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Paul Thomas Anderson, Greta Gerwig, and 8 More Great Screenwriters Share Their Best Advice

From Issa Rae to Rian Johnson to Nancy Meyers, The Austin Film Fest's "On Story Project" has hosted in-depth screenwriting conversations with some of the best writers working in film and TV today.

Austin Film Festival on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

Jonathan Demme and Paul Thomas Anderson discuss writing at the 2013 Austin Film Festival

Jack Plunkett

When the Austin Film Festival first launched 25 years ago, it planted its flag as a place that celebrates the craft of screenwriting. Now every October top screenwriters gather in Austin to talk about and celebrate the art of writing for the big and small screens. Seven years ago, AFF branched out to capture these screenwriting discussions with the “On Story Project,” which they share with the public for free through various formats: a PBS-distributed TV series, a PRI-distributed radio show, a podcast, a book, and an archive hosted at the Wittliff Collections.

In honor of AFF having launched its first ever crowdfunding campaign, dedicated to support the growing On Story Project (which ends today!), IndieWire has collected quotes from some of our favorite filmmakers and screenwriters about how they get through the difficulties of writing. Each of these quotes are from in-depth conversations available to download in podcast form. Information about the podcast and the crowdfunding campaign are that bottom of this article.

Jason Segel (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”)

Jason Segel at Austin Film Fest 2016

Jason Segel at Austin Film Fest 2016

Jack Plunkett

“One of the big voices that you’re silencing, if you’re self-aware, is the internal voice that says ‘you are not capable of doing this’ or ‘who do you think you are’. It’s how I felt [at] ‘The End of the Tour.’ You have this own internal voice saying ‘you are not the man for the job’. I think part of your job is to fight through that ‘cuz that’s fear; that’s the big thing of doing anything, is deciding ‘oh I’m capable of doing it.’”

Alan Yang (“Master of None”)

“My routine is not writing. It’s really hard to start, so it varies from thing to thing. One of the pieces of advice, if I could even call it that, to anyone who’s trying to write is, man, if you can just write some every day, it’s a miracle and you’ll probably be unbelievably successful, because everyone I know, even the most successful writers, it’s so hard to get motivated.”

Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”)

“I don’t think anybody sits down to write. Do you? I don’t. There was a lot of talking it out and deciding what is it we’re trying to say, because there’s no point if there’s not something you’re trying to say. So you go in a lot of places. There are a lot of things you think about, a lot of things you want a movie to be about, but as the process kind of goes, you have to narrow it down so it’s clear.”

Issa Rae (“Insecure”)

Issa Rae talks writing in Austin

Issa Rae talks writing in Austin

Yoomi Park

“I think as you continue to create and you start to worry less about failing, and ‘Does my stuff suck?’ After a while, you have to be like, “What else do you want to do? Do you want to go back?” The answer is, “No!” That propels me to go forward. The worst that can happen is that people don’t like what you do. It’s fine, that’s why you’re a writer because you come up with tons of other ideas.”

“We would change houses and schools every two years. And that was like, “Ugh, I have to try to make new friends or reinvent myself again.” And you just tend to be like overly self-aware in a way, and you observe a lot, like sit on the sidelines and observe the double dutch, social double dutch, to see where you can get in. And that’s been where a lot of my inspiration comes from, just from observation and from being just generally uncomfortable.”

Jay Duplass (“Togetherness”)

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that we all think in our heads so much about what I’m going to do to the world and how I’m going to make this great thing happen, and oh shit, I’ve got to channel the universe here, and I think the truth is that you can’t really. What this is all about is the day that I figured out what I uniquely had to offer the world, which is the pathetic, desperate, fucking hilarious shit that I put myself through every day. I don’t think that you can decide that. I think that has to happen to you, and I think that persistence is a big part of that, because you make things and you put it in the world, and the world will tell you if it’s great or not. It’s something that I do still struggle with, because you have ideas and you want to do it, but I tried to lay back a little bit and let my experiences with the world more tell me now what to do.”

Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”)

“I was lucky to take Basil Wright as a documentary teacher. He said, ‘Don’t worry. Make your film and remember to respect the subject.’ And for some reason the light came on, and I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ […] It reminded me of to do films about my community and using film as a means for social change.”

Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”)

Greta Gerwig at the 2017 Austin Film Fest

Greta Gerwig at the 2017 Austin Film Fest

Courtesy of AFF

“Acting is listening, but I think for me writing is listening too. I spend a lot of time listening to what my characters are trying to tell me about who they are, and they’re always telling you. It’s the mysterious part of writing, where you have all this craft and you spend all this time making it as good as it can be, and then at the same time, your unconscious knows more than you do, and you have to keep that channel open.”

Paul Feig (“Ghostbusters”)

“The characters start to come organically out of the actors and their personality starts to intermingle. They are becoming the characters in the story and it’s helping us figure them out so that we go back and rewrite. They come up with ideas they’ve given us, put in some of their funniest lines, and we’ll put them in for them to do. […] So by the time we get to the set, we’ve already got a lot of extra jokes and I know they can go off. I cross shoot it so that I always have a camera on both of us. If an improv happens, I’m not missing one side of it and you just start throwing curve balls. [If] I’ll get inspired in the moment, other people will. What happens is you get this wealth of material. The worst thing you can do in comedy is only shoot the script because I can almost guarantee all the stuff you think is going to be hilarious, is not going to be funny.”

“It wasn’t until I think I wrote ‘Freaks and Geeks’ that I really had that moment of putting purely my experience on the page, and it was the first thing I’d written that really got a response out of people and got accepted…but what you want to do no matter what the story you’re trying to tell is, you need to put yourself into the characters. You need to put aspects of yourself so that those characters are still reacting in a real way, in a real human way.”

Rian Johnson (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”)

Rian Johnson at AFF in 2013

Rian Johnson at AFF in 2013

Jack Plunkett

“I think when you are in the formation stage there are several possible things that you could end up landing on. That’s when your attention gets pulled, but once that fishhook goes in and you are actually down the path of writing this thing. I think there is absolutely urgency to it. So much of that writing is pushed forward by this. It’s kind of like something that you have to attend to, because it’s like being in love. That kind of rush of being really excited about this story and following it. I think you have to devote all of your attention to her…until it’s finished. Hopefully if it is going well, you aren’t tempted to look to either side, you are just looking at the thing you are in love with.”

Danny Rubin (“Groundhog Day”)

“When I wrote this, I had index cards. It’s interesting to look at them and shuffle through them. I started with cork board, but there was too many cards for that, so I would toss them on the floor, ‘Oh that’s an act one idea, that’s an act three idea…’, and the same with characters, the character progression ideas. You might write down five things you want to see the character [do] and look for scenes where they can be put. […] I just stare at those cards and try to get some feeling and eventually a scene emerges that you wanna write. It doesn’t always go in order and there are adjustments you look at what makes sense for characters […] I definitely don’t just do it in my head and I definitely don’t do it perfectly the first time or third or fifth. It’s a process and you have to choose process, get into it, get something on paper and then react to it and change it.”

Paul Thomas Anderson (“Phantom Thread”)

“I’ve had experiences, […] just to get through the process of writing it, which is so difficult to begin with, but you feel proud of yourself for having finished writing this thing and gotten to the end, and then you think, ‘Oh, everyone will think the same way, especially the financiers,’ and then you plop this thing down and they say, ‘No, no, we don’t want to pay money for this.’ The search continues to go get money again. It’s always hard, it’s debilitating. For me, generating material – […] it’s just no less disheartening or demoralizing when you try to get the money – to convince somebody that you should be allowed to do what you want to do.”

On Story’s crowdfunding campaign can be found at here. To learn more about On Story and watch every episode for free, click here.

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