Jon Favreau (Chef), Jonathan Nolan (Interstellar), Chris Rock (Top Five), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Anthony Morten (The Theory of Everything), and Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) have a lot to say about how they approach screenwriting. Thankfully, The Hollywood Reporter invited them to their annual screenwriters roundtable and let them talk for an hour, then shared their uncensored conversation with the rest of us.
We have shared these writer roundtables in past years, but this year's discussion is particularly insightful because of the dialogue among the writers themselves. When you invite Jon Favreau to a table with at least five guests, you know he'll engage the others in conversation. You expect Chris Rock to open up and maybe drop a joke or two, not to mention several casual f-bombs. You don't expect the youngest writer at the table, Graham Moore, to ask some of the most insightful questions about how the other writers approach their craft. Personally, I think Moore is the reason this conversation is so good, and his own intelligence about story and craft is quite apparent in both his questions and his answers.
When you have an hour, definitely check out the video below or find it at this link. If you don't have the time, jump down to see my favorite moments from each of the participants.
How to Adapt Your Own Best-Selling Novel as a Screenplay
Authors of best-selling novels do not typically adapt their own works for the screen. The styles and structures of novels and screenplays are vastly different, and figuring out what to cut and what to keep is essential in the adaptation process. I can only imagine how difficult this process would be for a novelist trying to write the screenplay from his or her novel, never mind the pressure to please the book's fans when the novel was a smash hit. Yet, Gillian Flynn managed not only to adapt her novel for the big screen, she wrote an excellent adaptation that teased out the inner monologues of her characters and brought their stories to life visually. Early in the roundtable discussion, Flynn explains that when she was writing the screenplay, she kept a giant sticky note right above her computer that read: "IT IS A MOVIE!" This constant reminder helped her reshape her engrossing novel into a fascinating movie.
A Twist on an Oft-Repeated Piece of Writing Advice
"Write what you know" is the most common piece of advice doled out to new writers from those with more experience. When you think about this advice, though, you realize how many of your favorite films couldn't possibly be something that the writer knew anything about before creating that story. Screenwriters invent entire worlds with their own sets of rules to take viewers on a journey. So "write what you know" is of limited use. Instead, Anthony McCarten spun this advice in a way that I have personally always thought of it: write what you want to know "so everything you're working on is an exploration of something". This spin lets writers think about using what they know and learning something new about themselves through the world and characters of their stories.
Stop Being Safe with Your Stories
During the discussion, Chris Rock opens up about the poor reception of his previous film as a director and how he thought he might never direct another movie. After watching his films, Alexander Payne called up Rock and said, "I watch you do stand-up and you can get away with anything. I watch you make movies and you’re so safe. What are you doing?" Rock took Payne's advice to heart, and when he was finally ready to write and direct another film, he used this advice as his guide. Rock threw out any rules or preconceived notions of what he thought his film had to be and simply made the film he knew he wanted to make without worrying about what other people would think. As a result, Top Five so far is receiving the best reviews of his three films as a writer/director.
Jonathan Nolan took this idea even further:
There’s no room for ‘safe’…In these careers, you get a little bit into them and you realize how few shots you get at saying something, making something, so why the f*ck be safe? Put it all out there.
Likability of Characters is So Misunderstood
Back when I was rewriting my script for CENTS as we headed into production, I wrote a post on how I approach notes I received on the likability of my characters. So I was quite encouraged when I heard Jon Favreau explain how development executives constantly ask the writer to make the protagonist likable at the outset of the story. The problem with this request, Favreau points out, is if the protagonist is likable from the very beginning, then the character probably won't have much of an arc in the story. Instead, Favreau notes that main characters should be compelling at the beginning of a script, yet flawed. Protagonists should intrigue the audience and convince them to go on the journey with them. At the end of the journey, the protagonist will be transformed and (maybe) likable as a result. This little piece of advice on how to approach the likability of characters should help many emerging screenwriters as they inevitably receive these notes on their screenplays.
If You're the Screenwriter on Set, Shut the F*ck Up
Graham Moore asked a screenwriting friend who had been on several sets for advice on how he should handle himself as the writer on set for the first time. Moore's friend told him as the screenwriter on set, he should shut the f*ck up. Moore's friend elaborated that as the screenwriter, he would see arguments that he thought he could settle, but really he doesn't know anything about it so he should shut the f*ck up. He would think he, the screenwriter, could offer someone a piece of advice about a character or the story, but they don't want his input so he should shut the f*ck up. If the director or an actor or a crew member approached him with a specific question, then he should speak up to help. That's why he was on set. Otherwise, shut the f*ck up.
What thoughts or insights from the screenwriters from this year's edition of The Hollywood Reporter Roundtable ring true for you? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.