20 Filmmakers on the Art and Habits of Screenwriting

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Hollywood’s Happiest Couple: Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, screening at Film Forum today and Monday, May 16 as part of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Spotlight on Screenwriting series, will highlight the best of Wilder and Brackett’s collaborations. For over a decade, the men worked on 13 films, including Academy Award-winners The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard. Wilder’s uncompromising approach and Brackett’s refined sensibility played perfectly off of one another, resulting in some of the most memorable screenplays in Hollywood. Inspired by the filmmaking duo, we collected quotes from directors about their approach to screenwriting.

Billy Wilder

“Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.”

Stanley Kubrick

“I think that the best plot is no apparent plot. I like a slow start, the start that gets under the audiences skin and involves them so that they can appreciate grace notes and soft tones and don’t have to be pounded over the head with plot points and suspense hooks.”

Quentin Tarantino

“When I describe things in my writing I never use writing adjectives. I don’t know what a writing adjective is. I always use acting adjectives. To me writing’s almost the same thing because you’re acting like a character and that’s what acting is all about, the moment. You don’t want to be result oriented, you don’t want to say, ‘Okay, this is what’s going to happen.’ No, you start with your character and anything can happen, like life. You shouldn’t try to predestine where you’re gonna go and what you’re gonna see. You can hit the nail on the head, but you want the kind of freedom that allows for something you hadn’t even imagined to happen. I’m very much a man of the moment. I can think about an idea for a year, two years, even four years all right, but what ever is going on with me the moment I write is gonna work its way into the piece.”

Mary Harron

“In some ways it’s easier to just try and write something yourself, because then you are thinking about how you would film it as you write. But obviously can be harder to get it made than signing on for a script that already has financing. In television I actually enjoy working on someone else’s script because you have to ‘find it’ in a way that you don’t if you’ve been writing it for years. It’s a very interesting process of discovery.”

Wes Anderson

“We do a lot of talking about what we’re going to write for a long time before we ever start to write. And when we do start writing, it’s a lot of trading scraps of paper back and forth for a long time. That sort of grows into something.”

David Lynch

“If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards. As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film.”

Jim Jarmusch

“A lot of times when I’m writing I’m just sort of writing down things I hear the characters say, and I really don’t believe it came from me.”

Sofia Coppola

“It’s different when I’m working on an original screenplay as opposed to when I’m adapting something. I try and be disciplined about it. I find it hard, especially to start writing. I used to stay up late at night; now I have kids and that’s not really possible. With Somewhere, I was interested in how simply you could tell a story. So I felt inspired to write something that we could make in a simple way: to show a portrait of a guy in a moment of his life. And this guy just sort of came along. I was curious about writing something from a guy’s point of view. . . . I use Final Draft on my laptop. I know some people write in long hand, but I find it helpful to sort of see it in the format of a screenplay as I write. . . . I find that [writing and directing] are both part of the same process for me, because the writing is just a tool to getting to the final story. But writing is so hard for me—it’s the most challenging part [of the writing process]—so when you finish it and print it out, that’s the most gratifying.”

Pedro Almodóvar

“I never censor myself. I mean I am very reflexive when I go to work. How can I say this? I am reflexive technically and aesthetically because a film is something which is quite organized, systematic. A film has thousands of shots. You have to ask for a lamp or you won’t get one, you have to ask for a color or you won’t get it . . . everything has to be very organized at the time of shooting. But in writing and conceiving the film, my way of being sincere and honest is to have no limits. To let things happen almost from the most irrational point of view. I don’t try to control this, much less to be self-censored.”

David Cronenberg

“Screenwriting is a very strange hybrid kind of writing. It’s not like prose writing—in fact, it’s better if your prose isn’t very good or deep. You’ve got a whole crew who are going to be looking at it for suggestions for an architecture that they are there to carry out. So you’re very restricted. You don’t bother to describe what your characters look like, for example, other than to say, you know, he’s handsome and he’s tall. An actor is going to be cast who might not look like that, so there’s no point. Likewise with locations and costumes. So it’s a very pared down, simple form, really, the screenplay. The only thing that goes directly on the screen is the dialogue and the narrative structure. You can be a terrible writer, but if you write good dialogue and have a good sense of narrative structure, you can be a good screenwriter and still be functionally illiterate, which a lot of good screenwriters in my experience are. Very different.”

Jane Campion

“I prefer collaboration because it’s not so neurotic-making. You can check things through and laugh. The other person can help you feel better when things go badly.”

Paul Thomas Anderson

“I’m showing some of my cards here, but I often write scenes without knowing where they’re gonna go, and as I write I start acting and sort of improvising. It’s great when the scene takes on a life of its own and frustrating when it doesn’t, because the passages you have to labor over are invariably worse than the ones that seem to write themselves. This notion that writing happens in the rewriting is something that I’ve never agreed with. I’ve always hated rewriting. Rewriting is for pussies! Send it out, zits and all, is my feeling.”

Ava Duvernay

“I really respect people who can write anywhere, but I’ve got to light a candle and have the right slippers on.”

Nora Ephron

“You have to sit in a period called ‘not-writing‘ and write pages and pages of anything that crosses your mind. Or you can read things that will help you. I just did a script that has Pride and Prejudice as one of its themes [Lost in Austen]. . . . And I read the book a zillion times, and I did a kind of outline of the book, and in the end I used absolutely none of it except maybe the first six chapters. But the point is you do something, whether or not it’s the actual writing. When I work with my sister Delia, we outline everything we’re doing. Completely. The outlines are endless, at least fifty pages long. But when I write by myself, I almost never have an outline; I just do it. I know the structure. I know the beginning, the middle, the end.”

Lena Dunham

“To my own detriment, everything that happens to me becomes fodder. Sometimes I wonder if I would be a bit happier if I were more in the moment, and less trying to translate the moment into a piece of writing or a piece of film. I have never known another way to express myself, whether it was writing weird confessional poetry in fourth grade or my first play, which was closely based on what I thought the relationship between my mom and her two sisters was. It’s just the way that I think.”

Gina Prince-Bythewood

“‘I write what I want to see’ absolutely drives me. I just distinctly recall never being able to go to the theatre and look up on the screen and see myself. It’s easy for me to write these stories. Easy, as in this is what I want to do, but writing is extremely hard for me and very painful. I hear people who are like ‘Oh, I love to write! I write every day.’ And I’m jealous of that, because mine is like overeating and crying and self-loathing [smiles]. But in terms of what I write, it’s very clear. I just want to put us on screen and show our diversity of thought and diversity of our lives. We are not a monolith. So I love writing us, and we especially need to see black women reflected up on screen. That’s what I fight for. And it is an incredible fight, I’m not going to lie.”

Alfred Hitchcock

“To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.”

Jean-Luc Godard

“There is no point in having sharp images when you’ve fuzzy ideas.”

Ana Lily Amirpour

“Whenever I write any character for any script, I like to have all of the backstory and history and everything about the character. I was doing that for all of the characters in The Girl so I had all of these awesome stories, like how she bought the poster of Elvis Presley when she saw him in Morocco, how she became a vampire in Iran, traveled all over Europe. Really cool stuff. Her origin story, how she gets depressed and goes out into the desert to kill herself, but can’t do it.”

Desiree Akhavan

“It’s about collaboration. I didn’t do this alone. I think if I had, it would suck, completely. You have to rely really heavily on people whose taste you trust, and you know that for a fact. For me, it was my cinematographer, my producer, my editor, and my co-star. I knew that whatever they brought to the table was going to elevate the story. If they pushed me on something, and they convinced me, I knew that would be an opportunity to make it better than it was.”