With over 30 credits in film and television, screenwriter Gerald Di Pego’s filmography includes The Forgotten, Phenomenon, Instinct and Message in a Bottle. Also the author of five published novels, Di Pego is prolific writer who still finds time for a peaceful walk most days.
After college, Di Pego wrote business films in Chicago for a stint, then moved his family to California where he shopped a spec script around until he broke into the business writing movies for television. He published four novels and earned more than 20 television credits before he made the breakthrough into feature films. Recently, this down-to-earth master of storytelling spoke with MovieMaker about his sources of inspiration, themes in his work and his key to success as a writer.
Cindy J. Rinaldi, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Can you explain the themes that dominate your work and what compels you to write about them?
Gerald Di Pego (GD): It’s not as if I start with a theme. I take a long walk or I’m driving a car—and ideas come all the time. Now and then one will stick because it has emotional resonance to me. It’s not just, ‘Oh, that’s a neat idea for a way to rob a bank.’ A good movie can grow out of an idea like that, but for me it has to have emotional resonance, even if it’s comedy or whatever.
So the idea sticks and I start to develop it. When I finally work it out, I find that, by God, I’ve gone back to that theme again that seems to be so important to me, which is that we are all in a struggle between isolation and connection. It’s very easy to stay isolated in the world today and people are more and more fearful about connecting. You walk down the street and you see a stranger. Are you going to look? Are you going to have eye contact? Are you going to nod? Are you going to smile? Are they going to think you’re weird or that you want something from them? Are you going to open a door and in comes some crazy stranger? People are afraid, and yet we long for connection. So there’s that division between connecting and isolating that pulls us.
I find that most of my work in novels and screenplays has that somewhere in it. If it’s not the main trunk, it’s in there somewhere. I think that isolation could be the death of us and that connection is our salvation.
MM: Have you been inspired by other works?
GD: Oh, absolutely, yes. It’s so important for a writer to, for instance, see a lot of the classic films and to study the foreign films and also to read good novels and plays because there’s so much inspiration and truth and power in the work. It’s wonderful to read an author who seems to be pushing you from the inside and you say to yourself, ‘Look at this. Look how brave this writer is. I can aspire to that.’ I’m thankful to those writers for that.
I find that some screenwriters are content to just write what they’ve seen before. They may write from television, they may write from film, but they’re not writing from life. So you connect with the great literature and it is inspiring, but then you need to also get out there and live and observe and write from that truth, too.
MM: What are a few of your favorite sources of inspiration?
GD: [Akira] Kurosawa has definitely inspired me with some beautiful works. They are so human. When I first encountered The Seven Samurai, I knew that the American film The Magnificent Seven was based on it, so I thought, ‘Well, I should see that.’ I thought the Japanese film would be more formalized and maybe stiff and kind of distant from me. (laughs) Kurosawa’s film was 15 times better than the American film and 15 times more accessible to me—an American kid—when I saw it! It teaches you not only about film and artistry, but it teaches you about the world. It taught me about the Japanese—humans like I am that feel what I feel. It’s just a masterpiece to me.
There are many others. Some of them are little films like Tunes of Glory with Alec Guinness and John Mills, about the peacetime army in the late ’40s. It’s not a war movie, but it takes place within the military and it’s a wonderful film. There are dozens like that. Some are comedies. Some are action pieces. Sometimes it’s a film you saw when you were really impressionable. When I walked out of the theater after seeing On the Waterfront with [Marlon] Brando, I was a different guy. I was already interested in writing then and I thought, ‘Boy, I want to write better.’ I wanted to aspire and reach higher—to do better work. That’s golden when something like that happens.
MM: What do you think is the most significant factor contributing to your success as a writer?
GD: If I had to pick one thing, it would be emotional reality. I think I’ve developed that skill—or maybe part of it is innate—to sink into the skin of characters.
MM: Is that what you’re teaching at the Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe?
GD: Yes. It’s a topic that is very important to me and that I taught in a slightly different way last year. Whenever I do a workshop, I always bring up this business about lending your script an emotional reality. As an audience member, that’s what I look for. I want to be really taken into the story and I want to care about it. I want to feel that—based on the context of the script, even if it’s a fantasy or action piece or whatever—that the emotion is true and human. So that’s what I want to impart to the students—how to get the audience to lend their hearts to a film.
MM: Through the emotional core of the character?
GD: It’s all part of that, yes. What you want in your principal characters, usually, is to see them change, to feel them change. It’s a delicate process to create a character that is interesting and hopefully compelling, and then to show through dialogue and behavior that this character is actually being impacted by the story and is changing. You have to be careful that each act [performed] by that character feels true to the emotional core.
MM: How do you get the audience emotionally involved in your story?
GD: A lot of it has to with the characters you create and how they behave. I stress that the writer has to feel it before he or she can write it. If you’re writing a scene where two people are arguing or there’s a fight going on, or someone is encountering an alien being, or whatever, put yourself there. Don’t go on the surface. When you think you’re inside, go even deeper. Go deeper inside and really experience it in your mind. What would you do? What would you say? Make it as real as you can.
The other thing is to really try and individualize your characters, so that the person reading a screenplay feels that this is a real, individual person. You find ways to give them an individual voice and that helps a lot, because then the audience is connecting not with a kind of anonymous stereotype—a good guy, a bad guy, or a charming guy—but with somebody who feels whole and a little complicated and hopefully interesting.
MM: Is there anything else that you can offer about engaging a reader or member of the audience?
GD: Yes. I think it’s very important to be unpredictable; to not hand the audience something that’s more or less standard or that you’ve seen before or to follow formula. I love, as an audience member, to be surprised by a film; to gasp and say ‘Oh my God!’ So I hope, in a film, to have several ‘Oh my Gods,’ because they really can work. MM
Image Courtesy of Columbia TriStar Entertainment