5 Lessons from the Best Screenwriters of the Year

A group of screenwriters walk into a bar—er, sold-out event—in Los Angeles to discuss their craft… and screenwriters everywhere gain new insight and advice.

Okay, so that’s not really a joke or punchline, but thanks to Jeff Goldsmith’s witty banter and probing questions for this 11th annual panel of Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, some of the best screenwriters of the year spilled their secrets and made their live audience explode with laughter at many points. It was sponsored by ScreenCraft, Final Draft and LA Film School. Here’s what you can take away from the conversation:

Lesson #1 — Your first draft is never really your first draft.

No screenwriter sits down and bangs out a perfect 120-page first draft in their first try (and if you do, all of us mortals would like to know your secret!). First drafts are a culmination of a lot of work — notes and outlines and conversations and half-written scenes that eventually become the first draft that is handed over to an agent, producer, or director.

Aaron Sorkin admitted: “I do a bunch of drafts before I hand it to the producers, and I call it a first draft.”

Kumail Nanjiani explained: “We [he and wife Emily V. Gordon] just wrote for three years before it got to the point where we thought we’d get to make [the movie]. We were just writing drafts over and over on our own. We just kept rewriting and rewriting.”

At the end of the day, as Michael Green said, “Your first draft should be your personal 20th draft.”

Lesson #2 — Find inspiration to fuel your work. 

Writing is an arduous task. You’re literally creating lives and worlds from scratch, so sometimes some external inspiration is called for. The Oscar-nominated writers on this panel all find inspiration in different places.

Emily V. Gordon listens to movie scores and re-reads novels that she loves. Kumail Nanjiani watches or listens to the commentary on movies that he loves. Michael Green picks a particular book to use as a tuning fork for what he’s working on (but he doesn’t necessarily recommend that). Aaron Sorkin avoids seeing current movies and instead turns to older films instead.

Virgil Williams goes home or surrounds himself with things that remind him of “beginning” in some way. Dee Rees reads short stories, which she considers the most cinematic literary form. And Vanessa Taylor goes back to scripts to be something worth aspiring to, like Michael Clayton.

Wherever you find your inspiration, use it as fuel to drive your storytelling in whatever way is most helpful to your individual process.

Lesson #3 — Draw from your own life and imbue yourself into your story.

Our writing is a pipeline to ourselves, whether in big ways or small. It’s nearly impossible not to put parts of our own personalities and lives into our screenplays. Most of the writers on this panel echoed this statement and advised not to shy away from imbuing yourself into your story.

Gordon made sure that a certain T-shirt in The Big Sick was exactly like one she owned. Nanjiani wrote the sci-fi references to The X-Files instead of Star Wars or Star Trek for a reason. Rees imbued stories from her grandmother into details and shots in Mudbound, as did Williams.

Green explained why this practice is important with a question and a Harry Potter reference. “With every script, your rule should be: What’s my Horcrux? How am I going to take parts of myself and put them in so that literally no one else could have written the draft they’re going to get out of me?”

Harry Potter references aside, each writer needs to bring his or her own life, experiences, thoughts, feelings, and personal stories into their screenplays. Those things are what make the screenplay yours.

“There are 10 movies nominated [for Academy Awards], and there are no two of them that are remotely alike,” Sorkin said.

That wouldn’t have happened without each writer adding a “Horcrux” or two into their screenplay.

Lesson #4 — Writing is a messy process and you won’t receive credit until long after you type “The End.” Embrace it and look to the future. 

Michael Green, who received writing credits on four blockbuster movies of 2017, explained that as a writer, you do your most important work before anyone else notices. While you’re at the peak of your writing effort, maybe finishing the most important scene of your screenplay or figuring out how to tie everything together, life is moving on around you. Groceries need to be bought, the phone needs to be answered, and so on and so on. Green explained that to get through that, writers have to look toward the future.

“Every day is your Super Bowl. You get to wake up and go, ‘I get to tell stories for a living,’” he said. “It’s just about waking up and being excited for it.”

“It” being the act of writing and bringing stories to life on the page. Writing takes a lot of perseverance and faith that what you’re doing will come to fruition. Embrace the messiness and continue to look to the future.

Lesson #5 — Filmmaking and writing are two very different arts. In the end, let go of the image you have in your head and embrace what the movie wants to be. 

All the screenwriters on the panel shared moments where the movie strayed from the screenplay once they got to set. For Sorkin, that was actress Jessica Chastain doing something that wasn’t explicitly written in the script. For Gordon and Nanjiani, it was when a scene that played out much more heartbreaking than they originally intended. For Taylor, it was debating about the necessity of the opening voiceover.

“We don’t write things that are meant to be read,” Sorkin explained. “We write things that are meant to be performed.”

Screenwriters must keep in mind that, whether they’re adapting a piece or writing something wholly original, filmmaking and writing are two very different art forms. When an actor is cast as one of your characters, they will become that character and breathe life into them in a way you couldn’t have imagined when you were typing descriptions or lines of dialogue. Similarly, when a director or editor sees how a scene turns out, it may become clear that it’s not as important to the movie as it was to the screenplay.

This is something Nanjiani and Gordon learned intimately. He said, “What’s been interesting for us is realizing that at each step of the way — writing, rehearsing, shooting, editing — you’re sort of letting go of the version of the movie you have in your head and embracing what it wants to be in that moment.”

In the end, it’s a process that’s sort of magical.

This panel was hosted by Jeff Goldsmith (founder of Backstory Magazine and the host of the Q&A podcast), and included Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (nominated for Best Original Screenplay for The Big Sick), Michael Green (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Logan), Aaron Sorkin (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Molly’s Game), Virgil Williams and Dee Rees (nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Mudbound), and Vanessa Taylor (nominated for Best Original Screenplay for The Shape of Water). 

Listen to the full podcast here.

Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.

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