Writing can be a wonderful and yet painful process. Like any talent that turns into a career there come moments where you have to force your hand to write something you don't want to or don't feel passionate about simply because that is your job.
Screenwriting is an art form all it's own. True, though, that some journalists and novelists make the transition into the script medium, screenwriting still carries it's own challenges.
The LA Film school hosted a panel of 7 out of the 10 Academy Award nominated screenwriters this year. A lucky group of film students heard from writers Jason Hall (American Sniper), Alex Dinelaris (Birdman), E. Max Frye (Foxcatcher), Graham Moore (The Imitation Game), Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash). What they had to say was humble and, of course, inspiring.
1) Remember that everyone has setbacks
EVERYONE. If you keep this in mind and are kind and gracious to yourself the setbacks won't hit so hard or possibly threaten your career. It's easy to teach ourselves that if we lose once then it's all over. When we see the success of others our mind fills in this beautiful way that they must have made it and, based on our respect for the work, it's typically a fairytale like vision. Look, the truth is we're all human and every successful person has failed at some point. That's why they seem so brilliant - they've learned from their mistakes and you should too. Each of these men had a story of losing a script or project, sometimes years into the making.
Birdman screenwriter Alex Dinelaris recounts how he worked on Biutiful with director Alejandro Iñárritu and in the end parted ways.
We worked really really hard and we got along well from the beginning. He read the draft and said it wasn't what he wanted and he was so passionate about that film.
He sent me some pages and I read it and knew I couldn't write it and couldn't do it justice...I had to make a decision and I had to resign... I thought my career is over. I ruined it on my first film.
Lucky for Dinelaris staying true to his work and respecting Iñárritu's creative passion landed him back in collaboration with the director on Birdman.
2) Don't mimic someone else's story, be authentic
Jason Hall, writer of American Sniper, was brought on by a studio to write a Robin Hood screenplay with a Dark Knight tone to it, as per the studio. Once they received Hall's draft they lamented "Yea...it's too much like Dark Knight."
You're trying to give somebody what they want and anytime you're trying to do something for someone else it's a bad decision
I have to write for myself. I have to write what I believe in. I have to write something personal that means something to me or it's going to be shit.
Generally what make's a story great is it's authenticity and that can only come out of a very personal place. That's not to say grand mythical stories are factual, but the tones and themes certainly come from a very real thing that lives within the creator. People appreciate what is real even if they don't agree with it. What they don't appreciate is being cheated.
3) Write what you know
Authenticity will come from what you know. This year's beloved underdog Whiplash proves that passion and truth combined with a simple concept resonates with audiences and film enthusiasts alike.
Writer Damien Chazelle was coming off of writing what he expected to be a big hit only to be turned down by not just his agents but his mentors as well. Out of his anger, frustration, and some personal experiences came what is now Whiplash.
4) Define what your theme is - but be open to the story reshaping around it
All of this years films revolve around a theme of obsession - even those that seem more obscure like The Theory of Everything. Every character whether film, theatre or literary, is searching for something and it's what drives the story. Nightcrawler being the most obvious of these films, had it's own array of challenges. Dan Gilroy shared that he wanted not a purely psychopathic character that could be stereotyped but someone who would have a human quality, something relatable albeit scary. He walked "this tightrope between psychopath or satire."
I had never written a character that was an anti-hero before. My hero was also my villain and I'd never done that before.
People would at some point in the film say 'oh I know, this movie is about a psychopath'. I felt strongly that the second people made that decision dozens of thematic and idea doors closed. So the battle for me with his obsession was to try to make him human to present him in a way that he was more like you that you want to believe.
Maybe the problem is the world that creates this character and rewards this character. That was the aim of everything. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale and you're supposed to walk out and look at it with horror.
5) Play with structure
Yes, there are basics that every story should follow. Hopefully you know that you should have a beginning, middle, and end. Within your theme and loose structure find ways to toy with the ordinary. Birdman does this so obviously with it's cinematic style being all one shot and the greater story revolving around the production of a play. Less obvious is the anti-character arc storyline in Nightcrawler. Gilroy again pointed out that in reality people don't change the way it's so dramatically portrayed on screen.
The lack of arc and starting it out on a violent note was the key for me.
This year's films all have great themes and structure inspiration, far too much for me to put in this article but you should listen to everyone's personal take in the podcast.
6) Love your story
As Gilroy noted, after a huge studio film he was working on got canceled, when it comes to creative work you have to feel passion for it or it just won't resonate - I'm sure this is true of other fields, as well.
This was the worst thing I had been worried about for a year and a half. I finally just decided that if I was going to keep doing this, I was going to do it because I loved it and not for any other reason than that.
This is just a snippet of what was a truly wisdom packed hour and a half long panel of experts. I highly recommend listening to the whole discussion if you are interested in writing personally or professionally.