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Mapping the Journey for Professional Screenwriters: An Interview with Diane Drake

Diane Drake is a professional screenwriter, creative consultant, and screenwriting instructor with the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. Her produced original screenplays include Only You, starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. and What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Diane grew up in Los Angeles and began her career as a script reader and producer’s assistant working for companies such as Warner Co., Fox, Columbia Pictures, and PBS/American Playhouse among others. She landed a job as story editor for Academy Award-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack and worked her way up to become the Vice President of Creative Affairs, before turning to screenwriting full-time.

Writing is most often a solo venture taking writers into unfamiliar territory. Having mentors to help guide the way and shed light along our path is a valuable asset to any writer as they give us the inspiration and hope that keeps us headed in the right direction.

Diane Drake Photo

Ann: What three qualities do you consider a must for screenwriters to have in order to succeed?

Diane: 1) Perseverance, 2) A genuine passion for the craft and willingness to continually work on always learning more about it, and (ideally) 3) Talent. Though I think it’s safe to say plenty of people with an overabundance of the first two and not so much of the third have gotten away with it. Of course luck doesn’t hurt either, but then you know the definition of luck -- “When preparation meets opportunity.”

Ann: What have you found to be the most common challenges your students or clients have come up against, and what do you recommend in helping to overcome them?

Diane: I think the most common obstacle is fear; that and the frustration and disappointment which can arise when they realize writing a screenplay is a more challenging undertaking than they’d anticipated. I try to encourage my students and clients by reminding them it’s all a process; that any creative endeavor is an evolutionary process. From baking a cake to painting a painting to writing a script, you start and you build, step by step -- a little more of this, a little less of that -- and nothing happens instantly. I also remind them to try not to judge the work in progress too harshly (it’s like judging the unbaked cake), the goal is simply to be moving forward, and to remember to celebrate all the little victories along the way.

Any creative person needs to try to accept that you truly can’t please everyone; so (as the song says), you’ve got to please yourself. If you get critical feedback which, if you’re truly honest with yourself, you feel is valid and thus helpful, then by all means heed it. It’s incredibly important to have people whom you trust to provide that. At the same time, sometimes you have to remind yourself that this is YOUR work, your vision. If someone else were to write this piece, they would have their own vision and undoubtedly do things differently, but that doesn’t mean you have to conform to their idea of what it ought to be. Take what’s useful and genuinely constructive to you and leave the rest.

Ann: What can you tell us about the spiritual aspect of being a writer?

Diane: First, I think if your main goal in life is to get rich (either quickly or slowly), writing is probably not your best bet. People who choose to make a creative life their vocation generally do so because it’s the way we feel most useful; there is a desire to share something and communicate a sense that we’re not alone. But writing, especially for a living, can be a tough and often lonely road. It’s very difficult to tune out all the competing agendas (political, financial, etc.) and all the other voices, inside and outside your head, clamoring for you to do it “their way.” You have to try to figure out what it is you most want to say and then have the courage to do it.

In terms of what to write about, it’s helpful to ask yourself, what do you love? What do you hate? Whatever inspires strong emotion in you, either positive or negative, pay attention to those things. Take notes. Dorothea Brande, in her wonderful book, On Becoming a Writer, advises, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost,” which to me is another way of saying, ‘be present, be mindful.’

Finally, I think writers as a species tend to be outsiders. We’re more often observers than participants, sometimes recluses even. But deep down, I think what pretty much everyone craves and understands is the fundamental desire to live more. That’s basically it in a nutshell. If one assumes we only get one crack at this life, we all want to make the most of it; yet, many of us wonder if we’re somehow not taking full advantage of this precious opportunity and selling ourselves short.

Only You

Almost always everyone’s goal-- and this goes for writers, their audiences, and (importantly) the characters they create -- boils down to a desire to live more fully. To somehow free ourselves, in whatever ways necessary, to live the most authentic, productive, and rewarding life we possibly can. Give your lead some unique, specific form of that universal goal and substantial obstacles to overcome on the road to it, and people’s hearts and minds (and not incidentally, wallets) will follow.

Ann: Can you share three key elements needed for dealing with the business side of screenwriting?

Diane: A very thick skin (and by that I mean a skin which makes that of the most ancient elephant look like a newborn baby’s), a willingness to be aware of what’s happening market-wise, yet at the same time not be a slave to it, and an ability to not take rejection to heart or let it discourage you. (When I master these things, I’ll be sure to let you know).

Ann: Do you know how many scripts you’ve read?

Diane: I would guess that number has got to be in the thousands.

Ann: Do you have any rituals or exercises you do, before you begin your writing each day?

Diane: Something I learned from yoga, before your practice, is to take a few moments and few deep breaths to consciously “set your intention.” I think it’s helpful for writing as well. It’s a good way to visualize where you ideally want to go, both specifically in your writing that day and in your life in general, and to carve out a space in your mind and your life for it. For those who are so inclined, it’s a good way to invite the muses in.

Ann: Have you ever experienced writer’s block, and what did you find the most helpful to overcome it?

Diane: I once read a quote which has stayed with me, “Writers block is when you think you’re doing it alone”; which I take to mean, when you’re coming more from ego and not allowing the subconscious/collective unconscious to flow. Whenever I’m stuck, I find the thing that helps me the most is to read or watch the work of people I admire. If it happens to be the work of someone I know personally, so much the better -- it makes it feel less daunting, more like, “if they can do it, so can I.” But it’s tough sometimes, this continued renewal of inspiration. I think one job of any creative person is to actively seek out ways to become inspired, to ‘feed the muse’ if you like. You can’t simply sit around and wait for this to just happen on its own. There’s a Jack London quote about exactly this, “You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Another way you can get “blocked” is by being too much of a perfectionist too early on. The writer Anne LaMott encourages what she calls ‘shitty first drafts,” and advises to fully give yourself permission to write garbage, you can clean it up later. I’ve heard Judd Apatow speak of this as well, he calls it, “the down/up theory”; just get it down and then clean it up. While I completely agree in theory and, as I alluded to earlier, believe you shouldn’t let yourself get too caught up in judging your work as you’re creating it; I admittedly sometimes have a bit of a tough time with this. I feel like I have to like at least SOME of what I’ve gotten down (that is, it can’t be that shitty in my eyes) or I find it hard to keep going. But that’s just me, and thus this is something I often need to remind myself of.

What Women Want

Ann: Do you have any mantras, positive affirmations, or quotes you use to assist you with your writing frame-of-mind?

Diane: At the risk of sounding a little over-dramatic, I’ve always liked the line from a song by Sting, “Know your human rights, be what you’ve come here for.” To be a creative person takes courage and somehow that phrase is a good reminder to me. “Be what you’ve come here for.”

Ann: Who have been some of the most influential mentors in your screenwriting career? Can you list three of the most valuable things they taught you?

Diane: Sydney Pollack, for whom I worked as a Vice President of Creative Affairs, had an extraordinary work ethic. I don’t think he knew the meaning of the word ‘vacation.' It was fascinating and really inspiring to be around his drive, his artistic and intellectual curiosity, and his habit of consistently raising the bar on himself.

There are so many others who’ve influenced me through their work and the sharing of their insight. There are simply so very many talented people I’ve had the privilege to hear speak through the Writers Guild in Los Angeles, so shout out to them. This is just a short list: Florian Von Donnersmarck (who wrote and directed The Lives of Others and is an incredibly brilliant and lovely guy), Judd Apatow, Charlie Kaufman, Steve Levitan, Mindy Kaling, Alexander Payne, Lisa Cholodenko, Ricky Gervais, Peter Katims, Mark Boal, and Aaron Sorkin.

I invariably walk away from these evenings not only enlightened, but genuinely inspired. If you live in Los Angeles and want to be a writer and don’t avail yourself of these opportunities, you’re really missing the boat. And if you don’t live in L.A., oftentimes these are available later on DVD, so check with the WGA.

Ann: Can you share any current or future projects you’re working on that we can look forward to?

Diane: I’m currently working on a book on writing, a screenplay which is set at Christmastime, and plan to be able to offer an online course soon. Please check my website for updates.

Ann: Thank you Diane for taking the time to share your knowledge, experience, and powerful insights with us. You’re an inspiration and very encouraging. We’ll be looking forward to reading your new book, seeing your next film, and taking your on-line courses.

Diane: My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity and the great questions.

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