Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video From notecards to final draft - the writing process, part of 2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
Anne Thompson> Before we go to the questions, it's a tradition for each of the writers to, in this case briefly because we're running out of time, tell us what your process is literally, pen, paper, computer, the writing process, starting with Mike. Mike Mills> The last, "Beginners", and the script I'm writing now, I started with just 5x7 cards and try being as formless as I could and sort of free and as far away from writing in final draft as I could, to be just as wild as I could be and I have a box that's full of these 3x5 cards.
And then I go to try to make an outline of some kind and then I finally go to writing in final draft. Anne Thompson> Okay. Mike Mills> Was that it? I was trying to be short. Anne Thompson> That was good! Will Reiser> I guess for me the process with the way "50/50" started and the movie I'm writing right now, the way that starts is I just will have a basic idea and I will start thinking about my characters and I will just start... And I won't actually sit down and start writing on my computer. I will just randomly just throughout the day just have thoughts and I'll maybe email ideas to myself about my characters or I will write them down in scraps of paper and I'll just kind of collect them and pool them.
And then eventually, the characters start talking to me and the story starts-- They start guiding me through the story and the arc of the story and where it's going. And then I eventually just start pooling all these ideas and I create a document that ends up just being a mess of ideas, which is-- It's not organized in any way whatsoever and then I spend a week going through all of those ideas and trying to organize them with a highlighter and figuring it out and sort of-- It's sort of like there's very chaotic period when I'm sort of trying to shape it.
And that's sort of where it all begins for me. Jim Rash> For me, I don't think anyone ever would like my process because it's-- You read these books like "write from your heart, just don't edit yourself," and I have the hardest time doing that because I'll just read it and I'll go "This is horrible, change it now in case someone finds it." "If you pass out now or die, they'll go 'At least we don't have to see that shot.'" (Laughter) For me it's all about the first scene.
I will spend forever because I just like writing the first scene. It may not end up being the first scene of whatever we've written. I just enjoy the idea of "what's the first thing they're going to see?" And so it might be a very long scene that you will never use. It's not necessarily just an image. I just enjoy that first scene of the movie and how it starts. And for me, then I sort of set it aside and I just think "I want to get from there to where I imagine or end." And that's it and then everything else is insanity and no one ever would be interested. Anne Thompson> Now on "The Descendants," did you get your first scene? Jim Rash> Well, we had several different things because we had the draft where you sort of see the image of her on the boat, just sort of enjoying riding the motorboat.
We had one that started-- The one that I sort of like, we did a thing that sort of revolved around Scottie. It was her. We wrote this long scene where she was at her elementary school and they were showing show and tell. So what we thought we would do is we had all these kids showing what they brought the show and tell, which we thought you could either do the written ones. Or it might be fun to get real kids and have them bring stuff. And then Scottie comes up with her book that has all the pictures of her mom in a coma as sort of the end of this scene that sort of takes us into meeting Matt King.
But then ultimately, yes, you want to get to Matt King's story. So that was within the draft, but I enjoyed, it took a long time and just like-- Because we just kept spitballing what kids would bring, a conch shell, whatever we could think of. So that was one scene that you'll never see. (Laughter) Anne Thompson> Tate? Tate Taylor> I spent a lot of time with my characters thinking about them and writing down. I love to come up with funny bits for my characters. And for me it's about tone.
Pathos and humor and the tone I'm going to establish. And I start outlining once I've got all my characters down and I kind of have all their Bibles of who they are. I then try to figure out how to have the humor and pathos and rhythm. And that kind of dictates my outline and then I outline it extensively, then I write the first scene, then I come to what I had as the second scene and I go "I hate that," and then I just start writing.
But it's all in there, kind of, I don't know. That's all I could say. Anne Thompson> JC? JC Chandor> Yeah, I have a tiny little notebook that I carry around with me. I usually jot down... You know, it can take a year or two years or ten years just sort of thinking about a thing, it bounces around. And then at some point, I sort of don't have the-- I don't know what it is but I write very quickly once I finally sit down.
So sometimes it could just be six things that happen throughout a story and you don't really know how any of those things are going to connect to one another. And then I usually go into a very intense sort of lockdown where this was written, the 81, whatever, 82-page draft was written. In three-and-a-half days, I sat down and it was just whooosh. And then I usually stop for months, let it sit, and dialogue and stuff like that normally doesn't change at all.
I usually end up just adding. And I've written other things that dialogue-wise were good and that's just-- I try not to over-think that part of it. So I guess I'm not sitting down to actually do it until I really do probably subconsciously know what's going to happen. But then it all usually comes out very quickly. And if it doesn't, I will stop and procrastinate for another three months or something.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists share their stories of script development, writer's block, book adaptation, and, most of all, tenacity, on the way to getting their movies to the screen. Mike Mills (Beginners) tells us about turning his own story about his father into a screenplay. Will Reiser (50/50) also turned a life experience, his personal battle with cancer, into a comedy starring his best friend Seth Rogen. Jim Rash (The Descendants) walks us through his process as he turned the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings into a film nominated for five Academy Awards®. Tate Taylor (The Help) was roommates with author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling book; he finished the screenplay (and owned the rights) before the book was even published. Writer J. C. Chandor (Margin Call) wrote about the financial markets, having grown up with his father immersed in that world.
With all of these brilliant writers, "write what you know" became their life's mantra while they worked on their screenplays. They share funny and poignant anecdotes about their experiences and processes on the way to the big screen.