Only Rule A Screenwriter Needs To Know by BEETLEJUICE Co-Writer Larry Wilson

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: What’s the first step in step in writing a screenplay?

Larry Wilson: There’s an idea. And usually what I know is…I know…BEETLE JUICE (for instance) the idea was that I discussed with my partners was a psychedelic ghost comedy. We had no idea what that meant, but it rolled off the tongue, right?  And I usually have something of an idea of that and I kind of know the beginning and I kind of know the end. The middle is the great unknown.

But it’s instinct and an idea and sometimes it’s a character.   Sometimes it’s a situation. But it’s very internal first. And yes, there are times where you write on assignment and you’re given an idea and they say translate this into a movie.

But in terms of my own writing if you will, my personal writing, it usually comes from the most basic kind of idea and a feeling. I can’t articulate very well, I’m sorry, because it’s hard to articulate. It’s kind of like a situation or a character that’s kind of like waiting to come out and then whatever your process is…and boy do you need a process! And boy do you need to go to work. And boy do you need to sit down and do it, and do the job of writing and you allow that character or that situation to just start growing and just start coming and leaving your fingers onto the digital pages, onto your computer and then it grows and expands and takes on life.

And of courage, this is every writer’s choice. There’s a lot of talk about backstory. Like…”Tell us, where did your character go to school?” “What was his or her Mommy like?” And all of that. I’ve never written backstory in my life, never. But if you asked me to tell you the backstory of one of my characters, I could. I’d kind of be making it up as I went along, but the feelings would be true. Because I feel the characters and I feel like they need to come out. And I feel like they need to be given a voice.

That’s what writing is to me, an idea or a character or a situation, an emotion or a feeling that you some how have to put into the world. And it’s hard to articulate and I feel like I am talking in circles. But it’s almost hard not to because it’s so ephemeral in the beginning. I hope that makes some version of sense?

Film Courage: It does…so the middle it sounds like is undetermined, but you know an ending when you start something?

Larry Wilson: I kind of know an ending, I kind of know an ending, but that can all change. But people get very scared of the middle but that’s when it gets fun because it’s so challenging.

And you so get to …if you think of a screenplay as 110, 112 pages, you get to page, you get to page 60 and you go “Oh my Gosh! I’m only half way there. What happens next?”

But something will happen and that’s exhilarating to go to bed completely sure that you will never figure out what’s going to happen next and wake up with the answer.

And it’s a daily challenge. But if feels so good to realize that next scene will be there if you keep working at it. It’s the best feeling in the world. Other than finishing it. Finishing the first draft no matter what shape it’s in is like brilliant. I always get tears in my eyes when I finish a first draft because I feel like I am saying goodbye to these people who I met on this journey. And there’s a very emotional side to it.

And then you become the craftsman and time for a second draft. But it’s an emotional journey and to be able to do this day-after-day, it’s rewarding. I have the best job in the world.

Film Courage: So let’s say you are 60 pages in and you’re like “What do I do next?” So keeping in the vein of not waiting for inspiration and this is a job. It’s like working at a bank. So what’s happening? Let’s suppose it’s 9 a.m. on Monday morning, you’re 60 pages in, you’ve got the cup of coffee and you are there and …?

Larry Wilson: I will go back. I will never go back to the beginning because that is a death trap. “You know what I’ll do? I’ll go back and rewrite the first 60 pages! And then I’ll go back and rewrite the first 60 pages again and again.”

I’ll go back and read a couple of pages and then go in and do some cosmetic stuff just to put myself back into the zone of the story. And then I just start writing and they may not be good ideas. My drafts are always 20 to 30 pages too long, when I finish the first draft. Because I am telling the story to myself.

I forget who it was? I’m going to say Oscar Wilde. I’m going to say some famous writer said “Just sit down and start typing your name over and over again.” Oscar Wilde may be pre-typwriter but you understand the point. Start typing your name. Start doing anything with your fingers.

And it’s like where that comes from and where that next scene come from, it’s there. It is there and if you put yourself in the position to find it, you will find it. And I might spend a day writing 10 basically bad pages but there will be one page of truth in it, one moment that will move the story forward.

And Stephen King talks about this really brilliantly and I have questions about outlining and I’m not here to have an outline debate. He’s scathing about outlining if you’ve ever read his book On Writing, it’s probably the best book on writing in my mind, but he always says “It’s what happens next. It’s what happens next, what happens next, what happens next.”

And if I were to reach across the room here and steal your notes from you, there would be a response!

Film Courage: [Laughs] Yes…

Larry Wilson:  Or if I were to kick the camera over and say “I’m done with this interview!” There would be a response, right? And then it’s what happens next? Do you jump on me and say “Give me my notes back you jerk!”

I mean and if you just look at it like that…and you look at it like whatever you make happen, something has to happen next and “It’s what happens next. It’s what happens next, what happens next, what happens next.”

That what happens next will come and it may not happen easily. It may be a lot of bad what happens next before you find it. But it will come and it’s a magical process, and magical in the sense that it’s almost unexplainable. And it’s why there are so many screenwriting programs and apps and all these things out there to kind of tell you that they can tell you what happens next. But they can’t tell you what happens next, only you can tell what happens next.

And I look at it as a moment-by-moment process and I put these characters in a situation and it’s often diabolical and it’s often otherworldly and they get themselves deeper into it or get the hell out. And that’s the journey and it’s moment-by-moment and it’s sort of literally second-by-second, if you think about.

You know, movies move forward in a linear fashion and it’s just tracking that and when it really gets fun is when you put your character in the most…here can I tell you a quick anecdote that is probably an illustration that I use all the time…

Question for the Viewers: What are your thought on outlining story?

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

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