On Monday Scott Frank, the writer behind Minority Report, Marley & Me and Get Shorty, gave a talk at BFI Southbank in London as part of the BFI and BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture series. Here are some of the words of wisdom he shared on the night…
I spend more time on the opening than any scene in the script by far. I'll stall; I'll literally take months writing my opening. I'll take notes, I'll do research – do anything other than actually start writing, because I need to know exactly what it is I'm going to be fading in on. I can't begin until I know that.
The novelist Elmore Leonard said “never begin a book with weather”, and, by the same token, this is a rule I have for myself: never begin a screenplay with set design. There's nothing worse than opening a script, only to be confronted by a page, or worse, pages of description – usually of somebody's bedroom!
Invariably, the second draft will be worse than the first draft. Be ready for it, don't panic, but it will reek.
The right sort of collaboration leads to a blend of what I can only describe as magic and physics that's only seen in filmmaking. The right director with the right writer. The right director with the right actor. The right actor with the right material. Suddenly, one and one is three. And as writers we shouldn't be afraid of that, we should seek it out, because we can't do it by ourselves.
The process is everything. In my experience, if the process is bad, the work is bad. I know some people thrive on conflict and chaos – I'm definitely not one of them. I like all of my conflict on the page. What complicates things is money, and there's often a lot of it at stake. When there's a lot of money at stake, it can be tough to keep the focus purely on storytelling. All I can do is try to keep everyone talking about the story, and only the story, for as long as I can, if I can.
If you prefer Dan Brown to Leo Tolstoy knock yourself out. I think having fun leads to inspiration faster than doing homework, for me anyway. And I’m embarrassed to list all the books that I haven’t read or that I should have. It’s an extensive catalogue. But I do love to read and reading novels has always taught me more about writing than reading screenplays.
If you must digress I suggest hooking your audience in the way you might in your opening scene. It’s okay to disorient, “where are we, are we still in the present?” It’s okay to throw them off or confuse them, but make them feel like they have to stay put.
People can die at the end of a film and it can be emotional and satisfying. A downer for me is when you get up from your seat not sure why you just went through all that.
Marketing is everywhere. But to all of us who work on movies I have to say “so what?” This should not affect what we write. Trying to guess what people want is a fool’s errand, because the minute you figure it out, they don’t want it anymore, they’re onto the next thing.
Don’t assume the marketing machine is going to eat your work, you’ll end up writing defensively; you’ll pull all your punches. You’ll neuter yourself. Worse, you’ll be angry all the time – you’ll be one of those people.
Listen to a podcast of Scott Frank’s lecture on bafta.org/guru. Book tickets for forthcoming BFI and BAFTA screenwriters’ lectures on bafta.org/whatson.
Image: © Steve Butler 2012.
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