Richard Wenk has survived the many changes and fluctuations in the screenwriting industry. With writing credits such as The Equalizer 2, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, The Magnificent Seven, The Equalizer, The Mechanic, and 16 Blocks, Wenk knows it takes much more than thick skin to make it penning Hollywood action blockbusters.
“I read a lot of scripts that kind of meander. They have a lot of great dialogue but not screen structure. [They’re] hard to read [and] hard to get through,” said Wenk about screenplays that simply do not work. For those who do have structure and dialogue, a great script still requires a sense of story that’s both unique and marketable.
The screenwriter is also attracted to great characters and emotional plots. “I cry. I laugh. Those are very hard things to do while telling a story that people will buy a ticket for,” he added. “I love small movies like Local Hero (1983) or Melvin and Howard (1980), or The Verdict (1982), Francis Ford Coppola movies—anything that strikes me and gets me to feel emotional.”
Life As An Action Screenwriter
Despite his love for independent cinema, Wenk understands he’s likely labeled by outsiders as an action writer. His scripts attract fans looking for fistfights and shootouts, but they also attract actors looking for blockbuster roles, such as Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, and Bruce Willis. “I think action is one of the hardest things to write and be readable.”
Many scripts that pass through Wenk’s hands have predictable moments, which causes him to skip over the action scenes. In addition, the page may say “they fight,” but little to no additional details. “I’ve worked hard at writing good, readable action that’s actually connected to a character, but I don’t really love writing it.”
In the latest film, which is actually Denzel Washington’s first sequel, his character Robert McCall is a man with a code. He’s described as having “unflinching justice for the exploited and oppressed,” but he also battles a sense of morality. Despite being pigeonholed in the action genre, Wenk prefers to develop great action characters to action sequences. This does not mean he treats them with less respect.
“It’s harder to find projects that are not steeped in action,” said Wenk. “You don’t get a lot of meetings about relationship movies or straight dramas, which I love. To earn a living, you end up in that particular genre. Eventually, I’ll just take a year off and write what I want to write [but] those movies are harder to get made.”
While considering his next spec script, Wenk makes sure to make these action-writing roles his own. This starts with a character.
Creating Character In Blockbuster Films
“If you look at 16 Blocks and The Equalizer, they’re both rooted in a character. All the action is unique to the character. In 16 Blocks, Bruce Willis was sort of washed up and an alcoholic, so there wasn’t a lot of running, jumping, and standard action—Mission Impossible—type things,” he mused.
Likewise, in The Equalizer, he’s an off-the-grid retired guy who doesn’t particularly care for guns. “What’s unique about good action is that it comes through character. Each character is different. Each character is unique. He’s not going to run and jump and punch and do things somebody else does.”
Another mistake in action screenplays falls down to telegraphed action. If Wenk sees something coming from a mile away, he’s more inclined to skip over a section or put down a screenplay. When someone is running across a roof, the character is likely about to jump off the roof or through a window. He despises predictable action. “If you thought of it [and it happens in the screenplay], you probably need to keep thinking,” he joked.
The Waves Of Cinema
In addition to tropes, Wenk has seen a little bit of everything during his 30 years in the business. “I think that movies got smarter for a while,” he said. Wenk started in the 70’s and watched newcomers like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola create witty, different, and intense films. But, this soon led to commercialism in the industry.
“You’re always riding some different wave,” said the veteran screenwriter. “As you see now, a lot of the best material is going to streaming or to television. Writers are being drawn to that because they’re getting more freedom. You can tell things in longer form, make them more interesting, and you don’t have to sell commercials.” Despite the appeal, Wenk personally has had issues considering an 8-10 hour story.
Television, cable, and streaming have gotten smarter and richer. As a viewer, Wenk has gravitated towards television rather than many films for the cinema. As someone who knows how difficult it is to create a competitive studio film in today’s marketplace, he understands why writers are headed to television, but it’s a writer’s obligation to understand the various directions for success in the business.
“If you want to be a working writer that earns a living, you have to look at what people are paying for—where the marketplace for you [and] where your talents are,” added the writer. As someone who got started writing “B movies,” Wenk knew he wanted to get out of the genre and work on his true passion projects.
However, when he met with one frank executive, he found out that studios decide whether or not to make a movie based on things like movie posters or full-page ads. “I thought that was so crass…but when I went home, I realized that’s how everybody in the film business thinks—all the way up to the studios. I had to incorporate these things in the stories I wanted to tell.”
As Wenk has proven, writers can do both. Writers can create marketable characters that are interesting, even if that means going to cable. After all, the producers are going to want to make their money back and it’s also important to “make movies actors want to be in and directors want to direct. “
Even when a writer completely understands the ins and outs of what should be on the page, there are additional misconceptions about the business, which is a highly collaborative process. “You’re constantly battling other people’s opinions and [your own]. When I started, I believed every studio executive was smarter than me because they made movies and I didn’t.”
When Wenk received notes on his screenplays, he immediately took the notes and improved his work. Now, he fights for what he believes in and tries to work with directors, actors, and creative producers. This way, everyone is making the same movie and the best idea can often win.
Franchise Films & Intellectual Property
In franchises, audiences come back to see a character they enjoy. “I think if you look at the franchises that work—Jason Bourne to Dirty Harry to The Equalizer—it’s character. I want to see that guy again [or] that person again. Maybe even Charlize Theron in the Atomic Blonde sequel. She’s a really fascinating character.”
Studios aren’t as likely to make original stories. For The Equalizer, the studios knew they could market the film based on the original television series. Wenk even joked that if he pitched the story and there wasn’t source material, it likely would not have been made.
“IPs (Intellectual Property) make the studio feel better about moving forward with stuff. It’s very difficult to sell an original screenplay. I’ve heard it from writers way more successful than me,” he added. Many of his peers and mentors have amazing screenplays that get turned down, but a remake or adaptation will sell.
With streamers, however, there are films like Manchester By The Sea or Hell or High Water, where studios are “rolling the dice.” This is true for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO. Usually, there’s someone attached—a writer, director, or actor—but there are also many first time creators getting work on the streaming platforms. But, they may cost 2-10 million rather than 200 million, so there’s a big difference in risk.
“Those are my kind of movies. They take me to new worlds with new characters and they say something. No one expects it to make $200 million dollars. They have a smaller ceiling they have to get you to so that gives [flexibility].” Wenk said that Taylor Sheridan created amazing characters in Hell or High Water that led to great actors, great distribution, and then a pathway to a great audience.
Knowing When To Say, “Yes”
Not long ago, the screenwriter was sent The Equalizer idea by a different producer. At the time, he felt like the story was episodic, which was better suited to television rather than a movie. While he wasn’t interested at first, when the idea came around again, Denzel Washington was considering the role.
He wasn’t sure what to do with the idea, but he liked the idea of writing for Denzel so he did some research and found a Gallup opinion poll that said Americans were more interested in “justice” than love or anything else. Then, he knew if he could thematically make this idea into a character, that man could become The Equalizer.
Eventually, the origin story unfolded as he reverse-engineered the story of what later became McCall’s origin story. By using this [Gallup] data, he essentially used America as a focus group and there’s also wish fulfillment within Denzel’s “everyman.” After all, audiences somewhat want a vigilante on their side who seeks justice despite the cost.
There’s also something unique in writing a character that is realistic—such as The Equalizer—when compared to a superhero who wears a cape. “I wish I could do that. I wish I could say these things and back it up. These are feelings we all have and yet we know we are voiceless. We don’t have the abilities to do that.”
In another origin reboot, Wenk agreed to take on The Mechanic. Not knowing studios had been trying to do the remake for twenty years, the screenwriter agreed because he needed the work. Normally, he avoids nihilistic characters, but decided to take on the darker story to challenge himself as a writer.
An Ongoing Love For Story
Clearly, Wenk loves storytelling, surprising himself, and fresh challenges in a world where studios mainly want remakes and reboots. “It’s exhilarating when you can do it,” he added. To stay fresh, he also reads and travels as often as possible, which helps him create new ideas. “I think you have to go out in the world,” said the writer.
“Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. This business is so hard. I wish people would take that into account. I directed a movie years ago with Andy Garcia and Andie MacDowell (Just the Ticket)…and Francis Ford Coppola came down to help me edit the movie.”
“You know, the audience is much more forgiving than you think. The problem with the testing process is that they’ve come for free. So you’re getting a skewed response.’ But, when you buy a ticket and sit in the dark, they want to like the movie they’ve come to see,” he added.
Wenk understands how hard it is to write a solid screenplay. For every draft he turns in these days, he actually writes six drafts. “I believe that’s the new standard. It used to be 12 weeks, notes, a rewrite, a polish, and you’re done. Doesn’t hold anymore. Six is the new one,” he said. “Do not write screenplays. Write movies.”
Screenplays often read like a blueprint that may be difficult to get through. “There are two different scripts. There’s the one that they read and decide to make and there’s the one that they actually make.” Wenk advises writers to imagine producers reading the 13th script of the week and making it really stand out.
Wenk asked, “How does it read so they can’t stop turning the page?” For the first Equalizer film, he knew Denzel wouldn’t give notes. He would say “Yes” or “No.” In this pass/fail scenario, he made sure everyone on board thought the script was as good as possible before Denzel read it.
In this script, however, producer Todd Black noticed that the ending for the film worked, but it “wasn’t big enough.” Vague notes such as this require for a screenwriter to really rethink the project. In this scenario, Wenk decided to end with the action in the Home Depot instead of giving a profound speech. “I was hearing what he was saying without taking it personally and making it serve the movie.”
“It’s a guttural thing about the movie itself,” said the screenwriter. “You look at the movie as a whole. We’re unpeeling this mystery and then…we weren’t satisfied. So what would be satisfying? What’s bugging you? Those are really good people to work with—when they can say things like that. It’s really about satisfaction.”
Wenk concluded, “All it takes to be a successful screenwriter is…the ability to engage. I would think is the hardest thing—to engage a person for 90 minutes. It’s an innate thing. It’s a taught thing, but engaging someone for 90 minutes [and] you can be successful. You can never perfect it, but you can get better and better at it.”