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How to write a masterpiece

ShortList hunts for the secrets to an award-winning script

How to write a masterpiece
18 April 2011

Screenwriting is the part of filmmaking that feels possible. Actors seem to depend on an improbable coincidence of hair, face and voice. Directors tend to be a near-impossible combination of artist and international dictator. But writers are mere mortals with ideas and a laptop. And sometimes — rarely, but sometimes — they are first-timers whose script makes it all the way through the system, from agents to producers to studios, and becomes a proper film. So many of us have an idea, a story, a setting, a character, an ending without a beginning or simply a moment in our heads. And the men who make films for a living have one message for the aspiring screenwriter: seize the day and start writing — it can happen.

Juno — the story of a young girl who decides to keep her unwanted baby and give it to a childless couple — is a particularly warming example of the first-timer who made it big. Diablo Cody was 24 when her blog about her time as an exotic dancer was snapped up by a publisher and released as a book. When talk turned to adapting the book into a film, she was asked to first produce a screenwriting sample. The result would become an award-winning, funny and moving indie classic.

There’s also Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s 1997 hit was so huge that Hollywood found their success impossible to swallow and attempted to pin it on veteran writer William Goldman. Goldman, who was simply a peripheral advisor on the script, went to great pains to correct this impression. “I think the reason the world was so anxious to believe that Damon and Affleck didn’t write their script was simple jealousy. They were young and cute and famous; kill the f*ckers.” You too could be one of the f*ckers the world wants to exterminate.


Phil O’Shea is a working screenwriter and lecturer, and he sees his students move from hopefuls to filmmakers in a matter of months.

“An American student got his script produced. It’s the world’s first Mormon rom-com, and there are a few others,” says O’Shea. “Many of them have had short first-time scripts produced by up-and-coming directors and producers. One has just had her first feature-length script optioned by a big-name director and they’re in New York right now talking to potential backers. Others have had luck with their second, third or fourth scripts.”

Daniel Barber directed the 2009 Michael Caine thriller Harry Brown. It was his first feature film and its success has given him access to hundreds of scripts, and yet he still wants to meet new writers and read fresh material.

“I don’t think that it’s a pipe dream,” he says. “Since Harry Brown, I’ve been sent a lot of scripts to read and a number of them have been by first-time writers. I don’t think that you should ever think that you can’t achieve what you really dream of achieving. You never know who’s going to come up with a great idea and be able to create a really good script. A lot of people nowadays have seen enough film or television dramas. They have a sense of what’s going to make an interesting story. Anyone who says that it takes years — b*llocks.”

Barber is not alone. Meeting London-born Tony Grisoni, 58, it’s hard not be swept up in his energy and enthusiasm. Grisoni wrote the 2009 Channel 4 Red Riding series as well as the 1998 screen adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. He’s been writing since the Eighties but retains his love of the profession and his enthusiasm for film. He works in a cell-like room on an industrial estate. It’s a serious writer’s space: a desk, a tin of instant coffee and mini-cab-office sofa. He started working in the technical side of film while quietly writing his first scripts. He spent five years writing screenplays that didn’t make it to the screen. Did he find that frustrating?

“Are you kidding? I love it,” he says. “It’s great. You’re sitting around imagining a film and putting it on a page. It’s brilliant. It’s wonderful. You’re a million miles away. It’s fun, it’s interesting, you wake up every day wondering what your people are going to be doing. There’s nothing like it. It’s like being 10 years old again. There’s nothing frustrating about it.”

Grisoni is a screenwriter with a rich understanding of the filmmaking process. His advice is to break away from the isolation of your desk.

“Filmmaking is a social activity. If you’re on your own, you’re very weak and very vulnerable. You have to make contact with other people who are trying to do the same thing that you are. Make contact with other writers so that you can swap information, so that you can compare, so that you can talk about the different methods you’ve tried. Form relationships with people who are directing and producing and who are also starting out. You have to be part of the filmmaking community in some way, so you have to seek other filmmakers out.”


Grisoni often imagines every aspect of the film that he is writing, including the poster. On his office wall is a framed poster of his first feature. He recommends the clarifying focus of imagining the complexities of your project boiled down to a poster. He also recommends an odd and painstaking exercise that allows a writer to climb inside the detail of a film script.

“Pick a film that you really love — you have to love it — and then sit down and write each scene. You play a scene, pause it, and sit down and write the scene, putting it into screenwriting format. Now, the screenplay you end up with in the end won’t be the same screenplay that they shot — of course it won’t be. But what you learn by doing that is extraordinary.”

There is a huge body of work advising on the conventions of screenwriting and offering advice on how to take an idea and have it produced. Alongside the creative dream of seeing your words turned into a film, the wealth and glamour associated with the industry has attracted thousands to try their hand, and many have exploited this dream with costly courses and books. Ironically, many of the filmmaking guides were written by men with very little first-hand experience. Working filmmakers seem to have less respect for the formulas and the patterns and more interest in the freshness of an idea and the practical struggles of making it happen. Daniel Barber reminds us that some ideas are more expensive than others. “The problem is that if you write a story that is on a giant scale — let’s say it’s a period piece set between four or five countries — it is very expensive to make. If I were a first-time writer, I would write, if possible, on a scale that is more realistic to make. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to limit yourself and your ideas. I recently watched The Disappearance Of Alice Creed. Now that’s a very small sell: it’s filmed in one room. You could say that it’s not very cinematic, but the reality is that it was a low-budget film. It was a good idea that attracted a good cast. If you set it on a big scale, as you could easily do, you’d need someone like [director/producer] Tony Scott to make it feasible and the star wouldn’t have been Gemma Arterton, it would have been Angelina Jolie.”

The battle with the huge costs of making any film is easily matched by the battle with the writer’s own fear of failure and flagging self-confidence. Grisoni still lives with his wildly fluctuating belief in every script.

“You’re writing a screenplay and you feel that it’s going well — you feel like it’s the best screenplay anyone in the entire world has ever written,” he says. “And you feel as though it’s going to be the best film anyone has ever made. I find myself utterly convinced and gripped by this ‘I feel that it’s great’. And I stop and I look back over it and I think, ‘It’s crap.’ But the trick is to keep writing. If you write crap, write crap. At least then you’ve got something to look at. I write crap every day, but at least tomorrow I’ve got something written down that I can make better.”


The screenwriter is constructing the core of the film, finding the themes and characters, but it’s the lines that we remember when we leave the cinema. It is the Royale with cheese, the bigger boat, the attack ships off the shoulder of Orion — the lines we don’t so much memorise as absorb involuntarily. Grisoni was so fascinated with the patterns of natural speech that he went to extraordinary lengths to capture the dialogue he heard around him every day.

“I used to go around for a little while with a little tape recorder hidden on me with a microphone in a glove,” he recalls. “I went around on buses and trains and on the street, cafés and parks, and I used to sit there and point my finger at people to try to record. I would record all this natural dialogue and I’d transcribe it. And I realised, of course, that the way people speak is not necessarily a great way for people to speak in a film.” He says that the key to dialogue is to not have people talk about the big themes that are moving through the plot of the film, but to leave the audience to deduce what is going on between the lines.

“If you’ve got a scene where a couple are going through a rocky patch and divorce is on the horizon, it’s more interesting to have them talk about the fact that their car isn’t working — it’s good to have a subtext going on. I enjoy it more as a viewer because I’m having to add things up. If you have a couple and they wake up in the same bed and you know that they are going to split up very soon, it’s more interesting if he says, ‘I really, really love you.’”

It is odd to think that every film — no matter how vast, no matter how star-bejewelled — starts as a heap of A4 created by men like Tony Grisoni tapping away in bare, distraction-free rooms. The process is as industrial as it is magical. Of course there are innumerable obstacles to your script becoming a feature film, but there are none that can’t be overcome by that great idea rolling around in your head right now. Start tonight, and let us know how it goes.

(Image: Getty)