Friend of the Blog Mauricio Fernandes interviewed me for his blog. Since he translated me into Portuguese, I reprint it here, in English.
Oh, by the way, sorry about the World Cup, Mauricio...
Q. If you could pick just one, what would it be: Character, Plot or Theme? (an unfair question, but it is good to know the focus of the writer)
Of course a great movie has all of them, but: plot. You can have a successful movie without a theme. (What was the theme of HARD DAY’S NIGHT? Unless it was, “Aren’t the Beatles fun?”) You can have a hit movie without strong characters (TRANSFORMERS). You can't have a successful movie without a plot. Except in France.
By "successful movie," I mean butts in seats, not critical success.
I’m sure people can come up with counter-examples. I prefer to use the word “story” rather than “plot.” Story includes the main character(s). You need a story. (Except in France.) I start from the story, and work my way into the characters. I think most pro screenwriters do, too.
Q. An American or Canadian movie to be read, re-read and studied.
I'd cite ALL THAT JAZZ and ANNIE HALL. Both of them tell difficult, complex stories, yet you're never lost, and you always have an emotional reaction to what's going on.
Q. A foreign movie to be read, re-read and studied.
DAY FOR NIGHT made me want to go into the film business. However, I was 20, and I figured I was too old. Seven years later, I went into the film business.
Q. For you, writing a scene, what´s the most frequent thing to arise: an image, a dialog or an action? In your opinion, is there a hierarchy?
I'm more structural. Who wants what? Why can't they get it? Why should I care? (= David Mamet’s crystallization of the 3 questions of drama.)
I try to figure out what the characters are trying to get from each other, and why they won't give each other what the other person wants.
I write the scene long, and then I trim down to the minimum. Get in late, get out early. Leave'em wanting more.
Q. What were the maximum number of drafts that you wrote for a screenplay? What was the problem with it?
"Drafts" is kind of a meaningless concept on a computer. Writers talk about doing a "pass," but sometimes I just do a surgical intervention to address a specific note. I might only look at the scenes involving a certain character. Is that a "draft"?
I consider all drafts a first draft. Except the shooting draft. I mean, suppose you've done 20 drafts, and then you realize the main character should be a woman? Or the hero is really a villain? Do you not do the change because you have a 20th draft? Of course not. You have to always be willing to throw out as much of the script as you have to in order to make it better. Sometimes you have to write 20 drafts in order to realize that you have a horrible structural flaw.
And by "structure," I don't mean act structure -- I mean story structure. A story is
(a) a character we care about
(b) with an opportunity, problem or goal
(c) who faces obstacles, an antagonist and/or his or her own personal flaw
(d) who has something to lose (jeopardy)
(e) and something to gain (stakes).
Any time you realize how you can strengthen one of those, it's time for a new draft. Or pass. Or whatever.
I rewrote a script of mine from 2006, when I optioned it to Cirrus, to 2013, when they finally decided not to do it. How many drafts? Who cares?
On the other hand my total intervention on BON COP / BAD COP was five weeks. I came in on the end of pre-production, and shortly after I rewrote it, they shot it.
Q. When you have a writer´s block, what do you do?
I think professional writers don't have the luxury of writer's block. Do cabinetmakers have "cabinetmaker's block"? Screenwriters are craftspeople, not "artistes." (Except, possibly, Charlie Kaufman.)
Shakespeare was writing to deadline, for a rep company. He had to put in stuff for his actors to do. The Gravedigger is probably in Hamlet so he’d have something for Will Kemp to play. Turned out pretty good.
About 40% of the way into any script, I usually hit The Sucky Point. That's when everything sucks. I don’t stop writing. I keep writing until I have a script, and then go back and look at it. It's never as sucky as I thought, and I can start trimming and restructuring, which is less nerve wracking since I'm almost always making the script better.
However, pro writers use tools. For example, one tool is to go back to the structure. What is the opportunity, problem or goal? How can I put the hero in a situation where his flaw gets in his way?
Sometimes when a script isn't working I take the whole thing back down to index cards and rebreak the story.
Or take it back to the one-line pitch. What goods do I have to deliver? What's a scene the audience really wants to see, given the one-line pitch?
Whenever Raymond Chandler didn't know what to write next, he had someone bust in the door with a gun. Then he'd figure out who the guy was and why he was there.
Q. Do you have someone who reads what you write before everyone and in whose opinion you trust? If yes, who´s it and why did you choose him (or her)?
My wife is a writer. I chose her because I have been madly in love with her since we were kids. However, she is also a superb writer. She has a very different perspective on the world, and she is also a very different writer. She has more of a talent for coming up with weird and fresh new things, while I'm more Structure Guy. We discuss almost everything and read almost everything the other person does, regardless whose name is on the script.
My first wife wasn't a writer, but she had a lot of input on everything I've done.
I had a co-creator and writing partner on NAKED JOSH, my TV show. She, too, was better at coming up with ideas and maybe I was better at judging and shaping them. It was a good creative relationship and a nightmarish interpersonal relationship. At its worst, a writing partnership can be like a toxic marriage, without the sex.
Q. Do you have the habit of doing research? In what consists your research?
I don't usually do a lot of research, except when my story provokes me to go look something up. However, I read a lot, so I'm already carrying around huge amounts of utterly useless information which sometimes turns out to be useful. For example, I’ve been carrying around the formula for bronze for decades, and finally got to put it in something I was writing.
Q. How many time (weeks, months, years) do you take to have a final draft of a screenplay? If depends on the screenplay, please give me one example.
How long is a piece of string?
The only thing I can put a time limit on is the amount of time it takes to write a first draft feature screenplay. That's usually about three weeks. But the outline takes as long as it takes, and the rewriting takes as long as it takes. The best answer I can give you is: much, much longer than you think when you're writing it the first time.
However, there's a lot of fallow time in there. I wrote KIKI WILDER from 2006 to 2013, but that was only one of dozens of scripts, pitches, outlines, treatments, and games that I wrote in there. You learn a lot when you look at something you haven't seen in months.
I don't recommend rewriting only one thing endlessly. Write something, go write something else, come back to the first thing. Your first idea may not be your best. I hear about people who've been writing the same script for years, and I can't understand that impulse. Is that the only thing you have to say? Really?
As an exercise, take a script you've been writing for a while, put it on the shelf, don't look at it, and one month later, rewrite the outline from memory. Compare. The new version will be better: more streamlined, more memorable. That's because anything that wasn't memorable, you don't remember.
Q. What are the best traits for a screenwriter? And the worst?
The best trait for a screenwriter is the inability to go more than a few days without writing. For most of us, it's a jones. An addiction. I just don't like myself if I'm not writing something. Writers write. If someone says they "want to write, but just don't have a lot of time for it," I’m not sure they’re a writer.
The worst trait is the inability to finish. You have to finish things.
Q. What´s the best "school" for a screenwriter? What was your "school"?
Showbiz. I don't recommend school. I recommend writing stuff and getting it out there. You need feedback from people in the biz.
Writing groups are good.
I haven't had a really great writing teacher for me. I've had teachers who were terrific writers, at least one of them Oscar-nominated, but I haven't had terrifically enlightening writing teachers. Maybe they were good for other students, I don’t know.
However, I did learn a hell of a lot about writing from an editing teacher, Oscar-nominated Richard Marks, and from an acting teacher, Joanne Baron. And from an African-American Studies professor at Yale, Robert Farris Thompson. I would say you learn the most from people in adjacent disciplines.
Q. If you could cite just one book about screenwriting, what will it be?
Well, that's a gimme, since I wrote one! CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: WRITING MOVIES THAT GET MADE!