How Top Screenwriters Hone Their Craft
Five wordsmiths in the awards race reveal the thought process behind their attention-grabbing scripts.
Writer, Martha Marcy May Marlene
"I've written a lot of shorts, but this was my first feature. I've always had a hard time wrapping my head around traditional structure and the way they teach screenwriting in school. It felt like science to me -- and I was never good at math or science! Although the structure of Martha is a lot of back and forth with time as the protagonist tries to figure out what happened to her when she was in the cult, I never approached it like they were flashbacks; I thought her emotional journey was linear. The scenes I struggled with the most I ended up cutting because they weren't flowing. "My advice to writers? Don't ever make a choice because you think it's something people 'want to see.' Anytime you start making choices based on that, you start to go wrong. Only make choices that you feel are true to you and to the story."
Co-writer, The Ides of March (with George Clooney and Beau Willimon)
"I was given the play to read by someone at my office. George Clooney and I were working on another idea, but we decided to drop that project. With a book, you have to cut out a lot more; with a play, you have to invent more. For example, in the play, there was no candidate character. He's only talked about; you never see him. So we opened that character up to see how Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) interacted with him. We wanted to make the film version a bigger morality tale. One of the ways we approached that is we wrote that scene with George and Ryan in the kitchen, the showdown -- we wrote it first so we knew where we were going to end up. Research-wise, the best thing we had going for us was that George and I did an insider politics show for HBO called K Street [in 2003]. That was our education."
Co-writer, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (with Bridget O'Connor)
"We went through the book several times, highlighted sections and created a map of the novel on one continuous strip of paper so we had a road map of the plot. We had to combine some characters, lose some scenes and invent new ones while still making sure it stayed true to that lovely, complicated John le Carre world. The script went through three drafts before we were greenlighted. We were quite worried about what the fans of the book and the original film would think of our version. The fact that le Carre himself liked and was supportive of the film was a big help."
Co-writer, Bridesmaids (with Annie Mumolo)
"Bridesmaids was our first screenplay. I knew how scripts worked, but I didn't know what should generally happen on page 30, or in three acts, so we bought one of Syd Field's books on screenwriting. When Annie and I turned in our original draft, she was seven months pregnant -- and then she was seven months pregnant again when we shot the movie. We joked that when her babies came out, their first words were going to be 'Judd' [Apatow, who produced the movie] and 'rewrite.' There are a lot of sad moments in the film, which we really wanted. In the end, the story is the most important thing. It's story first and funny second."
Writer, Young Adult
"I don't typically write a lot of drafts, but this time I wrote more drafts than anything I've ever worked on. Because I'm aware of an audience now, I don't work as freely as I used to. When I wrote Juno, I had never written a screenplay, so I had no reason to believe that anyone would ever make the movie or see it. Young Adult, in a way, was the first feature I wrote in the pressure cooker. I was very precise and careful. I found it really pleasurable to write Mavis (Charlize Theron). It was cathartic to channel your own misanthropic tendencies into a character who makes no apologies for who she is. It's challenging from a business standpoint, though, because you know you've created something that might not be marketable or easy for people to watch. But I wanted to take that chance."