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Practical Screenwriting and Directing Advice: Up Close and Honest with Lukas Hassel

Natlia Megas interviews screenwriter and director Lukas Hassel, who discusses writing and film festival advice, as well as insights on what writers do wrong.

Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.

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Lukas Hassel

Lukas Hassel

The first time you meet actor-director-screenwriter Lukas Hassel, you notice his staggering height. Over six feet tall, his towering presence and good looks can be intimidating at first. But Hassel, a perpetual smiler and welcoming listener soon puts you at ease with his sometimes tough but always engaging insightful talk.

Born and raised in Denmark, acting got on his radar when Hassel won the lead role in his high school play. Hassel eventually went on to graduate from the Samuel Beckett Theatre School at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and then moved to New York City, where he was cast in an HBO short film called, Man About Town that ended up winning at Sundance in 1997.

Hassel went on to star in TV series like The Blacklist, Blue Bloods, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent and indie films like The Black Room with Natasha Henstridge and In Sickness.

Even though Hassel has been writing for years, he recently took up directing. “I always knew I wanted to get into filmmaking,” he says.

Hassel’s work as a screenwriter/director has gotten his screenplays optioned like Le Mecano to be directed by Charlie Stratton. His work has also won him various accolades including the 2012 CineStory Fellowship, a placement in the Top 30 of the Nicholl Fellowship, a finalist in Script Pipeline Screenplay Competition, and recently winner of the Hollyshorts Best Screenplay for The Son, The Father, which is currently in pre-production at Evil Slave Productions, LLC.

This is our conversation by phone, edited for brevity.

Lukas as Paul in 'The Black Room'

Lukas as Paul in 'The Black Room'

You have a solid career as an actor. Why become a writer?

In general for myself, it was just a process as an actor. You’re so used to giving your power away to someone else. You walk into a casting group and you do your piece and you cross your fingers... I wanted to get some control back. In general, I’m sort of a control freak in that sense. So, I just started writing because at least what I come out with will be mine. And that was the impetus for taking up writing.

Script EXTRA: Chris Sparling on How Directing Made Him a Better Screenwriter

The 2007 clever female-centric short Dinner with Peter marked your writing and directing debut. The next short you wrote and directed “Into the Dark” was absolutely amazing. What brought the ambitious film on?

The motivation for making it was purely technical in the sense that I could show producers that I can make a film. That was the motivation to make a short but I wanted to make one that meant something to me.

What’s it about?

In this modern world where we’ve built up armors every day because that’s what society expects from us, we think we can manage on our own. We’re tough. Well, actually, I think as human beings we do kind of need each other. And I thought, that’s something I really resonate with, this notion, a character who thinks he needs no one, but at the end of the day, we need each other.

And then on top of that, I had an issue with the social content of what are we exposing to ourselves and our children... I feel like the denominator of what we watch as entertainment has gotten so low and I think it brings us down as a society, so I wanted to give an extreme take [in the film], what are we actually watching? What is the entertainment? It’s a social commentary on what we are actually entertained by these days.

Lukas and Natasha Henstridge from the feature film The 7th Secret

Lukas and Natasha Henstridge from the feature film The 7th Secret

Is it easy for anyone to make a film today?

I definitely think that the whole aspect of filmmaking is much more a possibility now than it used to be because of technology and shooting with a digital video because it’s cheaper. Ten years ago... it became a whole different financial involvement... I think the filmmaking aspect has opened up to everyone.

But just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean that people are necessarily talented in all those fields [acting , writing, directing, producing, etc.] and I think that’s just a personal thing as to how much work you want to put into each of these fields. If you can write, why not? A lot of people I know just don’t have that drive [to do it all]. They’re very content just being actors or writers. A lot of filmmakers have to write their own script, which can be to their detriment. Just because they’re a good filmmaker, doesn’t mean they’re a good writer.

Script EXTRA: Tips for a Successful Film Festival Experience

Your films have been successful on the film festival circuit. What are some noteworthy observations you’ve made at fests?

The amount of delusion I see out on the circuit has been staggering. You see their short film and they’re already thinking about Sundance or the Oscars and you’re like listen, you’re so off the mark... it just goes to show they have no sense of their ability and what the film festival circuit is like. You have to manage your expectations and figure out what it is you’re after.

When you go out to festivals as an actor and you meet a director and a producer over a drink, straight away, you have low status because they think you’re looking for something from them. You have these weird conversations where you’re the lowly actor... but when I came in as a writer and director and they could see my work... [it changes the game]. When you come out to the festival with a product, then I feel like networking is very helpful. You have a common ground to make a connection. Networking without a product that they can’t see, is useless to me.

It’s also helpful when the festival takes the initiative to connect their writers.

What are the main problems you’ve observed with some films?

Having been out on the film circuit these last couple of years with my own short and then I’ve been out as an actor with other films, the main problem with the shorts and the features I see is that they are shot too soon. They’re shot in second, third, fourth draft level and they would have benefited from getting more feedback or better feedback from more qualified people and really put in the work to get it tight. Most of the time, I see films and I could have easily improved it by cutting out 20 minutes... and it would have only made it better. And it usually stems from a loose script.

How can writers improve?

A lot of people are not very good at taking feedback. I was certainly guilty of that when I first started because you would love nothing more than for people to read your work and go, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” But when you start out, and when I look back at what I used to write, I needed that feedback. I have to learn from this. After a while you learn, there’s helpful feedback and then there’s non-helpful feedback. Usually, [the feedback] comes from a good place and you have to grow with that and figure out what’s helpful and what’s not. And now I welcome feedback but I’m much more selective about whom I share it with.

Script EXTRA: Notes on Taking Notes

Can you give me an example of good feedback?

I could hypothetically read your script and hate your story... but I can still give you helpful notes on how to improve your script as opposed to me giving you notes on the film that I wanted to see.

So join a writer’s group.

One of the advantages of being in a work group consistently for the last 10-12 years is the benefit of getting to know people, the same voice and whose voice you actually admire and whose you don’t. And take their notes with a grain of salt. Pay more attention to the voices you admire. Relatively quickly you get a good sense of the person... If it comes out of ego or self-importance, it’s usually not helpful... Who’s giving you advice that will help move your story forward? And who’s giving you advice about what kind of story they want it to be?

Partially because I’m Danish, I’m super pragmatic so I ask tough questions of others and myself and give harsh feedback, both good and bad.

What film festival advice do you have for screenwriters and/or directors?

Budget is an issue so do your research. Just don’t submit blindly. Do your research. What do they do for the writers or filmmakers? Do they do readings, etc.? Really look into what they do for you as opposed to just taking your submission fees, which can range from $15-$50 on a short screenplay. Be selective about where you want to spend your money.

Do a short film first, then a feature.

Know yourself and know your abilities and where you’re at right now and adjust your expectations accordingly. For my first new feature, my expectation is going to be that it’s a festival film not a blockbuster.

Script EXTRA: Film Budgets - Limitations and Creativity

What general advice do you have to screenwriters and/or directors?

You have to have something to say. Otherwise, don’t make it. So, figure out what it is that is your voice. Figure out what it is that makes you angry over a dinner table when somebody brings up a topic, or what it is that gives you butterflies in your stomach, and write that. I think sometimes you don’t discover it until you try making a short film. It’s not just a matter of putting up a fun scene on top of a fun scene or scary scene upon a scary scene — it doesn’t make a film. At the end of the day, the better films I’ve seen have a very strong point of view. I’m a big supporter of that. Don’t waste your time if you don’t. You probably can do other things but don’t do it to make a film or write a script just to write a script.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

My situation would be that I’m first and foremost an actor. And writing and filmmaking has crept up as being almost at the same level. I basically can see myself as someone who would be making feature films. I only write what I want to direct. I know exactly what I want to do with my material. And I think I have a strong point of view and something to say. I want to create my own content and films and work with other people’s great scripts as an actor. I’d consider myself doing everything still just more of it. And be more selective.

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