Interviewing successful writers allows us to share insights into not only their writing process but also screenwriting career advice. We dug through our archives to find compelling and timeless writing advice.
Let's get at it ...
Editor's Note: We'll be updating this post with more great gems as we find them, so bookmark this page!
Bryan Sipe ("Demolition"): Following the Muse
"I was going numb and I didn't know why, and I hit the panic button because I want to feel something. I want to be passionate about things again. And I was writing these scripts that were for [Hollywood], you know? Writing bad comedies. I didn't know if I was a writer anymore. What my real voice was. So, I got this sense of loss, like I lost my true creative self. And that felt like death to me. Mind you, this stuff is in retrospect now (laughs). I didn't know that this was happening as I was doing it. There was nothing calculated about these feelings. I wasn't able to put these pieces together. I just felt numb and blank. Then this voice started talking to me, and he was also experiencing loss. I followed him, and he showed me what that loss was. And it was his wife. It [the screenplay] began with this voice. And I followed the voice. I didn't give a shit anymore about what Hollywood wanted me to write or what agents were telling me would sell. I just wanted to talk to this guy. I wanted him to talk back to me and I followed him through this tragedy of his. I was there with him and he was there for me."
Kevin Smith ("Clerks"): On Motivation
"You sit down with a blank page or a blank screen and you create a universe. You fashion a world. You populate it with whimsies and desires. You make the world the way you feel it oughta be. And you don't have to show a single image to convey your creation to others. The more you share it, the more your fiction becomes a reality for others – a reality that can even manifest itself in that most unimaginative and over-valued currency: cold, hard cash. But for any writer, money is never the motivator: it's the crushing need to get that story/blog/script/poem off your chest onto someone else's mind. A writer doesn't need motivation because a writer can never shut it off. When you write, you are as a god – or even THE God. Who needs motivation for that? You wanna enjoy the perks of godhood without some jackass nailing you to a cross? Go write something. Right now. Stop reading me."
Edward Saxon ("Silence of the Lambs"): On Storytelling
"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."
Eric Haywood, Writer/Producer ("Empire," "Power," "For Life"): On Working in the Writer's Room
"I’m certainly not suggesting that you transform yourself into a massive suck-up in order to curry favor with the boss. I’m simply saying that winning some battles and losing others is inevitable. The trick is to not alienate your co-workers (especially your boss) when every creative impulse in your body is telling you to take a principled stand and keep fighting the good fight even after it’s clear that a final decision has been made. The bottom-line: no matter how friendly your showrunner is, you simply don’t get to tell them what’s what. It’s better to say nothing than to risk shooting your mouth off because you’re overly-passionate about story and character and all those other things writers are supposed to care about."
Erik Bork (HBO's "Band of Brothers"): Navigating a Writer's Life
"Live your life and seek to explore what’s meaningful to you, and what you’re passionate about – while also understanding what makes millions of people respond to a piece of writing, a movie, or a TV show. It’s important to find a way to succeed on both of those levels. Just writing for yourself won’t work (commercially), but only writing for seeming commercial success won’t, either. What the world needs is for you to be boldly and uniquely you, not a copy of someone else (even someone you greatly admire). Finding out who you are and what you have to give might take time, and will definitely take commitment and study. But it will be so worth it."
Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men," "West Wing"): Writing Monologues
"Believe it or not, my college degree is musical theatre, so the only thing I’ve been formally trained in are musicals. I learned that in a musical, a song works best when, in that moment, you just have to sing because words just won’t do it. Tony has just met Maria at the dance in West Side Story, and he can’t just say to his friends, “God, I just met this amazing girl and I think I’m in love.” No, he has to go out and sing. [Sorkin sings] “Maria! I just met a girl named Maria! And suddenly that name will never be the same to me!” Well, a monologue of speech needs the same sort of launch, where a character just can’t contain himself anymore. It needs to explode, like steam in a spaghetti pot, knocking the lid off. The most clichéd example I can think of is: 'You can’t handle the truth!' from A Few Good Men, which explodes Jack Nicholson into that long speech."
Lena Waithe ("Queen & Slim"): On What She's Learned About Herself from Writing
"To bare your soul in your work and then show it to people. You're very exposed. You're naked, almost, when you present your art to the world and it is there to be judged. It is to be ridiculed. It is there to be misunderstood or misinterpreted or picked apart, and that is also a part of the creative process, and it's not easy, but it's important, and it's necessary."
Eric Heisserer ("Arrival"): On Adapting a Short Story
"The first attempt was pretty faithful to the story, but I realized that the DNA in the story only got me halfway, and that there was a lot I had to make up on my own. I needed the dramatic engine of potential conflict and escalation between Earth and the aliens, and in the short story, the communication occurred through a looking-glass technology, with the alien is light years away, so the interaction was more of an extended Skype call. This gave a very flat narrative with no peaks and valleys. So, instead of a video conference with aliens, it made all the difference to have them show up in ships, so we’re face-to-face. This was by far the biggest change I made to the source material, but I needed to run it by the author to see if he saw the same value in it, because any time you’re adding something that wasn’t part of the core material, there’s a threat of the new organ being rejected by the host. You have to ask: 'Is there a way to incorporate this fluidly?'"
Erin Cressida Wilson ("The Girl on the Train"): On Point of View and Voiceover
"I come from a theater background and I’ve written plenty of non-linear work, so I wasn’t scared of the fractured narrative, and the idea of multiple points of view didn’t seem strange to me at all. And even though it’s mainly Rachel’s story, I always knew I would widen the POVs to include all three women. But it would be pretty tedious to jockey between three different voice-overs, so I opened with Rachel’s voice over, then in order to avoid a second voice-over, I tricked in Megan’s voice-over with a pre-lap, which at first glance looked like a voice-over, but then we see that Megan’s actually in a shrink session, talking to her therapist. To some degree, I got this idea from the book, but I was also influenced by the opening scene in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I then also tricked in Anna’s voice-over in pre-lap, where it turns out she’s actually talking to her baby. So, by establishing the three POVs from the beginning, it’s easy to come back to their points of view, but I always really wanted to prefer Rachel and give her the only true voice-over, because the film is very much about her fantasy."
Jason Neese, Producer ("The Umbrella Academy"): On Choosing Scripts
"A script that really pulls me in is not one that is super technically written. It's one that I can't put down, like you wouldn't be able to put down a good novel or a good short story. We read this script called "Future Cult Classic," and we produced it. It was just a pilot. Never made it, unfortunately, but it was the funnest script of all time. That script did not give a shit about stage direction or any of that 'pan left…' none of that crap. But it was written beautifully in the format of a script. You just couldn't put it down because it was so graphically written, but in a way that it needed to be."
Edward Norton ("Motherless Brooklyn"): On Length of Time from Script to Screen
"You can’t be afraid of gestation, because even though the mental perseverance can be hard and frustrating at times, gestation ultimately creates dividends."
Andrea Berloff ("The Kitchen," "Straight Outta Compton"): Using Minimal Dialogue
"I wouldn’t say it was a calculation, like I was waiting to spring this 'a-ha' moment, when the character finally speaks, and we’re shocked by what she evolves into. But there are a lot of women—and men too—who walk through the world very quietly, and in many ways, they’re the ones you have to look out for. That doesn’t mean that they’re not present. It means that they’re thinking and watching. I said to Elisabeth [Moss]: 'Yes, you are quiet in these scenes, but you’re hyper-aware of everything that’s going on.' There’s a moment in the film that not everyone picks up on, during the courtroom sentencing scene, when the husbands are being carted off to jail, and Elisabeth gives this incredible smile that tells you everything."
Yolanda Carney (HBO's "Manic"): On Working with a Director
"I just remember Kate having so much compassion for the characters in the story. She really cared about Aurora, the main character. That immediately disarmed the writer inside of me. I knew that she really cared about story, and so I was able to just immediately trust in it and what she had to say about her vision for it."
Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society"): Cutting Scenes
"I spent a good deal of time fretting when Peter told me he had a problem with the hospital scene, because people who read the script told me how affected they were by it. I was reluctant to take it out. Then Peter said, 'Look, I won’t make you take that scene out, but if you don’t, I’m not directing the movie. And furthermore, if you don’t want to eliminate that scene out of your own volition, I’m still not directing the movie.' So, I’m like, 'Jesus, Peter, this is a high bar, here!' But then he said something I completely agreed with, when he explained that at the end of the movie, when the boys stand on their desks, it would be easy to make that gesture for somebody who’s dying. But if he’s not dying, then we know they’re standing up for the values he’s taught them, which is much more powerful. When I heard that, I thought, 'Damn it, Peter, you’re right.' And that was the end of it."
Mark L. Smith ("The Revenant"): On Writing to Budget or Logistics
"I don't think it’s ever a writer’s job to worry about that stuff. Again: I was just writing to make sure the set pieces lived up to the story, to coerce readers to keep turning the pages. The writer should put down on paper the very best story he can, and whatever elements he thinks contribute to that should be there. You have to let the experts in those other fields figure out how to make it all work. I laughed with one of the stunt guys, because we were shooting a complicated scene with people going over a cliff and falling into a river, and I joked how I wrote this scene in 15 minutes. Writers have the best gig, because you can write whatever you want, and then let everyone else worry about making it work."
Bob Saenz ("Extracurricular Activities"): On Rejection
"I am so glad now, looking back at it, that that movie never got made because it made me a lot more humble, and came the next 15 years. The learning curve was very, very steep. But I also learned at the same time that it takes most people that long. It's so easy to get discouraged with all the rejection and say, 'Oh forget it.' But if you really want to do this, you have to say, 'Okay, I got rejected, so what? Let's move on to the next person. And let's write another script, and let's learn some more, and let's network some more.' So, I wrote more."
J. Todd Harris, Producer ("The Kids Are All Right"): On Adapting Intellectual Property (IP)
"If you can find that overlooked book, or you can find that piece of IP that people just forgot about, or that was optioned but never happened, that can give you a leg up. Do you know how many projects Warner Bros. has optioned and eventually lost the rights to, or given up on even after they spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars on development? You know how long Harry Potter sat on the shelf at Warner Bros.? A long time."
Trey Ellis (Martin Luther King HBO documentary, "King in the Wilderness"): On Choosing a Story to Tell
"A story worth telling is one that feels new even if it's not new. You gotta remember, there are a lot of stories out there, and what is the urgency to tell this particular story? I think it's not going to come out of plot; it's going to come out of heart and character. The world keeps changing, so as it keeps spinning, there are new stories. Stories have new meaning and new resonance. A good story is when the story is urgent now because, and ideally, the urgency of that now, drives you to a deep place that makes it perennial, and makes it something that'll last for years."
Chris Salvaterra (HBO Executive): On Pushing the Envelope
Editor's Note: Early in his career, Chris was the person who took the risk to champion American Pie from script to production.
“My attitude with developing material that’s graphic, whether it's sex, violence, or humor, is you can always pull back on things, but I never want a writer to be holding back in the writing process. Let us, the executives, rein you in. But as a writer, don't be so self-conscious during the thought process that you're editing yourself. Similarly, you can't be afraid to go dark. You can always lighten it up later. In this day and age, when there's so much entertainment and noise out there, there's something to be said for distinctive entertainment. So as a storyteller, you have to push yourself and your stories to make your work different. That's what makes the reader go, ‘Man, that's interesting! I want to see this.’”
Lucinda Coxon ("The Danish Girl"): On Surviving a Writing Career
"Resilience... so important. So hard to come by. Doesn’t get easier, so you need to accept it! I have had staggering disasters in my career. My first (and only original) screenplay was a labor of love over many years. We finally got it into production and filming collapsed after three weeks when the leading actor, Winona Ryder, became ill. The script is now owned forever by Chubb, the insurance company. That hurt for a long time. And of course, there are the ordinary disasters also - the work that's never produced, or produced badly. And even if the work's a big success, some reviewer, somewhere, will always hate what you've done. But you just keep going. Do the next thing. The next thing. I’m very lucky that I have an amazing husband and daughter, so I don’t hang all my self worth on the work peg these days. But I certainly have done in the past. It’s horrible. DO take it seriously. DON'T take it personally."
Austin Winsberg, Writer, Creator, Executive Producer (“Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”): On the Challenge of Breaking In
"I spent many years waiting for my first pilot to air. It is a journey; there is something about the whims of the industry. For me, the ideas of perseverance and to keep writing were important because you never know which project is going to connect. Some of it is timing and luck. And hours of work. And a tough skin. I remember many times when I would read pilots that were bad and wonder why did they get picked up?! I would get depressed about it. I got better over the years to not personalize it so much. For me, it was important to work on several things at once."
Bonus Tips ...
The Dialogue Series' YouTube channel supplies great clips of screenwriter interviews. Here's a snippet of advice from the pros ...