Lessons From The First Screenplay by Mark Harris

Film Courage: What did writing your first screenplay teach you about screenwriting?

Mark Harris, Filmmaker: Oh, gosh! So when I wrote my first screenplay…now this is the difference between writing a first screenplay and when I was directing.

When I wrote my first screenplay of course Syd Field is like…I don’t think you can really be a solid screenwriter if you haven’t studied Syd Field. I’ve read a lot of screenplays, tons of screenplays before I even started writing screenplays. I’ve read Syd Field’s book and I continue to read his books. But tons of screenplays.

When I wrote my first screenplay (and it never got produced of course) and I took it out and people read it, it was pretty decent but it wasn’t good.

It was only after writing at least 10 screenplays before I actually produced my own stuff. But it taught me a lot. That I didn’t play with at all because I knew that in order to sit down and write there had to be a particular structure. And that’s one of the things too is that, one of these things is very important as screenwriters and filmmakers is that when you’re pitching to producers you have to make sure that the screenplay is properly structured, use Final Draft and we have to really, really invest in ourselves and in our craft. Go out and get the Final Draft program, go out and read Syd Field’s book and know how to read screenplays.

And make sure that when you actually pitch to producers that it’s properly formatted. There is nothing worse than someone saying they have an idea and they pitch you an idea but they want you to write the idea. I have tons of screenplays of my own or screenwriters who want you to read their screenplays but it’s not properly formatted, I’ve had that.

Recently someone asked me to read their screenplay, they had the heading and it was written like a play. I’m like there’s a difference between a screenplay and a stage play. And I don’t think people understand that when you’re writing a screenplay, it’s formatted a particular way because when you are dealing with different set ups those are very important. And I had to explain it to the person. He’s like “Just read it.” I was like “For me as a filmmaker, that’s hard to follow.” When you don’t have the proper headings on it like INTERIOR: I don’t know where I’m at in the story. I can’t follow it.

But those are very important because now this is one set-up, we go outside that’s a different set-up. So you have to make sure that it’s in the screenplay as an exterior so I’ve read screenplays where they don’t have that. It’s like there’s no way. And people don’t understand because they think you’re hating because they’re making it difficult to read their screenplay because they don’t want to follow the proper structure. You follow the proper structure and it will make it much easier for us to read your screenplay. 

Film Courage: How was it for you to get your first feedback because you spoke of feedback earlier in the interview and how it’s important. Was the first time you showed someone your screenplay, what was that feedback?

Mark: The feedback I got was…again it’s something that you have to grow and evolve but when somebody tells you this is not properly done or the story is not connecting, you are like “Why? Why?” You get offended by it.

But the thing is we can’t be because if we want to grow and evolve, we have to listen to constructive criticism. And if someone is giving you some constructive criticism, I know it’s hard for us to deal with it, it was hard for me to deal with it. It’s like still today I have to be more open-minded when people read my screenplays. You have to train your mind or keep telling myself that this is necessary, this feedback is necessary.

I was just watching the movie THE WIFE.

Film Courage: Oh yes! Excellent.

Mark: Excellent movie. And when his wife gave him that feedback he just blew up, right? He didn’t want anyone’s feedback. But at the end of the day if he had listened to her, he probably would have become a better writer instead of what happened. But we have to listen to those voices that give us that constructive criticism so we can evolve. I know it’s difficult.

Even today, when I’m letting someone read my screenplay and they’re giving me feedback on it, I have to keep telling myself over and over again “This is necessary.” 

When that feedback is difficult to hear, just repeat “I need this.” Because it’s very important. It’s to allow us to grow and evolve and just put the ego aside. We have to put that ego aside at all times even while on set, put the ego aside and listen to the people who can make our projects better. 

Question For The Viewers: What did your first screenplay teach you about screenwriting?

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