Q: In the movie Captive, you’ve adapted the true story of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols for the screen. How do you go about communicating the truth of the story within the context of a structured screenplay? Life generally doesn’t play out with the same arcs of a screenplay, but the format is effective for telling stories. Can you offer some insight into that process?
A: You’re right, life usually does not fall conveniently into a three-act structure necessary for the flow of a movie. And here’s a little secret when you’re making a narrative film: you can’t let the truth get in the way of good story-telling. If you’re making a documentary, it’s different… you just commit to stay with what happened in real life and let the entertainment chips fall where they may. In a narrative film, it’s much trickier because sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction. The chronology of events and even the actual character quests are sometimes inconvenient to the rhythm and pacing that an audience is accustomed to when they are going to the movies.
In the case of Captive, however, the actual events laid out pretty amazingly in line with a three-act structure. The first act introduced both our protagonist and antagonist, leading up the moment that their lives intersected with Brian Nichols taking Ashley Smith hostage as the first act break. The second act then followed everything that happened to them in that apartment during the next seven hours, along with the escalating manhunt for Nichols, with the second act break coming at the moment Nichols let Ashley go.
The third act was comprised of SWAT teams surrounding the apartment complex when Ashley told them where Nichols was and the big question: will he surrender and do the right thing, or will he come out firing and trying to go out in a blaze of glory. Honestly of all the true stories I have adapted into screenplays, none have laid out as perfectly as Captive did. I did have to do some rearranging of key events, and used a little dramatic license, but I would say the true story accounts for 90 percent of what you see on the screen.
Q: What is a writer’s room like? Can you describe the process of collaboration on something like a screenplay or a TV show, where changes can be made almost in real time? How does that contrast with the image of the solitary genius writer?
A: The only solitude you have as a member of the writing staff of a TV show is when it’s your turn in the batting order to write an episode and you are off putting the first draft together. When you’re finished with that and you deliver it to rest of the staff, the dynamic changes. The best way to describe a staff of writers working on a rewrite together is controlled chaos. You’re always on deadline and the pressure is high to get the work done.
There is such a free flow of ideas and solutions to problems and a spirit of disruption to find the perfect line of dialogue or idea that sometimes it resembles what could be called (and I hope this is not insensitive) an Arab camel market. It’s the nature of the process. When you’re in the middle of it, it can be deeply competitive as individual members of the team are trying to get their ideas, jokes or pitches into the script.
It can be exhilarating when one of your ideas wins, and a big bummer when you pitch something that just dies in the howling wilderness. But iron always sharpens iron, and when you have a good team of people who have chemistry together, you can get to a magical place. That’s why when TV shows are good, they are really good. It’s like professional sports. A bunch of really talented people pulling for the same goal.
Q: What does being a producer mean for TV or film? Are you raising/keeping track of money? Are you wrangling cast and crew? Reviewing scripts? Do you get the 3 AM call when something goes wrong? All of the above? We see that title a lot, and it seems like it can mean any number of things. Can you shed some light on that?
A: Being a writing producer can be many things. On a TV show, the co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer and executive producer titles are sort of like ranks in the army. Each year you’re on a show as a writer, you get a promotion to the next rank up the food chain. You are still a writer on the staff of the show, but often times your duties increase. You may involved in casting sessions, approving wardrobe and sets, and helping supervise the post-production process. But primarily you are still just one of the writers who has earned another set of stripes.
In the filmmaking process, producers wear a lot of hats. Sometimes you get a producer or executive producer title because you are responsible for bringing some asset to the project, such as money or a relationship. But true producers are involved in every aspect of production including script development, raising financing or distribution, casting, pre-production, actual production, post-production and even the marketing of a film.
Producers are bosses, counselors, policemen, firemen, travel agents and sometimes ministers on a production. And yes, 3 a.m. calls are the rule rather than the exception. In TV, the writing producers are responsible for everything, and everyone on the set reports to them. In films, producers and directors are the two most important roles on the set, and the creative buck usually stops with the director, but he ultimately reports to the producer. Of course, without the writer first, you don’t have a good set of blueprints for the skyscraper you are building and the whole thing can become a house of cards. That’s why many writers also stick around as producers on films, to guard the integrity of the blueprints.
Q: You teach a lot of writing and story development. What are the most common mistakes or oversight that you see as people are trying to tell stories? Do those things relate to how we communicate in other areas of life or work?
A: One of the biggest challenges I see among young filmmakers today is that the digital revolution and You Tube have created the sense that anybody and everybody is a filmmaker. And that’s just not the case. The same goes for screenwriting. It actually is a rocket science in it’s own way. People may be born with wonderful raw gifts and talents, but until they put in the right amount of training and experience, they will never become experts at what they’re gifted at. A lot of what I see coming from You Tube, however, skews in the direction of delusional amateurism which is missing craft and training.
In the book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell proposed the “10,000-Hour Rule.” You might be born a genius, but until you put in 10,000 hours working your gifts, you cannot call yourself an expert. How does this apply to screenwriting? All I know is it’s taken me 30 years to learn what I know, and I’m still trying to get better at my craft. I’m still striving for excellence. If we understand that we are made in the image of the author of the universe, the “good enough principle” should never be part of our vocabulary. We should strive to be the Michelangelo of our particular craft. I don’t see that very often coming from the digital revolution.
The one big fix I tell young writers is they need to “copy the masters” of their craft. All art is handed down in the same way from generation to generation, from master to student. The master is painting at the front of the classroom and the student is doing what? He is also painting, copying the master, but bringing himself to the canvas in order to eclipse the talent of the master. That’s what Michelangelo did at the Medici School. So in story-telling, we need to mimic the best story-tellers in history and then bring ourselves to the page in order to become a master. I find many young writers completely ignoring this concept.
Q: You mention a place called “Development Hell”, where things you’ve been paid to write have gone to likely never be produced. How do you bounce back from what must be a disappointing process? I ask this because we all face defeats in what we do, and bouncing back can be difficult. I’m curious as to how you do that, and what you think can help.
A: I’ve found over the years that you have to be like one of those punch-drunk fighters from an old boxing movie – too stupid to stay down after you’ve been knocked to the mat. I guess that’s what it means to have a short memory. It’s a very competitive business, and it’s a very subjective business. There is no accounting for taste in any predictive or mathematical way.
Opinions are like hind-ends. Everybody has one. So it can be tricky navigating the taste buds as you go from meeting to meeting or opportunity to opportunity. It can be full of disappointment, and highs and lows. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But if you are called to the work – and it really has to be a calling because it’s too hard to do as a hobbyist or if your goal is fame and money – then you are doing the world and yourself no favors by chickening out.
If you are called to do it, there’s no such thing as playing “small-ball.” You keep showing up, doing your best work, and being committed to making lasting friendships and relationships that are not based on your failure or success. Persistence always beats resistance. You also have to realize they don’t call it “Show Friendship.” It’s called “Show Business” for a reason, and if you can develop a thick skin for criticism you can survive it, and perhaps even thrive in it.
Q: What are 2 of your favorite movies / 2 favorite tv shows - in terms of writing? Why?
A: I’m a big fan of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time list, but if I have to be narrowed down to two, the first would absolutely be the 1989 Oscar winner for best foreign film, Cinema Paradiso. It’s one of the most moving and cinematically rich films I’ve ever seen, and it’s a beautiful metaphor about the ubiquitous importance of story (and the movies) in our human experience. Story ties us together as family and community and it’s also the touchstone for most of the big events of our lives. The Mission is another of my favorites, and it tells about the horror and beauty of the spread of Christianity in South America during 1700s. It has one of the most moving faith redemption stories I’ve ever seen in a film, and the best ever depiction of the power of the sacrifice of the cross in any movie ever made.
On the TV side, I’m going to have to go with Breaking Bad and the first season of True Detective. Both very gritty and not family friendly at all, but rich in themes of existential angst and the search for redemption in this post-modern age when we’re being told that there is no meaning in the universe other than our own pursuit of pleasure.