Writing for TV and Film
I’M POSTING THIS EARLY ON OUR BLOG
Tomorrow this is going up on jahuss.com. But we wanted to give it a home here too since… you know, Johnathan lives here now. 🙂 So… in case you didn’t know I’m doing a Top 5 Tips thing on my blog every day in December and I’ve roped a few of my author friends into contributing. So of course I asked Johnathan to give us his wisdom on screenwriting in the form of Top 5 Tips. And he graciously accepted. So… you saw it here first!
I was flattered when Julie asked if I would contribute to this project and we kicked around what the theme should be that I would write on today. We decided that perhaps “5 tips on screenwriting” would be a cool way to proceed. In addition to being an actor and a member of all the various actors’ unions, I’m lucky to also count myself as a dues-paying member of The WGA (The Writers Guild of America, if acronyms aren’t your shit) and I’ve been fortunate to have sold a few scripts as well as had some things that I wrote, filmed and then aired on the TV box. (That’s my way of credentialing myself so you don’t have to ask yourself the, “why the hell should I care what this guy says?” question. Spoiler: You shouldn’t care particularly what the hell this guy says, but in case you are curious what the hell this guy says, read on…)
So, the point is, this was intended to be 5 tips about how to approach screenwriting.
But as I started writing stuff like “First, download Final Draft…” (which, don’t get me wrong, you totally should do, but still …) and got into it further, I found that my real thoughts and offerings are far more broad-spectrum than just talking about screenwriting and crap.
So, if you’ll indulge me, I would like to ruminate here on that which has helped and inspired me along my journey, in the hopes that it may also aid and inspire you.
Please use any of what I say below in your own process if it seems beneficial, disregard it all if you feel like none of it resonates, but no matter what, and above all else …
NEVER STOP WRITING. NEVER GIVE UP.
There was this writer who graduated from film school ready to take on Hollywood. But after graduating, this writer had a hard time getting Hollywood to care at all that this writer was ready to take it on. Couldn’t get a writing job. Couldn’t even get an agent. Spent years sitting at home. But while sitting there, would write. Eventually wrote a script for a TV pilot that this writer showed around to everyone. Believed in it. Thought it represented this writer’s truest, best voice.
As this writer showed it around, this writer would hear, “Wow. You have no idea what you’re doing.” Or, “This is the most uncommercial thing I’ve ever read.” Or, “Get out of my office.” And stuff like that.
Eventually the script made its way into the hands of an important writer/showrunner who at the time was a very big deal. The showrunner said, “You’ll never get this made, but I kind of like the way you write and I like you, so why don’t you come on as a writer on my show?” This writer didn’t think twice and did come on to the showrunner’s TV show, and worked up through the ranks to become an Executive Producer and lived Happily Ever After. THE END.
Except of course it isn’t.
This writer still had the script that started the whole journey and still believed it could become a TV show. And even after the success of having been staffed on a successful TV series, people would still say, “Seriously. That thing you wrote way back when is never going to get made. It did its job. It got you hired on this big, important TV show! Be happy! Let it go…”
But this writer never did let it go. And eventually this writer got a meeting with a small TV channel. One that was just starting to think about trying to do new stuff. And they said, “Okay. Sure. We have nothing to lose. We’ll give it a try.” And people said, “Oh shit. I’m so sorry. I know you believed the thing you wrote SEVEN YEARS AGO was going to one day be something special, but now it’s stuck out in the TV hinterlands and no one will ever see it and let’s go to dinner and not talk about it…”
The showrunner that hired this writer because the showrunner saw this writer’s potential was called David Chase.
The show David Chase hired this writer to write on was called THE SOPRANOS.
This writer that he hired was called Matthew Weiner.
The script Matt had written that got him the job on THE SOPRANOS and ultimately made it onto the little TV channel that no one would ever watch was called MAD MEN.
Never stop writing. Never give up.
READ SCRIPTS BY WRITERS YOU ADMIRE. AND THOSE YOU DON’T.
Read scripts. Here is a solid list of websites that store screenplays and TV scripts on-line.
(If there’s a script you really, really want and can’t find on the internet, you can also reach out to me at JH_JM@hussmcclain.com and I can likely track it down through one of my silly agents or the WGA. Point is … read scripts.)
I have learned an incredible amount about the things I admire and want to emulate in my work from reading other writers whose work I enjoy. Another way to say this is “If someone does something you really like … steal it. Because they stole it from someone else.” (That’s not my quote. I think I stole it from Michael Caine. Dunno who he stole it from.)
I have also learned an incredible amount from reading writers who aren’t so great and who I don’t admire. And not because “it teaches you what NOT to do.” People will say that shit and it drives me crazy. Because I don’t believe you should strive to learn lessons in negative space. Learning what not to do is not learning. It’s being risk averse.
If you read a script that doesn’t work, don’t analyze it for what went wrong so you “can avoid those pitfalls.” That’s a coward’s lesson. Examine it from the perspective of what you would have done differently. What you would have added. How you would have approached it differently.
To quote Plutarch: “It’s a thing of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.”
Trouble yourself with betterment.
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC.
By which I mean the music of language. This holds especially true for dialogue, but is applicable throughout all the telling of a story.
Think about it from the perspective of song-writing. “Imagine” by John Lennon is a great song with great lyrics and a great message, but if the melody that is its delivery mechanism wasn’t pleasing to hear, nobody would listen. Make the music of language a priority.
I understand that not everyone has a musical ear, but everyone can try this: Say the words you’re writing aloud. (Again, this holds especially true for dialogue.) Is it melodious? Does it feel comfortable in your mouth? Would you say that shit? Or is it a ham-fisted and clumsy attempt to just shoehorn an idea into being through wooden language that has not meter nor cadence? If it’s the latter … work harder.
And it can be work. Not everyone comes to it naturally. Not everyone is Aaron Sorkin. But it is a learnable skill. Practice and eventually YOUR natural melody will emerge and that then becomes your voice. And once you’ve developed your voice, you can sing anytime you want.
Words matter. Language is precious. Know why? Because it’s a shitty communicator. It can be confused, misinterpreted and misunderstood with startling ease. So, do yourself a favor and cultivate a mastery of it to the best of your ability. And then play the fuck out of it.
LIVE IN THE WORLD. EXPERIENCE LIFE. BEFRIEND THOSE WHOSE OPINIONS AND WORLDVIEW DIFFER FROM YOURS.
This one actually doesn’t require a ton of explaining and is also critically important. The only way you can understand the world is by living in it. If your intention is to tell a story that reaches beyond your own personal borders, it becomes necessary to reach out your hand.
Learn about things that seem boring. Watch movies that you don’t think you’ll like. Do stuff that you hate. I do this shit all the time. It doesn’t necessarily make the things I’m engaging in/with any less boring, likable, or hated, but it does almost always grant me insight.
Because … you have to learn to never judge your characters. People don’t typically analyze everything they do (I do, but it sucks and is fucking exhausting – and nobody’s writing a screenplay about my trifling ass), they just do it. If you wanna write about sharecroppers, you don’t have to go become one, but you should understand why they are what they are. Talk to one. Take him out to dinner. Whatever. Engage with the world, not just your imagination.
Everything I write is 1/3 my experiences, 1/3 my imagination, and 1/3 the people I’ve seen, places I’ve been, and things I’ve learned.
And by the way, as an actor first, this is critical to that part of my career as well. Indeed, acting IS writing IS living my life. The more empathy you can cultivate in your work, the more empathy you’ll cultivate in the world, and the richer and rounder a person you will become. And not only will your work benefit, but you’ll benefit as a carbon-based life-form.
We are all interdependent beings. When you breathe, you are borrowing air from the trees, the sky, the fish, the birds, and me. So, breathe in deeply, and when you breathe out again, fill the air with the richness of all you’ve experienced.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR EGO