Oscar-Nominee John Logan Reveals the Secret to Becoming a Successful Screenwriter
Aspiring screenwriters are always looking for that pathway to success, the one that will open the doors to getting their scripts turned into films. The reality is there is no single pathway to success. Every writer has to forge a new trail. Nevertheless, we seem compelled to look to successful screenwriters to see if we can mimic at least part of their journey. To help us on this quest, screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator, Any Given Sunday) has provided some helpful tips in his BAFTA lecture podcast.
You can hear the full podcast here:
Of particular interest to me is how screenwriters get their starts. Logan’s start as a writer may cause some to reconsider:
I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years…And it was the greatest time in my life because I had no expectations of anything but learning how to do my job, which was to be a playwright…It was a very vibrant time in Chicago theatre, and I loved it. I spent ten years learning how to do my job and it was fantastic.
Those ten years paid off in spades for Logan when an executive at HBO discovered one of his plays. When that executive, Brian Siberell, left HBO to become an agent at CAA, he took on Logan as his first client and guided him to write the screenplay for his idea of King Lear in the NFL, which became Any Given Sunday. Oliver Stone read Logan’s draft and coached him through 26 more drafts to make the final film. Not a bad way to learn screenwriting, methinks.
Speaking of how to learn how to write a screenplay, Logan shares a similar opinion I’ve heard expressed by many established screenwriters regarding screenwriting books:
I think what those books teach you is they give you a skeleton, like every other skeleton. And if that’s what you want to do then you should do that. You shouldn’t be a writer because as a writer you have to be willing to follow the strange whims of poetry and language and character to the extremest possible, offensive and provocative areas. None of which fits into a pattern.
Instead, Logan reveals his secret to becoming a successful screenwriter:
If you want to be a successful screenwriter, here’s the secret…Here it is, I’m going to tell you. This is what you have to do, it’s great – don’t tell anyone. You have to read Hamlet and you have to read it again and you have to read it until you understand every word. And then you move onto King Lear. And then maybe you treat yourself to Troilus and Cressida. And then you know what? Then you’re going to go back and read Aristotle’s poetics until you can quote it. And then you’re going to read Sophocles and then you’re going to read Ibsen and then you’re going to read Tony Kushner and then you’re going to read Chekhov. You’re going to understand the continuum of what it is to be a dramatist, so you have respect for the form in which you are trying to function. So you understand what has come before you.
Then, if you choose, watch a couple of movies. But the great mastery of writing words for characters will be taught to you by those people who invented the form over centuries. So to me it’s vital that people understand that, and particularly Shakespeare because of language.
Logan’s lecture is full of great stories and insights, so find an hour and take a listen. To download the podcast to listen on the go, click the down arrow on the right side of the Soundcloud embedded podcast. If you would like to read the transcript for Logan’s lecture and Q&A instead, you can read the HTML version or download the PDF.
What do you use as the foundation for your writing? Have you found success after toiling away for several years? Share your stories with the NFS community.
- Podcast of John Logan’s BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture
- Video highlights and HTML transcript of John Logan’s BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture
- PDF transcript of Logan’s lecture