Lawrence Kasdan on Screenwriting in AFF’s On Story Podcast: 'To This Day, It’s a Battle'
Whether staring at the blank page or struggling to cut 30 pages from a bloated first draft, every screenwriter has likely had the same thought: “This is so much easier for other screenwriters.” Guess what? It’s not easier for other screenwriters. Writing screenplays is hard. Sure, some screenwriters are very successful at writing great screenplays, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to write them. Don’t take it from me, though. Listen to Lawrence Kasdan tell you about the challenges he still faces today when he writes a screenplay, thanks to Austin Film Festival’s On Story podcast.
Here at NFS, we’re big fans of Austin Film Festival’s On Story PBS television series, capturing great candid moments with screenwriters discussing craft from AFF’s panels. Sometimes, though, we just like to listen to the stories these screenwriters tell when we’re walking the dog or driving around town. Thankfully, Austin Film Festival has created the On Story Podcast, condensing screenwriter conversations into streamlined audio files for our listening pleasure.
After listening to many On Story podcast episodes recently, several moments from “A Conversation with Lawrence Kasdan” kept popping back into my mind. Kasdan, whose works include The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill, Return of the Jedi, and The Accidental Tourist, had a frank discussion of the challenges that all screenwriters face, including successful screenwriters like himself, which really resonated with me.
Check out the podcast in full below, after which I’ve included some highlights if you’re pressed for time.
One of the most important points Kasdan makes during his talk is that screenplays need to be lean:
People used to say scripts should be 120 pages. That’s bullshit. They should be 100 pages long. There’s no one who has ever given the note: “This script is too short.” Never happened. I hate reading screenplays, despise it, and I’m not alone. These agents — and these producers — they hate reading scripts, too, and they have piles of them. If the first thing they do when they get the script is look at the last page and see what the number is, that’s the most important thing — So you’ve got to be rigorous with yourself. And if you think it’s looking really good at 140, you’re kidding yourself.
In my experience, first drafts tend to run long. Like Kasdan says, no one likes to read screenplays, not even screenwriters. If we do the hard work of cutting down the script to its essentials, we have a better chance of someone actually reading our script. Cutting pages is difficult for everyone, even the best of screenwriters, as Kasdan notes:
To this day, it’s a battle. Every time I do it, it’s a battle to take out, take out, take out. That should be another one of the many things you should have on the wall in front of you: “Take out. Take out.”
Cutting pages out of the script to find the essence of the story isn’t just important to get people to read the script. Finding the best, most economical way to tell the story on the page matters tremendously when the film goes into production. Kasdan explains why:
When you actually make a movie, you go in the editing room and you constantly say to yourself, “Why’d I do that? I didn’t need that. This actor looked at this actor and I knew everything I needed to know what this whole scene is about.” At that point you kick yourself, because you wasted a day or half a day, which you did not have and which you could not afford doing something that was just as quickly conveyed by one look.
The podcast also includes fantastic anecdotes about George Lucas asking Kasdan to write The Empire Strikes Back and the moment Lucas shared with Kasdan one of cinema’s greatest reveals. Kasdan also illustrates the importance of cutting pages when describing the story of the multiple drafts of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
So, take 20 minutes and listen to the complete On Story podcast with Lawrence Kasdan. Once you do, be sure to go to On Story’s iTunes page to subscribe, rate the podcast and offer a review. This will help Austin Film Festival keep producing more On Story podcasts — something that helps us all.
Do Kasdan’s words of advice encourage you to do the hard but necessary work of cutting pages out of your screenplay? What strategies do you use to figure out which pages or scenes need to be cut to get your screenplay down to 100 pages or less? Share your thoughts with us in the Comments.