“I’ve ignored most of the things I’m going to tell you tonight, which is why this lecture is for me as much as you, to remind me of what an asshole I am for ignoring my own rules. And I’m serious about that.”
My last post covered screenwriter, novelist, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank D. Gilroy’s rule for writing, and today will look at what his son Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton) says are his rules for screenwriting.
The following quotes are pulled from his 2013 BAFTA talk (an abridged version of the video is above and the entire transcript can be found here).
Gilroy’s background before selling his first screenplay at 30-years-old includes growing up surrounded by screenwriters who were friends of his father (including William Goldman), leaving home at 16 to be a musician, working “a lot of odd jobs” including tending bar for six years, and he studied and wrote screenplays “until he figured it out.”
SCREENWRITING IS IMAGINATIVE WORK
“If there’s any single theme from tonight that would be of value, I would want you to leave here being reminded, or confirmed, that this is imaginative work. We make stuff up and it’s not magic mushroom ring, Stonehenge special, but we make stuff up, there is a level of romance and imagination to this that is not found in any screenwriting book or in any seminar or in any class or anything like that….You cannot teach someone to be imaginative. You can’t. You can kill it, you can sure kill it. And it can be trained and you can magnify it and do all kinds of things, but you can’t teach it.”
START WITH A SMALL SPARK
“We need a spark, we need some place to start, and for me – for us, me will be us now – we need something really small. Small is good, small is really, really good for me. Something small and very, very specific. The big ideas don’t work. It’s death if you say ‘I want to do a movie about class warfare’ or ‘I want to do a movie about corporate malfeasance or I want to do.”
LET YOUR IMAGINATION RUN WILD
“I want to do a movie about a fixer, a fixer in a law firm, well that’s a fascinating… that’s a pretty interesting place to start. And then what do I do? I literally play with it. I sit at my desk, I sit in front of the keyboard, and I just run with it. I write around it. The analogue is painting, really, with charcoal and pencil, and it’s sketching, really, really sketching. It goes up for an hour, it goes up for a month, or I keep coming back to it [and] when it stops getting interesting I stop playing with it. But it really is play, and it’s almost entirely dialogue. It’s stuff that happens, it’s like chit- chat, and ‘what if they do this?’ but I’m really swinging free and I’m really playing with things. My office is just littered, my life is littered with…you see the auto graveyard where all the parts of all the cars stretch out to the horizon, of all the broken toys. Well, that’s what this is, you’re taking this little piece of idea and playing with it.”
(Note: Gilroy’s Michael Clayton starred George Clooney as a corporate fixer.)
STOP THE MADNESS AND FIND THE MOVIE
“And really what has to happen is the mess really has to stop, it really has to stop someplace, and we have to say to ourselves ‘where is the movie? What is the movie? I have all this stuff, I’m building this whole world, I need to know what the movie is about’. And at a certain point you cannot pass go without doing this. You can get, if you’re in the system, you can get seduced past this because sometimes you’re coming up with a bunch of groovy stuff.”
BUILD A WORLD
“Alright so we have an idea, we know what the movie’s about and we’ve made sort of a mess, but we’re going to make a much, much bigger mess now. And we’re going to make a world, we have to make a whole world around all this, and that’s what this is. And that’s the sort of second unteachable part of this process. If you can’t teach people to be imaginative, you certainly also can’t teach them to know things that they don’t know.”
BECOME AN EXPERT IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR
“There is one thing that you have to know, that is a deal breaker on all of it. You have to know human behavior, you cannot pass go, you cannot move forward, you are dead stopped right here, right now, if you do not know human behavior and the quality of your writing is absolutely capped at your understanding of human behavior. You will never write above what you know about people. The writers that I’m talking about that have made a great living, without writing action, are experts in human behavior…The quality of your writing will be a direct reflection of your understanding of the contradictions and complexities of human behaviour‘the quality of your writing will be a direct reflection of your understanding of the contradictions and complexities of human behavior.
WRITE AN OUTLINE
“So now we have to write an outline. I’ve heard writers over the years say ‘oh, I don’t like to do outlines, cause it’s too constricting’. I think they’re completely wrong, if you go onto screenplay form and try to figure out your movie it’s like putting on a tuxedo to go to a diner or something. I don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t want to be in screenplay form until the bitter end, and I’ll get to that at the very end of this thing. I do not want to want to put on my tuxedo until the very end. I want to continue to make a mess, I want to write an outline now. I want to write the movie. The faster we can do it the better. I’ve done it in as little as four days…These documents are 30, 50, 60, they can be 80 pages long, but it is the whole movie…it’s like every scene, that’s what we want. We want this loose, ugly, but really proper version of the movie altogether.”
TALK TO YOURSELF
“You can have big ideas in the shower, but not typically about plotting. I have to sit down, literally and it sounds so stupid— I have to sit down at the keyboard and talk to myself. I have, I don’t know, thousands of pages of files of me talking to myself in some sort of weird Socratic conversation about ‘okay, if he does this, what does that mean? And what will ABC do? He can do this or that or this’. And then ‘oh my God I’ll write a scene and dialogue will push me forward for the plotting’. But it’s not easy pickings, that, if it’s done really well.”
WRITE FOR THE ENDING
“If you know the ending (which is critical), you not only have the sense of completion and you have the sense of roundness and you have the sense of satisfaction and you know that it really works, you‘re also not wasting time. Because everything writes into the ending. And all the pages that you wasted time on in the first 30 or 40 pages – and I don’t know how many writers are here tonight but you know exactly what I’m talking about. Those 30 or 40 pages, the first 40 pages of the movie that you spent months on, well they are vulnerable by the time you get to the end, because they are just dead meat. Those 40 pages, they’re going to be 15 pages, they’re cooked, they seemed so important at one time as you were getting lost. They’re not that important anymore, and you need to know that they’re not important.”
WRITE THE SCRIPT
“So we’re at the end, and now it really is time, now I’ll go to screenplay, now whatever Final Draft or Movie Magic or whatever it is, and now it really is fun. For me, it’s when it’s fun. It’s when it’s precise. The other great thing about having this document is when you go to work every day you can build up a momentum, you know what you’re supposed to do today, and all you’re doing it making it better than you had in the outline before. You’re cutting things out all the time. I like things to be very pretty, I’m obsessed with my scripts being exquisitely pretty, and I’m a crazy freak for how they look and how they lay out and how they’re paginated. I use that as a way of editing and cutting. I use it as a way of keeping myself interested, but there are times when everything seems perfect and a speech breaks and I don’t like the way it breaks into another page. I know there’s a line, I know there’s three lines, something’s got to go in that script. I’m not kidding you, I will edit it down. And if you do that 4 or 5, or 15 times, it’s shocking what comes out.”
So there you go, free advice from a A-list successful, working screenwriter. Granted he prefixed his talk by saying he ignored most of what he was going to tell them. Maybe he was being contradictory and maybe what he meant was he only found success when he followed his rules.
P.S. Speaking of rule breaking, track down Gilroy’s script for Michael Clayton in which he not only opens with voice-over and large chunks of scene description and dialogue—but he does so for four straight pages. For that screenplay he was nominated for both Oscar and BAFTA awards.
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)—John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter—Michael Arndt
The 99% Focus Rule
Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial
Scott W. Smith