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.
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
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.
Have you ever had a conversation where by the time it's done, you look at the other person and think, "I don't think we were having the same conversation."? I had those a lot when I worked for the government. As annoying as they are in real life, they are an excellent reminder for screenwriters. It is important to remember that character voices go beyond just how they talk. Character voices are also influenced by what they have experienced in the world and that will change how they see a situation. This means that two characters can be in the same scene and walk away thinking something completely different, which can have implications on your story later on down the road. Case in point, let me give you an example from my own experience.
I have six year old twin daughters. In order to help with childcare, we have had Au Pairs since they were six months old. To this day, my wife still doesn't understand why I do not like to run errands with an Au Pair by myself, especially if we have the girls with us. It's nothing personal, it all goes back to the first few weeks of participating in the program.
We had all gone to the zoo and were just sitting down for a lunch break. My wife went to get the food while I took care of the girls with our Au Pair. Now keep in mind that our Au Pair was 18 and from Brazil. I wasn't thinking about it myself until I noticed all of the other mothers looking at us. They were not friendly looks. It was that moment I realized all of the women in the room thought I was some thirty year old man who had knocked up an 18 year old exchange student. Let's just say that you could cut the judgmental scorn with a knife. It was so bad that I didn't even get to enjoy the husbands who were looking at me like, "You lucky SOB."
Finally, the woman at the table next to us turned and asked our Au Pair how old the girls were. Our Au Pair just looked at her like she didn't understand a word she had said (she was still worried about her English). Talk about piling onto an already bad situation. I stepped in, answered her questions and tried to have a pleasant conversation. That's when the woman turned to our Au Pair and said, "Well, you don't look like you had twins six months ago." Now, I'm from Seattle. I know passive aggressive when I hear it and this one took the cake. The air dripped with bile and hatred as if she hoped it would form a poison cloud, drift in my direction and kill me. I let it hang in the air for a second and said, "Could that be because she's not the mother?"
It was right at that moment that my wife walked up with our food and sat down at the table. The woman realized her mistake, turned a shade of white and I loved every second of it. The only exit plan she saw was to look at my wife and say, "You have beautiful daughters." She then turned back to her food and willed herself not to look at us again as her husband tried to suppress a chuckle.
The mood in the rest of the hall changed as well, besides the husbands who were still thinking, "You lucky SOB". Women came up, talked to my wife, congratulated her and told her how beautiful the girls were. By the time we were done, my wife was glowing and said, "That was a nice lunch." Not from my perspective.
So, to recap. We all had lunch in the same place, at the same table. My wife walked out thinking everyone sure was nice, our Au Pair walked out mortified that people thought she was a teen mom and I walked out thinking I probably would have been hung from the rafters by a bunch of soccer-moms if my wife hadn't been with us. Three characters, one scene, three different experiences. A lesson I now try to apply to our screenplays to make sure we are getting as much character depth as possible.
Tune in next time and maybe I'll tell you about all the sympathetic smiles I get from people who assume I'm divorced whenever I take my girls out for special Dad/Daughter time.
Let's talk about feedback. Let me start by saying that there are not many people who love the feedback process (and I haven't met any of them). It's tough to open yourself up to critique for something that is personal to you. It still has to happen though. There is no way to avoid it. OK, there is one way, but that is to never show your script to anyone and that kind of defeats the purpose of being a writer. What it really comes down to is that feedback is the suggestion of one person trying to guess what another person (the one with the check) is going to like, and everyone likes different things.
Let's take our script, The Lucky Ones, as an example. The Lucky Ones is a zombie movie (I know, everyone who has ever written one swore at one point they weren't ever going to write a zombie movie) that focuses on the guilt of the survivors and the different ways they deal with it. Zombies were never meant to be the stars of the film. It is a heavy action piece that really could be set against any world breaking backdrop. The feedback we have received has run the absolute gamut of opinions, from "this is a genre redefining script" to "you haven't done anything new in the genre". Love it or hate it there didn't seem to be any in between and it took me many months to figure out how to interpret where they were coming from. Let's take a look at some of the feedback we have received:
It's funny to look back on now but it's a hell of a roller coaster ride to hear one person gush over and over about your script only to hear the next person savage it while it's happening. But that is the nature of this business. Obviously many of these notes are mutually exclusive and cannot all be executed. Becca cannot exemplify Innocence Lost and Innocence Personified at the same time. So what did we do? First we realized how the feedback was falling. The people who hated the script were looking at it as strictly a zombie script and were checking off the boxes of what they have seen before (which is pretty much everything if we can all be honest). The ones who loved it were looking at it as a character study put against a zombie backdrop, which is what we were trying to do so we knew our message was being received.
That at least gave us a baseline for how to sort through the feedback. Of all the feedback we received I would say we executed about 70% of the suggestions and it is a better story because of it. The key was finding that fine line between opening up to accept outside ideas and knowing when to stick to the core of our story and set other feedback aside. Can I offer you some magic formula that will allow you to figure out where that line is? No, I can't. But if you open yourself up, set aside your ego and take a good objective look at the feedback I'm sure you'll find that line for yourself.
The Angry Police Captain, a character used more than a few times in the 80's and 90's and used for comedy relief in the 00's and 10's (That still seems weird to type). That doesn't mean the character has gone away though. There are still too many "serious" movies that fall into the trap of the Angry Captain. In reality, if you are writing a serious police piece, you don't want to have a Captain who yells to get their point across, they are actually much scarier. Let's take a look at an example from my own career to examine this point.
When I worked for CBP, my port had a Chief that I was lucky enough to have a special relationship with in the fact that he hated my guts. It was a very symbiotic relationship. I would speak my mind, he would yell at me, figure out it wasn't enough to discipline me over and we would go our separate ways only to do it again in a few months. That was until one fateful winter day.
We had a TV in our break room, but we were not allowed to enjoy our breaks in the break room watching the TV provided for the break room. Nope, of all the channels they paid for in the cable package, we were only allowed to watch the news. All right, no problem. The TV had ESPN News. Heck, it even has "news" right there in the name. Good enough for me. Apparently not good enough for the Chief though. He walked by, saw me watching that, walked right up to my supervisor and, oh boy, the proverbial crap hit the fan.
I was promptly written up for watching "unauthorized" channels (they provided) and I asked my Supervisor why watching wall to wall coverage of Anna Nicole's death was more enriching just because it was on CNN. He told me the TV was only for learning about events going on in the world. I countered with the fact that basketball isn't played on the (censored) moon. I was told to zip it. I didn't and asked of I needed to turn my back when CNN showed sports highlights. It was all good fun.
Then, two days later, the Chief came up to me all nice as pie, "Hey, Dave, how ya doing? I heard you were a little upset. How about you stop by my office, after the next flight, and we can talk it over?" He should have called me "Sport" to really finish how thick he was laying it on. I knew one thing right away:
I know I used that last week, but it's just so perfect. Either way, there was nothing I could do. I had to go to the Chief's office. It's not like I wasn't used to it. I think I have a permanent butt groove in a lot of Supervisor's couches for all the time I spent in there. Fun fact, people say they like honesty, but apparently they really don't.
Anyway, after the next flight was over, I walked down to the Chief's office and tapped on the door. The Chief was nice as pie, "Hey, Dave, come on in. Thanks for coming. Go ahead and have a seat and we'll chat." As I sat the Chief closed the door (it seemed to slam shut like a horror movie) and sat down at his desk. As soon as he sat, the mood changed instantly. He looked at me and said, "So, I hear you think I am out to get you." I remember looking towards the door and it was like my own personal dolly zoom as the room faded out and the door seemed to run away from me. The Chief then lowered the hammer with, "Because I have to tell you, if I'm out to get someone, I get them."
I wish I could say I responded with, "Roger, Chief, good talk." and got the heck out of there, but the Chief then launched into a 45 minute "pep talk" of exactly what he expected out of his officers. The cherry on top was, "I hear you're up for promotion. Did you know that all promotion packets go to a Chief for the first round of recommendations? Kind of like this pile here. Oh look, there's yours.' I guess he really did get people when he was out to get them.
My point here? Never once did my Chief raise his voice above a conversational tone, but he might as well have been yelling in my ears. When it comes to authority figures in your law enforcement movies, it all comes to what you say and how you say it, not how loud the actor yells it.
And a happy note, I did end up getting promoted... after the Chief left the field and took a desk job downtown. In fact, by the time he retired, I was the same pay grade as he was.