Interview with Linda Seger – 2008

by Emon Hassan on February 13, 2008

bestscreenplay.jpgI’ve had the good fortune of interviewing Dr. Linda Seger back in 2006. Dr. Seger’s latest book, barely 2 weeks old, is called ‘And The Best Screenplay Goes To…‘ Subtitled, “Learning from the Winners: Sideways Shakespeare in Love, and Crash” it is a dissection by Dr. Seger of the three Oscar winning scripts followed by interviews with the Screenwriters as well as, in the case of Sideways, the novelist Rex Pickett.

One would find it almost impossible go any deeper than where this book has in terms of understanding what good scripts are made of. Each script, and the resulting film, is distinctive in its style and substance. Each represents a very different side of society, one even reflects on today’s film industry by telling the story of Shakespeare. Dr. Seger adds to that her observations how and why these films tick the way they have been. There is a story beats section where each script is broken down into segments explaining changes in the story’s narrative. Add to that interviews with the authors and you have a book filled with examples of creativity at work.

Buy book at Amazon: And The Best Screenplay Goes To…

As per release of this book, Dr. Seger kindly agreed to do another interview with me. I thank her.

Emon: I noticed in your new book there are two writers on each of the three scripts. Over the years, what have you noticed are the common characteristics all successful writing duos have?

Linda Seger: In AND THE BEST SCREENPLAY GOES TO, you’ll notice that two of the scripts have writing teams where one writer is also the director – Sideways with Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne writing together, and Alexander directing, and Crash, with Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco writing together, and Paul directing. In Shakespeare in Love, Marc Norman wrote the first draft and Tom Stoppard did the rewrites, which is also very usual in Hollywood where another writer rewrites.

When I came up with the idea for this book, I wanted to interview the writer(s) and director besides analyzing the scripts. The few individual writers that I contacted about possibly using their script said “no”. They weren’t interested in doing an interview. And, you’ll notice, that many Academy Award winning scripts have two writers. I considered changing the rules of this book, and eliminating the interviews, but the publishers really wanted the interviews (which I did also), so we decided that I would only use scripts where the writers agreed to be interviewed. It just happened that the two scripts had writer-directors. The first script I chose was Shakespeare in Love, and I was able to interview John Madden when I was in London. Once I realized how much the director interview added to the book, I decided to make that a requirement for choosing the scripts – that the director was also willing to be interviewed. This worked out well since the other two scripts I chose had writer-directors.

In terms of writing duos, usually they work well because each brings some different strengths to the process, and because the writers are good sounding boards for each other. In terms of how they work together, it really does vary. Years ago, I interviewed Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel for my book From Script to Screen, (the writers of Splash, City Slickers, etc.) and they write in the same room. I noticed with the writing duos of Taylor and Payne, they tend to write in the same room. Haggis and Moresco separate at times. So, the method the duos use varies according to the people. I’m not sure that there are common characteristics, except that the writers have specific writing times, and figure out what works for them.

E: Novelist Rex Pickett and both screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have expressed their disdain for planning out plot or outline. Do you feel the organic process of letting characters lead the way makes for better original stories? How much of that freedom can a writer allow herself when she is adapting a well-known work vs. an unknown?

LS: It was interesting to me that Rex, Alexander and Jim do not use outlines. Yet, in an interview I did with Ron Bass some years ago for Creating Unforgettable Characters, (Ron won the Academy Award for Rainman, along with Barry Morrow), he says he always outlines and then when he makes changes, goes back and outlines further. I think sometimes not outlining can lead to chaos, unless it really works for the writer. For other writers, outlining makes their work too rigid. I think that great writers figure out what works for them, often by trial and error, and then use that method. Sometimes a writer has to go back and forth with this process. If they have lost their way, they might need the map of an outline. If they feel their work is getting too rigid, they might need to be freer and not worry about the outline. The only rule is, “there are no rules!” Writers simply have to learn how their own individual creative process works.

E: There seems to be, still, a lack of women and minority writers, with couple of exceptions, gaining prominence in the industry. What has not changed? Why?

LS: Yes, absolutely. If you look at the Academy Award winners you find very few women. Since I wanted to do recent films (Shakespeare in Love was in the late 1990’s, but every other film was more recent) and only Academy Award winners for Best Screenplay, that truly limited me. There weren’t any women in that group. I considered going back to Thelma and Louise (which had already been written about), but the writer had turned me down for an interview for When Women Call the Shots so there was no point in revisiting that, and I felt it was better to stay with newer films. So, there were no women that I could have interviewed. It is very unfortunate that little has changed with women writers or directors or producers in the last 30 years. Why? In spite of more women in development, there are not more women being hired. Amy Pascal, the head of Columbia Studios, has been an exception. Hollywood says they are liberal, but only liberal when it comes to subject matter, not liberal when it comes to employment practices (on the whole.) This is really a lack of consciousness. I once asked a well-known producer who was ready to shoot a movie and in the process of choosing a director, if he had any women on his short list. He stopped for a moment, and realized he didn’t. This was a man known for being open to women, but he hadn’t thought of it. And that’s the difficulty. Few think this way. And for many women who have had some success (Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Kasi Lemmons, etc.) it is very very difficult. I think people get burned out, and just decide that it’s much, much too hard.

I once asked the Writers Guild and Directors Guild if I could help – i.e., perhaps doing a seminar (for free!) about changing the consciousness. I even suggested it for the day they would put aside, occasionally, for diversity issues. But they said “no”, even though I had done many successful seminars (for pay) for them over the years. They’re willing to do Diversity Days, but not to really change anything. I found that unfortunate.

E: While working on non-screenwriting projects, which you a do a lot, have you come across 3 lessons that makes a lot of sense when applied to screenwriting?

LS: My non-screenwriting projects are usually the theology/spirituality books and speeches, and my horse-back riding. It’s good to be a dimensional person! What have I learned?

First, everything takes lots and lots of time. Be patient. I just sold my 11th book, a theology/spirituality book on success and spirituality. I’ve been trying to sell this proposal for 6 years – and finally an English publisher bought the proposal. Same with horses. I’ve been working on a difficult maneuver called a sliding stop for 2 ½ years, and now sometimes get a 3-5 foot one, and once got a 9 foot one. The good riders do 10-20 feet. So, patience.

Secondly, have a spiritual life of some sort, because in all our work, we need it. Find a way to be clear about what things are ultimate, and what things are not. Don’t take everything too seriously, don’t whine, and get your priorities straight.

Thirdly, Be Prepared! The Old Girl Scout motto – that means working hard at what you want to achieve, and doing the preparation, knowing that even when you do all the preparation (going to seminars, reading books, having a writing discipline, meeting people, and always learning!) that doesn’t guarantee success. That’s why you need #1 and #2.

E: You’d given some useful tips on writing in our last interview. Would you mind sharing 5 more tips on : writing scene description, editing and revising drafts, story structure, working with a director, and – the industry.

LS: Writing Scene Description – You want your description to be spare, but unique and specific. Be careful of vague descriptions that tell us little – i.e.,”a western living room”. Instead, you might mention the warmth of the logs. The leather mission chairs. A fire is burning in the stone fireplace. That should do it! Your description is meant to help the director visualize the film, and of course to also help the scene designer, set decorator, etc. A good idea is to read lots of scripts and see how the best writers do this.

Editing and Revising Drafts – Writing is a process and you will write and rewrite. Know what you are going for in each draft. The early drafts will help you find your story. Another will help you check on your structure, and make sure it’s working. Another will help you deepen the characters. You might do another one to bring out more images to make the script more cinematic. Another might help you explore your theme. When you get your script as good as you can get it, then have readers read it. It’s a good idea to be part of a writer’s support group, provided it’s a constructive, not destructive group. Or, you might have several people who read your script and give you feed-back. Then, you might also work with a professional script consultant who will help you solve the problems that are still there, check all the many elements that need to be integrated, and help you add some other detailing.

Story Structure
– Learn the 3-Act structure well. Later, you can work with non-traditional structures (such as in Crash) but don’t start there.

Working with a Director
– Well, in most cases, you won’t be working with a director. You will release the script to the director and producer, and will then have very little to do with it. But if it turns out they want you on the set to do rewrites, listen carefully to any problems the director is having, and be there to help the director, and actors, resolve them. Try to serve the production and the director, rather than asking them, at that point, to serve your script. If you did a good job on the script before selling it, they won’t be able to destroy it too much, since it will be solid and elements will connect with other elements. And, you can then be the problem-solver if there are some things that need to be changed. In my book, And the Best Screenplay Goes to… read how well Tom Stoppard and John Madden worked together for Shakespeare in Love. And notice the first writer, Marc Norman, had virtually nothing to do with the director.

The industry
– Try to be cooperative and to be a team player. Know what battles you really need to fight, and don’t fight any you don’t need to fight. That means that if they want you to change the chrome to touches of silver in your script, go ahead, unless everything in your script absolutely depends on chrome. If so, explain to the people you’re working with why you used chrome, and discuss. Don’t be difficult! When I write a book, I do everything that my editor asks me to do, unless it absolutely will change a meaning or add unclarity. Then, I let them know why I didn’t want to change it. Since I do about 95% of what they want, and try to be co-operative about everything, they don’t fight over that last 5%.

E. How have you changed as a person while you were involved in writing this book? I mean, has writing this book taken you to certain paths you wouldn’t have otherwise ventured into?

LS: Working with these scripts caused me to think more deeply about the elements I work with every day in my consulting work, and apply them in new ways. Everything we learn from watching films, reading and writing scripts, is useable, and we want to have broad experiences. So the broad experiences of these three scripts certainly gave me new tools – such as structuring multiple ensemble scripts like Crash, or thinking of ways to make a period piece contemporary such as with Shakespeare in Love, and finding ways to create character interest in a simple story such as Sideways.

And I certainly had some new experiences writing this book. I had a wonderful time doing the Sideways Tour in the Santa Ynez Valley with my friend, author Mara Purl. It was a thrill to spend 2 hours with Marc Norman, in his office in L.A., and John Madden, in his home in London, talking about their work and meeting with Rex Pickett, the novelist of Sideways. (The other interviews were done over the phone.) I began writing the book when teaching in Rome, and started with Shakespeare in Love, writing in the courtyard of my hotel, and feeling that special thrill that always comes when starting a new book.

I don’t know if I changed as a person, since the book was an extension of the work I do every day as a script consultant. But I certainly have more tools to use as a result of delving so deeply into these three scripts.

E: Name three fiction or non-fiction books you’ve read since our last interview and would highly recommend screenwriters read.

LS: Once writers have a good start on learning the basics of screenwriting, it’s good to move into learning more about other related areas. I’d recommend books by mythologist Pamela Jaye Smith – her book Inner Drives and also her next book which will be published this spring called The Power of the Dark Side – both will be helpful for work with character.

I may have recommended Anne La Mott’s book Bird by Bird in ourlast interview. It’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and has been a real model for me, as a non-fiction writer, to keep improving my ability as a writer.

Judith Searle has a fascinating book called The Literary Enneagrams which is great for character work, since she applies the enneagram theory to literary and film characters.

I’m going to add several other books which I believe are now out of print (maybe not), but if you can ever get these books, they were incredibly influential in my growth as a creative person. One is by Ben Shahn called The Shape of Content. Another is by Robert McKim called Experiences in Visual Thinking. And another is Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (He has other books published, but this is the one I know.)

And if they can get a hold of my out-of-print book, Web-Thinking: Connecting not Competing for Success, it will change their lives. (I have a few copies left.)

For all things Dr. Linda Seger, visit her site.

Related: Interview with Linda Seger – 1 (2006)

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