David S. Goyer Talks with The Script Lab About Screenwriting, Process and the Economy of Words

Each year the Toronto Screenwriting Conference features a top of the line screenwriter who unfolds his or her nuggets of wisdom. This year David S. Goyer (expert story architect) will give a masterclass on his work and also sits down with us to give TSL readers the inside skinny on his process, favorite lines and what other stories inspire him as a writer. 

JB: David, I have heard pieces of how you got into screenwriting, but would you mind giving me the full A-Z? What initially drew you into this medium of storytelling?

DSG: I was always interested in writing.  I wrote tons of short stories when I was in grade school and junior high.  And I was a voracious reader.  In junior high, I won a national writing award.  Having said that, writing didn't seem like a viable career path growing up in Michigan.  I planned, instead, on becoming a homicide detective.  I was going to go to Michigan State and get a degree in criminal justice.  Some teachers of mine intervened and told me about the screenwriting program at USC.  USC seemed like a longshot as well, but I was accepted to their undergraduate screenwriting program.  That said, I managed to get kicked out of beginning screenwriting my first year!  (I clashed with my teacher.)  Eventually, after appealing to the dean, I was reinstated.  I managed to secure an agent while still attending USC.  I wrote A LOT.  I graduated with 4 scripts under my belt, whereas a lot of my classmates had only turned out one.  I ended up selling my first screenplay about 6 months after I graduated.  A thriller called Dusted, which was reconcieved into a Jean-Claude Van Damme project.  That film was made in '89.  Not high art, but it was successful and I was able to stay on the film during production.  It wasn't until I wrote the script for Blade, though, that my career really started taking off.

JB: Do you think you gravitate towards a specific genre? Or do you enjoy writing all genres of screenwriting/movies?

DSG: I tend to gravitate towards darker, edgier drama.  I enjoy writing other genres, but even with the best of intentions, I suppose I have gotten pigeon-holed, to a certain extent.  One of the reasons I leapt at the chance to do a show about Da Vinci was because it was a period piece (which I had never done before) and because it involved a certain amount of witty repartee.  I'm told I can be funny (despite my reputation for darkness).  But I suppose you'd have to ask my associates about that.

JB: What does the day-to-day writing process look like for you?

DSG: Now, some 26 years into my career, I have fairly rigorous work ethic.  When I'm on-script (as opposed to directing or producing), I am in my home office by around 8:30 or so.  I meditate for 22 minutes.  I drink a lot of green tea, which I order on the internet.  That's my "thing".  Then I turn off my phone and disable my computer from the internet for at least 3 hours.  I write without distraction — don't listen to music, etc.  (I can't write in a coffee shop or the like.  I need silence.)  I come up for air at lunch, check in with my office.  Generally, after lunch, I will take meetings or switch to a separate project for 2 hours.  I like writing 2 things at once.  I find that the back-and-forth helps my creative process to keep flowing.  I try to finish what I call a "working draft".  Not really a first draft.  I try not to get too bogged down in an editorial mode.  Lots of the dialogue is just place-holder.  Once I've finished, I set it aside for a week or two, get some distance, and then dive back in to finish a proper "first draft".  I then expose that draft to about 3 or 4 trusted parties and revise it based on their feedback.  The draft that emerges is then my first "official" first draft.

JB: What has been the absolute most engaging film you’ve been a part of (in the screenwriting and story capacity)?

DSG: Wow.  Tough one.  Probably Batman Begins.  That was an intense process.  In writing Batman, I was fulfilling a life-long dream.  It seemed surreal, at times.  Chris and I were determined to get it right.  To do something classic, but also different.  Working with Chris is an extremely rewarding, but rigorous experience.  He's more demanding than anyone I've ever met.  But he holds himself up to the same standard.  Every tiny detail had to be worked out. Nothing was left to chance.  Oddly enough, the current script I'm working on has also been very engaging:  Fantastic Voyage.  It's a remake of the 60s film that is being produced by James Cameron.  Cameron is another filmmaker with a rigorous process.  I've been co-writing the script with Justin Rhodes and we've had to do a phenomenal amount of research.  We're attempting (within the science-fiction parameters) to make it as "realistic" as possible.  So the bar for the suspension of disbelief is incredibly high. 

JB: What films inspire you as a screenwriter? What screenplays inspire you as a screenwriter?

DSG: I almost never read screenplays for enjoyment anymore.  I used to read the voraciously when I was younger.  When I was at USC, I even had a night-job where I worked at the front desk for the screenplay library.  It was useful when I was coming up.  Less so, now.  Now that I suppose I've developed my own style, I prefer to be inspired by other mediums.  Books and articles, primarily.  When I was younger, I was impressed with scripts by Walter Hill.  I admired the economy of words.  It was almost like haiku.  To a certain extent, Chris Nolan's style is similar.  As for films… The Man Who Would Be King, Being There, Don't Look Now, 400 Blows, Rules of the Game.  In terms of recent films, I was really taken with Whiplash and The Babadook.  I thought Captain Philips was phenomenal.  But honestly, the best writing right now, is happening in television.  What the Davids are doing with Game of Thrones… that's a beautiful adaptation.  Very skilled.  What they've been doing on The Americans, Better Call Saul, House of Cards.  I think Rectify is a lovely show.  I thought Justified was the best Elmore Leonard adaptation ever.  Graham Yost and his writers perfectly captured that Leonard voice.  I love what Ricky Gervais has been doing on Derek.  

JB: You have worked across multiple mediums, video games specifically. How is the screenwriting process different there than with film?

DSG: Videogames is a whole different beast.  You are writing an experience.  Creating a sandbox.  Yes, there is a narrative, but it is more diffuse and, in some cases, more hidden.  You are gently trying to nudge the player along certain paths without them feeling like they are being nudged.  In the case of Black Ops 2, we actually had multiple endings.  So it was more like a story tree.  Any given "story" was anywhere from 5 to 10 hours long in terms of playability — but it was also WIDE, in that we had to come up with a "choose your own adventure" type of structure.  Because we had done motion-capture with the actors, it was no big deal to go back and do re-shoots…to generate new angles or inserts. There were an infinite number of angles we could create.  

JB: If you had three tips to give an aspiring screenwriter, what would they be?

DSG: Arghh.  I hate these questions.  Write what you are truly passionate about.  Write on a schedule (i.e. treat it like a real job, go somewhere other than your bedroom, keep to a schedule).  Make sure you REWRITE and submit your writing to honest criticism.

JB: From an industry standpoint, what advice can you give on getting your spec read?

DSG: When I was coming up, there was no other venue.  Now, there are things like The Black List, the Blood List, various screenwriting contests.  If you are trying to get read, these are really viable avenues.

I am more circumspect of so-called "story analysts" that charge a fee to evaluate your script.  Or some of these seminars.  I think a lot of those are fucking bullshit.

JB: What is your favorite movie line?

DSG: The following exchange from Unforgiven, hands down:

The Schofield Kid: [after killing a man for the first time] It don't seem real… how he ain't gonna never breathe again, ever… how he's      dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.

Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.

The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.

Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

JB: How do you approach scripting a character as iconic as Batman? Or Superman? Are there any storyline, character insights you can give us regarding Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice?

DSG: Sorry, these are either too in-depth to get into or fall under the cone of silence.  I can't speak of Dawn lest I be banished to the Phantom Zone.
 
Photo: Huff Post