Screenwriter/director HOSSEIN AMINI (above) may well be surrounded by Blockbuster-full shelves of DVDs – the key to better screenwriting is watching more films, he says.
In the concluding part of my chat with the writer of Drive, The Two Faces of January, the newly-released Snowman movie with Michael Fassbender, to name a few, we talk about redrafting, battling writer’s block, structuring scenes and nailing believable dialogue.
And hey, it’s okay if all this stuff is hard to do…
You’ve been quoted as saying you find writing very hard, “just very difficult”. What do you find so hard about it?
I (now) find it a little bit easier and that worries me. I think it should be hard. Quite often the first ideas a writer has tend to be the most obvious ones and some of that difficulty is pushing yourself and challenging yourself so I think if it comes too easy I was worried there’s a combination of laziness and complacency.
One of the things that have made it easier now is as a writer I have got to know myself a little better so for example if I can’t crack an idea, if I have a good night’s sleep there’s a chance the next morning I’ll wake up and feel better whereas before I would agonise about it. I’ve got much better at switching off. That’s the experience of knowing how 5 or 6 times where I’ve hit those blocks and 3 days later I think what was I agonising about, the solution’s come so now I know not to put so much pressure on myself and in 2 or 3 days’ time the answer will somehow present itself.
So it’s not just knowing your craft, it’s knowing your self, your moods and habits and what inspires you and what blocks you.
Have your blocks changed over the years?
Each script, just when you think you’ve figured out how to tell a certain kind of story you go onto the next and a completely new puzzle comes along to confound you. There are things that are easier but suddenly some nasty surprise comes along.
So I absolutely love Drive. The first 26 scenes are my favourite.
With no dialogue in there.
Sorry about that.
That’s all right, no-no! I’m really glad you said that because that’s what I mean. Because that’s what I think screenwriting is – silent storytelling. And everyone assumes it’s dialogue-based.
Was it hard to write those first ‘10 pages’? How conscious were you about having to make that first Act impactful?
It was, but it wasn’t necessarily because I knew the studio was going to read it, it was about how I was going to tell the story. Because with the way that’s structured, after the first 10 pages with his [Ryan Gosling’s] character, it is a very slow build so I wrote the first 10 pages like that so I could write the next 30 quite slowly.
Those first 10 pages bought me time to let an audience and reader think well something else like that beginning is going to happen, I’m prepared to wait 30 pages for it. If I’d have started with him walking into the apartment and meeting her and you don’t know what he does really, I would have lost the audience.
How did it come about?
It was really fun to come up with. The breakthrough came with… I went with the producer, this is way before Ryan [Gosling] came onto it, we went to see the head of security at Universal and his whole thing was there is no point now, with helicopters, there’s no such thing as getaway drivers, it’s fantasy. So interrogating that more if it happened under a roof a helicopter wouldn’t be able to follow him. So from then it was like reverse engineering, if we have a roof, and it was really fun for him to try and beat the helicopter.
The first draft I was really happy with and then it went through 2 or 3 studio drafts where it really went the wrong way and got fat and overwritten and too much backstory and then Ryan came on and said the first draft was better can we go back to that and then Nicholas (Winding Refn, director) came on and stripped it down even more and he was very bold, why don’t you try it without this or that so it shrunk. Good directors almost direct a writer in the way they direct actors through a combination of inspiring and showing you movies.
Did you have to watch different movies for inspiration?
Nicholas and I had very different influences. I was really obsessed with the 70s neo-noir crime movies and (Jean-Piere) Melville’s Le Samourai and Red Circle; silent, visual storytelling, but Nick brought a whole 80s/David Lynch-y sensibility to it. So it was an odd combination that worked well. I guess the 70s version of it would have been too close to those old films but giving it that 80s dreamlike quality worked.
You lived in Nicholas’s attic in LA while writing Drive?
He’d rented a house and his kids had gone back to Denmark so I had the kids’ room with a bunk bed. Neither of us could drive so he would go off location-hunting in the day and I was completely stranded in the Hollywood hills so I got a lot of work done!
Can you talk a bit about how you realise your characters?
I’m really interested in the silences. I’m interested in how people talk. For example married couples talk in code. They rarely say to each other ‘the last time we went on holiday I thought I loved you but I…’. You know they just have different ways of saying it. It’s what’s not said and pauses and the silences and the truth coming out in the unspoken. I think people invariably cover up when they speak. For example if you’ve heard someone talking to their lover on the phone and they then have a perfect domestic scene with their husband or wife they’ve cheated on, they can talk about the weather and it‘s going to be so charged for an audience. Then every single line will have a different meaning; dialogue that’s real but has drama hidden underneath it.
I love watching movies with dialogue where it’s beautifully crafted with amazing turns of phrase but I know I can never think of a line I want in a conversation, that’s why I will often go through the dialogue and if it’s too cute or too written or too well-crafted (I’ll) cut it so often it’s that classic line about kill your babies; it’s too good, you have to cut it because it feels false.
So how do you make dialogue better?
I ask myself if I overheard those two people having that conversation, would I believe it? Even if a single word and they wouldn’t say that or they wouldn’t say it like that, then it needs rewriting. So I don’t particularly write flashy dialogue with great zingers, I almost go the other way.
And the problem is if it’s not played right… the problem with that kind of writing is you leave yourself very much in the hands of the director so if those pauses are not in the right moments, it can come across as quite bland. And likewise if they lean too hard on the dialogue and don’t throw it away, quite often I write for it to be thrown away as in it’s not what they’re saying that’s important, it’s the intent and the silences, so if they lean too hard on the line it sounds rubbish as well.
That’s why it helped on the TV series McMafia, I worked closely with James Watkins the director and he gets the way I write so he knows throw the line away and focus on the pause or the moment that is unseen by everyone else.
How do you approach structuring a scene?
Definitely with their own beginning, middle and end. I plan carefully. So what I’ll do, I write very early in the morning about 6.30am until 1pm or 2pm and then stop because any more hours than that my brain stops working and I re-write the same thing again and again and you lose perspective. In the afternoon I will read or watch movies around the scenes I am going to write the next day and more and more writing notes to myself so whether it’s lines of dialogue or a moment in the scene but without the pressure of sitting behind a computer and writing.
I do have little bits of paper when I’m structuring something in the beginning. But once I start writing I just do notes on my iPhone.
I am hoping to achieve a rhythm. So if it’s a book first I’ll break down every scene, if it exists, even if it’s a one line thing. Then it’s a matter of whittling it down but also writing new scenes so the cards become the structural rewriting of the book.
I know with a lot of screenwriting they talk about the 3 Acts and the 5 Acts and whatever. I find what’s more important is it’s more closer to music and it’s about rhythm. So for Drive for example it’s fast, fast, fast, fast and then slow for a long time and then suddenly crank it up and goes fast again. So I can’t look at that and go it’s 3-Act or 2-Act. If anything it’s 2-Act because in one half he’s passive and the other he’s active.
I think it’s helpful to think about plot turns but rhythm… a film is moving for 2 hours, you don’t stop and re-read, so the flow and the rhythm is key.
In Two Faces of January, one of the things I learnt which came to bite me in the editing room, I had 3 very long dialogue scenes back to back at the beginning at a time when the film needed to move so the editing was a nightmare. Editing rooms are great places to learn about writing, you can see which bits they didn’t need; when they should have got faster, when they should have got slower. People talk about how editing is the last draft of the screenplay.
I really enjoyed the direction on The Two Faces of January. What were your influences?
The two big ones were Hitchcock because I’d always been obsessed with Hitchcock and that idea of storytelling through what the camera does; each shot of his he’s trying to tell a story. But the other director who was completely different who I’ve always loved was Antonioni, not stylistically because it’s very hard to emulate his style but in that sense of the way he captures almost the death of love, the way it’s not a sudden thing when people fall out of love with each other, it’s a horribly slow disintegration. The way he uses silences and what’s unspoken between couples. So he was a massive influence in the emotional story.
I am desperate to direct again. It’s quite hard if you’re a screenwriter and you get paid to write reasonably well, then to take 2 to 3 years of your life. I have a family and 3 kids to support so I should have a) tried to direct younger and also say this is what I want to do: write and direct, but I just couldn’t afford to financially. And also the whole TV boom was happening so what if I missed out on that I would have been left behind.
But I’m just writing something now that I want to direct.
It’s a book called A Terrible Splendor which is about the Davis Cup Final between America and Germany in 1936. It’s not really about the tennis, it’s about the world at that time. It’s mainly a gay love story between a tennis player who was supposed to be the great Nazi golden boy but he’s hiding this secret he was gay and had a Jewish lover so it’s a very powerful, moving story.
The same producers who produced Drive sent it to me, it took me a year to read. I was thinking it’s not my kind of thing and then when I read it I couldn’t put it down. That’s what happens with certain books and adaptations, there are certain books you read and when I was reading it I could almost imagine the film. And then when you write it, it takes many, many drafts to get back to that initial point of imagination where you can see it quite clearly. I’ve literally just written the first draft. I want to get the script completely right before I can think about how to direct it so right now I am in writer mode.
How many drafts do you do?
There are big drafts and little drafts. Probably 4 or 5 really significant drafts but within those there are little polishes. By the time you go into production you are changing all the time so those can go up to 20.
What is your advice on rewriting?
If you are going to rewrite, a fundamental rewrite, start at page 1 and go all the way through because you almost have to… and that doesn’t mean there won’t be 10 pages that work brilliantly and you skip through those but I think the idea of reliving the story through the writing process even on a second draft is really important. I think it’s harder to dip in and out. It’s really worth working the whole way through.
Have you any particular advice for writer’s block?
Leave it alone. Go back to it in a few days. A little bit of distance. Often watching a movie that is somehow related. Or just listening to music.
Endings are always the hardest. When they have test screenings invariably the one thing that comes up is the ending. That tends what to be reshot the most. When an ending doesn’t work then the film isn’t really working.
When I get notes from a director I don’t want it to be too specific. It’s a combination of having planned but leaving enough space for discovery because otherwise the writing’s not fun. If I know exactly how a scene is going to be played it’s just not alive. As a director I want to know vaguely the beginning, middle and end of a scene but then I want them to be able to inhabit that space and let the characters talk.
Routine is so important. I work less hours at the weekend but I do because I need to stay in that world and if I take a day off it takes me a little while to get back into the world of the script I’m writing so I need to do it on a roll. Even if it’s doing a couple hours on a Sunday to keep it ticking over. A first draft of a script probably takes me 8 weeks. A TV episode 3 or 4 weeks.
What’s the best way for a new screenwriter to get noticed?
I think writing samples are the most important thing, that’s the same whether getting an agent or a job for a TV show. And having worked in a couple of TV things and being semi-responsible for hiring writers it’s the samples. It doesn’t matter how good the interview is. People are going to judge the work. It’s one of those bits of the profession you can’t bullshit your way really, the writing speaks for itself so getting a really strong writing sample.
For someone who was hiring for a TV show all I was interested in was the quality of writing – the descriptions, the dialogue, the drama and the scenes, it was looking at craft.
What’s your advice in pitching to be the writer they choose?
Putting in the groundwork. Like on the TV series The Alienist, it was very competitive. It was a very popular book by Caleb Carr, it had been a huge bestseller so that I knew there were quite a few writers competing for it so pretty much when I went for my meeting I blocked out how I would do it and got my head around it.
There was another book called The Stars My Destination, a sci-fi book but I was in the middle of another deadline so I didn’t have the time to prep and I could sense in the pitches it was a disadvantage. As a writer you know when you’re bluffing and when you’ve really got a handle on something. It’s really hard. In order to pitch properly for a big job like that you need a week or 2, the space to prepare, and because you need to keep working, to keep earning, it’s hard to find that time.
The thing I try to do to make the pitch easier is to send some kind of document, 2 or 3 pages, of what the pitch is going to be about. I’m not very good at going to them cold and going, well what happens is we open on this. That idea of telling a story I find very hard so I try to make it a discussion rather than a story pitch and a document often helps that.
Do the studios pressure you to write it in a certain way?
They are specific in terms of tone. The first discussions before you write your first draft will be quite broad, they leave you enough freedom to run with it. Then after the first draft comes in, then it becomes more controlling when they see what’s not working for them in terms of how to sell the movie or its commercial prospects and stuff like that. The first draft you’re given room so it’s often the most enjoyable to write.
It is frustrating because it can move further away from what you wanted to do but it’s what every screenwriter has to learn: how to take notes, to understand where those notes are coming from. There’s usually some method behind the madness, they’re putting their finger on something that’s not working. Even if their solutions aren’t necessarily right, they are reacting to something that’s not working so that’s something I have got better at with time – trying to diagnose what the problem is and read between the lines and what’s really bothering them. Because they could say, there’s this problem in Act 3 and it could be all the way at the beginning or it could be not the character they are talking about, it’s somebody else so there is a lot of trying to analyse what’s there.
Another thing I found useful about notes is that it’s very hard once you’ve written something to do another draft and another draft so quite often those notes session and even those black moods that come after them of oh my God I’ve just done all that work and I’ve got to start again, there’s almost an energy you get from that bucket of cold water that says it’s a good first draft, it’s only your first draft. Because everyone thinks after you write something it’s the best thing you’ve written and I think it’s that wake-up call. It has a very useful energising process. And you invariably become snowblind as well so you need other people to tell you when it’s good and when it’s finished. I don’t think it’s ever really finished even when you’re shooting, it’s evolving, even into post-production.
You didn’t have any formal training. Where did you get your skills from?
Watching lots of movies. All you’re doing when you’re screenwriting is transcribing something you’ve seen in your head. So the more movies you watch, the more you get a sense of the rhythm of scenes, how long they should be, when you need a silent pause.