Randall was kind enough to site down with us and share incredible insight on the writing process that any writer or director can benefit from.
How I Broke In- Randall Wallace
In this article, we speak with Randall Wallace, writer and director of such films as Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, Secretariat and Heaven is For Real. He also just published his latest novel, Living the Braveheart Life.
Randall was kind enough to site down with us and share incredible insight on the writing process that any writer or director can benefit from.
How I Broke In- Randall Wallace
Our new "How I Broke In" article has been published by Final Draft. We spoke with Douglas Soesbe, writer of "Boulevard". (Robin Williams last film). He is also a story analyst with Universal and has some great insight into the studio thought process. You can read the interview here.
Our new article has been posted in the Final Draft "How I Broke In" series. We spoke with Brian Duffield, writer of Insurgent, about his Hollywood journey. There is some very good advice in here that goes far beyond making it in Hollywood.
Brian Duffield - How I Broke In
We are pleased to announce that we will be writing a regular column for Final Draft called, "How I Broke In". We will be interviewing Hollywood screenwriters to talk about the industry, what they're working on and how they came to break in to the industry in the first place.
In this column, we speak with Ben Ripley, writer of Source Code and Boychoir. We hope you enjoy.
Ben Ripley - How I Broke In
Collaborative scriptwriting is one of the most intense creative endeavors I've ever been a part of and I'm lucky enough to do it with one of my favorite people. I've known my partner since college and we were friends long before we worked together, so when I tell Dave to shut up and he tells me I've got a bad idea it's like water off a duck's back. I know he respects my ideas and he knows I think he's got a boat load of talent. Getting the best project is our goal and we are pretty ruthless about getting that. Lately we've been getting some attention to our process and I thought I might jot down my thoughts about that.
Being a writer is nice and safe. I can sit in my house and type all day with only minor interaction with my wife (a blog topic I'm not quite ready to tackle). Maybe, IF I get the the piece to a place where I'm happy with it, I'll show it to an editor or a friend and get some feedback. Collaboration is rarely the name of the game and only if I'm writing poetry or a song for someone else will it become necessary to "share" the work.
This process was entirely new to me when I started working on my graphic novel. I came to film from animation, where nothing you do is your own, a place of re-making and do-overs.
For instance: The first thing we practiced at animation school was how to copy things perfectly, so that the line weight of our pencil was the same as whoever was drawing the master drawings.
In traditional animation you have people doing master drawings and working out the timing sheet, lead animators making key frames, assistants drawing in-betweens, inkers tracing the final drawings onto acetate, and painters who paint the back side of each frame without going over the inked edges of the acetate drawing. Then you send it all to a camera man who shoots the frames (following the timing sheet, you hope) and in the end you have a cartoon. This process requires a lot of skill at every position, and more importantly, communication between everyone involved. I found that to be the same on film sets, advertising agencies, and large corporate art departments throughout my career as a professional artist.
This main thing this background taught me was how to work with other creative people. Most importantly, how to keep my own feelings about the work under control, and how to speak about changes in others contributions to the work. The key is to do this without making collaborators feel bad. Most creatives, especially ones who haven't' spent a lot of time in a sharing environment, are very attached to the work on a personal level.
When giving and taking criticism about the work, what creatives hear is about themselves.
The key to talking openly about making a better product is a well documented process and there are hundreds of people making books about that and I wouldn't want them to go hungry, so buy their books if you want to. You'll probably learn something.
I have found this short, FIVE step process really helpful when dealing with other artists:
ONE: Thank you.
Your partner just spent a piece of their lifetime on this piece of work. Thank them. This is THE most important piece of advice I have ever been given and will ever give. Compliment them at the start of the process. Sometimes you'll forget, and jump straight to the criticism. See where that gets you and contrast against the compliment first method.
TWO: Compliment what works in the piece.
You're not partnered with idiots, regardless of how you feel in the moment. This partnership was entered into purposefully and they made a genuine contribution to the work. What's working, even if it's off topic? Nicely done!
THREE: Re-visit the theme and purpose of the project.
Sometimes we artists get obsessed with a bit of the detail, and not the fairway of intention. When we look back at the main topic, we find ourselves lost in the weeds of detail, and have to work to get back to the green. It is often our contemporaries and partners who ask us to re-evaluate the purpose of our work, and question our sports analogies. Be that guy for your team. Ask the questions that get you back on topic.
FOUR: Question the work against the purpose and theme.
This is the time to voice your criticism. Don't hold back, but keep your criticisms pointed back on topic. Always use the first person: "I don't like this or this" and try to keep away from generic "that sucks" or "it's no good" type statements. "I don't like it, it sucks." is perfectly reasonable, but be prepared to back up your assessment with reasons.
*note* "I just don't like it." is a totally valid reason.
FIVE: Come up with a better solution together.
If the work is on topic and you just don't like the color, what color would you like it to be? How can a conversation between two characters be streamlined with less dialogue and more action? Staying on topic and focusing on the goal of the project will help move the conversation past hurt feelings. If your partner has run off into the weeds, help them get back into the green by asking leading questions that get their thoughts back on topic. Be sure to keep those notes from the weeds. You never know when that bit of detail is going to be handy later on!
Scriptwriting as a group activity can be a real pain in the ass and at worst can lead to alienating friends and collaborators you've spent years trying to pull together. When fear of failure and self doubt begin to creep in you may even alienate yourself. Take the time to remind everyone that we're having fun doing the thing we love, and we're not trying to hurt anyone's feelings. It sounds cheesy, but it will keep your team together. If only long enough to get the work out the door.
Remember the film you think you are making is not the film you are making. A movie gets created Three times. Once on the page. Again during production. Finally in post.
Because of the collaboration involved the film we write is rarely what we see on the screen. If we are lucky and diligent, it is better.
Tuesday is quickly becoming one of my favorite days of the workweek. Why? First, I'm through my Monday hangover and the week is fresh enough that I can still harbor delusions of getting something done by Friday. Secondly, it's "Sharktank Tuesday"! I admit that I was a bit later convert to the "Sharktank" fan wagon. My friends were telling me to watch it, but I was like, "What do I care about other people going in to beg for money?" Oh, the error of my ways. "Sharktank" is not about asking for money, it's about how you ask for that money. Something that we are basically doing at pitchfests. (I know it's more than that, but for simplicity... it always comes down to money). I'm not going to pretend to be the first to write an article on this subject but with my background in law enforcement I have a slightly different view of how it all goes down. Many good points have been made about how the show teaches you to find your hook and quickly grab someone's attention. My points are more about what is left unsaid.
Remember, money does not change hands at a pitchfest. Sales are not made at a pitchfest. You are there to build the foundation of a relationship that will hopefully lead to those sales or manager signings. So remember what you are really selling... yourself.
I'm going to admit something here. I have had a heck of time getting our latest screenplay out of the gate. This isn't an isolated incident, staring at the blank page is always one of the hardest parts of the job. But this has been different. We're a few pages in, understand the characters, know how they talk and know the scenes that need to be written. It just doesn't seem to be carrying the right rhythm. It was only in the last few days (Okay, last night at 2am) that I put my finger on the problem. It all has to do with the "rules". To explain, allow me to indulge in a story.
Back in my other life as a federal law enforcement officer, I was certified as a Distinguished Expert Marksman. It was really cool, I got a ribbon to wear on my uniform and everything. I know this seems like I'm starting out with a humble brag, but bear with me, there is a point to it. You see, when I went to the range to qualify, the instructors pretty much left me alone. There were only so many of them and they seemed to want to focus on the officers who looked like they were about to shoot their foot off. So I would just go off in the corner, shoot my 150 score and everything was copacetic. Well, I guess I should say "most instructors." There's always that one instructor who doesn't feel like they have done their job unless they have found something to fix. So if it aint broken, break it so you can fix it.
One particular day, an instructor decided that he did not like the fact that I was "staging my trigger". That's where you pull the slack out of the trigger (you can feel a natural break point) and then it's just a quick flick to fire your shot. In the instructor's opinion, it's one long pull or nothing at all, and if I continued to stage he was going to fail me. So I did what I was told and shot a 137 out of 150. Needless to say, I was pissed. I told him to never change my style one minute before an official qualification again. In fact, never give me advice again. I then went back to staging and shot my 150 (You get two rounds of qualifications, highest score is the one of record).
I bring this up because I have been struggling with the "rule" of not capitalizing action words. I read too many advice columns from producers who said they hate it, so I thought I would give it a try. Long story short, it seemed bland and sterile and I could not get into a rhythm. Then I went and looked at some produced screenplays and saw that they were doing it. To be fair, they were being very selective with their capitalizations and not hitting you in the face with them, but they were still doing it. So I was at a crossroads. Producers were saying not to do it, and they're the ones with the money. On the other hand, pros were obviously getting paid money for screenplays that did it. So... what the hell?
That's why I tell the story of that day on the range. We have been very successful with previous scripts. Those scripts had capitalized action words. Why were we trying to "fix" that? Our job, as writers, is to tell the best story we possibly can. If your screenplays are at their best with some capitalized action words, then that's how you should write it. If it's the best thing ever, I can't think of many producers who would say, "I love this. It's too bad they capitalized a few of those words." Don't pull a government. Don't break something so you can fix it.
I have often faced a dilemma that every screenwriter faces. How to start a new screenplay. Sadly, it is not a process that gets easier with experience. In some respects, it seems to get more difficult. To explain this point, humor me in a little aside.
Years ago, in my youth, I used to spend my summers riding my bike (pedal, not motorcycle) across the country. I did my first ride when I was 20. My father and I joined a group of sixty other riders and rode across the Southern US, from Disneyland to Disneyworld. It was awesome. I saw parts of the country that I would have never thought of visiting, met some of the nicest people you could imagine and got to lose weight while eating 5,000 calories of pizza, hamburgers and Dairy Queen Blizzards. Seriously, best diet EVER.
I caught the bug to ride again the next summer and signed up to ride from Seattle to Asbury Park, NJ. I was excited to to meet new friends, see new places and feel the sun in my face and the wind at my back. Then reality struck in the form of a driving thunderstorm in my face on the plains of Montana. I remember sitting on my bike, cold and miserable, thinking, "Apparently I only remembered the good days of the last trip." I forgot about the headwind in Texas that slowed us to six miles an hour. I forgot about the heat stroke in Arizona. I forgot about sitting in front of an open 7/11 freezer in Texas because it was 110 degrees out with 95% humidity and 0% trees in sight.
It is the same way when I start a new screenplay. I have a hard time getting started because I just don't feel like I know the characters well enough. I can't see the linear path and worry about the dreaded second act. If you were to ask me a question about any character in our Industry Insider winning script, Bloodlines, I could tell you exactly what they were thinking and how they would react. I can't say the same thing about the script we are starting this week. What I always forget is that when we got the call saying we were in the finals, Dana (who was running the contest) said, "I can't wait to see how this story finishes." I responded with, "That makes two of us." I look back at that script and think, "Look how tight the story is. We had that one down." What I forget is the conversations mid script where our consultant said, "This whole B plot sucks. It detracts from the story and takes up valuable real estate for you main character development. Lose it." I also conveniently block from my mind how we were continually rewriting while still forging ahead towards the finish line (probably five rewrites in the middle of the contest).
Moral to the story? No script starts out perfectly ready to go. You are going to rewrite it. There is not a first draft in the history of cinema that was not rewritten. I always hear new writers tell me how Stallone wrote Rocky in three days. They seem to forget the part where he then went on to rewrite it several times before it was finished. In truth, I actually find rewrites to be easier and more enjoyable than the first draft. That's when you get to look at it and say, "That part sucks. The character wouldn't do that." Then you fix it. The key is to just get into it. You can't rewrite until you have that first draft.
Dustin and I owe a big thank you to Final Draft. Thanks (there it is) to them we have been officially indoctrinated into the world of Hollywood awards shows. Or, as I joked with Dustin, we have now moved from Unknown Unknowns to Known Unknowns. Which means that instead of just passing us on the street without notice, Execs look at us and say, “Oh yeah, there’s those guys I don’t know.” We like to think that’s a pretty big deal.
The show had it all. There was after hours admittance to the Paramount Lot, extremely attractive ladies to greet the VIPs (they even smiled at us once), studio pages chauffeuring us through the lot on golf carts and a walk on the red carpet. Oh, the red carpet. If there was one thing we worried about, it was the red carpet. Okay, maybe I was the one worried. Dustin is imbued with this amazing ability to approach anyone at any time in any place and start a conversation with them. Seriously, his ability to open is heroic. Me? Not so much. I worried about things like, “Why the hell will the press care who we are?” Or, “What do I tell them when they ask why we’re important?” Even, “Have you produced anything I've seen?" Dustin? Blissfully unconcerned.
So, when the moment arrived and we stepped out of that golf cart, I swallowed nervously while Dustin buttoned up his suit, smiled and walked right onto that red carpet. No one blinked an eye. No one said, “Who the hell are you guys?” Another of the nice young ladies smiled at us. Someone else called me Sir. I have to admit that maybe Dustin was on to something here (Don’t tell him I told you). In a blink of an eye the press pictures were over and I had suddenly transformed from nervous to thinking, “Is that it? I can do more?” But alas, it was time to head inside. That’s where things really got weird.
It turns out I didn't need to be nervous about having to open with anyone. They were coming up and talking to us. At first, it was a little strange for a screenwriter used to having to craft carefully worded query letters just to get someone’s attention. But then it dawned on me. We were vetted. Final Draft was essentially telling everyone in the room that we were important enough to be included. Well that, and the fact that we are both north of six feet tall with large builds. That kind of stands out in a Hollywood room. But the bottom line is we weren't a blind query in their email. We were vetted writers with high placements in multiple prestigious contests, including one win. We were in.
The next five hours were above anything we expected them to be, and as screenwriters, we have big imaginations. We had originally planned to spend most of the rest of the week in LA editing some short films we had shot a few weeks earlier. It turns out we barely touched our computers. We had lunch with agents, meetings with managers, preliminary talks about securing a book deal for a graphic novel of our Industry Insider winning script, talks with a producer about directing some viral shorts and I have a picture of me on the red carpet, wearing a suit, to show my wife and prove we’re not just screwing around and going to the bars (that’s all work related) while in LA.
We owe this success to two things. First and foremost, we owe Final Draft. They stepped up and put their faith in us, and we tried not to disappoint. We also owe it to putting aside our natural screenwriter tendency to want to hide behind our computer and got ourselves out there. Too many times we, as screenwriters, want to just write our stories, send out our letters, and wait for success to come running back to us. I wish it were that easy. I really, really do. But it’s not. This town is about relationships. Never, ever turn down a chance to go form them because you don’t know when the next one will come. But above all, hyperbole and a half, the single most important thing I can say… have fun. Bask in the limelight. Enjoy the party. Act like you've been there. The work will find you.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I was asked by someone if I had produced anything she may have seen. Rather than explain the beginning stages of our career, I fell back on my old stand-bye. I made fun of myself. I simply said, “Only if you’re one of our 32 YouTube Channel subscribers. But the odds are kind of small since I know 20 of them personally.” Worked like a charm.
I had an interesting talk with my six year old twin daughters last night. They've really taken a liking to soccer and we signed them up for a one week camp with the local University Coach. That's not too shabby since he has some National Championships under his belt. This is their stepping stone, their path to high school glory, then a scholarship and then... Whoa, sorry, back from dreamland. The real question the family had was whether the girls should attend the half day camp, or the 9-5 intensive. The girls were insistent that they wanted to do the all day. My wife and I wear leery, but eventually the dream of tired little girls (who actually went to bed at night) won out and they got their all day wish.
Yesterday was their first day at camp and I fear it was a rather rude awakening for them. They were cold. They were tired. They hated that the boys were so much better than them. They wanted to switch to the half day camp. My heart went out to them, but I also knew that it was important for them to finish what they set out to do. So I sat them down and had a long talk, one that I feel I ended up learning just as much from it as they did, if not more.
I told them that I knew exactly how they felt. When I was young I felt the same way. I hated to find out that I was not as naturally gifted at something as I thought. It sucked to find out that something was going to be a LOT of hard work to succeed at. It was hardest of all to find out that someone else was better at something than I was. It was just so much easier to want to stay home and play video games. More importantly, that feeling never goes away. They didn't have to worry about the boys being better than them, that was expected at their age. They just had to wait until fourth grade when girls get their growth spurt and are suddenly the tallest in the class. They didn't have to worry if someone else was better, they just had to concentrate on practicing hard and making sure that they were better today than they were yesterday.
It was then that I realized I was also talking about my screenwriting career. Let's face it. To say this is a tough business would be underselling the point. I think it's even tougher for writers because everyone thinks they can be a writer. It's something we've all done. We might not have acted, but we've written lots of things. Why not a movie? Then we get that first feedback and find out we aren't nearly as good as we think we are. It sucks. It's tough. It's a terrible reality check. It just seems so much easier to play video games than put yourself out there again. It's the same with contests. We all enter with stars in our eyes. We enter "that awesome contest that that other guy won and totally signed with an agent and sold his script so all I have to do is win it and the same thing will happen to me" (whew). Do I even have to tell you that it doesn't work that way?
I talked to my daughters about my career. I asked them how long they think it's taken Dustin and to get to this point. Five years. It's taken us five years of work to get to this point. By work, I mean work. We have so much invested I can't even quantify it. We have personal time invested, human capital, financial capital, marriage capital, friendship capital and the scary capital of the real possibility of finding out for certain that we will never realize our dreams. But we are better today than we were yesterday. We are certainly better than we were five years ago when we opened our first file and wrote "Fade In". Five years from that first page to being invited to attend the Final Draft Awards next week. That's not too shabby. We're thrilled with that time frame.
I also asked my daughters if they knew how many contests Dustin and I entered before we finally won the Industry Insider Contest. Twelve. We entered twelve contests before we won. What would have happened if we quit after that first loss? Or the third? Or the tenth? Would I be sitting in some office cubicle thinking about that time I tried to be a screenwriter and failed? Would I be bitter that the town just couldn't see my talent? Who knows? Who cares? Dustin and I decided to focus on the fact that we got better each time. That eventually we broke through to the quarterfinals of a contest, then the semi's, then the finals, then we finally won. Suddenly the sting of losing, didn't sting so much anymore. Suddenly the hard work wasn't so hard anymore.
So, as I sat and talked with my daughters, and got them excited to attend full day camp, I reflected on the year ahead. I thought about the hard work ahead and the rejection yet to come (and it's coming, it's always coming in this business). I thought about the fact that I might find out that I'm not as good as I think I am. I vowed not to let the fear of rejection, or hard work, let me retreat to the safety of the couch and play video games. The is not a one and done business. You don't write a script, light up the town and sell it for millions. Or, as I would tell the millennials I used to manage, "You don't get hired as the CEO." This is a baby steps industry. Keep moving forward. Keep making sure that you're better today than you were yesterday.