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Writing 101: Tips From Three Tribeca Screenwriters

Writing 101: Tips From Three Tribeca Screenwriters

As part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Pen To Paper” talks series at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, three screenwriters – “Nice Guy Johnny”‘s Edward Burns, “Snap”‘s Carmel Winters, and “The Infidel”‘s David Baddiel – sat down with novelist Susan Orlean (whose novel “The Orchid Thief,” appropriately enough, was the root of Charlie Kaufman’s script for “Adaptation”). Over the course of an hour to a packed audience of mostly aspiring writers, Orlean discussed the writing process with the trio, all of whom are showing their work at the Tribeca Film Festival itself.

indieWIRE was in attendance, and has these ten tips that the panelists offered during the course of the event.

Stick to a writing schedule.

Edward Burns: I’m pretty strick about my schedule. I start writing everyday at 9:30, and I write until 1. I have lunch, and then I pick it up again around 2:30 and then work write until 5. That’s the only way for me for to stay productive. Some days are more successful than others, but that’s what I try to do.

If you’re just starting out, write for a low budget.

Carmel Winters: For ten years, I wrote for the writing in blissful naiveté that scripts for a $10 or $20 million budget were going to be made for an unknown writer. I was believing the ideology that ‘just write in your isolation, and if it’s good enough it will get made.’ Not going to happen. I wrote great scripts and they did not get made. And how “Snap” got made was I scaled it for the conditions of filmmaking in my country. I wrote for a low budget.

Don’t limited the definition of what you write.

David Baddiel: This is my first screenplay that’s been made, and I’ve written four novels, and I would say that as a writer I go with the idea. So, when I had the idea for this film, it felt like a high-concept comedy idea for me, and thus would suit a screenplay and a movie. I don’t personally feel that writing is about defining yourself as a novelist or a screenwriter. If you can write, you can write, in my opinion.

Write something that has to written.

Carmel Winters: At the low budget end I was working on, something had to be utterly like itself, and not like anything else. So for me the starting point is the medium… I do not write something just because it’s a good idea. I used to. And I have really confident scripts in my back pocket that I probably won’t pursue. Because they are just not specific enough. And now I’m looking for that. I’m looking for something that has to be written, and that no one else is going to write it. If I’m halfway through something and I think that someone else could write it better, I really would rather they did it.

Let your story come out of your characters.

Edward Burns: My stuff is low concept. Usually character driven, and usually born out of a type of character I either know or come across that I get excited about exploring who they are, and a lot of times where they come from. So I try and look at environment, their community, their family, and they are mostly born out of that. Periodically I’ve tried to find a little bit of a plot just to drive the story forward in order to explore who these people are.

Be prepared to watch your work change without you.

David Baddiel: If you write a novel, you have complete control. It’s a very pure form of self-expression on some level. Whereas the minute you write a screenplay, basically you’re saying that this is the template for something that loads of other people are going to change and make happen in ways that might not be exactly how you envisioned it. Which is weird because writing is such a controlled thing to do. It’s a weird thing to be writing and think that the future is going to put this into something else.

Write to your strengths, and don’t be afraid to direct it too.

Carmel Winters: When I wrote this screenplay [for “Snap”], I thought somebody else probably would direct it. But I still wrote it to my own strengths, and for the first time ever as a writer I allowed myself to really write the whole film, not just the script. And the perception ended up being that it was a very favored script but it needed a name director to see it through. So I spent five months in the process of looking for someone, and then it occured to me: a quality director needs a level of understanding of the script itself. Because it’s the kind of script that there’s a tightrope through it. It works if you’re on that tightrope, but if you’re on either side of it, it doesn’t work…so I did it. Even though I didn’t have any experience at all on set. I’d never directed a short film even.

Write with an actor in mind.

David Baddiel: It makes quite a big difference if you write with somebody in mind. I mean, with [“The Indifel” star] Omid Djalili, I wrote this film for him. He’s in every scene of the film, and as an actor he carries the film. That really helps as a writer, I find. You can hear the voice of the actor doing it as you write.

If you’re going to direct your script, think about locations when you write.

Edward Burns: There are two types of scripts that I have written. One is with disregard for budget. You know, I’m going to write for the writing and tell the story that way I think it should be told. And then you go out and try and get that film made. Usually what happens with those scripts is that they don’t get made. And you sit down and think that two years have passed and you want to make another film. So then I sit down and write with a budget in mind. For my first film [“The Brothers McMullen”], basically what I did was I wrote a list of locations I knew I could get for free. I live in New York, and I knew you don’t need permits to shoot in Central Park. So I put five scenes in Central Park. Part of indie filmmaking is that you have to believe in compromise. And that isn’t necessarily a dirty word.

Let the restrictions help your process.

Carmel Winters: I find the writing is so much better when I start with some pragmatic, lovely fences and restrictions. I mean, you can write anything. I love stories, characters…my head is full of them. So to peg myself down and fence myself in makes everything much more pressurized. It wouldn’t work the same if I had something where I had to trim its fingers and take a little bit of its head off. I have to start with an idea that’s going to thrive in those conditions.

Peter Knegt is indieWIRE’s Associate Editor. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

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