Advice for budding
screenwriting process is as unique as the individuals crafting
the scripts. Great storytelling, not formulaic scenes, make for
the best films. And screenwriters, unlike novelists, playwrights
and TV writers, have little control over the final product. These
were a few of the points made Oct. 27 by panelists Sam Hamm and
John Hancock to a capacity film
festival crowd at the screenwriters' panel in Newcomb Hall.
drama professor Doug Grissom moderated the talk in a question-and-answer
there a typical process for writing screenplays?
"I stew over the script as long as possible," said Hamm,
a U.Va. alumnus whose writing projects include the first two "Batmanē
films. "I get into a zone where the story flows out of me
a director and screenwriter, said his process is different. He
works with his wife, screenwriter Dorothy Tristan. "We draft
scenes and give them to one another for rewrites. Bad lines tend
to disappear without the hurtful discussion process. We've done
this on a number of projects," including their most recent
film, "A Piece of Eden," released this year.
there is a formula for writing screenplays?
executives' eyes moving down the page," Hamm responded. "The
big hook needs to be in the first five pages, because these guys
read an enormous number of scripts." He also said to take
every criticism seriously. Even if studio executives are not articulate,
"try to translate their criticisms."
the screenplay is sold to a studio, what should a screenwriter
alterations, usually to shorten the script. It's not unusual for
the writer to have to cram important dramatic information into
one scene rather than the original three or four, Hamm said. If
you vehemently oppose what an executive, producer, director or
actor wants to do, negotiate, both said. Don't expect to have
much control, though. Screenwriters who are unwilling to compromise
will be replaced by another writer, he said.
don't screenwriters have as much control over their work as novelists,
playwrights or TV writers?
The script is not the movie, Hancock explained. "It's the
plan for what the film can be, along with the director's instruction,
the actors' interpretation, the music, cinematography, etc. It
all works to capture the idea in the script."
addition to being art, movies are commerce," Hamm added.
"You have to prove to backers that you can turn a profit."
screenwriters gain more clout after a successful project?
screenwriter has the power with the first draft. It's your vision,"
said Hamm, who said he never shows his rough first draft to anyone.
Once the script is sold, that power is gone. "You get more
money and more job offers [after a successful project] but not
more control. You have to become a director or producer for that."
you have box-office talent in mind when you're writing a script?
Yes, they said. "It helps when pitching the story to execs,"
you approach a TV project different than a movie?
Yes, they said. "For TV, you have to allow for commercials.
You need to build in teasers to keep the audience tuned in during
breaks," said Hamm. He and Hancock agreed that the upside
for TV writers is instant gratification and control over their
projects. However, "it's such a demanding product that you
don't do your best work because of the time constraints."
In wrapping the panel, both advised screenwriters to write a movie
they'd like to see. "Experience life, read and watch films
as much as you can," said Hamm, who wrote his first screenplay
as an independent study project at U.Va.