5 Ways Screenwriting is Like Exorcising a Demon

By Christopher Osterndorf · March 18, 2018

The work of a writer is not so much about what happens in public, but about what transpires behind closed doors, and in front of a laptop. When the Hollywood Reporter did their yearly Oscar roundtable with the writers, a theme emerged which emphasized how intimate the process really is. Comparing writing to “exorcising a demon,” the discussion honed in on how personal ideas and beliefs are often pulled out of us when we sit down to create.

Exploring that theme a little further, here’s a list of the top five ways writing is like exorcising a demon. Perhaps it will help some of you get rid of your own devilish spirits.

1. Helping You Get Emotional Distance

In discussing The Big Sick, which she wrote with her husband, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon talked about how she had to have some time apart from the actual events the movie was based on before she could go ahead with the writing of it. The Big Sick is of course based off Gordon and Nanjiani’s personal experiences during their courtship, including Gordon’s life-threatening battle with Still’s disease. For Gordon, there needed to be some remove before these intense memories could be turned into art.

The flipside of this is that the task of making the art can also be part of getting distance. When we go through something that’s emotional, writing can be a helpful way to process it. Exorcising our demons doesn’t just mean flushing away the bad stuff and never talking about it again, it means getting out all of our experiences, with the hope that in the end, we’ll be better off.

2. Encouraging Empathy

Jordan Peele talks during the round table about telling someone to feel something versus making them feel something through entertainment. In the writing and making of Get Out, he was able to turn everyone into the lead character, putting all of the audience, black or white, into Chris’s shoes. This is why storytelling is so powerful, because it forces you to consider things from someone else’s perspective, by virtue of the fact that you are being entertained by their experiences.

Therefore, when we exercise our demons through writing, we encourage others to empathize with perspectives they may not have considered before. Writing a movie or a TV show which you know many people will watch is a particularly interesting way to do this. You can exorcise your demons in the writing of an essay or thinkpiece, urging people to see things from your side. However, in screenwriting, the audience is going to see things from your side no matter what, because they have chosen to come along on this journey you are guiding them through.

3. Opening a Dialogue

Fatih Akin sat down with THR to talk about his movie In the Fade, but it was another film of his, called The Cut, which provoked the most discussion. Akin, who is of Turkish descent, talked about the personal risks he took making the movie, which empathized with the victims of the Armenian genocide. Akin knew this would stir up some controversy, but he said it was important for him because his chief interest in writing is to open a dialogue.

Similar to generating empathy, when we exorcise our demons through writing we are also using those demons to start a conversation. Intentionally or unintentionally, every story is going to generate opinions. If you’re lucky, your story will have enough to say that it will open a dialogue that becomes bigger than the story itself.

4. Pushing the Boundaries

Another thing Akin said during the roundtable was that he felt he had no limits as a writer, that he would try everything, even porn. While most of us probably don’t have an interest in pursuing pornography, there is something helpful we can take away from this devil may care ideology.

When we exorcise our demons on the page, we are getting things out that we might not talk about in polite society. Most creative people have some level of darkness in them, and where else are they going to get that darkness out but through their work. We don’t always have a choice in what we write. Sometimes the demons that we exorcise are the dark thoughts and ideas we have to put on the page, for fear they will eat away at us if we keep them inside.

5. Figuring Out What’s Burning Deep Inside

Speaking of that inside place, Darren Aronofsky at one point stated during the roundtable that, “The amount of ‘no’s’ you get as a filmmaker every day are endless. And that’s why the only films I know how to make are films that I couldn’t live without making. They’re just burning from deep inside.”

This is what exorcising our demons through writing is all about. Happy ideas or sad ones, dark stories or funny ones, our best scripts are always the ones we simply have to get out into the world. Aaron Sorkin echoed this too, saying to THR, “Tell only the story you can tell. If you’re trying to tell stories for the largest audience possible, the best way to get to them is by telling the story that really connects with you.”

When you’re exorcising a demon, you’re doing it not because you want to, but because you have to. Exorcising demons is a process of getting stuff out of you that must be got out, no matter what. It is with the same mentality that the best writing is born. The urgency, struggle, pain, and relief we get from exorcising our demons is the same we get from telling our best stories.

See the roundtable from The Hollywood Reporter below.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance writer from Milwaukee who studied cinema at DePaul University in Chicago. When he’s not watching movies, he’s writing them or writing about them. He’s especially partial to romantic comedies and crime films. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Image from and inspired by The Hollywood Reporter’s piece from November 2017, Writer Roundtable: Jordan Peele, Aaron Sorkin and More Explain Why the Job Feels Like “Exorcising a Demon”.

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