Liz Hannah launched her screenwriting career with a series of achievements most writers only dream about.
After working as a development executive for Charlize Theron’s production company and earning a master’s degree in production from the American Film Institute (AFI), Hannah turned to screenwriting full time.
Her 2016 script The Post was number two on The Black List that year. Soon after, it was the subject of a bidding war and picked up by producer Amy Pascal, the former chair of Sony Pictures. Steven Spielberg signed on to direct the film starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. The movie was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Picture, and Hannah was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.
Her comedy feature Long Shot was released in 2019, and All the Bright Places, based on a young adult novel by Jennifer Niven, premiered on February 28 on Netflix. She was also a writer on the Netflix Mindhunter series.
How did you get your first industry job as an intern?
I interviewed at Whitewater Films, which was Rick Rosenthal’s company. I’m not sure where I found it. Maybe on a Hollywood jobs website?
I interned there for two summers, and then I went to AFI, and then I interned at Charlize Theron’s company. I knew someone who was in an elevator with a guy who works there who heard they needed an intern.
What makes for a good internship?
I think it’s a lot like a mentorship. First of all, there’s an aspect of “grunt work.” Learning how to collate a script is actually really helpful. You get to read the scripts and that’s a big thing.
It’s good when the employer’s taking the time to talk to you, taking the time to listen to you. It’s not just thinking of you as free or barely paid work. It’s thinking of it as “You’re helping me, I’m helping you.”
You read scripts as a development executive for years. How did you get that job?
As an intern for Charlize’s company, I became really close to them. It was a really small company and I was offered to be an assistant producing partner. So I was her assistant for about a year and then they promoted me. So I stayed at the company.
What were some of the common things you saw in screenplays that turned you off?
I don’t think that on-the-nose dialogue is necessarily bad dialogue, because if you’re writing exposition, sometimes the flowery way is actually the worst way if the reader’s confused about what’s being said. I think “bad” dialogue is unnecessary dialogue or overwritten dialogue — things like that.
What does overwritten dialogue mean to you?
It’s flowery. You’re getting around the point. You’re not articulating clearly. The point of dialogue is to tell the inner workings of your characters’ minds and the relationship between your characters. The point is to get your point across about how these people feel about each other. Once you’ve done that, then you can try to make it better.
What did you see over and over again in stories that you got tired of?
Something I’m so tired of seeing is the story of a woman who is battered and beaten and that’s why she becomes who she’s supposed to be in her life. A woman who has a horrific event happen to her and she rises from the ashes. That’s not to say that’s not a compelling story, but it’s also not every story of every woman. Not every story of a woman becoming who she is and finding her voice is because something horrible happened.
And I think that has become a trope to explain how complicated women are. If you’re telling a true story, that’s one thing. But if you’re creating a story that’s relying on that trope in order to make women complicated, then I think you’re really not telling the truth about who women are and doing the harder part, which is saying “Let’s just have a conversation about a complicated woman.”
So it’s a slightly less offensive version of “Fridging” a woman to motivate a man?
Exactly. I think we’ve really gotten used to certain tropes to explain how women are the way they are. Like the daddy issue. Most women have a lot of issues. Most humans have a lot of issues. Why should we say it’s just one thing that makes women complicated?
That was something that I saw, and continue to see, and that just wasn’t of interest to me.
What do you see that immediately tells you “This is a good screenplay?”
A clear, interesting, and compelling character. It’s a lead character who is well-defined, who has a journey that’s interesting. I look at everything through character. So I’m immediately compelled by a good character and a good character journey. It doesn’t matter what genre it’s in and it doesn’t matter what the plot points are that happen around them.
I think it’s more obvious that there are negative things in the first few pages that make you know that what you’re about to read is a slog.
Can you talk about what a development executive does from day to day and week to week?
It’s mostly reading scripts. Then it’s a lot of meetings about the scripts.
You either pass on them or you consider them. You talk to your boss about them and you get them to read them and once they’ve read one you talk about it. Then if you end up deciding to develop the film, or develop the idea, it’s working with a writer and getting the script to the point that you want to show it to someone to try to sell it and make it.
Do you feel that being a development person affected your own writing process?
I’m sure it did. I think it makes me very thoughtful in the notes process. If I don’t understand a note, or if I don’t agree with a note, I try to have a conversation about it, which is something I didn’t see as much from my side. I think screenwriters think that they have to take all the notes or reject all the notes. It feels very one or the other.
I see the development process as more of a collaboration. Now, when I get notes back I tend to respond to the notes and say, “This is what I think you’re saying.” In some cases, I say, “I really like this scene,” or “This is what this scene is doing for me,” and in almost every case where I push back, they say, “OK, let’s see what it looks like in this new draft.”
This is when you get notes from the producer or in the development phase. When you’re in production, you have to take the notes because they’re filming it tomorrow.
And development is the time you want the movie to be the most collaborative. You want the writer and the producer and the studio to feel like this is something you’re all doing together. You don’t have to take all the notes but you also don’t have to reject them.
So writers shouldn’t feel afraid to explain themselves?
You shouldn’t be afraid to have a conversation.
The other thing that might happen is you have that conversation and they say, “OK, I understand that, but it’s still not working with us.” And you can say, “OK, I got it. I think that’s fair and you’ve heard me out.”
How does having a degree in production affect you as a screenwriter?
I get asked a lot if budget affects my first drafts. It really doesn’t.
I feel confident enough in my first drafts to ignore the budget. It’s something you shouldn’t be thinking about when you’re just writing what you want to write.
And then in terms of my career, I’m so comfortable on set. I’ve spent so much time on set that being on set as a writer felt very natural to me.
How did you get your first manager or agent?
I’ve been with my managers for almost 10 years. They worked for Charlize’s manager, so I knew them for a really long time and I was very close to them. Before I left to write full-time I sent one of my managers, Brittany, the first screenplay I ever wrote and she was like, “You should leave and do this.”
[Note: Hannah even officiated at her manager’s wedding!]
That was around June. In December, she and her partner (my other manager) said, “We’re leaving for another firm.” They were taking on literary clients and they asked me if I wanted to go and I was like “yes!”
These days do most of your work projects come to you via your reps or are they mostly things you originate?
It’s a mix of both. A lot of my projects come from meetings. So it’s not necessarily that open writing assignments come to me, although those do happen. It’s more like I’ve met and developed relationships with a bunch of executives, producers, and studios and I keep in close contact with them. And you want to work together and try to find something. Eventually, something fits for both of you.
How do you stay in touch with these people who can give you jobs?
I’ve become friends with them. It’s about making sure I have meetings with them or drinks with them. It’s like, “I haven’t seen that person in a long time. I should catch up with them.”
Do you use social media?
It’s good to know what’s going on in people’s lives.
Some people you click with and some people you don’t. I decided early in my career I was only going to work with people I really clicked with, someone I could talk to for the next three years about something. It starts as a business and it becomes a friendship.
Is it ever a problem if you start working with someone you think of as a friend and suddenly they’re saying, “No you really need to take that note. I don’t care how you feel about it?
No, because that’s not something I really experience. It’s not contentious that way. I made a movie last year called All the Bright Places and the director and I became close friends on the shoot.
What do you tell your reps that you want to do?
It fluctuates. Currently, I’m really interested in doing thrillers. So that’s a thing we’re looking for. Now it’s a lot more producing stuff. These are the kinds of projects that we can help get made. So we’re looking for material like that.
In terms of my own writing, it’s very rarely so specific because I’m sort of genre-agnostic. I wrote a historical drama, I wrote a romantic comedy, I wrote a thriller, a young adult film… It’s a little bit of a gamut.
There are some projects they know not to send me, but other than that I have a constant conversation with them. My team is some of my best friends. If they didn’t know what to look for me that would be a problem.
You’ve broken the so-called “rules’ in so many ways. Nobody sells their first script. Nobody gets their first feature directed by Steven Spielberg. Nobody gets to go to the Oscars with their first feature. Nobody gets to be genre-agnostic.
It was not a big plan for me to do all of these different things. I got so scared that nobody was going to hire me again that I started doing a lot of things. I’m interested in working in different worlds. I’m interested in working with different people. If I stay within one lane I wouldn’t get to do that.
For me, it’s also about experiences. It’s about knowing the writing of the screenplay is one thing but making it into a movie is actually the goal. In order to do that, you have to know what other experiences are out there.
Do you have a dream project?
The Post was really my dream project. It was something I never thought would get made. There’s a [Michael Chabon] book called “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”. It’s considered unadaptable and I’ve loved it for a very, very, very, long time.
The big thing that I want to do in the next 24 months is to direct a movie. A lot of the things I’ve done for the last 12 months have been in assistance of that. Working in film, that’s your life. This is my job and it’s really important to me. I have to love my job. It’s one of the best jobs, if not the best job, in the world.
But I also have a husband that I love and a life that I want to lead. So a lot of my job is making sure I can take time with my husband and time with our families. That’s my big career goal: to know that I can stop at a certain point and take time, and not feel like I’m playing catch-up.
What do you now know about screenwriting that you wish you’d known when you started out?
That everybody’s first draft is bad.
You’re always going to think you’re a bad screenwriter and that you’re never going to get better. Writer’s block is an illusion. Writer’s block is just you being afraid of opening the Final Draft file and trying to make it work.
Eventually, it does get better. And eventually, you do figure it out. And sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re like, “This isn’t for me. I can’t do this. I can’t crack the code.”
But a lot of times you do figure it out and you do have that moment of thinking, “I really wish I’d opened this Final Draft file a few weeks ago and finished figuring this out then — rather than panicking now.”