The Screenwriting Process with Dustin Lance Black

By January 12, 2015Screenwriting 101

So I had the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Black on how he does what he does: storytelling. Penning screenplays such as Milk and J. Edgar, Dustin Lance Black meticulously understands how to craft a genuine, truthful story. 

Here's what he had to say…

JB: I really wanted to tap into your process. What the beginning looks like. What the middle looks like. And what the end looks like. To kick things off, what piqued your interest in screenwriting and this medium of storytelling vs. other delivery forms? 

Lance: Theater was my mom's solution for my shyness problem. And surprisingly, for an incredibly shy kid, I fell in love with the theater and in high school I went from being in part drama club to being paid to work in the theaters in the Bay area. I was working in the prop department, the lighting crew, and sound and even tried acting one season. I loved the theater. I loved being able to tell a story in two hours and having the audience there to interact with the story the way they do in theater, but I was really hungry for a take two. And I was frustrated certain nights when something might not have been good and "ah, that audience missed that really great thing." But I am also a little bit of a perfectionist and was just hungry for that take two. And I had fallen in love with film. I had discovered the French New Wave. When, as a teenager, I rented 400 Blows. All of these things combined I applied and thankfully got into UCLA Film school. Then I studied directing and really screenwriting came about two years after graduating. Even though I graduated with honors that didn't seem to mean I was having scripts handed to me. In fact, the only handing out going on was me handing out orange juice at this lunch place here in West Hollywood. I don't come from any money and I was barely surviving off of credit cards and tips. So the one thing you can do as a storyteller with no overhead is writing. So I started writing. I started writing short stories, films. I was not good at all and I had friends that made that clear. 

JB[Laughs] Some of the best editors and critics – your friends. 

Lance: Yes. And I tried collaborating with people and that really didn't work for me. The shyness thing intervened. There was no way I could type a word. And I saw some friends becoming PA's and going that route, but I didn't want to be a producer. So I just kept writing and eventually all of those friends who would read my things would go "oh, I like this one. This is alright." In the meantime, as I'm starting to write scripts and get better and figuring out who I am and what I like to write about, technology made another form of filmmaking very affordable and that was documentary filmmaking. 

JB: Interesting. 

Lance: All of a sudden there were digital cameras and digital editing. It was affordable. You could do it on your computer at home. You could didn't need to have a big Avid system. You could just use Final Cut. So I started making documentaries. And I had a documentary called My Life with Count Dracula that did well at the festivals. It got the attention of a production company that was doing a BBC show called Faking It that they wanted to bring to the United States. They hired me as the director and all of a sudden I was directing reality television for the learning channel with this BBC Company and I was making money and all of a sudden agents were interested in me. [Laughs] There was something to get ten percent of. I found myself with representation and finally, they have read my scripts and the rest is history. 

JB: That's great. And that story will resonate well with our readers. When you transitioned into the film and screenwriting medium, was there any specific film, screenwriter or director who you admired, studied or looked at as an inspiration?

Lance: Whoa. Well, there were countless filmmakers.

There were countless filmmakers who I followed and admired. As a student at UCLA Film School – one of the best departments was their critical studies department. And I took as many of these classes as you could in a quarter. And [for example] we watched everything Fellini – from the beginning of his career to the end of his career. I had already been a huge fan of the French New Wave mainly because I grew up in a Texas in a Mormon home in the 80’s and all we watched were big blockbuster, family-friendly movies. And with the French New Wave I liked how these movies were made and depicting how relationships really were and with a very particular expressive point of view. I loved that. And I never quite knew why I loved these films because I was not out yet as a gay man, but I always loved the films of Gus Van Sant.

JB: Yes. Agree completely.

Lance: I was always drawn to the more fluid sexuality of his characters. And of course River Phoenix, who was in My Own Private Idaho, and I really loved him. I’ve just always been drawn to Gus’ style.

JB: That’s a personal favorite of mine as well (My Own Private Idaho). Phoenix, and I think anyone would agree with this statement, was one of the best.

Lance: Yeah. And it’s no surprise that for my first feature film that I controlled he was the first director I went to (Milk). And when he said yes it was truly a dream come true. And, he lived up to all of my hopes and expectations.

 

JB: That’s a good point you bring up. And transitioning to Milk, with a film and a story that you penned and had control over, I’m sure it is a nerve-racking when you got a director that you admire so much. That’s your story. That’s your baby. And specifically regarding Harvey, I saw you took around three years researching the topic. Is that true?

Lance: It must be.

[We both laugh]

Lance: I was writing Big Love at the time. So a lot of my time was being spent in polygamy land for HBO. I would spend my weekends and some evenings working on Milk. I believe it is better to do interviews in person. I didn’t have Skype at the time. So this meant driving to San Francisco, Palm Strings and occasionally to New York to track down the real people and to hear the actual stories. And I didn’t have the right to use any kind of book.

JB: Having that journalistic approach to a story like you did with Milk and getting to know everyone involved is completely applicable to anyone wanting to tell a story that’s genuine to them, and especially a story like this that’s true.

Lance: I’ll connect one little thing for you too.  You mentioned how it can be nerve-racking to bring a director on to be the next draft of your vision. I was fortunate because my first big break was in television. When you are writing in TV you are really in the driver’s seat. You’re casting the episodes. You’re hiring directors all the time. You get very used to having to work with a director to make sure that they are brining to the screen the things that are important to the script. And ideally they should bring something of their own that will make it even better. I didn’t know it worked any other way when it came to making Milk. So often film directors are dismissive of the writers. Thankfully Gus is incredibly collaborative and was very open to that collaboration.

JB: That’s great to hear.

Lance: I would say for a lot of writers, if you want to be creatively in control, from design to casting, do TV. There’s still this tradition in feature films where the writer vanishes after there’s a green light.

JB: That is a unique point you bring up, in terms of juxtaposing the TV world vs. the feature film world. So, once your screenplay is optioned and given the go-ahead to be produced, you’re saying that that screenwriter is omitted from that equation. It’s on to the director’s chair who drives it from there.

Lance: That story, more often than not, is the case.

JB: Interesting.

Lance: There are exceptions to that. And most other writers are often surprised when I say that on both Milk and J. Edgar I was on set everyday.

JB: For screenwriters who are actually on set, would you say the majority of the time this is not the case?

Lance: Yes, the majority of the time that is not the case. But, when I hear other writers complain about it, I say, “Do what you can to work with collaborative directors.” The best directors – the ones that we all admire in Hollywood – are very collaborative. Writers are responsible for the creative relationships they enter into.

JB: We push structuralism balanced with creativeness, the way you like to tell your story. Would you say that one of these is more important than the other? Or do you need both? Are you a structuralism nerd and that’s your foundation for everything? What is that process like for you?

Lance: For me, research drives inspiration most of the time. I spend a great deal of time, even if I’m doing something that is fiction, researching the area I am about to write: the subject matter, the era, what the music was like, etc. If it’s non-fiction, then I dig real deep and search for interviews. When I can’t find anything firsthand, I’ll read books and listen to depositions if say a courtroom was involved. I only took the basic screenwriting course at UCLA and I wasn’t a screenwriting major so I never knew how other people managed these initial phases.  So I thought my process was how everyone else does it, but apparently it’s not.

JB [Laughs]

Lance: I do a lot of research. That research ends up on notecards, but so do ideas for scenes and ideas for characters. Those ideas become little stacks of notecards. And then those stacks turn into scenes. And those scenes start to line up on a giant butcher-block table in my kitchen. Eventually, all of that fills up that giant table in my kitchen and I think –this might be a movie. It is a lot of structure, but it’s not me sitting there trying to follow any structural rules. It’s just me moving things around until they feel right. Once I run through the movie and feel like the movie is really there and it’s not too little and not too much, I’ll turn that into an outline. And then I wake up each morning for the next few weeks and I decide what scenes I’m going to tackle. There are days I can only tackle one.

JB: Yeah, I hear you there.

Lance: But when you talk about being purely creative, the two places in my process where that happens are in the notecard phase. And those notecards are cheap! Just write your ideas down when you have them.

JB: There you go! So with that in mind, how hard is it for you to cut a scene you love?

Lance: Well, it gets much harder to cut a scene once you’ve written it. For the people who just jump into their screenplay without notecards or outlining they fall in love with these scenes and it takes months to kill them. It’s like an ex-boyfriend or something is torturing them. They created a relationship with it!

JB: They are attached. And attached way too much.

Lance: Kill it when it’s just a notecard and it is much easier. And I guarantee you are still going to have to kill a few of those creations when you’re past the outline. Even when you get to draft some will still have to go. It’s hard, but do it before you fall in love.

JB: Well Lance, it has been great talking to you and thank you for taking the time to talk and give your insights.

Lance: Yes of course!

JB: But one last quick question! What are some of your favorite films? Or some of your favorite screenplays you’ve read. I know it’s a mammoth question, but if you had to just toss out a few…

Lance: Whoa! It’s hard to say. If you ask me next week, it’ll be a different list. I don’t read a lot of screenplays and I know friends who do. If they are really good, I get really depressed. And if they are really bad, I get really depressed.

JB [jokingly]: So there’s no upside to it.

Lance: I love watching movies though and to answer the question it’s the movies that make me want to make movies. The first movie I saw where I couldn’t leave the theater was E.T.

JB: No kidding! I had the same experience with E.T. when I was eight years old.

Lance: I was eight years old when it came out and I was in the theater and my father had recently vanished. We were this fatherless little family and all of a sudden here is this movie about a fatherless family that had this figure come into it that was healing and brought joy. It was just more than my little heart could handle. I lost it. I think that was a moment I understood the emotional power of film. And I haven’t seen E.T. since so I have no idea if it holds up. And later, in my teenage years, I saw 400 Blows. There, again, I understood the power of cinema to reflect our lives back at us, now in a more mature way. And then the film that took me from just loving cinema to one that said, “look what you can do with film” how it can relate to another field I am fascinated with, which is social movements and politics, is when I saw All the President’s Men. I think those are my movies…or today.

[We both Laugh]

JB: That’s wild about the E.T. story. I was actually upstairs in my playroom and my mother had to come up and hold me and tell me, “E.T. is going to be fine.” Just another testament to the power of cinema and the emotions it can evoke.

Lance: Oh, wow! I’m with you.

JB: Well, again, thanks for taking the time to talk. It’s much appreciated!

Lance: Of course! Thanks!

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