In a conversation that freely flowed from stories about Paul Newman (“Fellas, have you ever had a grapefruit in the shower?” he allegedly asked at an early Color of Money script meeting) to Sasha Grey, the talk always seemed to return to some iteration of those two above questions.
Yet at the recent Montclair Film Festival screenwriting panel– moderated by AMC executive Joel Stillerman, and featuring Richard Price (Clockers, The Color of Money) and screenwriting duo Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen), all participants decidedly veered away from evangelizing about the rules of the craft.
“That’s like for the screenwriting gurus who are fucking liars,” quipped Koppelman at one point, in reference to the idea that there are any ultimate tenets to good storytelling.
But that’s not to say that a screenplay shouldn’t be approached in a general fashion. As the freely candid and colorful Price noted, “It’s all about what happens next, what happens next, what happens next… It’s speed chess, not chess.”
All participants did concede though that such adherence to formal discipline means little without an initial compelling starting point. “For us it’s either a character that appears and starts speaking in our heads, and seems like he’s in our office,” Levien mentioned in describing his writing process with Koppelman. “Or sometimes we stumble upon a world, where we don’t know what the story is, but it’s an incredible area that we haven’t seen before, or in a long time” Or, as Price succinctly put it, “Roll with your awe.”
However, inspiration comes prior what Stillerman referred to as “the truisms of what happens to writers in this business,” and in that sense, the industry is not without its frustrations. Price – a novelist and a writer in both film and television – remained generous in his assessment, stating, “Whatever medium I’m working in sucks. The suck travels.”
“If I’m sitting alone, in the solitude and freedom of writing a novel, I can just hate that and can’t wait to join to the social experience of writing a movie or a TV show,” Levien added. “And then I feel like I’m surrounded by idiots and I can’t wait to do the next thing. It’s wonderful.” As Koppelman was quick to mention, writers and filmmakers have always had trouble getting challenging material through the system. “It’s always been hard. Guys had to scrape to make those movies then and now they still have to.”
For all of the industry hurdles discussed and dissected with ruthless pragmatism though (Price: “The scariest words from an actor are, ‘I think we’re missing an opportunity here’”), the consensus was reached that it’s worth keeping at it if you truly have a passion for the writing. “You can only be good at something you’re not connected to, and good is not good enough,” Levien warned. “This business will kill you for being merely good.”
And if you’re looking for the idea that will transcend good for you, Koppelman summed it up thusly: “Just find a story that really interests you, and try to entertain yourself, but not at the expense of the people who are gonna be reading it.”
Following the Q&A, we got in touch with Koppelman (and eventually Levien), and asked a few more questions regarding personal process.
Do you find it’s trickier to work through problem areas when writing without a partner, like when you got stuck on page 60 on Solitary Man, or can that independence be helpful?
Brian Koppelman: I loved writing Solitary Man. There was, certainly, a kind of freedom in not having an outline or a deadline. But there is no question that it would have been much easier to solve its problems, much quicker too, if David and I had written it together. In fact, when I finally finished my first draft, David’s notes were key in getting it production ready.
The films that you’ve directed have had some particularly memorable uses of music (Johnny Cash in Solitary Man, Steve Forbert in Knockaround Guys, etc.). Is music a part of your writing process, and if you know you will or won’t be directing something, how does that change whatever role that music plays?
Koppelman: You’re right that music is crucial. And Levien and I don’t hesitate to indicate it when we think a particular piece of music will be crucial to a scene. But there’s no doubt that when we are only the writers on a film, we are merely making a suggestion. When we are directing, we are telling the rest of the crew and the studio to please make plans to acquire the song, to budget for it, etc. It’s important to note, that those things can/do change, even when we are directing. The Stevie Forbert song in Knockaround Guys was scripted as “Margaritaville.” We found out quickly that we could not get the rights, and rescripted it to be “Romeo’s Tune.” And we shot the scene playing “Romeo’s Tune” on the jukebox.
When you guys take a big studio job where set elements are already in place (for instance, adapting “Rockford Files” as a Vince Vaughn vehicle), does that change your process at all, as opposed to creating a world from scratch?
Koppelman: I’m gonna let Levien answer this one.
David Levien: It doesn’t affect our process as far as the story, setting, etc. We have to come up with those things with as much originality as possible, despite the fact that there is source material (the time, source material we love, thankfully). In the case of Rockford, though, Vince Vaughn absolutely affects the way we write the character (in a good way). He’s the perfect actor to embody the modern Rockford, so it’s more inspiring than writing in a vacuum.