so new and so many people were interested, being on that first email blast was a huge asset. I’d say, probably a day or two after that, Franklin emailed me and was like, “I just read your script. Why didn’t you show this to me? This was great.” That was the first surreal moment of the journey. Two days after Franklin sent that email, I heard from my first agency, and everything happened from there.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Justin shares insights into his first experiences of making the rounds in Hollywood and the importance of reading scripts.

Please stop by comments to thank Justin 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.

Justin is repped by CAA and Madhouse Entertainment.

Twitter: @Kremsicles.