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by Paula Bernstein
October 4, 2013 4:15 PM
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8 Writing Tips From Screenwriting Masters Larry Gross, Naomi Foner, Henry Bean and Andrea Arnold

Film Society of Lincoln Center

Veteran award-winning screenwriters Henry Bean ("The Believer"), Larry Gross ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") and Naomi Foner ("Very Good Girls") talked about their craft and tricks of the trade, along with Filmmaker in Residence Andrea Arnold ("Fishtank") yesterday at the Story Creation and the Artistic Process panel as part of the NYFF Live free-to-the-public series of filmmaker conversations.

Arnold is currently in New York as the 2013 "Filmmaker in Residence" for the 51st New York Film Festival. The project she is working on, which she described as a "road movie," is set in the U.S. so she felt the "filmmaker in residence" gig was just what she needed to finish it.

"I've already written a draft and I'm really self-critical with my writing and I've been holding it close to me for quite a long time. When this residence thing came up, I thought 'oh my God, that's just what I needed -- a big kick up the bum really -- to finish it off and get it to the next level," said Arnold. "If I have all the time in the world, I'll take all the time in the world. I'll take years. But six weeks, I can finish it in that time and I'll be in America which is where the film is set, so it's a perfect opportunity."

Arnold said the city has already been a big inspiration to her. "The street life here is really lively. You hear little snippets of people saying things," said Arnold. "Once I hear something, I start imagining the person and their life and I start making up a whole story. They just said a little tiny thing and I'm walking down the street and I'm already imagining a whole world."

Her fellow writers, who are all New York-based, agreed that New York City provides endless fodder for a writer. "When I get stuck, I take a walk because inevitably, there is something I will see or hear somebody say that will just help push me over when I'm feeling arid into something real because there's so much reality going on around you all of the time," said Foner. "I can't take a walk without seeing something. Definitely the city is intense and filled with all kinds of things that set me off, which is very different from LA where you're in a car going from one place to another and when you get there, you're stuck in a box. The street life is completely missing. I would say it's invaluable being in the city."

The city provided Bean with material for "Noise," which was based on a real life incident in New York City. "I was being disturbed by a car alarm and it wasn't the first time. I went outside and I broke into the car and I was disconnecting the battery when the police arrived. And I mouthed off in an unnecessary way and I ended up spending the night in jail…That became the movie 'Noise,'" said Bean. "The city had a big effect on that film. It wouldn't have been a film otherwise."

Aside from moving to New York, here are other writing tips from the masters:

1. Change perspective, literally.

"I think the minute I get up from my desk, I see differently the thing I was just doing…I think that change of perspective, the change of place, the change of angle, the change of air, makes you see things differently." -- Henry Bean

2. Don't wait for perfection.

"The biggest thing that separates novice writers from professional writers is that professional writers have learned to forgo the illusion that they're going to produce imperfect work." -- Larry Gross

3. Just do it, even if you doubt that you can.

"It took me a good number of years before I put the words on paper because I was worried if it turned out I couldn't write. Then it took me fully 30 years before I directed a film because I didn't think I knew what I needed to know, which was also bullshit. I think this is something women do more than men, but definitely self-doubt  and this desire to judge yourself before you even start and to think there's only one way to do when in fact, the best stuff is done by people who don't have any idea how you're supposed to do it and are following their own instincts and taking risks." -- Naomi Foner

4. Listen to your characters.

"When your characters are really living they tell you what they do." - Andrea Arnold

"As the characters become alive to me, there are things that I think they're going to do that they refuse to do and as I get closer, they won't do and then I have to let them tell me where they're going." -- Naomi Foner

5. Stop making excuses.

"There are a million things that are distracting you and a million excuses and if you want an excuse not to write, you will find it." -- Henry Bean

6. Don't care what others think.

"I think I started writing because I felt like I had to. I hate it and I love it at the same time. It's really hard...Even though I don't think I'm a brilliant writer -- lots of people say 'oh she's a better director than a writer' -- I don't fucking care." -- Andrea Arnold

7. Start out with powerful images.

"I had this image of a girl pissing in a living room on the carpet and I thought 'god, why's she pissing in someone's living room?" It wasn't hers. It wasn't where she lived. And I thought 'wow - why is she pissing in someone's living room?" -- Andrea Arnold (on coming up with the idea for "FishTank")

8. Keep it simple.

"I think there's nothing like a really good story, simply told." -- Andrea Arnold


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9 Comments

  • Z | October 10, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    There is plenty - and I mean PLENTY - of street life in LA! It's a simple case of getting out of the proverbial car and becoming involved with the community and life here. If these folks are New Yorkers, zipping into town solely to take meetings, then naturally they would not experience LA in that way.

  • Tim Kessler | October 7, 2013 2:21 PMReply

    Wow, Did they get together in a conference call and bet each other who can come up with the worst and most banal "tips" on writing? Laughable if that's what they conjured up. If they were all being earnest and doing the best they could I'm amazed at the collective lack of sincerity and forethought.

  • Drac | October 6, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    Why are these comments so derisive? It's an article on a website--I don't get the scorn.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | October 6, 2013 11:42 AMReply

    I have to agree with the other commenters. Nothing new or groundbreaking was said.

    If you want helpful tips then you can just read McKee's "Story" online right now. One of the most important tips that it gave me is that your first ideas are low-hanging, rotted fruit that any wannabe storyteller at a cocktail party can reach for. You can come up with better shit, so don't dive in head-first until you're sure you've exhausted all possibilities.

  • Daniel Delago | October 6, 2013 6:37 AMReply

    Just do it! Why didn't I think of that?

  • novicewriter | October 6, 2013 1:05 AMReply

    Who is the editor that thought this list was worthy of publication? I'm just glad I didn't have to take a screenwriting workshop for $399 from one of these yahoos to be told these same simplistic pointers. Sad.

  • brandon G | October 5, 2013 11:13 PMReply

    There are great books and articles out there about the intricacies of writing, how to make your writing better and how to sell your work, but this certainly isn't it. Keep writing you say, look at things differently, write good stories, if this is the most insightful tips from the masters you've got, don't bother. I don't know if they themselves don't know, or aren't willing to actually provide true vision into the process of writing and convincing others what you have written is worth reading.

  • Idontunderstand | October 5, 2013 12:53 AMReply

    I don't understand why Naomi Foner was there.

  • Deaf Ears | October 5, 2013 9:10 AM

    They needed somebody to regurgitate the usual cliches about LA. There's plenty of street life here if you're willing to poke around.