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.

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

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. 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: Characters (Part 2)

August 18th, 2015 by

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

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This week: How do you develop your characters?

Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.

Yesterday we featured writers who start their character development process by focusing on real people. Today writers zero in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters:

Seth Lochhead: “It starts with behavior. Specific tics and eccentricities. We all have them and we can all relate to them (no matter how specific, we’ll always find a corollary to our own experience). These, as well as appearance, build up the outward persona… The character’s depth comes as you begin to layer in these specific traits and from these traits, as you get to know your characters, you, as the writer, can anticipate how they will react to certain stimuli. Action, reaction. Cause, effect. A fireman will put out a fire a lot differently than a waitress.”

Brian Duffield: “I find that by starting with theme, you instantly gravitate towards a character who is almost at an opposite place to deal with that theme, and then throw them into the movie and see what happens. Just by doing that, you have an interesting character who has a big obstacle to overcome, and it becomes really fun fleshing them out and figuring out the nuts and bolts of why they’d be the way they are. Lately I’ve been really drawn towards pushing character as far as it can go, to the point where they’re barely recognizable as human, and figuring out how to relate and understand that character. I think I’m just hungrier as a writer to see what I can do, especially with character.”

Rajiv Joseph: “With Draft Day, what we had a lot of was, “It would be cool if that one moment in the movie just happened,” or like, “One moment in the movie this guy said this,” or, “If the one moment in the movie…” We weren’t even planning out when, or where, or how, or why. You have to think of cool moments that if you left the movie, “How about that moment when this happened…?” That’s what you often do with movies.”

Scott Rothman: “I read an interview with Steven Gaghan, the writer of Traffic and a bunch of other stuff… He was saying when he first started out, he was being mentored by a veteran screenwriter. Gaghan kept saying, ‘I thought of this really cool idea, but there’s no way, it’s too crazy, and it’ll never make the movie.’ The guy taught him that’s exactly the thing, that everything else is bullshit. It’s only those things that you find cool and crazy that you need to figure out a way to make those moments the thing in your script. That’s the stuff that’s going to get through development and really connect with people. That really stuck with me, and I couldn’t agree more with Rajiv, that really is our process. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…'”

Perhaps the single biggest key to brainstorming character is to ask questions.

Joshua Golden: “Creating characters that are unique enough, but that we can relate to, in a way. Usually, it’s starting with a few basic questions. Who are they? Where are they in life right now? What are they looking for? What do they want? What do they need? Usually, those two will run in opposition to one another. Then there’s small stuff, little details. Their backgrounds and how they speak or what they look like. I’ll sometimes just write scenes with a couple of characters kind of going back and forth just to kind of get an idea of how they would interact with one another.”

Barbara Stepansky: “First I start out with archetypes in my brain. Is it a drunk from South Glasgow or the bitchy rich girl? But then there’s the digging. You know the stereotype is not the end of the story, because even though they’re fulfilling a certain type of person that I need, they’re still a person and I need to know where they’re coming from. So sometimes characters completely change on me once I dig in deeper. I start out as archetypal as I can to keep it simple but then I go in and I answer these long and involved character questions. I start to get a sense of the bigger story behind that person. I described her as bitchy. What does that mean? What is she angry about? Where is that chip on her shoulder coming from? Sometimes those character traits that I’m coming up with as I’m digging deeper become story points as you realize what their agenda is. How do they change? What do they need for catharsis? Do they need to cast aside their anger? Who do they need to confront that’s keeping them from achieving something? There’s so many great screenwriting books that contain, e.g. “100 questions to ask your character”. You have to actually answer them. Most of it you know you’re not going to use, but you’ll know what they’re like as people.”

Chris Roessner: “I started off as an actor so I think about character a lot. One of the things we talked about in acting is a character’s filter. Meaning, what is that one defining thing from that person’s life that determines how they see the world? When I think about character, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about, what was the event from this person’s life that shaped the way they see the world? If you can nail that in an honest way, then you’re in really great shape moving forward. You’re going to have to learn these characters through more and more drafts. But I think starting that first draft, knowing what your character’s filter is, is crucial.”

Brad Ingelsby: “Where did they grow up? What did they do as kids when their parents were away? What bar did they used to drink at? It’s those things that build camaraderie between people, so that when they’re talking I feel like these people have known each other their whole life. In that sense, it’s just adding to the richness of the relationship.

Nick Palmer: “We do pretty extensive character bios and a lot of those are based on a list of questions we’ve put together.  The questions range from trivial, everyday surface stuff to deeper, interior emotional/psychological landscape stuff.  Mostly though, they force us to get specific and detailed and to really flesh the characters out as human beings.

Jeremiah Friedman: “The biggest question we try to answer for every character is the pretty standard one.  What does he want?  Why?  That really drives everything and then we just try to create a worldview that’s unique to the character and feels specific and human.

Takeaway:

* Whether you think about “specific tics and eccentricities”. Or you’re “starting with theme”. Or you sit around pondering, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” No matter how you do it, the act of brainstorming, letting your mind wander in relation to your story’s characters… who they are… how they are… why they are… what they are… that can be a most fruitful exercise.

* Embrace questions because they are some of the most valuable tools you have for digging into your characters. This can help in fleshing out a character as a complex individual as well as delving deep into their core nature to discover some fundamental drivers: What do they want? What do they need? What do they fear the most? Those three questions right there can go a long way in giving you considerable insight a character’s psyche.

How about you? How do you brainstorm your characters? What questions do you like to ask about them? Ask to them?

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

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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.

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.

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

August 8th, 2015 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Part 5, here.

Tomorrow we wrap up this week’s series.

Screenwriting 101: Scott Rothman

September 16th, 2014 by

“One of the big lessons I learned, when I wrote that script that got me into NYU. It wasn’t this great script, but it was definitely better than anything I had done prior. I had made a terrible movie with one of my really good friends in San Francisco a while ago. It was so much fun making a movie, but the script was terrible. I didn’t know it was terrible until we started shooting it and I saw it come to life. I knew I didn’t care enough about it, and no one else was going to care anything about it either, because of that. I think that was the first big jump my writing took, and I think why I was able to finally write something that was halfway decent, was like, ‘It needs to matter.’ It needs to matter to you. You’re not just doing this to entertain yourself, or to show that you can do it. It’s got to be much bigger than that. It needs a reason to exist and a reason for other people to rally behind it.”

— Scott Rothman (GITS interview, April 12, 2014)

Interview (Written): Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman (“Draft Day”)

April 19th, 2014 by

An interesting interview, a journal of events with screenwriters Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman about the writing, sale and production of their movie Draft Day. An excerpt:

Mid-2011: “We partied like we won the Olympics.”

S: This part is going to kill a lot of screenwriters: Rajiv got approached by the Sundance Institute, which asked if he wanted to submit a script for their screenwriting lab. It was around the time we were thinking we would start writing this thing, but the deadline was two weeks away. That’s when having spent eight months talking about it really helped. I basically slept at Rajiv’s place in Brooklyn, and we worked non-stop for two weeks on a script. It’s not the draft you see onscreen, but it was halfway decent for two weeks of coffee and bourbon and no sleep and constant writing.

R: After we submitted it we sat there wondering, “Did we just hand in something that made no sense at all?” Then we made it to the semi-finals, which meant we had to have a phone interview. The call happened, and we thought it went well, so we went out and partied like we won the Olympics. Then we didn’t make the finals. But since we had assumed we were going to win, we had put this week in January, the week of the lab, into our calendars. So we said, well f–k that, let’s use this week we had set aside to whip the script into shape.

S: We hadn’t said anything about the project to our agents because it didn’t seem like something they would get that excited about — it required the NFL and was kind of a smaller movie.

R: We finally showed it to our manager, Josh, when we handed it to Sundance. He gave us a lot of notes that guided the re-write. But even then, being that it was our first time writing together, we were really thinking that maybe someone would just be impressed enough to give us another job.

S: Thankfully our reps really responded to it, and ran with it.

R: It was a slow burn, where people started hearing about it and then wanted to read it.

April-June 2012: “Everything he said held true. That probably screwed us up for every movie hereafter.”

S: As it happened, I was going out to L.A. to pitch another project. It was a reboot of Private Benjamin, so you know my career was going just swimmingly.

R: I came to L.A. for some meetings and to see a friend in a play.

S: So both of us happened to be in L.A., and I got off the flight and had a message saying that Ivan Reitman had read the script, could I meet with him that day? Neither of us even knew he had gotten it. We met him the next day at CAA, and he basically said, “I love this script, and wanna make this movie. We want you guys to be partners in this. You’ll be there every step of the way.” And everything he said to us held true. That probably screwed us up for every movie hereafter.

June 2012: “We did a rewrite that got kicked up to the Paramount studio heads.”

S: Before long. Ivan was able to get Paramount to consider the script.

R: It was June 18-19 that we were in the whole negotiation.

S: There was other interest in the project, which made that week very exciting — we tried to play out all these scenarios and determine the best way to get this thing made. That turned out to be sticking with Ivan. After Paramount bought the script, a great executive over there, David Beaubaire, gave us notes, and we did a rewrite that got kicked up to one of the studio heads. By this point, Ivan had gotten Kevin Costner attached to the project. Even so, one of the muckety-mucks at Paramount said no.

Fall 2012: “The difference with ours was that Ivan wanted to direct it.”

S: The acquisition gave Paramount a certain amount of time to decide what they wanted to do with the project. After passing on it, they could have tied it up for a year. Instead, they gave us a great gift — they put us in turnaround, which allowed us to take the movie wherever we wanted.

We always believed Ivan would find a place, but that it would take a while. His company, Montecito, had probably 10-20 movies in development. The difference with ours was that Ivan wanted to direct it. So we had that, but the company was juggling a lot, including Ghostbusters III. We wanted to shoot in the fall, and thought we lost our window.

December 2012: “We were the people who topped The Black List.”

S: Because we’re idiots, we had no idea the situation was bad. We had this blind faith in Ivan, and were optimistic it was gonna work out. I don’t think anyone was telling us bad news. Then The Black List came out, and we were at the top. That got the script going again — and was a huge bump for us as writers. We were the people that topped the list. I’m sure that had something to do with the script being more enticing to Lion’s Gate, which picked up the movie right after the new year.

For the rest of the interview, go here.

Interview: Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman

April 13th, 2014 by

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman wrote the script Draft Day which landed at the top of the 2012 Black List. Subsequently Lionsgate produced the movie starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary, and directed by Ivan Reitman.

Rajiv Joseph, Scott Rothman

In March, 2013, I interviewed Rajiv and Scott while they were in Cleveland during the film’s production, and I’m happy to share that wide-ranging conversation

Part 1: “It was totally on spec, we weren’t doing this for anybody. I think I might have mentioned it to one of my agents who was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever.'”

Part 2: “The fun part and the challenge of it, that turns into the fun part, was finding the right character to put in that situation and how we see bonds…apart from the stress of the football stuff and the draft, what was going on in this character’s personal life that could really rev things up a few notches.”

Part 3: “You’re always looking to invent a ticking clocks to some degree, and that was one of the amazing things we knew as soon as the idea pop up that we had that, that we didn’t…that was completely organic to the story. There literally is a ticking clock.”

Part 4: “I’m a big believer in that, at the end of the day, you really write the stories you most want to tell. It’s a labor of love.

Part 5: “I think that plays are just much different than movies and there’s both more freedom in writing plays, but also a starker danger in writing something really boring.”

Part 6: “You need to put your ego aside, and know, if you have a sneaking suspicion that something sucks, it sucks, every time. Every single time.”

Rajiv is repped by Gersh and Kaplan / Perrone.

Scott is repped by CAA and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @scottmrothman, @RajivAJoseph, @DraftDayMovie.

Interview: Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman (“Draft Day”) – Part 6

April 12th, 2014 by

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman wrote the script Draft Day which landed at the top of the 2012 Black List. Subsequently Lionsgate produced the movie starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary, and directed by Ivan Reitman.

In March, 2013, I interviewed Rajiv and Scott while they were in Cleveland during the film’s production, and I’m happy to share that wide-ranging conversation this week as Draft Day opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, April 11.

Today in Part 6, Rajiv and Scott reflect on the ups and downs of writing, and provide some advice for aspiring writers:

Scott M:  What do you think about when you’re writing a scene? Do you have specific goals in mind?

Scott R:  Just to be entertaining, move the story along, surprise ourselves. Have something in there that makes it worth being shot.

Rajiv:  Yeah, that’s especially been a nice surprise for us as we’re watching some of these be shot. In the last few days, I see a scene and, “Oh, God, that’s a nothing scene! I can’t believe we’re that all these people are working to make this one…” We’ll watch it, and I’m like, “That’s not a nothing scene at all! It seems vitally important to the script.” I’m glad that we’re surprising ourselves, because we’re a little separate from the script at this point. To see these scenes come to life is really great, and it reminds you why every scene has to matter.

Scott R:  One of the big lessons I learned, when I wrote that script that got me into NYU. It wasn’t this great script, but it was definitely better than anything I had done prior. I had made a terrible movie with one of my really good friends in San Francisco a while ago. It was so much fun making a movie, but the script was terrible. I didn’t know it was terrible until we started shooting it and I saw it come to life. I knew I didn’t care enough about it, and no one else was going to care anything about it either, because of that. I think that was the first big jump my writing took, and I think why I was able to finally write something that was halfway decent, was like, “It needs to matter.”

It needs to matter to you. You’re not just doing this to entertain yourself, or to show that you can do it. It’s got to be much bigger than that. It needs a reason to exist and a reason for other people to rally behind it.

Scott M:  That’s interesting and well said. How about the scene description? Most script readers hate reading it because it’s longer than dialogue. What are you thinking about when you’re writing scene descriptions?

Rajiv:  That’s Scott’s forte, and he gets furious with me for going on, and on, and on. I have had to teach myself to be more terse with it. I think it goes along with the scene. He wants the experience of reading this to be like any other story. You don’t want someone to even be conscious that they’re reading stage directions, which is a challenge.

Scott M:  How about when you finish a first draft, and you’re faced with the rewriting process. I know you said you guys rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, but what are the bases on which you’re judging whether it’s good or bad, or not working, or working?

Rajiv:  Friends. [laughter]

Scott R:  I think time away from the script is very helpful, to look at it with fresh eyes. After a few weeks, to put it aside when you’re done. You need to put your ego aside, and know, if you have a sneaking suspicion that something sucks, it sucks, every time. Every single time. You just need to be confident enough that you can make it better, or cut it and come up else. Particularly as a comedy writer, it was painful when I’d write a joke that I loved and made me laugh. I knew it just had no place, it was only there to make me laugh. It was always painful to cut those kinds of things. But as I did it more and more, it got easier and easier. You should know, or have a sense of when you’re doing good, and when you’re doing bad. It’s that Hemingway bullshit detector thing.

Scott M:  Just a couple more questions. What is your actual writing process? When you’re together, do you tend to write every day, or sporadic bursts? Do you work separately and email each other things? Do you work together? How do you guys write?

Rajiv:  All of the above. We work together and separate. We don’t write every day. I know that I’m a binge writer, we’re fueled by deadlines. My favorite way of working with Scott is us in the same kind of basic area. We wrote much of Draft Day in my apartment, him in my living room, me in my kitchen. Shouting questions at each other, but mostly just writing our 15 pages and then swapping and going back over them. Usually, we worked towards a certain moment where we could get our pages done, and then we’d have a drink and eat a good meal. That’s a very rewarding writing experience.

Scott R:  At least in the early stages, as Rajiv alluded to earlier, it’s a lot of talking. It’s a lot of us going for walks and breaking story, and asking each other questions. That’s the fun part, just talking through some stuff. When it comes down to the actual writing, we like working together, but we can also work alone and email back and forth. I’m not sure how other writing teams do it, but I don’t think it’s essential to be in the same room, once you have broken the story and you know what you’re going to do. Like we said, we usually give each other…we have a beat sheet. I’ll take 1‑6, you’ll take 7‑13, or whatever. Then we email that back and forth, then have another conversation or two, then get back into the re‑writing. It’s not just one person taping and giving dictation.

Scott M:  OK, here’s a fun question. What’s your single best excuse not to write?

Scott R:  Mine’s my kids, that’s an easy one. Then second…everything else. [laughs] Food, coffee, museums, TV, ESPN.com, it is a constant, minute‑to‑minute battle between me and everything else my mind and body want to do. I find writing to be a huge struggle. It is not a fun process for me on a day‑to‑day basis. I think it’s Dorothy Parker, I love that quote, “I hate writing but I love having it written.” That is exactly how I feel about it.

Scott M:  How about you, Rajiv?

Rajiv:  I don’t hate writing as much as Scott, but I am as bad or I’m actually a much worse procrastinator, I think, than he is, because I just feel like unless there’s a white‑hot urgency to get something done, I just figure, why do it? My biggest procrastinations are just being social. They always say that a writer’s life is a solitary one, and so mine’s not. Yes, that’s the basic thing that Scott says, the world around you. But it’s important to write things that you’re passionate about. Having a writing partner certainly helps that, because when Scott’s writing his pages, I know I should be writing mine.

Scott M:  That great quote that the best thing about writing is having written, but apart from that, what do you love most about writing?

Scott R:  I still, and I hope I never lose this and I guess I will stop writing when I do, I still am constantly amazed at some of the things that come out of my head and on the page. Even though we’ve talked through our process, talking extensively about a thing and then writing an outline, which is the most boring document in the world to create and also to read, I am still constantly surprising myself on the page. That is everything. That makes me extremely happy and without that, I wouldn’t write. As much of a slog as it is to sit down and stare at the computer, I know that if I do it long enough that I’ll have one of those moments. If I could have that moment once a day, then it’s been a good day of writing.

Scott M:  Rajiv, do you have any thoughts on that? What you love most about writing?

Rajiv:  I get a real charge out of having written something. I like going back and reading stuff that I have written that makes me proud. I feel like being a creative person, in general, is a very good life, whether you’re making money for it or not. I think it’s part of the reason are human beings. That might sound cheesy, but that’s certainly is something I believe very deep down in my bones.

Scott R:  I also love not having to have a “real job,” which is something I’ve tried to avoid my entire life. I feel so blessed that I’ve found a way to make a life doing this thing that I love, and I love being a screenwriter. It seemed so impossible 15 years ago, when I started. I love being able to say that and have no reservations about saying that. I love being a screenwriter, I love other screenwriters, I love the craft of screenwriting. I feel very honored to be in this very small, select group of people who are able to do it for a living.

Scott M:  That certainly takes me into the last questions. What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood?

Scott R:  One of the things I see a lot is people saying, “I don’t love romantic comedies, but that’s what’s selling. I’m going to write a stupid romantic comedy, but then I’m going to be able to do the thing I love to do.” That’s not really how it works, that’s not the way I see it working. You have to care really deeply, and love what you’re writing, because that’s the only thing that’s going to connect with people. Even when I was writing my stupid fart comedies, I loved those things. I still love those things, and I wanted those to be the best fart comedies ever, ever, ever made. I hope that that’s what got them across the finish line for some people, that I said, even though they were stupid, they weren’t stupid to me and I cared as much writing “Frat Boy” as Steven Zaillian did writing Schindler’s List. I can say that with a straight face, as ridiculous as it sounds.

Rajiv:  Our first screenwriting teacher that we had was a guy named Charlie Purpura, who we both loved, literally. He passed away a few years ago. He always had this story that I loved. It was very comforting, whether it was true or not, but I think “Draft Day” at least proved that there’s some level of truth to it. Which is that you can’t think about what people are going to love, or what’s going to sell, you have to think about what would you consider a great screenplay? If you write a legitimately great screenplay, and you go down your basement and you bury it there in the cement, the next day there’s going to be 10 people digging it up. I think that the idea behind that is that you can’t predict what people are going to like, you can’t predict what’s going to sell. What you can do is pay attention to the stories that matter to you and go ahead and write them.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Part 5, here.

Rajiv is repped by Gersh and Kaplan / Perrone.

Scott is repped by CAA and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @scottmrothman, @RajivAJoseph, @DraftDayMovie.

Interview: Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman (“Draft Day”) – Part 5

April 11th, 2014 by

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman wrote the script Draft Day which landed at the top of the 2012 Black List. Subsequently Lionsgate produced the movie starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary, and directed by Ivan Reitman.

In March, 2013, I interviewed Rajiv and Scott while they were in Cleveland during the film’s production, and I’m happy to share that wide-ranging conversation this week as Draft Day opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, April 11.

Today in Part 5, Rajiv and Scott share their thoughts on some aspects of the screenwriting craft:

Scott M:  I’d like to ask some craft questions, if you don’t mind. Here’s the first one. How do you come up with story ideas?

Rajiv:  Like I said, with my friend, she said this thing that popped for me, and it popped for Scott. Scott and I sit around, we love breaking stories together. We love hearing a story in the news, or talking with somebody else, or just coming up with stuff. We love to sit around and just talk about stories, and how we would write them. The ones that continued to interest us after about 10 minutes of talking start to find their way into our notebooks.

Scott R:  Just on the most simplistic level, if we hear something, or you quickly have an idea, if it pops for both of us…If I have an idea and its 3:00 in the morning, I’m going to text Rajiv at 3:00 in the morning and see what he thinks. If it has legs, and it’s something that we continue to talk about as we’re going out and maybe sharing a few adult beverages with each other, then we know that it’s definitely something that is going to intrigue us and interest enough to actually sit down and write the story, which to me is the hardest part.

Scott M:  That leads into my next question. In terms of breaking the story, and prep writing, you think you spend a year with that with Draft Day. Is your process to end up with a very thorough outline?

Rajiv:  Yes.

Scott R:  It is. Draft Day was a little weird because we were all set to go on Draft Day, then Rajiv’s play hit, and Robin Williams got attached, and they went to Broadway. It turned out to be a great thing for us. We put Draft Day on hold for eight or nine months, while the Broadway community opened their arms wide for the hottest new playwright in town. We were able to break story and talk about it in a very informal way, to the point where we really knew this. By the time it got time to write, it came out very, very quickly. 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.

Scott M:  Rajiv, following up on that, is that the same approach that you’re using when you’re writing plays?

Rajiv:  No, almost never. Sometimes I know where I’m going with a play, sometimes I don’t. I think that plays are just much different than movies and there’s both more freedom in writing plays, but also a starker danger in writing something really boring. [laughs] The great thing about working with Scott is that he’s a true blue screenwriter. I have a real hard time with screenplays without his writing.

Scott M:  Let’s talk about character development here. It’s interesting, Rajiv’s got the play writing background and Scott, you’re more of a screenwriter. I’d be curious to see how you go about developing your characters. In Draft Day, how did you populate that story universe for the characters? How did you develop them? Are there any specific tools that you used, or techniques?

Rajiv:  Again, for me it’s Scott. It’s a lot about the cross‑talking. It’s a lot of bullshitting with each other, and trying to make each other laugh, and trying to think of cool ideas and characters that mean something. With Draft Day, what we had a lot of was, “It would be cool if that one moment in the movie just happened,” or like, “One moment in the movie this guy said this,” or, “If the one moment in the movie…” We weren’t even planning out when, or where, or how, or why. You have to think of cool moments that if you left the movie, “How about that moment when this happened…?” That’s what you often do with movies. Some of them found their way into our script and some of them didn’t. It had to do with the pacing of it and all that. I always feel like the fundamental rule for me is that you have to write what you find really funny, and really interesting to yourself, and to your friends. If you’re not writing that stuff, chances are it’s just going to be boring.

Scott R:  I remember I read an interview with Steven Gaghan, the writer of Traffic and a bunch of other stuff. He was saying when he first started out, I can remember he was being mentored by a veteran screenwriter. I can’t remember who it was. Steven Gaghan kept saying, “I thought of this really cool idea, but there’s no way, it’s too crazy, and it’ll never make the movie. The guy taught him that’s exactly the thing, that everything else is bullshit. It’s only those things that you find cool and crazy that you need to figure out a way to make those moments the thing in your script. That’s the stuff that’s going to get through development and really connect with people. That really stuck with me, and I couldn’t agree more with Rajiv, that really is our process. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and we both respect each others’ taste on what those cool moments would be.

Scott M:  How about dialogue? How do you go about finding your character’s voices?

Scott R:  I just write all the dialogue, and Rajiv punctuates it.

Rajiv:  I’m good on punctuation, and formatting.

[laughter]

Rajiv:  That’s something we go back and forth on. Generally, when we’re writing something, Scott will write pages one through 15, and I’ll write 16 through 30, then we’ll switch. The rule is we can change whatever we want, both in story and in dialogue. That generally works for us. Sometimes we get into mini fights about, “Why’d you take that line out? I liked that line!” I’ll tell Scott, “It was just bad.” [laughter]

Scott R:  The best way that works is that we keep going back and forth, constantly rewriting each other. To the point where I honestly, I’m sure other people say this all the time, but I honestly don’t know what parts of Draft Day I wrote and which parts Rajiv wrote. It really does, by the end of the process, become this one voice.

Scott M:  Here’s a question that comes up, theme. How would you define theme?

Rajiv:  I feel that every story has to have an idea that transcends the action and the characters. We had a number of things for Draft Day, that this is a story about blank. This is a story about instinct versus logic, this is a story about character versus talent, this is a story about fathers and sons. This is the kind of thing that helps me and Scott think about, “Why are we writing this to begin with?” We can both write funny, cute dialogue until we’re blue in the face and it’s not going to mean anything. Always, no matter how silly a movie might be, I think there has to be some deeper idea that’s its soul. I find myself thinking about that a lot, especially when I find I’m discouraged by a piece of writing.

Scott R:  I 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, 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.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Rajiv and Scott reflect on the ups and downs of writing, and provide some advice for aspiring writers.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Rajiv is repped by Gersh and Kaplan / Perrone.

Scott is repped by CAA and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @scottmrothman, @RajivAJoseph, @DraftDayMovie.