The works of Oscar-winner Diana Ossana have opened the door for universal, controversial subjects once hidden in the dark. Often bringing to life tragic characters at grips with deep-rooted inner turmoil, discussions have been sparked on a worldwide level. The artistic bond close friendship between Ossana and bestselling novelist Larry McMurtry began in 1992 and continued until he passed in March 2021.
The novel Pretty Boy Floyd (co-written with McMurtry) was followed by Zeke and Ned (also co-written with McMurtry), exploding when their collaboration on Brokeback Mountain shifted the way the world saw romance in movies. Brokeback won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2006, a Golden Globe, BAFTA Award and Writers’ Guild of America Award. Ossana reflects on her self-realization as a writer, her creative partnership with McMurtry and what’s next on the horizon.
How old were you when you decided to be a writer, and what made you come to that realization?
As a child, I wrote poetry and essays and little stories. My teachers recommended throughout school that I should become a writer. I was a voracious reader from childhood into adulthood. I read all kinds of books, all different genres. As an example, I read over 400 biographies by the time I was ten years old. I was fascinated by other people’s lives. I was discouraged by my father to become a writer. He believed I should be outside playing rather than reading books. My father thought writing wasn’t real work. But after I began to make a living at writing, he changed his tune.
What does your writing process look like?
It’s similar no matter what I’m writing. If I’m adapting, I keep the book by my side while writing a teleplay or screenplay. When writing the Brokeback script, I kept the short story by Annie Proux by my side. I do a few drafts of everything I write. But I focus on getting a first draft finished before doing any re-writing.
Do you prefer teleplays, screenplays, or novels?
Teleplays and screenplays are essentially a craft and are vastly different from writing fiction. Fiction comes from my imagination. I write it as I live it through my characters. I don’t outline. I don’t really prefer one medium over another. I consider having the opportunity for a variety of writing media to be fortunate.
It’s fairly well-known that you read Annie Prouix’s Brokeback Mountain short story in the New Yorker, saw its potential, and discussed it with Larry McMurtry before optioning it and adapting it into a screenplay. What struck a chord about Brokeback Mountain with you the most?
What impressed me about Brokeback Mountain was the quality of the storytelling. Annie wasted not a single word in that story. I felt I knew and understood those characters early in the telling. It was the power of the emotions evoked by the story about two ordinary ranch hands falling in love that moved me and the way their story shifted and changed. Unpredictable, like life. There was a kind of inevitability to their fates, even though Annie foretold very little in that regard. After reading the story, I felt compelled to get it out to the rest of the world in a significant way, and a film seemed like the best route to take in that regard.
Out of everything you’ve written, what are you most proud of?
I am very proud of Brokeback. Larry would say that my relentlessness is eccentric. I had to convince him to read the story. He was resistant because he couldn’t write short fiction. I finally demanded he read it. Afterward, I asked him if he would consider writing the screenplay with me. He agreed, and we wrote Annie a single-page fan letter asking if she would option it to us. She wrote back and said she didn’t see a film there, but have at it.
Once the first draft was complete, Larry stepped away and left it to me to get a director, actors, a studio and/or production company interested. Directors and studios came and went. Actors agreed then backed out. It took from 1997 to 2004 to get the film into production. I asked Ang Lee twice before he finally agreed to direct the film.
If you’re open to talking about it, what are you working on now?
Larry’s passing is still fresh for me and will be for months, if not years to come. I’m documenting my memories of living with and working with Larry for the past 32 years. At some point, I’ll write a book about that. During interviews, Larry would sometimes tell the interviewer to ask me a particular question because “Diana knows me better than I know myself.” We were best friends for over thirty years.
What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters who may be having difficulty breaking into the business?
This is a difficult question to answer. If possible, move to Los Angeles. Breaking into Hollywood requires youth, relentlessness, and a thick skin. Watch as many films as possible, especially films in the genres which interest you. After watching all kinds of cinema – silent, black and white, period pieces, old movies, new films, foreign films, start reading the screenplays of the types of films you are interested in writing.
Then sit down and write – not just one but maybe two or three different scripts. Be sure to register your screenplays with the Writers Guild or U.S. Copyright Office. You can register your screenplays without being a union member. Get to know people in the business. Often, opportunities will arise from folks that you have met and know. Ask friends to read your scripts. If they have suggestions or questions, listen to them. No one knows everything, and some of their notions may be valuable. It’s a challenging business that requires a certain amount of luck. If your screenplay is good, don’t give up, it will find its way.