“I would have these script readings for Don’t Think Twice at my house to workshop the film script the way that I workshop my standup…and I would say at the beginning of the reading, ‘the script might be bad, but at the end, we’re all going to eat pizza.’”
Writer/Director Mike Birbiglia
In Mike Birbiglia’s podcast interview with Tim Ferriss he explains his writing process from gathering ideas to writing, and re-writing his screenplays. When writing he schedules three hours each morning to write in a coffee shop (but may write for five if the writing is flowing). He encourages writing in a trance where you don’t think consciously what you’re putting on the page.
Back at home he has a cork board wall full of 3″X5″ notes cards which has scene ideas, pieces of dialogue, and what he calls mind writing quotes. Inspirational sayings by well-known writers.
Here’s an edited version of his exchange with Ferriss about what he does after he has a draft completed:
Mike Birbiglia: I always urge screenwriters, or anyone who needs feedback on their work, to just invite people to something where you give them something, give them food, give them ice cream, give them pizza, and try and solicit their feedback. Because I think feedback is the most valuable thing you can have for your writing.
Tim Ferriss: Can you explain how you workshop the material? At what point do you invite your friends over and ply them with pizza? How rough is it when you give it to them?
Mike Birbiglia: Probably about two month in. I started writing [Don’t Think Twice] two years ago at the end of April, and then June 10 I had people over. I prefaced it by saving, “It might not be good”and “thanks for coming.” I had ten or 12 of those at my house. They ended up being some of the most fun parts of the process entirely. Because there’s really no stakes to showing your friends your work. It feels like there’s stakes—I was very nervous. But there’s something communal about it, there’s something fun about it.
Tim Ferriss: Do you do a table read? Do people take roles or do they all read in silence and give you feedback? How does it work?
Mike Birbiglia:I have them read it aloud. Like I’d have my assistant at the time Greg would read the screen directions and I would assign parts and I would highlight the script for people. We’d read it a loud, and then we’d eat pizza and just kind of talk about what it made us feel like. The director of my one person shows is this guy named Seth Barrish, this really brilliant theater director. He always does this thing dramaturgically—I will pitch him what my idea is and then he says back to me, “Well, what I get from that is this…” and it’s a non-judgmental way of interfacing with a collaborator. In other words, he reads the script and then says “Well, what I get from that is it’s a group of friends and one of them gets more successful than the others and they’re all trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.” If he says that back to me and I say, “Well, no, it’s more than that, it’s actually about this, this, this, and this.” And he says, “Well, that’s not what I got from it.” It’s actually helpful to the process. I think one of the most important things about the writing process is that people are getting what you’re intending.…What I’m doing essentially in my little shabby apartment in Brooklyn is basically what they’re doing on the hundred million dollar level in Hollywood. It’s “development” in Hollywood where they develop these screenplay for years and years and years with all of these executives giving notes. I don’t want executive giving notes to me, I want writers giving notes to me. And I want actors to give notes. I want collaborators who actually do the things I like and who I aspire to be like. And I invite over writers who are way better than me….We read it start to finish like a table read for a sitcom or a movie. And then at the end we kind of adjourn. Some fiery discussions start. A lot of people give their thoughts and they really conflict with other people’s thoughts. And those people fight with each other, and I listen to that. It’s really helpful.
Note: It helps, as in Birbiglia’s case, if some of your friends are Brian Koeppelman (Billions), Michael Weber (500 Days of Summer), and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie). But do what you can, where you are, with the friends you have.
P.S. This is the way that Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles) also work, as I wrote in the 2009 post The Francis Ford Coppola Way (Tip #29). And #86 on William Akers’ reasons why Your Screenplay Sucks! is you haven’t done a table read.