September 19, 2015

Screenwriter Billy Ray’s Rallying Cry: ‘We’re Storytellers; We Have to Do Better’

'Captain Phillips' Screenwriter Billy Ray
The paradox of filmmaking today is that it is easier than ever to access the tools and technology to make a movie, but harder than ever to make an original one that stands out among the clutter.

With so much content and so many ways to access that content instantly, studios and distributors are constantly vying for our limited attention. What looks great in a trailer is taking precedence over cohesive stories and compelling characters.

This is a problem.

Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games) is pushing back against this thinking, urging the next generation of screenwriters not only to amaze audiences visually, but to draw them in with their original storytelling and dynamic characters.

Here are three takeaways from his speech at the 2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship awards.

“When any image is possible, no image is all that impressive anymore.”

Ray argues that the very tools that have changed the way we make movies, most notably CGI effects, have altered how audiences perceive movies. In 1993, when Jurassic Park hit theaters, dinosaurs running across the screen amazed audiences. Now, audiences simply expect photorealistic CGI creations to run amok alongside the human talent. It’s no big deal.

In response, Ray calls upon up-and-coming screenwriters to nurture their original ideas and to create innovative stories that don’t rely solely on visual effects to captivate the viewer’s attention. 

“You will make your living largely not by writing, but by re-writing. The grace and efficiency with which you do that will define you.”

For many of us working outside of the studio system, this guidance from Ray may not seem relevant, but even screenwriters at the early stages of their craft should take heed of Ray’s words. Ray points out that we all get notes on our screenplays and many of us get defensive about our writing and believe those notes cannot possibly improve the work.

Ray urges new screenwriters to get past these reactions and listen. Even if we disagree, we can usually find the note behind the note that identifies a problem with our script — something the reader didn’t understand based on our writing.

Ray’s advice underscores the importance for screenwriters to be able to listen to notes and address them appropriately through rewrites to establish and sustain a career as a screenwriter.

“The only variable you will ever have any control over is your willingness to work hard.”

No matter where you are in your journey as a screenwriter, you always have the ability to work hard on your craft to get better. Ray describes the discipline he has for his screenwriting, putting in a full day of writing every day. He is willing to go back into a script over and over again to get it right, and he will accept notes from others to help him solve his script problems.

Dedicating time to work on your screenwriting every day is vital to getting better. I know from personal experience that when I have let other tasks take over my writing time, my craft not only suffers, but I find it more difficult to get back into my writing. And that is not acceptable.

Be sure to take a few minutes to read the complete excerpt from Billy Ray’s speech on The Academy’s Medium page, and let us know which takeaways ring true for you and your screenwriting.     

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