by Emon Hassan for Shooting People
NOTE: This interview was conducted for Shooting People’s US Screenwriters Network bulletin and organized by TV/Film Seminars
SP: What are the top 3 questions you’re still asked since you’ve started teaching screenwriting? Have your answers changed over the years?
LS: The questions I get asked the most are: “How do I get an agent?” and “How do I sell my script?” I usually answer that that is not the first thing to be asking, and that question is not for me since I work at shaping and strengthening and clarifying the script.
Other questions are: “Do I have to follow the rules of structure?” I answer that there are no rules; there are concepts, principles and ideas to understand. You can do whatever you want – provided you can pull it off. But every art form has structure of one form or another. The third most frequent question tends to be “Do you think _____ (name a film) works?” And then we have a good discussion about what works or doesn’t work.
SP: What’s the most common problem you see in screenplays you’re hired to consult on?
LS: The most common problem used to be weak structure, but with all the work many of us have done with teaching and writing about structure, I find that many of the scripts I receive do a fairly good job of structure. Of course, there are many places where I recommend they strengthen a turning point, or cut some scenes, but on the whole structure has vastly improved. Now I find that there are more problems in the area of developing, step by step, relationships, conflicts, and transformations. Sometimes I find muddy themes or contradiction in themes. And in most scripts, the images could be stronger to make the script more cinematic.
SP: How are you able to have such a clear insight into the craft and business of screenwriting not coming from a screenwriting background? What have you done differently in terms of educating yourself?
LS: In a sense, I do come from a dramatic writing background, so my insights come because of years of studying, analyzing, looking for patterns, understanding why things work or don’t work. I did my dissertation on “What makes a script work?” and spent about ten years or more studying drama, when you add up undergraduate and graduate school. But it’s important to understand that writing a screenplay and analyzing a screenplay are two different abilities. The person who writes screenplays may have worked on one, five, or ten. I’ve worked on over 2,000. So the experience of reading and trying to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it not only comes from my study, but from 25 years of being a script consultant.
What I’ve done differently is to have gone to undergraduate and graduate school (a B.A., 3 M.A. degrees, and a doctorate degree – a Th.D), and then directing theater for 15 years, which means I was constantly analyzing plays to direct them, and then teaching dramatic literature at the college level. But I’ve always been very practical, as opposed to scholarly. In all of my education, I kept asking what this means in terms of real life.
I also studied theology. One might wonder how that relates to my work, but theology and philosophy are about value systems, and I always believe that people put their value systems in a script. So my background allows me to find what the meaning is that the writer is trying to input, and then to figure out how to communicate that through images and character, without getting preachy and on-the-nose. My background has served me very well in looking for the meaning in the script and helping the writer allow it to come through dramatically.
SP: Instability and rejection is a common factor among writers. What advice would you give screenwriters to deal with these situations? What should make them keep going?
LS: I think a writer needs to be open and flexible with criticism. I have worked with some wonderful writers who were very closed. In one case, the Vice President of a studio said to me, “He’s a good writer, but not worth the aggravation.” In another case, a writer was so uncooperative that the executive said – “not only will I never work with that person again, but I’ll tell everyone else never to work with that person again!” Other writers who are known to be co-operative, often get work because people love to work with them. A writer needs to know which battles are worth fighting, and how to be diplomatic to get a solution that really works for everyone. Learning how to work cooperatively can make a huge difference in people’s careers.
This is true for everyone. I have heard people tell me that they worked with script consultants who were angry at them for their flawed scripts. In several instances, I noticed that those people are no longer in business. And I’ve heard this with actors, with directors, etc. A very famous director once said of a very famous actress, “I will never work with that person again! No matter how good she is!” So, obviously it does make a difference.
On Rejection, here’s my advice. Get a spiritual life of some kind. And I emphasize “of some kind.” Every writer needs to find some way to put their life into perspective. And whether they’re helped through meditation, friends they can talk to, New Age philosophy, affirmations, church, synagogue, mosque, etc., they need to realize that rejection is part of the whole thing, and they have to find a way to deal with it by not seeing their script as the be-all-and-end-all of everything. Since I’m from the West (now living in Colorado,) the other advice I’d give is learn to “cowboy up.” That means no whining. You fall off, you get back on again, you fall off, you get back on again. I also think that Hershey bars with almonds and chocolate chip cookies help.
SP: Can you name 3 non-screenwriting books or sources every screenwriting should read or learn from? Why?
LS: I love Annie La Mott’s book Bird By Bird about writing in general. And Julia Cameron’s book about The Artist’s Way. Otherwise, hmmm… I think I’d recommend my own book that is not about screenwriting, it’s called Web-Thinking: Connecting Not Competing for Success. [The book is] about changing one’s attitude, about teamwork and collaboration and supporting each other. I wrote it because of what I learned.
SP: What should screenwriters learn to accept about their role in the filmmaking process and Hollywood? What can they do beyond writing to see their work faithfully adapted on screen, besides directing?
LS: There are no guarantees when someone buys their work, so they should know what to fight for, and what not to fight for, and recognize that sometimes they’ll be super proud of the work on the screen, and sometimes they’ll be disappointed. If they can’t deal with it, they should write novels because they’d have more control
SP: More than two-thirds of Oscar-winning films have been adaptations. What are non-screenwriters doing differently?
LS: They’re writing fabulous books that are winning people over!
SP: Does character come from plot, or plot from character?
LS: Some writers begin with character and let the plot grow out of character. Some begin with plot and let the character grow out of plot. Eventually, they all have to work together. Although some writers say that plot grows out of character, I notice that those are the writers who write very character-driven stories. I believe this does vary from writer to writer and script to script.
SP: How would you advise writers to develop a unique voice and style when Hollywood has its own ideas of what a winning script should be?
LS: I would advise that they don’t think commerciality for their first 1-3 scripts, but develop their voice and find out what they like to do. When I wrote Making a Good Writer Great, I wanted to help writers learn about their creative process, and find methods to figure out what their voice was, so rather than writing 5 scripts to find it, they could do a series of exercises over a period of a few months and find their voice that way. They should do what they like, not try to write to Hollywood. Gradually, they’ll develop a commercial sense, or find that commerciality is about individual artistry done well.
SP: If a writer does not wish to write for Hollywood or declines to write traditional narrative stories, how can your classes/books/lessons still be of help to him/her?
LS: My book Advanced Screenwriting has 2 chapters about how to write in non traditional structures, many of which have done well in Hollywood (i.e., Pulp Fiction, Crash, Syriana.)
SP: How much should a writer be aware of in terms of character, structure, theme, and story when a burst of inspiration hits and (s)he is writing the first draft?
LS: The first draft, do the work to figure out where you’re going, but let it flow and don’t evaluate too quickly. Write as it comes to you, while still following somewhat of an outline, but be prepared to let the Muse take you other places. Remember, there is the creative process and the analytical process, and although there are places where they come together, you want to favor the creative process in the early stages. But, if you’ve learned structure, concepts about character and theme, then they will have been digested and still be informing your creative process.
SP: Writers often ask why do so many bad scripts get made into films in Hollywood. Do you think they are right in assuming the scripts were bad to begin with or do you think bad things happen to good scripts?
LS: Well, some bad scripts are rewritten too many times, without any guidance about what needs to be fixed. Some bad scripts ruined the good, without addressing the bad. Sometimes a script starts out good, and is ruined by directing, wrong casting, even music that doesn’t serve the story. I’ve seen all of these happen.
TOP 5 TIPS ON
DIALOGUE: Develop an ear by listening and having a notebook with you to record unusual vocabulary, rhythms, what people talk about. Copy down great dialogue, and interview people who have an interesting way of speaking with a tape recorder to catch their rhythms. Then say the dialogue out loud, and then write more dialogue in that same rhythm to practice.
CHARACTER: Watch people, write down characteristics, notice their complexity and what they do and how they do it. Observe…lots. Listen, talk to people a lot. Ask personal questions. Don’t be afraid to pry.
ADAPTATION: Read lots of books and look for the storyline, since if the book doesn’t have a strong enough story, it won’t work. Look for images that work as metaphors since those can be translated cinematically. Look for rich character details and try to figure out how you would translate them.
THE INDUSTRY: Make sure your life isn’t only about the industry. Make friends who are outside the industry. But also go to industry functions. Meet people. Don’t try to be a taker, but be a giver by not just looking for people who can help you, but looking for the people where you “click”. Offer even top level people some kind of gift, i.e., if they love to golf and you know a great out-of-the-way golf course, let them know. Find out what they like and think of giving to them, not taking from them. Don’t judge people by what they’ve done or what kind of car they drive or how much power they have. The people who do the most for you might be the secretaries, the people on the way up.
ON BEING A SCREENWRITER: Have a writing discipline, even if it’s only an hour every other day or 2 hours a week or… stick to it. The Muse will begin to learn when you’re in the chair writing and will visit you more often. Don’t let fear determine how much you write. You can type while being terrified, (I’ve done it plenty of times) and don’t worry about the typos. If you don’t like to write, don’t write. But if you do, then trust the process and stay with the process. Don’t hurry it. Don’t see how fast you can get to the results. Don’t beat yourself up because your first or second script didn’t sell (most don’t). Write because you love to write and have to write. Let the process itself bring rewards. And, whenever something wonderful happens – you are a finalist in a screenwriting contest, you get an option, a sale, etc. – celebrate! Don’t wait for the Academy Award to celebrate…celebrate the steps forward in whatever way you best celebrate. Personally, I get a bottle of expensive champagne and celebrate with friends whenever I sell a book, or finish one, or when it comes out.
Also, join a writing support group. I believe statistics say that writers do better when they are part of a support group, especially when they’re new at it, finding their writing discipline, or need to get feed-back. Of course, for some this doesn’t work, but it can be helpful.
The other thing I think can be helpful – find a friend or two who is not in the industry to talk to, where you can be really honest. The industry depends, partly, on everyone projecting success, so writers learn to say “Oh, my script is at Disney” (so are thousands of others) or “It’s going well” (perhaps when nothing is working.) We can learn to kid ourselves about the truth, and yet the industry demands that we give a sense of success. It doesn’t help for a writer to say “I’m a complete loser and my writing is terrible”. When I started in the industry, I found a friend where I could be absolutely honest about how things were really going, while recognizing what the industry demanded. This kept me honest with myself, but also kept me going because my friend was sympathetic, and helped me understand that life doesn’t go perfectly for anyone. Not everyone has to know about the troubles you have in your writing, but it’s good to be realistic and honest with someone – including yourself.