Stephany Folsom has had quite the year – and the year isn’t even over yet. Last December her feature spec script, 1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon, showed up on both the 2013 Black List and 2013 Hit List. Then in May, she was tapped by Warner Bros. to adapt Harlan Coben’s novel, Missing You. And then in June, her script was given a staged reading as the first Black List Live! event at the LA Film Festival. Where does one go from there? Hell if I know. But I was able to convince Stephany, a lover of a good conspiracy theory, that it might include pints of beer at The Bigfoot Lodge in the trendy Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz. And as long as we were chatting about all things Kubrick and filmmaking and writing, I flicked on my recorder…
Kevin Delin: You and I first met at a NASA Social, going to see very large radio telescopes in the desert outside Barstow, California. Why were you there?
Stephany Folsom: Because I love everything about space. I’m a little bit obsessed. Since I was a kid I wanted to go to Space Camp but my parents couldn’t afford it, so I’ve been making up for it ever since. Like with my storytelling. Or getting involved with the NASA Social events. I sign up for all the events that are near California and NASA happened to select me for that one.
We saw some of the radio telescopes that were used to communicate with the astronauts when they went to the moon. Did they play a role in inspiring your script?
It’s kind of funny. I went to that NASA Social event and then I went to the LACMA exhibit on Stanley Kubrick. That was all in the same time period. And I have a little bit of an obsession with conspiracy theories. I don’t necessarily believe in conspiracy theories but I find it fascinating that we tell these stories about how and why stuff happened. It’s kind of like a great modern mythology, if you think about it. So it was a combination of that NASA Social event and the Stanley Kubrick LACMA exhibit that reminded me there is a crazy conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. It all came together, and I ended up writing this crazy script.
So, did we get to the moon or not?
I’m not telling! Buy a ticket! [laughs]
When did you start writing 1969?
I started writing in January 2013. It was about a month of research and then three months of solid writing. Four months total.
You consider the research as part of your writing day?
Yeah. There was a lot of research. There was the time period. There were the historical figures. There was a whole interesting story about filming the moon landing. And there was the moon landing. I wanted to make sure all of that was correct in my crazy made-up story.
People will tell you it’s crazy to write a spec script that’s a period piece.
Oh, yeah, you’re not supposed to do that.
Did that bother you when you sat down to write 1969?
No. I think that playing by the rules doesn’t get you anywhere. I think that you have to write something that you are passionate about, that you can do a good job at. I did everything you are not supposed to do. I wrote a period piece. I included public figures. And I have a woman that’s the protagonist. The script is a two-hander between this woman protagonist and Stanley Kubrick. So I did just about everything you’re not supposed to do. I thought: “I’m excited about this. I want to write it. I think it will be a fun story. So the hell with these rules, I’ll just write it.”
Did you sit down specifically to write it as a feature?
I was just fascinated by the story and was having fun doing it. I had written a pilot that got me signed with my manager. I mentioned to my manager that I had written this crazy story about Stanley Kubrick. And then I handed it to him, and he said, “This is really great.” It snowballed from there. But I was never thinking, “This will get me meetings” or “This will get me on the Black List.” That was not my intention at all.
How many feature scripts have you written before this one?
This is the first one that ever went out. Like any writer, I have a whole drawer of scripts that no one should ever, ever see.
What was special about 1969 in your mind that you were willing to send it out?
I’d written other stuff beforehand that no one had really seen. This was really the first one that while I was writing it, I said to myself, “Oh, I get it now. I get how to do this part here. And this needs to go here.” It was like finally all the practice came together. I played piano growing up. And, when you’re learning an instrument, you don’t know where your fingers go, and you don’t know how to read the notes. And then you figure out where your fingers go on the keys. And you figure out how to read the notes. But you’re still thinking: “Finger goes here. Reading note here.” After you’ve practiced enough, though, there’s a moment when you’re learning a musical instrument where it becomes almost subconscious. You look at the music and your hands just know where to go. You stop playing logically and you start playing the music. It actually comes from a different place. And I think the same thing happens in writing. You think, “I’m trying to figure this out! Does this go here? Does it go there?” You’re trying to figure out all those logistics. And then, I think, you just reach a point where it just becomes, “Oh! I’m making music now. Okay, I get it.” Of course, you’ll grow and evolve – it’s not like a place “I know how to play music.” You’ve got to keep practicing, keep working, and keep growing. But I think there is a threshold you cross like where I went from thinking about finger placement to playing a song.
So, first time up at bat, you homer out of the park, and you get on the Black List.
Yeah. You think, “What the hell?!?” [laughs]
You didn’t just get on the Black List, your script seems to be headlining all the media articles about the 2013 Black List. [example 1 – Los Angeles Times, example 2 – Slate Magazine]
Yeah, it’s weird, right?
I think it’s because your story has such a hook. Your title is your logline.
I did that on purpose.
How much time did you spend thinking about the title or did it just come to you?
The script had several horrible titles on it at first. People were asking “What is this story you just handed to me?” Obviously, the title was not doing its job. I went through several titles. Finally, I thought, “Why don’t I just do it as a parody of a Stanley Kubrick film?” So I just went with that. I hope that it isn’t too on the nose. I hope people get the joke and get what’s going on with it.
And then you wake up in December and find that you are on both the Black List and the Hit List.
It was crazy and then things kind of snowballed. I ended up getting an open writing assignment to adapt Harlan Coben’s best-selling novel, Missing You, from Warner Bros. and there are other things in the works too. It all happened after that.
Not only did you end up on the Black List, you ended up in the 2014 L.A. Film Festival. Without a film.
Who came up with the idea of a staged reading of your screenplay?
Franklin Leonard. He called me up in May and said he wanted to start doing these Black List live events. He wanted to do what Jason Reitman and Quentin Tarantino did. He wanted to stage these screenplays with A-list actors in front of a live audience. He wanted to feature certain scripts from the Black List and said, “Stephany, I’d like yours to be the first one that we do. And I’d also like to give you the opportunity to direct the reading.” He said he had Deb Aquila to cast it, who is this amazing powerhouse casting director. So I said, “Yeah! Okay!” And I hung up with Franklin and started looking around and thought, “Did that just happen?”
Do you go to much live theater in Los Angeles?
Not much in Los Angeles I have to say. I’ve gone to some friends’ shows at Sacred Fools Theater and things like that. I’ve seen some really great stuff. The L.A. live theater scene gets a bad rap from those that don’t know about it but there’s a lot of great stuff here.
Agreed. There’s definitely a huge theater scene in Los Angeles. How was your show cast?
Deb started by asking me who was on my dream casting list. We talked about some names. We generated a list with a several options, and she knew which combination of actors would work. And then she went out and got them! She’s been casting for decades, and I just deferred to her wisdom which was smart because the chemistry those actors had together was freaking amazing.
So you have one day of rehearsal and then the next day is the actual reading?
And you’re the director.
Have you ever directed before?
I’ve directed documentaries, but that doesn’t count for this.
Directing cheetahs and tigers doesn’t translate?
No, it doesn’t count at all! I had directed some theater plays but they weren’t anything professional like this.
Your screenplay is about a guy who’s one of the most visual cinema-makers of all time – I mean, how many pages of dialogue are in 2001? Five?
If even that!
And, here you are, taking your script that’s written for a medium that’s visual and now you have to translate it into a medium that’s dialogue.
When we were in rehearsal the actors read the original script that was on the Black List. It immediately became very clear that when it was straight dialogue, the whole thing was energized and moved along, and it was great. Then we would get to the blocks of scene descriptions or action sequences or anything like that, and everything ground to a halt. You were just reading a straight scene description out loud whereas, in a movie, those same scene descriptions would become beautiful, amazing visuals.
But in the theater, it was just the poor guy reading stage direction and it brought everything to a grinding halt. So I thought, “What am I going to do?” These actors are super, super busy. They had crazy shooting schedules. They only had time for the one rehearsal. I couldn’t do what Tarantino did which was block out every single scene and actually properly direct it for the stage. So I went home that night and took all the dialogue and altered things.
This is all based off your one rehearsal?
Yes, off the rehearsal the night before the reading! I stayed up the entire night. I took out all the scene descriptions and made it dialogue heavy. I only left bullet points so we knew where we were in the story, what the scene was, so you could keep the rhythm going, the flow going, the emotional heart of the characters going. So that’s how I turned my screenplay into a play.
That sounds daunting.
And then we went up the next night. What I did to make it more cinematic is I had Meg Halpern (who works at the Black List) work with me. My script has a bunch of references to Walter Cronkite and Nixon’s address and all kinds of stuff from the time period – so we actually pulled all that archive footage and we displayed it during the reading. We got photographs from the time. We got music from the time. So we could have all these actual settings projected behind the actors: here’s the actual news report, here’s the actual moon landing footage. We had all these visual cues to make it more cinematic and show where we were going. We put all that together. I was just biting my nails, thinking, “I hope this works, I hope this works!” And it worked! The audience was into it. The actors were completely great, and all the emotion came through. We ended up with a really fantastic performance.
Having had this experience, which do you think is easier to write: stage plays or screenplays?
I don’t think anything is easy to write. [laughs] I think they are two different beasts. When you are writing a screenplay, you are thinking about the visual moment and where to direct the eye.
Even as a writer?
Yeah, you have to. It’s the blueprint for everything. That’s how you do the sleight of hand with your story. You tell people to look over here, and then you pull the magic trick where no one is looking. But with playwriting, it’s about that one-on-one human interaction and you don’t get to direct people’s eyes. It has to all be in the dialogue or it’s not there.
It’s incredible you were able to take your screenplay and turn it into a stage play overnight. If you had tried that with 2001, you wouldn’t have had much left.
No, you wouldn’t have. I’d like to see a play by Stanley Kubrick, that would be interesting! I bet it would have been this fantastic, crazy multi-media adventure.
I think that Paths of Glory was based on a play.
Oh, yeah! You’re right!
Did you think about Capricorn One when you were writing?
No! It’s so funny because I had never seen the film and everyone kept bringing it up. After I wrote 1969, I watched Capricorn One and I thought, “Yeah, that’s totally how you tell that kind of story.”
From the ‘70s.
The paranoid ‘70s. It’s from the same time as Three Days of the Condor…
Exactly! I love all those paranoia ‘70s films. That’s some of my favorite cinema to watch.
Do you think that kind of stuff had any influence in your script or was it more the Kubrick films that were inspiring you?
I think any time you are dealing with a big government conspiracy, you can’t help but think of those kinds of movies and that period of time. I think we’ve all come to learn that a lot of those, “That’s so crazy! No way the government did that!” stories, that they did do it, and the stories were actually spot-on. I think the whole failure in Vietnam and the Watergate hearings was the first time in the country’s history where we actually started questioning authority. And Stanley Kubrick always did that. He always questioned the status quo and always questioned authority. I think that you can’t tell a story that brings up those kind of questions without referencing that history in some way.
Kubrick is your favorite director?
One of my favorite directors, yes. I love Stanley Kubrick. I’m a big Kubrick fan.
What is it about Stanley Kubrick? It’s interesting that a writer is interested in the most visual of all screen directors.
I’m a huge cinemaphile in general. I’m a major film geek. I saw Dr. Strangelove when I was 16 and that was the first Stanley Kubrick film I had ever seen. I think I saw that film at the perfect time in my development because I was thinking “What the hell is this movie? It’s amazing!” I started digging into who Stanley Kubrick was. I found that he really did a lot to build the visual language of film. And as a screenwriter, you’ve got to use that visual language just as much as a director does. I think as writers, we often like to think that we are all into fancy dialogue, but we’re writing for a visual medium – so you’ve got to think in visual terms. I’m a huge proponent of screenwriters watching silent movies, which might seem bizarre.
No, it doesn’t. I agree with you.
You need to see how a story can be told completely visually with no one talking. At the end of the day, juicy dialogue needs to garnish and emphasize the visuals that are playing before you. And plays are the exact opposite!
You went to Loyola Marymount University to be a screenwriter?
I majored in film, actually. I started out as a screenwriting major, and then I realized that writing is kind of self-explanatory. Once you learn the format, you either practice it and get better at it or you don’t. But filmmaking, itself, was a complete mystery to me. I had no clue how lenses worked, how cameras worked, and all that kind of stuff. From my point of view, if I’m going to be the one that writes the blueprint for how all this stuff gets done, I should probably know how all this stuff gets done. So I switched majors to film production. And, I was at a school, luckily, where they made you do every single job on a film set. They made you direct, they made you produce, made you build sets, they made you do everything. It was an amazing experience. So I learned how to make a film from ground zero to a finished product, including the editing and the sound mix.
How did learning about things like lenses, setting up the shots, and the mechanics of cinematography influence your thinking in terms of screenwriting?
It was hugely, hugely helpful. You have to write something that’s filmable at the end of the day.
Kubrick used to take stuff that people couldn’t even conceive of how to film and figured out how make it work.
Even if you are doing something like Kubrick, and you don’t know what lens to use, you have to create a visual sequence that can be edited together. So I think that understanding of the mechanics of all that is extremely helpful in the writing process. At least it’s helpful to me. I know a lot of successful screenwriters who have no idea of how lenses work, and they still write amazing screenplays, but I’m just the type of person that has to know everything about whatever I’m doing. I’m just a freak that way.
You grew up in Colorado Springs where the Air Force Academy sits. Do you think that had anything to do with your interest in Dr. Strangelove?
Oh, completely! Not consciously, but, yeah, I grew up in a military town. There are four military installations where I grew up. So I was the civilian kid surrounded by a bunch of Air Force and Army brats.
Do you consider yourself a typical Kubrick fan?
No, not at all! [laughs] I think that people find it weird that a woman is into Stanley Kubrick films.
Kubrick does seem to be a very male thing. There’s only one female role in Dr. Strangelove.
And she’s sort of off to the side.
She’s in the bikini.
Right. She’s sort of the visual joke and that’s that.
And yet that’s your favorite film.
So what is it about the film that draws you? Is it the rebelliousness of it?
What I love about that film is its 100% truth. Everything depicted in that movie actually exists. And reality is so freaking absurd. You know, truth is always way, way stranger than fiction could ever be, and the movie is about how crazy us little human beings are. And that’s what I love about it.
What happened on the screen in that film is very different than what was in the script or what was originally envisioned.
It was supposed to be a serious drama.
Kubrick clearly didn’t feel a slave to the script at all.
Oh, no. In fact, very often he took the script out of the screenwriter’s hands and said, “It’s mine, good-bye.” He was horrible that way. [laughs] I actually bring that up in 1969. There’s very much this auteur theory, where there’s one person to keep the continuous vision. And while that’s a nice idea, even Stanley Kubrick had an entire team of people around him, that he worked with all the time, that executed the vision. Filmmaking – as much as we don’t want to admit it – is a team sport, you know. That’s what I think is so beautiful about it as an art form. It takes so many people to come together to make one vision. And, when we get it right, I think that’s why we’re all drawn to it. It’s like: “Oh my, God! We all came together – us messed-up human beings all came together! – and made something great!” A whole team of people were working in complete sync to make something bigger than themselves. I think that’s also where I got the connection between space exploration and filmmaking and Stanley Kubrick. All these great scientific endeavors that we do, and all these great films that we make have that in common, where groups of people come together and make something that’s bigger than themselves, work. And they’re not making bombs or blowing up people because groups come together for that, too. But instead they’re doing something purely artistic and about exploration. And that’s amazing.
That’s an interesting point about the entire film team being a community. You hear about that with live theater, this community effect, but you don’t as often hear it applied to film.
I think it’s understood that’s what happens. But somewhere along the line, with the French New Wave, it became “It’s the auteur that does the amazing thing.” But no, it’s a whole group of people that all came together to make something.
Even for a director who’s now an adjective.
Yeah, exactly. And when the team doesn’t come together, you feel that onscreen, too. You think, “What was wrong with that movie?”
What’s it like writing about someone who was an actual human being rather than a fictional character?
It’s easier to make something up, then you just know it inside and out. To conquer actual living people, you have to do your research and do your due diligence. These were actual people with families and everything else, you can’t do a disservice to that. That was very important to me with Kubrick. It was hard, too, because there’s not much footage or personal interviews of him so it was gathering what everyone had to say about him or their experiences with him, what little audio or video footage I could dig out.
Is there any official biography on him?
There are tons of biographies on him. There was a documentary that the family did that I think is pretty much the only official thing on him. Tom Cruise narrated it. But there’s not that much primary information out there.
I remember at the LACMA exhibit, they displayed Kubrick’s index card cabinet full of research on Napoleon for a film that he never made. Tell me about your process of research. I assume you are beyond index cards given that this is the 21st century.
Yeah, completely! I just dug up everything I possibly could from the Stanley Kubrick Archives. Of course, I couldn’t go visit London, but everything I could pull out of the archives remotely, I did. I went to the LAMCA exhibit, and I took pictures and notes of everything I possibly could. Whatever I could find I dug into. I found all kinds of rare interviews and rare footage I could dig up online. Every documentary on him that I could possibly watch, I watched. I took it all in and tried to be very diplomatic about the portrait that I created of him.
I imagine it’s a pretty large burden to try to make something dramatic and serve the story and yet wanting to be fair.
Yeah, exactly. My impression of Stanley Kubrick – this may be true or not – but the impression I got is that he kind of created this persona of being this mysterious director to get what he wanted as an end product in his movies. I think he did a lot to psyche people out but, at the end of the day, he was just a sensitive, smart artist. But he put on a good show to get the art he wanted.
The Stanley Kubrick that you’re writing about is 1969 Stanley Kubrick. Did you take any artistic license to incorporate his later years since he was still a relatively young man in 1969?
I feel he became kind of a hermit later on. I read something about him in later life where he became obsessed with buying blank stationery and then filing it. Which I found completely fascinating. I feel that the Kubrick in my story is a guy who has just done 2001. He’s done things like Paths of Glory and 2001 is being perceived as a drug movie and a counter-culture movie. And that wasn’t really his intention with it. So he’s a little bit shaken, on unsteady ground. He hasn’t yet become the Kubrick that we know from The Shining and everything else.
Did you get a chance to talk to anyone that knew him?
I did, actually. They were very open in talking about all the work experiences with him, but nobody would really discuss the personal Stanley Kubrick. So that made it a little bit harder. But I also didn’t want to touch too much on anything that went on in his personal life either.
That makes sense since your story is about his filmmaking life.
Yes, exactly. People were very, very complimentary of him. Even if they were chewed out and he made them do something over and over, they’d say “But, dammit, he was right!”
Did you talk to actors or part of his crew or –
I talked to some of his former assistants.
Did his people look at you askance when you contacted them?
They were actually pretty cool. I approached it like: “This is how Stanley Kubrick affected me and my work. I want to do a payback, a thank-you. I want to honor an artist.” I came at it from that angle. And people said, “Awesome!” I came from a very genuine place. I love his art. I want to introduce it to people and talk about it.
So don’t worry if your first spec script ends up being a period piece about an actual person.
I’m not a big fan of rules.
There’s an artist’s viewpoint.
My first inclination when someone says, “You can’t do that”– and this is probably a very immature response – is to say, “Well, I’ll show you!”
Do you think that’s because you grew up in a military town?
Yeah. And I had parents who were products of the 60s, so that probably had a lot to do with it, too. [laughs] I don’t think there’s any specific path you should follow to success or any specific thing you should do to be successful. I think a lot of people won’t like hearing that because they do think there’s a path to follow. There’s some security in that idea. But, obviously, there’s no security at all working in the film business. You’ve got to let go of that. I think the only thing you can do is care about the stories you are telling, care about your work, love what you do. Even though being a writer really sucks sometimes. [laughs] But, at the end of the day, you’ve got to love what you do. You have to live with a story for a long time, 24/7, so it better be something you like and care about or else what’s the point? You’re just wasting time while you sit there.
You’ve worked in the industry?
What did you do?
Development. I read scripts. I wrote coverage. I gave notes.
Did you think that experience was helpful to you as a writer?
It’s so helpful. I’ll be in a meeting with an executive, and I’ll turn in a draft. And he’ll say it needs this, this, and this. Development has its own language. So you have to understand when they say, “there’s no tracking on this page, so this needs to happen.” You need to know what that means so that you can deliver that. Knowing that language as a writer is completely invaluable.
So were you confident that when you sent out your script it was already post-developed?
I wouldn’t go that far! [laughs]
What are the biggest things you learned as a reader that writers should know?
The biggest thing is the first ten pages. I know everyone says this over and over, but if I can’t figure out what your story is in the first ten pages, I’m not going to keep reading. You have to set the scene and set your characters in the first ten pages. You have to make me say, “Oh my God! Where are all these people going?” That’s what will make me keep reading. The biggest mistake is not writing visually. If they can’t see it as a movie, you’ll never get to see it made as a movie. I know there are big debates over things like, do you show camera angles or do you not show camera angles? Who the hell cares? Write whatever words are going to best convey how your story is going to look on the screen.
Whatever words that will build a picture in the reader’s mind.
Exactly. I think so many failed scripts don’t build a picture. Get to the story immediately and think about what those images are. What are those iconic images? What are going to be the visual scenes you leave us with?
How important is the title to the reader?
Hugely. And I suck at titles! [laughs]
Well, not this one!
Yes, but it took me several tries to get it right! Titles are hugely important. Because they determine whether or not someone actually looks at the first page. You have to convey what is your genre, what the tone of this going to be. That’s right in your title. Yeah. That’s easy. Right? [laughs]
It’s like taking your script which is already compressed and writing haiku on top of it.
Yes! It’s so hard.
But you don’t often hear about titles being an important part of the script. People will talk about the first ten pages but not mention what gets you to the first ten pages.
And that’s the title. I’ll toss around titles, too. I’ll tell people a title and ask, “What do you think this is about?” And you hear what people say back and you think ,“No, that’s not my screenplay.” I always do the rule of three. If three people tell you something and it’s the same and it’s bad, you are on the wrong track. And if three people tell you something and it’s good, you’re on the right track.
Did you send your script out to friends or people you know in the industry before you were ready to release it into the wild?
I have a select group of people with industry experience who I absolutely trust that I give everything I write to.
And these are friends?
Yes, they are totally my friends. I know I can always trust them. They’re amazing. And I return the favor. [laughs] Like I was saying before, nothing in this is a solo endeavor. You’re not a lone writer, sitting alone. You have to get feedback and talk to people. You have to bounce things off people. It’s like constant brainstorming. I must be annoying to hang out with. My friends probably say, “Stop using us!” [laughs] It’s a shared audience experience, you know. I always wonder what it would be like to write a novel. I wonder if that’s even really a solo endeavor.
I’d think you’d be working with an editor in that case.
Yeah. No art is made in a vacuum.
How has being on the Black List changed things for you? Did doors all of a sudden open up for you? Did the Black List lead to your Warner Bros. deal?
I was actually talking to Warner Bros. before I got on the Black List. My script had gone out to a small group of people, and it was getting passed around town. And I met with Warner Bros. off of that.
So people didn’t need to see the script actually on the Black List to know that, “Wow, this is someone we want to work with”?
Well, it gets on the Black List because of the interest in the script. I think what the Black List does, though, is keep you on people’s lists. Which is huge because people in this town are constantly being distracted. So anything you can do to keep the script in front of them is good. The Black List is extremely helpful in that regard. People also have huge stacks of things that they need to read. The Black List narrowed down their reading stack to include my script. I’ve met with people I probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to meet just because I wouldn’t have stayed on their reading list.
There’s no way to figure out how to get on the Black List, right? There’s no magic formula, no tricks, to do it.
No. It’s very much an organic process.
It’s basically: talent wins. If something is really good, people will notice it.
You hope so, yes. You can’t rig it. You can’t think, “I’m gonna write this to make sure the executives read it and vote for it.”
I think it’s really interesting that you are very passionate about space and Kubrick, and you wrote about it and now it is the thing. Instead of thinking, “I think this is the trend where Hollywood is going this year.”
I think it gives people (just as much as conspiracy theories do) some security to have this whole theory of why things happen. I had a script about a public figure on the Black List, there were the Jaws scripts that were also on there, there was a Mr. Rodgers script on there… that all just happened organically. It’s not like we all sat together and plotted, “This will get us on the Black List, bwahahaha!” [laughs] For some reason, there was something in the air where people were looking for those kinds of stories at that time. I know the guys who wrote both of the Jaws scripts and they were just thinking “We like Jaws! And we like this story!” So, that was it.
Yours is quite the journey. You write a compelling story, and here you are, a year later, directing actors you’ve seen on television and film.
It is amazing. But it doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to put in all the work. All the time and all the effort. You work your ass off and then luck comes in to push you forward. If you want a formula, that’s it: Work your ass off and then hope you’re lucky.
Take 10 years to become an overnight success.
There you go.
How many hours a day do you write?
I get in at least four, minimum.
Is there a set time you have for those hours?
It’s usually the first thing I do. I just get it done then. But sometimes you have meetings that pop up, so I’m flexible. If I get my four hours somehow, I’m fine. Lots of times, I’ll do more, but it has to be a minimum of four.
Is the four hours sitting in front of a screen? Or do you have to be actually writing? What happens if you start feeling blocked?
A lot of writing is just sitting there figuring everything out. That’s a huge part of it. If you’re constantly outputting… I mean ‘ugh’. [grimacing]
So typing is not writing.
No! A lot of writing is just figuring it out. I’m one of those crazy people who outlines like crazy, plots out scenes like crazy, and all of that. I think that more than ever you have to be inventive and do things we haven’t seen before. There’s so much product out there. Doing something that we haven’t seen before, it takes some time just sitting there, staring at the screen. You’re running through a scenario and a scenario and a scenario. That’s a huge part of writing. Which is why I don’t get how some professional writers can write in coffee shops and restaurants. I would be so ashamed to write in a coffee shop or restaurant because a lot of it would be me staring at my screen. And then mumbling dialogue to myself. I would look like a crazy person.
How many films do you see in a year?
Not as much as I used to.
Is that because you are spending more time writing and taking meetings?
Yeah. I used to see everything that came out on the day it came out. Now I might see one movie that’s in the theaters a month.
What about watching films at home?
I try to watch something every night. Sometimes it’s not a film. Sometimes it’s a documentary. Or a TV show. I’m always watching something.
I just wrote a column about how writers should always be watching. So, you went to a NASA Social and then the Kubrick exhibit and that’s how inspiration hit. Clearly, it’s not all about sitting at home and thinking about stuff. You were also out living.
Yeah. I think that’s so important. That’s why I did documentaries. I like going to places and bringing back stories. For me the whole ultimate goal in doing this is: “Why are we here? Why do people do the things they do?” I’m endlessly fascinated by that. So, I’m constantly getting into situations and asking, “How did you do that? What’s going on?” I don’t think I ever got over the documentary thing. I’m constantly interviewing people. I love trying to figure things out. Writing is an extension of that kind of personality.
Sounds like you did a mini-documentary on Kubrick before you sat down and wrote your screenplay.
Yeah, because I wanted to know who he was and how he ticked. Writing is how I make sense of the world.
Originally published July 30, 2014 in Script Magazine.