Every interview I conduct, I save my favorite question for last:
"What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?"
We decided to pose this question each month to a different, established screenwriter and/or Hollywood executive in the industry, hoping some of their wisdom on life and career would inspire and help us all understand the mystery that is a writer's mind.
This month, I asked Edward Saxon, Oscar-winning® producer of Silence of the Lambs to offer his 18-year-old self advice. I have a special fondness for Silence of the Lambs, as my daughter fell in love with Clarice and is about to embark on her college adventure, majoring in Psychology and minoring in Criminal Psychology. Apparently my spawn has a thirst for the therapist's couch as well. I thank you, Ed, for inspiring her twisted mind... now let's hope she doesn't run across Hannibal.
Saxon put his younger self on the therapy couch and offered his advice to our readers.
Pay attention to your education. When you get out in the working world you are going to need all that learning. Imagine that you are a plumber and school is where they hand out the monkey wrenches and spanners that you use every day. As a story professional those tools are an intimate knowledge of genre, character, and structure of the great films, plays and stories. Read as much as you can, watch classic films, and understand the traditions you are working in. Master the basics of written communication and learn how to be clear and economical in saying what you mean. It's a lifelong process.
Think for yourself and question authority. The great writers and filmmakers I have worked with all question the orthodox way of doing things. If you tell them the conventional route from Santa Monica to Downtown L.A. is to take I-10, then they look for another route.
Your stories are your legacy. Think about what morality or belief system you may be pushing or endorsing. Some sage said the job of great art is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Don't be afraid to stir things up, it is more likely to get you somewhere worth going.
Be unreasonable in your enthusiasm. Work like you’re 10 minutes from a deadline. Do more than is expected and you'll get promoted. If you like someone, let them know it. If you like their work, tell your friends. Don't be afraid to light your hair on fire and evangelize about the virtues of a new actor, a song, a great TV show. You'll want someone to do that about your work one day.
Make things. If you write a page a day you'll have 365 pages at the end of a year! Storytelling isn't a job, it's a vocation. A devote priest prays morning, noon, and night. We storytellers watch, write, and read on mornings, weekends, and in the wee hours.
Be careful with people's feelings. The mandate is to insist on excellence in the work while treating people how you would like to be treated. The friends and colleagues you make while you are coming up are going to get more important to you as you move on in life.
Don't forget to have fun. You'll have more of it if you share your successes, are grateful for what you have right now, and don't take yourself too seriously. More than half of the good and bad things that happen are a result of chance.
Don't miss the opportunity and privilege of listening to more of Edward Saxon's advice at Screenwriters World Conference West in L.A. as our keynote speaker. I'm certainly looking forward to shaking the hand of the man who inspired my daughter.
Saxon offers two books as recommended reading for screenwriters:
Aristotle's Poetics- As Darwin is to the Theory of Evolution, so is Aristotle to story. Must read.
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. It's practically an attack on Aristotle! Character and theme are stressed in this one! So much of screenwriting is structure that themes often get short shrift. A great antidote for when you are maxed out on story beats and plot points.
Academy Award-winning® producer Edward Saxon has been producing feature films for 25 years. As principal of his production company, he has developed and produced pictures with Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers, Columbia, Paramount, and Disney as well as working with numerous independent financiers, including a multi year pact with Participant Productions. Combined, Saxon’s films have grossed over $700m at the box office worldwide and garnered twelve Academy Awards®. He won his Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs which swept Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture at the Academy Awards®, one of only three films in history to do so. He also produced Philadelphia, which won two Academy Awards®, including Best Actor (Tom Hanks); Adaptation, which was nominated for four Academy Awards®; and the Academy Award-nominated® documentary Mandela.
- Do-Over: Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self - Writer/Producer Erik Bork
- Do-Over: Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self - Screenwriter Doug Richardson
- Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter