Screenwriting Chat: Ross LaManna
Ross LaManna is a screenwriter and novelist. His credits include RUSH HOUR (screenplay) and ACID TEST (novel), among others.
Below is a transcript of the chat hosted by Screenplay.com, and moderated by author/editor Christopher Wehner.
"Do I think Movie Magic® Screenwriter is the best screenwriting program on the market? Hell yes. But I'm also here to tell you the program's powerful outlining and character-management capabilities proved invaluable during the writing of my debut novel. It was a long haul between the first glimmer of a concept and the first book signing -- and Movie Magic® Screenwriter helped make it happen." —Ross LaManna
Question: So, does the action come more naturally to you than the comedy? For example, did you have someone punch up the comedy with you, because I thought Rush Hour was just a laugh a minute.
Ross LaManna: Yes, action comes much more naturally. I would rather write five pages of pure action than one page of dialogue. I sold the script before Jackie Chan was attached. Once he came on board we all endeavored to make it more of a comedy. Then, much later on during shooting Chris Tucker added his own amazing spin to some of his lines.
Q: Are you more comfortable with action than comedy?
Ross LaManna: Of course, comedy comes from situation as much as from specific lines; so as a screenwriter simply making the decision to put to mismatched guys together will make the thing funny. As mentioned, I'm more comfortable with action, but like comedy too.
Q: Was your original story intended to be a more darker one, or just a typical actioneer?
Ross LaManna: Definitely darker than the film. In the very first draft, Chris's part could have been played by Bruce Willis or Wesley Snipes, and it was a lot more big action.
Q: Do you start with characters, situations, themes, what? When you start to develop a story?
Ross LaManna: Situation. I hate to use the expression, but high concept. I go through dozens of simple ideas until I find one that will support a movie. Preferably the kind of movie that people will feel inclined to go out and see the very day it opens. It's a tall order, but I go by my own tastes, which run very much to the big summer blockbuster.
In other words, I like the same sort of movies that 15-year-old boys do, and with any luck that will never change.
Q: What's most important in a story, it's high concept or execution?
Ross LaManna: No lesser person than the great Billy Wilder told me that it is better to do a bad job on a good idea that the inverse. I got to know him in the late 1980s when we were both at United Artists. Pretty amazing for a guy right out of film school like me.
Q: Ross, how do you proceed from an idea to a fleshed out story? Also, do you keep actors in mind as you develop your characters?
Ross LaManna: I almost never think of actors while developing characters, I actually see the characters in my head as if they are friends. I hope that does that sound too deranged.
Q: Do you dream about your characters or do they start having a voice of their own, then you know you've tapped into them?
Ross LaManna: Regarding development, I do a lot of research if necessary and very specific outlines. I don't like to start writing until I know where I'm going. I don't ever dream about them really, in fact in the early stages they are usually rather generic. Once you get going however, you get to know them. You become aware of what they would or would not do, and that helps keep the story logical and realistic.
Q: When you say, "Know where I'm going," you mean the ending right?
Ross LaManna: Not only the ending, but every scene following the other.
Q: Do you outline?
Ross LaManna: It's a cliche, but often when you are stuck on a scene in act 2 it is because you have done something wrong somewhere and act 1. Yes I do scene outlines. Several sentences to a paragraph for each scene.
Q: How concerned are you with theme? It doesn't seem to have much purpose in a high concept world nowadays.
Ross LaManna: I think about theme, but to be honest I don't have much aptitude for it. I think theme is most useful for making sure your characters and your story have some sort of unifying factor. I listened to a Book on tape about writing by Stephen King. He says he never finds the theme until after writing the first draft and I think he is right.
Q: Today's characters seem to be more about projections of attitude and less about characterization in the traditional sense.
Ross LaManna: Yes, you are right. In fact, that rule about the main
character having to learn and change in the course of the story is often broken as well. Look at "speed" -- great movie, but the main character didn't change very much.
Q: Will you write with no clear vision of what you will be writing
about...just to see where it takes you?
Ross LaManna: No, never! That is the kiss of death. Screenwriting above all is about structure
Q: Why do characters on screen today lack an arc in action movies? They never seem to change?
Ross LaManna: I wrote a novel last year; some people write novels in a somewhat loose fashion, but I outlined that bad boy at least as tightly has any screenplay.
The novel, by the way -- here comes the plug -- is called "Acid Test." I think characters today don't have an arc because the movie is spending too much time carrying the plot and throwing in as many action whammies or funny moments as possible. Of course, I am speaking of big studio blockbuster movies.
Q: Does attention to structure confine writers too much, especially screenwriters? I know you're not preaching formula, but rigid structure can be just as bad.
Ross LaManna: I totally agree -- too much structure can destroy creativity. You have to know where your story is going, know who your characters are, and trust your instincts if things take on a life of their own.
Q: I understand you attended the National Security Forum this year. Do you often get involved in such things and is it strictly to broaden your knowledge base to enhance your writing?
Ross LaManna: For instance, in Acid Test, I originally intended the guy who became the chief villain to simply be a back story to raise the odds for the main plot. He became so interesting that the hero's conflict with him became the main story. The novel was about a character in the Air Force. In researching it, I became friends with a lot of those folks and they invited me to the Forum this year. It was my first time doing something like that, but I have been asked to do others. I do it in part to broaden my knowledge, but also to participate in what they do in a very small way.
At the forum, I and about 100 other civilians were briefed by top military and government officials about matters of national security and then asked to give our opinion on these things. It's very flattering and I only hope that help the little.
Q: Could you speak on 'description' of the action as written in an action screenplay? What must it accomplish and how detailed must the screenwriter get in terms of writing the action sequences?
Ross LaManna: I keep description detailed enough so you know exactly what's happening, but simple enough so that it is easy to read. For instance, I think it's a bad idea to have a block of sentences in paragraph more than five lines thick.
Q: How did you approach entities that you needed to research, especially security-conscious ones like the air force etc? Does your track record make the access easier? Are there avenues for unknown writers to use?
Ross LaManna: There are avenues-- most governmental agencies have public affairs offices. The one for the Air Force is in Westwood CA; they handle motion picture and TV issues. If you are a writer approaching them use a little common sense -- don't go asking people for help if you're going to make them look bad, and don't ask questions you know they can't answer, such as classified issues.
I have a friend who was writing a script about the CIA, they invited her to Langley, and could not have been more cooperative.
Q: How is Acid Test doing? And are you planning on adapting it into a screenplay? (Have you already?)
Ross LaManna: For a first novel, Acid Test is doing quite well here, and several other countries. The paperback is coming out in January. The hardcover was published in late August, 2001. There are some striking similarities in the book to what happened in September, which cooled off the interest that had been brewing for a movie sale. We're going to look into that again after the paperback comes out.
Q: How many pages does your outline grow to generally before you start to flesh it out into a script? Do you find you make structural changes as you write the script?
Ross LaManna: The outlines run between 7 and 12 pages. And yes I make many structural changes, large and small, while I am writing. I am doing that right now on a script, but it is fun. Sort of like editing the movie on paper.
If you would like any more information about the projects I've worked on you can go to www.rosslamanna.com.
This chat was held on Wednesday, September 18, 2002.