Programs Tue 12.3.2013

How to Take the Terror Out of Writing—And Other Change-Your-Life Insights from Hunger Games Screenwriter Billy Ray

Writer-director Billy Ray busted out his bag of tricks at a recent workshop for Project Involve Fellows. Best known for writing the screenplays for the blockbuster Hunger Games and Captain Phillips, as well as his work as the writer-director on Film Independent Spirit Award nominated Shattered Glass, Ray revealed some of his strategies for success, like following a disciplined, nine hours/day, writing schedule and making sure to show gratitude to his crew: “I shake everyone’s hand and say ‘Thank you.’ Every crewmember. Every day.” Ray also offered insights into what makes the greatest films great—“The Godfather is number one. No question.”—and why “romantic comedies suck.” Here are some highlights:

Hunger Games writer, Billy Ray

Prepare, prepare, prepare.
When Ray was trying to get attached as a first-time director to Shattered Glass, which he’d written the screenplay for, he was turned down 21 out of 22 times for meetings. When Lionsgate agreed to give him one, he prepared like mad. He cold-called first-time directors and invited them to coffee or lunch and asked them to talk him through their experiences convincing studios to give them that first opportunity. He took out directors he had written for to ask how they would approach this pitch, and producers he had worked with to ask what specifically would worry them about working with him personally. “During that time I spent a lot of money on lunches,” joked Ray. “But by the time I got to the meeting, I was loaded for bear.” He got the gig.

The goal of a director is to “beat the page.”
Producers are wary of writers who become directors to protect their script, Ray said. That means they’re “getting too precious” with the material. A screenplay should evolve and change, he said. “If you come at it from that rigid place, you can’t let it breathe.”

Use a detailed treatment as a roadmap for the screenplay.
Ray starts his writing process by making notes constantly throughout his day—about character, local color, tone, what he thinks will happen in each act—and putting it all, unfiltered, “without judgment” into a treatment document. By the time he’s ready to start writing the script he’s got dozens of pages of notes, which serve as a road map. Then he writes the screenplay in that same file. “So there’s no blinking cursor on a blank page to mock you,” he explained. “It takes the terror out of writing.”

Know this about your character: What is the simple emotional journey?
Every protagonist has two problems: an internal problem and an external problem, Ray pointed out. (In Jaws, for instance, Martin Brody’s internal problem is he’s afraid of the water. His external problem: a shark is eating people.) Every movie, explained Ray, can be boiled down to these terms: How did the solving the external problem solve the character’s internal problem. How did the movie change him? That’s the “simple emotional journey” that drives a film.

Use dilemmas to offer insights into your characters.
The best way to reveal something about a character is to put a dilemma in front of him where he has to make a choice between two things that he values equally, said Ray. The more they value something and the tougher the dilemma, he said, the more revealing it is. “That’s why romantic comedies suck. Jennifer Aniston lives in New York. The guy she loves lives in San Francisco. What’s she going to do? Not much of a dilemma.”

For more, check out this FILM INDEPENDENT EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Billy Ray on mentoring, the importance of indie films and Project Involve.

By Pamela Miller / Website & Grants Manager

  • This couldn’t have come at a better time! Wow! Thanks, Billy Ray!!

  • Judi

    Some of the best insights I’ve ever read. Will borrow. Thank you!

    • Film Independent

      We’re glad you enjoyed the article, Judi!

  • ‘A screenplay should evolve and change, he [Billy Ray] said. “If you come at it from that rigid place, you can’t let it breathe.”’

    So true, I think most writers find it hard to let go of their baby, but how else will it learn to walk. Great observations!