From Superheroes to Real Life Heroes: David S. Goyer & Susannah Grant On Screenwriting
Heroes are fallible. Even superheroes must have their faults and weaknesses, and the screenwriters behind some of the most memorable portrayals of comic book heroes and real life heroes in recent years are certainly far from perfect. Yet, two long-time screenwriters, David S. Goyer and Susannah Grant, have both battled failures as writers to give us memorable scripts with complex heroes, whether pulled from comic books or ripped from the headlines. Thanks to the BAFTA Screenwriter Lecture series, both Goyer and Grant share their experiences as screenwriters with the rest of us so we can learn how to overcome our own obstacles to create memorable film heroes.
David S. Goyer has made his mark writing comic book heroes set in the real world. He is best known for writing Blade, Batman Begins (plus story credits on The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises), and the Superman reboot Man of Steel. He is currently writing the screenplay for the upcoming Justice League.
In his BAFTA Screenwriter Lecture, Goyer shares his persistence to get his first agent, his first film with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the wisdom that comes from over two decades writing for film and television. If you don't have time to watch the whole lecture, you can check out some highlights from his lecture after the video.
Rejection is part of the job for writers.
Many people like to write, but writing for a living means the ability to handle rejection. Repeatedly. Goyer sums this up quite nicely:
Probably every successful writer in stage, screen or prose has been told some version of "give up" at some point in their career. It’s rejection. And if you can’t deal with it, if you can’t pick yourself up off the floor after someone has completely crushed your soul, if you can’t continue onward, then you probably shouldn’t be trying to write for a living.
Writers strive to be the best, but don't expect to be the best on your first try.
It's not exactly a coincidence that some of the most beloved writers and directors of American film -- Robert Towne, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme -- cut their teeth working on Roger Corman films. Corman offered opportunities for these writers and directors to learn their crafts in the B-movie business. Goyer alludes to Corman and his collaborators when he makes this point very clearly for all of the writers in the audience learning the craft of screenwriting:
Everyone wants to write an Academy Award winning film or a BAFTA winning film their first time out, but there’s nothing wrong with learning your craft in the trenches.
The writing market is moving from film to television.
On NFS, we have talked about the expansion of the television writing marketplace in the face of the contracting feature film screenwriting industry. Goyer points out that television is no longer viewed as a second-tier medium in comparison with film. Television gives writers more time to develop characters and stories, audiences have more time to connect with characters and engage with stories, and writers are treated better in television. Essentially, the writer is king (or queen) in television.
Interestingly, Goyer goes on to say that he believes entering the film industry today as a writer is more exciting than ever. It's just that the opportunities are not so much in film as they are in television for writers. And according to Goyer, oddly enough, studio executives are now hiring more television creators and showrunners to write feature film screenplays because the executives say television writers understand character nuance and complexity better -- the very elements that made movies so good in the past before executives decided to ignore these elements.
Shifting from expertise in superheroes to real life heroes, Susannah Grant may seem like the opposite end of the screenwriting spectrum from Goyer, but her pearls of wisdom from decades of screenwriting expertise are very similar to those of Goyer. Best known for writing Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes, and The Soloist, Grant was also an Academy Nicholl Fellow in Screenwriting. You can watch her lecture below, or skip down to read some highlights from her talk.
All writers fail. To be a writer, you have to figure out how to push past that failure.
Before our writing even gets rejected, many writers feel like they have failed when struggling to create a story out of nothing. Just because a screenwriter has achieved notable success doesn't mean that screenwriter doesn't still fail, as Grant reveals:
Failure is constant for everyone. Everybody fails at this all the time, not just screenwriters, but anybody who tries to illuminate the human experience in an authentic way -- I guess what you need is a little bit of wisdom and honesty to look at something you’ve written that feels false or boring or derivative or in poor taste or bullshitty or inauthentic to you and plain just not enough, and say to yourself, “I bet I can do better.”
Write in your unique voice.
Contrary to popular belief, producers and executives don't want to read the same story over and over again, told in essentially the exact same way. They are looking for unique voices. Sometimes, though, we may doubt that our unique voice is valuable because we may not be able to point to a writing success to validate our voice. Grant doesn't want you to fall into that trap:
The popularity of your unique voice is not what matters. What matters is staying true to it, [and] writing in the voice that is uniquely yours.
To write a great screenplay about a real person, find the truth.
Prior to writing Erin Brockovich, Grant had written essentially fictional stories (Disney's Pocahontas does not count as writing a story about a real person -- Grant quickly points out writing a Disney movie is actually creating a Disney product). The beauty of writing a fictional character is you, as the writer, know that character better than anyone else ever will.
To research Erin Brockovich, Grant naturally interviewed and got to know the real Brockovich. When it came time to write the screenplay, Grant realized there was someone else in the world that would always know Erin Brockovich better than she would -- Brockovich herself. That realization made it very difficult for Grant to start the screenplay. She overcame this obstacle when she finally decided to separate Brockovich into two characters. There was the real Brockovich that Grant would never know better than the woman herself, and the character Brockovich that Grant could know better because she could make choices for her to serve the truth in her story. Grant sums it up this way:
I’ve found that if you decide to be very truthful as opposed to very factual, you’re gonna end up with a better script.
Be sure to check out all of the most recent BAFTA Screenwriter Lecture series, including Hossein Amini (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman, 47 Ronin), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Identity through The Bourne Legacy), and Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, War Horse).
What do you think about the shared wisdom of long-time screenwriters Susannah Grant and David S. Goyer? How do you overcome some of the challenges they describe in your own work? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.