Panel 1: Screenwriting – Transcript

Nathan Joe

Welcome everyone! I am Nathan Joe. I am a playwright/critic. I am very grateful to be here today to facilitate this conversation with these brilliant writers. 

We’re starting with the first half of the evening with screenwriting, these brilliant screenwriters. From left, we have Mingjian Cui, Roseanne Liang, Shuchi Kothari, and Kathryn Burnett.

Mingjian is a Chinese late millennial bilingual filmmaker now based in Auckland. She’s passionate about writing screenplays as well as sound designing for film and television. She’s particularly interested in depicting the life stories of the younger Chinese generation who has lived overseas for years, and the impacts of that kind of cultural experience on them. She has written one semi-biographical feature screenplay and several short stories. Over the past four years, she has gained production experience on over 40 short films in both ATL and BTL positions. 

What’s ATL and BTL stand for? 

Mingjian Cui

“Above the Line” and “Below the Line”. 

Shuchi Kothari

Does everyone know “Above the Line”, “Below the Line”?  For those who don’t, in film when you make budgets, people who are over the line are producers, writers, directors, and talent. And everybody else is under the line. The top of “under the line” usually begins with a Line Producer and then crew, equipment, facilities, deliverables, and so on.

NJ

Thank you for that succinct description. 

Next we have the phenomenal Roseanne who, having a Master of Creative and Performing Arts, Roseanne Liang followed award-winning student films with her documentary “Banana in a Nutshell”. This led to a successful feature film adaptation of the same documentary with glowing reviews: “My Wedding and Other Secrets”. In between “Banana” and “Wedding”, Liang directed, wrote, and edited “Take 3”, which is a very funny short film, which received a special mention in its section at the Berlin Film Festival. In 2013, she teamed with actors JJ Fong, Perlina Lau, and Ally Xue to create comedic web series “Flat3”, which was later invited to web festivals in Melbourne, London, and New York. The trio’s adventures continued via two seasons of FRIDAY NIGHT BITES and one of UNBOXED. In 2017, she directed an action short, “Do No Harm”, about a Chinese surgeon facing off against gangsters just as she’s about to operate. “Do No Harm” was featured at Sundance Film Festival and won several awards, including the Audience Award for Favourite Short at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival and a nomination for Best Short Film at Sundance. Iin late 2018, Liang announced she was set to develop and direct the feature length version of “Do No Harm”, produced by the husband and wife filmmaking team, David Leitch and Kelly McCormick — “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde” for those who are not in the know. She is also set to direct Chloë Grace Moritz in a coming American feature film called “Shadow in the Cloud”. Whew! Credentials.

And Shuchi who is a writer, producer and academic. Born in Ahmedabad, Shuchi studied screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. New Zealand has been her home since 1997. She teaches screenwriting at the University of Auckland where she is currently the director of the screen production programme.. Her creative work spans across feature films, short films, television comedy, documentaries, and digital storytelling in health communication. She devised and produced NZ’s first all Asian prime-time television show “A Thousand Apologies” in 2008. And she holds the singular distinction of having two feature films at the Toronto International Film Festival representing two countries. The New Zelanad family drama “Apron Strings” and the Indian film “Firaaq”, the directorial debut of “Fire” star Nandita Das. 

And then we have the lovely Kathryn Burnett, who is an award-winning screenwriter who has worked in the New Zealand television and film industry for over twenty years. She has significant television and film credits and has developed numerous television series for major New Zealand production companies. She’s been nominated for the 2017 Adam Best New Play Award and in 2017 was a co-writer on the two television series, “Cul-de-Sac” and “Fresh Eggs”, and a seed grant recipient. Kathryn also works as a script consultant assessor for NZ on Air, not to mention numerous writers and producers. She regularly runs sell-out workshops at the Auckland Writers’ Festival and was a speaker at the Fourth World Conference of Screenwriters in Berlin. 

First of all, what is, when we say something is an Asian story, because that’s the premise, right? We’re here to talk about ‘New Year, New Writing’ in the context of Fresh Off the Page which is run by Proudly Asian Theatre. So to crack that egg, what is an Asian story, everyone? I’d love to break this down, open this up. It’s a pretty broad question. 

Roseanne Liang

It’s whatever we say it is. 

NJ 

Great.

RL

If we wanna make an action movie with maybe no Asian people in it, if we decide that that’s the movie we wanna make, then that should be an Asian story. Justin Lin, for instance, worked on Fast and Furious — I mean, he started with Better Luck Tomorrow but then moved into Fast and Furious. But he was only able to put one Korean character in Fast and Furious, but that is an Asian story. That’s Justin’s work, I would say.

SK

Or the way Ang Lee made Sense and Sensibility, right? And you know that that is Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which is different from BBC’s Sense and Sensibility. You can’t help but mediate yourself, interpolate yourself into your writing, into your making. So if you’re an Asian making work, you are in a way making an “Asian story” because who you are is kind of part of what you’re putting on the page or on screen. It doesn’t have to be ostensibly“Asian” it just is. At the same time, if you want to write a story that is deeply located in any of the Asian cultures that you feel you have a say or a stake in, then that’s an Asian story too. It’s dangerous to think about Asianness only as screen representation, or that Asian stories are where Asians are on screen. I think we have to fight for who’s making the story, who’s telling the story. 

NJ

Jumping off that point, have any of you in particular felt the pressure to write a story that would represent the Asian diaspora in a way that isn’t what you actually want to write? To create representation in spite of yourselves? 

SK 

If you have an option, you walk away, right? There’s no point in being pressured into representing the community or a person or a gender in a way that doesn’t make you comfortable because we all know that none of us are in this for the money. If someone’s giving me two million bucks, I’m kind of having a moment here – how much do I want to, you know? But for the five bucks I get paid to do it, the only thing that gives me joy is that it’s the version of the story I want to tell. Sometimes you can fight back against that pressure. But when you can’t, then you walk away. Or I should qualify and say, I walked away. Just once. Just thought it wasn’t worth doing. 

Kathryn Burnett

People are often quite lazy, and I think it’s very easy for people to be boxed. And the pressure you’re talking about I suspect comes under that. Would you guys agree? It’s like, you’re this person so surely you can do this. And I think it’s a really lazy way of viewing the world and art. I’m not really soft and fluffy and romantic, and I’ve lost count of the times when people go, “This would be right up your alley, I’d love for you to write it, it’s a romance” and I’m just like, “I really like sci-fi and comedy”. It’s really funny. I’m just being boxed and it’s because of this business. It’s just hilarious.

MC

I’m really lucky that after graduation I’ve been approached by these two very experienced and talented filmmakers. They asked me to collaborate with them to co-write on a Chinese New Zealand co-production, and it’s a multi-platform project so we have film and a TV series, and we also want to do VR, AR, things like that. But at the beginning, the reason they approached me was that they wanted to create these authentic characters that are basically four Chinese young women. Two of them live in Auckland, and two of them live in China. And they want to make sure that they’re getting the characters right, that they’re getting their voices right. And I don’t know why they think I can write. But I did it and I just feel really lucky that they so respect me. 

SK

Because you’re a very good writer. That’s why you were recommended and that’s why you’re working for them. Just take that compliment and wear it!

RL

But we did say that the people you’re working with do not have that experience of authenticity. They’re asking you, not just because you’re a great writer, but because you have an authentic — you come from — and they’re Pakeha. 

SK 

They came seeking that. That’s good for them to have actually said, “Can you recommend young Chinese women writers that would work on this show?” And I truly appreciate that because it was “write” not “consult”. She didn’t say, “Can you give us young Chinese writers to consult on the show as we write it?” She said, “Can you think of writers who would write this?” And I think this is a very important distinction, and one that we should be very consistently vigilant about. 

RL

It’s really worrisome when cultural consultancy is shorthand for carte blanche. For instance, if you had a Māori advisor on your show, but then it’s carte blanche to do whatever you want because you can say, “I had a Māori advisor.” And I think we have to hold the cultural authenticity and representation really carefully because we’ve all heard that people have come to us for this cultural consultancy, when really they just want someone to validate the script that they’re writing without having any real respect for the representation. 

NJ

Let’s say everyone here is a new writer and they’re all looking for juicy advice. I mean, I know I am. What are the most common pitfalls that you’ve encountered or discovered or seen in other writing when starting out writing a screenplay. Kathryn, you’ve probably been through a lot of this. 

KB

We could do like a day on that. Put it this way: there’s business pitfalls and then there’s creative pitfalls. So which would you like me to discuss, because they’re quite different.

NJ

Let’s go with creative. 

KB

I think the pitfalls creatively, at least for me — perhaps I’ll just talk about things I’ve done wrong because that’s such a massive topic. Sometimes when you’re really new, you don’t trust your own instincts and voice and you — well I did — let people push you around a bit. And sometimes that’s because there’s a hierarchy and that’s your gig and that’s it, and you’re new so you allow yourself to be pushed around. But I think the bigger part of that is just be careful about what you say yes to. Absolutely write your own stuff. That’s very important. As Shuchi was saying, that’s the stuff that will sustain you when you’re working on something that you think is so embarrassing and awful. But it’s that you’ve then got a thing you’re doing on your own which is great. And you can split up the work you’re being paid for — where you’re being a gun for hire for something — and the work that you love. I always think about my work as there’s either money or love involved. And so if a project has neither, then I’m like, “Absolutely not.” Be careful what you say yes to when other people are asking you to work for them. Make sure you like it. I think this is the mistake I really made over and over again because I was a writer and I wanted to make a living as a writer, and I have, but I was so when I was younger so like “I have to keep working” that I said yes to a whole lot of stuff that I so should’ve spending that time going to film school, writing beautiful things I really wanted to write instead of bashing my head against other people just to make a buck. That’s a piece of advice: be careful what you say yes to. 

On the flip side of that is if you get an opportunity to work on something even though you don’t think it’s great and you’re really new. I always like to say to people if you can get a job making coffee on the Shortland Street table, take it. Awful job. Who cares? But when you’re brand new, just any way in is really really good. But once you’ve got in, be careful of what you say yes to because life is quite short and I’ve ended up with a whole bunch of stuff on my CV that I just go, “Oh I’ve got the worst CV in the world.” And it’s not, I have a lot of stuff on there, but it’s really only been — I’m just such a slow learner — it’s taken me ages to start going, “Stop saying yes to the stuff you don’t really believe in and work on things you do really believe in.” I was just talking to Renee about this. We were saying that we’re both in a position to be going, “I just want to work on this because I really like it and because I believe in it.” Which is fantastic. Such a great place to be, as opposed to what I used to be which was I’d just say yes to anything if there was a paycheck in it, which was not a great thing to do. 

My second piece of advice, which is sort of to do with business and to keep your sanity, is invest in a membership with the Writers’ Guild if you haven’t already. They are your best ally in a world that you won’t know. Hweiling, you were just saying to me, “Should there be money?” And I’m going, “Oh, where do I start?” Get wised up. It’s really boring. Tax is boring. Understanding IP is boring. But get yourself sorted on that. Just put yourself in a position where you can’t be exploited, which would be my key for you.

So those are my two quite big bits of advice. Creatively, there’s a fine line between ‘just really believe in your own voice and do what you want to do’ because particularly when you talk about film or TV — theatre to a lesser degree, though certainly in those two — it’s collaborative. You could be brilliant, but at some point there’s going to be a whole bunch of other people you have to work with, and that’s just how it goes. That’s just the way those forms are made. There’s that. It’s a fine line of going, “I listen to my own voice and I’m thinking about it and trusting myself, but I’m just going to tuck that away and learn what I can from working with other people.” Trust your gut. One of the first things I ever worked on was “Melody Rules”. Those of you who are old enough will remember this. That was one of my first writing credits. I was beside myself that I had a job. It’s a terrible sitcom and it’s just been pilloried. I love telling people I worked for it because they’re just so like, “What? You worked on that terrible show?” It was my first job; I was so excited. And as it was happening, all of the writers, really smart people that went on to do a whole bunch of cool stuff, we were all sort of sitting there going, “This is really wrong. It’s just not going to work. It’s awful.” We had no power at all and it was a massive failure but it was a really great learning experience for me to go on a gut level, on an artistic level, saying I was right about stuff but I didn’t speak up because I was so excited to have my first proper job. That was a really big learning thing for me. 

That’s three things. There’s a gazillion more but I’m sure someone else would like to talk now. 

NJ

Any other pitfalls to avoid? 

SK

I’ll add two quick things to that.One is: You can make things; you can keep playing and making. That’s fine. That’s play. But if you’re writing something, you have to get to a point where it feels like, “Yes. My script is ready.” That’s a pitfall I see often when people don’t put the hard work. It does take eleven drafts. It does take rewriting and rewriting. It takes breaking down the edifice and then putting it back again. It takes all of that. And commit to it because that’s what endures. In the meantime, have fun, take your iPhone, go shoot. Don’t be one of those people who says, “Don’t touch equipment because it all has to be sizzling on the page.” But know the difference. 

The other thing is you are not just a writer: you’re a screenwriterAnd as a screenwriter, you’re part of a long  industrial chain. You’re not writing a diary. Even though screenwriting gives you a high (I know it gives me a high) and there are  times I get huge lows when something’s not working because I’m so invested in it. Best despite this heavy emotional investment, and BECAUSE it’s not my diary,  people have to read it. So stop holding it close to your chest : let people read what you’ve written. Take advice, take feedback, take it on the chin. If they don’t love it, It’s not you; they’re not knocking you. It’s something you’ve produced. 

KB

Can I add one thing to that? Which is: have more than one project. So no matter what level you’re at, just be really confident that you will have many ideas. This is what we do: you’re all creative people, or else you wouldn’t be here. You’re not going to run out of ideas, so calm. This “I’ve spent two years working on my seven-page short film script and I’m not letting go of it and if it keeps getting rejected—” 

SK

And “I’ve applied seven times, I’m not getting any money—” 

KB

It’ll save your sanity and make you feel better about getting rejection because you need to get used to that. If you’ve got a bunch of projects, you’re constantly moving from one to the other. And these are your own babies so these aren’t things you’re necessarily getting paid for, but you’re working on a bunch of things. You’ll find rejection so much easier. And just understand that holding on really tightly to one project and going, “No, it’s brilliant, it must be right, it must be made”, and you really are embedded and not changing it and not listening to anybody, it doesn’t serve you. What will serve you is to put that one down, start something else, come back to it, and you’ll see it really differently as opposed to just holding onto grim death. I know people in the industry that have been shopping the same feature film around for ten years. That breaks my heart a bit because all of their energy and love has gone into this thing. Have a bunch of stuff. Don’t just do one. You’ll have loads, trust me. 

RL

Great stuff. I’d just add one, which is: develop your own taste gauge. This is something that I think will separate the people who will progress in this industry and the people who will fall away. If you know what is good, and you develop your taste of what is good and how to get better — and you get there by making a body of work. Unless you’re a genius, you’re going to make five to ten shitty things, and you have to be okay with making shitty work to develop your own taste gauge to know what is good and what is not so good. I once mentored a guy who had a script and it was the third time he had applied to the short film lab with, and it was his last time he could apply. After three applications, you can’t. And it was a very wrong script, and I said, “Do you think this is a good script?” And he said to me, “It’s won all these awards.” And he showed me all these awards. There is a terrible industry of false accolades or external validation out there in the world. You can pay an American scriptwriting contest to give you prizes in a script. So he was showing me like, “It’s an award-winning script.” And I said, “Okay, do you think it’s good?” And he said, “Well other people think it’s good so it must be.” The guy did not have his own taste gauge. He just had no idea what was good or not. He just grabbed external validation. That was his bread and butter. That was the currency he thought he had, and he had no idea if it was any good. And it wasn’t good, and he wouldn’t listen to me when I said I had a problem with this and that. He said, “Well these people think it’s award-winning, so…” I don’t need to mentor you because you clearly think it’s good because all these external people have said it’s good. 

MC

As a very new writer, I learned from last year that uncertainty is very good. Especially when you’re writing the things that you think you live it or you’re very familiar with. From my Masters, I did one based on my family story and I wrote about my hometown. I thought, “That’s good. I’ve been living in my hometown for years, I know my hometown.” I finished my script and I felt so certain but then I knew something was wrong. The image was not right. I went back to my hometown this holiday, and it was not my hometown. I was so confident about it, and the more I write about it and the more I explore it, I know there are so many things I’ve never discovered. It started with one screenplay but it’s going to develop throughout the years and I think to me a good screenplay will last maybe a lifetime. I’d love to continue to go back to it and embrace the uncertainty. That’s going to make the characters better and the story better for me. 

SK

Another way of saying that is don’t reach out for  the first milk bottle on the supermarket shelf. It expires first. Reach your hand deeper and take one from the back. It’s colder and lasts longer. When we write things that are familiar, we take the first milk bottle. Our hometowns, our love affairs, our parents, everything that first pops out is what we write about. When in fact we need to take the milk bottle that’s fifth or sixth in the row, hidden at the back. Dig deep.

RL 

But they do tell you, “Write the truth.” 

SK

Yes, but what you think you know is different from what you will find if you look hard enough. That’s what I mean. What you think you know is the first milk bottle. But if you spend some time thinking about these things a little bit, the uncomfortable bits come out, the harder bits. 

NJ

What you truly know.

SK

And that for me is what you really need to work through with good writing. All those things that you didn’t know you knew. That kind of internal discovery. 

KB

And if something is making you uncomfortable, you’re probably hitting gold. Like if you’re really going, that idea for whatever reason is something.

SK

If you find yourself not wanting to tackle it because it’s too upsetting or difficult then you know you must.

NJ

Jumping off something you said about redrafting, Shuchi, I’m interested in the idea of how drastically has something you’ve worked on changed over time in the redrafting process? I think that’ll give people an insight of how significant the power of a rewrite is. 

SK

Different experiences with different projects. . For  instance with “Firaaq”, which is an ensemble film, we had five stories in the ensemble but we e wrote seven. Two completely disappeared. They got conflated into the rest.. One changed protagonist, one changed gender. You really have to be open to the idea of things evolving, morphing, finding their own place on the page. What never seems to go away despite several drafts is why you wanted to tell this story in the first place. In my case, that original impulse hat always seems to remain at the core of every iteration. I’ve never changed the reason for which I’m writing something: the theme. . Once I commit to what it’s about, that does not change.. Everything else is a delivery mechanism for that theme. So the guy may become a girl who may become a unicorn but if the film is about giving hope wings, then that “message” stays the same. You have to give yourself the space to change things drastically, otherwise you’re just putting bandaids on every draft. Occasionally I havestudents who come up to me and say, “This is a new draft.” No it’s not. You added  a semicolon on the third page. That’s not a new draft. It’s just punctuated better! With people I’ve mentored over several years, I’ve found the ones who go far are those who can actually admit , “This is not working for all these other reasons, so maybe this is not the mother’s story — this is actually the father’s story. Darn. I have just lost 3 months of work. Back to the drawing boardAnd if you are committed to being a good screenwriter you have to be willing to go there. Unlikely you’ll do such a massive overhaul during the tail end of your rewrites, but at least in the early drafts you have to be willing to pull things inside out.

KB

Can I offer a tip? If you’re about to rewrite something, particularly if it’s a sizeable piece of work, this is just a little trick that I do which makes me feel better about it, particularly if you’re going, “It’s quite a big rewrite, and I’m nervous about the stuff that I love in this one.” Just copy it and put the existing draft safely away, and then you can carry on playing with the new one and throwing it around and carving it up with a knife, and it doesn’t matter because the real proper good one is safe there. And just do it that way because then you don’t have that anxiety of, “I’m messing it up” or “I’m cutting stuff up”. I find that so good. It’s just there, and I don’t have to look at it. And then once you get into the rewriting, you go, “It is better” but I’m like a child, I just need something to get me over the line to start work. So that’s something I do all the time and I recommend it to lots of newer writers because it will calm down your nervous system about it. 

SK

I save every single day’s work with that day’s date. So I sometimes have 45 versions of my screenplay because if today’s the 23rd, then today’s version is 23rd. Tomorrow is the 24th. I need all of the previous versions to exist somewhere even if I’m not consulting them because who knows? The world could end. 

RL

You could be like, “Two days ago I wrote this incredible monologue that I stupidly deleted and I have to go back and find it!” 

KB

But also sometimes the rewrite makes it worse. That’s the terrible, terrible truth.

SK

That’s why having the previous iteration is a good idea. You mess it up and do it again, and you go, “Actually there was something beautiful from a week ago  which I know wasn’t working but now that I have made these changes, I can bring it back.”

KB

And also because it’s collaborative, sometimes you’re sent down a path by someone that is just wrong. They’ve just got it wrong and they’ve sent you down this path, and you go there. And this happened to me on the feature film I’m sort of hoping is going to go into production. The person who gave us the advice was really flash so we just said, “Oh my god, amazing. They’ve given us this amazing advice.” And the director and I looked at each other after I’d finished the draft, which was a lot of work — we looked at each other and we both just went, “This isn’t the film I want to make.” And he went, “I don’t want to make it either.” It was a great thing though because it was the perfect time because we were both aligned. This isn’t what we started off with. It’s turned into something we don’t care about. How fantastic when we found that out midway through the process as it happened. We sat back and went, “What is it we want to make?” That set us off on a better path and we basically had to go back to the person who gave us the great notes and went, “Really amazing. Just not the story we want to tell.” It was a great moment though because I love the director I’m working with and it was so lovely that we could both look at each other and say that and go, “I don’t like it.” And he went, “I don’t like it either.” More work for KB. But that’s all right. 

NJ

I’d like to ask Hweiling and Mayen: what’s been the hardest part of the process for you as young, new writers? 

Hweiling Ow

For me, it was actually my grammar. I was always worried about my grammar and stuff and sentences because I, believe it or not, get things mixed up in my head because I am Malaysian-born and there’s like five languages in my head. I had to put that aside and go, “Up the language. Just write it out and the ideas will be there.” And then I wrote this story and it got picked up and I actually fell out of love with the story. What is this shit and why am I writing it? I got really good feedback from Kathryn because I was going in different angles and I was trying to break it and trying to do different things to it because it was a non-story where nothing happens. So I’m okay with pulling things apart and messing shit up. I don’t have a problem with that – that’s kind of my life in general. I was willing to go places but I just didn’t know where to go. Basically, it is a story about unusual connections and I was like, “She needs to be connected with people within this area.” I started taking her out from this location and set her up, and I found my way. I sat for two or three months just thinking about it and not even writing back to her because I had nothing to offer. I was just thinking, thinking, percolating, asking the questions in my head, washing the dishes, doing driving, whatever else, just thinking. And that’s my process of tackling the script is just to keep thinking. To me, it’s like a Rubik’s cube, the story. And you’ve just got to find your way through it. Problem-solving is part of my day-to-day life as well in my head.

SK

That’s also why you produce. 

HO

Yeah! And everything you said about the writing is so true because I’m producing this online series called “The Basement”. I’ve actually been asked by Greg Sullivan (? 34:29) TV2 to do it. The writer, the poor guy, he’s been working two years with Carmen — Carmen’s an EP who did a lot of biopics, like “Hillary”, so she’s got her heart in this particular one and navigating through that’s been a bit tricky as well. But he’s had to look at so many different angles, and then I’m coming on board and the director’s coming on board, and he’s had to navigate all the ideas and package it and present it to Carmen and hope that she says okay because she actually has the final say. But then also we have to go through TVNZ. It’s been a new interesting process as a producer because you have to get all your cast approved as well. And I was like, “What? But web series – I thought it was more freedom.” But I’m learning the proper process with big TV shows. They have to approve all the HODs as well, but on a web series not so much – it’s fine. So I got to work with people with whom I’m quite flexible.

SK

And then you also learn clever ways that you get them to approve of your ideas by making them think it’s their idea. 

HO

There are ways — yeah, it’s been interesting. The writer’s only 26 as well so he’s experiencing this whole new journey. I’m like, “I’m on your side. I can see what works and also just put in a way that she understands.” And she’s been great but she basically — not scared us — but made us take it really seriously because she is taking a risk with me, because I’m an unknown to her, and the writer as well, first time writing. TV shows are a collaboration. It’s your baby but then after that people are trying to help it, lift it forward and up and make it great. And as long as you’ve got the right team and the right people, it will be better. Everybody wants it to be better. 

KB

If you’ve got the right team. If everyone’s making the same thing, it tends to go really well.

HO

Coming back to the writing, some days are great, some days are shit, and some days I just sit there going, “I’m going to spend a few more days thinking about this”. And then it becomes weeks, and then it becomes months. But I got there in the end. 

NJ

How about you, Mayen? 

Mayen Mehta

With me, it was interesting hearing what you were all saying about the writing process. I think for me my biggest thing is that I held that initial idea really really tightly because it’s like your baby and you feel really passionate about. So when you get feedback, you’re like resistant to change. But I think my struggle has been, as a writer, I’ve always articulated. I’ve always, when I’m writing my script, I know how people are going to read it. So when I’m writing my script, I want anyone else who’s reading it to visualise it exactly how I see it. And I think that’s a problem because it’s subjective. Everyone’s going to perceive it in a different way. My biggest thing was overtelling points — it was exposition. I was thinking the audience was going to be a lot dumber than what I expected. It was one of those things where getting the feedback was really really good because as a writer I think I enjoy constructive criticism and I enjoy having someone else read the script and asking the ‘why’s. The little things that we, as a writer, wouldn’t ask ourselves. As simple as the title or as to a characterisation. So I think I feed off that really well. Kathryn’s been really really awesome in that regard.

HO

Great script supervisor. 

MM

Asking the ‘whys’ where I would’ve never asked it myself. And so I did the same thing — I stepped away from it for a while because I was so attached to the vision of it and the narrative that I stepped away from it. When you step away and you do focus on other things, like you focus on other projects or write other things, you come back to it and you suddenly see it in a whole different light. I suddenly see how much I can simplify it now. That’s helped. There are areas where it feels uncomfortable and there are areas where I notice in my initial drafts that I chose the easy way out. But the great thing about Kathryn was she was like, “No. What’s the hard way out?” 

SK

If it’s too easy, you know it’s not good. 

MM

Exactly! 

HO

Make your characters work hard. 

MM

It’s going to take time, it’s not going to happen overnight. But now it’s just opened up a whole new way of me looking at it. 

SK

One thing I might add. Mayen, you know you were talking about your tendency to over-articulate, making things expositional because  you want people to see exactly what’s in your head. I think a better way for a writer to think is: I want people to feel what I feel, not for people to see what I see. And that frees you up in a very different way. Then the focus of your writing becomes the emotion you want to deliver, and sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you’re describing this tree. It changes the way you approach a scene, and we don’t think enough about what we want the audience to feel when we’re writing. 

RL

How many people in the room want to write for screen? How many of you read scripts and read screenplays? 

In screenwriting class, we were told certain rules. Like, what novels have over screenplays is you can’t write an internal monologue. But when you start reading scripts, you see that they break those rules. If they want you to feel a certain way when you’re in the read, if an executive is reading your script and you want that executive to feel a certain way, then you can break those rules. 

SK

You have to know the rules and break them. This is the way I think. 

KB

You can get sneaky about how you break those rules. This is my thing I have in my head. There’s going to be an actor’s face, and actors are amazing, so I can just write in my description something they can convey with their face. I’m all good. 

S

And then you excite an actor who’s reading it because they see the potential in this part because it’s not all on the page. You’ve strategically left enough out  for them to pour something of themselves in it. Space. Leaving space for people to enter is a really good way for screenwriters to think because we’re only one part of all these other things. Directors do their job, actors do their job, sound people do their job. If you try and do everyone’s job on the page, it can get overwritten. Like good ikebana principles. Don’t crowd it. Leave space between your flowers so they can breathe; be happy. The arrangement works because of the blank spaces between the stalks.

KB

I certainly used to do that when I was a newer writer for sure. You’re totally right. You really really need to understand how screenplays work. Looking at screenplays that have been produced is really great. It’s such a great way to see how professionals do it and how they are manipulating sound and visuals. Also the interesting thing is how different the styles are of people. Sometimes you come across big print that you just go, “I’m just going to give up because that’s just so beautiful. I hate you now, stupid screenplay.” You read stuff in the big print that you think, “That’s just so gorgeous. It’s just so beautiful.” And then you’ll read something else and go, “Wow, that’s just as good but a completely different way of writing.”