Screenwriters Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island) recently shared processes and techniques for developing a movie idea into a useful structure a writer could use as a guide to write a screenplay. This was part two of a four-session panel at the Austin Film Festival, which furthers the art and craft of storytelling by inspiring and championing the work of writers, filmmakers, and all artists who use written and visual language to tell a story.
At the panel, Solomon and Borenstein took writers through the process, from coming up with ideas for films to writing and rewriting. For this session they were joined by guest panelist Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur).
The panelists emphasized that it is not a writer’s level of talent that determines their success, but rather how they work with and manage that talent.
Starts with an Idea
Solomon began the session telling us that the previous night, while talking with his girlfriend and her son, he had an idea for a film. He said that he felt lucky that he was able to recognize the idea in mid-conversation and not lose it.
He thought, “What if there was a guy who had to choose between two evils to protect his family? What if it was 1935?” He suggested that you are becoming a professional writer when you recognize ideas like this and you feel them moving towards a story.
Borenstein told us that Solomon had just shared the story idea with him over breakfast. LeFauve said she was just hearing the concept now. The three of them proceeded to go through the process of brainstorming the idea into a structure for a movie.
Borenstein expanded on the idea. “So, our character is Czech, and we see him turning people over to the Nazis. But secretly he is actually a good guy. The audience sees him in a basement with a dozen Jewish characters and they know he is at risk. To make this work, we need another character who is doing the judging.”
LeFauve added that a second character was needed because the audience must know and see what the main character knows. “I also want to know where we are in the structure,” she said, adding: “Structure for me is character movement.”
Solomon said that there are infinite ways to think about this. “For Meg it’s emotion. For Max it’s three-act structure. For me it’s character.”
Solomon continued: “My next notion: Let’s say he’s dating a woman. He’s Czech. She’s Jewish. As you go deeper into the story, there is a big reveal to a character. Also, a dynamic between human beings. I’m thinking he’s a person who thinks he is superior. Oh, though I don’t want him to be self-righteous.”
Borenstein jumped in: “If I know a certain thing about a character, then you need a second point so you can draw a line to their new position. It’s boring if they are a good person all around. They need a fatal flaw or an evolution over time.”
LeFauve laughed. “I feel like an interpreter,” she said. “They are talking about a transformative character. The character thinks the world is one way and by the end of act two they will transform. Put a stake in the ground at Act 1 and a stake in the ground at Act 2, then play between them. The larger the transformation, the easier. A small transformation is more difficult because you must be more subtle. In terms of craft it is a much harder thing. Think of the biggest shift to begin with and then maybe you’ll find a Bladerunner type to go from ‘I’m the good guy’ to ‘I’m the bad guy.’”
Solomon said, “We are writing to create characters that people can inhabit. When Meg said, ‘Now you can play,’ it’s the same activity whether you call it work or play, but there is a different connotation if you call it play.”
The panelists agreed that the main character would realize he was wrong because he had set something in motion that leads to the capture of his girlfriend. The secondary character would not know about the good things the main character was secretly doing. This led to many possible ways for the story to go.
Whiteboards to the Rescue
Solomon said that at this point in the development of the story he would start exploring the implications of each possible direction. He explained, “I use multiple whiteboards to outline the possible story lines. What do you guys do?”
LeFauve said, “I like to go to theme. I would see what makes me emotionally interested. Sometimes you must let the characters walk and talk. Sometimes I just start writing scenes to churn up ideas.”
Solomon said, “Yesterday we talked about throwing ideas out. When I’m trying to spitball and brainstorm, I imagine it like bubbles: each story in a bubble in front of me and I just keep them up there. At a certain point, I might think, ‘I have all these ideas, now what story do I want to tell?’ Then I pull one down and put the others in my bubble storage unit.”
Borenstein said he too liked to use whiteboards. He also said that he liked to consider alternate genres, explaining, “I play it out for a while knowing you’re not committing. That has a slower burn, so you have to develop the story in a different way.”
LeFauve emphasized that each time you make a change you should put it through the structure points: “What’s the end of Act 2? What’s the climax? Oh, it doesn’t go anywhere. Nobody dies at the midpoint.”
Borenstein suggested that when in a particular version, if it feels like a dead end, you can move it to another version, and it might work there.
LeFauve pointed out, “Your producer might ask, ‘What’s the poster?’ Thinking about that can help.”
It’s About Character
Solomon added, “Whenever I come up with a movie, I immediately translate it to character. That took me a couple of decades to learn, but what you realize is you want to be able to attract good actors. You need nuanced characters. You might write a character who is drunk. It’s much more interesting for the actor to play a character who is trying to pretend he is not drunk.”
Borenstein said, “For the characters in our exercise, we should ask, where were these two guys at the beginning and what would be the most interesting choice to create the most hostility. In my head, ‘They live in a small village and don’t know one another,’ but then I thought, ‘They grew up together and loved one another and then something happens that makes one think that the other is a bad guy.”
LeFauve observed, “When you talk about a character’s inner darkness, my brain asks where did that darkness come from? Was it his dad who was evil in World War One? So, the character might think, ‘I’m going to take this guy down and show everyone I’m not like my dad.’”
Is It Done Yet?
Borenstein said, “All of this implies that a script is never really done, but you have to make choices. But, at the moment you see better ideas, be willing to go back to the outline. Make a choice but separate your ego from the ideas. Some writers become attached to an idea because it’s theirs. Others, and these are the better writers, are only committed to an idea until a better one comes along.”
This was a longer than average session at the festival, but very few people left early. Towards the end, Solomon summed things up:
“Every script I start, I think to myself, ‘How do I do this?’ Every script has a different need and process from the last one you did. When we did Mosaic at HBO, we had a big office. I literally wrote scenes on walls, then we put up all the note cards on another wall. We sat in the middle of the room so we could see all the alternatives.
“What I’m going to share next sounds like an insult but wasn’t. As we looked at all the options Steven [Soderbergh] said, ‘Once I fill this wall with the right beats, I know I can make this movie because the rest is just writing.’”
If you’d like to get writing advice like this, stay connected with next year’s Austin Film Festival. You can watch its PBS series On Story, attend one of its year-round events, or check its website to stay informed.