by Kelly Jo Brick
The Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety gathered together several of this year’s award-nominated writers to speak about their films. From craft to the business side of entertainment, nominees shared inspiring stories of the persistence and drive it took to get their movies made, the worst notes they ever received and that sometimes you need to break the rules.
TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, talked with several of the writers to discover what’s the best advice they received early on in their writing careers.
ALLISON SCHROEDER – HIDDEN FIGURES
Some of the best advice I got was that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Which I think was really key, because there were definitely moments where I was like nothing is happening and I’m stalled. You have to remember that is part of the business and you have to keep going. There will be highs and lows.
ERIC HEISSERER – ARRIVAL
Build a community. Find a group of peers. Your way in is almost never going to be someone who is already established. It’s going to be someone who breaks in and takes you with them. That’s how I’ve seen it happen a lot. I think there are more opportunities for those kind of groups now than there were before. The internet is a big part of that. Also there’s a greater awareness about how movies get made.
TAYLOR SHERIDAN – HELL OR HIGH WATER
I got no advice when I started out, but I’ll give some advice that I told myself, which was write the movie you want to see and that’s what I did.
BARRY JENKINS – MOONLIGHT
When you’re starting out you want to write what you know. That is what was told to me and I think it was the best advice as far as trying to get images and characters on the page. I think the characters I knew were the best training for that. You have to read screenplays too. Most up and coming screenwriters watch a lot of movies, but they don’t read a lot of scripts. We all know what the great scripts are from the last thirty years and we should all be reading those when starting out.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PANEL
WHAT THE WRITERS LEARNED FROM MAKING THEIR MOVIES:
THEODORE MELFI – HIDDEN FIGURES
The process of making HIDDEN FIGURES and working with a very diverse cast and a very diverse crew has shown me that I never want to make a movie with four white guys with wigs. I want to stay on that path and represent the world as we see it.
DAMIEN CHAZELLE – LA LA LAND
One thing I learned is to not get too disheartened when things in your career and the life of a project seem like a death knell. Disasters, I had a lot of those on this project specifically and I look back now and say, “Oh, I’m glad the movie didn’t get made at that moment because I wasn’t ready to make it. I’m glad it didn’t go down this path.” I hope to have that sort of Zen about things going forward.
KENNETH LONERGAN – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
I think I learned along the way both internally, creatively with the film itself and also the experience of making the film and showing people the film, that often wherever there is this terrible adversity and people are getting pushed into painful situations, there seems to be somewhere in the equation an equal amount of love and effort to help each other through it.
RHETT REESE – DEADPOOL
I didn’t learn anything from DEADPOOL, but I do think that unfortunately Hollywood is trying to, like should they be making more R-rated movies or action movies or breaking the 4th wall and all these things. DEADPOOL existed because it wasn’t learning any lessons from any previous film. It was just on its own weird course. I feel like it’s really incumbent upon us on artists to not do what the studios do and analyze failures and successes and different elements inside them and start to either move away from those elements or use more of those elements because you’re chasing success or trying to avoid failure and just to chart your own path.
PAUL WERNICK – DEADPOOL
You need the passion to push that ball up the hill. Oftentimes it falls back on you and you have to have the fortitude and the passion and the love to keep pushing, because you will hear no a lot and it can crush you. But if you have that passion to not take no for an answer and to keep pushing, then somehow, someway you will get it done.
Probably the biggest lesson I learned is that writing on spec can be really good therapy. It also encouraged me that I actually realized four of the last five specs I have written have female protagonists. It really is my sincere hope that at some time in the future the only way for me to get those kind of movies made is to write them on spec because I hope if they’re assignments, they go to women.
GETTING YOUR PROJECTS OUT THERE AND BREAKING IN:
I think just knowing what you want most out of a particular project and what you’re willing to give up for it, will equip you far better to field all the things that come at you while you try to get the movie made and when you’re tempted by someone saying, “Hey, we’ll make it for you and we love it,” and then after you sign the contract they say, “By the way, we want to change the ending,” which is what means most to you. If you know in advance that you’re not going to do that, that you’d rather not make the movie than change the ending, you’re in a much stronger position. You have negative power as a screenwriter. You have no positive power, but you can always say no, I don’t want to do it under these circumstances and knowing that can be really helpful.
I think the transition from student to professional has to be self-generated, especially in 2017. You just gotta write that amazing film. It’s better if you can go out and direct that amazing script as well, but it’s about self-generating. Take out a $100 or $1,000 and go make a film.
I went to film school. When a lot of students got out, they just wanted to be a director. They wanted to be successful instantly. I don’t think that’s a reality. I was happy to learn and I was happy to write on that board in the writers’ room as a production assistant. I am proud I wrote MEAN GIRLS 2, because MEAN GIRLS 2 meant I could pay my rent. It was a wonderful experience. It’s okay to take some jobs to learn. They don’t have to all be prestigious. I just urge you to take the jobs. If you’re being hired to be a writer, that is one of the luckiest things in the world.
TODD BLACK, PRODUCER – FENCES
You gotta write. You have a computer, you have a yellow pad, go write and use your iPhone. Get some friends who are actors and go make a short film. You don’t need millions of dollars to do it. You just have to write something. Don’t wait for anybody. No one is going to offer it to you. I never understand when people say I’m waiting for the phone to ring. You’re going to be waiting a long time if you don’t generate it.
Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.