John Sayles on Screenwriting


By Mary Johnson, Renfreu Neff, Jim Mercurio and David F. Goldsmith.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in Creative Screenwriting, Volume 3, #2 (1996), and Volume 9, #4 (2002).

Interviewing John Sayles is like having office hours with a brilliant professor: you don’t chat, you listen. Ask him a question and he’ll launch into an enthralling discourse that answers a half-dozen other questions in the process. But Sayles is no didact; he’s simply a natural-born raconteur with a stunning faculty for narrative discourse. Few filmmakers are as adept at dramatizing the intermingling of personal conflict with social strife as he is. Whether the story is about a World Series scandal, striking Appalachian coal miners, or the tangled history of a Texas town, Sayles’s films are, first and foremost, character-driven dramas. The broader social world, with all its real life contradictions and contests, is brought to life through the struggles of individuals. Sayles’s real talent lies in his ability to focus on the particulars of those individual struggles to bring clarity and meaning to the big picture.

With the release of his first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven, twenty-five years ago, John Sayles established himself as a leader of the American independent film movement. Although highly regarded as a writer-director, Sayles entered the film business as a screenwriter for hire. Finding a place with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Sayles wrote Piranha, The Lady in Red, and Battle Beyond the Stars. Subsequent screenplays, characterized by inventive dialogue and a witty use of genre conventions, include The Howling and Alligator. While directing his own films, Sayles continued to work as a screenwriter for Hollywood, doing uncredited rewrites on films such as Mimic and Apollo 13, taking the money he makes within the system and pouring it back into his own idiosyncratic movies where his uncompromising vision makes him sort of a folk hero to independent filmmakers. As a writer/director, Sayles’s movies include: Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, Baby, It’s You, The Brother From Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, The Secret of the Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men With Guns, Limbo, Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys, and Silver City.

Kris Kristofferson as Wes Benteen and Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager in Silver City

Kris Kristofferson as Wes Benteen and Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager in Silver City

When you conceptualize your ideas for a script, how do you decide which ideas are worthy of your attention?

It’s usually not a matter of lots of ideas, it’s a whole subject matter that I’m interested in. What I need to do is really think and condense it. Really think about what do I want to learn about this subject. So it’s not so much getting rid of ideas as kind of condensing them.

When I’m writing a script for myself, my rule of thumb is it’s my story, I focus on what interests me the most, what I want to explore. I think a lot of what fiction is for people, whether a book, movie or play, is a way to organize or focus what goes on around us.

When you run into somebody on the street and they tell you a story about a friend that’s funny or shocking, they’re doing the same thing when they’re telling the story—they’re choosing details, omitting some things and highlighting other things that make the story better. So it’s really not omitting things, but focusing them, to get a sharper picture of what it is I want to say or talk about.

When you have an idea for a story, how do you decide the best form for telling it?

Most of the stuff I do is fairly complex, and I think some of it has to do with the kind of complexity that it needs. Most of the novels I’ve done have been told in a real mosaic of points of view. Each chapter might be from a different character’s point of view, and there might be fifteen or twenty characters who get at least one chapter from their point of view.

I feel like in a movie, even if the movie is complex, I’ll tend to limit it to two, or, at most, three points of view—the Omniscient point of view, which is the wide frame, and then, classically, there’s a protagonist and the antagonist, you know, in thrillers, but usually there’s a bunch of protagonists, and usually I pick one or two. So generally, we’re seeing the world from either the Omniscient point of view or that of one of those characters.

In a two-hour movie I don’t tell the audience here’s a character, okay, here’s another one, now see the world the way they see it. In a book you can do that. Then with short stories, they’re a little more in one tone, usually from one person’s point of view or from the Omniscient eye, and I don’t switch within the story.

Pride of the Bimbos, by John Sayles

Pride of the Bimbos, by John Sayles

My first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, started as a fifty-page short story from different characters’ points of view, and to their credit, the editors at Atlantic Monthly magazine said, “Aw, this is a novella.” We’ll send it over to the Press, and the people at the Press said either you want to make this into a bunch of short stories or expand it into a novel. They thought it had too many points of view. And then there’s just the scale of the story. In fiction, generally, it’s the scale of the story. 

I’ve written very long short stories, thirty-five page short stories, but they’re not novellas. Their scale is much smaller. There’s usually just one incident or one mood, whereas novels can wander all over the place. What you generally find in adapting fiction for movies, is it’s easier to adapt a short story than a novel, and big novels are very hard… generally they make very good miniseries, but with movies they lose too much.

Your movie career began with writing scripts for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, which may explain the versatility and resourcefulness of your own films. You’ve made films about aliens and coal miners, corrupt politicians and baseball players, lesbians, an Irish folk tale, student activists—always about relationships…

I really don’t think genre is that important. It’s more what am I going to do with this? What are the genre rules? So you look at the genre rules and decide whether you’re going to keep them or break them. What are the genre expectations of the audience?

It’s kind of like theme and variations, the way a musician would say, “I’m going to write a waltz; okay, what am I going to do with this waltz? Or I’m going to use ethnic music to write a symphony, but what am I going to do with it?” I’m not the only writer who writes in a lot of different genres. I’ve been lucky, though, because writers do get typecast very quickly by the people who hire them. I was lucky, because I started out by writing creature features for Roger Corman, but I started directing movies about human beings, so I would get offers to do movies about both.

Generally, the minute you write a movie, the next six offers are in that genre. After Eight Men Out, I got baseball things and after Mimic, which I didn’t even get credit on, I started to get more offers about crawling insects. After I did Piranha for Roger Corman I got a lot of things that were set in water. “Hey, he’s the guy who does water!”

David Straithairn as Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out

David Straithairn as Eddie Cicotte in Eight Men Out

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?

Write a lot. When I first came to Los Angeles, I was able to get an agent through writing two novels and having a short story published. What she found useful about the way I worked was that I didn’t just have one screenplay, I had three or four. Some were contemporary, some period stories, so that when somebody asked for a writing sample she could send them the one that seemed to resemble what they were looking for the most. Plus, I got the exercise of having written those scripts. I didn’t obsess about one story, I just kept moving on and wrote about what interested me.

Do you feel it’s necessary to begin in Hollywood?

As a screenwriter for hire? Yes.

So you were able to finance some of your earlier work in Hollywood.

Basically I had been writing novels and wrote a screenplay and sent it to a film agency that was representing my novels as possible movie subjects. And the first thing they said was “we like your screenplay but we can’t do anything for you unless you come out here.” The people who hire writers tend to want to look at them in person. So unless you have a lot of frequent flyer miles you have to be in the area. We lived in Santa Barbara, so once a week when there were meetings, I’d go down there and show my face.

In your book, Thinking in Pictures, you mention that the impetus for your novel, Union Dues, was your frequent adventures hitchhiking through West Virginia and listening to the stories of the people. You also said you happened upon the story of the Matewan Massacre while researching the novel. Do you think you find stories or do stories find you?

Union Dues, by John Sayles

Union Dues, by John Sayles

I think you hear stories all the time. You hear them on the news, you hear them from other people. Occasionally you might hear them in a book or a movie. And what happens to me is my mind grabs onto the ones that really interest me. The other ones just kind of roll past.

I’ve gotten ideas for movies from things that happened to me, from things I’ve read in a newspaper, and in the case of The Brother From Another Planet, from dreams I’ve had. I’ve had lots of dreams that haven’t turned into movies—but something about that dream, something about that story—my mind reacted to the story that was there.

I think that people organize the world in different ways. Someone who’s a graphic artist may be looking at a situation and think of things in color or in shape. When I look at a situation I start thinking about what the story is. Like those psychological tests where somebody shows you a picture and tells you to come up with a story… I could go on for days with that picture.

You’ve said you essentially make your living by rewriting other people’s scripts. How do you approach rewriting another writer’s work?

Depending on the mandate from the producers hiring me, I either forget about the previous drafts and go back to scratch with the original concept, as in Piranha or Alligator or The Howling, or I try to improve or change the existing script in the direction they want to take it. I’d say the most common problem with scripts I’m asked to consider rewriting is that they aren’t sufficiently dramatized—the characters explain who they are and what they’re doing rather than revealing it through their actions. This doesn’t mean you don’t use dialogue, only that the dialogue is revelatory rather than expository.

Belinda Balaski as Terry Fishter in The Howling

Belinda Balaski as Terry Fishter in The Howling

Let’s talk about writing and doctoring screenplays for other directors. Is it a different mind set?

Well, the whole philosophy of what you’re doing is different in that you’re trying to help them tell their story. The only time I’ve written something that somebody else made was a spec script called Breaking In. Bill Forsythe made the movie of it, and he did a very good job, but it was something that I didn’t feel I needed to direct.

All the others have been assignments where I’ve been helping others tell their story, so there you’re much more a carpenter than the architect. Sometimes they just give you an idea, and sometimes it’s a newspaper or magazine article, sometimes it’s a book. Sometimes it’s a bunch of screenplays that have already been written and you say, “What do you like about what you’ve already got? What do you envision this thing becoming?”

Then if you think there’s something you can help them with, you take the job, but, as I said, you’re much more like a carpenter. You’re not saying, “Oh, I envision a window over here and this and that”; you’re saying, “Do you want windows?” Then they say, “Yeah, we want windows in front of the house and here and there,” and then you try to do a good job.

Very often I’m hired by producers who are trying to get a greenlight from a studio or a financier, or in some cases, from an actor. I’ve done things where it was just working on this one actor’s part and leave the rest of it alone. Or where they need an actor to say he wants to do this movie by Monday, because there’s going to be a Directors Guild strike or something like that, so they want to improve the script enough so that the actor says yes.

Burt Reynolds as Ernie Mullins and Casey Siemaszko as Mike Lafebb in Breaking In

Burt Reynolds as Ernie Mullins and Casey Siemaszko as Mike Lafebb in Breaking In

Like just cut the bangs…

Yes. Then I may come back later and do more work after they’ve said yes. I’ve done rewrite jobs as short as two days. So you’re given a mandate, whereas when you’re writing your own things, you’re using some of the same muscles and techniques and everything, but you’re starting with what’s my story? What’s the story I want to tell?

In a story conference about a movie I’m writing for other people, when somebody says, “Well, we’d really like to set this in Japan instead of China,” then I say, “Well, you know the martial arts are very different, the cultures are very different. If you’re going to Japan, it’s very linear and straightforward; in China it’s very circular.” They say, “Yea, yea, yea, whatever, we can get you Toshiro Mifune.” You say, “Okay, I can do that.” Whereas, if it’s my story, I often will just say, “That’s not the story I want to tell,” and that’s the end of the conversation. So it’s a very different thing, even if you’re using the same muscles.

But I end up working harder when I’m working for other people; more drafts and so on. I won’t do something that I wouldn’t want to see, and very often I don’t take a job because I don’t see any potential in the project. In that case, you’re not the writer for that particular project. I don’t think it works very well when writers condescend to material, to say, “Well, I wouldn’t watch this movie, but those people would, so what would they like?” I can’t do that.

Ron Howard has said you rewrote the entire script for Apollo 13, but didn’t get a credit. How did you become involved with the Apollo 13 project? What problems existed in the script and how did you address those inadequacies?

I was asked to come onto Apollo 13 fairly late in their preproduction—they had already cast the lead and had started building the spaceship sets. The process was not so much one of damage control as bringing the story back toward the source material. The director, Ron Howard, and actors were much more involved than in any of my other rewriting experiences, as were the consulting astronauts. Scenes were reworked over and over, even after all the writers were off the picture.

Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell and KEvin Bacon as Jack Swigert in Apollo 13

Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell and Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert in Apollo 13

When you are up for an action movie rewrite, do you find yourself suffering fools in dealing with Hollywood?

Not really. What you tend to do is talk to people very carefully, before they hire you, about what the story is they want to tell. I’m there to help them tell that story. If you think you can help them and you know what kind of movie they are talking about, you start thinking about other movies like that which you like. What was it you liked about them? What rhythms? What kinds of characters, situations?

Every movie has its own world or rules, and you just enter that world as a writer and you try to fulfill the expectations—without being totally predictable—of the audiences entering this kind of world. If it’s a monster movie, or a horror, or if it’s a romantic comedy, there are different rules. If it’s a romantic comedy, the dog doesn’t die. In a gross-out comedy, the dog gets run over six times and gets served for breakfast.

When you write a story do you begin with core characters that interest you, or is it a certain attraction to a specific time, place, or event?

Very often it’s just in my mind for a long time. I get interested in a place or a situation or a kind of interpersonal dynamic, and I think this is something that might be interesting; it might make a good story. I’ll knock it around in my head, sometimes for years—which is one of the reasons I write so fast when I actually sit down. My first drafts are often a week and a half or two weeks, because I’ve been thinking about it so long. Generally it starts out with a character in a certain situation or a certain kind of dynamic tension or moral situation, and then it may connect with a place or time, and that jells into a plot line. Sometimes I will have a theme looking for plot, but rarely do I have a plot looking for a theme.

With the story arc of Lone Star, you might describe it as a guy who is doing detective work, and the suspect is his father. So it’s kind of like an Oedipus thing except, in this case, he’s not trying to clear his father’s name. He actually wants his father to be guilty. And he finds out more than he bargained for. And then it was going to take place in Texas.

The next step would be to think about who are the characters. Who are the people in this world, who come from the different communities that I want to have come together? Who are the players? Then you say, “Well, it would be interesting to have this kind of character.” You think about what the relationships among them are, and what their ties with each other are. You’re always trying to have as many ties as possible so you don’t have too many characters who are only tied to the story by one thread. The final thing I do is I start thinking about what scenes of confrontation I would want to have. Let’s say it’s this detective story: who is he going to go interrogate to find out about the past? What stories are they going to tell him?

Chris Cooper as Sam in Lone Star

Chris Cooper as Sam in Lone Star

Then I make an outline and I start putting those scenes in order. I get an idea of the kind of temporal arc of the movie. Is it the kind of movie that takes place in one day? The movie I’m about to shoot takes place in basically one day and the next morning. The Return of the Secaucus Seven was a three-day weekend. The first day people show up, the second day they party and pair off, and the third day they say their goodbyes. Sunshine State is based on about a five- or six-day period during this thing that happens in this town in Florida called “Old Buccaneer Days.”

I’m working for Ron Howard right now, doing a rewrite on a thing about the Alamo. But it’s not only about the Alamo, it’s about how people got into the Alamo, and what they did at the Alamo all the way through the Battle of San Jacinto. It takes place in an eight-month period, so how you do you handle time? How do you get rid of all the true but not very streamlined things that happened? All the back and forth, and people traveling from one town to the other.

You really have to figure that out, and decide how much do you want people to know about time. That’s one of the most important things in a script: where are your codas? Where do you let the audience take a rest and say, “Okay, this sequence, this whole day—even though it may be made up of several days—is over.” Then there might be a fade-out. The audience is thinking, “Now they’re going to have to face the music, and we’re going to find out who’s going to run the Alamo.”

Structure is so important in movies, and especially how you handle time, that I try to figure a lot of that out before I start a draft. And then after I finish a draft—especially for other people, but even for myself—I’ll do a very detailed outline of what happens on what page. I may flag certain things. Let’s say it’s the Alamo script; you’ve got these main characters: Travis, Bowie, Crockett, Sam Houston, and Santa Ana.

I’ll put their names in capitals, and whenever they show up in a description of a scene I’ll mark their names. I can look at the thing graphically and say, “Oh, I see. Sam Houston has disappeared for forty pages. Maybe he should disappear for only twenty, or else people are going to lose track of him.” So you put a scene in somewhere. You get some kind of graphic feeling for it. And then when you go into your second draft you can look at it structurally. But I never start until I have the outline. I don’t just start writing scenes.

Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston in The Alamo

Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston in The Alamo, produced by Ron Howard

Do you ever find yourself stuck, staring at a computer screen with, dare I say it, writer’s block?

No, because I work for hire, and there are deadlines, so it’s not a luxury I can afford. Someone told me that there are two kinds of writers. There’s the ones who write until they can’t find a word, and then they sit around for two days until they get the right word. And there’s the kind who will leave a blank and go back and fill it in. I leave a blank. I will sometimes write a page or two and make a note: “Better stuff than this.” I know it’s not very good as I am writing it, but I’ll move beyond, and eventually I’ll figure out what I need to do to fix it up.

Do you hole yourself up for a couple of days when you are working on a script?

When I can do this I tend to write in sprints. Because I have a bad back, I have a one-hour timer, so every hour I get up and walk around; then if I’ve been writing sitting down, I’ll write on a kneeler or stand up and write to change whatever position I am in. Then I can work eight to ten hours a day when I am on a roll.

How do you find the spine and structure of a story?

Well, in screenwriting, structure is the most difficult thing. I’m not a classicist about structure. I don’t think there’s a set number of acts that a screenplay has to have. I think each screenplay has to have its own structure. Sometimes the structure is very simple and can be seen graphically.

For example, Matewan lent itself to a graphic representation. Because it ended in a shootout on a street in a small town, it kind of manifested itself in the classic “V” that you see in a lot of gunfight movies. Throughout the movie you have these little skirmishes, but everything’s coming together to one point. In another movie, it might turn into an inverted “V.”

Eight Men Out very naturally broke into thirds, the first third being about the fix, the conspiracy to throw the World Series, the second third the games themselves, and the last third being the trial—what actually happened to the ballplayers. But before I start writing scenes, I’m very careful to do a step outline where I try to find what the structure of that particular movie is going to be.

James Earl Jones as "Few Clothes" Johnson in Matewan

James Earl Jones as “Few Clothes” Johnson in Matewan

I think that’s really helpful. Do you have to kill the editor in you to push out the first draft of a screenplay?

Especially when I’m writing for other people, the first draft is the most fun, because I’m almost always hired to do more than one draft, and the first draft is my chance to lay everything I think might be cool on the table for the people who hired me.

How many drafts do you typically write, when you write for yourself?

When I write for myself, there are usually two and a half drafts.

How do you know when you’re ready to shoot?

Maggie Renzi

Maggie Renzi

Pretty much when I like the script. When I can sit down and read it, and kind of imagine the movie.

I was an actor professionally before I was a writer or a filmmaker of any kind. One thing I always do with my scripts is to play all the parts. I read it through a couple of times just for the characters, and feel if I had to play this part, man, woman or child, do I have enough ammunition—do I have enough evidence to know who I am and present my case within the story?

I’ll show it to Maggie Renzi, who has produced many of my movies. She may have some questions or whatever, and I may write some new stuff based on that.

Joe Morton as The Brother in The Brother from Another Planet

Joe Morton as The Brother in The Brother from Another Planet

Do you also think from an industry standpoint? Do you consider whether a role is going to attract a high caliber actor?

Not when I write for myself. When I write for other people I’ve often been asked to throw in some big, juicy speeches so they can interest a higher echelon actor.

When you’re writing for yourself, do you imagine certain actors in the roles?

Usually what happens is about a third of the way through the first draft I start feeling like, well I know the actor who can play this. I think acting the parts out is also one of the reasons why the movies I make myself, tend to be a little more ensemble in nature—the characters a little more complex and three-dimensional, and the background characters a little more foreground. In the typical Hollywood movie, there are two stars, two supporting actors who play their best friends, and everybody else is an extra. One of the problems we have selling our movies is that potential distributors ask, “who’s the hero?”

Is budget something you always have in mind when you’re writing?

If I’m writing for myself. And it certainly was in the early days, when I was writing for Roger Corman. He would always say, “Oh, don’t worry about the budget.” Then the poor directors would come squealing, “I’ve only got $800,000 to shoot this thing!”

I wrote a science-fiction movie for James Cameron. The fun with that was that anything I could think up, if he liked it, he would invent it. Even if the technology didn’t exist. He’s so good at that stuff that there were no restraints in the storytelling.

When I’m writing for myself, though, it’s different. For instance, the movie I’m about to make in Mexico is half in Spanish. The minute you have any subtitles in a movie, you’re talking about a much smaller potential audience. So you have to worry about what it’s going to cost. The minute you have any kind of action or adventure in a movie you probably increase your chances of selling it overseas, and so you can think about a little bit more of a budget. Of course, action-adventure usually costs more to make.

Roger Corman. Image by JaSunni

Roger Corman. Image by JaSunni

Does the process of developing characters of a different gender, ethnicity, or age group involve a different consciousness?

Having done a lot of fiction before I even started writing movies, it was fairly obvious to me early-on that all writing that’s not autobiography is pretentious. You are pretending to know how somebody else sees things. Even someone who’s your same age, sex, race is different. So, going back to being an actor, the main thing you do is try to get into the head of the character you’re going to play.

That’s the main thing I try to do when I’m making films. Why are people acting this way? What’s going on in their heads? So for me, the most important thing I do when I start creating characters is a lot of observing—listening and reading. If you’re talking about people who have put their lives on paper you go to those sources. If the character is a ten-year-old girl, you basically think of yourself when you were ten years old—talk to the women you know about when they were ten years old.

With Fiona’s character in Roan Inish, I wanted her to be somebody who had never seen a TV show or a movie. So in her imagination when she illustrated a story in her mind, her references weren’t Disney movies, they were things in the natural world that she had seen.

Jeni Courtney as Fiona in The Secret of Roan Inish

Jeni Courtney as Fiona in The Secret of Roan Inish

With every character I write in every movie, I’m very aware of the specifics of how that person thinks, of how they see the world. What do they know?

When you go back in time in a period movie, you have to think, are we before or after Freud? The way people thought about the world changed after Freud. The way people thought about the world changed after Darwin. The way people thought about the world changed after the Civil War.

But depending on who that person is, they may have changed more or less. To be a socialist in 1920, like the lead character in Matewan, is very different from being a socialist today in the United States. So, very much like acting a role where you have to learn a dialect, what I try to do is get inside the head of my characters and really think like them as I’m writing their parts.

My novels are all told from multiple points of view. Very often a character will have their own chapter, from his or her point of view, then just become a character described by other people for some chapters, then come back five or six chapters later, once again telling the story from their point of view.

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

As in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying?

It was among my influences. I read a lot of Faulkner.

Do you write character bios?

I’ll usually do character bios for other people after I’ve done a draft, just for their enlightenment. Especially if I’m writing about historical characters. If they’re not historical characters, I don’t do that for other people.

When I’m writing my own scripts, I do character bios for even the smallest parts, and then I send them to the actors before they show up on the set, just so they don’t fill it in themselves and get off the track. It helps them think about the character because I don’t actually do much rehearsal. Pretty much we get to the set, and we’ll go through the blocking. I expect the actor to really have thought about who the character is. But I prefer to get the shock of the new, so we don’t sit down and read through it. I want the camera rolling when they say those lines for the first time. Some people find readings invaluable but I don’t.

Do you feel the temporal aspects of writing are purely dramatic considerations?

With movies you assume—even though people don’t necessarily do it at home—that people are going to sit down and watch the whole two-hour movie in sequence. One of the things that I notice when I’m editing is that if you change what came before a scene, you change the scene. You might not have made a single cut within that scene itself but if certain things are missing it’s not going to play as well. Or, if you’ve already told that story, it’s not going to have the same impact.

Writing is only the first draft, and directing is the second draft, and the editing is the third draft. Because sometimes you realize, “Well, on paper I needed this scene. I needed these five lines to explain something that I could not have done without them on paper. It was good that the actor knew them. But the actor had done such a good job in the first three scenes of letting us know who that character is, that I don’t actually need this scene. It’s been done. It’s redundant.”

Just think if you’ve written some script, and you have to prove that the hero is a tough guy. You have a couple of scenes where he kicks ass early in the movie. The minute they hire Clint Eastwood you probably don’t need three scenes to do it. He brings thirty years of movie history with him, mostly of him being a tough-ass. What they did with Unforgiven is that he basically had to spend twenty minutes falling off horses and shooting badly to make people say, “Maybe he isn’t such a great killer.” He had to undercut his own movie legacy.

Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in Unforgiven, a script that took 20 years to be filmed

Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in Unforgiven

Although you’ve done various types of movies, one thing indicative of your style is a muted approach where you don’t milk a scene for, in the pejorative sense, melodrama. It’s part Cassavetes and it’s part Neorealism.

I like movies that are melodramatic and well done; movies with great big John Williams scores that underline everything. But even in my fiction that’s just not my style; I’m a little more oblique. Someone may ask a question in a scene and then you get to the answer six lines later rather than right away. I think I’m more interested in complexity than most screenplays want to be. I’m more interested in the twists and turns of something and the ways people are ambiguous and complex.

When I am writing for someone else, and it’s clear that this is meant to be an action-thriller with very clearly defined good guys and bad guys, that kind of complexity will get in the way. When you’re going for that complexity, it’s tough to hit those big moments and to hit those major chords without its seeming kind of fake.

John Sayles on set of Men With Guns

John Sayles on set of Men With Guns

Do you have any particular strategies you use for creative problem solving when you’re up against the wall?

I think what’s very useful for me often is a total change of point of view. In fiction, I’ve sometimes had stories where it wasn’t working, and I’ve sometimes sat back and said well, what if this character was the one telling the story, or what if this one was suddenly changing the story—that frees up another way of looking at it.

In screenwriting, once again to use an acting technique, the most important thing about naturalistic acting is not to play the end of a scene during a scene, it’s not to play the end of a story during a story. So often when something seems stale, you remind the actors, wait a minute, this time instead of going right, go left; remember that you have to wait for the other person to say their line, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

As a writer, sometimes when you’re stuck, it’s because you’ve already outlined the ending of a scene or the ending of a movie, and that’s your problem. You’re doing everything you can to force the action toward that ending, and really what you might want to do is say, “what if it went in a totally different direction?”

How much freedom do you allow yourself to play with those tangents?

In a case where I’m making up the story, I give myself a lot of freedom. In the case where I’ve chosen an historical story, very little. I’m not going to change the story, and I rarely get stuck in those. It’s really a question of what part of the story interests you.

Finally, do you still approach each project with equal enthusiasm?

Yes. I’d say that in each writing assignment for other people, I try to be as energetic and professional as I can be and help them tell their story. I think that one of the positive things about how hard it is to finance and get independent, low budget movies made, is that it means that you’re not going to make something just to make a movie. To work that hard you’re going to have to really care about the story you’re telling.


Featured image courtesy of the Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara.



David is a freelance journalist for Creative Screenwriting.

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