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