Tony Gilroy (Bourne franchise and much more) has ten tips on how to write a blockbuster.
1. Go to the movies
I don’t think there is anything you can learn from courses or books. You have been watching movies since you were born. You have filled your life with narrative… and food. It’s already way down deep inside you.
Going to the movies, having something to say, having an imagination and the ambition to do it is really all that is required. You can learn how to do anything.
2. Make stuff up but keep it real
This is imaginative work – screenwriters make things up. Everything I have in my life is a result of making things up. There is one thing that you have to know that is a deal-breaker – human behavior.
The quality of your writing will be directly related to your understanding of human behavior. You need to become a journalist for the movie that is in your head. You need to report on it; every scene has to be real.
3. Start small
Big ideas don’t work. Start with a very small idea that you can build on.
With Bourne I never read any of the books; we started again. The very smallest thing with [Jason] Bourne was, “If I don’t know who I am and I don’t know where I’m from, perhaps I can identify who I am by what I know how to do.” We built a whole new world around that small idea.
You just start small, you build out and you move one step after the next and that’s how you write a Hollywood movie.
Gilroy directed as well as wrote The Bourne Legacy, the fourth Bourne film
4. Learn to live by your wits
My father was a screenwriter but it’s not some pixie dust creative family thing. I learned from watching how hard he worked and learned about the tempo of a writer’s life – you have to live by your wits.
If you are living with someone who lives by their wits, it seems normal to you, it doesn’t scare you as much and you understand the rhythms of it.
5. Write for TV
It’s getting harder and harder to make good movies. TV is where the ambiguity and shades of reality live, it’s where stories can be interesting.
A lot of writers are very excited about TV right now and it’s a writer-controlled business. When writers are in control, good things happen. They are more rational, they are hardworking, they are more benevolent.
Every time writers have been put in charge of entertainment, things have worked out, so with TV maybe we will see a writer-driven utopia.
House of Cards is seen as part of a new era in quality television
6. Learn to write anywhere, anytime
I have an office at home, I’ve written in a million hotel rooms, I can write anywhere now. My whole goal is to want to be at my desk.
If the writing is going well, I don’t want to quit. I’m older and wise enough now that if something is going well, I don’t stop. I call and say I’m not coming home for dinner and just keep going.
More than anything else, I want to want to go to my desk and to not be afraid of going to work.
7. Get a job
I spent six years tending bar while I figured out how to write screenplays.
If you want to write, if you are a young writer and nobody knows you, find a job that pays you the most amount of money for the least amount of hours, so that you have the most amount of time left over to write.
You want to live some place where you have some sort of cultural connection and can see as many films and be around as many people as possible. You want to be some place where you can just write and write and write.
8. Get a life
If you don’t have anything to say and if you haven’t done anything except see a bunch of movies, then what’s the point? You can only write what you know about and that will either limit you or open the possibilities to everything.
Be interested in lots of things and stay interested. My knowledge is very wide and incredibly thin. It’s much more interesting when journalists and cops and doctors and bankers become screenwriters than 20-year-old film students.
There are some exceptions, of course, but if you don’t have anything to say, then why are you here?
9. Don’t live in Los Angeles
I don’t think there is any reason to live there, I think LA is probably very bad for you. It’s a bad place to feed your head.
In LA you are driving around all the time, surrounded by people who are making you depressed. I don’t think Hollywood really helps a young writer feel any sense of romance about their life.
Even if it’s a delusion, you want to feel special when you go to work in the morning.
10. Develop a thick skin and just keep going
I have assumed both positions of the Hollywood Kama Sutra – top and bottom.
It’s very important to be able to handle rejection. I think one of the reasons writers are shy is because we are all very suspicious of our own process because it fails so often.
It’s no different from being a novelist or a composer or a painter. When you get rejection from the outside world, you either move on or you don’t.
But I think the hardest times are all the days when nothing happens and everybody who has ever written anything knows what I’m talking about. A great day of writing tops everything.
Is a new coat of paint a good idea?
Sometimes it’s flat-out required. Sometimes it’s a waste of time.
WHEN IT’S REQUIRED (THE HERE AND NOW)
Writing is re-writing. So anything that’s available for consumption should be top notch. Of course, things fall to the side, attention dwindles and time can be better spent on other efforts.
A script is never finished — it escapes. All scripts have errors: typos, grammar, formatting, plot, characters — ALL scripts have problems. Once you wrap your mind around that, the next idea should be: uh oh, that means my scripts have problems. Yep. So you write. And re-write. And stamp and stomp and polish. Cut cut cut and add, where it makes sense. And then open the door and let it go. See what happens.
WHEN IT’S A GOOD IDEA
Scripts will die and come back with new life. It happens all the time. Someone from the past will pop up and request the most recent version of a script.
I can do a major polish in one long day — sometimes two. That updates the script to my current style (which, hopefully, is better than my OLD style…). It also helps refresh me on what works and what doesn’t. Since I know I’m a better writer today than I was yesterday, it becomes a matter of pride. I don’t want to send out work that isn’t representative of the current me.
WHEN IT’S A WASTE OF TIME
If I’m thinking about a script and nobody wants it, why spend time polishing it? My time would be better spent doing just about anything else. Even though a script might hold a place in my heart, that doesn’t really mean a whole lot since I can’t finance the film.
M A R K
Since Doug can’t talk, it was an interesting exercise, as he had to solve puzzles and literally plot out how he would take revenge.
Here’s the thing about dog movies — dogs are a pain in the ass to work with, but everybody loves watching them and they’re both relatable and generally sympathetic. They’re also a lot cheaper than humans.
Supposed to be filmed shortly under the title MERIDIAN. Cool title.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
Won the audience choice award at the Stanley Film Fest.
Won best horror short at DragonCon.
Still many fests to play.
I’ve been talking to the director about how we could expand the idea into a full length script.
The script was slipped to about 8 prodcos, mostly female execs, because we wanted to see what they would say. We’ll probably make a few adjustments based on the feedback, and then take it wider.
Still some life left in old bessie. This property went under the buzz saw. The core concepts were still there, still cool, and still relevant. The previous incarnations were just too taboo. Doesn’t matter if you agree or not, or weather you can point to analogs that have been produced. Originally, the lead character, a priest, was released from prison after being convicted of child molesting (which was orchestrated by a demon out to get him). He was innocent. Not guilty. Did not do it. One hundred percent.
As soon as you said ‘priest’ and ‘child molester’ it simply did not matter. The answer was ‘no thanks.’
So, what? Throw it in the bin? Solly cholly? For a while.
The ‘why’ we decided to dust it off is a tale for another day. The important thing is that we realized, at its core, THE POSSESSED was an intricately constructed horror story with some original twists to the genre.
Originally, we just posited that the re-write would be simple, joking that “every time you see child molester, replace it with broken arm.” (the joke was a little cruder than that…)
The idea, then, would be to just change a sentence “the priest was arrested for child molestation” to “the priest was arrested for breaking a kids arm.”
Unfortunately, not that simple. The three-year old script was a mess, so the whole thing needed not only to be re-plotted, but entirely re-written. It took a while, but it’s pretty close to being something really cool.
Work also continues on Big Blue Meenie / Hot Metal and Exiles, with Exiles next on deck.
M A R K
Before I wrote Terra Incognita, I had a logline in my head. One sentence. Greatest explorer stranded, no food, must get home to the woman he left behind.
A logline is usually a one sentence description of your script. You need to sum the entire script up in this one sentence and make somebody really really have to read it.
Usually, you need to answer three questions:
- Who is the main character and what does he (or she!) want?
- Who / what is the villain / thing standing on the main characters way?
- What makes the main characters journey and the overcoming of those obstacles so gosh-darn compelling?
Here are some examples of loglines from screenplays (not from movies!)
28 WEEKS LATER
A sniper, a scientist and two children struggle to stay alive and avoid infection when an outbreak of a deadly virus wreaks havoc on the survivors of the first pandemic.
The rise and fall of Alexander the Great.
When an asteroid is headed for Earth, an elite blue-collar deep-core drilling team is sent to nuke the rock and save the world from Armageddon.
The immigration woes of various Los Angeles residents.
A doctor – falsely accused of murdering his wife – struggles as he desperately searches for the killer with a relentless federal agent hot on his trail.
A kill squad that butchers Nazi soldiers, along with a young Jewish girl who plots to murder the SS officers that shot her family, converges on a French movie theater (premiering a German propaganda film for Nazi brass) with a plan to end WWII.
A straightjacket transports a mental patient 26 years in the future. When he learns he was murdered just a few days after commitment, he uses the jacket to help him uncover his killer – before he meets his fate.
After her rape and murder, a teenage girl observes (from heaven) the aftermath of her demise and the continuation of life on earth.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH
After two opposing assassins dispose of the same mark, each is ordered to kill the other. The catch: the assassins are husband and wife.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
A man out hunting stumbles upon a drug deal-gone-bad and snatches up the cash for himself – which puts a vicious killer on his trail.
A widower and his family ward off an alien invasion on their modest little farm.
A troubled couple struggles to survive the night when three masked strangers invade their secluded summerhouse.
A retired superhero investigates mysterious deaths and stumbles upon a plot to destroy the world – in order to save it.
Some good. Some not so good. Even though I’ve included two that are more than one sentence, I’d say that’s the exception — 95% of loglines are ONE sentence.
Since a logline is to entice someone to read, there’s always the back-and-forth of what to include, what not to include, etc. etc.
Here is the evolution of the logline of Terra Incognita as I work with my manager to try to make it as short as possible, without shorting the idea, and with the idea of “after you read the logline, you’ve GOTTA read the script!” Do we pull it off?
FIRST DRAFT – The story follows revered real-life explorer Douglas Mawson who, at the end of the last great Heroic Age, surveys Antarctica to claim its unimaginable resources for glory of Australia. In the most inhospitable climate in the world, his expedition goes horribly awry as men and supplies are lost. Stranded three hundred miles from camp, Mawson’s heart pushes him on to keep the promise of returning home to the woman he loves.
SECOND DRAFT – The story follows Australian national hero and real-life explorer Douglas Mawson who, at the end of the last great Heroic Age, promises to marry the love of his life, Paquita, after a final expedition to Antarctica to claim its unimaginable resources. In the most inhospitable climate in the world, his expedition goes horribly awry as men and supplies are lost. Stranded three hundred miles from camp, Mawson’s heart pushes him on to keep the promise of returning home to the woman he loves.
THIRD DRAFT – At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, stranded three hundred miles from his Antarctica camp, team mates dead, and food running out, Australian national hero and real-life explorer Douglas Mawson treks across the most inhospitable landscape in the world, heart powering his legs to fulfill the promise of returning home to the woman he loves.
FORTH DRAFT – At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, stranded three hundred miles from his Antarctica camp, his team mates dead, and food running out, Australia’s greatest explorer, Douglas Mawson, treks across the most inhospitable landscape in the world, heart powering his legs to fulfill the promise of returning home to the woman he loves.
FIFTH DRAFT – At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, Douglas Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, leaves the love his life for one final mission to chart the resources of Antarctica. When the mission goes horrible awry, Mawson and his team are trapped three hundred miles from camp. With time running out and resources gone, Mawson must rely on his heart to power through one of the most terrifying true survival stories of all time to return home to the woman he loves.
SIXTH DRAFT – At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, Douglas Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, leaves the love of his life for one final mission to discover the unimaginable resources of Antarctica. When disaster strikes stranding he and his party in the most inhospitable landscape on Earth, his love drives him to survive the most terrifying true survival stories of all time.
SEVENTH DRAFT – In 1912, Doug Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, becomes trapped three hundred miles from camp in the most inhospitable locale on the planet. With conditions dire, he leans on the love of a woman left behind to power his trek home.
EIGHTH DRAFT – Douglas Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, takes one final mission to uncover the unimaginable resources of Antarctica. When disaster strands his party in the most inhospitable place on Earth, the bonds of friendship and the power of love fuel his need to survive.
NINTH DRAFT – At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, Douglas Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, leaves the love of his life for one final mission to discover the unimaginable resources of Antarctica. When disaster strikes stranding he and his party in the most inhospitable landscape on Earth, his love drives him to survive the most terrifying true survival story of all time.
TENTH DRAFT – At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, Douglas Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, leaves the love of his life for one final mission to uncover the unimaginable resources of Antarctica. When disaster strikes stranding he and his party in the most inhospitable landscape on Earth, his love drives him to survive the most terrifying true survival story of all time.
FINAL VERSION - At the end of the last Great Heroic Age, Douglas Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer, leaves the love of his life for one final mission to discover the unimaginable resources of Antarctica. When disaster strikes stranding he and his party in the most inhospitable landscape on Earth, his love drives him to survive the most terrifying true survival story of all time.
The driving factors in the final version were…
Get the love angle in at the beginning and the end;
Find a way to say ‘Great Heroic Age’;
Get in the setting (‘Antarctica’);
Talk about the disaster, but don’t give away exactly what happened to maintain mystery: what disaster?
It’s ALL TRUE!
Admittedly, it’s a little wordy. But there were a lot of goals to accomplish.
Does the fact that it’s two (fairly long) sentences matter? It might. Producers might go ‘this guy can’t even write a decent logline, PASS!‘
Of course, I could have gone the way of Alexander, written by Oliver Stone, and put out this gem:
The story of Doug Mawson.
So it’s balance, right? Does my final Terra Incognita logline answer the three important questions? I think so.
M A R K
A script is an outline. Key images. Suggested dialogue. Just a road map, really.
Last night, I saw Pacific Rim. I also read the script about 3 months ago. The script and the movie shared about 10 percent (maybe) of the dialogue and characters. Very very different. But the concept was the same (for better or worse).
This (to me) seems to be a clear case where the concept was important but the script was not.
As a writer, you only have so many pages to describe your world. This isn’t problematic when you have a known world with limited locations, but describe a NEW world? That can seriously eat into page count and make you seriously compromise on the characters.
I’ve run into this several times over the past few months.
EXILES, my space-opera, Star-wars-esque script, takes place in the future. Think space ships, aliens, different planets, etc. etc.
Describing all of these things begins to make a script feel “heavy” — usually code for too much black ink on a white page.
“But,” you say, “how can I describe this bad ass alien ship without, well, describing it!?”
It’s about word selection, compromise, and trust.
WORD SELECTION: Punchy. Active verbs. Simile. Metaphor. Vivid adjectives. Look at your descriptions. Do they have those things? Or are they flat and by-the-numbers?
Can your three line description be two lines? Can your two lines be one line?
COMPROMISE: Sometimes, no matter how great the word selection is, it just takes some serious space to convey the image or concept. That’s OK. Do this… at your own peril. If it must stay, it must stay. But know that you’re shorting something else somewhere in the script to accomplish that goal. Is a two paragraph description of a future city worth cutting two lines of dialogue that fleshes out the characters, makes them more relatable? Or could you have done a one line description of your future city? (Suggestion: one line description of future city).
TRUST: The people that matter (that’s a HUGE concept right there) read scripts all of the time. It’s what they do for a living. You have to trust (and hope!) that you can get away with your one-line description of the future city. Remember, you’re not writing a book, you’re sketching a movie. You won’t be on-set discussing the look and feel with the director. Don’t waste those words when your real intent is to place an idea in an artists head.
Like most writing tips, this one also has no one right way. I’ve read scripts that have been made that have broken all of the rules. I’ve read scripts that were all dialogue and scripts with no dialogue.
M A R K
Terra Incognita is done…
The harrowing true story of Doug Mawson, Australia’s greatest explorer who, in 1912, organized the far-eastern party to map Antarctica, leaving behind Paquita, the love of his life, for what he thinks will be a six month expedition. Three hundred miles from camp, in the most inhospitable climate in the world, his expedition goes horribly awry as men and supplies are lost. Fueled by his love for Paquita, Mawson fights his way back to camp, only to find he’s too late and his ship has left.
In other news…
Root of the Problem played Tribeca and some other fests and won at the Stanley Film Fest. Mad props to director Ryan Spindell, who had a helluva vision and really took the material to another level. We’re trying to put together another project.
The short THE LINE is written, another one location idea.
The short DOUG is in progress.
More work done on GHOST LIGHT ROAD — SFX budget done, line budget done, line producer attached. Trying to find financing.
M A R K
Yep. Sure it is.
Let’s do a little exercise on your endless imagination.
Ready? Here we go:
Imagine a new color.
Go ahead! I’ll wait!
What did you name it? Can you describe it? No? But… but you said… human imagination is endless… right?
This isn’t a slap on your imagination, princess. It’s yet another way to illustrate “it’s all already been done.” Once you embrace this idea, you can move on from your Epic 17th Century Super Hero Russian Romance with Gigantic Monsters and try to focus your brain on what works BOTH commercially and artistically.
If you don’t (or won’t, or can’t…) embrace the commercial side, and all of its associated pains-in-the-ass, you’ll forever be dashing out stuff that nobody who can really get a movie made wants to read.
A child comes home from school. He holds up his drawing — a hodge podge of crayon-scribbled circles:
He smiles up, proud of the work. What is it? you ask.
It’s a spaceman landing on the moon fighting a monster!
Yeah. Of course it is. That’s imagination. And in that context, a child’s impressionable mind creating images– the ability to make up their own color — is not only perfectly fine, it’s amazing.
At a certain point in time, that fertile imagination — the one that made all of those scribbles equal an epic moon battle — changes to a fertile puzzle solving machine. And those really really tough problems are solved by making up your own color? That won’t work in this business. The very definition of the word morphs as imagination becomes the ability to creatively solve really tough problems.
Are there instances where a writer just makes something up? Just some sort of gobbledeegook?
But the sci-fi gobbledeegook serves the big-boy story and themes, doesn’t it?
M A R K
[ kō ínssidənss ]
definition – happening without planning: the fact of happening by chance
By that definition, everything in a screenplay IS NOT coincidence. Every word, shift of character, sneeze, side-step — not coincidence.
Real-life, though, is (my opinion) really about 95% coincidence, 5% choice.
Shit happens, the saying goes.
Let’s look at … JAWS!
(Side note: AWESOME poster!)
A man-eater takes up residence just off Amity Island, a fictional island with a stunning resemblance to Martha’s Vinyard. Amity is supposed to be in upstate New York. Basically, that water is too cold for big sharks. Impossible? No. Improbable? Yes.
So the shark just happens to be there. OK. I can buy that. No problem. Why didn’t they just make it… oh… Outer Banks, NC? The waters gotta be like twenty-plus degrees warmer there? I digress.
Chrissy, drunk off her ass, in a performance that would put Michael Phelps to shame, swims out to a buoy that appears to be about a mile off the beach. She’s got drunk strength.
Coincidentally, our shark is in the area and Chrissy meets her untimely end in what might be one of the best cold-open sequences ever.
But Bruce doesn’t eat her entire body! No, no. Just a few choice bites (thought she was a seal, let go when he found she wasn’t, maybe?)
No matter, because, coincidentally, the uneaten body washes back onto shore vs… oh, getting picked apart by other predators, getting washed OUT instead of IN, you get it — it was just sort of fate (or coincidence…) that drove that body into the beach.
The town of Amity hires a New York City cop with some sort of baggage. He, his city-slicker wife and kids move to Amity. They’re outsiders. Lo and behold, Brody hates the water. This is never explained. He could hate a lot of things: clowns, roaches, grease, concentrated orange juice, but — no — as far as we know, his only real fear is water. Not a great move, hating water and moving to an island. That’s really quite the… coincidence. Especially if you know what’s coming next.
Ben Gardener’s boat is lost at sea. Keep in mind, when this happens in real life (someone lost at sea…), rescue forces are launched (you’ve seen this if you live near an ocean or The Gulf) and literally hundreds of planes, boats and men are sent to look for whatever / whoever disappeared. Many times they never find what they’re looking for. But Hooper and Brody — they DO find Ben Gardener’s boat (even though they weren’t even looking for it).
That’s like winning the coincidence jackpot!
BUT WAIT! IT GETS BETTER!
It just so happens the person driving the boat, Hooper, a shark specialist, wants to dive to find… WHAT? What is the reason Hooper wants to dive on Ben’s boat? Why don’t they just pull the boat closer and then step over to it?
And then — IMAGINE THAT! – one the the shark’s teeth is embedded in the hull of the boat!
Surely you agree this is a preponderance of coincidence.
But it works, doesn’t it?
Coincidence is fine as long as there’s at least an inkling of truth: Hooper’s into sharks. Sharks are in the area. Ben’s boat looks beat up. Maybe the shark attacked it? Maybe there’s a hole in the bottom that might give a clue? OK. Sure.
As we move further and further down the path of — let’s call it audience enlightenment — the ability to stack coincidence upon coincidence becomes more and more problematic. This is the age of reason. Things have meaning. We don’t see ourselves as creatures that react. We see ourselves as creatures that are the drivers of our lives — we are the authors of our own story. We’re in CONTROL. We’re not just victims of circumstance… are we?
Sure. You’re in control. Uh huh.
Keep telling yourself that, sport.
M A R K
He’s got a really distinctive voice.
What the hell does that even mean!?
Imagine bee-bopin’ down the road. Your favorite song comes on the radio. You crank it.
You know alllll the words and you are SPOT-ON! Damn! If that singer dies, you think, you might be able to just sort of step right in and pick up where he (or she!) left off… just like Marky Mark in ROCK STAR!
Then your passenger, mid-song, reaches over and kills the volume and they you are, screeching like a 7 year-old. Your voice a horrible mess. Not even close to the pro you were aping. You’ve got no voice. And what you THOUGHT you had was actually just a really really bad imitation of the singer who had spent a life-time honing his (or her!) craft.
Most of us start by imitating someone else. Read a Tarantino script, think a-ha, that’s how it’s done! I can do that! then write something you THINK he’d write.
That’s not your voice. That’s an imitation of his voice.
Let’s flip the idea around.
Ever hear someone sing your favorite song, but it’s their version of it? Maybe it’s rock instead of country. Down tempo instead of up. Sung in a different key. Emphasis on a different phrase. It’s THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT and it RAWKS!
So when some puts a distinctive mark on the content, it becomes theirs, they “own” that version, distinctly theirs.
When you look back at all of the rock stars, at their beginnings, you’ll always find some sort of version of We were just trying to imitate… Rush, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zep, etc. etc.
That’s where establishing your voice legitimately starts (by trying to write that Tarantino movie…), but it has to morph and change from imitation into something that’s coveted.
You practice. You make mistakes. You hold a cruel mirror up to the work. You learn what’s important. What’s not. Where you will compromise. Where you won’t. You go from tentatively writing to aggressively attacking the page. You toy with people and surprise them. You make a name for yourself. You become distinctive and effortless. You become… coveted.
Find your voice.
M A R K