We all have a vision of the screenwriter in our minds. The passionate, neurotic guy hunched over a laptop second-guessing his own creative voice while simultaneously wishing people would just give him the oscar he deserves already. The screenwriter that exists in our minds is usually the kid who was picked on in school, the one struggling with their weight constantly (whether too fat or entirely too skinny), the guy who once had big dreams only to realize that his IT job is probably where he’ll spend the rest of his life.
If you don’t have this view of writers then chances are you’re either a writer yourself, or you’ve been fortunate enough to actually work with real writers. The description of the screenwriter above is what I had in my mind for years. I remember sitting in the movie theater when Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation came out and just nodding at every scene thinking “that’s me.” The cold hard truth is that Charlie Kaufman is the anomaly. There are a handful of writers out there with meak personalities who are successful but in my own experience the writers who have seen success in their career know how to command a room when they walk through a door.
Being a Successful Writer Demands More
Take a minute to think about the challenges a writer has to face throughout the life of their career. If you’re going to write for television you inevitably have to compete with everyone else in a writer’s room to get your ideas heard. If you’re a feature writer you have to learn to pitch to bored producers and studio executives who hear hundreds if not thousands of pitches a year. Even if you do get hired or start working with a produce you’ll quickly find that during the development process you have to fight for your ideas and defend why you’ve written a scene this way or structured your script that way.
To be a working writer you have to know that what you bring to the table is valuable. You have to be confident that you know the story better than anyone else, even better than the director. You have to command the room when you walk in and have a true spirit of collaboration – meaning you’re open to new ideas that make your story better but you also have to know when they make it worse. If you don’t have that kind of personality as a writer it’s time for you to start faking it.
My Journey Pushing Past Shy
When I was a kid I was shy. I was overweight. I was made fun of constantly. I was in many ways a writer in training. At the time I didn’t really care about writing. I was more interested in drawing Ninja Turtles or practicing still life at some second-rate art class that opened up at the latest strip mall, but the personality was there – I could have easily become the Charlie Kaufman caricature that we all know so well.
Something strange happened though – I picked up magic as a hobby when I was about thirteen. Most boys run into a toy magic kit somewhere along the lines but at thirteen years old I quickly outgrew the nickel and dime plastic tricks that were sold by the hundreds and practiced tricks that required some real practice and skill. The best part about magic, and the way it changed my life forever, was that learning it meant that you were forced to present it to someone at some point. I started with my own family. I remember fooling my parents for the first time. I can’t remember the exact trick I was doing but I remember the feeling that they weren’t faking being fooled anymore, they genuinely had no idea how I did something and at thirteen that kind of power over your parents was quite addicting.
If I could fool my own parents I knew that pulling one over on kids my own age would be a piece of cake. I quickly became the magician and forcing myself to perform card tricks at lunch and nutrition made me comfortable speaking to just about everyone. It wasn’t uncommon for a few tricks at lunch to turn into a twenty minute show where even the vice principal would wander over and pick a card.
That confidence grew and I ended up performing for years at big venues like the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Eventually when I wandered into writing that showmanship paid off in a big way when I started taking meetings in Hollywood. The ability to tell jokes, ask the right questions, and know when someone is getting bored are all invaluable qualities to have in a Hollywood meeting.
This Holds True Anywhere
Even if you’re not in Hollywood, even if you’re in the middle of Kentucky trying to get your first film off the ground and are meeting a DP for the first time, wouldn’t it be much better if you went into that meeting knowing that you’re going to blow the guy’s socks off with your quick wit and charming personality? Of course it would. Not only that, I can guarantee you that if you’re fun to be around you’re going to have a much easier time finding representation, attaching directors and actors to your material, and just being more successful in general.
What magic did for me was open the door to being a confident storyteller. The reason this article isn’t titled “why every writer needs to learn a card trick” though is because it can take as much as five years learning magic to get the kind of confidence I’m talking about and there’s a much shorter and more beneficial way to getting there and that’s learning to direct.
The truth is that you are already a director. When you write your screenplay don’t you see the movie unfolding in your mind? Don’t you see the scenes play out as if there’s a screen somewhere in your brain? Don’t your characters speak to you as you type out their dialogue? You’re 90% there. So if you already know what the movie looks like and how it should be shot, what do I mean by learning how to direct? I mean you should go out and actually make a movie.
Stop Making Excuses and Make a Film
Start with a short film that you can shoot for nothing or very very cheaply. If you can learn how to make something shot with no many entertaining, if you can actually capture people’s attention without any kind of budget then writing stuff where things can blow up and people can fly will be a cakewalk for you.
You might be thinking, “but I have no aspirations to direct.” Neither did I. But I can tell you that the things you’ll learn from directing a short film are invaluable to you as a writer. For example, when I directed my first short I learned how important it was to get a good master shot for my scenes. Now, when I write my scripts I actually write in the masters with a good line of narrative that describes the setting. Not only does it help ground the reader, I found that when other people are directing my work, they usually storyboard that shot simply because it’s written whereas when I haven’t written the establishing shot it’s often omitted and I’ve even seen directors have to do reshoots just to get a good establishing shot after the fact.
Another thing I learned when I directed my first short was how important it was to get the tone of your film just right. The piece I was directing had an overall comedic tone but it was also very violent. The truth is unless you’re Tarantino it’s very very hard to hit two tonal notes effectively. After watching how the short I directed kind of fell apart because the duality of the tone I decided to make my writing much clearer moving forward.
In addition to getting better at writing and understanding what does and doesn’t translate to film, one thing you’ll also gain is the experience of how a movie set works. How do the actors interact with the crew? How does the cinematographer read the script? What cues does hair and makeup look for when they read the material? How does wardrobe translate what they read? The more you know about the filmmaking process the better your writing gets because it becomes less of an idea and more of a workable movie blueprint.
Scripts Written by People with Directing Experience Translate Better to the Screen
While it still may be possible to sell a spec script that reads almost more like a novel than a screenplay with beautiful prose and flowing dialogue, it’s difficult to turn that screenplay into a great film because of the gaps the writer has left in terms of thinking of it as an actual production. While I haven’t had the pleasure of a big spec sale in my career, I have had the opportunity to watch people through over a million dollars at something I’ve written and I can tell you that knowing what I know after directing a little more, I would have made some changes. I would have added a few more parentheticals or clear stage direction in my prose to communicate exactly what I saw so that all the different departments knew exactly what needed to be done to execute the vision effectively on set.
Wrapping it Up
I guess what I’m really getting at is that you can not educate yourself enough when it comes to working in the film business. If you view yourself as just a writer you’re asking for people to ruin your material. You need to be involved at every level. You should intern, volunteer, throw some of your own cash at experimenting so you can see how your material translates into an audio-visual medium instead of waiting around to watch someone else butcher it.
The nature of film is collaborative and the more you start thinking of your scripts as potential film sets the better your writing will become, the more confident you’ll be as a writer, and the clearer you’ll be able to communicate with others about your project.