“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
If you took all the books on screenwriting and all the blogs on screenwriting—even those from produced screenwriters— and mashed them together you’d get some great lessons and great insights, but you wouldn’t find many great films that they actually wrote. In fact, if you take William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screentrade off the table—you wouldn’t even find many good films that they wrote.
It’s not that all those people don’t know what they’re talking about—it’s just there is an obvious disconnect between knowing what makes a script great and writing a great script.
But if you hit the rewind button and go back to Minneapolis circa 2004 and asked a young Diablo Cody what made a great script I’m sure she’d have a opinion or two, but it was something she’d never tried to do. And if she was totally honest her answer would have probably been something like, “I don’t really know.” Keep in mind that Cody went from having never written a screenplay to being an Oscar-winning screenwriter in five years. How is that possible? She took full advantage of being an outsider.
“I had gone to the bookstore, and while I hadn’t bought any books on how to write a screenplay, I’d bought a couple of scripts so I could see how the formatting works. I just needed to know how a Hollywood screenplay looked on the page, which was something I was totally unfamiliar with. I had American Beauty and Ghost World, and interestingly enough, the producers of Ghost World wound up producing Juno. My now-ex-husband convinced me to use our last $200 to buy Final Draft, so I just sat down and started writing a movie. It’s that simple.”
2008 Writer’s Digest Interview with Chad Gervich
Simple like Sylvester Stallone writing Rocky, simple like Ben Affleck & Matt Damon writing Good Will Hunting, simple like Frank Darabont writing The Shawshank Redemption. And the reason it was simple (in the way Cody uses the word) was because they were outsiders. They may of had some connections in the film industry, but they were all screenwriting outsiders. All writing scripts on spec. I imagine their expectations where low. Part of the genius of all of those writers was they were in their 20s and early 30s and didn’t fully understand what they were doing. They simply captured the magic.
And, at least as of this writing, none of those writers have ever been able to capture the magic on that same level they did on their first films. And one of the major reasons for that I believe is they went from being out outsiders to being an insiders. Surrounded by expectations and experts full of advice on the right way to do things. (The same could be said of Orson Welles, who directed Citizen Kane at 26 years old.)
In Jonah Lehrer’s great book Imagine, How Creativity Works, he dedicates a whole chapter to The Outsider. And he gives several compelling examples of the outsider advantage of being an outsider and coming up with various breakthroughs and accomplishments.
“The world is full of natural outsiders, except we don’t call them outsiders; we refer to them as young people. The virtue of youth, after all, is that young people don’t know enough to be insiders, cynical with expertise. While such ignorance has all sorts of obvious drawbacks, it also comes with creative advantages, which is why so many fields, from physics to punk rock, have been defined by their most immature members. The young know less, which is why they often invent more.”
Imagine: How Creativity Works
The good news if you’re not in your twenties, if you are cynical with expertise, and if you are an insider—there is still hope. Because as Lehrer points out that, “Creativity isn’t a phase of life—it’s a state of mind.”
“The outsider problem affects everyone. Although we live in a world that worships insiders, it turns out that gaining such expertise takes a toll on creativity. To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a city park or a shoot-’em-up video game, whether you’re choreographing a ballet or a business conference: you must constantly try to forget what you already know.”
Imagine: How Creativity Works
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
The Advantage of Being from ________
Writing “Good Will Hunting”
Finding Your Voice
The Juno—Iowa Connection (Going back to 2008 when I originally caught this wave.)
Related post: One Benefit of Being Outside Hollywood