Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video The writing process, part of 2011 SBIFF Writers' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
Anne Thompson: So this is the question I always enjoy. I love to know how you write, literally, physically. Aaron, is it a legal pad like Tarantino in some isolated place. Is it a computer? I mean how do you construct a screenplay literally? Aaron Sorkin: It used to be when I moved to New York after college, I had a whole bunch of survival jobs, and one of them was bartending in Broadway theaters. So I wrote most of--my first play was A Few Good Men--and I wrote most of it on cocktail napkins during the first act of La Cage Aux Folles.
Anne: How do you do it now? Aaron: I miss those days, which is why I told that story. There is a long while that doesn't look like writing. To a casual observer, it would look a lot like lying on my couch and watching ESPN. (laughter) I also drive around. I listen to music.
The most important thing for me is getting started. The difference between being on page two and page nothing is life and death. So I am looking for a way to get started, and once I do do that, then I write at a computer, either--I have an office at Warner Brothers and I have an office at home, so I am in one of those two places. And I need to know what I am going to write before I write anything.
I need to--I have got index cards on the board, and I try to write. Once I am loaded up, once I know what I am doing, I write with as much speed as I can. I feel like that speed and energy will translate itself onto the page. When it's coming in little dribs and drabs, I know to stop because I don't know what I am doing. So I don't stop, stop trying to find a way around in the dark. But, speaking of finding a way around in the dark, I don't know everything about what I am going to write when I am writing.
It's a little like walking forward in the dark with a flashlight. You can only see as far ahead as the beam will go. When I know how it's going to end-- and in this case, once I'd come up with how it was starting, I knew how it was going to end-- that's a big victory for me, and I feel good about it. But I think all you wanted to know was how I write, and I do it at my desk at a computer. (laughter and applause) Anne: Scott? Scott Silver: Yeah. I wished I had as good a story about the cocktail napkins.
I write at my desk, at my computer. It's like a job. It's like going to the office. And I think having that discipline and setting a schedule is tough for a writer, because if not, everyone's like, "You are not doing anything." "You are sitting around" mostly watching ESPN, or they say, "Can you come help me move a couch," or something. I am like, "I am writing." So it's sort of, I try to--so I have set hours now that sort of over the years sort of I try to get at the desk at a certain time, and I think the same way for me. I think you even knowing where you are going-- I don't know how I am going to get there always-- but I think in the same way as sort of what Michael said, I think if you know where you are going and you have that sense, I mean that's sort of where you have to begin.
But for me, I am sort of a very slow writer. So I sort of--and will procrastinate, so I think I just sort of get as much research, sort of do as much *&^$#% as I can, until it gets to a point where it just becomes ridiculous. It looks like you haven't started writing yet? You are kidding. So I think sort of getting all of that stuff and sort of like getting everything that you sort of need, that's sort of when I'll sort of start-- start the process. Anne: David? David Seidler: I write in bed, at least the first couple of hours. I am very lucky. I have an apartment with a bit of an ocean view, and I have the bed facing it.
So I get up, I make myself coffee, and I sit there with my laptop like King Canute ordering the waves in and out, and they obey me, and that gives me a sense of entitlement and power, you see. For me, the longest process on any project is the beginning, the research and doing a treatment. I worked for years with a partner. Now I don't, but I still keep the same technique of doing a very detailed treatment, so I know exactly where I am going.
Early on, when I did Tucker and was working with Francis, we had a conversation once that has held me in good stead. He was explaining how the first thing that he did on any project was know a big scene at the end, the penultimate scene as it were, and everything was then aimed towards that, and that's been a really good, helpful hint, and I've always use that. So I make 3x5 cards. If I have a large home, which I don't anymore, with a corkboard, I put it all on there.
Now, I put it on the living room carpet, and I can't open the windows for two weeks because if the wind blows, my structure is absolutely shot. In terms of the actual working day, as I say, I will start the first hour or so in bed, if I can get away with it, which I usually can. I am sure that eBay was invented for my benefit, too, so I could do something other than write. I will work from say 9:00 or 9:30 until about 2:30-3:00, when I hit that metabolic low that most people have. And when I find my forehead is resting on the Spacebar, I know that I have done it for the day.
I will do some exercise, go for a 90- minute walk, go for a run. That may be the day. But if I am under pressure for a deadline or heading down the homestretch and have build up a real head of steam, I will then start again, maybe when the sun is just going down the yard, I work another whole stretch. I can do a double day that way. And that's the way I do it. Anne: Charlie? Charlie Mitchell: Yeah, a lot of things get done besides writing when you are writing.
Lisa Cholodenko: But you are still writing. Charlie: Yeah, of course. Yeah, it's all right. I think for me, how I am writing depends on what's happening in the story. I can't sort of enforce some sort of pattern on that. I will tell you something that happened just the other day. My character was about to do something that was going to really impact her life in a big way, and I could see it coming, and I couldn't do it.
I just could not do it. I couldn't sit down. I couldn't make myself sit down to do it. I just couldn't do it; I couldn't do it to her. She couldn't see it coming. You know what I am saying? She couldn't see it coming and I could, and I just got the glimpse before I got up from the desk of what was about to happen. I didn't know what was going to happen till that moment, and then I saw that, and I couldn't sit down for two days. And finally, I got my courage up to go back. So a lot of my process is determined by what's happening inside the story.
Anne: How do you all deal with writer's block? I mean what are your techniques for getting around it? Michael Arndt: I will jump in. I think one of the reasons you get writer's block is because you are trying to find the perfect answer right off the bat; you are trying to hit the bull's eye right off the bat. And that you just stop dead in your tracks, and just what you can do is say, okay, there is like I am just going to make a list of ideas. I don't care if they are good, bad, or indifferent. I am just going to list everything. Here's an example, which was how to get out of the scene when the cop pulls them over in Little Miss Sunshine. It ended up being grandpa's magazines basically, But I didn't really have an ending of that scene, and you just go, okay, well what's there in the--what do they have at their disposal, or it's the claw rescuing them at the dump.
You go, okay, well what's the-- their needs to be a life-or-death jeopardy situation. They need to get rescued at the last second. What do we have? And instead of trying to find the perfect answer, you just list everything that's at a dump, just every possible thing you can think of, and then you try. You can start doing things in the right chronology or just picking which one is best. But I think that if you are blocked, I think just start making lists. I mean, that's like step one for me is just make a list. Anne: Lisa, your method, and whatever you want to say. Lisa: God! This is-- well, I could have a whole seminar just on this.
I would say I employ many of these techniques. This script was a really interesting learning curve for me. Two huge things that came out of it were, carding, because you can see your whole film in front of your face and see what's redundant and see what's not--has no causality, and really look structurally at where you're going. And it's just something for some reason, I don't know, I think I got bad advice at graduate school. I had this teacher that was really, like, you have got to go with your sort of instinct and blurts, and just like let it ride.
It's going to come out of you. And it was very freeform, but there is something incredibly anxiety producing about just hoping that having no sort of roadmap and hoping it will just emerge as a complete idea and/or screenplay. Anyway, so carding. I found like that structured stuff is really helpful, and I also agree that in the one screenplay that I wrote early on where I kind of knew where the story was going and where it ended and what that ultimate scene was-- I actually had a final scene-- I found much more pleasure in the process I think than groping around in the dark for where things are headed.
Especially with something that's invented, I am sure there is more comfort when you have some basic facts that you can adhere to or something that came before it. The other thing I'd say, I could say a lot about writing with a partner and whatnot, and the differences between men and women, because he thought I gabbed too much in between little bursts of writing. I found that's where some of our juiciest stuff came from. And I am like, I want to process, and then we'd grab ideas that came up in these kind of random conversations and throw them into the script.
I would say that Virginia Woolf was right. She wrote a little book long time ago called A Room of One's Own. I did not have my own office when I began The Kids Are All Right, and now there is just no way I could ever return to not having my own office. You just have to wall yourself off completely and have that space to imagine. Anne: I am afraid we have to stop. I am having a wonderful time, but we have lost track of the time unfortunately. We have a big panel, and let's give them a big round.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists talk about the development of their films, their research before sitting down at the keyboard, the evolution of the script, and finally, getting it to the screen. What's clear is that there's no formula, no easy path, and no shortcuts. The writers candidly reveal the obstacles each overcame on the way to seeing their vision realized. The anecdotes range from stories of triumph over adversity to remarkable collaborative efforts to just plain luck. Panelists are Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Scott Silver (The Fighter), David Seidler (The King's Speech), Charlie Mitchell (Get Low), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3).