'Nemo' co-scribe shares his rules for screenwriting

Despite the fact that I went to art school, where I got to draw more than write, I have a lot to say about screenwriting — insightful, hard-earned observations that can only be gleaned from over a decade of writing. So here it is: Screenwriting is really, really, really, really hard.

Truth is, I’m a little uncomfortable with giving my observations. What is there to say about screenwriting that hasn’t been said before? Well, come to think of it, nobody ever warned me how distracting it is to write in a room with a full-length mirror in it.

My motivations for writing? Fear and desire. Fear of others reading my material (especially professional actors reading my dialogue aloud); and a desire to some day be able to write great movie moments like “Nobody can eat 50 eggs,” “My name is for my friends,” “We felt the institution no longer had anything to offer us.” Five points each if you can identify the screenwriters (*answers are at the end of this piece); 10 points if you don’t even need to check the answers.

I must have something to say about the craft. I’ll admit (as long as you will) to having read one or two of those “How to …” books, but I make sure to steer clear of them when actually writing. Probably like most screenwriters I’m both attracted and repelled by “the rules,” certain that if I adhere too closely to the guidelines it will breed conformity. I need permission to make a fool of myself. Yet there are three beacons I try earnestly to keep in sight at all times:

Purpose. “Nemo” was the first screenplay where I knew exactly how I wanted to feel reading it long before I knew how I was going to write it. There was an unspoken dynamic in being both a father and a son that was very palpable in my life at the time. I was compelled to capture it, but it was so elusive, and often I felt like Frankenstein trying to grab invisible violin notes from the air. But regardless of difficulty, knowing what you want from a story beforehand is key. It’s the cornerstone for every other decision you make. It elicits the courage needed to make risky choices. Otherwise, never in a million years would I have chosen to kill a family off in the opening scene, or try to evolve a relationship between two main characters who are almost never physically together.

Objectivity: The biggest obstacle by far, when writing, is losing objectivity. David Peoples told me — yes, I’ve name-dropped; there it is on the floor, I see it — about a writer who couldn’t be objective about his work unless he clothes-pinned his pages on a laundry line, stood across the room and read them through binoculars. Even if it’s not true, the idea doesn’t sound that far-fetched to me. Objectivity is the rarest of commodities when you’re in the thick of it. Fortunately, I learned to write scripts in a group atmosphere, surrounded by talented friends, whom I trust with my creative life, and who give me objective feedback like “Make it suck less.”

Caring: I’ve never gravitated too strongly toward any one aspect of screenwriting. For me, every element immediately becomes fodder for achieving a single purpose in the story — make me care. That’s all I want when I go to the movies. It’s so simple, yet so damned difficult to achieve because the only means to caring is honesty. (I sound like Tony Montana, “First you gotta get the honesty, then you get the trust. Then when you have the trust, then you get the caring.”) And if you do succeed in getting the audience to care you never get to keep it. About every 30 seconds you’re on trial again for custody of the audience’s concern. Meanwhile, you should have been laying track throughout the entire story for the “big care,” the one that seals the deal, that caps it off, that justifies the movie’s entire existence.

All right, so I do have a few things to say about screenwriting. Is it sounding hard to anyone? Because it is. It’s really, really hard.

*Answers: Donn Pearce & Frank Pierson (“Cool Hand Luke”), Robert Bolt (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Ethan & Joel Coen (“Raising Arizona”).

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