Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Tuesday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Wednesday we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process. Thursday we considered writers who carry a concern about theme: Not to come off as “preachy”. Today writers who emphasize the importance of theme being personal.

Stephanie Shannon: “Theme is really important to me. They emerged in my research– learning about what made “Alice in Wonderland” different from other children’s stories and learning about what was really special about Lewis Carroll and what was going on at Oxford at the time. In my research I found so many interesting things to mine in the story. I think I ended up embracing the themes that also meant something to me personally. Father/daughter relationships are an important theme with me. I think it was important to me that the theme not only serve the story but also was something that was close to my own heart personally. I think those are always the stories that I want to tell, that I’ll end up telling the best.”

Brian Duffield: “Usually it’s a theme I want to explore because it’s really locked into my head as a person, as something I’m going through or struggling or interested with, so even if I throw out the characters or genre surrounding that theme a dozen times, the theme stays intact because it’s an itch I need to scratch.”

Seth Lochhead: “I leave theme to my subconscious (I’ll let it come out as I pursue the more tangible elements of the story — although according to my previous answers, tangible doesn’t seem to be one of my writing pursuits). If I’m obsessed with something, if I’ve noticed something, some illness in the world, some crack in reality, I let it in and if it wants to come out in my work so be it.”

Spenser Cohen: “Movies are there to teach us about the human condition, what it’s like to be in difficult or impossible situations… Every writer has their own life experiences, their own point of view, so the way they see the world often dictates the theme.”

Geoff LaTulippe: “The good news is that, in talented writers, I think theme comes out organically. It’s not something you have to force. But it is something you have to consider, or why are you writing the fucking thing in the first place? Why bother?”


  • You are more likely to write an empowered script if you have an emotional connection to its themes.
  • You can also reverse this: If you can identify your points of emotional connection to a story, there’s a good chance some of its themes are to be found there.

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Par 4, here.

For more insights from Black List writers on the craft, go here.

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Monday we explored various articulations of what ‘theme’ is. Yesterday we looked at some writers who begin the story-crafting process with theme. Today we hear from writers who discover theme during the writing process.

Eric Heisserer: “Theme. That’s something that I have such a hard time engineering. If I were given nothing but the tool of ‘Here’s the theme. Write something with this theme,’ that’s an impossible task for me. I can’t start a story with that. I can figure out later on, after I’ve written a story, what the theme is. I can’t start with that in the forefront of my brain. It doesn’t work for me as a storyteller. I think other people can. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for anybody else. I’m just saying it’s not how I’m wired.

James DiLapo: “I think theme is immensely important, but for me, it’s not always readily apparent when I begin the process. With ‘Devils At Play’ we were talking about the idea of redemption, that there can be angels and devils inside our own personalities and societies. That, for me, is the theme of the story, but I didn’t know it when I began. Eventually the story itself will tell you what the theme is.”

Nikole Beckwith: “I think it definitely evolves over time. I’m sure that there are things that I carry around with me while I’m writing and they emerge on their own, I don’t say, ‘I’m going to write something that explores identity.’ That’s all I do, immerse myself in it.”

Aaron Guzikowski: “Definitely that they emerge whenever I’m writing the story. I definitely think a little bit about it at the beginning, but usually it’s more after you’re writing the story, the theme just emerges. If it’s a story that’s working, then themes generally just start to bleed out of it, and they just present themselves to you. They just appear.”

Julia Hart: “My students would always get frustrated when we would talk about the themes that the author was using. They would always ask, ‘Did they really think about all this before they started writing it?’ And I don’t think that they do or I don’t think that good writers do. Of course when you’re writing a cohesive world the themes are going to rise out of it.”

Lisa Joy: “I don’t necessarily start with theme, but by the time I’m done — I always have one. And often, writing a script shows me what my theme is and allows me to deepen my own thinking on that theme. Writing becomes, in its own way, a philosophical investigation into theme. Sometimes I go back, once I understand the theme more fully and use it in the rewrite to enrich the scenes.”

Chris Borrelli: “If you don’t have a theme as you write, then you are writing blind… Sometimes the theme presents itself. Usually other themes present themselves as I write, and I’ve had a theme or two change as I write, but still become something I care about…I want to say. That’s the jumping off point for me…something I care about…something I want to say.”

Justin Marks: “I think theme comes very late in outlining. I don’t think it comes immediately at the beginning. I think at the beginning it’s a character that you really like, or it’s a hook that you want to figure out. I don’t think it becomes a movie, though, until you find that theme. Until it centers on some idea that is not specific to the plot. I think you need to know theme before you start writing dialogue. I think you need to know theme before you start writing scene work.”

Declan O’Dwyer: “Thematically, I try to be governed by what my character is telling me it should be and not what I’m deciding it is on the outset, because it will grow and it will change as they grow and change.”

Daniel Kunka: “For me, theme is usually something I find as I write through the first draft. I probably have a general idea when I start, but theme becomes the unifying factor as I go. I always work better sort of discovering it rather than coming up with something early in the process or even before I start writing pages. That’s not to say it’s not there, but I don’t consciously make the decision ‘this is my theme.’ I think theme is directly related to voice. A lot of my themes are similar, because those are the stories I want to tell. And it’s not planned, it just is. Because of that I’ll sort of trust my theme to tag along with me until I’m done with the first draft, then the second draft is when I’ll go back in and add a few lines here or there to highlight some things that will help take the piece to the level I want it.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I don’t like to go into a script saying, ‘I want to write a story about forgiveness,’ and then try to fit forgiveness into every single scene. That feels maudlin and a bit silly to try to imbue every scene with a theme. It feels like a homework assignment and it doesn’t allow for much discovery or revelation. After all, you’ve already told yourself what the movie is about. You’ve limited yourself. What I prefer to do is say, here’s a character. I like this character and I know the journey I’d like him or her to go on. And then I write that journey, that arc, and then I let the audience or reader decide what the theme is. Let them take what they want from the story. If you say a movie is about forgiveness, then an audience or a reader is only looking for that theme in the material and there’s no discovery. But if you present them with a character on a journey, they’re able to take away from that character and that journey what they want. It’s less limiting, I think. Stories mean different things to different people.”

Justin Kremer: “With ‘McCarthy,’ people have said things to me on the thematic level — “oh, I enjoyed this thematic element of the script” — and I’m surprised by it. Often, that thematic element wasn’t even something that was intentional on my part. Reading is obviously inherently subjective and people can take away so many different things from a work. As long as you have a strong character and a clear arc, it tends to come together organically. Look at a classic like The Godfather, it can be this intimate father son story or an epic about American capitalism and the American dream.”

And why is theme so bloody damn important? How about this:

Stephany Folsom: “I think when I first find an idea that I’m not like, ‘Oh, gosh, let’s find the theme in this.’ But as I go through my steps to see whether or not this idea is going to be something that can actually make a good movie, one of my steps is, ‘What is going to be the theme?’”

And this:

Jason Hellerman: “I think theme is super important, but I let myself find what I’m afraid to talk about, and I let my fears and my own inhibitions dictate the theme of what I need to get off my chest.”

And this:

Chris McCoy: “A story theme is tremendously important, because it’s what you’re trying to say with the work as a whole. If there’s no theme, there’s nothing holding the script together.”

And there’s this:

Justin Marks: “Look at how Chris Nolan writes. Everything is written to theme. Everything comes back to that. That’s what makes the Batman movies so great is that they’re always about theme. Every scene is about guiding itself towards theme. When you don’t know what a scene is supposed to be about, the answer is theme. Yeah. I think if you’re getting away from it, that’s when you ask, why doesn’t this scene feel right? Or, why doesn’t this sequence feel right? Or, why does the third act feel right? Oh yeah, because it has nothing to do with my theme. It has nothing to do with what I wanted this story to be about in the first place. If a script starts to meander beyond theme, I think you lose your reader. Because they start to wonder, ‘Why am I reading this? What am I getting from this story?’ You’re getting theme. If you don’t get it, you’re not going to read it.”


  • Trust the process: If you go in the story… if you engage your characters… if you live in, then reflect upon the narrative… the themes will emerge.
  • Use your themes as a touchstone: For everything including how you approach scenes to how you handle character relationships to how you write scene description, from big to small, themes can help you expand your understanding of your story and focus how you convey it emotional meaning to a script reader.

How about you? Do you discover theme in your writing? How is theme important to you in your writing?

For Part 1 of this week’s series with Black List writers, go here.

Part 2, here.

Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.

Comment Archive

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Are you telling the best part of the story in your novel or script?

When you have a great idea for a screenplay it’s very tempting to rush to the computer and start writing. However, taking some time to think about a number of different ways you could tell the story may lead to a truly outstanding script rather than just a good one.

In a Fast Company series of successful authors’ tips on writing better stories, Terence Winter (creator, writer, and executive producer of the series, Boardwalk Empire) makes a great point about choosing the most interesting part of a story to tell:

“Every movie you’ve ever seen about Al Capone shows him at the height of his power, and sort of like Al Capone’s Greatest Hits. If you can only spend two hours with Al Capone, you want it to be when he’s at the top of his game.

On Boardwalk Empire, we meet Al Capone when he’s a kid driving a truck. That Al Capone is so much more interesting to me because we get to see him become the guy we know, and we had hours and hours to do it, and really see what formed him and what made this guy tick and that’s so much more a luxury as a storyteller and more satisfying for the audience.”

The series Gotham does something similar by looking at the formative years of the man who became Batman, and also by focusing on a character (Inspector Gordon) who has a supporting role in the later story.

Even for a screenplay there’s value in taking the time to brainstorm a number of ways of approaching the story before committing to one. For instance, a kidnapping story could be told with any of these as the viewpoint character:

* the victim

* the loved ones of the victim

* the detective investigating the case

* the kidnapper

* someone who is wrongly accused of the kidnapping

* someone who inadvertently or unwillingly gets involved in the crime

* a psychic (fake or genuine–if there is such a thing–who is asked to help locate the victim

* a previous victim of the kidnapper who realises she knows something that could help but is reluctant to relive the experience

Find out more about writing your screenplay at The Script Coach Series Jurgen Wolff starting Monday, 10 July. 

The post Are you telling the best part of the story in your novel or script? appeared first on Raindance.


Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 4)

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

This week: How do you develop your characters?

Reading through all of the responses was a fascinating exercise. Once again, this group of writers demonstrates there is no one way to approach the craft. Their respective approaches to developing their story’s characters vary from highly intuitive, even instinctual to the conscious use of specific techniques and writing exercises. In all cases, the goal is the same: To make the characters come alive in the writer’s imagination and onto the printed page.

On Monday, we featured writers who start their character development process by focusing on real people. Tuesday writers zeroed in on brainstorming and the importance of asking questions about and to characters. Yesterday we checked in with writers who use biographies as a tool for character development. Today we see how some Black List writers use scene-writing to find a character’s voice:

Ashleigh Powell: “For me, how my characters speak informs a lot about who they are and how they see the world. Really nailing down that voice helps me shape their character traits from there.”

Spenser Cohen: “One thing that I do when I first start writing is to put the outline aside and just start trying to find the character’s voice. I’ll give myself space to explore, and I just let the characters go. No one’s going to see it. No one’s going to read it. There’s no pressure. It’s their story, and I let whatever happens, happen. I’ll often make up a scene that’s not in the outline and might not even make sense for the story… It’s almost like a rehearsal before you jump in and start doing the real work. Just exploring. Often in these rough passes the characters start to take shape.”

Julia Hart: “Just through writing the scenes of their dialogue. I write a ton and then I’ll cut a bunch of it out. I’ll write like seven lines where there needs to be one and just cut around that one right line and keep going. I find their voices by having them say too much, by writing down every thought that would be in their head and then cutting off the fat.”

No matter the writing, the goal is to get inside the character’s head:

Eric Heisserer: “If I need to develop the character further, typically that’s the harder work of trying to figure out what part of the story I’m not writing about. If I have to…and I hate it, but I’ve had to do this before…I will write act zero — what happens to a character before the story in my script begins — so I have a deeper understanding of where this character came from.”

James DiLapo: “Whenever I struggled with lines in “Devils At Play” I would stop and would run the whole story in my head from the character’s perspective, trying to feel what they are feeling and thinking how they would. It’s not always easy. I think that’s probably the hardest element of screenwriting. You have to find a way to stretch beyond your own understanding and become, for a moment, someone who is so foreign to the way you live your life. In my experience, however, the more you do it, the better you get at it.”


  • Feel free to write free. Free-standing scenes. Free-standing monologues. Give yourself “space to explore”. Write down “every thought” the character has and see what sticks.
  • For some writers, a character’s personality may shape their voice, however the inverse can work, too. Nailing down their voice can “shape” their character traits.
  • Do what you need to do to get inside their head. Feel what “they are feeling.” Think how “they would.” Write “act zero,” exploring what happened to the character before FADE IN. To riff off the name of this blog… go into the characters.

How about you? Do you write free-standing scenes to explore your characters? How do you go about finding a character’s voice? What do you do to get inside their head?

For Part 1 of this week’s series on character development, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Tomorrow we take up another angle on prep-writing as reflected on by Black List writers.

Comment Archive

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 4) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Screenwriting Lessons: “The Social Network” — Part 2: Narrative Framework

A five-part series exploring lessons we can glean from Aaron Sorkin’s script.

The Social Network won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2011. It is an audacious script which breaks many so-called screenwriting ‘rules’ and thus is worth analyzing.

Today: The Social Network — Narrative Framework.

Aaron Sorkin has a reputation as a great writer of dialogue, as well he should. One need only read the opening scene of The Social Network, 9 full pages of rapid-fire dialogue, to see proof of his talent with what characters say. But perhaps the single most creative choice Sorkin made about this story was its narrative framework. To spotlight the value of that decision, consider this issue that confronted him: How to tell the story not only of a complicated anti-hero such as Zuckerberg, but also the origins and phenomenal growth of Facebook? From this interview Sorkin did with Written By magazine, we learn how Sorkin solved the problem:

There’s a lot of available research, and I also did a lot of first person research with a number of the people that were involved in the story. I can’t go too deeply into that because most of the people did it on the condition of anonymity, but what I found was that two lawsuits were brought against Facebook at the roughly same time, that the defendant, plaintiffs, witnesses all came into a deposition room and swore under oath, and three different versions of the story were told. Instead of choosing one and deciding that’s the truest one or choosing one and deciding that’s the juiciest one, I decided to dramatize the idea that there were three different versions of the story being told. That’s how I came up with the structure of the deposition room [which Sorkin uses as a narrative frame from which to tell the story in chronological sequence].

Sorkin used the “structure of the deposition room” to allow him to cut from two different legal settings in the present to critical narrative moments in Zuckerberg’s past. Furthermore this allowed him to use the exposition offered in those legal depositions to transition the story in and out of the past, and help construct that Plotline into a coherent whole. In other words:

  • Plotline: Zuckerberg and Facebook (Past)
  • Subplot: Zuckerberg vs. the Winklevoss twins (Present)
  • Subplot: Zuckerberg vs. Eduardo Saverin (Present)

There you have Sorkin’s “three different versions of the story.” It’s reminiscent of other notable narrative frameworks in movies such as Citizen Kane (the reporter interviewing multiple characters in Charles Foster Kane’s past in an attempt to learn the truth about the story’s Protagonist) and Rashomon (multiple versions of the same events, each with their own perspective).

So yes, Sorkin is great with dialogue. But in the case of The Social Network, we must not forget the crucial creative decision he made that enabled him to tell a complex saga in a coherent way — the story’s narrative framework.

It’s a good lesson for writers. While most Hollywood movies will have a straight linear narrative, one of the beauties of cinema is we can manipulate time. How about that script you’re currently writing? Might it benefit from a different approach to the narrative?

Part 1: Compelling Protagonist

Tomorrow: Theme.

UPDATE: Some excellent insight provided in comments by James. Here is a copy/paste in its entirety:

From script to movie, it also appears Fincher had a hand in this effect as well. The script I read had Zuckerberg literally leave one court case to walk into the next.

Fincher’s take actually intercuts the two cases that works as both a humorous effect (that isn’t present in the script) and gives the same “exposition” without ever needing a setup.

The setup is literally, talking about the other case and its defendant/witness in one room, cutting to it, seeing a piece of that case, and then coming back.

While not exactly the same, the opening to SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION has a similar effect. The court case, a supposed affair, Andy Dufrane in the car with booze and a gun, are all written as completely separate scenes, but when assembled are part of a retelling of the court case –

I always find this process of intercutting to be interesting as it seems that film captures it quite well, but illustrating it on the page can be somewhat problematic.

That and I think it points out one universal truth. Court cases are boring. What we really want to see are the actions and relationships behind the case and not the deliberation in the court room. They are almost always framing devices.

I noted the same thing about Shawshank in a post here, how the movie is cut differently than the script, cross-cutting between the nights of the murder and the court case. Much more cinematic.

Comment Archive

Screenwriting Lessons: “The Social Network” — Part 2: Narrative Framework was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 2): Stephanie Shannon

2013 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting winner and Black List honoree.

Stephanie Shannon not only is one of five recipients of the 2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, she did it with her very first full-length screenplay: “Queen of Hearts.” Beyond that, the script landed on the 2013 Black List. And just last week it was announced that Seth Gordon is going to direct “Life in Rewind”, based on a script Stephanie wrote. A great opportunity to reprise my March 2014 interview with Stephanie.

Today in Part 2, Stephanie discusses how she made a plan to write “Queen of Hearts” for the Nicholl competition deadline… and followed through with it:

Scott: When did you start picking up the screenwriting again in that process? Was it when you went to Los Angeles?

Stephanie: When I got out here I decided I wanted to give it a real shot, because I hadn’t allowed myself to before. Ever since I graduated college I had kind of put it out of my mind as something that I couldn’t realistically do. I was afraid that if I really tried to go for it, I wouldn’t be able to, that I would prove to myself that I couldn’t do it. That was just a fear of mine, I think.

When I got out here I was like, “I’m going to be 28. I need to do it now if I’m going to do it.” I started talking to some friends in the industry who put me in touch with their writer friends. So I started setting up coffees with several TV writers. They were all so gracious to meet with me and give me advice. It was really eye opening to talk to so many people who were my age who had made it as professional writers. I thought, “Wow, this is really possible.”

I made a promise to myself that I would write a screenplay that year and enter the Nicholl. This was around November of last year. I started researching in December. Then I started writing in February.

Scott: Assistant gigs, from everything I’ve heard, a great way to learn the business, but they’re notoriously challenging, especially hours. How did you carve out time to write?

Stephanie: I just became really singularly focused. I was determined I wasn’t going to let another year go by without finishing a feature. I told myself there was no way I was going to miss the Nicholl deadline. I have never been more determined to do anything in my life.

It was a pretty isolating time for me, though. I’d work all day as an assistant, I’d get home at night, and I would write. I’d wake up and work a little in the morning, then go to work. Sometimes I’d just pull out my laptop and write at my desk while answering phones, or in my boss’ office while he was out at lunch. Then on Fridays I would go home after work, and I wouldn’t really reemerge until Monday. I was so into the story that it didn’t feel like I was torturing myself. I was excited, and I looked forward to working on it, which was a really great feeling.

Scott: I’d like to talk to you more in depth about the script, but let’s cover the fun part. You write the script “Queen of Hearts,” and it wins the Nicholl competition. How did you learn you had won? What was that feeling?

Stephanie: It was amazing! They notify you throughout the summer via email saying, “You’ve advanced to the quarter finals. You’ve advanced to the semi-finals.” I tried to put it out of my mind, because I didn’t want to obsess.

What was actually great about my situation was I had given my boss the script to read the day before I submitted it to the competition. As his assistant, I was like, “I’d really appreciate it if you took a look at this. I’m going to turn it into this competition. I’d love to know your thoughts.”

I was really scared to do this because I didn’t want to be that assistant that’s like, “Hey boss, so I’ve got this script…” I was always hesitant to be that person, but I felt like I had worked for him long enough and I really wanted his opinion. I remember the day I gave it to him, I went into his office after he left for the night and noticed that the script wasn’t on his desk. I literally checked the trash. Turns out he had taken it home and read it over the weekend. He was really, really great.

On Monday morning he brought me into his office and told me to shut the door. I literally thought I had done something terrible and was about to be fired. I kept trying to figure out what I had screwed up. He sat down and was like, “I read your script. It’s really good. We’re going to put this out there and get you an agent”. He asked me if I was ready to start my writing career. It was just the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.

So, because of that, over the summer, while the competition was going on, I signed with CAA and my boss became my manager. I was leaving my assistant desk pretty frequently to go on general meetings around town. I was coming out of a meeting on the Disney lot when I got the call that I was a Finalist. It was just very surreal, to look down at your phone and have a missed called from The Academy (I had the number because I had all my boss’ contacts saved on my phone). I think I said this in my speech — the voicemail was in between like 15 missed called from debt collectors, which I thought was so ironic. It’s just a very surreal moment. You think that there are over 7,000 other people that didn’t get this call. You just feel very, very lucky. I held my breath until a few weeks later. Then they called me that I had won.

I was at work, it was lunchtime. I got the call, and I went into my boss’s office to take it. And they have everyone on speaker phone when they call you: Gale Anne Hurd, the whole Fellowship committee, and all the judges. Eric Roth is on the phone and Robin Swicord, these legendary writers that I’ve spent my life worshipping. It was so amazing to hear those people clapping for you on the phone, one of the best moments of my life, to be recognized by people of that caliber, for my first script, too. It was just incredible. I’ll never forget it.

Stephanie with a super-sized version of Oscar

Tomorrow in Part 3, Stephanie reveals what inspired her to write “Queen of Hearts” and how she worked with the story’s Protagonist Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll.

For Part 1, go here.

Stephanie is repped by CAA and Brillstein Entertainment Partners.

Twitter: @stephshanz.

Comment Archive

Interview (Part 2): Stephanie Shannon was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

David Milch: “The Writer’s Voice” (Part 2)

Videos and transcripts from Milch’s legendary 2001 and 2007 WGA series.

David Milch

In September 2010, I ran a week-long series featuring key excerpts from a memorable series of presentations in December 2001 by David Milch at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. Then I stumbled upon this: An entire series available on YouTube called The Idea of the Writer by Milch from a second WGA presentation, this one from December 2007. Since Milch is both an amazing writer and thinker about writing, each day this week I will reprise my posts featuring transcript excerpts from Milch’s 2001 presentation and embed videos from his 2007 series.

Television credits (as creator)

  • Beverly Hills Buntz (1987–1988) — co-creator, writer, producer of this Hill Street Blues spin-off
  • Capital News (1990) — co-creator, writer, producer
  • NYPD Blue (1993–2005) — co-creator, writer, executive producer
  • Brooklyn South (1997–1998) — co-creator, executive producer
  • Total Security (1997) — co-creator, writer
  • Big Apple (2001) — creator, writer, executive producer
  • Deadwood (2004–2006) — creator, writer, executive producer
  • John from Cincinnati (2007) — co-creator, writer, executive producer
  • Last of the Ninth (2009) — creator, writer, executive producer
  • Luck (2010) — creator, writer, executive producer
  • The Money (2014) — writer, executive producer

Awards and recognition

  • 1993 Emmy Award, Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series (Hill Street Blues)
  • 1994 Edgar Award, Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay (NYPD Blue, “4B or Not 4B”)
  • 1995 Emmy Award, Best Drama Series (NYPD Blue)
  • 1995 Edgar Award, Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay (NYPD Blue, “Simone Says”) (shared with Steven Bochco and Walon Green)
  • 2006 Austin Film Festival, Outstanding Television Writer Award recipient

Not to mention the 259 episodes of “N.Y.P.D. Blue” he’s credited with writing.

I did this post back in July that featured some great video of Milch sharing his thoughts about writing. At the time, I noted this:

What leaped to mind when I read the news about the new HBO series was a series of presentations Milch gave at the WGA Theater several years ago. They were covered and excerpted in the fine WGA journal “Written By” over the course of several months. I remember reading them, both fascinated and inspired by Milch’s ideas.

I contacted “Written By” and they have kindly offered to create electronic versions of the original hard copies, so I can excerpt them on GITS. Look forward to that sometime soon.

Here are some of Milch’s comments from those presentations at the WGA Theater from back in 2001, excerpted from the “Written By” journal. Part 2:

A psychiatrist will tell you — well, a psychiatrist won’t tell you shit. But in psychiatric terms, the psyche is differentiated into the ego sense of self, the id — which is everything that gets us jammed up — and the super ego, which is the idea of form, or structure, or the accommodation in the world for our behavior. And the super ego is the internalization of the parental voice. Now, it’s obviously an oversimplification. But in particular, a writer — for reasons we will get to in another part of this discussion — stands in a particular kind of doubleness, typically, in his or her emotional makeup, toward experience. Stands both within it comfortably, and, for whatever combination of reasons, stands outside it. That’s the cards you’re dealt. That’s what predisposes you to be a writer as well as predisposes you to be a few other things.

Often, that doubleness is caused by a traumatic association with the idea of form. Here’s a for-instance. The Irish are regarded as a great storytelling people and also as a country full of drunks. There’s a reason for both reputations. It’s a tough country — weather’s tough, they had a lot of problems. One way you learn the doubleness that is typical of the writer is that you are both within the [tavern] and you’re standing outside wondering where the next punch is coming from.

— —

The second maxim that I can give you, the thing that I always try to communicate to an aspiring writer, is that no one can teach you anything that you don’t already know, and each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story.

That last line is great takeaway:

…no one can teach you anything that you don’t already know, and each of you has, in your heart, the capacity, when encouraged by a benign organizing presence, to identify the deepest truths of the human story.

Day 2: David Milch on The Idea of the Writer.

For Part 1, go here.

Tomorrow Part 3 of “The Idea of the Writer” with David Milch.

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David Milch: “The Writer’s Voice” (Part 2) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Interview (Part 5): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner)

A 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Talking About the Sky”.

Michele Atkins wrote the original screenplay “Talking About the Sky” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Michele about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 5, Michele answers some of my craft questions:

Scott: Let’s jump in to some of those talent‑related questions about craft. In your Nicholl acceptance speech, you mentioned writer’s groups and teachers. You had mentioned it earlier here too. How important have they been for you in learning the craft and then in writing the script?

Michele: The writer’s groups were terrific. I met a man named Howard Casner. He has a blog and he does script notes. He ran a writer’s group in Hollywood that I went to for a couple of years. It’s defunct now.

I still have a relationship with him. I get notes from him. What Stephen King would call your ideal reader, that person who likes the same films that I like and the same projects that I like, he likes.

This is someone that I have a relationship with now that I can notes from and show my work to. As well as other folks in the classes and the groups that I read their scripts and they read my scripts.

There is also a producer named Andy Fraser who gives me awesome notes. He was interested in my projects when no one else really cared. It takes time to read and give notes. I was fortunate that Andy gave me his time.

You have to give to get. You have to read and give notes and spend some time with other people’s work. Those writing groups taught me that that you just don’t go in and show your work and never show up again.

It’s something that week after week you go to and you read other people’s work, and you try to be helpful to them as well. Not only that but, learn how to give notes that are constructive and not overly critical, so that the person receiving the notes can actually hear them.

Scott: I always tell my students when we do workshops it’s really valuable for you to provide feedback to other people on their work because you’re developing your own critical analytical skills.

Michele: Absolutely. No, I agree with that.

Scott: Let’s talk a little bit about because I’d the rest to hear you path in terms of we’re doing commercials. Is there a cross‑pollination for you from working in the storytelling world of commercials and screenwriting? Have you found some cross‑pollination there?

Michele: I wanted to get better, and I wanted to work on my directing. I’m very familiar with the commercial world, so I ended up getting a project through Levi’s. They did this contest with AFI.

I did a short film for Levi’s that essentially I won money to do a short film for them. It was shown at AFI fest 2012. It was more about commercial advertising type of a short than the actual film narrative short.

After that, I ended up getting that spot got some press. I ended up being in this commercial magazine called Shoot Magazine, up‑and‑coming director to watch.

I got signed shortly after that. Every time I go out, and I shoot and I direct a commercial, I’m just working on my craft and to be a better feature director. I would like to direct TALKING ABOUT THE SKY.

Scott: Is that your goal with the Nicholl script?

Michele: Yes, it is my goal.

Scott: Eva Marie Saint, who you mentioned, was your champion in terms of the script and introduced you at the award ceremony had an interesting comment.

She said, “When reading a script, you hope to find truth, reality, well‑defined characters, and a good story. I found all of the above in talking about the sky.” What do you think when you hear that comment?

Michele: Wow, it was something. I felt really lucky that that script got to her, that she was able to read it, that the Nicholl committee read it, and that they liked it as much as I did. I’m glad the script spoke to them. You never know what the ultimate end is going to be for anything. Eva is a class act and I am trying to find the right words to describe the thrill it was to have her like my writing, but there aren’t good enough ones! If you look at her career it is amazing and not many people have the talent and successes she has. It is remarkable.

When I wrote that script, and was driving for rideshare I was making the transition from producing commercials to directing commercials. I put myself on a strict schedule every day.

This is how long I’m going to drive. I’m going to come home and write.

I was excited every day to get home and be able to write. At the end of the day to find out a good outcome happened to something that I put an immense amount of work into is very pleasing.

Scott: One thing that jumped out to me was the idea of well‑defined character. Maybe you could drill down to that a little bit because the characters in your script are very strong. How do you go about developing characters?

Michele: I have a picture in my head, or it’s something that I see on the street, or just a little snippet, a little slice of life.

I’m one of those people watchers that when you go to the airport, or you’re taking a train, or you are waiting for a coffee. I like to watch people and how they interact.

I start off with something like that, and then you start painting layers.

At first, you have a little sketch and an outline, and then you pick up something else, a certain speech pattern or word that somebody repeats over and over again. You think, that would be good for my character.

A lot of times when I was driving around or even now I have my phone, and I will dictate notes into the notes app or the voice app.

I’ll run dialogue back and forth, or I’ll hear something, a response, or a certain way a voice sounds. I’ll put it into my phone as notes for a certain character, and then I’ll go back and see how it works.

The going back to your script over and over again creating layer after layer after layer really enriches your characters.

I know some people suggest you do that character outlines in the back story, and I did do that a lot of times in the treatment. For instance, I just wrote a treatment for a script that I’m working on now and it was 50 pages, which is far too long for a treatment.

A lot of it is dialogue and a lot of it is history that I very well may not put in the screenplay.

Scott: Reminds me of that Tarantino quote. He said, “The audience doesn’t need to know everything about the characters, but they need to know that I know everything about the characters.”

Michele: That makes a lot of sense.

Eva Marie Saint, Michele Atkins

Tomorrow in Part 6, Michele provides some advice to aspiring screenwriters.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

For Michele’s commercial reel, go here.

For my interviews with 24 other Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners, go here.

Interview (Part 5): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 4): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner)

A 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Talking About the Sky”.

Michele Atkins

Michele Atkins wrote the original screenplay “Talking About the Sky” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Michele about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 4, Michele and I discuss the structure of her script:

Scott: I want to ask you about the structure of the story. There’s a mystery quality to it where there’s a series of these questions that arise as we follow Walter along in his pursuit of Delilah.

Who is Delilah? What happened with he and Lin? Why did they use to drink? Why did he stop? How did he lose his musical career, or what did they do to end up in prison?

How conscious were you of it that it does play out like a mystery? How challenging was that, for you to structure each one of those moments of revelation, so they built on one another leading up to essentially a confession at the end?

Michele: I wanted Walter himself not to be able to face his past. That I wanted as the story was to be revealed to us as it was being discovered by Walter. I wanted it to be at a place where Walter could actually take it in and understand it. Then the audience could know what it took for Walter to confront his demons, his mistakes.

As I was writing it, although you do see him go to the graveyard, I didn’t want that to be revealed as to why he was going there. It was too dark and painful for Walter to discuss, therefore the reader could not know either. I also did not want his musical past to be brought up a lot because I wanted that to be something that Walter put behind him.

I don’t think Walter was able to face a lot of his secrets along the way until he was emotionally ready. Until he ended up growing stronger. When we first met Walter he was not able to face many of these problems he had buried.

Little by little, he was able to reveal to us and revealed to himself what actually had been going on.

I don’t know if you realized, but in the opening when the two younger cowboys working at the slaughter house, they were listening to the Walter’s music. It was actually a song that he and Lin Lynn sang at the opening on the radio.

He didn’t even bring it up to them. Most people who would be in that situation would probably say, “Hey, yeah, that’s me. That’s me on the radio. You want to be a big country star. Well, you hear that song? I’m singing it.”

He didn’t even want to do that. He wasn’t at that place. He was so beaten down that something like that wouldn’t even had nurtured him.

He was somewhat forced to tell Lily and Hank that he was famous because they discovered he was famous. It wasn’t something that he ran around telling everyone.

Scott: That brings up the last thing I want to talk about in terms of the script, which is music, obviously a key component. You’ve got a lot of lyrics in there. I’m guessing some of those are original.

Michele: I wrote all of them except for one set, but all the other lyrics I wrote.

Scott: One of them, “The wheels turn below me as I’m looking for the light. When I hear a voice that’s calling, I know I’m going toward the light.” That’s an original?

Michele: Yes, I wrote that.

Scott: That’s symbolic of what he is trying to do, trying to find the light.

Michele: Yes, very much so.

Scott: It’s a great script. I really enjoyed reading. Let’s get to the fun part here, which is Nicholl Fellowship in screenwriting. How did that all go down?

Michele: I got an email from someone that I had met briefly last year at a dinner. He was a young.

He asked me what were the final, he said, not your process, or not that you got notes, but the final thing that you did to your script before you turned it in? Was there anything special?

I thought back to when I actually enrolled in the Nicholl Fellowship. I really didn’t think that much about it. I had spent so much time on my script I just lived and breathe the characters so that all of them made sense to me.

I was fond of them I really enjoyed visiting each and every one of them every time I had to do a rewrite. I just really loved those characters.

When I sent my script in. It was just a last minute. Oh boy, better send this in, the Nicholl Fellowship is going right now. Why don’t I just push this baby through?

It was quite shocking that I kept moving forward into the semifinals, or the quarterfinals, and then the finalist. I really was not prepared for that.

Scott: Where were you when you got the call?

Michele: Visiting my dad in North Carolina. They set you up on Skype and just tell you to be on Skype during the certain time.

I was there with my dad, one of my sister lives in Durham, and the other lives over in High Point Archdale area. My husband was there, so we had a house full of people. This day that I was going to be with my family was predetermined months in advance. It wasn’t anything that I could shift.

I just told them that morning, “Hey, this call may or may not come through, so I’m going to have my Skype on just so you all know.” They all ended up being on the phone call as well.

We got a little bit of feedback on the phone call. There was some reverb going on. We had the Facebook opened, so we kept hearing what we were saying and what the Nicholl committee was saying twice. It was a little bit chaotic, but it was nice to have my family around.

Scott: What was the experience like doing the whole Nicholl week?

Michele: It was wonderful. They have quite the week setup for all of the winners, and very informational, and quite nice, and a lunch in with, I got to hang out with Eva Marie Saint, who championed my script, which was amazing.

I’ve talked to her about a lot of her stories, and I’m a huge admirer of her work. I was over the moon about that, not to mention that she was my grandmother’s favorite actress. My mom was just in a tizzy about that, so that was quite fun.

To be able to talk to all of the writers and writer directors who have massive amounts of experience.

It was just incredible, and not to mention all of the other Nicholl winners. They were a lovely crowd. It’s not just saying, oh, well, I was with these people for a week and we all got along.

The other winners were just fantastic and nice people. We had a lot of laughs. The laughs, that you’re actually crying by the end of it, because they were just so funny and so lovely.

Scott: I’ve interviewed all of you now for the 2016 class and it’s just a terrific group of people.

Michele: Yes. I feel really fortunate. You just don’t know when you’re walking into a situation where you’re going to spend a lot of time with folks. You never know, but they’re just really nice. It was a good time, very nice and very talented as well.

Here is a script reading from “Talking About the Sky”:

Tomorrow in Part 5, Michele discusses what it was like to win a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

For Michele’s commercial reel, go here.

For my interviews with 24 other Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting winners, go here.

Interview (Part 4): Michele Atkins (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

Interview (Part 3): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner)

My 6-part chat with the writer of the winning script “Tween the Ropes”.

Elizabeth Oyebode wrote the original screenplay “Tween the Ropes” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Elizabeth about her background, her award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to her.

Today in Part 3 of a 6 part series to run each day through Saturday, Elizabeth and I discuss some of the themes weaving through her script “Tween the Ropes” and how she chose the sport of double dutch jump-roping:

Scott: I was on the fence about asking you this, but since you’ve been talking about Nidi’s like a rock and then, some other times, she’s more like a leaf. I’m going to throw this out to you. [laughs]

The toolbox and the fact that she is this resident manager or superintendent of the building, and actually Nidi even does some repairs around the thing. The toolbox is actually in the last scene. I’m wondering, were you going for some sort of symbolic or metaphorical thing about repair? The family needs repair or under repair, or was that just an extension of the job and has no deeper meaning?

Elizabeth: Of course, it’s a story about a broken family and whether or not they have the tools to mend themselves on their own. The toolbox entered in because I thought it was very important to highlight externally this idea that all this family really has to do to get itself on the road to repair is to stop turning a blind eye, to look to themselves.

By addressing some family conflicts head on, taking the hammer and banging it into the nail. Instead of the alternative, you know, keeping the box locked, all those family secrets locked away.

Scott: The major complicating factor in the story, I think you would have to say in terms of character, is Frankie. The father who has rejoined the family after several years, he’s been away in prison.

Elizabeth: Yes, for three years.

Scott: He’s a rather loose cannon at times. Present, and then at times not around. There are occasions where you see a paternal side to him, though pretty largely, I’d say, very toward narcissism because it’s all about his own experience, but there are other times where he’s increasingly drawn toward negative impulses born out of his own desperation and drug dependency.

How did that character emerge in this process? Was that early on that you had that father figure, or is that something that evolved over time?

Elizabeth: The father figure was there from the beginning. He was central to the dynamic of the family bond and, of course, to the plot.

Scott: You’ve got a couple of other people. There’s Old Lady Smith, who lives in the same apartment building. She’s got a rather negative view of Nidi.

Elizabeth: She does. I wrote Old Lady Smith in to introduce a generational perspective on self-imposed limits and denial. She strongly disapproves of Nidi’s aspirations. Again, I think that speaks to her own life experience and perhaps not being given opportunities herself.

And, now, to see this next generation of child daring to ask for things really gets under her skin because, of course, no one bothered asking her and she never got the chance to ask. I really wanted to explore the questions of who deserves love and how much of it do they deserve, and who deserves opportunity and how much of it do they deserve.

Scott: Then there’s Mr. Yee, the next door neighbor who opens up love in a very disturbing way for Nidi. I don’t want to get into that terribly much because I don’t want to give away where that goes ‑‑ in sum, that little world inside that building.

If we say that the best way to create an emotional connection with the script reader and audience member is give them a sympathetic protagonist, then you succeed 10 times over in your script because Nidi is all that. Her personality, her potential, her intelligence, her grit, her determination and then, amidst all this other stuff around her, you’re really, really grabbed by this character. And all of ten years old.

Elizabeth: Thank you. Yes, there’s this intellectually unsupportive environment for her at home and, of course, this mixed bag at school, and, in both settings, everyone’s just trying to get by, to get from one day to the next. These are the examples that she’s presented with for what adults are like. Right?

Scott: Right.

Elizabeth: Then, of course, she’s looking at her classmates and just trying to figure out…As you said, she’s an outsider. She’s just trying to figure out how she fits in to all of this, because her needs and wants are being dismissed over and over again.

There’s no real reason given as to why, especially because most of these desires are not particularly complex. The conflicts that lay before her are very challenging given, as you said, she seems to have an internal strength that a lot of the characters she encounters don’t possess.

Scott: There’s that. Then there’s this, as we’ve said earlier, surrogate family, this double dutch jump-roping team led by Miss Harper. Why that particular sport? How’d that come about?

Elizabeth: It’s interesting in that it’s this three‑pronged reliance system. The person that’s center stage is the jumper in the middle and then there’s these two turners who have to mirror each other to help ensure the jumper’s success.

It’s this team dynamic that I think is really unusual in sports. Typically, it’s either a bigger team or one person. In this, there’s three people, occasionally four or five, but three people who really have to work together. I wanted to portray what might happen when one of those people is the bully and the other is the one getting bullied.

Scott: That’s interesting because, again, if we’re going to talk about physical objects with potential symbolic meaning, a rope can be a useful tool. You can climb a rope. You can also get tripped up in the jumping, which is what one of the bullies does to Nidi.

You can also be strangled by a rope. The title of the script is “Tween the Ropes,” so there’s something symbolic going on there, yeah?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. It’s a constant balancing act for Nidi. When she’s jumping between these ropes, there’s this constant wavering, one foot going up and the other going down. I wanted to convey that feeling of swaying back and forth, not really knowing whether the ground beneath you was firm enough to stand on.

There’s a scene as well in which the ropes take on this cocoon shape because they are turning so quickly. I employed that imagery because a cocoon is supposed to be this safe space in which a caterpillar can grow strong enough to transform then break free. But, until that is possible, it has to be encased in this shell.

For Nidi, this sport is the closest thing she has to that shell.

Tomorrow in Part 4, Elizabeth talks about what it was like to win the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

For Part 2, here.

Interview (Part 3): Elizabeth Oyebode (2016 Nicholl Winner) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story — Medium

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