notes from lecture on writing and directing

i went to an excellent lecture last night. the film independent’s director series – From Script to Screen: On Writing and Directing.

the panel consisted of:

John August (writer of Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Charlie’s Angels, GO, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, writer/director of The Nines, and has his excellent blog)
Erin Cressida Wilson (writer of Secretary and FUR: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus)
Jeff Stockwell (writer of Bridge to Terabithia and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys).


john august said he writes a lot in longhand, not in the computer. with the computer, too easy to go back and edit. if he writes longhand, he avoids the temptation of easily editing. he also writes out of sequence, and will write whatever scene he feels like working on. he said directors shoots out of sequence, so it’s the same thing. he works 9 – 6 in his office with his assistant. he’ll get in a couple hours of writing, with the rest of the time going to research, taking calls, etc.

erin said she sublets a place and writes 6 hours a day, barely getting up to eat or go to the bathroom. she’s not linear by nature so she forces herself to work in a linear way. she writes in sequence. she aims for 10 pages a day, but also goes back to edit what she wrote the day before. she uses index cards to help find structure.

jeff said he’s a procrastinator. ah, someone like me. he said he’s lucky if he gets 3 hours of real writing done. the other 3 hours are spent doing whatever else. he writes in sequence mostly, but if he feels stuck, he might write a scene that’s out of order. like erin, he also uses index cards.


during the audience Q+A, one person said he’s starting out, he wants to direct, and asked how does he get name actors? john said it doesn’t necessarily have to be actor. in his case, for GO, it was doug liman, the director who had just done swingers. so that got other people interested in the project.

erin shifted the focus to basically how you have to really stick to writing before success. she wrote for about 15 years before started to have success, and she said the success wasn’t due to networking. she hates parties and all that stuff. she just stayed true to her voice and met people that she could work with.

jeff said it took him about 8 years. he felt he had to move from boston to LA to make it. he said he understood the situation, being unknown writer, etc. he said he gave his script not to an actor, but a friend who was an assistant to some low level producer, who in turn got it into someone else’s hand, and one script finally got to kelsey grammer. so his advice was to get your script to assistants and such because they might know someone who knows someone.


a woman in the audience said she hired a writer for her pet project that she’s producing, and she wanted to know what she should do since the writer she hired has writer’s block. apparently she hired a writer and gave him a treatment, “and all he has to do is write it.”, which had the panelists shaking their heads.

jeff said let the writer own the material. it has to become his. if he’s given material to work from and to adapt, that’s fine, as long as they let him interpret it his way. if he had to follow a step by step treatment, he said that probably wouldn’t work.

john gave the suggestion that if you’re stuck as a writer, maybe try writing a scene that you know won’t end up in the movie, like them sitting down in a burger king and just talking.

erin said she felt like this woman the producer was scaring the writer, and that writer’s block is normal. it’s just the time it takes to work out the story problems.

STRUCTURE (and writing classes/workshops)

one woman said she had written all this stuff before; poetry, short scripts which were produced, short stories, etc. then she thought she should learn more about writing so she took this class to better learn story structure, but she said it only confused her, and she’s writing the least she ever has.

from the terminology she used, i knew exactly the class/workshop she was talking about. i took it too, but i quit before the full length of the program. i felt it didn’t make me a better writer, but actually made me worse! i’m still trying to purge myself of the bad experience. beware of aggressive marketing, long term contracts, and a no refund policy. i’m going to have to elaborate on this later.

back to the panel, john said structure is basically “what happens when.” erin said we all naturally know how to tell stories. she read the syd field’s Screenplay and for years it never made sense to her. jeff said read that book, and then forget it.

after the lecture ended, i wanted to go up to john august and talk to him because he has written so many produced movies and he was the only panelist who also directed. i was too shy though so i left, then i thought no, i need to go back in there and talk to him. so i did, and i asked him if he’d direct again (his first feature The Nines just premiered at sundance). he said he would. i asked him if he’d direct what other people wrote? no, because he can write about 4 scripts a year, but only direct 1 movie a year. if it takes that much time, he wants to make sure he likes it. he writes 4 scripts a year!? wow, 1 script every 3 months. he mentioned earlier in the evening how he did 2nd unit for GO. i asked how he prepared for The Nines, if he’d been to film school. he said he did, he went to usc, but mostly he felt comfortable from just being on set on other shoots.

i’m also going to the upcoming film independent lecture on music videos and commercials.

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