BEYOND WORDS 2018 – Insights From Writers Guild Award-Nominated Writers

Photo by Michael Jones

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild Foundation, The Writers Guild of America, West and Variety brought together several of this year’s Writers Guild Award-nominated writers for a panel discussion to reflect and share insights about creating their films.

Moderator Graham Moore (THE IMITATION GAME) led writers Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor (THE SHAPE OF WATER), Greta Gerwig (LADY BIRD), Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani (THE BIG SICK), James Mangold and Michael Green (LOGAN), Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (THE DISASTER ARTIST), Jordan Peele (GET OUT), Steven Rogers (I, TONYA), Aaron Sorkin (MOLLY’S GAME) and Virgil Williams (MUDBOUND) as they talked about how they decide what story to tell, the relationship between the words on the page and what’s seen on the screen, the craft of writing from treatments to inspiration and dealing with notes.


Virgil Williams – The best advice I ever got while I was starting out was to write. Honest to God, someone sat me down and I went, “What am I gonna do? What do I gotta do? Tell me what I gotta do.” She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You want to be a writer? Write.”

Michael H. Weber – This will be so simple as to seem stupid, but write every day. Write especially when you’re not in the mood or when you don’t have any good ideas or when you have other things to do. Treat it like a job before it becomes a job.


Guillermo del Toro – As far as ideas, it’s the one that you feel that you’re choking to do. Like literally the one that you can’t stand that it hasn’t been made.

James Mangold – For me, it’s looking for something that you haven’t done. It’s kind of scaring yourself. Finding a set of challenges that don’t seem familiar.

Vanessa Taylor – Sometimes it’s just a what if that seems so full of possibility that I want to imagine where it goes. I’m always looking for that place where I might have the opportunity to be carried away.


Jordan Peele – I spend the vast majority of the time on treatments and outlines and studying. I didn’t know that this would end up in a movie. I thought this was gonna be a project for me and for fun. Part of the project was the impossible task, how do you make a horror movie about race that works. That was this thing that engaged me for about five years. I had the whole outline. I had every element of every scene sort of laid out and then when I sat down and wrote it, it took about two months.

Michael H. Weber – We don’t write a word until we feel pretty good about the outline. For practical reasons, just that it’s easier to diagnose problems. You can never diagnose all of them, but you can solve quite a few of them when you’re looking at a five or six page outline than when you’re on page fifty and go, oh wait a second.

James Mangold – We try, but I look at an outline and I’m nauseated. Me and my partners will all dive in and try to execute a few pages of something and go, what does it feel like? How does this scene surprise us in some way? It’s not like I hate outlines for anyone to do them, but I do feel that any process religiously followed, starts to affect the way we make movies. I do think the bumper car way of writing may be inefficient, but some of the inefficiency can be beautiful. You can end up writing something that never would have seemed at home in the through line of a document that’s two pages long.

Greta Gerwig – I don’t outline. I think whenever I outline or do treatments, it’s like I’m pretending to write a movie that I have no idea how to write. It feels fraudulent to me. I have to write into a hunch and write into something I don’t totally understand. Because if I could understand the whole of it, before I started writing, I wouldn’t be able to get to the end.


Jordan Peele – I developed this mantra when I was writing, designed to break me out of writer’s block. It was, follow the fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. There was a point in the process where I got to something that was very vulnerable and the fun evolved into tears. The thing that stops so much of my art if I let it, is when I lose track of why I want to tell this story.

Emily V. Gordon – When I’m starting a project, I’ll write down this is the reason I want to do this project. When I get so angry or bored, I go back and look at why I wanted to do this. I keep reminding myself this was the headline of why I wanted to do this and at one point in my life I wanted to do this.


Kumail Nanjiani – Taking pressure off having it be good the first time really freed me up to just write. A lot of stuff I wrote that I thought would be terrible was actually stuff that was good.

Aaron Sorkin – It’s a very good idea to get to the end of the screenplay. Don’t keep going back to the beginning. Get to fade out. That’s really important. By the time you’ve gotten there, you’ll have learned a lot about what you’re writing.


Aaron Sorkin – Trying to figure out what people want and trying to give it to them is a bad recipe for storytelling. When I write, I try to write what I like, what I think my friends would like, what I think my father would like and then I keep my fingers crossed that enough other people will like that I get to keep doing it.

Guillermo del Toro – The entire choices you get as a storyteller is to appease or awake an audience. Is this going to be a lullaby for the way it is or am I going to slap you in some way and make you react differently? The temptation always is the lullaby, the appease, and the one you need to seek is the awake.

Virgil Williams – What I was trying to do with MUDBOUND is make you look at yourself in the mirror naked, because MUDBOUND is America and everybody can connect to one or two people in that story. What I wanted to do is grab you by the face and make you look.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to

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.

Love & Money Dept – TV Writing Deals for 4/29/13

Latest News About Writers Who Are Doing Better Than We Are

  • Steven Thompson (SHERLOCK, DOCTOR WHO) & Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH) are writing a pilot based on Naoki Urasawa’s manga, MONSTER,  for HBO. (Yeah, it’s a great idea, made even greater in the eyes of HBO because they’re such star sucks and del Toro’s got the kind of rep they love tightening their lips around.)
  • Various web and Old Media sources say that undisclosed writers from the series MAD MEN are pitching like mad to get the go-ahead on a fictional series based on NASA during the ’60s, (Which is very appealing for several rasons, not the least of which is the rumor that astronauts in those days were wild, crazy, colorful doods who’d make perfect television characters.)
  • Blake Masters (BROTHERHOOD) is writing the pilot for LINE OF SIGHT, a drama about a National Transportation Safety Board investigator who survives a mysterious plane crash, for AMC. (Which sounds pretty damn close to UNBREAKABLE. Not that we’re making any accusations or anything…)
  • Also pitching away are producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who are shopping a follow-up to their THE BIBLE mini-series called A.D. (Burnett says he already has scripts for it, but – again – our trusty news sources ain’t talking about who the writers were/are/will be.)

Today’s TV Writing Deals Dept: 10/9/12

“Show me the writer who hasn’t sold out and I’ll show you the writer who hasn’t been asked yet.” Norman Mailer to Larry Brody, 1976

  • Marc Hyman (MEET THE FOCKERS) is writing a comedy pilot called TAMING OF THE SHREW for NBC, about a tyrannical woman CEO “and the office staff who try to tame her.” (Produced by Julia Roberts so, gee, think it’ll make the next schedule?)
  • Samuel Baum (LIE TO ME) has signed a development deal with CBS TV Studios and sold an untitled drama about a doctor who battles politics and business “to keep Americans healthy” to CBS. (In the ’70s LB was one of the story editors of a highly awarded series called MEDICAL STORY that did that same thing…and was cancelled after 13 episodes, so all we can say to Sam Baum is, “Look out!”)
  • Guillermo del Toro (a bunch of great feature film stuff as writer-director-producer) wants us all to know that his planned HULK TV series for ABC is still writerless. (In other words, the job is open, boys and girls. Get out there and hustle!)
  • Jay Scherick & David Ronn (SMURFS) have sold CBS a sitcom pilot about two very different brothers and their families having to share a house.  (We’re thinking MODERN FAMILY without the “modern,” and with a bunch of green-skinned little geeks, but who really knows?
  • Elizabeth Wright Shapiro (actress-writer with some kind of connections we know nothing about) is writing a sitcom about an Ivy League feminist who ends up living with two typical L.A. babes for CBS. (This one’s going to be produced by Elizabeth Banks, one of the co-stars of 30 ROCK, and her husband, in case you’re wondering how the deal came to be. Wonder if either of the two Elizabeths, or the husband, knows Guillermo del Toro…)

More Deals!!!

Cuz no writer ever gets tired of writing meetings money! Wait, if you’re doing it for the money there are better businesses with better incomes. Like plumbing contracting, or banking. So it’s not the money either? Hmm. Must be…love!?

  • Paul Redford (THE WEST WING, DIRTY SEXY MONEY) is rewriting HAMLET, by an old guy named Shakespeare (KING LEAR et al) with a family/political drama called AMERICA’S SON for Fox Network. (Yeah, that’s gonna work as well as that show based on King David’s problems awhile ago. You know, where they rewrote, um, an even older dood named God (THE BIBLE)?)
  • Ben Falcone (HAPPY ENDINGS, UP ALL NIGHT, husband of MIKE & MOLLY star Melissa McCarthy, who is producing this project) and Larry Dorf (THE LOONEY TUNES SHOW) are writing a comedy for CBS about a group of friends who find their lives changed by death at an earlier age than they expected. (Nowthat’s funny, right?)
  • Guillermo del Toro’s best selling vampire book trilogy, The Strain, is being turned into a series for FX, directed by del Toro and co-written by him and his co-writer of the books, Chuck Hogan (PRINCE OF THIEVES). (Well, we need more vampire shows, don’t we? Why so negative? Sheesh!
  • Peter Berg (HANCOCK, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) will write and direct a spy pilot, M.I.C.E, for NBC. (We can’t think of a single negative thing to say about Berg except that as an actor he looks kinda snarky. Damn.)
  • David Shore (HOUSE) is writing an untitled legal drama for Fox, featuring an ex-cop lawyer with personal demons who’s trying to get back with his ex-wife. (Hmm, Shore loves that House-Cuddy stalker dynamic, doesn’t he?)
  • Guillermo del Toro (see above) is adapting another book, NUTSHELL STUDIES by Corinne May Botz, for an HBO series, this time co-writing with novelist Sara Gran (SOUTHLAND). (Well, he needs another writer to, you know, actually type in the words, right?)

So the secret to getting into TV is to write a book Guillermo del Toro likes, huh? ‘Scuse us while we throw ourselves into Chapter 1…