November 4, 2013

'American Psycho' Screenwriter Guinevere Turner Wants You to Write the Worst Scene Ever Written

Writer/director/actress, and one of the most influential proponents of LGBT cinema, Guinevere Turner, sat down with NFS to talk about her work as a screenwriter for such films as Go FishAmerican Psychoand The Notorious Bettie Page. While sharing about how she got started, her process, and techniques that made her a better writer (yes, including writing bad scenes,) she also discusses her feature directorial debut for her upcoming project Creeps.

NFS: So, how did you get into screenwriting?

GT: I got into screenwriting in kind of a roundabout way -- unexpected, I should say. I went to Sarah Lawrence College -- I thought I was going to be a novelist. I was living in Chicago, my girlfriend just graduated from film school, and we were both bemoaning the state of lesbian cinema. And then I said, "Well, I'm a writer. I'll write a script. You're a filmmaker, so you'll make a movie." I'd never wrote a script in my life when I wrote the script for Go Fish. I got into screenwriting because I just decided to do it. I never studied it -- and it's funny, because now I teach it. It was very much a learning-by-doing, trial and error process.

The guy who wrote Ocean's Thirteen -- Brian Koppelman -- I was looking at his Six-Second Screenwriting Advice, and he said, "All screenwriting books are bullshit. Watch movies. Read scripts." That has kind of been my execution. One time I really broke down The Big Chillthinking, "What can I learn from this movie?" And you know what it is? Do you know why it's so popular?

NFS: Why?

GT: Because it goes from a montage to a great song about every 15 minutes.

NFS: Let me tell you a little story. When I was in college, I took a class on female directors, and on that syllabus was Go Fish and American Psycho -- two totally different stories written by the same woman. 

GT: It's funny to me, because I feel like I have these very passionate fanbases that are two completely different animals that don't even know the other exists. Like, I don't think the people who like Go Fish even know I wrote American Psycho and vice versa.

NFS: Is it safe to say that as you mature as a writer, you start writing differently -- different subject matter?

GT: I think most writers stick to genre more or less -- the genre that they work in. But, I think for me, one of the things that was informing my choices after Go Fish was that I thought a lot of people, critics, audience, everybody thought, "Oh, that was cute, but now they told their story. The end." Like, people got the impression that it was a semi-documentary and we were all friends in real life and it was improv. None of that was the case. So, I felt this incredible need to prove that I had a lot more to say.

That was a huge part of why I was excited when Mary Harron asked me to do American Psycho with her -- and Bettie Page. You know, Go Fish was such an anomaly, and we were so young, and we knew we'd have to work hard to get real credibility -- not just be those cute girls from Go Fish.

Go Fish

NFS: Even as a female writer, you don't want to be -- you know -- the thought is, "Women write love stories about girl things --"

GT: Mother-daughter stories.

NFS: Exactly.

GT: Stories about quilts and pants. Stories about Tuscany.

NFS: That's exactly what I'm saying! So, it is important to show that genre isn't gender specific.

GT: I'm actually doing something again with Mary. It's 5 horror shorts directed by women. Mary's doing one. Jennifer Lynch is doing one. Karyn Kusama's doing one. The Soska Sisters are doing one. All directors and main characters are female. It just seems like it's going to be a really cool project that will really showcase what we're talking about, which is that females making films doesn't mean romance -- or -- you know, I don't know -- just chick shit, you know.

NFS: I was actually wanting to ask you about working with Mary Harron. You've co-written a couple of screenplays with her. What is it like to collaborate with another writer?

GT: Finding a person you can collaborate with is more important than finding a spouse. You can think someone's a genius, but you can't stand to sit in a room with for 8 hours and talk to each other. The ego balance has to be perfect, where you're able to say, "No, I don't think that works," or "Yeah that's totally great. What about this, too?" And also to be able to  together acknowledge when you're burned out. To together acknowledge when you're on fire and want to stay up all night. It's a really important partnership, and I have that with Mary.

Even though we live in different cities now, we would always work in person in the same room with one person on the computer. I mean, I worked with this woman when she was pregnant -- twice! We were in the middle of writing American Psycho, and she'd be like, "Oh! I think I've got a little roll going. I need some spinach!" And I'd have to run down her 7th-floor walkup in New York to find her some spinach -- while we're writing about frozen heads in the freezer and drills to the back of the head and stuff.

American Psycho

NFS: What's your writing process?

GT: I spend a lot of time with other writers, because I do workshops and labs. My friend John Lutz sets a timer for one hour and he forces himself to write -- even if all he writes is, "I'm so fat. I can't believe how fat I am. I'm so fat." And he always said that pretty soon it works. So, I tried John's method, and all I was writing was, "I hate John. I can't believe he would do this every day. I do not respond well to structure."

I'm very unstructured in my writing process, but for the most part, I can only really write first thing in the morning without looking at any email, phone, or anything. I don't write with music. I do not want to have a conversation. No distractions -- and by distractions I mean human beings. I write stuff down -- ideas, bits of dialog, in a book a carry around with me -- all handwritten. When I'm talking to people, and they use a certain turn of phrase that is unique or interesting, I write it down, because writing dialog is a real challenge. One of my favorite things to do is record a conversation with someone and realize that almost everyone speaks in fragments. So, you can't actually write how people really talk, because it'd be really irritating.

So, for me, it's very solitary, very first thing in the morning, because I'm usually thinking about it anyway. I feel like it's fresh in my mind, because it's what's going on in my subconscious while I'm sleeping. I mean, I pretty much know that if I haven't written by noon it's not going to happen.

Which is interesting, because when I worked on The L Word, you couldn't be that way. You have very concrete deadlines. The show's already being shot and your stuff is going to be shot in 2 weeks, so if you don't write it, you're just not doing your job and you're fired.

The Notorious Bettie Page

NFS: So, how did you get to this point? How did you learn how to write screenplays? Did you read books? Take classes? Do you just have a knack for storytelling? What?

GT: I've never read a screenwriting book. I just studied other screenplays. I think it's one of the smartest things you can do if you're trying to teach yourself. Read the screenplay of a movie you've seen already and one of a movie you haven't. That way you can see what it looks like on the page, and then what it turns into. It's really powerful and useful.

NFS: What advice would you give to screenwriters?

GT: My #1 piece of advice would be to just sit down and write something. Anything. Even if it sucks. My friend Mike Werb, he wrote Face/Offhe always says that when he gets stuck he just sits at his computer and he says out loud, "I'm going to write the worst scene ever written," and then he writes it. I use that all the time, because for almost everyone, it is so much easier to re-write something than it is to write it for the first time. It just becomes more clear what to write once you see the wrong thing in front of you.

A lesson I learned later -- to not be so precious about what you put. You know what you want to happen in the scene, so just write the crappiest version of it, take a deep breath, and say, "Okay, I have actually accomplished something." As writers, we tend to beat ourselves up. If we're not proactive or we can't figure out a scene, we just get ourselves into a funk, thinking maybe we're not talented, or maybe we're not going to be successful. Thinking, "Maybe I should just take a nap or have a drink." You just can't let yourself go down that road. Just write something shitty and then make it better.

NFS: So, you're working on a new project called Creeps, which is on Indiegogo right now. Tell us all about it!

GT: Creeps is a feature film I wrote and that am going to direct. It'll be the first feature that I direct -- I've directed short films, so I sort of know what I'm doing. But, I didn't go to film school, so I'm learning as I go. Directing is so fun and challenging and great. I can't wait to direct this feature.

It's about two best friends who are trying really hard not to do drugs or drink for a week, because they want to have really good skin for an event. So, it just follows them through the week of them feeling miserable and fighting with each other, watching their friendship fall apart, and eventually, you know, in the tradition of a romantic comedy that ends with a wedding, this ends with a big art opening that is a complete disaster in every way -- but in a funny way.

On the one hand it sounds like a shallow movie about horrible people, but in reality, it's about a new wave of LGBT representation in movies where we get to be real, real people. We get to be unhealthy, unkind to each other, and, you know, we get to be assholes like so many people are.

So, I'm using Indiegogo for my first foray into crowdfunding. It's a very interesting, modern, filmmaking process. It's so interesting, because it's like pre-pre-pre-pre-production, where I'm in full-time work mode just to get to where I can be in full-time work mode to make the movie. It's all about social media, of course.

NFS: Absolutely.

GT: I heard something yesterday about how three words have been changed by social media: like, share, and follow. So, "like" used to be a good thing. Now you just go around "liking" things. "I want you to 'like' my page. 'Like' my picture." And then there's "share," something that we learned as children. Now it's like, "Share this!" Like, "Hey, I just forced this on you, now go force it on someone else."

And then "follow" used to be a bad thing. I don't want anyone to follow me -- you know, stop following me! We're all trying to get followers and get people to follow us, and following other people around. If we could just do an actual physical manifestation of everybody following everybody in the universe, do you know how funny that would look? Everybody -- I'm trying to follow you. You're trying to follow me. We're following each other -- how does that even work? Are we just standing here?

***

Thanks to Guinevere for taking the time to talk with us!

If you want to learn more about Creeps, or if you want to contribute, head on over to her Indiegogo campaign.

What do you think? Did you find Guinevere's story/advice helpful? Let us know in the comments.

Link: Creeps campaign -- Indiegogo

Your Comment

32 Comments

"It was a dark and stormy night. He couldn't help but laugh" - was that bad enough?

November 4, 2013 at 10:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

"write the worst scene ever written" mantra - what great advice!

I recently did something odd, I wrote a screenplay narrative to a short I already shot!
http://vimeo.com/78481382

I was involved in a 48hr a few years back and all shots were all very Neo Film Noir. When the writer went MIA shortly into the project I just did shot after shot in a row for about 18 hours straight! I had little to no idea how it would make any sense - I just shot what felt & flowed right to me at the time - all while in a dream like sleep deprived state!

Years after this experience I still had all the footage and no story. One of the main characters in the 48hr short project was Paul Addis (the guy who burned down the burning man in 2007 and spent a couple years in jail for it), committed suicide last year on Oct 27 2012. I decided I wanted to honor Paul by making something show-able out of all the footage, so I sat down and spent half a year working on a story and doing creative editing. I shot a new opening & ending on a RED camera as well as shot a mini "story bridging" sequence on a ML hack 5D2... I then booked a showtime at a local theater. The whole time I was working on this project, and I was working up until the day of the show, I thought to myself, "this is crazy, this will never work". After all was said and done, it turned into pretty cool and I'm proud of it. It was quite the eye opening and fear conquering experience.

You may be saying to yourself right about now, "Cool story bro - good fer you - thanks for sharing."

There point here is...

During my whole experience making this short I definitely learned if I just go all out and give it my all, while wanting the best but excepting the worst, I will completely surprise myself and learn a truck ton no matter what I come up with!

I’ll post the full short online soon, after I finish w/ the music - the theatrical debut was to a live musical score.

I hope my story was of interest and insightful to some. Thank You

November 4, 2013 at 11:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Sadly I can't also re-edit my post to fix all my typos too!
=)

November 4, 2013 at 11:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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How ironic, she should just look at any scene in the abortion that is the film version of American Psycho, a truly bland and generic film that 'celebrates' everything the book so vehemently criticises.

On a slightly political note it should never ever have been adapted and directed by women, the undercurrent of the book is just too misogynistic for a female to do it justice without trying to feminise it, ultimately the main reason for it's abject failure, that and lack of talent.

November 4, 2013 at 10:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Filthy Punt

The trolls came out early today.

November 4, 2013 at 11:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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the internet has become a culture of absolute dismissal. everything gets crapped on, even if it's good. you can't win.

November 4, 2013 at 12:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Allen

When I saw the headline I thought Ms V was now just setting traps for them :-)
Love this woman's work. And great insights here. I often tell people I learn as much from bad movies as I do 'good' ones.
For bad scripting try reading Fast 5. I really enjoyed the film, but on paper it reads like the rantings of a very immature 12 year old boy with body dismorphia issues.

November 4, 2013 at 1:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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marklondon

Where did you find the script for Fast 5?

November 4, 2013 at 2:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Will

November 4, 2013 at 3:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Well that didn't go as planned.

November 4, 2013 at 5:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Great article, inspired me to go write!

November 4, 2013 at 11:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mitch

I don't understand why people always criticise screenwriting books and teachers. I've learned a ton of stuff from those books and classes that has improved my writing and shortcut 1000s of hours of time that would have otherwise been wasted. No-one ever criticises acting teachers because they haven't won Best Actor Academy Awards and says "You just have to go act" or film schools by saying "You just have to go shoot movies".

So many people think just because they learnt to write at school and wrote stories their mum liked, that you don't need to be taught how to tell a story properly, that anyone can sit at a keyboard and bash out a few words without understanding how character/plot/location/dialogue/scene/action etc. are intertwined and that how those elements work together is important.

Sure there's good ones and bad ones, but anyone who writes screenplays for a living and insists they never even read a book on screenwriting is a liar. Period.

November 4, 2013 at 12:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Swinefever

yeah, i agree. i mean even to just learn the basics. i don't see what the big deal is. even if you don't adopt any of the proposed methods, reading different takes on the subject can only improve your craft.

November 4, 2013 at 12:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Allen

U can't compare acting with writing. We ALL act EVERYDAY!!! ALL OF US. All acting sch does is help us recall and channel emotions as we break down the script. And of course u can't teach screen charisma, it's either u have it or u don't. Writing on the other hand varies. But people r at current levels and u have to choose what method suits u best

November 4, 2013 at 11:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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thadon calico

I love the "American Psycho" movie.

November 4, 2013 at 1:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Jeem

Fantastic interview!

Everyone arguing on the other posts should take a few minutes and read this. I lose a little faith in humanity that more people aren't checking these out and instead complaining about things that don't really matter, and questioning whether we've lost our way at NFS.

I think the part about being too precious is something that many of us struggle with - I know I do. Muscling that first draft out as Aronofsky has put it is important. It's one of the reasons real deadlines are great, because they force you to stop worrying about the quality and just sit down and write - because you're not getting it right the first time anyway. Writing is really all about rewriting as so many have said.

November 4, 2013 at 4:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

And some wonder why we're going to a real name system with the relaunch..

November 4, 2013 at 5:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Really interesting interview and some very good points. Writing a terrible scene and then editing it gets so much more accomplished than staring at a blank piece of paper and waiting for inspiration.

And as for the 'real name system' - looking forward to it. If you're not willing to put your name to something you've said, don't say it.

November 5, 2013 at 3:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Will Gilbey

"On the one hand it sounds like a shallow movie about horrible people..." - Sounds like American Psycho.

November 4, 2013 at 5:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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In my opinion, Ketch Rossi's The Red Dress is the worst script ever...might be a good example.

November 4, 2013 at 6:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Sam

LMMFAO. I have to crown u as best troll Nfs ever had. I fell out laughing. U must be a reduser troll as well

November 5, 2013 at 12:00AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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thadon calico

You know, it was called "the beautiful rapist" before being changed to the red dress.

November 5, 2013 at 4:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Arguile

U guys r killing me. lmmfao. Let that man film in peace. Lol. Only lars von trier could pull off such a film title, anyone else is feast for feminists

November 5, 2013 at 8:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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thadon calico

I'll take it one step further... You'll never see Ketch Rossi and Tommy Wiseau in the same room. It's not humanly possible. I know, I know... I just blew your mind. Yes... they're one-in-the-same. Laugh all you want but Ketch err.. Tommy just pulled off one of the greatest dupes in the history of cinema by "raping" your mind. Rape was just his metaphor for change. *Cue X-Files theme song

November 6, 2013 at 3:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Fox Mulder

I like learning about the writing process and refining work. We need better scripts that is for sure. One question though: why is film content getting so morose these days? What happened to the golden era of filmmaking?

Why do we need to fill stories with parties, drunkenness, debauchery and all forms of sexual deviancy and then call them artistic and bold?

I'm a firm believer art influences culture: perhaps we should focus less on the dark aspects of society and promote more good!

November 4, 2013 at 8:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Not sure it ever changed.

November 8, 2013 at 9:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Carl

Great interview. Cool project, she's rad. Thanks for this, V.

November 5, 2013 at 11:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

Thanks for that interview.

Ultimately, that has got to be the best little piece of advice I've ever come across. Being precious just kills creativity, I think.

November 7, 2013 at 4:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ron I

Unfortunately, the screenplay/film was a pretty poor, campy, and misguided representation of the rather brilliant Easton-Ellis book. I mean, I respect anyone who gets some Hollywood stuff made, but John Milius or Coen-brothers writing, it most certainly is not.

November 8, 2013 at 4:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Brad T

I agree, I've been accused by my co-workers of being a feminist but American Psycho should never have been adapted (and possibly not directed) by a woman. I don't believe any woman could really relate to where the rampant misogyny and pure animal hatred in men actually comes from. Ultimately it resulted a very poor and weak film (although Bale is perfect) which ironically is as bland as the pop culture society the book so scathingly satirises and critiques.

October 18, 2014 at 11:01AM

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Studio LAX
Editor/Producer/Director
417

Love this and love her.

November 3, 2014 at 4:53PM

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I like the idea of writing down interesting dialogue you hear. Definitely going to try that.

January 3, 2017 at 11:16PM

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