Compiled by Christopher McKittrick.
For this three part series, I have undertaken the wholly enjoyable task of re-reading the articles first published in Creative Screenwriting in 2014, and choosing some of my favourite quotes. Some are from famous actors and screenwriters, some from less familiar faces, but all have something of interest to say. And if you want to read more from them, I have included a link to the complete article at the end of each quote.
Agree? Disagree? Then use the comments section at the end of the article to let me know!
Jan 16 – Ralph Fiennes
“My sense is that the artist at work, has real real focus, and they only stop when they’re totally depleted. That’s my sense of the great artists and writers. They have to do this thing. They have to write this book, or paint this picture, or direct this film and they have a sense of a calling about them.”
Jan 22 – Terence Winter
So, in order to get my arms around it I knew I had to combine characters, I had to truncate timelines, I had to figure out ways to tell the story in a way that wasn’t repetitive, yet told the full thing and honored the full book. So, it took a little outlining, but that’s how I always do it. Once I had an outline, I just forged ahead.
As long as I was staying true to the story, true to the spirit of who Jordan was, I felt that I had the creative license to take some liberties with how some of the things actually happened, what the time line was, and things like that. Ultimately it was about writing an effective screenplay and not replicating the memoir in screenplay form.
Feb 2 – Tom Gormican
I think the biggest advice I have is to not chase trends because by the time you finish your script that trend may have changed. Find something that is actually meaningful to you; something that might even be painful to write about often times will generate the best material that is meaningful for people to connect to. I’ve found that most scripts that have launched careers have been like this. The idea is that if you believe in the product, if you have a connection to the script, you’ll do your best work. And don’t focus on your fails. Remember this script was the top comedy script on the Blacklist and it didn’t sell!
You have to wear a million hats these days when you’re trying to go from script to screen. Any way you can get to the actor, you should sit down and talk with them about the project. If you’re not directing, talk to the director about why the subject matter is important, why it’s in the public zeitgeist. All of these things will help you get the movie off the ground. But I also believe that good scripts will not go unnoticed in this town; it’s just a question of how big you want to make it.
It’s difficult to make a movie, and it’s a long process. Having a personal connection to the material does two things: it makes it easier to go through that process particularly when things aren’t going well; it can also help you talk to the people you’re going to need around you while you’re making the movie. I felt that it was important for these actors to know that I had written the material and had a personal connection to it. It made them feel more comfortable when we were going to make the movie
The best things I have written have been heavily outlined and carefully thought through before I go and write the script. I actually outline and card and break the script down that way. Mostly, after I have written the first draft, I will get with producers and we will re-break it down. We usually blow the movie up twice and do about twenty five passes before we get to the (official) first draft.
April 29 – Gavin Polone
With a small budget, you can’t rely on visual effects and big actors; you have to go for story. It makes for more interesting content within the scenes and fresher acting choices.
It comes down to the script. You have to start with the script, so the writer is inherently the most important person in the process…and I’m not saying this to kiss ass to your readers. What makes no sense to me is ‘A Film By…’ There is no single person who is responsible for a movie. It is collaborative. I deal with shows in which a lot of people are involved, but it all goes back to the person who sat down and created something. All the rest are just interpreting. There are people who do it really well, and I admire them. There’s not much that’s harder to do. Not much I respect more.
July 1 – Adam F. Goldberg
The advice I give writers who are gonna tackle a pilot is, write something that won’t go on the air. Don’t write something that you think will be perfect on ABC. Write something that’s a little bit out there. That’s very creative. That shows off your voice. It shows what kinda writer you are. It shows how quirky and weird you can be. Just something that stands out in that giant pile. Usually a multi-cam about a college graduate moving back in with her parents, it’s just hard to make that pop out from the pile. The things I always respond to are more kinda weird and wacky and out there. They make me go, “This is a writer I wanna sit down with.”
July 24 – Mark Bomback
There was a big learning curve on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for director Matt Reeves as well. Nobody had made a film that was motion captured to that extent, outdoors, and in native 3D. Setups that would normally take an hour took five. While we were making the film it became readily apparent that the schedule was never going to work the way it was initially conceived, so a lot of the work I did as a writer wasn’t simply just “Oh, can this scene be better?” because it was also “How can we get this scene information across in a more economical way because truthfully we have no ability to film what we wrote?” [Laughs]. It was an interesting process because I probably spent about 18 weeks in New Orleans over the course of the shoot, which is more than I usually spend on a movie set.
I think there’s a misconception that studios are just trying to make things as big and bombastic as possible. They have that concern, but actually it’s on a micro-level. A good example is the Golden Gate Bridge sequence in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’m sure there was lots of hand wringing about what the most exciting version of this is, or what the biggest pop that we can get is, or what’s going to play well in trailers and all that stuff. But most of the studio notes on these films, whether it’s ours or something as different as The Fault in Our Stars, mostly have to do with if the story is working as well as it can, or whether the characters doing what they’re supposed to do.
Studios want to make good movies. I would actually say that a lot of more crowd-pleasing things are driven by marketing concerns about what’s going to look good in the trailer, but that’s not really my department. Most of the time the studio is wondering if this is the best it can be, can it go faster, can it be more emotional, can we get a bigger arc out of this character, those kind of things. I could sound like the typical disgruntled screenwriter and say, “The suits don’t get it!”, but maybe I’m lucky because the “suits” I’ve worked with for the most part are trying to make good movies. Not to say that we don’t get ideas that are driven purely by spectacle – but you’re making a big action franchise, of course they should be worried about the spectacle!
I do lots of script doctoring these days. I actually really enjoy it. I feel like it’s a unique skill set that helps you hone your own work. I worked on 50 Shades of Grey, which couldn’t be more different than these and you’re simply sitting there thinking, “How do I help this filmmaker and these people who have so much invested in this realize the movie that’s in their head that for some reason isn’t there on the page?” You’re sort of a midwife in that process. There’s something really gratifying about turning in pages and seeing the relief on their faces when they say, “This finally starts to seem like the way we thought this scene should be.” It’s a marathon writing these scripts, and very rarely can one writer get you all the way there. People get written out or for whatever reason they themselves have to move on to other things. It’s a very fortunate position to come and be the relief pitcher or run those last laps. It’s almost impossible to use that part of your brain if you’ve already been writing it for seven months. People are really appreciative when that work goes well and there’s just the pure satisfaction of a job well done when you’re doing it under a very constrained time period. You just have to do something for a long time before you began to genuinely trust yourself, and that confidence in yourself gives other people confidence in you.
July 29 – Jason Lapeyre
I love that at the very beginning of that process, the script is so contained and such a short thing that it’s very easy to manipulate, and it doesn’t become this very big unwieldy thing until the very end. That’s what works for me.
The one sort of significant rewrite was just a character and structure polish. I consider myself lucky to have made 95% of the film as I originally envisioned. And here’s the thing: I also very consciously wrote this script as a low-budget independent feature. Here’s something you can shoot in the woods with no lights, and in essentially one location, because in the woods you can just turn 15 degrees it’s like you’re in a new location. It was very limited in scope from the get-go, which is one of the reasons we were able to make it so quickly and inexpensively. It’s pretty much exactly what I was hoping for.
I’m a big believer in the script being the foundation of the movie. I know that there are filmmakers who can make great films in other ways, but I’m from the Billy Wilder school. If you have a mediocre script, you can’t make a great film out of it. The script has to be great.
I do think it’s the director’s job, and this is what’s weird about wearing two different hats on a film like this: It’s the director’s job to get in there and kick the shit out of the screenplay and see how far they can push it without breaking it. If something is working on the page, but not working in three dimensions, you cut it. At the same time, I do think you need that rock-solid foundation to start from.
August 10 – Daniel Nearing
You go into it thinking “it will be what it will be,” and don’t let the absence of money affect your thinking. Budgets are as imaginative as original screenplays.
August 11 – Mike Cahill
I don’t write in Final Draft. In Microsoft Word, I write a first-person account from the point of view of the protagonist. Saying, ‘I did this, I did that.’ I write the whole thing unformatted, dialogue with the characters names, I just know who’s talking to who, who’s saying what and I get through the whole thing that way first.
I like to read with my actors. We sit down at a big table, get coffee, everyone smokes cigarettes, chit-chatting. I record the reading and listen to it – no one is performing at this point, they’re just reading the words – and I become hyper aware of what is bad in the writing, what’s inauthentic. What sounds false – not performance-wise, just writing-wise. And then I do a whole new draft after that.
August 11 – Cole Haddon
Getting a series produced that airs on international television is no small feat. I was along for the ride. It certainly helps transform peoples’ perceptions of you as a writer as well as validates your creativity It’s nice sitting down in a room where people appreciate your work and you’re not holding up the tin cup anymore, begging for work. It opens a ton of doors, and people start offering you projects. Being the creator of something that’s respected and seen as a success to some degree certainly makes people want to work with you. Work begets work.
August 14 – Alex Kurtzman
I think it all comes back to the core idea of grounding your characters in an emotional reality that the audience can relate to. And if you can do that, it gives you license to have tremendous amounts of fun and wink at the audience in a way that doesn’t make them feel like they’re being patronized. We’re all taking it as seriously as we would take a heavy drama. And that tone is critical because you are asking the audience to suspend its belief and you are asking them to jump into this world and say ‘it’s crazy, but it’s totally real’. So hopefully when you’re watching the show, the reaction the audience is having is ‘yes it’s crazy, but man if I were in that situation I think I’d probably be reacting the same way’. If we can get the audience to that place, then they will accept anything. I think that’s our job as screenwriters in anything that we do – we’re asking the audience to suspend disbelief and to go on an emotional ride and to say ‘I accept the reality of this world. Even though it couldn’t possibly happen actually, I’m in it, I believe it, and I feel like it’s happening.’
But mostly it’s about letting your inner kid play around and have fun and be wide-eyed in wonder and experience awe and experience the joy of story twists and turns and fall in love with characters…and if we feel like we can genuinely make that happen, then we say yes. But it’s a process for us in that we have to really believe we can do that. Otherwise it’s not worth the time, because it will be painful for people who loved it to feel it didn’t meet their expectation and it will be painful for us because we don’t want to be the guys who did that to anybody. Especially to ourselves.
August 18 – Dov Simens
I’m always strong on this being a business first and foremost. You want to be an established, famous screenwriter and the key to that is power. If the screenwriter gets their first script optioned and physically made and it goes to one of the big festivals who is going to be on the panel at that festival getting all the credit for the movie? The director. It’s a total disgrace how much credit directors get considering how much they do. The person who deserves the credit is a) the screenwriter and b) the producer or executive producer who came up with the money. The key is you need enough power to be the director who directs their own scripts.
It’s a tough one – should you go with your heart and emotion or should you think business or should you do both? You should go both routes and try very hard on both. I’d make a story that just has to be told and a movie that’s a slam dunk just by the title, that’s tacky but will make money. I will then find out which direction God wants me to go with this. Cameras are so cheap, just pick it up and walk and talk and that’s a movie. If you have nothing to do for a week and a half go make a movie. It will start a rhythm.
August 21 – Terence Winter
I highly recommend taking yourself out of your comfort zone. One day it occurred to me, trying to write and make phone calls to agents would be so much easier if I lived in Los Angeles. It was like, Duh!, move to Los Angeles. I’d wake up every morning and think, where am I? In Los Angeles. What and I doing here? Oh, yeah, I’m trying to be a writer. It really put a fire under my ass.
It’s 50 percent talent, initially, and 50 percent selling yourself. No one has ever knocked on my door and asked to read a script of mine… It’s a really thin line between being a pain in the ass and being assertive, and you’ve really got to know where that line is, because you can become really obnoxious and offend people, and piss people off. Or, people can say, all right, this guy’s just trying to get out there and get read.
So many people want to do what we do. And this business is attractive to people who are talented, and un-talented. Everyone thinks that they can write a script. And I think a lot of people severely underestimate the work that goes into this, and the fact that this is a craft and it takes years to learn. So, you’re competing not only with other talented people, but also the masses of untalented people who are writing scripts and submitting them. Agencies and production companies get inundated with paper and emails. It’s really hard to stand out, even if you’re talented.
If you asked me how to be a dentist I could tell you the four things you need to do to become a dentist. How do I become a professional screenwriter? I don’t know. There are a lot of different ways to skin that cat, but I do know that all of them entail writing a lot and not giving up.
August 27 – John Michael McDonagh
I think a failure of a lot of male writers is that they write a lot of male characters, so I’m always trying to find other female characters within a script.
August 27 – Greg Grabianski
I like to have fun and if it’s not fun it’s not worth doing. That’s always been my philosophy and I’ve gone through life that way. I don’t chase money, I chase fun, and working with cool, crazy people and things just somehow work out if you keep doing it.
When you start letting other people dictate what you write, it’s a recipe for depression. And if you’re only writing to make money, any time I’ve done it’s been a big mistake. So I’ve tried to learn from that and said never again. Everyone is different and I’m just telling you what works for me, I would rather go fold boxes at UPS than do something that makes me miserable or something that’s not giving me joy. If you’re using your gift, this amazing talent, and you’re using it for someone else to make some money, this brilliant gift isn’t making you happy. It’s almost a perversion of your powers. And you’re also killing your creativity in a way when you do that. To me, that really creative part is when you find that child inside, just accepting that screwball kid inside you when you want to make your friends laugh and that’s when you’re at your most creative. Just having fun. If you shackle that kid down to pay the bills, you’re in danger of it becoming a habit and you don’t want to turn into a hack, we all know ‘em, who just churns stuff out for a paycheck. I would just rather not, ever.
If you enjoyed these quotes, don’t forget to check out A Year in Quotes Part II!