Last month I enjoyed another invigorating visit to the Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference. In the company of many talented writers, storytelling analysis was exchanged, creative energy was reignited, and good whiskey was consumed. There’s something reassuring about reuniting with my writer friends from all over the country to commiserate over writing woes and to also celebrate those small breakthroughs that keep us going. AFF is always an enriching four days.
The panels were once again fantastic. As I mentioned in my last post, I was treated to the wisdom of professional heavyweights like Matthew Weiner and John Ridley. I jotted down notes during a few of the panels and thought I’d share some bite-sized pieces of advice and observations that resonated with me.
Franklin Leonard (founder of The Black List and all-around champion of writers) made two comments that I found particularly insightful: “‘Good enough’ is never good enough” and, in regards to reading a new script, “I don’t so much want to be invited in as PICKED UP AND HAULED IN.” I really love the idea of the latter. It emphasizes the importance of those first few pages and how they have to demand a reader’s attention.
John August and Bruce McKenna headlined a panel about Point-of-View. Theme was a major component of the discussion since it serves as the backbone to most stories (at least the memorable ones) and drives a character’s actions. John brought up an exercise he’ll use when he’s losing sight of the theme, which he calls “What would Morgan Freeman say?” Using the iconic Freeman narration heard in films like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS as examples, John will take a scene he’s struggling with and write-up faux-narration that could – but never would – accompany the scene. The thinking is that Freeman’s narration in the aforementioned films often gets to the heart of a character’s mindset and struggles, so it helps us revisit the emotional undercurrent of a scene. I actually put this advice to use in regards to a couple of key scenes in the current screenplay I’m working on and found it extremely helpful. Sometimes I get so caught up in the mechanics of getting from one destination to another in my writing, that I forget about the engine that’s propelling the story forward.
I was already impressed with John Ridley’s resume – 12 YEARS A SLAVE, THREE KINGS – but my admiration for him was sealed when he mentioned that he was willing to stay to answer more questions after his panel wrapped up, but he would need to check the Packers score at some point. Turns out he grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ridley talked candidly about the risk he took to reinvent himself after achieving early success because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as simply an “urban” writer. And it was touching to see him get emotional when he brought up the turning point for his new career trajectory – his introduction to the book 12 YEARS A SLAVE. He also talked about how writers often mine personal territory to enhance their stories, sometimes to the detriment of the people closest to them. He credited fellow screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie with the following observation about writing: “It’s hurting people that you love to impress people you’ll never meet.”
MAD MEN creator Matthew Weiner was humorous and frank about the genesis of his revered series and the long road he took to get it sold. Although he had a moderator, he didn’t really need one – his opinions and anecdotes flowed generously. A young woman asked him for advice for aspiring writers. And what he felt was “the most important advice” that he could bestow was actually pretty simple: “AIM HIGH.”