Screenwriting Wisdom from MAYANS M.C. Co-Creator Elgin James

By Ken Miyamoto from ScreenCraft · August 22, 2018

Here we highlight some amazing screenwriting wisdom from Elgin James — Writer, director, and co-creator of  Mayans M.C. (premiering on FX!), the spin-off of the acclaimed series Sons of Anarchy. Be sure to watch the full interview via TSL 360 membership (and tons more). You won’t want to miss 20 minutes in when he talks about when he met Kurt Sutter and landed the Mayans M.C. gig!

We’ve pulled some of his best nuggets of advice and perspective and elaborate on how those points can be best applied to your own screenwriting journey.

1. Escape Your Box

James has a unique background, as do we all. He came from an abusive household and grew up in street gangs. But the word of advice that he had for everyone was not to let others put you in the box that they think you need to be in.

In Hollywood, that’s what many industry insiders attempt to do to screenwriters. If you’re a woman, you need to tell a certain female story. If you’re of a particular race, you need to tell stories about those specific cultures. This just isn’t true. Yes, be true to who you are, but don’t feel the need to confined by any pre-determined notion of the background you grew up in.

And it goes beyond the writing as well. Because you didn’t go to film school, didn’t get a degree, or don’t live in Los Angeles and have Hollywood contacts, doesn’t mean that you can’t make this dream happen.

2. Trust Your Heart

Hollywood is going to tell you that your concepts, stories, and characters need this or that. If it doesn’t feel right to you, there’s nothing wrong with pushing back on those notions that others insist on declaring.

Yes, you should consider all notes and feedback that you get, but you need to be ready to defend those elements that you feel need to stay.

Too many writers that get to the stage of meetings and collaboration with development executives, managers, agents and producers crumble when faced with the many notes passed down from above. They feel the need to change their concepts, stories, and characters for the sole reason of other people in higher positions telling them to do so.

The industry will respect your instincts, whether they want you to believe that or not. It’s their job to write notes and develop. It’s your job as a writer to trust your instincts and communicate them as best as you possibly can.

If it means walking away from a studio deal, as James did with a project that was to be based on his life, then maybe that’s what you have to do. James had a deal set with major producers, a director, writers, and talent to write a somewhat autobiographical story of his tough, gang-related upbringing. He wasn’t set to write it, instead, he was the inspiration to the story that others would tackle. However, it didn’t feel right to him. Despite the money they were offering — which he needed — James chose to walk away from the deal.

Trust your heart — even when logic is telling you otherwise.

3. Be Honest

James talks much about being honest. That’s where the best characters and stories come from — being honest with yourself.

If there’s a character or moment in your script that feels fake and unreal, be honest with yourself about it and make it real. When screenwriters push to keep their characters and stories honest, the eventual scripts are worth those difficult moments of challenging yourself to be honest.

4. Writing to Direct

James was asked whether or not he took into account the budget and scheduling of the indie feature film he was directing while he was writing it. The answer was a quick “Yes.”

When you’re directing an indie film that you’re writing — or when you’re partnered with someone who you know is going to direct it — you need to be sure to write within the confines of your budget, where you can and can’t shoot, when you can and can’t shoot, etc.

While James was writing his indie feature Little Birds, he kept the locations within a three-mile radius of where he lived because that is what he knew. The location shooting was done in the Salton Sea because it was free to shoot there.

Indie filmmaking is a different beast than studio films where the budgets will be figured out long after you write the script. But even then, screenwriters need to be aware of the budget that their story may call for. If you write what would equate to be a $200 million film and attempt to shop it to major production companies that only make movies for $75 million or less, you’re doing yourself no favors.

Beyond that, if you’re an auteur that is going to direct what you write, be sure to pay attention to your location and special effects needs. You don’t want to write yourself into a corner.

5. Obstacles Make You More Creative

Many screenwriters enjoy the freedom of writing on spec. The truth is that most professional screenwriters don’t write on spec. They make money on assignments. And when you’re writing on assignment, you’re writing someone else’s concept, story, and characters. Beyond that, you’re often confined to the specific locations, sets, and budgets that the production company needs to abide by. It becomes a horrifying situation for writers that are so used to writing whatever they want.

James drops some divine wisdom when he mentions that obstacles make you more creative. The act of figuring out how to tell a compelling story within any confines forced upon you shouldn’t be looked upon as being obstacles that keep you from greatness. Those obstacles will force you to envision creative ways to tell the story you want and need to tell. Obstacles push you to become a better writer.

6. Stop Worrying About What You Don’t Know 

When James was selected to partake in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab — whose alumni include Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alison Anders and Darren Aronofsky — he found himself intimidated as”smarter” writers surrounded him with film school degrees and those that had directed films before. He had no formal filmmaking education and didn’t understand the technical terms or anything.

Many screenwriters feel the same intimidation as they look upon those other writers signing Hollywood deals. Those other writers seem to have more contacts, more formal training, etc.

James wisely states that you shouldn’t worry about what you don’t know. It does you no good. Instead, you should worry about what you do know — and you can then, in turn, just work to gain the knowledge and experience you need to the stories you want to tell the way you want to tell them.

7. Everything Has to Be Autobiographical

James was adamant that screenwriters need to find a way to put themselves in each and every project they write — even if the movie is about aliens or some big blockbuster context.

You always need to strive to find a way to identify with characters and situations. That’s where the truth is in your writing. If you’re tackling big genre concepts, you can always find a way to bring some of you into those stories. And when you do, the script will only be better as you’re writing is enhanced because you identify with those characters and the situations they are in more.

8. There’s No Golden Ticket or One Way to Do It

James got where he was partly because he had a unique and intriguing background — he was in a gang and went to prison. Point being is that, as James says, there’s no golden ticket or one way to make the screenwriting dream happen.

Too many screenwriters try to follow a successful screenwriter’s story to a tee — or think that they need to. It does you no good to chase someone else’s path in search of your own. Do you and trust that your journey has the same odds of success in the end as anyone’s, as long as you put forth that effort, never give up, and just tell great stories.

9. Treat People Right

Hollywood is about relationships. Many screenwriters mistake confidence with ego, believing that they need to showcase some ego to prove themselves as confident and able screenwriters. Nothing could be further from the truth.

James’s success story thus far is thanks to the relationships he made with industry insiders, how well he treated them, and how honest he always was with them. Because of that, they stuck with him. Even when he was arrested on an old gang charge, the major producers and executives he was working with had his back and kept his projects going as he was imprisoned for a year and a day.

10. Let the World Come to You

James correctly states that so many screenwriters are busy chasing the trends and waiting for the world to come to them and their writing. What he says you need to do is let the world catch up to you and the stories you are telling.

Trend chasing is big in Hollywood, but it rarely works and never lasts. Write your stories.

11. No One Knows What the F*** They Are Doing

James was reiterating what William Goldman said yes prior, “Nobody knows anything.” 

There are so many pointless meetings, coffee shop discussions, notes, and feedback that mean nothing in this industry. Why? Because, James says, “No one knows what the f*** they are doing.” 

This should give screenwriters some calm because, yes, sometimes you do get told things that don’t make sense and go against your instincts. Even the great directors and producers have made movies that tanked, despite them believing fully that those very projects would succeed.

Trend-chasing doesn’t work. Development executives, managers, agents, and producers aren’t always right.

So if you trust in what you’re doing, that’s all that matters. If you work hard enough, your stories may get the shot they deserve.

12. Keep Putting Yourself Out There

James mentions the fact that his connection to Kurt Sutter’s planned spin-off of Sons of AnarchyMayans M.C. — was the result of him hearing about the project and deciding to connect with Sutter to pitch his own take. If he had not taken the initiative and done that, he would have never been attached to the project.

His success, with the series and all of the other opportunities in features that he’s had, was the direct result of always getting himself out there. And that is a piece of wise advice he offers.

13. Find Something That No One Else Can Write

James recommends this as a way to stand out. That’s how so many writers break through — telling a story that no one else can tell. His own personal background and history dictated his exposure and connections that led to his success.

Sure, not every script can or should be a personal project. You need to showcase some cinematic and compelling stories outside of yourself (although remember point #7). But having a script that only you can tell, for whatever reason, is often the secret to breaking through.

It may be a soldier story from you, a Marine Veteran. It may be a story about abuse from you, a victim. It may be a historical story from you, the relative of the subject. Whatever the case may be, find that one script that only you can write.

14. Find the Right Mentors

Finding the right mentors is so important in any screenwriter’s journey. James stresses this in his discussion. He was fortunate enough to meet some strong female industry connections that shepherded him. He even managed to gain the icon Robert Redford as a mentor.

But be sure to choose them wisely.

15. See the Beginning, See the Ending

When asked what his writing process was, James offered a simple point — see the beginning and see the ending. Everything else within the script will point to either of those moments.

The TSL Summit features masterclasses, deep-dive interviews and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, TV showrunners, producers, managers, agents, studio executives and leading educators — all in one place. You can learn directly from the industry’s best about the craft and business of screenwriting and filmmaking.

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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