All aspiring writers have experienced the conception of a story, that little atom of an idea that explodes into a vision of a journey in a big bang “aha!” that rattles the brain. But the difference between the daydreamers and actual filmmakers starts right after that revelatory moment, when the disparate strands of an idea either begin to take shape — and, at some point, migrate over to Final Draft — or just fade away.
BuzzFeed spoke with some of the industry’s top writers and directors to learn how they develop a tiny germ of an idea into award-winning screenplay. They discussed everything from how they get started, to how to sit down and write, and how to balance dialogue and structure.
Here’s the roster of advisers: Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise trilogy, Dazed and Confused); Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids, The Heat); Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult); Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time, Four Weddings and a Funeral); Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Please Give); Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now); David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models); Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick); Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter); Lake Bell (In A World); David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, Pineapple Express); Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha); Mark and Jay Duplass (Jeff Who Lives At Home, Cyrus); Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants, The Way, Way Back); and Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Oceans Thirteen).
How Ideas Are Born…and Then Stashed Away in Drawers
Richard Linklater: There are a million ideas in a world of stories. Humans are storytelling animals. Everything’s a story, everyone’s got stories, we’re perceiving stories, we’re interested in stories. So to me, the big nut to crack is to how to tell a story, what’s the right way to tell a particular story. So I’m much more interested in narrative construction.
I have a lot of subjects I’m spinning around on that I like and I take notes and read books and have files of things that interest me, but it’s like, What is the movie? How do you crack it? So I like that search.
I think you have to be forever intrigued with the subject matter, the character, or something you’re digging into, you’re rummaging around, something that fascinates you. That process can’t really ever end. If that ends, the movie is over.
Jeff Nichols: I started thinking about Mud in college. [Nichols is now 34.] I’m a very slow writer, and the typing, which most people consider writing, that’s a very last step for me. I heavily outline things. Even before I write anything down, I think about things for a really long time. It’s like a tape ball that you just add detail to, and that’s what happened in this case.
If you’re a friend of mine in Austin, I’ll grab you and take you to lunch and I’ll just vomit this story at you. It’s a really good way to start working the story out. You start talking to people about it, and in the moment, you start to figure out things that connect and make things work, because you have to, because you have to keep telling your story.
Paul Feig: I’m big into notes. I always try to keep a small pad of paper in my pocket and write down any idea that seems interesting. I also type notes into my phone and computer. I basically have ideas written down everywhere. I’ve spent my life reminding myself that, even though I always tell myself I’ll never forget an idea when I think of it, I always forget it, sometimes a minute or two after I’ve thought of it. So, I always force myself to write any idea down. The downside is I have little notebooks scattered around the house and in storage boxes that I never think to look through. Not that any of the ideas in them are gold; most of them are pretty lame. But occasionally, I’ll find a few that link up and create the basis for something worth thinking about.
Diablo Cody: I envy writers who have their shit together! You should see my computer desktop. It’s like 9 million Final Draft documents, pictures of my kids, and photos of haircuts I wish I had.
Richard Curtis: One of my big rules, if I had any rules for screenwriting, would be to let things sit there and stew. Because the two times that I’ve written films, just thought of them and written them, have been the two times I’ve just put them in a drawer and never done anything with them again. So, on the whole, if you take About Time, I thought about the idea in one shape or form at the same time that I was deciding to do the Pirate Radio movie, and I needed a bit more time and a bit more wisdom. “About Time is a bit more serious, so I’ll wait.” So that one, I’ve waited five years.
I often think the fact that, as it were, I’ve written half the number of films I could have or should have done, has been to my advantage. Because I like to really live with an idea. A film is not a flirtation, it’s a relationship. I said to my girlfriend the other day, “The difference between having a good idea for a movie and a finished movie is the same as seeing a pretty girl across the floor at a party and being there when she gives birth to your third child.” It’s a very long journey, and my first idea doesn’t bear much relationship — there are lots of pretty girls at parties, but not many will be there when you have your third child.
David Gordon Green: I have a lot of journals of just notes of ideas or dreams or things like that I think would be movie-worthy. I try, every once in a while to go to my computer, and have a master file of strange things; that’s where the title Prince Avalanche came from, this weird list of things that I dreamed about. It’s more like a scrapbook kind of thing or I’ll have a cutout of things I’ll see in Sky Mall magazine or something that makes me think of something weird.
It’s like my therapy. I use my profession as my own therapy. It’s kind of sick, isn’t it? I made this movie and I think certain people who know me very well will find, not only elements of me, but relationships with them, words they’ve said in conversations with me, strange things that are directed toward them and only them. And I think that for people who are close to me, to see something in a movie that a large audience is watching, and knowing something that is so specific that would only be for one person.
Nicole Holofcener: I guess I let it marinate a little bit, and then, if I’m afraid I’m going to forget it, I write down some notes. And usually, I’d say about 95% of the time, once I see the notes written down, I realize it’s a bad idea, which is why I don’t make movies frequently, because I can’t come up with an idea that I think is good.
If I write it down and I don’t hate it, or I feel inspired to take more notes, and I look at it again and again, day after day, and build on it, and if I’m not embarrassed by it — just even by myself — then I think maybe I should pursue it and maybe I can write this. And around the time I get sick of taking notes, I’ll start typing the script up.
Mark and Jay Duplass: We have lots of story ideas. We keep an ongoing document full of story ideas, over 100 of them at this point. We don’t have very many half-written scripts because we usually don’t start writing something until we know exactly where it’s going and what all the story beats are. The actual “writing” of our scripts is a quick spring once we’ve figured out the entire structure (which can take a long time).
Creating a Structure
Linklater: You have to follow [a question] through production, post-production, and then some. If you can ever get into something and have it all figured out, then you probably shouldn’t make a film about it. Then, you’re done. The making of the film to me is the final exponent, the final piece of the puzzle that you’ve been working on. To me, the bigger part to the puzzle is really trying to crack the narrative back of it, how to tell the story.
Woody Allen’s films are all these accumulations of all his ideas. The way his particular genius is, these things are just flowing out of him 24/7. In so many of his films, he creates a unique narrative structure — like Deconstructing Harry — to hold this basketful of ideas that don’t have other homes. The out of focus actor? You don’t make a whole film about that, but you realize he’s not telling just one story; he’s creating structures to house all these disparate ideas. He does that over and over. That’s a narrative triumph, to find the housing for your particular idea.
Mark and Jay Duplass: We heavily outline before any writing happens. We used to use note cards, but now we’ve gone green. We have abandoned thoughts of three-act structure and differences in plot types, etc. We are trying to function more from our guts. Follow our instincts, get out of our heads.
David Wain: I always lay in a subplot around 10:30 in the morning. That’s by far the best time. The worst time is 4 p.m.
Cody: I know it’s a real idea when I turn into a crazy person and have to immediately lock myself in a room and write and ruminate for hours. It’s like A Beautiful Mind, but with bad dialogue instead of equations. My husband knows when I have a story going because I get really quiet. It’s all I think about until I’ve regurgitated every detail and shaped it into a draft. Obviously, I have ideas that aren’t as exciting to me, but if I think they have the potential to sell, I’ll write up a quick email and pitch it to my agent. Not as exhilarating, but it pays for preschool.
Feig: Usually, it’ll be something like, Hey, it’d be fun to write about this subject matter. What kind of characters would be the most interesting in this world? Structure is usually what comes last. I always want to figure out the characters and their personalities and then set them loose in the idea so I can see where they naturally take me. Then I play out the story and try to twist and turn it as much as I can.
I really block out every day. I kind of set aside from 9 a.m.–6 p.m. every day and just sit there. Sometimes, the writing process is going out and walking around or going out to have lunch and taking the computer with me. But it’s basically going, I’m just going to sit here and be open to whatever is going to come into my brain for this. And also, I always set a goal when I’m writing a screenplay: five pages per day. As long as I hit five pages per day, within 23 days or whatever, you will have a first draft.
Cody: I hate outlining, but the suits make me do it. Sometimes, I don’t like structure; I like telling a meandering story and letting the characters determine the outcome. I’ve been surprised by the ending of one of my scripts more than once. Like, when I was writing Juno, I was sure Juno was going to have sex with Mark, the Jason Bateman character. Then I got to that scene and realized, Oh shit, she doesn’t want to do that. So I switched directions. I can’t make all those decisions in advance. I don’t know who the character is until I’ve spent some time writing for them.
Curtis: I seem to remember the first instinct for Four Weddings and a Funeral came from that being, as it were, a subject I was interested in: how to find the right girl. That’s what I spent my twenties doing, so the fundamental subject was right. And then I thought, I’ve been to 70 weddings in the last three years, so I thought I’ve got lots of stuff around weddings.
And then there was a particular sort of structural instinct where I got very annoyed about films where you see a couple meeting and then you cut, and then they’d be going out with each other, and you’d think, What happened? And then they’d start going out with each other, and then you’d cut, and they’d be having a fight. And you go, What? And so I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have a film where you saw every single minute a couple was together, apart for the six hours of sex? And if you look at that film, it’s sort of what happens. You see every single minute that Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant spend together. So that was the sort of mixture between autobiography, jokes in terms of weddings, and a sort of structural idea.
Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter: We don’t write a word until the entire movie is thoroughly outlined. This document is just for us and it usually runs 8–10 pages. It’s simply a scene-by-scene map of story, character, transitions, important lines, and hopefully, a few good jokes. Any important subplots will be covered in this outline. Of course, there are always discoveries during the writing — which can include ways to improve the subplots.
There’s always crucial information that requires an elegant layering into the story. How to do that — and where to do that — that’s what the outline is for. In terms of jokes, well, here’s our dirty little secret: We’re not funny. We think we have a good handle on character and hopefully, we understand story. After that stuff is working, we can usually generate some comedy. But it never starts with gags or jokey callbacks.
Nichols: I start with note cards, so I write every idea I’ve had for a scene and everything else on a note card, and I throw them on the floor. It’s a good way to break up the linear process of it all. The problem is, when you’re literally writing an outline on a page, you’ve got to start somewhere, and then you have to go to the next thought, and you don’t always have that next thought, but you have all these other thoughts.
Slowly, they start to take form and shape and they go up on a cork board and before you know it, I could watch the whole movie on note cards before I even start writing.
Holofcener: I used to do [note cards], and it really just fucked me up. It would sort of kill the fun, and it would make me realize that I didn’t know how to structure a screenplay. Or I didn’t have the answers that you’re supposed to have when you outline a script, and I figured out somehow that I didn’t need to have the answers. And I would just start writing and see what happens, and usually, what happens is a mess, but a fixable one, and that’s kind of how I start.
I generally have no idea [where a story will end], at least consciously. With a script like Enough Said, I knew I wanted her to become a better person at the end, to learn a lesson, and shut off the judgmental voices in her head, but I didn’t know how that was going to happen or what that would look like.
Bell: When I start writing, I string together my favorite ideas, my greatest hits, and I start to figure out a road map for those people or those ideas and thoughts and thematics. And then the story, the overall umbrella of the story, sort of exists already, but then you kind of fit in these puzzle pieces in the thing you want to talk about.
Linklater: To me the dialogue comes kind of last. To me, the dialogue is the final coat of paint. My films are all dialogue, but I swear to god, that’s what you see at the end. You look at it and it’s that coat of paint. But to me, what fascinates me more is the architecture beneath it.
Knowing Your Characters
Brian Koppelman: That part of the process remains mysterious to me. And I’m glad it does. The less I am aware that I am thinking, and the more that the subconscious takes over, the better. I think I understand the characters and how they think. But again, none of that is conscious. Great impressionists talk about thinking at different speeds when doing certain voices. It’s like that. You just write from the characters perspective because in those moments, you are fused together (when it’s working, flowing, alive. The other times you feel like Barton Fink).
Mark and Jay Duplass: On the movies that we improvise, we spend a ton of time on backstory. On the ones we fully script, we don’t fuss too much over it.
Weber and Neustadter: For us, creating backstories isn’t as helpful as, say, asking what a real person would do in the situation and jumping off from there. If your character wouldn’t do what a normal person would do, then why not? What’s the deal with that? We’ve always found bringing it back to reality to be the most helpful tool with every project.
Feig: I think you pretty much have to play out all sides of your personality in your characters. Otherwise, I don’t think you’re truly able to know what they may or may not do. “Write what you know,” as the saying goes. As a writer, you tend to compartmentalize different parts of your personality so that you can pit those various personalities against each other in your head as you’re writing. It’s sort of the fun part of the process, the therapeutic part that can be more productive than therapy.
You just have to be very honest with yourself when you’re doing this so that you get true responses and decision making from each side of yourself. There’s an unconscious tendency a lot of us have to make characters do things that we’ve seen in other movies or television. So, you constantly have to ask yourself, Would I really do that? What would I actually do if I was in that situation? You’d be amazed how many times you end up calling bullshit on your first idea.
Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks was always my favorite. She was the mouthpiece for who I really was at that moment in my life. I was a 35-year-old man and all the problems and insecurities and questions about life I was having fit perfectly into the mind of a mature 16-year-old girl. She wasn’t based on anyone I knew. She was basically the big sister I always wanted. (I was an only child.)
Wain: Lead character certainly need to be thought through all the way back so there’s a cohesiveness and depth to what is presented on screen. Although sometimes it’s interesting (or funny) to purposely leave certain questions unanswered.
Curtis: I think the leading character is the sort of model usually between me and my best friend Simon and the circumstances of that character, as it were. It’s very interesting how the other things occur to you. They’re very rarely based on anyone, but they’re aspects of people who have really interested you or touched you.
Sometimes, you start with a line. I think Emma Thompson’s character [in Love Actually] — I never thought this before, I never said it — came from a line in a novel. Someone in a novel finds out that her husband’s been unfaithful, and she suddenly realizes that who she is is a completely different person. Suddenly, in the course of one minute, and she hasn’t done anything. That was such an extraordinary bold thought, and then I built up my version of that, but that character was based on that one moment of discovering that your whole life has changed and you haven’t done anything, you’ve just unwrapped a Christmas present.
Feig: I start out many characters based on people I know or have met but then once you start mixing your personality into them and adjusting the characters to the story you’re telling, they start to get further and further away from the person who was the initial inspiration for them. Which is good because you never want somebody coming up to you and saying, “That bad guy was based on me, wasn’t he, you son of a bitch?”
I want their journey through the world to be what drives the story. I’ve always been less a fan of movies that are event-driven, meaning external events happening that our characters are then thrust into. I like my stories to be driven by the decisions my characters make. And so in order to do this, I have to know those characters pretty intimately so that I can be surprised by their decisions and let those decisions drive the story and relationships forward.
Holofcener: Definitely in Walking and Talking, at one point in my life, Catherine Keener’s character was very much me. So many things in that movie were kind of autobiographical, more than other movies. I guess, in Please Give, Catherine Keener’s character, not in all respects, but many respects. Eva, in Enough Said, I’m kind of all over the place. Sometimes I’m even the daughter of somebody. Like in Please Give, the daughter with the acne, she really felt like me, or I felt like her, when I was a teenager.
I feel like, well if I’m going to make fun of other people, I’m going to make fun of myself, and I always want to make fun of myself. If anything, that feels more cathartic than writing about other people, because I can show the world and myself that I know how inadequate I am, and that somehow I’m kind of forgiving myself a little bit. If I know I’m a really guilty person and I know that my guilt makes me act like an idiot half the time, it’s kind of entertaining to put it out there.
Cody: I relate to my characters, yeah, but at this point I’m hesitant to talk about it. Because for some reason — maybe because I’m female and chatty and accessible — everyone thinks EVERYTHING I write is completely autobiographical. It’s weird.
I like Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body! She had it all figured out. And I love Juno’s stepmom; she’s a badass. As for relating to a character, I think Loray (Octavia Spencer) in Paradise is an obvious extension of me. She has a lot of cool wigs and she drinks a ton.
Writing (Non-Expository) Dialogue
Greta Gerwig: I don’t mean this to be arrogant, but I can write dialogue all day. That’s my comfort zone. Making the dialogue count toward the story, I always resist it but then I love it when it’s in place; because I feel resistant, it almost feels like I’m forcing a structure on something that doesn’t want to have a structure.
Curtis: I mainly discover the people by writing how they talk. And I write very fast, so I write 20 or 30 pages a day. And I will just have people chat to each other. And I’ll have a chat that will sometimes turn into a scene that is in the movie, but sometimes it’ll just be random conversation and I get a feeling for how they talk to each other and how they interact, and I’ll have long conversations between people — in Four Weddings, I would have had all of them spending a lot of time with each other, even though in the movie I mainly have them spending time just through Hugh. That refines them. I could have written Notting Hill in four days, but it took me 300. What happened to the other 296 days of dialogue?
Feig: I say [dialogue] out loud. If I can’t say it and make it sound convincing and not clunky, then no poor actor will be able to make it any better. You have to trust that your audience is generally way ahead of you. They’re smart and they know the language of film. They can guess who’s going to fall in love with whom and who works where and what they want. If you start telling them things they already figured out, they’ll start to hate you for treating them like idiots. The only people who tend to want more exposition are executives who think audiences aren’t smart. And so you’ll end up writing the reading draft, which is overwritten and explains a lot of things, and then the shooting draft, where you realize you don’t need all those longs speeches about how people are feeling and what they want out of life.
It’s all about being in a character’s head. I do like to sit in places by myself and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I’m fascinated by people’s turns of phrase and their sometimes odd takes on the world. But I’m more interested in writing real characters with interesting personalities and then readjusting the dialogue once I’ve cast the actors who will play these roles. I’d rather use whatever odd energy they bring naturally, rather than dictate to them some quirky way of talking.
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon: Exposition probably gets thinned out as we revise and revise drafts. That first pass can feel like a “spit draft” just throwing out what needs to be accomplished in each scene even if that means the dialogue is crappy and filled with exposition or even “on the nose” statements about how that character is feeling right now.
Cody: I have to thank Austin Powers, because whenever that happens I’m just like, “Hey, here comes Basil Exposition!” and I laugh to myself. Sometimes you can’t help it. The studios like things to be super expository because they think you’re all dumb. I try to fight on behalf of the viewer. “They can figure out what’s happening. You don’t need all this.” I crack up every time I’m watching a movie and a character says, “Let me get this straight…” and then recaps everything!
Holofcener: I think I just understand the character. It comes easily to me. I just put myself in that character’s face and just start talking. Sometimes out loud to myself. I just picture that I’m them.
I guess sometimes I let myself be on the nose and then trim it, and realize that this doesn’t have to be told. I think I have an exposition meter at some point, and realize this doesn’t have to be told, this is really boring. And my scenes are generally very short.
Write Your Own Rules
Linklater: How to convey it all, the decisions that go into that, that’s the hard part. There are a lot of great stories; it’s hard to make a compelling movie. You can take the most colorful life of someone and you can make a very boring movie out of it if you don’t break convention, or everything’s the same and we’ve seen it all before, no matter how exciting. It’s the how to tell a story, the technical inspiration, the storytelling inspiration, what’s the form that story should take, what’s the best way for an audience to receive it.
Mark and Jay Duplass: The biggest rule to follow is this one simple question: “What do you want to see next?”
Holofcener: I have no rules. People who don’t like my movies would probably be like, “That’s right, she needs some.” I mean I think that having written as many screenplays as I have at this point in my life as I have, I feel it’s intuitive that I write something with conflict. When I was in college or whatever, I’d write two girls sitting around talking and thought it was so ingenious, and now I know better — to some degree — that there has to be some conflict, at least between the two people talking, or what they’re talking about.
I guess I know when I’m doing something that breaks the laws that I’ve created in my movie. For instance, in Please Give, there’s a couple of sequences where somebody disappears, I guess Catherine Keener is looking at a chair in the store, and we know that somebody has died in that chair, and she looks over and sees the dead person in the chair. And there’s no reason to believe that I’m about to do that in this movie, there’s nothing mystical that’s happened, or anything magical, and yet I thought, Fuck it, I want it, it works.
I shot that thinking, This is never gonna be in the movie, but I ended up liking it. So that’s breaking convention. Or having someone talk to the camera out of the blue, which I’ve never had or never did. Things like that. Or showing someone — if I’ve set up a story where it’s from a certain character’s point of view, and then suddenly we’re in a room without that character, that’s breaking convention. But I don’t care, as long as it works, that’s how I feel.
Wain: Most of the classic screenwriting rules are good to keep in mind, but I find that you have to go back and forth between looking at something through the lens of rules/conventions/structures on one hand, and freely imagining with no boundaries on the other. The rules I do go back to often are: In a comedy you need to have jokes on every page, unless you’re going for a very specific moment of breaking the form; every scene (and every beat) should have a good reason to be there or it should be cut.
Every rule is made to be (and has been successfully) broken. But I would say every script has to have a “reason to be” — a vague but helpful rudder that has kept me on track during long, frustrating projects.
Koppelman: If a scene doesn’t have either internal or external conflict, it had better be damned interesting.
Curtis: On Love Actually, I was really finished in love and thought I understood how to write romantic films. Two of the films in that were two films I was thinking of writing, the Hugh Grant one and the Colin Firth one, and then I thought, I don’t want to write another whole romantic comedy, what about if you could do a sort of ecstatic film, where you just saw the best bits of 10 films, rather than just one whole film? And when I thought that, I thought, I don’t only want to do the sort of romantic kissing ones, and that’s when I put in the Laura Linney story and the Emma Thompson story and the Liam Neeson one, which starts with a funeral.
Weber and Neustadter: The only rule we have is that it can’t be boring. If you’re bored writing it, people will be doubly bored reading it. And it’s important to think about the reader. Who are the people reading your stuff? When it comes to screenplays, for the most part, it’s people whose job it is to read 10 a weekend and they have things they’d rather be doing. If you’re able to hook THEM, to keep them turning the page of YOUR script vs. another one in the stack, the battle’s half won.
We don’t want the audience ahead of the characters, we never want to be overly treacly, we avoid coincidences at every turn. But with conventions, we would say nothing is absolutely absolute. One thing we would never do is avoid convention because it’s a convention. If it’s lame, that’s one thing. But if two characters have to meet — and they probably, eventually do — that’s a convention you can’t avoid. The true goal should be to make sure your version of that convention is memorable and effective rather than to avoid it entirely.
Writing Yourself Out of a Corner
Feig: I’m very deliberate when I write my first draft. I won’t move forward if I can’t think of the right word or description of an action. And so I tend to see corners coming before I get too deep into them. By letting my characters show me the way, I sometimes like to let them lead me into what I fear might be a corner because then the fun is figuring out how they would actually get out of it. I think if you don’t lead yourself into what you fear might be a corner, you risk writing a story that is predictable or not terribly interesting.
My favorite thing in movies or television is when a character is heading into something and I’m thinking, Holy shit, how in the world are they going to get out of that situation? The problem is that oftentimes the solution isn’t good or is convenient or has a deus ex machina that makes you lose faith in the people who are telling the story. But when a storyteller leads you into an unsolvable situation and then gets you out of it in a way that you never saw coming and that totally makes sense, it’s viewer nirvana.
Cody: Just keep writing; you’ll get out. It’s like getting stuck in a bumper car. Turn the damn wheel and mash the pedal and eventually you’ll do a 180.
Curtis: For me, the most important scene in Four Weddings was the scene that I realized I fucked up the film. Because I’d written a lot of it and we had the funeral, and anyone who sees the funeral would know that true love is real, and can’t be found and they had experience of it, there is such a thing as the right person, that’s what the funeral says to every person in the movie. And then, structurally, I planned that we should cut straight to Hugh marrying the wrong person. And that made that character an idiot who was going in completely the wrong direction. And so I realized the film is fatally flawed, because every single person will know, and then you cut to your leading character who you’re meant to empathize with, who is the only person in the room who doesn’t know what happened.
I spent months on that one scene and finally found a way of getting him to the wrong position. The way I did it was having him have a conversation with the most lovely person in the film who was also not clever. He had a conversation with James Fleet’s character, and James said, “I never expected true love, I just thought I’d just bump into someone who didn’t find me revolting. It worked for my parents until the divorce.” And so you were sort of suckered into the wrong conclusion. But before I did that, I’d have a conversation with Andie, a conversation with Kristin [Scott Thomas], and had all of them talking about the whole issue; I tried every way to get to the end of the movie, and that’s one of those things where you realized that your thought is flawed and you have to use a lot of craft to get from A to B.
Rip It Up and Start Again
Gerwig: I’d never had an entire movie written and said, “You know what? The middle 40 pages actually need to go,” and thrown it all out. Stuff like that. It’s painful, but Noah [Baumbach] is so good at being ruthless that I learned how to be a little ruthless. It’s throwing stuff out and moving stuff around and just chopping.
Koppelman: Always be open to the idea that we should just cut a huge section, start again. Have done it many times. It’s brutal. But then kind of joyous because you are at the beginning again, with all that open road in front of you.
Bell: Once I have a draft down, that’s when I start to get pretty obsessive about hitting the right beats. But initially, I write without judgment, without adhering to any rules. My first draft is always very free, and the draft later, once I’ve written “the end,” then I start to be a little more hard on myself and start adhering to the satisfying beats in a film that you want to have, even if you derail a little bit.
Feig: I try to not fall in love with my writing. It’s the downfall of so many writers. There are two things I always have in my office. One is a model of the Titanic, to remind myself that no matter how great something seems, it can still sink and fall apart. And the other is a bust of Shakespeare, to remind myself that I’m not Shakespeare. All writers’ writing can always get better.
It’s the falling in love with the first thing that comes out of your head that is what will take you down. It will make you impossible to work with and it will result in things often not being as good as they could be. Sure, sometimes you nail something the first time, but even then, it’s worth taking a crack at making it better. As Judd Apatow told me when we were prepping the pilot for Freaks and Geeks, “Let’s have you try to make the script even better. If it’s not, your original script will still exist. We’re not going to burn every copy of it.”
Koppelman: The opening voiceover in Solitary Man is one of my favorite things I have ever written. Maybe because I finally got to use a line I’d been carrying around for years. It was something a friend’s father said to him when my friend was a teenager. “Son, find ‘em where you fuck ‘em, and leave ‘em where you find ‘em.” Hilarious and mean and great. And I think it helped to land Michael Douglas. Because it was so dark. But we cut it in editing. And in so doing, basically saved the movie. It took me months to realize it. Made the character too unlikable too soon. But I still love the hunk.
Rash and Faxon: There was a scene in The Way, Way Back that we ended up having to lose in the final edit. It was a scene where Duncan (Liam James) is riding back on his bike with Peter (River Alexander) after staying out all night at a party. This was a fun scene that we loved on paper and when we shot it, but it slowed down the story as we headed into the final moments of the film.
Cody: I don’t have a formal rewrite process; I just compulsively groom and regroom scenes like a cat with OCD… I’m still mentally rewriting Paradise and it’s been in the can for months.
Ask for Help — and Partner Up!
Faxon: A lot of our Groundlings [Los Angeles sketch and improv comedy theater] training relates over to what we do now, in terms of brainstorming and improvising and collaborating together. There are times when, usually at the end of the day or something, I’m tired and then Jim will, wanting to solve the problem, take it home with him and come in the next day with a beautifully crafted scene. But we don’t usually pass stuff back and forth. We don’t usually split up duties and say, “You take this 20 pages” or whatever. We do as much as we can together without killing each other — or without Jim killing me.
Feig: You’re only as good as the people around you. With comedy especially, when you start to die in comedy as you get older is when you go, “Don’t tell me! I know what I’m doing.” You cannot survive, because comedy is ever-changing. The wake-up call for me was, I directed a lot of The Office over the years and in the fifth season I went in as a co-exec producer, so I was in the writer’s room a lot. They have all these twenty- and thirtysomething writers who are hilarious, and some guys my age.
So you have the kind of joke areas that you like to pitch and you get laughs and I was pitching these out, and the twenties and thirties were looking at me like I was crazy. I realized, “Oh my god, I’m like a dad. I’m telling dad jokes.” So hearing them and hearing their joke pitches, I said, “Oh, I see, it’s the tone that’s going on now.” You say, “Oh, I get why that’s funny now,” and referentially you see what doesn’t work because it’s old or whatever. So you just need to then magnify that by a thousand and deputize everyone around you and make sure you’re working with younger people, with older people, and you just want a big consensus, and that way you’ll hit the whole audience basically.
Gerwig: The thing with writing is nobody cares if you don’t write. Unless you’re commissioned to write something, but nobody was like, “How’s that movie about that dancer going?” Or like, “I need those pages.” It helps to have a writing partner. Anyways, I felt like I’d gotten kind of sidetracked by acting and it was really just such a tremendous gift that Noah [Baumbach] asked if I wanted to do Frances Ha.
To start, I emailed him a list of different moments and snippets of scenes and maybe some characters. He added some things to the list and then we just started writing. Really, you just start letting the characters talk to each other and see what happens and we started just generating scenes. We’d say, “Write that scene and see what that scene is and email it to me, and I’ll write this scene and I’ll email it to you.” Then, we’d see what the story was that was emerging out of that. It took about a year.
It was a long process. It was hard too; I’d never really worked that intensely on a piece of writing. I’d written things in college, and then after college, plays, but I’d never really gotten further than two drafts in, and so I’d never learned how to take something apart and put it back together.
Feig: I really labor over my first drafts, so that they’re usually in pretty good shape. Then I’ll get feedback from a few trusted readers and make more adjustments based on their feedback. The notes I’m most interested in things people didn’t understand, things people found confusing, and things in my script people have seen before in movies that I haven’t seen.
I’m less interested in notes that begin with “What I would have done…” since everybody’s head works differently and what another person would have done with a character or an action is different from what my experiences led my characters to do. That’s not to say I don’t want to hear all notes. I think that most notes have a totally valid point buried in the middle of them. The problem is when people then try to present a solution for the problem. I just want to hear the problem and then go away and fix it in my own way.
But don’t be the person who argues against people’s notes. If you asked for their opinion, hear them out, write down their thoughts, and then compare their notes to everybody else’s. If you start to see a pattern on certain issues people are having, those are the things you definitely need to fix. Remember, just look at that bust of Shakespeare on your desk and get back to work.
Dealing with Interference
Cody: Nobody wants to make movies about unfuckable women, period. I always have to make everyone hotter. “She can be pregnant, but she has to be cute too.” “She can be a burn victim, but she has to be cute too.” “We can’t put glasses on Amanda Seyfried; she won’t look as hot.” It never fucking ends. My latest script is about a woman in her sixties, so that should be interesting. She’ll be a very fuckable 60, I’m sure.
Feig: It was a kid’s movie I did a big rewrite on that I was very happy with. I went into my first week of directing it and suddenly the studio head had a change of heart and made me pull out most of the dramatic underpinnings of the story, so that all I was left with was basically a silly romp. I was still able to salvage some of the heart but it gutted it enough that it was a letdown to most critics, as well as fans of Freaks and Geeks. That said, I’m still very proud of the movie. It’s just not what it could have and should have been.
There was a script I was writing under a blind script deal I had at a studio right after Freaks and Geeks was canceled. I had an idea I loved called Weirdo that was about a bunch of nerds in a small town who stage a UFO invasion to make people stop making fun of them. But my development executive was hung up on me coming up with a Don Quixote story. I’d go in with ideas I loved and then he’d change them all around to fit his Quixote fetish and I’d walk out completely confused about what I was supposed to write.
Wain: I listen to/read them carefully, and try to understand the underlying reason the note was made. Often the specific note is more of an indication of something else that’s wrong. Even if I totally disagree with a note, I try understand why it was given. That said, ALL notes should be filtered through the ultimate gut of the person who’s sitting in front of the keyboard putting the thing together.
Second-guessing the audience (or the studio/buyer/financier/producer) is a trap I try to steer clear of. The idea of “This isn’t making me laugh but it’s the kind of thing that will probably make them laugh” is a dangerous pitfall.
Holofcener: I’ll give you the most recent one. In Enough Said, there was a storyline where Eva was constantly trying to get a puff off of somebody’s cigarette; she’s an ex-smoker and she just wants a drag, and she can’t seem to get a drag out of anyone’s cigarette. They don’t offer her one, or at one point she asked her ex-husband for one, and he was like, “Get your own cigarette, don’t involve me in your little games or whatever you’re talking yourself into that you’re not a smoker.” And then eventually, Albert’s daughter gives her a drag of her cigarette, they share a cigarette, and it kind of bonds them. And it played well, I thought it played really well. It didn’t advocate smoking or anything, but Searchlight refused to let me put that in the movie. There were so many scenes around this that it was really frustrating to cut out.
It was because unless it’s a period movie, big Fox will not allow anybody smoking a cigarette ever in a movie. Unless it’s Hitchcock or something like that, where everybody is smoking. Now, I could care less, because it works perfectly well without it, but you’d never know that.
I think I’ve gotten pretty good at choosing my battles. I’m always perfectly aware that I’m incredibly lucky that someone’s giving me millions of dollars to tell a story I like. I do not feel entitled. But when I feel that I’m fighting battles about cutting things that are essential to the story, or things that I feel nobody knows better than myself, if I feel absolutely certain about something, I’ll fight for it, I’ll make a very big deal out of it. And I guess that’s why I don’t fight for everything. Otherwise, I would just be a pain in the ass.
Keep Writing. And Writing. And Writing
Linklater: I never quite give up. My movie Waking Life, I thought about for 20 years, even before I was a filmmaker. It was a subject matter that was interesting to me and I thought there was a story to be told within it, but it was the technological end that completed the puzzle for me, a new way to look. Like, Oh yeah, that story works if it works like that. It doesn’t work live action. So it took 20 years for me to realize that it needed a new format altogether to encompass it.
Feig: The biggest roadblock on any script is finishing the first draft. There are so many opportunities to quit. I have a file full of half-finished scripts from my past that I gave up on. The middle of a script is a perfect time to bail. When you start a script, you’re filled with energy and excitement. The first act is a blast because you’re setting everything up. Then, you head into the second act with a head of steam based on all the great ideas your first act set in motion.
But it’s as you’re still approaching the middle of the script that you start to flag. What if I didn’t set things up right? What if I’m heading in the wrong direction? What if everything that seemed so good is actually shit? You start to feel lost because you’re not even at the halfway point and you’re suddenly plagued with doubts. And then you do what I think is usually a pretty bad idea — you have someone read what you’ve written so far.
I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea to do this. I’ve had it work on the occasions my wife ends up really liking what I did up to that point. But I also think it’s an energy suck, a way to break your writing rhythm and basically procrastinate while you wait for feedback. (My rule when I’m writing is five pages a day, no matter what.) And if whoever’s reading your pages doesn’t wax poetic over how great they are, you are in serious danger of getting demoralized and setting the script aside.
I say just blast through a first draft. Once you pass that halfway point, you start to get that downhill momentum. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I find that once I hit Act 3, I sometimes finish the rest of the script in a day or two. The best thing that ever happened to me as a writer was realizing that these fears and insecurities are standard issue and that I’m going to go through them every single time I write a script.
Holofcener: I remember doing a very drastic draft [of Enough Said] at one point, I remember I went to a motel and I went through the whole script and I rewrote so much of it in like two or three days, and thinking OK, I solved this problem. And then I remember giving it a week before I read it again, and it was just terrible, like I threw out the new stuff. And that doesn’t happen that often. It’s probably toward the middle of the second act where you realize you have nothing to say and this movie is going nowhere. That’s usually what happens, and I think that’s what happened there, too.
You just take a nap, a lot of naps, right? A glass of wine, naps, avoid working, leave your house. It’s when I’m writing, my mood in my life is so dependent on how the script is going and how I feel about myself. If I feel like I know what I’m doing, then I feel good about myself. If the script is a mess, and I don’t even want to pick it back up, I feel like such a failure.
Johnson: The Barton Fink edition of writer’s block, I’ve never encountered that, or maybe I’m just lazier than Barton Fink. If I hit a block, I just go to the movies. Basically I find stepping away from it for a day or two, it might be a little frustrating to think that, Oh I’m not making progress today, I find that stepping away and kind of recharging your brain by thinking about something else always solves the problem. Although, I guess the caveat is that again, I’m always writing my own stuff, I’m never under a deadline to finish one specific thing and that sounds horrifying to me, and that I can picture driving myself in that situation, and I’m lucky I guess that I don’t have to do that.
Feig: For years, my poor wife has had to listen to me fall apart around the midpoint of a script and say things like, “I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written” and “I think it’s all wrong” and mope and sigh around the house. It’s why I now try to go hole up in my NYC apartment when I’m in the second act. It’s like the Wolfman locking himself in a closet when there’s a full moon — you know the beast is going to come out and so it’s best to make sure the rest of the world is safe from it. Or at least not annoyed by it.
Johnson: The thing I’m writing now, I’m finally actually getting into writing it out, but I had the idea a year ago. So it’s been a year of having this thing in my head and letting it grow I guess. I was about to say it’s a nice luxury to have but it isn’t. But the truth is it isn’t because I want to be making movies quicker, I want to be doing these things quicker; so my answer is I do it wrong and please don’t tell anyone they should imitate the way I do it.