Christopher Nolan, Sophia Coppola, Spike Lee, Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino. The list of fabulous writer-directors who are known to work well with actors is looong.

Alas, I’m not on it.

My background is theater so you wouldn’t think it so. It’s hard for playwrights to come to film, to discover that the priority pyramid is upside-down. Nobody is worshiping the sanctity of your words.

One recalls Samuel Beckett and Play, placing his actors in urns. U-R-N-S! Ultimate writer control. Get in the urn, look straight ahead, read my words!

Please don’t mistake me: I love actors. Some of the greatest experiences in my life has been the reinterpretation of my writing, taking it to mysterious and majestic places I had never conceived. Sometimes there are divine accidents, sometimes the chemistry doesn’t happen, and there’s precious little magic.

As a director I have fallen short of understanding the acting process. Some need coddling, some need an ass-kicking. Wells said the trick is to “make love” to your actors.

The screenwriter isn’t coddled. No one’s there  to give you validation, raspberry bonbons or even Reese’s Pieces.

Still, if you’re a writer-director, taking an acting class is essential. Also, make a short or two. Anything to get you on the set, to get a feeling for the acting process.  Learn how to motivate them, to see how they approach a scene. The Actor’s Journey is a complicated one, requiring study.


You want to say something, you go about saying it. If only it were that easy…

Life intrudes. So many distractions– work, family. Like Bugs said: “Another day, another carrot.

If you commit to write a screenplay, it’s got to be a priority. You have to drive yourself. Often times it’s the lack of time and/or energy (see below) that stops you. Other times you just kinda…lose your way. I would suggest…

Examine the reasons why you’re writing. What motivates you? Money? Legacy? A need to tell a great story?

The dollar can motivate. Landlord wants his at the end of month, sure. Bukowski said he wrote better after eating a porterhouse steak than a nickel candy bar. Meaning: Suffering for your art is highly overrated. On the other hand, if you’re only in it for the $$$, you’re bound for a let-down. Any idea how many people write screenplays vs. how many WGA members are making it this year? The best writing is found at the core of emotion, something central to you that translates into universal truth.  You must be all in. Go in full, or not at all.


Got an email asking me about writer’s block. I’ve never had writer’s block. Because I’ve got my Linus Blanket:

Outlining, for me, is a Linus Blanket. You might not need it, but you feel better with it wrapped around you. So, how does one outline? The Old School/Syd Field Method is to write out every scene of your movie on 3-by-5  index cards, place the cards on a table in sequential order, and then begin the vetting process of determining that every scene is necessary. You break it down by Act 1-2-3. Double-check the order of your scenes. Is it logical? Is it inevitable? Does it make sense? Is your movie compelling, void of fat, relentless?

I personally outline (though not in Syd Field-style, and not because Syd says I must do so). At Chicago Filmmakers or Columbia College, and with every client I work with, the screenwriter has the option to outline or not. This is about process. Your process. What process do you feel most comfortable with as a writer? Maybe you want discovery, you don’t want to know exactly what happens. One writer described it as taking a vacation and knowing not only every road you’ll drive but every twist in the road ahead of time. Some writers are more intuitive, the last thing they want to do is kill the spontaneous writing impulse by outlining.

Not me. I need my Linus Blanket!”

Pure Fear, of course. Totally irrational. Though I have seen people paint themselves into a corner. “My characters will determine plot, not some pre-conceived notion!” “The character s will speak to me!” I applaud their organic approach, then get an email two months later saying the characters stopped talking to them on page 72. What then?



One more email came in about subject not often discussed, but incredibly important:  Energy. Meaning: What energy are you bringing to your writing? This has to do process—how many times a week do you write? What time of day? How many hours each session? There is no one right answer for these questions. Just as there are day people and night people, the time of day you pick isn’t the key—it’s the energy you bring to writing. I have a friend who wakes a 5:30am, is writing by 6 for two hours before heading to his 9-5 day job. He functions best this way. Another comes home from the 9-5, cooks a meal, maybe runs a couple miles, pulls out a six-pack and gets to work at 10pm when the household is quiet. Some people are weekend warriors, not even touching the script during the week. Some write 1 hour a day, 7 days a week. Some write 4 hours a pop a 2 or 3X. Some are weekend warriors, not even touching the script during the week. Some can close a door and steal valuable erergy at work. When you write is as critical as what you write. You have to bring good A- Energy to this. How you do that depends on your situation. Sometimes your feeling blocked might be entirely a case of poor energy. How do you know if you should shut it down for the night? Staring at the page for an hour might qualify (and haven’t we all been there!) looking for a solution and absolutely nothing coming. Time to shut it down.  Live to fight another day. Know thyself. Day person? Night? Find the time. Max out the A-Energy.

One Response to Four Thoughts For The End Of August
  1. Great post, Paul. The Linus Blanket is a great insight. I’m stuck at the end of a screenplay and I just came back from the stationery store with 500 3×5 cards. I know that will help. I’ll keep you posted.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *