On November 19 and 20 the Writers Guild Foundation held its annual WGFestival at Dynasty Typewriter’s Hayworth Theater. This “Comic-Con of writing” celebrates writing and was a hybrid event this year. The first day involved virtual conversations about the craft of writing.
One of the talks on the 19th that stands out is the one about Research Methods, where WGF Librarian Lauren O’Connor spoke with the illustrious Stephen Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders, Spencer). If he’s doing research for a historical project, he Googles a random element from that time period because it’ll take it somewhere he has to get back from. Philosopher Edward de Bono’s talk about creativity influenced this method. He suggested that if you’re writing, go somewhere strange. When you start somewhere unexpected, it’s easier to get back home.
Another informative session was with screenwriter Billy Ray suggests that scripts are intellectual exercises designed to elicit an emotional response, so fashion your pitch around that notion. The key to any script is, “What is the simple emotional journey?” He says that pitching is condensed writing. Your job is to take your listener on a simple emotional journey. Use your protagonist as the emotional window in which we step into the story.
The second day's focus was on two ends of the same spectrum, comedy and drama. The HBO panelists were a testament to comedy and drama being separate genres but also inextricably linked. While the online talks of the previous day were convenient, this experience was also a reminder that there’s nothing like the energy of an in-person event.
The screening that kicked off the day, The Tender Bar, was the perfect blend of both genres. Directed by George Clooney and starring Ben Affleck, the heartwarming coming-of-age tale has notes of nostalgia, first love heartbreak, and family trauma closure. It's funny, it's sad, it's poignant. It's a cocktail of emotions served up on a warm-toned palette.
The Fundamentals of the Comedy Pilot was the first session of the day and was helmed by Brent Forrester, who was a firecracker of energy. He talked about his journey as a comedy writer, which included one of his Roseanne scripts landing in Judd Apatow’s hands. He suggested there are three key elements that your comedy pilot should have: 1.) original characters, 2.) a strong premise that revolves around an eternal, unsolvable problem, and 3.) secondary characters who are in contrast to or conflict with the main character. Brent can be found online at http://www.brentforrester.com.
The first HBO Showrunner Session was Writing Drama. The very witty Stacey Wilson Hunt moderated a panel comprised of Jennifer Schuur (In Treatment), Patrick Somerville (Station Eleven), and Susan Soon He Stanton (Succession). The second HBO Showrunner Session was Writing Comedy, helmed by master of dry humor Larry Wilmore. Panelists included Paul W. Downs (Hacks), Chris Kelly (The Other Two), Prentice Penny (Insecure), Jeff Schaffer (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Lauren Ashley Smith (The Black Lady Sketch Show).
Something both panels touched on was working through COVID. There were some hilarious comments about conversations overlapping on Zoom and how everyone is ready to permanently go back to writer’s rooms. Patrick Somerville, whose Station Eleven eerily predicts the pandemic, notes that people didn’t want escapism during the trying times of the epidemic. People wanted films and television shows about reality, which is why audiences gravitated towards programs about pandemics. Everyone realizes the world has changed and the social “wrinkles” COVID has caused is something everyone is still figuring out.
One important tidbit was that there’s no formula for getting a script sold. Jennifer Schuur got her start as a writer’s assistant, whereas Patrick Somerville started out as a novelist. The consensus was that you should always have material ready, whether it’s for film or television, and always outline.
Another important writing tip that was given at the end of the evening was by Jeff Schaffer. He said that you should always read your script out loud before submitting it.
The theme throughout both days was that no matter how difficult things got, the writers always found joy in writing. While professional writers have to keep schedules and meet deadlines, they don’t have a clock-watching, nine-to-five gig. They’re doing something they really enjoy that makes them apart of a bigger process.