LA Film Festival Tue 6.16.2015

Write What You Know? Top Screenwriters Delve Into What Really Works—And Why

It’s the oldest tip in the book: Write what you know. This weekend, when the LA Film Fest hosted its Coffee Talks series, the panel of screenwriters gave their best advice for aspiring screenwriters, starting with a discussion of what the writerly cliché means to them. Panelists David S. Goyer (Man of Steel, the Dark Knight trilogy), Meg LeFauve (Inside Out) and Timothy Dowling (Pixels, Role Models) certainly never lived the literal experience of many of the characters they’ve written, but the tried-and-true bit of wisdom applies to them all.

Goyer told the audience, most of whom were writers, that the sequence in Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne travels to Bhutan was inspired by his own experience traveling in his 20s. More recently, when he wrote the screenplay for Man of Steel, he admitted, “I already had a hard time identifying with Superman”—until he became both a father for the first time and a stepfather over the course of the year he spent writing the screenplay. “I thought, ‘holy shit,’” he recalled. “It’s about a guy who’s got a stepdad and a dad, and that completely unlocked it for me.”

“I know the life experience of being a woman; I know the life experience of being a mother. Certainly, I can draw on those things,” LeFauve said, but her understanding of what it means to write what you know is deeper than that. “It’s about getting vulnerable with ‘what are you trying to say to me about your experience on this planet as a human being?’’” she said, “and that can go into any genre. You can make that funny, you can make that dark, you can make it dramatic—you can make it anything you want.”

Dowling writes what he knows he wants to see. “I love movies, and I want to write a movie I’m excited to watch,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to write something that you’re happy with and that you think is great.” Of course, what a writer wants to write and what they’ll actually get paid to write don’t always overlap, but the panelists agreed that, especially when you’re starting out, you should focus on what you need to express rather than what you think the market is looking for. “Write the script that you’re passionate about, and make it as good as possible, and put it out in the world and see what the reaction is,” Dowling advised. “A lot of times, that first script gets you in the door. It gets you in the meeting.” Goyer agreed, “a great script can get you your career.”

All three writers were able to name one script that made all the difference in their careers—and the common denominator between all three was that they were the writers’ own uncompromised perspectives. “I can say unequivocally for me, the best work I’ve done is where I’ve had the least amount of creative infringement,” Goyer said. The unfortunate truth, however, is that creative infringement is pretty much the name of the game in Hollywood. “Listen to the note, and the note under the note,” LeFauve said about critical feedback. “What’s really bothering them? [Because] something about what you did, they didn’t get it.”

Dowling added, “if you get the same note from everybody, that’s something you need to look at.” Or, as Goyer put it, “if enough people say you’re drunk, maybe you should lie down.” But one of the worst mistakes you can make is taking a list of notes and blindly working your way through it, fixing all of them exactly as diagnosed. “Those are symptoms of a deeper problem,” LeFauve explained, “a problem that is probably in your core concept. There’s a crack in it, and until you go down and really get real with yourself about the crack down in the core concept, you can’t fix all those symptoms—it’s just going to create another list of symptoms.” Listen to the problem, not the solution—then be ready to tear your script apart and rebuild it.

For first-time screenwriters, all three of the pros advise reading a lot of scripts—and getting into the editing room. “When I started editing, it completely changed the way I wrote,” Goyer said. “You would be amazed at some of the films that come out, how much they were changed in the editing room.” Dowling started out as an actor, and he said that having experience on that side of things has greatly informed his writing as well. “The more aspects of the business that you know and do, the more it’s going to help your writing,” he said.

They also agreed that first-timers can get a little too wordy and overly descriptive; a screenplay has to say a lot in as few words as possible, and ought to feel like a quick, easy read regardless of page count. “Every scene has to do a lot of work,” LeFauve said. “It’s never about one thing. You don’t want to ever have a scene where you’ve just said that information already—I don’t mean plot information, character information. Every scene is evolving the character.”

A character should evolve in every scene, as LeFauve said, but should also be active in every scene—which she identifies as the problem she sees the most with first-time screenwriters. “The main character [is] not actually creating the movie; all the characters around them are creating the movie, and they’re reacting and responding to it,” she said. “I think that’s actually very natural because in your mind, you’re not actually creating your life. You’re just responding to your life. It’s not true, but that’s what you believe.”

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger