Screenwriters on Screen-Writing

The Best in the Business Discuss Their Craft


By Joel Engel

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Before any lights, camera, or action, there’s the script — arguably the most important single element in filmmaking, and Screenwriters on Screen-Writing introduces the men and women responsible for the screenplays that have produced some of the most successful and acclaimed films in Hollywood history. In each interview, not only do the writers explore the craft and technique of creating a filmic blueprint, but they recount the colorful tales of coming up in the ranks of the movie business and of bringing their stories to the screen, in a way that only natural-born storytellers such as themselves can. These and other screenwriters have garnered the attention of the movie-going population not only with their words, but with headlines announcing the sales of their scripts for hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars. Anyone interested in writing, making, or learning about movies will enjoy reading this fascinating behind-the-scenes compendium that brings together some of the most prominent and talented screenwriters in modern-day filmmaking.



When approached to star in a proposed movie, Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson (and Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington, et al.) naturally inquire about the director, the costars, and the producer. Only after reading the script, however, do they make their decisions.

How important is the script to moviemaking? Good scripts can be made into bad movies, but good movies can't be made from bad scripts. Bad movies may not share anything in common; good movies certainly do. While the script may not be everything, everything else is worthless without it.

If that seems overstated, think again. Hollywood's tendency is to "package" movies. Executives and producers bundle all the elements that they believe audiences want—stars, exotic locales, pyrotechnics, etc.—and often pay little mind to the script. It's no surprise that so many films end up like the emperor parading without his clothes.

It wasn't always so. The business and artistic message of a terrific film like North by Northwest, for example, is that those elements worked because they slipped perfectly into Ernest Lehman's extraordinary screenplay.

Case in point: Before Rocky, conventional wisdom held that boxing movies were box-office poison. After Rocky, so-called boxing movies were hot—which led to several bad boxing movies (including the Rocky sequels). Mistaking the trees for the forest, too many people missed that Rocky was no more a boxing movie than Silence of the Lambs was about cannibalism. Rocky, above all, was a good story that just happened to take place against a boxing backdrop.

In any event, this isn't a primer on dealmaking, nor is it intended for studio executives. This is a book for screenwriters—aspiring and maybe even established—and for those who love movies, want to learn more about their genesis, and understand the value of inventive writing. Each of the screenwriters included in this compilation of interviews contributes something substantial to these goals.

How I came to ask these thirteen men and women to submit to a long interview doesn't have much of a backstory. While I feel varying degrees of passion and awe for their work, I remain appreciative of their accomplishments. They've all written at least one movie that either held me in thrall or inspired deep admiration.

I asked them questions, ranging from pragmatic to aesthetic, that I believed reflected the uncertainty and ignorance that beginning screenwriters feel (and frequently, as I learned, accomplished ones as well). I wanted to know how they got started, what kept them going when they weren't yet successful, and how they access their muses. The interviews lasted anywhere from seventy-five minutes to nearly four hours. I edited the transcripts for clarity, length, and appropriateness to the subject of movies and writing them.

My sense of these interviews is that they are like the chapters of a good novel. By itself, a chapter satisfies, but, more importantly, it contributes to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

As someone who's profoundly interested in screenwriting, I can point to an illuminating message in each interview—something that would prove helpful were I ever to attempt a screenplay of my own. Collectively, the interviews confer a new perspective on screenwriting, one that has pleasantly altered my relationship to the big screen in the darkened theater. After listening to some of the best in the business talk about how they do what they do, I watch movies from a different angle and with a more educated eye.

I think you will, too, whether your goal is emulation, inspiration, or appreciation. Remember, it wasn't Humphrey Bogart who said, "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." It was Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch.

Joel Engel

Topanga, California

July 1994


Bruce Joel Rubin was an aspiring writer until well into his forties, when he finally began to meet with "overnight" success and became the oldest rookie in Hollywood. His story of perseverance, at least as far as concerns his career, reached its zenith in 1991, when he won an original screenplay Oscar for Ghost.

Meeting Rubin, it's hard not to think that those years of struggling served him well. He seems extraordinarily calm, a trait he attributes to his spiritual pursuits, which also inform every aspect of his writing.

We talked in his office behind his San Fernando Valley home, which is located close to ground-zero of the monstrous 6.8 earthquake that destroyed much of Los Angeles in January of 1994. At the time, two weeks after the event, aftershocks were still palpable nearly every hour.

JOEL ENGEL: How do you find a story? Do you start with a character, a plot idea, or something else?

BRUCE JOEL RUBIN: I go to theme first. That's what works for me most.

JE: Well, the four you've made do seem similar thematically.

BJR: Pretty much. That's my theme. I may make movies about that theme until I die. My problem is not stories. I have so many of them—drawers full of ideas for stories. You read a newspaper, there's this whole thing that blows up in front of you.

JE: Fully hatched?

BJR: Not really. In fact, just the opposite. Just a great idea for a movie. What I find in a movie is that a single idea is not enough. What really seems to work for me is when I see ideas for, say, three different films start to move into one film. That really intrigues me. A film gets richer and richer. What started Ghost going was just Hamlet—watching Hamlet, the ghost of the father on the parapet telling his son to avenge his death. I thought that was a great idea to put in contemporary terms. It seemed so simple, and I'd never seen it. That started to be the story for the movie. Then I heard a woman on television tell how her husband had left home. It was the one day he hadn't said "I love you" to his wife. Well, that day he died. She said, "This man said he loved me every day of his life when he left the house. This one day he didn't." She's suffered continually since then because he didn't say it.

I began thinking about not only how it was for her, missing that, but also for this guy, who hadn't done the one thing he normally did and should have done. That was the love story element combined with the murder element—I decided he got killed, not just that he died. Now I had two layers to the story. Then I was telling some friends of mine about a fake psychic, Oda Mae. They began laughing hysterically. But the story wasn't funny yet. They thought it should also be a comedy. It had never dawned on me before that it could be funny, too. That's when Oda Mae emerged as a comic character. Now I had something to lighten and leaven the movie; I knew it needed that. All of these pieces started coming together. So when I wrote the film, I had this rich stew—all these things I could start to put in there. It was fun to write.

JE: Do you block out a story first?

BJR: I write treatments a lot. Not always scene by scene, but the basic story points. Usually three to ten pages. I just get the basic idea. Most of my treatments have been too elaborate, much more novelistic than cinematic. When I finished the treatment for Ghost, I remember showing it to my wife. I said it was too thin, not enough there. She said, "No, this is perfect. This is what it should be. Not these other things that go on for thirty episodes. This is clean." It was wonderful for her to say that to me. It finally taught me how simple a movie really is. A lot of people write novels from movies. They're not novels; they're very simple things. The more I write now, the more I think about movies, the simpler it seems to get.

Movies to me are only about wanting something, a character wanting something that you as the audience desperately want him to have. You, the writer, keep him from getting it for as long as possible, and then, through whatever effort he makes, he gets it. The power of the rooting interest to me is the essence of moviedom. It's everything. So simple. A film works when you, the audience, want something for a character as much as he wants it for himself.

JE: Are there tricks to creating out of nothing a character whom we root for?

BJR: You create someone who is sympathetic, who has a need. D. W. Griffith, in Birth of a Nation, just had the hero holding a cat. By his petting the cat, you liked him. That's a trick. Show him being nice to people. Show a person who is in some ways a person you like. I had an interesting dilemma while rewriting Sleeping with the Enemy. I had to create the character in the middle whom Julia Roberts falls in love with. Since this guy emerges in the middle of the film, I didn't have time to build him as a character. You have to like him right off. So I had this idea that she would spy him outside the window, watering the grass, singing a song from West Side Story. He'll be holding the hose and doing a dance. Then he'll look up at the window, see her, and be totally embarrassed. In that moment, you like him. Instantaneously. It's just a gimmick. But you do whatever you can to create for people a likability quotient if they're your hero. I don't want to limit it to that, though. Sometimes you should not let your character be so likable.

Michael Keaton in My Life was an interesting problem. At the beginning you're not supposed to like him, and by the end you are. So you have to see redeemable quality, and you have to see something in that character that you invest in. So I opened with his character wishing on a star. You invest in whatever that is; you give over to it. By the end, when the payoff hits, you've been wanting him to get it. Now, I don't know if I was all that successful with My Life. Where that's really successful is in Ghost. This guy wants to come back and tell his wife he loves her. That's what he wants to do. He's got to say "I love you" to this woman. How do you do that? That's a great dilemma, because he's dead. He's on the other side, yet he's still there and can see everything that's going on. He can walk around, do a lot of stuff, but he cannot communicate the one thing he wants to communicate to this woman. Luckily, he discovers the psychic, who's not a real psychic, who doesn't believe in it, which is a great twist. She has to go through a conversion, which takes the whole audience through a conversion, because they don't believe in this stuff, either. So as she goes through this conversion and the hero finally gets to talk to his wife, whom he has to save, there's this extraordinary rooting for him to say those words. They're saved for the end. Inside, you're aching for that. You want it to happen. So when it finally does happen, it's orgasm. That's what you want.

But how do you do it? If everyone could follow the recipe like that we'd have a million great movies out there. I don't know exactly how to do it, either. The rules are not rules. They're just something you feel. You intuit your way into the process of writing. You tell the story from inside the character. That's probably the most important thing in writing, and the thing that least happens in Hollywood.

JE: From inside each character?

BJR: Yeah, you become that person. You know who's great? John Patrick Shanley. I love his writing. Moonstruck. There aren't two characters in that film who have the same voice. They each have totally distinct real lives and real voices that are separate from and different from everyone else. Wonderful. That's great writing. Most films in Hollywood, however, have one voice—the writer's. Sure, actors play it a little differently, but you don't get the sense of their dimensionality. Good writing, you get into that character. It's very hard to do. You lose you to them. And you have to trust that you can write a black woman, or a Latino man, or a gangster, or a hero; every aspect of humanity.

You're as good a writer as you are able to get out of the way. This has always fascinated me. You have to become and sensitize yourself to other human beings. And what you discover in writing, which is why it's such a powerful growth tool—at least for me—is where you're limited, where you're blocked, where you cannot access another human being, where you cannot empathize with someone's inner life. Writing by trying to become those characters shows you that.

JE: Give me an example of a character you had a hard time getting to.

BJR: Jerry Zucker always used to say that we were going to have to bring in someone else to write the bad guys. "Bruce," he said, "you can't write bad guys. Everyone you write is good, is nice." I said, "No, I can write bad guys." And I think I did. There was Willie, the guy who committed the murder. And Carl, the best friend whose character takes this twist. I had fun writing him. A fascinating thing I found in the screenings is that the audience hated him more for trying to seduce Molly than for killing Sam. That was amazing to me. Audiences are so connected to those things. Killing we can deal with, but seducing someone else's wife or girlfriend is unacceptable.

In Ghost, we had people talking to the screen all time. I love that. I love going to the theater and watching people yelling at Molly, "Don't let him do it. He's a bad guy." They're totally caught up. Writing to create that effect is wonderful.

JE: That was a magical movie, I think, in that everything worked.

BJR: It was rare. It really came together. A wonderful experience from conception to the Oscar.

JE: In Jacob's Ladder, you wanted what he wanted, even though you didn't know what he wanted.

BJR: Mostly, you wanted to know what was happening to him—

JE: Because he wanted to know what was happening.

BJR: Right. That's very compelling. Often the solution to a problem is enough to carry you through a movie. Scratching the itch to know what really happened. A lot of movies get made with that. Or The Fugitive, which is nothing about justice. It's just letting this guy escape, survive, and prevail. Really, the ultimate film story is nothing more than good over evil.

JE: What do you think of films in which evil triumphs over evil; films in which there's no retribution or heroism for the greater good?

BJR: My feeling is, it's okay to take people there if "there" illuminates something else—if the absence of light reveals light or makes you reflect on light. But if the absence of light leads only to dark, then I don't think it's worthwhile. I'm certainly not opposed to violence in films, so long as it's violence in the service of the greater good. If it's only to wallow in the dark side, that doesn't appeal to me.

JE: The components today of what's hip are cynicism and nihilism.

BJR: Nihilism fits the tenor of the times. As a writer, I'm trying to promote some alternatives to nihilism. Art, I think, has a larger purpose than just diversion. Art is a transcendent view of the mundane. So much of what we look at has no transcendence in it. The brackets are in the wrong place. It doesn't leave us complete. It doesn't leave us with a vision that allows us to see life from another angle. Sometimes, if the experience is powerful enough, the transcendence takes place a week later, and you can say that maybe it was worth looking at; the reverberations of it have honestly found their way into my system, enough to cause a transformation of self. So maybe it was an artful experience, even though it wasn't necessarily in the watching.

The Wild Bunch, for me, was a very difficult and powerful experience. When it was over I didn't walk away from it thinking that it had been a particularly great work of art. On the other hand, as days and weeks went by, it lingered in a powerful way. I kept thinking, finally, that what I had responded to was the dance of Shiva; that the film was so much about destruction that it had transcended destruction; so much about death and bloodshed that, in the end, as much as my ego responded to it in a kind of uncomfortable way, something in me rose beyond that and saw the dance of life and death in the movie.

JE: Your films seem to feature protagonists who take a sort of classical journey, like Jonah, from light to darkness and back to light again.

BJR: I really think one has to go from darkness to light; I don't think one just goes from light to light. That's the journey of a human being. I don't think anyone goes on a different journey than that. And truly, all of one's positivity has to be measured against that journey. When one starts to take that journey seriously is when one's real character begins to show itself. I don't consider the way we pass time in the world is particularly significant. What's significant is how you deal with the reality of your mortality. That affects one's life very dramatically. Most people I know don't deal with it at all.

JE: The reality of the mortality meaning the knowledge that you're going to die?

BJR: The knowledge that your life is finite. Really looking into that has a major impact on how that life is lived. Not to be morbid, or to be caught up in some endless psychological or philosophical involvement with death, but to recognize that there is a total package here. At some point we leave this world. How you are prepared to deal with that—in an existential mode or a philosophical or religious mode—has an enormous amount to do with who you are as a human being and how you live your life. For many people, living in denial of that finality allows them to live a carefree, happy, sweet existence. But at some moment you have to pass through this portal. Some people believe that you pass through that portal and cease to exist. Some people believe that you pass through that portal and continue on in some fashion. Obviously, I embrace that. How you live your life is what you believe happens at that juncture. If you can just say "I don't know—I'll find out when I get there," you probably believe in the ashes to ashes, dust to dust end of existence at death. Or you can see it as a launching pad for something bigger or—and this is perhaps the least Western idea—as a launching pad for a journey that transcends what you've been through. Or you can see it in Judeo-Christian terms as either punishment or reward for how you've lived your life.

JE: Judging by Ghost, I would say you believe in the punishment-reward scenario.

BJR: I don't, actually. Ghost was for me an attempt to tell a story that could reach a particular audience. My real sensibilities are more transcendental, more Eastern than Western, not so much reward/punishment.

JE: That was implied in Ghost.

BJR: Yes, it shows that there are consequences for behavior. If you were a bad guy and killed people, there are black shadows taking you off to the nether world. If you were a good guy, you float off into some heavenly realm. That's enormously simplistic, and I knew it was simplistic when I wrote it. But that wasn't a movie that tried to raise people's consciousness, whereas Jacob's Ladder was a bit more about what's known in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the Bardo Cycle, the passage of the soul after death, which is a journey from darkness into light. Jacob's Ladder was very much a depiction of that journey in much more Eastern terms than Western terms.

I'm fascinated by all this stuff. It compels me as a writer more than just about anything. My vision of life is that life is hardly what it appears to be; we live in a universe that is vastly different from what our senses present to us. Even the idea of death is a false idea. We see death as a biological event, where, in a deeper sense, it has more to do with the ego. The world is less a material construct than we imagine. It has great physicality and great sensuality, but we experience it on a limited frequency. There's a huge spectrum of reality that our brain is incapable of witnessing or tuning in to.

JE: Incapable or not tuned in to?

BJR: Let's say not tuned in to—that supposed ninety percent of the brain that we don't even use. There is a transcendent mode to life that is not part of Western experience, not something we're taught to pursue here. Whereas, in the Eastern world, for centuries people were taught to pursue the life of the spirit or soul, that the journey inward was as important as the journey outward.

So, as a writer, my objective is to show people another direction, to try to turn them inward rather than have them simply live in this outer framework.

JE: Let's use my friend Allen as an example. Seeing Jacob's Ladder incited in him a sort of midlife crisis. He went back to teaching after several years as a businessman. I'm not sure if he holds the universe in a different context now, though he certainly, as you talked about before, became acutely aware that his days are not infinite.

BJR: I'm not necessarily trying to change people's inner landscape. I'm simply trying to awaken them to the opportunity to think in a different way, or to look in a different way, or to sense life in a different way. As a writer, you see that so many stories have been told, so many of the journeys people have have been expressed, at least in the literature—less, perhaps, in film, because it's such an action-oriented medium. I really feel that in our Western culture, so many film journeys deal with the resolution of outer conflict. I just want to take people on a little bit of a different ride—to tell a little bit different story.

JE: It's not easy to film a Henry James novel successfully.

BJR: Exactly. But I would like to shift the arena a little bit from the world of action into the world of spirit. Not that you can't have action. It's a journey where great drama does take place. I'd like people to perceive some of that. Jacob's Ladder is a journey into a man's mind in the hours of his death—what his mind goes through. For some people that was fairly clear; some didn't have a clue as to what was going on.

We actually toyed with the idea of telling people up front that this was a journey through the mind of a man who's dying, so that the mystery of it was no longer the issue, that it was all about watching the journey, watching him resolve these issues.

JE: But the wonder of it, the mystery, was interesting; the revelation was to be a surprise.

BJR: For some people, the question of what was going on was the compelling issue. For other people, it was the pure intensity of what was happening to this guy, this pure sort of inner devastation that was occurring in which everything that he held on to with some kind of reality was being pulled out from underneath him. The one thing that could not survive this journey was his hold on anything. Finally, he had to let go of it all in order to find the light.

As the character Louis so clearly says in the movie, holding Jacob, that if you're afraid of dying—I forget the words exactly—you see creatures pulling you from your life. But if you're open to this transition, these same creatures become angels freeing you, freeing your spirit. Really, that's the key idea of that movie: Here's a man fighting that process who learns to surrender to it, learns to give into it. The lesson is not just for dying but for living: How have you lived your life? Stop fighting it so much and surrender to a larger process. But where it really does have an impact is in this dying process. In the end, you really do have to let go of everything; you take nothing from this world.

JE: So the question then is, apropos of writing: How do you take your world view and turn it into something dramatic that is accessible to people who don't already know that they should take that journey or remain open to its possibilities?

BJR: Let's talk about writing as opposed to philosophy.

JE: Don't they intersect all along the way?

BJR: That all depends on what motivates your writing. When I first started writing, a long, long time ago, all I cared about was telling a story that had a beginning, middle, and end. I was so thrilled to find a script that tied together the pieces in the last reel that I'd established at the beginning, it didn't matter what it was about. It just mattered to me that it was a whole piece of cloth. That, to me, was very exciting as a writer.

JE: Can you give a specific example?

BJR: Well, nothing, thank God, that was ever produced. These weren't significant works—just me learning how to tell a story. They were exercises for me, and not intended to be turned into movies. Twice in my life when I was really desperate to create film and had very little time to do that, I locked myself in a hotel room. Once for eight days, the other for ten or eleven days. I told myself, "You're not coming out of this room until you have a script. Period."

In both instances, I walked into the room without even an idea of what I was going to write. But I had to force the issue, had to force myself.

JE: How early in your career was this?


On Sale
Feb 12, 2013
Page Count
320 pages
Hachette Books

Joel Engel

About the Author

Joel Engel is an entertainment journalist and a frequent contributor to The New York Times who has written biographies of Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry. He lives in Los Angeles.

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