Sunday, June 17, 2012

Any Questions?

I did a pair of talks within the same week - one at Universal Studios along with Zak Penn (AVENGERS) to the Scriptwriter’s Network... and 6 days later to a group of Highschool students downtown (as in - near the criminal courts building) for my friend Emily. One was kind of formal, the other was just talking with kids. One had a moderator asking Zak and I questions, the other was just me showing a clip from BLACK THUNDER and telling a little bit about the job of screenwriter. And then both went to the audience for question and answer sessions - and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Between film festivals and writer’s conferences and websites and magazines and everything else, I’ve done hundreds of interviews and answered thousands of questions... and many of those questions were a waste of time. My time, and the time of the audience and the time of the person asking the question. I swear, at every single event where I’ve been on a panel someone asks “How do you get an agent?” Stuff like that seems like cart-before-horse and wouldn’t that be a better question to ask *an agent*? Yet that question is always asked, and questions about *writing screenplays* sometimes never come up! I’ve been on panels where I thought I might be in the wrong room!

And it’s not just the audience - I’ve been on panels and interviewed where it seems like the moderator or journalist was asking all of the stupid questions. One of the odd issues with moderators or interviewers is that they often have their own agenda or personal interest and ask questions based on them - creating some really weird interviews. I was on a panel of action writers once where the moderator was a sci-fi geek... and all of the questions were about writing science fiction and STAR TREK - and none of us had ever written an episode or one of the movies. Often you get moderators who think Hollywood sucks because of (fill in the blank) and the questions are all about (fill in the blank) When a panel of screenwriters is getting hammered with questions from the moderator on why Hollywood is obsesses with making films in 3D, it’s just wasting *everyone’s* time. We don’t have anything to do with that decision. Please, ask us about dialogue or plants and pay offs or something! But in cases like this - the moderator is in control and we will talk about what the *moderator* wants to talk about.

I moderated an action panel for Sherwood Oaks College once - it was a 2 day even with a dozen panels and I was doing one of the last ones... and afterwards a *bunch* of people came up to tell me how great my moderation was. WTF? I just sat there and asked questions! But, it seems some other moderators had steered the conversation to whatever they wanted to talk about and some of the panels were a waste of time. By the way, I love Sherwood Oaks - Gary does great events - I’m using it as an example only because it’s typical. Many of the events I attend have odd moderator issues, and you really appreciate someone who seems to have done their homework and asks great questions. I was on an action panel at Austin where the moderator had actually read at least the capsule descriptions of all of our films so that he seemed like he’d seen them (including mine). But guys like that are rare - usually you get a moderator who will ask an action panel something like why does Hollywood put up with Lindsay Lohan’s antics? Um, we don’t know.

I was interviewed once by a guy who wanted the interview to be all about *him*. He thinks (fill in the blank) about screenwriting, how did I feel about that? So my answer could only be about some odd belief he had... but maybe no one else has. Yikes! When you are reading some writer interview and the writer is talking about stuff you don’t care about, that’s usually because the interviewer *asked* those questions.


Okay, you are going to some screenwriting event where there will be panels or guest speakers... what are you going to ask them? Don’t wait until you get there to come up with some questions - if you know who is going to be on the panel in advance, do some research on who they are and what they might know about *writing* that could help you and come up with some questions. Don’t try to be clever and ask a pointless question just to show that you saw that writer’s long lost first film or something - the purpose is not to have the famous writer think you are clever (they won’t) but to get some actual information and guidance from someone who does this for a living.

At Scriptwriter’s Network there were some great questions to Zak about working on the Marvel films leading up to THE AVENGERS, and how he was involved early on in all of those films planting elements that would later be used in AVENGERS. That was an interesting question because it’s like a series of interlocking movies - how do you write something like that?

I’ve seen a bunch of movies where I want to run of out the cinema and search for interviews with the writer to see if they talk about some unusual or clever aspect of the story and explain how or why they did it. Hey - those are the questions to ask!

Though writing process questions can be good - there was a question at Scriptwriter’s Network about outlining vs. freewriting - some questions just seem pointless to me. “What software do you use?” Who cares? You use whatever you use, and there are writers who use typewriters and some who write longhand and have typist key it in to a computer (on some program) - it doesn’t matter! Zak uses Final Draft, I use Movie Magic. Doesn’t matter - when you hit “print” both spit out a screenplay. The important part, the thing that *does* matter - what’s on the pages of that screenplay. The story, the characters, the actions, the dialogue, the scenes, the situations, etc. Ask about the writing part!

But come up with some good questions about craft and technique and story... and ask them. What I would do is look at the problems *you* are having with your screenplay (and screenwriting). Making sure each character has a unique voice? Coming up with that great ending? Making the love interest plausible? Turning emotions into actions? Adding depth to your protagonist? Whatever *you’re* having trouble with - this is a great chance to have an expert give you advice!

Next thing to do is look at who will be speaking and become familiar enough with their work to figure out which writer is the best one to ask. One of them may have a film that tackles that problem, and you can find out how *they* did it. The better you can match question to person, the better your answer will probably be.

*How* you ask the question is important, too. You want to ask the question in a way that *everyone* benefits from the answer. That means, you’ll need to phrase it in a way that is general to screenwriting and not specific to your screenplay. A panel or speaker doesn’t want to hear you describe your story for 5 minutes before you get to the question. So, *before* the event, take the time to figure out what your question *is*. Find the way to phrase it so that it’s a general question about screenwriting so that you don’t have to explain the situation. By the way, if you do that - half the time you can figure out the answer *without* the expert’s help - but ask anyway. You may get methods you never thought of. But it’s all about being prepared *before* the event, rather than trying to figure out questions without knowing who the speakers are and how to explain what you need to know.


The kids in Emily’s class had all just made short films as an assignment, and had lots of questions about how things are done in “real movies” and how they could do things like that in their movies. These were great questions because they were all about *how to do things* and those kids might do some of those things in future short films. There were also some good questions about the clip I showed them - including one on how a scene where a star is flying a jet fighter plan is filmed. My clip had a scene like that with Michael Dudikoff, and one kid asked if they did the same thing with Tom Cruise in TOP GUN - yes, they did. And I talked about how scenes like that are written. Oddly enough, I think the kids asked better questions than I get when I’m on some film festival writer’s panel. Maybe that’s because they just want to know *how* to do things. Even the smart ass questions from the kids were pretty good - one on why were there so many explosions in my clip, and another on whether actors and actresses really have sex in sex scenes (I didn’t show them a sex scene - they must have seen one somewhere else). Both were jokes - but still had to do with how movies are made and why Michael Bay movies are so popular. Even when they were joking, they wanted to know how things were done and why things were done - practical questions!

If you are in the audience at one of these panels or events and you have *one chance* to ask Shane Black or Aaron Sorkin a question... is it really going to be what software he uses? Take the time before the event to come up with questions where the answers will help *your writing* - those are the ones to ask.

- Bill

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