Five Lessons I Learned at Scriptnotes Live

photoLast Monday, I attended a live taping of one of my favorite podcasts: Scriptnotes.  The format of the show is that screenwriters John August (Big Fish, Go, The Nines) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover 2 & 3, Identity Thief) chat for about an hour about sceenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

In this episode, John and Craig were joined by Andrew Lippa, who is John’s collaborator on Big Fish the musical, which opens on Broadway next month.

Below, a few nuggets of wisdom I picked up at the show.

1. If you want to comfort somebody, figure out what will comfort them.

For example, when pitching a story to a studio, don’t focus on what they can do for you (success, money, fame), but rather what you can offer them.  If they would be comforted by the knowledge that a movie is going to make money, then address how widely relatable your story is, and thus, how many tickets it will sell.

This is something so insanely obvious, and yet I rarely approach meetings from this perspective.  Craig equated this advice to dating; the people you court both in love and in business can smell your desperation. So, don’t be desperate.  Instead, focus in what you have to offer.

(Of course, Craig also mentioned that another prime way to assure someone you are worth sinking their time/money/hard work into is simply by being competent. This is why it baffles me when people don’t check simple things like formatting and spelling in their scripts, but alas, I digress.)

2. If you know your characters and the world they live in, then you can tell your story, no matter what cuts and changes are made to your script.

When discussing the nine year development and pitching process for Big Fish on broadway, John August explained that not a single word that was written in the first draft survived to ultimately make it up on stage. Having to cut and rewrite things that aren’t working can be scary, but since he and composer Andrew Lippa knew their characters so well, they could easily pluck them out of one scene and drop them into another if that’s what the story called for.

Sometimes I get so caught up in the minute plot details of what I’m writing that I forget that solid story really comes from solid characters.  If you know your characters, you know that your script doesn’t revolve around a single clever line of dialogue, but rather around the drama that arises when your character reacts to the obstacles that he or she faces.

3. “Write what you know” does not mean write about a struggling screenwriter.

This point came up during the Q&A and I think it’s always a good one to remember.  When people say “write what you know,” they mean to write what you emotionally know, not that you should only write about things you’ve seen or done.  Andrew Lippa added that anyone can do the research to find out historical details or science facts, but writing about how the characters feel has to come from the writer’s own experience.

4. Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

Andrew Lippa described the elation that he, John and the cast felt when the director showed them the fantastic set piece that was going to accompany their opening song in Big Fish.  However, after showing the show to Chicago preview audiences, it soon became apparent that the number was falling flat.  So, it was back to the drawing boards for John and Andrew, who were able to come up with a different opening song that ultimately worked better for the show.

Sometimes I’ll write a line or shoot a shot that makes me so proud of myself I’ll be blinded to the fact that it doesn’t make sense in the context of the whole project.  It doesn’t matter how good a tiny element is if it doesn’t belong in the movie.  In fact, often it is the removal of these little darlings that ultimately heightens the project as a whole.

5. There is such a thing as a stupid question.

Okay, this isn’t something that they said, exactly, but it is something I observed and that I observe at nearly every Q&A I have ever been to.  I love going to Q&A’s of people I respect, and I love listening to them answer thoughtful audience questions.  But there’s always that one guy (if you’re lucky, it’s only one) who just wants to hear himself speak and show off to everybody that he went to film school, which is just a waste of everybody’s time.  Don’t be that guy.