The 90 Day Screenplay: From Concept To Polish – Alan Watt [FULL INTERVIEW]


Film Courage: Alan, your bio says you taught
screenwriting in maximum-security prisons? Alan Watt, author, screenwriter and founder of the LA writer’s lab: Yes. Film Courage: So many questions about
that what did they ask you first question what did these these
people I’m sure they were happy to see you very inquisitive it was what did
they ask me they I don’t think they first of all teaching a maximum-security
prison is is it’s scary because these are you know at least initially it’s
scary because they you think you’re gonna be surrounded by guards and there
aren’t any guards so they send you in and they close the door and then there’s
these hundred guys and me and no guards and I was initially terrified and but
these guys were so sweet I mean they’re not sending you they’re sending people
who have earned the right to be in the workshop and so they’ve they’ve you know
displayed good behavior but it was initially terrifying and and I got up
there and I’m you know I’m teaching about transformation and I’m talking
about how one you know the story ultimately is about how one changes
oneself and or the protagonist experiences some kind of shift in
perception and they were incredibly sweet incredibly eager and grateful and
I can’t remember any specific question but I do remember that they had great
questions and that there was there was this sort of shocking level of humility
with them that I don’t get as much with a lot of my regular students sometimes
you get people and they sort of like they know it all and they but these guys
had really incredible stories to tell and there was a there was an openness to
tell these stories all as if they it almost felt like they were
kind of bursting to tell these stories and I remember we took a break I was
teaching in out in the high desert at I can’t remember the name of the prison
but they kind of rushed up to me or some of them did at the break and it was
almost like it was almost like I know we’ve only got a little bit of time here
but there’s so much I want to learn and I’ve got so many questions and and and
wanting to tell me their personal stories and very very touching it was
very it was it was a very moving experience it’s to teach in a
maximum-security prison I find that so fascinating that you say that there was
this humility and that they kind of had this openness whereas if you were maybe
teaching somewhere where I hate to just assume but if you think that maybe
people hadn’t had certain knocks in life mm-hmm whether they’re their own fault
or whether they’re not whether they’re innocent or guilty that they would be
it’s just interesting I don’t know if it’s a class thing I don’t know if it’s
just life experience I don’t know what it what it is but I find that
fascinating well that’s actually what I came away with was was the this
realization that you know you’re her that’s saying there but for the grace of
God go I that these people they do often come from poverty difficult
circumstances addiction a lot of things that are kind of beyond their control
and and this is there a lot in life there is also a lot of you know I mean i
think i think the judicial system is is racist and biased and and i don’t think
it’s justice for all and it’s kind of heartbreaking and you see these people
who you know may in in in some instances may have gotten a raw deal even if
they’re guilty you know in the sense that they know not just that they may
not have gotten proper legal you’re decent legal representation but
that you know you see that there’s a lot of people in life who were kind of
screwed because of just the raw deal they got growing up so I just came away
with kind of like it’s it’s we got a lot to be a lot to be grateful for you know
so when you go back into let’s say if you want to call the mainstream
population I don’t know what the for lack of a better word and you see people
that come to classes or whatever and they and they challenge different
beliefs about story structure or writing or the need to take classes or whatever
do you see that they are justified in being angry about certain things because
sometimes you you look at how angry people get over something is innocent a
screenwriting and you say what’s the justification for that you can take it
or leave it like if you you know take what you like leave the rest kind of
thing yeah and and some people seem very dogmatic about certain things and it
becomes it’s almost like a fight about religion when it’s just screenwriting
right well I don’t you know I those kind of those people don’t stay very long in
a class and I also I have no desire to argue with people or write and that’s
not true my interest as a writing teacher is to
get to the truth so if somebody’s arguing with me about something or
astonished Lee’s holding a position my question is is that true is what you’re
saying true let’s explore that let’s examine it because I have no dog
in this race I don’t I’m not dogmatic at all I have
yeah I’ve been teaching a long time and writing a long time and I’ve got a you
know i I’ve I’ve got a method that I’m that I’m teaching people but I don’t
even know if I would actually call it a method process that I’m teaching and but yeah I don’t really I don’t get into
fights with people about writing it’s like you really believe that and you
you’re so you’re so staunchly holding that that point of view well then then
good how’s it working for you you know is it is it is it helping you with your
writing if it is then great and if not then you know I I see it a lot with
writing teachers I think there are a lot of writing teachers who are it’s almost
like they’ve got to secure their their sort of place in the world by issuing
everything that isn’t what they teach and that can be I’ve seen it a lot where
the latest thing is that that some writing teachers say the three-act
structure is dead it’s it’s it’s remedial it’s it it’s it’s not going to
it’s it’s going to kill any creativity and the problem with that is that they
don’t understand what the three-act structure is because the three-act
structure is has nothing to do with plotting in my opinion and unfortunately
the a lot of story structure is taught by story analysts who are sort of
brilliant left brain left brain errs and are really adept at deconstructing a
masterpiece and and sort of the implication is that now that we’ve
deconstructed this you should go off and write your masterpiece and while there’s
tremendous amount of value in in in studying film theory or you know film
theory because it’s that that’s that’s you know deconstructing Casablanca or
Citizen Kane is is going to help you understand how a story was built some
degree but it’s not going to teach you it’s not gonna teach you how to organize
your ideas when you look at a movie like Casablanca and you think about the
Epstein brothers writing you know we’re structuring this this movie they I’m
interested in in the process I’m interested in how did somebody come to
write this in other words you can you can sort of like just because you
deconstruct some of you so it’s like vivisection you can’t you can’t take
something dead and look at all of its existing parts and then and then
reanimate it it’s not going to come back to life and so just because you can
break down this thing into its it’s sort of separate parts doesn’t mean you’re
going to uncover the mystery of what the thing actually is in other words story
structure is really the DNA of your protagonists transformation that makes
sense the story stories the DNA of a protagonist transformation it’s not you
know in the midpoint there should be a reversal like I don’t even know what
that means you hear all the time with with these story analysts that should be
reversible what the hell does you know does does it’s a wonderful life have a
reversal that’s where mr. Potter offers Jimmy Stewart a job and Jimmy Stewart
says no I don’t know I I don’t I think of I think of story structure as not a
conceptual model something we can figure out but it’s it’s more of a experiential
model in other words your protagonist goes through a series of experiences
that lead to a transformation and I think if story structure as an immutable
paradigm for a spiritual transformation it’s immutable it never changes but that
doesn’t make it that doesn’t that doesn’t limit your creativity that
actually paradoxically opens your creativity in other words when when you
really understand what story structure is it moves you beyond your limited
imagined of what your story is I always tell my
writers your idea of your story is not the whole story it’s not that it’s
incorrect it’s that it’s incomplete and so if you were to distill story
structure to three words it would be desire surrender transformation so show
me any story there’s you’re gonna have a character that wants something desire
you’re gonna have a character that lets go of the meaning they made out of their
goal surrender you’re gonna have a character that experiences
transformation in other words a shift in perception a reframing of their
relationship to their goal show me a story that doesn’t have that and I’ll
show you a story that doesn’t work you know or is really experimental okay but
that’s where that’s where when people you know I I have I it happens not when
I teach so much as as if I do a lecture it to a bunch of people there’s always
the the the sort of the contrary and the person who’s like you know I don’t agree
with that and I’m like that’s great let’s let’s talk about that but it’s it
it’s it’s it’s usually about something that they’re trying to work out with
themselves and it’s not really it’s it’s it’s it’s usually that they I don’t know
it’s usually like they want they’re looking for some kind of fight rather
than they’re actually sincerely interested in in deepening their process
so do you think that teaching screenwriting or these books or whatever
is is selling false hope that’s one one criticism of some of what we’ve seen it
and I don’t see why that would be selling false hope if that’s something
someone enjoys and they love the process of creating okay I love this because I
believe that my job as a writing teacher is to facilitate writers in finding the
story that lives within them and stay out of the result in other words when
you get into the result that’s when you get tripped up that’s when you don’t
really right from your heart that’s when you don’t write something that’s
actually gonna be meaningful to other people
and so that’s it I always think of writing as a two-tiered process the
first tier is you have to write it for yourself and then the second tier is
once you’ve written it for yourself once you’ve written that stuff that you think
oh my god I can’t show this to anybody it’s way too personal even if it’s
fiction especially if it’s fiction it’s there’s there’s gonna be you’ve gotta
have some skin in the game you got to be invested in this thing that you’re
writing you’ve got to let go of this idea that is it going to sell we can’t
you know I remember when I wrote my first novel I I woke up one day and I
was like I’ve been writing for a long time I was making a living as a stand-up
comic but I’ve been writing for a long time and I hadn’t sold anything and I
thought well you know let me do the math here clearly I must be a mediocre writer
if I’ve been writing for this long and I haven’t sold anything so what I’m gonna
do is I’m going to stop writing for the marketplace whatever that is and I’m
gonna write something for myself I’m gonna write something that really means
something to me and I wrote a story that and I were really quick there wrote a
novel called Diamond Dogs and got it through through through this this lawyer
friend of mine got it to an agent she auctioned it a week later for a
ridiculous amount of money and then it became a best-seller and it it won a
bunch of awards and and it was it was the first time I realized that I don’t
know anything and when I try and you know so I saved my idea my story’s never
the whole story my idea of of who’s gonna like this or who’s gonna like that
is I I don’t can’t control the result we none of us have any control over the
result but what we do have control over is understanding that we’re all unique
we all have something valuable to say and I really believe that as a writer
and as a writing teacher and so I want to
help writers I can’t predict who’s some of my students have gone on to become
best-selling authors showrunners a were a list screenwriters I didn’t know who
they were gonna be but the the ingredient that I think is is most
valuable isn’t talent whatever that is it’s a willingness to learn
it’s a humility it’s a willingness to be curious about the story that lives
within you you know it’s it’s it’s the humility to put it on the page while
staying out of the result that’s really hard for people that’s that’s the really
challenging that’s the really challenging test that’s being a writer
as a marathon it’s not a sprint and if you expect immediate results you know
you you might not stay in the game long enough to experience the fruits of your
labor you were doing comedy stand-up comedy you were able to make a living at
it why transition to writing what was it
because so many people come to LA for that comic stream that’s I I miss
stand-up comedy so much boy that’s a that’s a really that’s
that’s a loaded question to unpack because there’s a lot of reasons but the
the really simple reason is because I didn’t love going on the road and I got
you know and when when I sold my first novel and they backed up the money truck
I didn’t have to go on the road and it just became this thing where I just I
just started I just sort of became a full-time writer and would still do
stand-up occasionally you know if somebody asked me like a coffee shop on
a Friday or Saturday night or something I’d go into stand-up and loved it but it
just became this thing that it’s it’s it’s sort of its it sort of gradually
fell away you know and then and then it’s also if you don’t do stand-up
comedy every single night you suck it’s it’s it’s like one of
those things where it’s muscle memory and and you lose it so
quickly and and and so if you’re not doing it and then you do it every you
know three weeks or six weeks you go up you go oh my god this is so this feels
so weird and and and and you got to get back into the rhythm so it just it just
became this thing where I’m like I’m gonna be feeling like going up and
sucking tonight and and so it just became this thing that fell away from me
I also you know stand-up comedy at it attracts a lot of people who are kind of
damaged and broken and you know and I’m not I’m not excluding myself from that
but it was it’s a world where you’ve got to be really committed to doing that
and I you know I went through a lotta I went through a lot of stuff I had a lot
of a lot of my friends I mean I I’ve had I think seven friends commit suicide
stand-up comic just attracts a you know dark element and I there was a part of
me my nickname in my 20s with all my comic friends was crazy a lot okay so
these people are all out of their minds and I I was the cream is the crazy one
and I think it was because at that time I was really depressed and you know just
really really not in a good place but I talked about it all the time I was like
I I I’m like I’m really really not doing good today and I think it made them
uncomfortable some of them and so I got the nickname crazy I want and you know
in retrospect I think that it was that part of me that kind of I I think I had
a survival instinct that was like I I would rather be comfortable in my own
skin van chase after some you know illusory
fame or whatever and so I you know I anyway I did I
I was kind of that part of me was kind of okay letting go a stand-up and
meeting a great woman getting married having a kid becoming a writing teacher
as a witch is turned out to be probably something that I’m m’as born to do and
and and and you know I I love being a writer and I and I and I love I just
just published a new novel last week that came out and but yeah yes stand up
is you’ve got to really want it badly when you see people who are successful
stand-ups you’re seeing people who have sacrificed probably a tremendous amount
to be doing what they’re doing and I have a lot of respect for for for
stand-up comics and and and compassion they’re there they’re my people I love
them and I I really feel a kinship with comics now I feel like there’s there’s a
brotherhood and sisterhood with comics that nobody else understands with
stand-up comics nobody I don’t think anybody understands that because you
know when I talk to people who aren’t stand-up comics they you just even the
language when they talk about them there’s there’s an exotic quality to
stand-up comics when people talk about them they’re there they’re there people
are fascinated with stand-up comics I wish I had an ending to this the
sentence which came first the comedy or the writing comedy comedy well I mean
the economy you you write your own material but I was I was in I was in
high school and I went to the School of the Arts in Toronto when I was about 17
or 18 and they had amateur nights on Monday nights at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto
and I I just started going there on Monday nights and I was terrible just
bombing you know every Monday night but I wanted it so badly and
I remember I remember there was a guy who would he would throw up before he
went on stage every time and I don’t think that was that uncommon it’s it’s
it’s it’s like it’s bizarre this thing is so terrifying to do and yet it’s a
compulsion and and I you know if you really work hard at it you start to
understand the mechanics of a joke and it becomes really addictive like there’s
no greater high then going onstage for 45 minutes or an hour in front of 400
people on a Saturday night and just killing where they’re just eating out
eating out of your hand you know it’s it’s it and just getting
one laugh after another it’s just it’s the greatest feeling in the world
it’s I get you know I get why people don’t ever want to stop doing that you
know but the beginning stages is really that I use stage yeah I mean for me I
can remember going to clubs with this person while they would do their acts
and maybe there’d be five people in the audience and then I saw her at the pain
that this person went through outside of there and and that was their outlet for
it and then I got why they were addicted to it you know oh yeah it’s great it’s
the great when you when you when you start to get an act and you start to
yeah you start to get laughs you start to get your stage legs it’s it’s really
great I mean I get why people you hear Jerry Seinfeld in jail and I’ll say we
don’t go on vacation vacation for us is going on the road I get it I mean
wouldn’t want to you know go out in front of 5000 people and just kill and
it’s it’s the best but then at some point you were writing or learning about
novel structure or from the beginning from the beginning I always yeah I
always wanted to write stories okay yeah and so at some point you must have had
enough time to work on this novel that you eventually got to your lawyer friend
who got to the publisher well I mean I never had a real job I was I mean I I I
went on the road I actually dropped out of high school three months prior to
graduate because I got this one Road gig I mean I
was still on amateur nights but the the booking agent liked me and and I had
about I had I probably had about 12 minutes of material and I was I was
supposed to do 25 minutes at this club in London Ontario and so I I wrote the
Rhett I wrote my material on the bus on the way to this gig and I dropped out of
high school so I could do this weekend gig and and then that was it from there
I just started started getting some work and and making a really meager living
but enough to just barely pay the rent and and then and then from there it just
sort of evolved this was in the 80s when there were there were so many comedy
clubs opening and there was such a dearth of actual really funny people
like there’s a there’s a there’s a quote from I think it’s Seinfeld he says in
the 70s there were 100 comics and ten at ten of them were funny and in the 80s
there were 10,000 comics and ten of them were funny okay so funny is a rare
commodity but in the eighties if you could even fake funny you could make a
living not a great living but you could make a living and so I started making a
living pretty pretty early on I don’t think I was funny for the first five
years but you can you can fake being funny – to people – I don’t know why I’m
going off on this tangent but but you know the really great comics are
originals but our in the 80s they were you know people were just sort of
ripping off other people’s personas or stealing their premises or you know
there were a lot of hack you you know there’s just a lot of hacks a lot of
hack premises you know airline material or the
difference between you know cats and dogs or you know men and women and and
just sort of hackneyed premises that are going to always elicit laughter but but
it you know just because you’re just cuz you’re
getting laughs doesn’t mean you’re funny so then once the book was picked up you
thought okay well then maybe this writing thing will become more of a
habit and how did you then train yourself to show up every day to write
or maybe it wasn’t every day to write it was every day and there was no training
it’s just it was just passion I just always I just loved writing I
just loved it’s it’s it’s harder now because my schedules gotten so busy with
teaching and family and and you know making you know I’m setting up my next
movie to make but I just get up early now and write I get up before my son
gets up and and get to work but I I don’t know I I I can’t say that it’s not
difficult and that I don’t get distracted but I’ve never I love writing
and I work hard so I I try and write every single day I definitely wrote
everyday for you know the first 15 years you know before I got married and had a
kid you know so 20 years so you grew up in Canada and you grew up on a farm
yeah grew up in a strawberry farm Wow and so was that part of your daily
routine to get up early and you’re tending to these berries or well the
berries the berry strawberry season is about three and a half weeks okay
because doesn’t last very long but no but I was I was a kid then so I was I
mean I wrote then but I wasn’t writing everyday I mean I probably started
writing when I was about 15 or I I remember the first time I really
realized I I wanted to write was in the sixth grade I had a teacher named mr.
Bell Smith and he said he had us write a five chapter novel about being
shipwrecked and it was the first time I really lost myself and my imagination
and created this whole world on a desert island this guy in a desert
the friends uh you know a lion and and and and and I thought this is amazing I
didn’t know I could do this and and then and then and then was shocked that that
was the last time any teacher ever asked us to be creative and but but it
activated this yearning and me for this desire to tell stories and so I would
write little plays and you know and write jokes and stuff like that and I’d
watch you know the The Tonight Show and and see these comics come out and it
just seemed like the most amazing thing this dude comes out or this woman and
makes you laugh you’re just sitting at home watching this tube and this guy and
you’re laughing for five minutes and he’s you know there’s there’s no you
know there’s it’s just magic aha how do you do that and and and so that was that
was something that I wanted to do but it was always it was always storytelling
and and and comedy and yeah when did you come to Los Angeles I came to Los
Angeles in 94 January first remember I played the the Hyatt Hotel in
Indianapolis for New Year’s Eve and and then and then flew I’d been living in
New York I went back to Canada and then I Floop here and I was here seventeen
days before the big earthquake hmm which was I remember yeah and so I’ve been
here for two weeks and I thought what the hell are these people doing out here
you’ve got to be insane to live here because I just I I didn’t realize that
this doesn’t happen every two weeks I I just figured this was a regular thing
and and and so I you know seriously considered leaving but then again you
know that’s the addiction it’s like I want to give up this this dream so you
know so I stayed but a lot of people did leave after the earthquake yeah so were
you then going to the comedy store these different places to play
yeah yeah The Improv mostly The Improv the Laugh Factory Wow yeah yeah that
some managers brought me out here and and yeah I did a little bit on Seinfeld
and and that was my one acting job at some point though you then make the
decision that you’re gonna do the writing and the books and the courses
when did you write the 90 day screenplay book there the 90 day novel came out in
2010 the 90 day screenplay was I don’t know maybe 2012-13 something like that
okay is there a chapter in the 90 day screenplay book that is most contested
or people have the most questions about one part of the process I’m not really
aware of anything being particularly contested I get a lot of people who love
it but it is I think different than a lot of the screen writing books out
there and I think it’s my perception of it is is that it’s it’s very much of a
process and and less about result and I think that when we lose ourselves in the
process the results can take care of themselves and one of the things that
that I teach here’s my cat I don’t know if you’re picking that up when there’s
Captain but one of the things that is that I talk about is how dilemma is the
source of the story and a lot of writing books talk about the dramatic problem
and the implication it for with that for me and and why I I was resistant to a
lot of the writing books that I read is that problems are solved their
intellectual you solve a problem dilemmas are resolved through ishes
through a shift in perception and so something I I sort of I didn’t discover
this but I sort of drilled down into it is that the source of our story is our
protagonist dilemma a dilemma is a problem that can’t be
solved without creating another problem you know you’ve got a story when what
your protagonist wants is impossible to achieve based on their current approach
or their current identity okay in other words it’s going to necessitate a shift
in perception okay they’re going to have to become a sort of new person so to
speak by the end of the story so you know like when you think about problems
you think about like I have a flat tire I called triple-a they solved my problem
okay not an interesting story but if I have a flat tire and I’m out in the
desert and I call triple-a and this guy and I’m dying of thirst and this guy
drives out to the desert and it’s the guy who’s sleeping with my wife now I’ve
got an interesting story now I want to kill the man who’s here to save my life
okay so when you can connect to your protagonists dilemma then you’ve got
something to work with the dilemma is the source of your story and if you look
at any great story you’ve got a clear dilemma okay and when you can connect to
that then then you’ve got something to work with so that’s one of the things
that I help writers with is understanding the dilemma but it’s a
more holistic way you know it’s it’s not like it’s not like let’s figure out your
prop your premise the premise is born out of the protagonists dilemma okay and
so it’s I just think it’s it’s it’s for me it’s a more organic way of working
and then you start to see how plot emerges out of the characters struggle
okay so when I start to and I’m not talking about in election well
intellectualizing the dilemma be key because you can’t problems are solved
they’re gonna let you can’t figure out when you try and figure out your
protagonist dilemma you get stuck but when you start to connect here to the
experience of the dilemma all sorts of images and ideas and situations start to
emerge to support that and and and so that’s sometimes people call that the
brainstorming part of the the process and so the the first part of
the 90-day screenplay is just doing a lot of free writing imagining your
character or your protagonist in relationship to other characters and
before you start to put a framework around it or start to insist on any kind
of structure for it do you think some people get very confused thinking their
dilemma is their problem and it’s not like when you were talking to the
prisoners were they very clear about what the problem was in their story
maybe you didn’t get into all that with them I don’t know if I got into that
with them I can’t remember that but sometimes writers get confused about the
difference between problem and dilemma and you know problems are solved so that
like I you know if I said well that’s that that’s solvable it’s not a it’s
it’s an aspect of the dilemma you know like if if in other words here’s let’s
let’s a part of the story could be that I I get a flat tire and I have to get my
flat tire fixed but the dilemma is is in other words there’s a jumping all over
the place here there’s a movement to a scene and so if a scene begins with a
problem like I got a flat tire and at the end of this at the end of the scene
I get my flat tire fixed and nothing else happens we don’t have a story what
has to happen is by the end of the scene I can get my flat tire fixed but
something else happens that’s going to lead the story in any direction in other
words my dilemma wasn’t the flat tire the dilemma is my false belief about
what the flat tire means I don’t know if that makes sense but in other words art
sometimes here’s what writers get stuck writers
think when you hear the term dramatic problem dramatic problem you assume or
you may assume that it’s your job to figure out your characters solution to
their problem Einstein says you can’t solve a problem
at the same level of consciousness that created the problem
in other words it’s not difficult it’s impossible
you’re never gonna figure out your protagonists transformation but what you
know so so what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to think that your
character is is a clean line from the beginning to the end of the story you
want you need to understand that your protagonist is going to die at the end
of Act two they’re gonna die to their old identity I don’t mean they’re
physically gonna die but they’re gonna die too they’re they’re they’re they’re
going to be forced to surrender the meaning they made out of their goal
when Jimmy Stewart leaves Bedford Falls then he’ll have a wonderful life the end
of act 2 is my life is worth I’m worth more dead than alive ok so he dies to
his old identity he and you know it’s it’s it’s a great moment where he jumps
off the bridge he wants to jump he wants to commit suicide he wants to jump into
the icy water now I love this image because Clarence jumps into the icy
water and so the action is the same this yeah nobody ever questions this but he
jumps in to save somebody else so he doesn’t he doesn’t die he’s you know
he’s reborn and that’s the beginning of Act three ok so then I’ll give you my
version of a marginalized story voice ok lemma versus a middle class one
marginalized one would be a little girl wants to go to a birthday party but her
the friends in the neighborhood the mothers know that her mom cleans houses
right and they don’t she’s nice but we don’t really know or dear I’m so sorry
and the middle class one is someone’s applying for colleges but it turns out
most of her friends are getting accepted to another one and she’s not sure if her
GPA is good enough to get into that one ok and so she’s like worried that oh my
gosh I’m gonna lose all my my good high school friends and what’s gonna happen
am i standing in that sort of group so these are like seeds of a story right
two to two ok so tell me what’s your question my
question is are the stakes higher for the author with the marginalized voice
that means non-inclusion into a group whereas the other one the middle-class
one is more worried about just maybe losing sort of footing and maybe losing
touch it Oh stakes higher for one versus two I think that I I don’t think of
stakes I mean gosh I I don’t know how to answer that question because I don’t
think the the stakes are about the the the actual situation the stakes are
really about the ability for the writer to convey a sense of you know urgency or
anxiety in other words yeah but that one that’s not we’re not really talking
about dilemma we’re just talking about stakes the stakes should always be life
and death in every story they’re always life and death if Jan
Brady doesn’t get a date with tad Hamilton she will absolutely die
snakes are always life and death mm-hmm if they’re anything less than life and
death we don’t care at all we don’t care at all got it okay you know so so but
but if you want to talk about dilemma there are two ingredients to a dilemma
as I see so it dilemma is a problem that can’t be solved without creating another
problem and when you connect to your dilemma you’re connecting to the
aliveness in your story there are two ingredients to a dilemma a powerful want
a powerful desire okay and a false belief a misperception of myself or the
world okay and so when Sally loves me then I’ll be complete okay now that’s
the big that’s the beginning of a story I got to get Sally to love me in order
to be complete do you see a powerful desire if Sally doesn’t love me my life
will be unimaginable and the false belief is that Sally will complete me at
some point so we’ve got a powerful desire remember that story structures
desire surrender transformation we’ve got a surrender I mean I’m going to have
to let go of the meaning I make out of my goal as long as I believe that
Sally’s love completely to me I will forever be in bondage to
Sally or my idea of Sally’s love because the stand and the the audience of the
reader is going to be disappointed if all that happens at the end of the story
is that Sally loves me that’s gonna be a really does
if Jimmy Stewart left Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life
we would be disappointed because that’s not what the stories about stories and
about the plot is about will Sally love me the theme is about completeness what
does it mean to be complete oh it doesn’t mean completeness comes from
outside of ourselves it comes from within okay so that’s that’s a dilemma
the dilemma is what is it the theme is completeness you know if you’re doing a
story about justice let’s say I’m in prison and or freedom let’s say let’s
say this is a story about what does it mean to be free so if I’m in prison and
I want to I want to be free I might believe at the beginning of the story
that when I escape then I’ll be free okay and that’s that’s the dilemma
that’s the dramatic question and then through the story
I might actually succeed in escaping and discover that I’m still not free that
could be the dark night of the soul let’s say I let’s say I escaped with
another buddy and were shackled and we and we get away and then he trips and
you know twists his ankle and now I’ve got to decide you know I really want to
be free but now now I got to take a blunt instrument and kill my buddy and
you know what I mean and get a okay and now now am I free you know what I’m
saying and they’re chasing after me and and so in my in my attempt to become
free in your protagonists attempt to get what he or she wants they move
increasingly away from their desire okay so my attempt to be free moves me
further away from freedom leading to the end of act 2 where I have to let go of
the meaning I made out of my goal ie when I escaped prison then I’ll be free
end of act 2 I discover that free true freedom
comes from within and I might discover at the end of the story that freedom
might involve going back to prison taking responsibility for my crime okay
and so that’s the shift in perception so that would be so desire I want to be
free surrender I have to let go of the meaning of my false belief of what
freedom means and transformation I have a new understanding of freedom
I think you’d use the social network in another video I watched oh you want to
use that as an analogy as well because I found that interesting
oh yeah yeah I think it’s a gosh that was a long time ago so so the dilemma of
the social network is is that is the tension between integrity and ambition
okay so if I’m really ambitious and I want to make a billion dollars I I you
know it’s the same kind of thing I set out on this this this quest but did I
steal this idea from these two gorgeous twins yeah and and and so and I and
that’s what that’s what the social network explores every single scene
examines the dilemma of integrity of integrity versus ambition okay and so
he’s driven by his ambition what do I want I want to succeed what do I need I
need to do the right thing okay and I think I think it’s kind of an ambiguous
ending but it leaves us with that question you know does the end satisfy
the means or doesn’t yeah something like that do you think most writers know what
their story really is about I think at some point it’s it’s always gonna be
kind of a mystery I don’t know that we have to know what it’s about but I think
we have to be curious as to what it’s about okay and that’s that’s the
difference because when I I when I’m working with writers and and we work
with something I call the story structure questions and I’ve got a
series of experiential questions okay so there and people say oh I I answered
these questions like they’re not meant to be answered then
to be inquired into and so I think James Brooks said that he didn’t know what as
good as it gets was about I think until he watched it with the first audience
and that’s when he realized what it was about and so um I don’t know that we
have to know in some fundamental way what the things about I also think that
it can change but if we’re not curious about the theme at some point the story
can get away on you the plot can get away on you you can become so seduced by
your by your plot twists or bite bite but by the movement of the plot that you
can this the the the the theme can become untethered and you can lose the
why the story wanted to exist in the first place I worked with writers
sometimes and and they will write a really great messy first draft and then
they’ll give their draft to their best friend to read and their best friend
will go I really like chapter four six and seven but I didn’t really like
chapter three nine and ten and so they’ll take out the chapters they
didn’t like but the in other words they will abdicate authority over their work
to somebody else they’ll they’ll it and this is what I’m always trying to help
writers understand that that you know your story better than anybody else even
though you don’t know your story because there’s something that you want to
express that’s valid okay it’s valid and just because the story isn’t doing
everything you want it to do or it’s not totally working doesn’t mean that what
you have to express on a fundamental level isn’t valid and so the job is to
stay with the process you know stay with the process don’t get into the result
don’t go okay if I get rid of chapter nine and ten nobody’s going to know that
II know there’s something you need to ask yourself what was in Chapter nine
that you are trying to express and let’s start to call that matisse let’s start
to call that so that we can find that through line because
everything we write either belongs or is leading us to what ultimately belongs in
the story so if I throw something out without asking without really being
curious why I’m throwing it out I’m doing myself a disservice and so I’ll
see people who will take these they’ll have these wonderful messy first drafts
and then they will start to it’ll just start to get worse and worse because
they’re not trusting the reason they wrote the thing in the first place
or they’ll give it to an agent an agent will say it’ll be more commercial if you
do this to it sometimes that can work but sometimes what that you can kill the
aliveness of of something because you’re you’re giving it away
have you been given notes about something a story is screenplay
and you are like wait a minute this is going to kill the aliveness to it and
you had to go back and say well how do I make these changes that they want what
keep that spark to it that’s tough that is tough that is – and that’s
that’s the writers job is to it is to take the spirit of the note without
taking the the mechanics sometimes because because you know sometimes
you’re getting notes from an executive and they’ll say you know I don’t like
this scene it’s not working or you should take this out and you’ve got if
you don’t if you’re not connected to why you’re telling the story if you’re not
connected to the magic then you you can you can lose that magic bye
and and what here’s what will happen is the executive will read the new draft
and they’ll go this isn’t working and you go but I just did what you asked me
to do yeah but a good executive will go that’s not what I asked you to do I told
you this wasn’t working and now it’s your job to go fix what I want you to
fix but I’m not a you know they’re not a writer so they’re expecting you to do
your job and so you know there are a lot of really good executives
who understand that when they’re giving you a note they’re also expecting you to
you know they’re expecting some kind of alchemical process to happen so that you
can distill the note to its nature and give them back something that’s working
you know it was like Charlie Kaufman he when he wrote adaptation
he was adapting the orchid thief and they were expecting an adaptation of
that novel Charlie Kaufman is not in that novel okay and so he he he
distilled the that he took that novel and then it went through Charlie Kaufman
and he wrote this really wonderful brilliant mad story and when they got it
from what I understand they said what the hell is this and then a couple of
days later they went oh this is wonderful but it took them a while I
think to get on board and realized that he that that that’s what they that’s why
they hired him because they were they were gonna get his voice and his thing
and so if we don’t trust our voice you know it’s a challenge for the writers
you’ve got to trust your voice in the midst of all of the fears if I don’t
want to lose this job I don’t always this gig I don’t you know I I don’t want
to disappoint you know these people that you know that’s part of it you know
you’re probably going to get replaced in Hollywood if you’re a screenwriter
doesn’t mean that you did a bad job it just means they’re just they’re just
covering their asses you think being a stand-up helps you come to peace with
that or maybe just because when you’re up there I’m sure it’s you’re basically
naked almost you’re very raw and you’ve got hecklers you’ve got people with all
sorts of agendas throwing stuff at you metaphorically physically whatever and
you I think at some point you you probably become more comfortable in that
space maybe I’m wrong maybe I’m just assuming I know I think therapy did that
but I don’t think don’t think comedy gave me a thicker you know I didn’t know
I don’t know no it uh-huh III would say yeah therapy okay
yeah yeah and just realizing that that it’s it’s the reason I think that
writers or anybody I don’t know where I’m going this it I I think early on I
made I thought as a writer my identity was tied to my creative work and that’s
dangerous that can that can really mess you up I can make you a perfectionist
that can make you bitter that can make you a victim and it’s not it’s got
nothing to do with my self-worth and so in fact I think of if you’re a
storyteller that’s that’s a great luxury and it’s a privilege and so you get to
tell stories and the stories aren’t coming from if they’re if you really
want to tell great personal stories you want to be connected to the universal
you want to be connected to why this is going to be relatable to other people
that’s not going to make your horse work less personal it’s gonna make it more
personal okay because you’re gonna be more willing to really get into the
nitty-gritty of your struggle because you’re going to understand the
transformation I don’t know if that’s does that make sense yeah so when you
decided that I’m still gonna be creative but I’m gonna almost have like is it
almost like having two lives one is where you’re human and the other one is
where you’re a creator who’s having a human experience I know that sounds so
cliche but and then if someone rejects me for my creator persona that doesn’t
mean I’m a bad human well I yeah I guess so but I mean yeah yeah like it’s it’s
it always sucks getting rejected but writers are constantly being rejected
and it’s just part of it like it just the more you do the more it just rolls
off back in other words like give me an
example let’s say let’s say I write a romantic comedy and it gets into the
hands of a guy who makes horror movies and he goes we’re passing on this
they’re not passing on it because it lacks quality or value they’re passing
on it because they make horror movies and that’s Hollywood is that is that it
and I’m just using a broad generalization I’m talking about genre
but but you can write a script that that may not speak to the person that doesn’t
mean that the script doesn’t have value you hear about these scripts that are in
in development for five ten to fifteen twenty years and they finally get made
and then they win an Oscar it’s because somebody believed in them and they could
they had a vision and they could see what that thing want it to be it’s
difficult sometimes to read a screenplay and be able to see what the movies gonna
be you know so you’ve got a you’ve got to believe in yourself you’ve gotta
believe in yourself and and I think it can be easy if something gets rejected
here’s the other thing if something’s getting rejected a lot you also need to
have the humility to go well maybe this isn’t doing everything I need it to be
doing okay and so that’s where craft comes in that’s where you really have to
understand what you’re trying to do and and sometimes the you know you can hear
it writers there’s there’s a there’s a fine line between being stubborn and and
having the humility to be teachable you know because if you don’t have the
humility to be teachable and and here why something’s not working for them you
can kind of get stuck and then going back to working in the the
maximum-security prison right I didn’t do a lot okay yeah okay so the two times
or whatever however many times sorry you saw that humility in them
how easy was it to have them as sort of a captive audience sorry that’s wrong
scratch that I guess what I’m trying to say is so
many people they go to a great school and they’ve kind of been groomed all
their life that they’re like this golden child and they’re great and they’re
gonna come and and and everything they do is fantastic and that’s great they
have this wonderful support system right and then I think in some sense that can
hurt them here in this industry because it’s a
rude awakening when someone doesn’t agree with their work doesn’t mean they
don’t like that person so when you saw people that maybe had either been born
with more humility or had been forced to adopt that attitude I think this
business will you will either you know become humble or bitter so because
you’re always going to be getting rejected constantly constantly getting
rejected but it’s not yeah it’s not personal I’m not sure if I’m answering
your question oh it’s great and I love it where it where does the road diverge
for the humility oh I agree that totally agree with you well I think it’s just I
think it’s just you know I don’t know if you can teach that I don’t know if you
can III think it’s just humility is gonna
make you a better writer because you’re going to you’re going to it’s going to
give you humanity you’re gonna have compassion you’re going to you know it’s
in other words humility is just it’s gonna make your job easier because
you’re gonna also have compassion for yourself you know it’s it’s going to
it’s gonna widen your perspective you’re going to you’re gonna see why your
writing isn’t doing everything you want it to do because as writers I think
we’ve all got blind spots we don’t you know there William Goldman talks about
how you come up with these ideas and you can see this movie in your head and then
you start to write it and once you start to write it these ideas become
earthbound you know they’re earthbound they’re not there it’s it’s really hard
work it’s really hard work to create a great story
and and I just think humility is just something that if you don’t have it you
might want to find a waited you know you’re gonna become humble in a
Hollywood just by virtue of the rejection but what you I don’t think
there’s a way to exercise humility but I think there there there there is a way
to I think if you have compassion for yourself and for other people and and
are gentle with yourself and and have some a healthy perception of rejection
or an understanding that I’m not being rejected it’s going it’s going to lead
to just a happier life why is it important that the hero experience false
hope Oh false hope is a very necessary point in the hero’s journey the
protagonist journey because without it there won’t be a context for the
surrender at the end of the second act okay so let me give you an example let’s
say I’m trying to think of a story well let’s let’s just let’s just say a
character let’s say I want Sally to love me so I’ll be complete okay the false
hope is the moment where I have a first date with Sally and we kiss and yes I’m
gonna get what I want but what I want is for Sally to love me but the reason I
want it is so that I’ll be complete okay so the false hope is it’s sort of like
going to Vegas and putting a nickel in the slot and a dime comes out and you go
by midnight I’ll be a millionaire I just doubled my money and then the next day
you leave town on a greyhound that’s the the false hope is the misperception the
protagonist has about their situation okay what the the the the false hope is
where the protagonist is not yet aware that that what they’re struggling with
is not a problem it’s a dilemma they think they’ve got a problem
they don’t they’ve got a dilemma okay and so so that’s what the false hope is
okay without the false hope no context for the surrender we don’t understand
what they’re surrendering because the protagonist isn’t surrender I’m not
surrendering my desire for Sally at the end of the second act I’m surrendering
I’m letting go of the realization that as long as I believe that Sally will
complete me I’m I’m screwed okay so that’s I’m surrendering the meaning I
make out of my goal I’m not surrendering my goal the goal never goes away I never
stopped wanting Sally to love me by the way this is Billy Crystal’s POV
and one Harry Met Sally no no I was picturing them in the
restaurant scene okay I’m just using you’re just using right Sally outs just
I always I don’t know why I was talking about Sally and me sure it’s like a
codependent relationship and you’re you’re thinking that this person’s going
to complete you and Annie or whatever it is it could be about if the theme is if
the theme is freedom you know I was talking about the the prison I have to
let go of the belief that escape will lead to freedom if it’s justice I have
to let go of the false belief that so the false hope let’s say let’s say my
stories about justice I want justice they screwed me over I’m gonna get
revenge the false hope is yes revenge is within my reach okay that would be that
would be the false hope moment the surrender would be the realization that
an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind okay so the end of Act two there
is no such thing as justice through revenge you know and then I might
discover the Justice comes through a wider perspective perhaps compassion you
know understanding my situation in a new way that makes sense so the false hope
is is where I believe that I believe that through revenge I will justice will
be meted out can we talk about backstory for the
character is it crucial not so much with a screenplay backstory is crucial with
every story I mean I can’t think of a story that doesn’t you know need some
kind of backstory so but yeah the the the one of the first things I do when
I’m working in the 90 day novel or the 90 day screenplay the first month of the
workshop is spent imagining the world of your story which includes the backstory
okay so I they’re they’re not a separate thing in other words I want to lose
myself in the world of the story so that the because backstory is going to become
exposition right so so so it’s necessary it’s sort of like looking at a painting
if you ever see those $49 paintings when you drive out to like the airport or
something they’re selling them on the sides of the roads and it’s a landscape
but it’s completely flat because it’s one coat
there’s no undercoat okay so the backstory is the undercoat you can’t
really see it but you can feel it you know so like if you if you’re if you’re
gonna have a snowy landscape your undercoat you’re gonna be using you know
numbers and and browns and and dark colors so that we can start to
experience the depth of the snow you can’t explain it white it’s it’s it’s
it’s just it just looks it’s just gonna look cheesy so that that’s that’s the
more work you do in really connecting to your characters backstories the more
it’s that that Bachelor is going to start to get infused into into the
characters experience it’s going to be it’s going to be in the dialogue we’re
gonna be it’s going to be in the flavor of their language it’s gonna be in the
detail of their you know of their it’s gonna it’s gonna be in the detail
in terms of revealing that backstory to the audience how how much can you hold
that back though I realize maybe then the writer needs to know that backstory
right away but in terms of revealing it to the audience let’s say in a film how
much of how effective is it to really hold back that backstory or should be
revealed right away because I was thinking like I just saw this movie the
Mustang and he’s in prison and you don’t totally know why he’s there right you’re
just seeing his life and he’s working with these horses and Bruce Dern is like
this guy that’s kind of pushing him around he’s charge of the horses right
then you finally realize what it was that landed him there who this woman is
that comes to visit him for these visitations and tension between them but
it was really great because you didn’t know it that’s a great question because
because the so you’re talking about mystery and and a lot of the times
writers confuse mystery with withholding essential information to move the story
forward in other words don’t like if you’re if you’re writing a mystery you
don’t want to confuse your reader or your audience or you don’t want to
withhold something that we actually need to know what makes a mystery really fun
is that you gave us all of the essential information but in a way where we
weren’t able to put it together and we experienced the delicious surprise of oh
my god that makes perfect sense and and and there’s some kind of transformative
experience but if you’re writing a mystery
and-and-and-and you’re withholding something essential for us to understand
what needs what happens next we’re just gonna be confused you know or we’re
gonna be annoyed no it was done in a way that no no I’m not so Mustang or saying
I’m saying they probably did it yeah they did if you didn’t do so so I’m
saying that there is there is the goal with backstory is to find ways to
dramatize or disguise exposition okay you want to dramatize it you want
or the sky I mean if your dramatizing it you are disguising it but like I used to
do an exercise with my student having done a long time but we go around the
table and I’d say okay Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of
water now who what’s Jack and Jill’s relationship
and the first person say they’re brother and sister okay
second person how old are they they go they’re 25 and why are they going up the
hill to fetch a pail of water why do they need to water the house is on fire
okay and then I go okay now that’s all that’s all exposition now I want you to
write a dramatic scene that includes all of that information but you can’t say
Jack and Jill are 25 years old you’ve got to find a way to convey that
information that backstory or that that exposition without us knowing that or
the backstory would probably be why they’re going up the hill to fetch a
pail of water so we need to has they’re on their way up the hill we need to you
want to find a way for us to experience that their house is on fire
does that make sense it does right so so you’re you’re showing not telling you
want to show and not tell exactly yeah yeah we want to experience it we want it
you know filmmaking is is taking the audience through a series of experiences
that lead to a transformation locked in here Oh a reluctant hero a
reluctant are you talking about the end of Act one where I always talk about how
our protagonist makes a decision at the end of the first act and that there’s
reluctance around this decision and the reluctance is a function of the dilemma
in other words if if your if your protagonist doesn’t experience
reluctance we’re not going to understand what the decision means
okay so I’ll give me an example let’s say Romeo and Julia the the the the
inciting incident is Romeo sees Juliet okay so oh my god I’m in love and then
the opposing argument which is something I talk about in the workshops is where
we understand the dilemma oh my god I’m in love with the enemy of my father okay
I’m in love with the family the family member that’s the enemy of my family and
then the decision is to in spite of that go and stand under Juliet’s balcony and
profess his love so he’s not reluctant to profess his love he’s reluctant to
get killed by her father okay so they were elect so if that if that’s what
you’re asking me they’re reluctant here because that’s I think in terms of how
can I find my protagonists reluctance at the end of Act two the reluctance isn’t
about getting what I want the reluctance is about what it will mean if I try to
get what I want okay so so so Romeo wants love he
doesn’t want to get killed that’s what keeps that’s his dilemma I I want true
love but true love will mean could mean the death of me okay if you can find
your protagonists reluctance at the end of the first act okay with with regards
to this decision you’re going to be connected to your the tension your
protagonists dilemma your story is gonna build in meaning as it progresses okay
because that’s our goal as storytellers is we want each page to be more
interesting than the last page because the story is building and meaning okay
so as Romeo and Juliet move toward this climax
the story becomes more interesting we become more invested the stakes start to
rise because of the struggle that he’s having between what he wants and what he
needs okay I want you know I I so so you think
about any character they they what they want is always outside of their
themselves it’s always outside of themselves I want you know I want a pony
and what they need is always within it’s connected to the the why they want the
pony when I get a pony that’ll be popular you know I want I
want to believe in God why do I want to believe in God because then I’ll then
I’ll be safe okay so I want to have faith what do I need I need to trust
okay that make sense of like you see that’s
the dilemma of faith is you know give me evidence then I’ll believe doesn’t work
that way that’s every story your protagonist is struggling with a dilemma
and a dilemma is a powerful want and a false belief those are the two
ingredients okay so I want to believe but I don’t trust and and then your
protagonist is is because what we care about altum Utley is not whether or not
the protagonist is going to believe or have faith what we care about is how
your protagonist is going to reframe the relationship to what faith means what
are things you see most beginning writers sort of get wrong with writing
an outline plot it’s so many writers think that writing an outline is
figuring out the plot okay and and and and it’s there’s something very
satisfying about coming up with a plot there’s something that way oh I’ve got
it but here’s the problem is that again Einstein says you can’t solve a problem
at the same level of consciousness that created the problem every story begins
with a dramatic problem and what happens every writers have this experience you
get really excited by your premise and you you start writing it and you get
halfway through and then you get stuck and then you’re trying to make these
characters interesting but you feel like they’re just
no pieces on a chess board that you’re trying to move around and and and so
it’s important to understand that story structure is not about plotting story
structure really is the DNA of your protagonists transformation and so what
you really want to do is you want to start to be curious about your
protagonists dilemma because when you when you really understand the nature of
their struggle the nature of their dilemma it is going it becomes the
source of your story and it starts to it just starts to pay off in silver dollars
it starts to give you all sorts of ideas images scenarios that are going to
become your plot okay but if you so so here’s the here’s what
I would suggest if you want to come up with a great outline the first thing we
do in the 90 day novel in the 90 day screenplay is is we spend one week
imagining the world of this story and doing absolutely no outlining because
what happens is I would say our idea of our story is never the whole story if
you start to outline your idea of your story you’re gonna get stuck you is it’s
gonna become kind of a superficial thing but if you allow yourself to lose
yourself in your characters relating to other characters they’re going to
surprise you they’re gonna be alive and they’re gonna start to do things that
you might not have imagined had you forced them into a prescribed outline
okay and so that’s the first step is imagine the world of your story allow
your characters to be relating to each other in ways without imposing any
structure any outline whatsoever now that you’ve got all of this raw material
and you start to see how they’re related I’ll give you an example you would never
if you’re writing It’s a Wonderful Life what does he want he wants to leave
Bedford Falls in order to have a Wonderful Life the midpoint of that is
where mr. Potter offers Jimmy Stewart a job that would never if you’re outlining
your story that has nothing to do with what Jimmy Stewart wants okay
he’s that’s Jimmy mr. Potter’s the yet in the devil okay’s the enemy
why would he ever offer him a job that wouldn’t make any sense but if you’re
imagining the world of the story and you come to the midpoint structure question
okay which is how is your protagonist how does your protagonist experience
temptation it might occur to you that the devil would tempt him with a big job
offer okay and so that’s where I feel like the way I teach story structure is
different then I’ve been told it’s different than everybody and it’s
because there’s no plotting at all there’s these structure questions that
are experiential questions okay so we’re exploring it we’re exploring
your the your protagonists experience at key stages in the the journey okay I
hesitate to say the hero’s journey because then people get this fixed idea
oh you’re teaching the hero’s journey no I’m actually not I’m teaching Mateus
that story structure is an immutable paradigm for a spiritual transformation
and that their key stages that one goes through including the you know the
reluctance at the end of the first act the the false hope which we just talked
about I’m talking about now the mid-point temptation and then suffering
toward the end of the second act and then finally surrender the end of the
the the the second act these are all experiences reluctance false hope
temptation suffering surrender they have nothing to do with plotting and we’re
not talking about a reversal you know so as someone already figuring out the
ending in that in that before they’re beginning of outline you know said think
about it for a week or whatever think about the the crux of the story what is
it really about are they also figuring out the ending or is it revealed
sometimes after you do the outline both it can get revealed after you do
the outline I don’t like the word figuring out because I don’t think we
figure anything out but I have an exercise that give my students to to
experience the ending and and and and it’s a two-part exercise I say imagine
your protagonist transformed at the end of the story how is your protagonist
relating differently to other care characters at the end of the story how
are they related differently than they were at the beginning and what do they
understand at the end of the story that they didn’t understand at the beginning
okay and so and then do that like every day do that for like 10 minutes every
day and and what you start to plant a flag for your protagonist at the end of
the story you start to experience your protagonist at the end of the story
character suggests plot when you start to experience your character relating
differently to these other characters plot naturally emerges but you’re not
figuring anything out if you try and figure it out you’re gonna get stuck and
then the second thing you want to do is you want to imagine the if you want to
imagine the climax of your story remember that we want our protagonists
to be active through the whole story you want to have an active protagonist and
the challenge for writers is that we tend to be sort of passive observers
we’re always watching what’s going on and so when we sometimes put ourselves
into the protagonists situation sometimes the protagonist can be the
least interesting character in the story and so you want to find a way to make
them active the structured questions they’re always going to make your
protagonist active at the climax you want to think about the difficult choice
your protagonist makes between what he or she wants and what they need okay
it’s a difficult choice so that’s an action I’m making a choice I’m thinking
your protection has to make an act take an action between what they want what
they need so so think in terms of like let’s say I want justice but I believe
that when I get revenge justice will be done
so what I want is is actually revenge okay I want them to pay and what I need
is to have compassion okay so in other words the end of the story the climax of
the story is we’re going to reframe our relationship to the theme ie justice and
so I’m gonna put my protagonist in a situation where he can have to make a
difficult choice between what he wants revenge and what he needs is compassion
that’s that in other words if it’s not a difficult choice he would
the choice in act one but it’s a it has to be difficult and it doesn’t have to
be sometimes we call it the battle scene the climax of this story but it doesn’t
it doesn’t have to be an external battle it can be an internal battle okay so so
it doesn’t have to be it can be an internal battle that gets dramatized
like if you think about Holly Hunter in broadcast news the battle scene is her
staring at a plane ticket on a bench at the airport because William Hurt says
here’s the ticket and she’s she what she wants is there to be is she wants there
to be integrity in broadcast journalism but what she needs is to have integrity
so when William Hurt crosses the line and fakes a tear in this interview she’s
furious and she wants him to take responsibility for it so that she can go
after this exotic island for a week and and and and and frolic with him but he’s
not going to and and so she is forced to make a difficult choice within herself
am I gonna get on the plane with William Hurt or am I gonna get back in the cab
and and so that’s that’s the battle scene but it’s still active she makes
the choice of getting into the cab so you want to find a way for your
protagonist to make a difficult choice between what they want which there’s
always outside of themselves ie William Hurt and what they need which is always
within I’m gonna do the right thing what’s the fastest way to learn
screenwriting the fastest way to learn screenwriting god i-i-i i don’t know how to answer that
question William Goldman says it’s screenwriting something where sometimes
your second or third one out is as good as like it’s as good as it’s gonna be
and but I don’t know screenwriting is a craft
I mean you know they asked Marcus Margaret Atwood was at a party once and
and some guy she some guy said what do you she he she said what are you doing
he said I’m a heart surgeon no you said I’m a brain surgeon and and he said what
do you did she said I’m a writer and he said oh oh you know what when I retire
I’m gonna be a writer I’m gonna write and she said oh that’s great because
when I retire I’m gonna be a brain surgeon so it’s so it’s it’s really hard
work and it’s a craft and I think that if if we think sometimes there’s another
quote I can’t remember who the writer was but he said writing is some a writer
is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others well I
love the Margaret out word though because I remember hearing an interview
where her family said to her okay it’s gonna be difficult for you to be a
writer but we have someone we can invite over and maybe they can give you advice
right and they were like a journalist at a paper and they said most like you
likely you’ll be writing you know wedding announcements and all the
queries because at that time women did and so he I don’t think that that was
something that she wanted to do but she kept with her poetry in and these
different things that’s what you know Francis Coppola he went to film school
and then he said he was hoping that he was gonna get to do industrial films and
that was gonna be that and and so you know and he worked for Roger Corman and
he was again I think it’s that humility I think of when we when we sort of
expect that we’re supposed to have everything handed to us nothing happens
but if if if we just put our nose down and
and just keep working you know great things can happen and so circling back
to your question about about and now I’m blanking on the oh the facts weight
capacity writing yeah I fastest way to learn screenwriting is writing 24 hours
a day okay except that’s not true because if you
don’t have I cuz that’s what I used to do when I first started writing I not 24
hours but I wrote all day long and I didn’t have a life and and it wasn’t it
wasn’t until I kind of got a life and started to have experiences outside of
comedy clubs and you know going home and writing in my Garrett that I actually
had something to write about so you know Paul Newman says he said if you want to
be a writer get a couple of divorces under your belt you know get some have
something to write about and and have something that you really care about you
know there are way easier to ways to make money than being a screenwriter
Woody Allen said I made more money selling my 5th Avenue duplex then I made
in my entire film career so it’s it’s you know if you want to make money buy
rental properties but if you want to be a screenwriter tell the stories that
matter to you alright well I mean if you were a comic you depth sure there was a
lot of material even if it’s just within you know you can have stories about
cocktail waitresses and club managers and I mean so you there was no no no no
hominy comedy isn’t about finding material a comedy is about having a
voice if you have a voice everything can be funny anything can be funny you know
Mitch Hedberg joke about he said I love rice I’m gonna butcher but I love
reading I love eating anything I love eating mm mm of anything but in
other words like you don’t have to yeah if you go out and have a life you’re
going to have something to write about it’s it’s so so yeah if
if I’m just if I’m just in comedy clubs all day yeah I guess I could write about
cocktail waitresses but the joke is the joke is about my point of view so the
way you’re gonna develop a point of view is engaging with the world and starting
to experience what it’s like to be a human being then because the joke isn’t
gonna be about the cocktail waitress the joke is going to be about your
relationship to the cocktail waitress can writers hold on to their characters
too tightly yeah for sure yeah in fact yeah I’m always saying we got we got to
hold it loosely if if you’re our idea of our characters is never the whole
character in fact it drives me crazy when writers say oh my character would
never do that I think of drama as characters behaving
uncharacteristically okay so a nun robs a bank you know a bank robber saves a
child on the way out of the bank it’s when you’re writing a story or imagining
the world of a story and a character does something that seems out of
character our job is to trust that and be curious about how to support it
rather than going my character would never do that characters can do anything
if you can find a way to support so when someone says that and you challenge them
do you find that most writers back down or do they become so stubborn in their
ideas of who that character is that they’re they’re not willing to bend well
I don’t cheat I don’t I don’t teach like that so I don’t like I mean if I if I if
I have a care if I have a student who’s challenging me then what is there to
challenge I’m not I’m just asking questions it’s the way I teach it’s the
Socratic method I’m not I’m not rakonin ever my my yeah so I would never have
that with with one of my students I would just say you know why do you make
that choice that’s a question I always ask my students why do you make that
choice you know why why does the character do
that and and it’s either in other words you’ve got we’ve got to be willing to
explore blind alleys so if if we just assume that our story’s going in in a
particular direction then we might be denying ourselves you know a lot of
riches by not exploring the the opposite way I always say to my writers if you
know your characters gonna go left you have to go right in other words if if in
this scene bill is gonna propose to Sally and Sally’s gonna say yes that’s
not an interesting scene Sally will you marry me yes I will bill that’s not a
scene there’s no meaning that gets conveyed convey get a meaning gets
conveyed through conflict or tension and so we want to explore all the reasons
why bill can’t get married and all the reasons why Sally is afraid to say yes
then now now we’re gonna understand what the scenes about because the scene isn’t
about Bill proposing to Sally the scene is about Bill being afraid to work for
Sally’s father you know what I mean will you work what you know Sally will you
work will you marry me and then we can spend our lives and I can write tone
poems and she’s like no I actually if I’m gonna marry you you’re gonna need to
come work for my dad the hit man you know now we’ve got a story okay so we
get you if you know you’re gonna go left go right if you think your characters
gonna do this hold that loosely because you’re going to discover that that that
your idea of your character isn’t though isn’t the whole character sign that it’s
incorrect it’s incomplete and and and the irony is that when you hold it
loosely your character actually becomes the most full version of the character
you imagined it’s not gonna do exactly what you wanted it he or she to do but
it’s actually going to become you know the goal of storytelling is for the
whole to be greater than the sum of its parts not to be the sum of its parts why do writers get stuck why do writers
get stuck well you want to have a good outline writers get stuck sometimes
because they you know they come up with a great idea and they immediately start
writing the idea which is fine but at some point you’re gonna want to stop and
do some kind of an outline and here’s the thing is that this is what writers
will go yeah but I heard that Woody Allen never outlines and Charlie Kaufman
never outlines and the truth is they do they probably just don’t write their
outline down but they have been writing stories for such a long time and they’ve
been and they probably actually do have lots of notes but they’ve been doing
that they have developed such an and manure restructures becomes second
nature for them they’ve become masters and so they are naturally seeing they’re
naturally connected to this this process but I would think the main reason
writers get stuck is because they’re not working off some kind of an outline it
could be even the most you know rudimentary outline but you have to have
something to work from or here’s the irony is that if you don’t have an
outline you’re actually going to lose confidence when you get to a point where
you start to feel stuck because you’re always going to get stuck at some point
in the process but if you’ve got some kind of basic sense of your the story
structure basic sense of the movement you can actually get excited about the
point where you get stuck because you know where the story is going to go and
that’s where you can start to move in all you can you you you can kind of
relax into the panic and let your characters speak to you and go in
directions that you had never imagined that are actually going to often support
where the story wants to go okay that’s why I would say if you know you’re going
left go right okay so if I know this is gonna happen let me explore the complete
opposite and relax in the fact that I’m gonna get to where I’m going it’s just
not going I’m not going to arrive there in the same way I thought I was going to
thinking of like the firm you know Tom Cruise and then that moment when well I
don’t want to give any spoilers away but I don’t think you give me 30 year old
movie yet so I’m just thinking of the living room scene where he comes back
and and the partners are there and and maybe I’m pushing oh yeah oh yeah right
and totally different this is where this is where Robert Towne I love this Robert
Towne adapted the firm okay and he because I always thought a great novel
except the ending felt like a total cheat because mitch mcdeere ends up on a
sailboat with ten million dollars and and and he’s like in the Cayman
Islands or something like that and he’s not a lawyer anymore but he wanted to be
a lawyer he loved being a lawyer and so Robert Towne he read it and he was like
well wait a second why can’t he still be a lawyer at the end of the story but
have a transformation and so he in the living room scene it’s been decades
since I’ve seen this movie but the living room scene is where he confronts
the is that is it the mobsters and the I believe so I think isn’t his wife there
too in the isn’t maybe I’m picking two different stories but what he does when
he basically does is he says I’m a lawyer and I work for you the mob but I
also have all your shit and if anything happens to me you guys are fucked and so
that’s what you know John Grisham didn’t do but that’s what makes Robert Towne a
genius is because he understands story structure he understands transformation
I mean John Grisham is brilliant I love John Grisham but that the ending of that
felt like a cop out to me because he just he just
goes off into into like like that ending is actually a tragedy he’s now gonna
spend the rest of his life in hiding in in the novel in the Cayman Islands in
hiding with ten million dollars that sounds like a nightmare I don’t want it
who wants that life but because he doesn’t get to you know he’s gonna be in
hiding but the way Robert Towne did it was was masterful because it he was true
to the dramatic question that was about a guy who was an idealistic lawyer who
takes a job for a dirty firm and ends up in a horror show and he fight and he
manages a way to climb out and outsmart you know the villains brilliant

11 thoughts on “The 90 Day Screenplay: From Concept To Polish – Alan Watt [FULL INTERVIEW]

  1. This is not a complete outline. Instead, just some points I thought are good. 31:22 Info on the 90 Day Screenplay. 46:59 to 49:31 Trust in the process. 56:38 to 57:21 The importance of craft. 01:00:38 Great info on False Hope (what the MC sees the issue as a problem, but it is only a dilemma; 1:11:50 talks about Want vs. Need and provides an example of Dilemma of Faith) requirement to the hero's journey (Groundhog Day is a great example of this). (Backstory starts at 1:04:13) 01:08:23 talks of the GOAL OF BACKSTORY to storytelling. For me, this includes the "misbelief" the MC has to transform in the revelation he / she gets in the third act. 01:10:04 The "reluctant" hero. 01:25:11 The fastest way to learn screenwriting. 01:31:42 Why writers get "stuck."

  2. @1:12:52 Bing! Summed up my whole life in just a couple sentences. Thank you.

    I'm over the hump now (I think… i.e. I'm not discounting the possibility of future crises of faith), but it's a tough journey when you feel you must get there of your own volition.

  3. @1:36:04 it's worth noting that The Firm was only Grisham's second novel, so I imagine he was still getting his sea legs under him.

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