No Guts, No Story: Find Your Screenplay’s Soul By Trusting Your Instincts and Your Allies

I’ve wanted to make films for a long time, but my problem was always the ability to write something. I’d written down thoughts and ideas, but nothing ever congealed before, to a point of frustration. Then I read this book called Wildlife by Richard Ford and had a very strong reaction to it.

I was moved by its style of prose, sense of place, its take on the American Dream, its belief in abiding love and family even through the harshest times. For about a year I thought about whether I could make a film out of Ford’s novel, daydreaming before I could even get to screenwriting, just to be certain that I felt I could do it. Then I thought of what the final scene and the final image of the film could be.

Conceiving of those two things allowed me to understand where my story was headed, and that gave me the courage to write it. I could now start back at the beginning and build toward my pre-determined ending. Even though my screenplay would be an adaptation, I began to map out how things could be different in my version of Ford’s story: I didn’t think the ending of the book would work on screen; I knew from the start that I didn’t want to use voice-over; I wanted to write the film in the present tense, without the weight of nostalgia behind it. I decided to expand one line in the book into an entire scene.

I wrote to Ford, and his response was wonderful: “Sure, you can do this. My book is my book, and your picture is your picture. You need to make something of it for you.” Ford’s way of granting me permission was truly a gift. It validated exactly how I felt about approaching the material.

Splitting Distance: Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, L) and Jerry Brinson’s (Jake Gyllenhaal, R) marriage breaks apart in writer-director Paul Dano’s Wildlife. Image courtesy of IFC Films

Seeds of Wildlife

A lot of what you’re doing in any part of the writing process is stirring up your own soil, hoping something is going to sprout. Although I entered into screenwriting as a complete beginner, I had the advantage of having read and broken down many scripts as an actor. I consciously chose not to write my first draft in screenplay format. This allows you to let yourself not jump to conclusions, to write the most from-the-gut version of what a film inspired by source material could be.

Ford’s book is about interior feelings. I thought, “How can I turn the feelings in this book into an image or an action? How do I express that through cinema?” So I wrote mostly by the image.

Already knowing the ending and the sense of portraiture I wanted to create with my characterization was a key part of the writing. Having established where my camera was going to be as I wrote, my treatment of Wildlife relied on composition and mise-en-scène, not on crazy crane shots or other showy techniques. This approach was meant to be both honest and sparing, so that complexities would show in the space between the lines and in the actors’ performances.

Feeling a Draft

Being a first-timer comes with a great advantage if you’re partnered up with a proper writer, so after I wrote my first draft I gave it to my partner Zoe Kazan, who fits that bill. She tore it apart. I secretly thought the draft was really good, but she had marks on every single page. We probably didn’t get through more than five pages into her giving me notes before it was clear that it wasn’t going to work; it was too devastating. Still, she said, “I see what you’re trying to do. Why don’t you let me give it a full pass?”

So, Zoe did a full pass on the first draft. Once I caught on to what she was doing, we began to pass the script back and forth. We never wrote in the same room; we’d talk about the working draft, take notes, and then one of us would take it and do another pass—either on a scene, a section, or the whole script. If you’re working with a co-writer, a huge way in which this approach can work is that it will help you shape multiple images, ideas, and vignettes into one scene to give it more of a dramatic structure.

Seek Help That’s Helpful

Find people who can give notes that are actually helpful. If you’re getting notes on your script from a friend, make sure their notes are about your intent. It’s never about what they would do to your script. It’s about going back to the intent of the writer and keeping it close to the writer’s gut feelings.

Once you have that help, the hardest thing is learning to compromise, and to kill your darlings. Cutting a line of dialogue can feel like chopping off an arm, but once it’s gone it’s totally freeing. That freeing feeling carries into the rest of the production.

Time to Process

One important element of screenwriting: You have to figure out how you work. For me, I discovered that time is a great friend. We optioned Ford’s book ourselves and didn’t have anybody to answer to; we had other jobs paying our rent; and the script was developed over a long period of time, which allowed it to mature and speak for itself. If I had made Wildlife in 2012 or 2013 right when I first had the thought, it would have been a very different film.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that after he finishes his first draft, he seals it in an envelope and keeps it in a drawer for about six to eight weeks. After that time has passed and you open the envelope and read it, you’re able to cut through your own stuff a lot easier. That illustrates why time is a precious commodity when you’re making a film. Be grateful when you have time to write, because you won’t always have it during other parts of the process.

Dano (L) and Gyllenhaal’s trust in one another began with their trust in Wildlife‘s familial themes

Speak (And Write) For Yourself

Allow your characters to speak for themselves. It’s easy to want to impose things on your script based on ideas in your head about what kind of film you want to make, or who you are, but ultimately it comes down to listening to the material through all of its phases. Even if you decide that something that works in a book won’t work in your film, that something may still spark a new impulse you’ll need to follow. Maybe what you write on that impulse ends up being cut later, and you won’t know why… but it might be the thing that gets you there.

Screenwriting is about coming back to the gut feeling of what you’re working with. I constantly asked myself how I could be as close to Wildlife’s three main characters—Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould)—or how they could be as close to me, as possible. How can I be true to them? It’s not about projecting yourself onto them, but about making sure your own shit is in the material.

Pass on Passing Judgement

Don’t judge your characters. Some people may see Wildlife and be more sympathetic to Jeanette, or to Jerry, but as a writer I needed to understand both of them. Your own level of empathy needs to come through, so you can’t always be looking to condemn your characters. This matters not only in the writing, but when it comes time to give actors an opportunity in the casting as well.

We tried not to write Wildlife with specific actors in mind. To me, that approach felt almost like a band-aid. Still, it would keep happening by accident: I would think, “God, this scene sounds better when I imagine Carey doing it.” But I didn’t know if the character was actually fully developed yet. Jeanette is a complicated and mysterious character, and I had to remove any good actor’s voice in my head to make sure she was getting all that she needed, because she could be interpreted by a lot of different people in a lot of ways.

So, when Carey did audition, I wondered if it might be fun for her to get to play something a little more messy and to not be afraid of Jeanette’s flaws—to go somewhere deep and off-balance, which could be a stark contrast to Carey’s actual personality. It’s uncomfortable for Carey to be harsh because she’s such a warm person and a good mother off-screen, and exactly who your audience is receiving the character you’ve written from is important. That was the line we walked throughout the entire process—reconciling Jeanette’s toughness and Carey’s natural elegance.

I thought that maybe playing a classically American role would appeal to Jake, and that their real-life friendship might allow them to make a great young couple on-screen. As a first-time moviemaker, I was shocked by the amount of trust that both Carey and Jake gave me. That trust came largely from what happened before casting: We spoke for a long time about what “family” means, and it seemed that they both responded to the script’s themes, and to what’s at the root of the story.

Our casting director Laura Rosenthal found Ed; I never thought we’d cast a kid from Australia, but watching his tape was the first time as a writer that I’d heard our scenes the way I thought they could be. Ed was thinking as much about the space between the lines as he was about the dialogue.

Carey the Day: Mulligan’s portrayal of Jeanette helped faithfully adapt Wildlife‘s source material, says Dano

You’re Always Making the Film

When it comes to making changes to your script mid-shoot, you hope that your actors will challenge you. They’re going to say, “Hey, why is this here?” And you’ll respond, “Well, it might be this, but what is it for you?” You’ll have a discussion about something which leads to a new interpretation and you may end up cutting or rewriting a line. You’ll realize in the scouting, “Oh, I think we can combine these two things,” or “Let’s make these two scenes just one scene, because we can’t afford to do a company move that day.”

While some people work in a much looser way and are all about what’s happening on-set right in front of you, one thing that I haven’t quite realized until now is this… You’re making the movie every step of the way, even when it’s not being filmed. Every time you do a scout; every time you have to compromise during a budget meeting; every time you have to compromise with your actors, you are constantly making choices. These choices become the film. You’re always making the film.

Create Your Own Creative Family

My biggest takeaway from all the films I’ve worked on is the importance of how you want your set to feel—how you want your crew and your actors to feel when they arrive on the set. What is the temperature that you want to work with? I like when my crew is there making a film, too—not just being a part of it. There’s a feeling of investment among the crews on sets run by Ang Lee, Steve McQueen or Paul Thomas Anderson, and that tone is set by the director. I certainly wanted to bring that to the set of Wildlife, to ensure that our screenplay about family was being shot by our own kind of own creative family.

Learn to trust and lean on other people. If you’re like me, you’ll over-intellectualize one thing or another constantly. There will be times when you’ll want to destroy the thing you’re making and you’ll need good people around to prevent you from doing that. It’s tempting to be egotistical as the writer-director and think, “I can do it.” But it takes a village to make a film. MM

—As told to Ryan Williams

Wildlife opens in theaters October 19, 2018, courtesy of IFC Films. All images courtesy of IFC Films. This article appears in MovieMakers 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.

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