The BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture series 2013 saw a host of industry talent share their expertise at events in London.
Among the speakers were Hossein Amini ( Drive , The Wings Of The Dove , Snow White & The Huntsman ) and Tony Gilroy ( Michael Clayton , the Bourne series), and we recently sat down with them to get their screenwriting advice and tips.
You can also listen to their BAFTA lectures online:
Listen to Hossein Amini’s lecture
Listen to Tony Gilroy’s lecture
Read on to find out what they had to say to us about their craft.
How did you get into screenwriting?
"It was through my experience at university. It was really to write something in order to shoot something, it wasn't specifically wanting to be a screenwriter, but that fueled it. The two almost feel very attached for me. Generally I find when I'm writing I can see a version of the film in my head, and it probably ends up being nothing like the final film, but it's part of the same process. It's like I'm living in a cinema, watching the film as I'm writing it down. So it was more as a kind of filmmaker than a writer that I got into."
Do you have any advice for anyone who's trying to get into screenwriting?
"Yeah, just to keep trying and persisting, because I think you learn from doing lots and lots of stuff, but also you have to be quite tough about rejection, and not getting breaks. I mean, I had tons of stuff, I kept on sending scripts out and getting rejection letters, often probably from people who sometimes hadn't even read them, I assume. I think that persistence and toughness are just so important. And I think everyone gets better, I don't think it's something you're born with, I do think it's something that hard work gets you further and further, and I think you improve."
How did you end up landing those first TV jobs?
"I wrote spec scripts that got to an agent who liked them, which is quite a rare thing, because normally agents nowadays tend to wait until you've already got something set up before they take you on. But I was very lucky. I had an agent who just took me on, based on a sample script, and then spent a year not earning any money, just sending my scripts out, and then a commissioning editor at the BBC read it and I actually got paid for the first time to write something and it started from there."
Can you give an overview of your main stages of putting together a screenplay from start to finish?
"I tend to do books, more often than not, so what I'll generally do is just read through a book and initially on cards I'll jot down pretty much every scene that exists in the book, then I'll put the book aside and just look at the cards. I'll get rid of some cards, if there's repetition or whatever, and I'll write in new scenes that are not in the book, and gradually try to structure it through a card system like that. So it'll probably end up being half of the original cards from the book, and half of them would be new scenes. And quite often I'd swap the order round as well."
Do you have any rituals when it comes to writing? Do you sit in the same place and write every time?
"It's more to do with time actually, I generally tend to start at around 7.30am and I knock off by about 1.30, 2pm. But in the afternoons I'll generally prepare for the next day's writing and I'll watch a film that's related to it, or read a book that's related to the scene I'm going to write the next day. But I generally stop writing because I found earlier on in my career when I was writing, anything I wrote after 2pm I'd sort of be snowblind."
Do you have any golden rules or maxims that you try to stick to?
"You learn with every script, and I think that there are new rules, and I just shot my first film, and in the editing room I just learned so much - for example, that you need a rest from dialogue scenes, and how important momentum is in a script. I think the editing room is much more brutal in exposing structural problems than when you're writing a screenplay or reading a book."
Has your experience of directing changed how you will approach screenwriting in future?
“I think the biggest lesson I learned from it is just how important momentum is. Once they’re on that train it has to have a certain kind of rhythm - for example, the tricky thing about films like The Two Faces Of January [ Amini's directorial debut, starring Viggo Mortensen ], or Drive to a certain extent which is sort of half thriller-half drama, is you can start off as a drama, but once it starts becoming a thriller the audience is quite reluctant to it going back to being a drama. And I think when you’re in the thriller rhythm you have to sustain that through to the end of the film, which is what I think Nicolas [ Winding Refn ] did really well in Drive ."
Do you feel that after finding success that you want to share tips and advice with aspiring screenwriters?
“I feel it’s almost like a karma. It sounds pretentious, but it’s a karma thing where I sort of feel that you have to give back, because people helped me when I was starting out and I guess it is a duty. It’s a pleasure and a duty in a sense. I feel very lucky to get paid to do something like this, and if I can help other people do the same, then great.”
How did you land your first job as a screenwriter?
“Well, I wrote scripts for about five or six years, to no success, I had people that were interested in reading the next one, which was the dream I lived on, and I was about to have a child actually. I had gotten married and I was tending bar and a friend of mine and I sold a script to Cannon. We wrote it together. I came and met him and said, ‘I have an idea, I have a connection at Cannon. If we write a movie for Chuck Norris along these lines we might get paid, and you’ve done it before and I haven’t.’ So we went in together and we sold it, and we split the Writer’s Guild minimum cheque, and I quit tending bar. [ Laughs ]. And I was 30.”
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into screenwriting?
“I mean: love movies, I guess. Know something. [ Laughs ]. Really knowing something, and having something to say, would be helpful. I actually think that learning how to actually write screenplays is something that you can figure out on your own rather quickly. Having story and a movie in your head, that’s of any value, that needs to be shared with other people is the difficult part. Everything I’ve ever learned I’ve learned it when I needed to learn it, how I needed to learn it, on my own. And so I’m a big believer in that. So I think the actual mechanics of learning how to write a screenplay, if you're really interested, you can figure that out pretty quickly. I'm more interested in journalists and cops and doctors that want to be screenwriters than I am in screenwriters that want to be screenwriters."
Can you give an overview of the main stages of writing a screenplay?
"You start with something, with a character, or with an idea. You start with a notion and then if you're writing original screenplays you have to make a world, you have to do what any novelist has to do. You not only have to make the world, you have to make a world that can stand the most difficult test of being performed by actual human beings in settings that we really recognise as real. So you have to make a world, and that's the trick of this whole thing. You start anywhere. I've started in many, many different ways. In the end, I always have to come back to the character, the character has to drive it, ultimately, but it can start in a number of ways."
Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write at a certain time or place?
"I look for a rhythm. I mean, I've been doing this now for quite a long time and my habitat changed over the years. I used to be extremely, extremely diligent about my hours and how I did it, and now I spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen - when things happen I like to be there. You have to be there when things are happening, or nothing's going to happen. But I'm trying to create a situation where I want to be at my desk, I think that's the easiest thing to say."
What would you say is the biggest challenge of the life of a screenwriter?
"To not become cynical, I suppose. To stay excited. If you stay as a pure screenwriter, the chances of having a very disappointing aggregate experience over time is very likely. So fighting that and staying excited, finding other ways - whether you become a director or a playwright or a novelist - finding something that exempts you in some way for some of the disappointments that are built into the screenwriter's life."
Do you always spend a lot of time researching before starting a screenplay?
"That's like one of the three best things about the job. I mean really, honest-to-God. Travelling, research and getting paid, those three things are like the three great perks of this job, on top of a life of making stuff up. It's frigging great to get paid or to to be reinforced to learn about stuff. There's a huge journalism part of the job, for a screenwriter like myself, not every screenwriter, but the kind if things I do. I've gotten to learn about so many things over the years and you get to go places and talk to people and have access to things."
Do you ever get writer's block?
"There's been long periods of time where nothing happens and I think there's all different variations on that. I've never had any difficulty actually thinking of what to write. Trying to find an idea in the marketplace or trying to find an idea that's really interesting grows more difficult sometimes after you've done a lot of different things. I certainly have had a lot of unpleasant hours in rooms, yes."
When you're writing, do you cast it in your head?
"Sure, very much. You can cast anybody you want! Living or dead!"
Can you say anything about what you're working on next?
"I'm working on an original script that I've been working on way too long, hopefully I'll finish it in the next month while I'm on the road, but more than that I don't really want to say."
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson