So—you’re an aspiring screenwriter looking for detailed tips and tricks; the how-to’s of producing a successful first (or even 15th) draft. Naturally, the best guides to give your ear to on this journey are the reliable industry experts: the battle-tested storytellers and truth-seekers tirelessly writing and re-writing during all stages of production. The one thing they’ll tell you is that it isn’t easy—ever.
Sometimes writers must axe a sophisticated, beautiful monologue just to please a star actor. Other times, they’re up all night trying to get that big third-act set piece to make sense after a last-minute budget cut or loss of location. But these constant curve balls, while often arduous, are what make movie-making so exciting—and what makes successful screenwriters in particular so adaptable.
On November 29, Film Independent welcomed acclaimed screenwriters Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians, Lethal Weapon, Reign), Josh Singer (First Man, The Post, Spotlight) and Virgil Williams (Mudbound, Criminal Minds, 24) to discuss putting pen to paper and their industry-specific experiences. Emmy-winning screenwriter and director Jane Anderson (The Wife, Olive Kittridge) moderated.
CHARACTER AND DIALOGUE
Lim, who began her career in TV, said of exposition: “[it’s] just TV death”— something especially younger writers fall into. “Any time a character has to take a beat and explain to you in three or four lines… death, death, death.”
It’s true, she said, that with movies you have more time to develop the character. However, she says, ask yourself: “How do I elegantly get this out in a way that also tells you something about the character? Something about the character’s voice, something that moves forward the conflict in the scene between two characters.” According to Lim, in TV you don’t always have that luxury. “Studios and networks will have a lot of notes [saying] the audience needs to understand every little thing, and they don’t, but you have to sort of cover it,” she said.
As for Singer, his process usually involves getting really specific, then at a later date pulling back. “There was so much exposition to get out,” he said of writing 2015’s Spotlight, for which he won a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay winner. “The best thing I find you can do is work with a partner who can [really] push you,” adding, “I just tend to go deep, and then it’s a process of pulling back.”
Anderson offered a different approach. “When I’m struggling with the exposition speech, and I know it has to be done, I always think about the actor who’s going to have to say it,” she said. Smart actors, she says, always ask the valuable question: “What’s my motivation?” And if you’re stuck, think of a situation where your character might be emotionally compelled to speak that expositional information aloud—what situation might prompt them to verbalize this?
It’s true—audiences love intricate, beautiful lines of dialogue. And, Anderson said, “I know I’ve written a line that is far too articulate and sophisticated for the character and human being I’m writing for.” So! How does one pull back and not show off, so that you and the character you’re writing won’t be intertwined?
Lim responded that early on you “slaughter all your babies,” that once you get past the first few drafts—during which you’re constantly thinking to yourself, this sucks—you get to one scene that, if you’re lucky, makes you happy. “You cry over it and you’re laughing to yourself, you’re so delighted. But…” she said, “it just doesn’t work.” So you’ll have to move on, change the story. Change everything. “It was a bright light for you for that moment, but you’ve got to axe it.” You’ve got to have faith that you’ll have that magical moment again. “There’s always a fine line of killing the baby, but also knowing when you want to hold onto it.”
Williams said that for him, killing the baby is automatic. He’s ruthless about it. “There’s a process by which I have to sort of remove me—what I would do, what I would say, what I would think—and actually occupy the mind of a psychopath,” he continues, “that’s where I think we become actors with pens,” saying that to put himself in the mind of a mad female or of a child, “There’s a sort of release.”
When faced with strident opposition, Anderson says to ask actors this question: Why do you hate this line? Because, “A really fine actor will explain to you why there is not truth in it.” It could be that the actor doesn’t yet understand the character. However, according to Anderson: “great actors are incapable of doing something that’s not truthful, and it’s not something for us to resent.” Simple collaboration, helping an actor understand their character, might do the trick!
Echoing Williams’ final piece of advice, recognize the essence of what you’re writing and hold onto that. No matter what is removed or added to your script, as long as the essence is there—alive—“you’ll be fine,” as he said, in his own words.