'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 Fish, American Psycho, and 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 Chill, thinking, "What can I learn from this movie?" And you know what it is? Do you know why it's so popular?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/Off, he 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.
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.