Three Powerful Films, Three Writers, and Three Rules for Your Screenplay
Three TIFF screenwriters share their successful creative strategies.
In an insight-packed thirty minutes, the TIFF 2017 screenwriting panel focused on three films: each of them has been well-received, each is a powerful story, and each one happens to have a narrative grounded in childhood. On the stage were three writer/filmmakers, all equally passionate, each one there to discuss the most crucial–and arguably the most difficult–part of the filmmaking process: turning a blank page into something worth filming.
The result? Three creative strategies, each one shaped by a different approach…and each one an essential piece of advice.
"Because this wasn’t a studio picture, I had the liberty of playing around with the story even in the edit."
1. Sean Baker: Keep re-writing through post
First up was writer/director Sean Baker: already well-known for Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015), and soon to be notorious for his latest film, The Florida Project. Reviewers have already called it one of the year’s best movies. Co-written with NYU classmate and three-time writing partner Chris Bergoch, Baker’s Florida Project is the bittersweet story of six-year-old Moonee, her single mother, and the manager of their budget motel–ironically called The Magic Castle.
His personal strategy?
“The key to my scripts is that they’re constantly being re-written,” Baker explained. “It starts with me and my co-writer: we’re both writing at the same time, even though we’re not in the same room. We use Google Drive so we can share pages with each other, we choose which scenes to work on, we edit them together, we keep writing and re-writing right up until shooting begins…and even then, the script keeps evolving.”
As Baker describes it, the actors are an essential part of his writing process. “The way I see it, improvising is writing too,” he declared. “We give the actors something to build on, and they add a new level. That’s why casting is so important.”
In The Florida Project, the actors–and the dialogue they deliver–are all completely convincing and heartbreakingly good. Especially the kids.
“They’re stars of the show,” Baker said with pride. “We chose these particular three child actors because they’re all extroverts. They were always ready to experiment. We never had to worry about them shutting down during a shoot day. Especially our little Moonee.”
Baker is talking about the film’s six-year-old lead, the precocious Brooklyn Prince. Amazingly, she was able to improvise toe-to-toe with her co-star, Oscar-nominated vet Willem Dafoe.
“It takes me a whole day to come up with a good comeback,” he laughed. “But here was six-year-old Brooklyn, keeping up with Willem Dafoe. She was incredible, and so was Willem. He’d be interacting with the kids, with the tenants, and I’m screaming lines as I follow him with the camera and he’s improvising. That was all part of our writing process.”
He laughed again. “Basically, we were re-writing all the way up to post production. And because this wasn’t a studio picture, I had the liberty of playing around with the story even in the edit.”
“First I steep myself in research, then I let it flow.”
2. Anita Doron: Let the Characters Guide You
Next up was Ukranian-born writer/director Anita Doron: she made her award-winning first feature, The End of Silence, in 2006; her second film, Late Fragment, premiered at TIFF in 2007, as did a later film, The Lesser Blessed, in 2012. This year, she’s back at TIFF as screenwriter of The Breadwinner, an animated feature directed by Nora Twomey.
Doron’s script for The Breadwinner is based on the best-selling novel by Canadian author Deborah Ellis. The story centers on 11-year-old Parvana, a young Afghan girl who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy in order to support her family after the Taliban imprison her father.
Because of her Ukrainian background, Doron identified strongly with Parvana’s story. “I loved this book as soon as I read it, I could see it as a film,” she recalled. “I loved the strength and resilience of this young girl, and was so pleased to be allowed to adapt it.”
According to Doron, her screenwriting strategy has always been character-driven. The first phase of her work is largely intellectual: she researches her characters thoroughly, the geography, the culture, the motivations that shape their life choices. The second phase is far more intuitive: guided by her research, she inhabits her characters to the point where it feels as if they are doing the writing.
“First I steep myself in research, then I let it flow,” she confided. “I don’t let myself think about structure or act breaks, I just let it all go and let the feelings of the character guide me. I’m in the character’s world, living it, feeling it, I imagine the voices, I hear them.”
And then comes the third phase, also character-driven. “Once I’ve created a character’s world, once the flow is established, then it’s time for structure,” she explained. “Filmmaking needs rhythm, just like songs: there are bridges, crescendos, and quiet parts–but in order for all that to work, it has to fit the character’s rhythm. And if it doesn’t, well… That’s when you kill your darlings. Murder them, drown them, put them in a lake and let them go.”
She smiled. “Yes, that part’s painful. But you just have to remember: we all get attached to things that don’t really make sense, we get wrapped up in complexities that don’t serve our story, and that’s when we have to detach. We have to let the characters guide us. They know what works better than we do!”
"If you want your work to connect with an audience, you have to open yourself to emotional tension."
3. Loung Ung: Push yourself to the edge
The third and final panelist was Cambodian-born Loung Ung: author, screenwriter and executive producer of First They Killed My Father.
The film, directed by Angelina Jolie, was adapted by Ung from her own best-selling memoir. The story she tells is fraught with pain: merely five-years-old when Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed into her native city, Phnom Penh, she was separated from her family, trained as a child soldier and–unlike the two million Cambodians who didn’t survive–she lived to tell a tale of genocide.
For Ung, the writing process is all about catharsis. “If you want your work to connect with an audience, you have to open yourself to emotional tension, you have to plunge into the details of an experience, no matter how painful. You have to push yourself to the edge.” She paused, mind caught between past and present. “Particularly if you’re writing about something you’ve lived through yourself.”
Ung’s screenplay tells the harrowing story of war through the eyes of a child–and, like the scripts written by Sean Baker and Anita Doron, it is a story of human resilience. Strength born of terror, despair. And compassion.
Ung shook her head, searching for the right words. “War is such an out-of-body experience,” she marveled. “It’s so incredibly painful, it’s almost surreal. When you write about it, it feels like science fiction. Personally, I’m a big sci-fi fan. I love reading those stories because you can’t take any details for granted–the clothes you wear, the air you breathe–and the suspense is intense. But the sad truth is, war is real. And you want your audience to feel that reality, to take it personally…so that we know what it takes to survive a disaster.” She paused. “And maybe, just maybe, so that we never let it happen again.”
One way to do this: focus on details. “Details help make the story relatable for people who haven’t experienced it.” Ung bowed her head, remembering, once again out-of-body. “The Khmer made us cut our hair all the same, made us all wear black clothing, we were without shoes for months. Those are details. But you have to go even deeper. For example, people know you get calluses when you spend a long time without shoes. But do they know how it feels when blades of grass slice your ankles? Do they know how it feels to deny your own family, to have to call them all ‘comrade’ and watch them be torn away?”
Ung’s advice comes with warnings. “But don’t drown in the details,” she counseled. “As an editor, you have to be brutal. Once I’ve written a draft, I go back, I start removing words. I try to break down the story into its true essence. And I make sure I enjoy the ride.”
Good advice, but not so easy to follow when you write about pain.
“When you’re going into a place so deep, you need a lifeline,” she explained. “A sense of purpose. So I kept reminding myself that even though I felt alone, just myself with my computer–and my memories, my own personal demons–I was really part of this beautiful orchestra. That I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for all those extraordinary individuals, those supporters and collaborators who make life worth living. That I was writing this for my sisters and brothers, for the generations of Ungs growing up out of the ashes of war who never got to meet their grandparents, their aunts and their uncles. And that none of us are truly alone.”