Screenwriting Chat: Scott Frank

A Conversation with Scott Frank

What makes good storytelling, character development, and writing for Hollywood?

Screenwriter Scott Frank Chat

Scott's credits include: DEAD AGAIN, GET SHORTY, OUT OF SIGHT, and the upcoming MINORITY REPORT. What follows are the questions and Scott's answers. Enjoy!

QUESTION: Scott, you've said many times that screenwriting is first and foremost about character, yet personally I think your unique structure (DEAD AGAIN, OUT OF SIGHT) has really separated you from others. Would you agree?

SCOTT: While I would agree that structure is very important to me, I almost always begin with a character and work from there. Whenever I try to begin with a concept as opposed to a character I end up getting stuck.

QUESTION: Why is that?

SCOTT: Because I don't have enough to work from in order to create a COMPLEX story about COMPLEX people. If you know your characters really well you always have TOO MUCH material to work with. If you're just trying to service a concept it's just a matter of making up things that happen. It doesn't matter WHO it's all happening to. It's like porno.

It's all about getting to the money shot. The twister… the dinosaur… the whatever.

QUESTION: So does a character come to mind first and then a situation to place the character in?

SCOTT: Yes. I begin by taking notes on who the people are. I think about what do they WANT. What are they afraid of? Then, over the course of the screenplay I try to see to it that they encounter as much conflict as possible on the way to either getting what they want or not getting it in some sort of dramatic way. But, first and foremost I have to know who these people are. I have to know everything about them. Not just where they were born, but what's truly WRONG with them.

QUESTION: What are some of the techniques you use to breathe life into your characters?

SCOTT: I try to think about my characters as more than mere attitude. I try to think about them as real people. What's interesting to me are people who are neither all good or all bad. But, people who are at odds with themselves, and who are at some sort of crossroads.

QUESTION: If you get stuck is there a certain way you approach every story?

SCOTT: If I get stuck it means I haven't done my homework on the characters. I don't know enough about the people in my story to write about them. So I'm just trying to make things up. If I've created real people, they start to develop a life of their own and take over the story from me at some point. What is inconsistent or dishonest to the people I've created sticks out. I also read a lot books that inspire me more than movies. If I'm stuck, I'll force myself to stop (which is hard for me) and pick up a book. Something that inspires or relaxes me. Something that makes me want to write and that gets the juices flowing. Something that's fun when you write, it's about play so you should have a good time now and then even though it's so damn hard.

QUESTION: Can you speak more about the "homework"? How do you research your characters?

SCOTT: Depends. Sometimes I do research to learn about certain jobs to learn the language and the details of a place and the people who work/live there. Other times, I have a fairly solid "sound" of the person in my head. Other times I steal people from real life or from other people's work. Whoops I didn't mean to say that…

QUESTION: Do you know when a screenplay should not be pursued any long? That something isn't working?

SCOTT: That’s a tough question. Very personal...You're talking to someone who is reluctant to turn ANYTHING in. You have to pry my scripts from my cold dead hands. I give up when I realize I've taken something on for the wrong reasons. I'm stuck, it's not working, and I don't LOVE the idea. And I think about why did I start this? Was it because I just wanted to work with the people involved? Bad reason. Was it for the money? Bad reason. Was it because I was trying to compete with so and so? Really bad reason. There's a list in my head that I ignore until I get into big trouble, up to my lips in shit kind a trouble. And then I let go. And cry, until my wife tells me to shut the fuck up. And get over it. I move on and write something I love.

QUESTION: When you adapt novels, do you find your representations of the characters drift from the novel's during rewrites? Anything you've learned from this, so we don't reinvent your wheel?

SCOTT: A novel is a separate "thing" from a script. Often times what makes a novel wonderful has nothing to do with what makes a good film (author's voice, setting, etc.)You have to decide what the book is about for YOU and write from there. That includes the characters. If they don't fit in with what you're trying to do, then you have to change them. You have to change anything that doesn't work into the story YOU are now trying to tell. If you simply try and TRANSLATE a novel into cinema you end up with a trivialized version of the novel. You end up with Harry Potter is what you end up with.

QUESTION: How does one know when a script is ready?

SCOTT: When one is in desperate need of either attention or money. No one knows. Life takes over and before you know it someone is reading it and the script has a life of its own. Unsatisfying answer I know, but true. It's impossible to know for sure when it's ready. But, I will bet you anything, that whatever you're working on now is NOT ready. Same goes for me. Oftentimes we mistake fatigue for the finish line. We just get sick of something, or we get anxious and we want it to be done when we're nearing the finish line for a draft. For myself I can tell because I'm on fire all the time the ideas don't stop. Whereas when I'm beginning the ideas don't always come so fast, or they're thicker. By that I mean you're dealing with themes and character issues at the start. But when you're finishing you're dealing with scenes and moments and snatches of dialogue. It's all cascading and you can feel yourself heading somewhere. In my case, it's usually a brick wall.

QUESTION: Let’s switch gears for a moment. What was your inspiration for Little Man Tate?

SCOTT: It was 1981 and I was a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We'd just had the whole Iran hostage thing and I thought there was a slight petulance to world events at the time all these students out front of the embassy burning shit and chanting like they were eleven. I thought to myself, wouldn't it be great to do a series of editorials in the school newspaper that were written by an eight year old who was making more sense of the world than Ted Kopple, who had just started doing Nightline at the time. I came up with a title for the column, Little Man Tate. At the same time I was enrolled in a screenwriting class and I had to write a script. This kid and his mother came to me whole cloth on the same night the idea for the column came, and I couldn't stop thinking about them. So instead of a newspaper column, I wrote a script my senior year of college.

QUESTION: When you feel your story is dragging, how do develop the low into a story that you'd enjoy seeing?

SCOTT: When my story is dragging I'm usually trying to say or explain too much at once, or in the wrong way. Often it's a structural thing. The wrong scene at the wrong time. Or I've just gotten way off the point. You may notice I do that...It's just a matter of going back and forth until I figure out what's wrong exactly and then get re-inspired to go on. I usually go back and start from the beginning, and see where it all stops. I begin every day by rewriting the work I did the day before just so I can recapture the rhythm.

QUESTION: Including research how long does it usually take you to write the story, screenplay, and then how many drafts do you go through before submitting?

SCOTT: It's usually a year for a first draft, but I will have done DOZENS of drafts in the meantime. I show these interim drafts to the producers, I don't, however, turn anything in to the studio until we're all satisfied. This requires that I work with people smarter than I am who I trust. Who know my work habits, good and bad, and who can protect me from myself.

QUESTION: Congratulations on your directing gig, how did the project come about? I know you did 2nd unit directing on MINORITY REPORT. Have you always wanted to direct?

SCOTT: I thought I was going to do it a long time ago, but three reasons why I didn't: Sophia, Lukas, and Stella, my kids. Directing is very disruptive to your life. You're not around for at least a year. You're a stranger in your house when you do come home. It's a drag on your personal life. In many ways, I should have done it a long time ago before I was married. But , the characters in my life told me otherwise... I'm trying to find a situation where I can do it and still stay close to home, or bring everyone with me and not make them miserable. The project that was announced in the trades is only something that I'm thinking about. I'm waiting on the next draft of the script. Ideally, I'd like to direct something that I wrote. I would understand it more and therefore do a better job. I made films in school and I've spent a lot of time on the set with some pretty great directors. It's not the job that scares me, it's the life. Minority Report Second Unit was a lot of fun. I worked with twelve actors on three sets in one day. It was basically a commercial that's going to appear in the film. I loved every minute of doing it. As for what I'll direct first... I can't tell you right now, because I don't know. I'd also like to finish the novel I've begun. Perhaps that will be the thing I direct... Or perhaps it will be an original script I wrote four years ago called The Lookout. Sam Mendes was going to do it, but then he did Road to Perdition instead. He's been encouraging me to do Lookout. But there have been many interesting directors talked about who could do it. I suppose if we don't get one of them I'll force it to happen rather than let just anyone make the movie. And I think Dreamworks would be behind me.

QUESTION: Your inner voice, your inner critic, you seem to doubt yourself way too much. I mean, you're an A-list screenwriter... is it self-imposed so you don't lose your edge?

SCOTT: It's genetic. The voices have always been there. I try to not let them get the best of me. I have this analogy: I make the voices be like the radio in the next room... I hear them, but they don't bother me. When I'm working, at least, I find that whenever I'm overconfident, I crash and burn in the most spectacular ways.

QUESTION: Some screenwriters do someone else's script for their first film? Would you be uncomfortable working from someone else's script?

SCOTT: All depends on the material. If it's good and if I'm haunted by it I can't stop thinking about it. If I'm truly passionate about it. I'll do it whether I wrote it or not. I WON'T, however, do it just to do it. I'll do a terrible job if I do that. I'll be in the middle of it, my FAMILY will be in the middle of it. And we'll all wonder what we're doing there.

QUESTION: Which movie or screenplay do you feel has had the most influence on your work?

SCOTT: Several… Laura, Rebecca, The Earring’s of Madame D', Dog Day Afternoon, Breaker Morant, Shampoo, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Harold and Maude, Everything by Buster Keaton, I guess I should stop.

QUESTION: What are your favorite books?

SCOTT: "Ask the Dust" by John Fante; "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammet. That one taught me how to write scripts. He says a lot with a little, which is the key to screenwriting. Let's see, what else…"Rabbit is Rich," "Laughter in the Dark," "Lolita," Roald Dahl's short stories, it's a long list.

QUESTION: How has it been working with Steven Spielberg? How much influence did he have on your characters? And what has been your best experience as a screenwriter?

SCOTT: First let's do the best: Out of Sight. I had more fun on that one from beginning to end than on anything. I learned the most, however, on Dead Again. Working with Steven was an amazing experience because he can do pretty much what he wants. He's willing to try anything. Which is a good thing, but can be exhausting. I was also trying to get him to do something he'd never done before: make a mystery with characters that weren't black and white. I also wanted him tell a COMPLEX story, one that was dark at its core and he went there willingly as the film he shot is the script I wrote. So if it doesn't work blame me. Also, being on his sets... I've never seen anything like it. He's so comfortable, in control, at ease... He knows everyone's job. He sees every shot before he's rolled a foot of film. He's also the best on set problem solver I've ever seen. Negatives? Steven often has a terrible ear for dialogue. When he lets actors ad lib or comes up with lines on his own I often cringe. But he's the first to let you come up with something better. Although there are a few in MR that I could have done without. All in all, though, the film is like nothing you've ever seen before. I also think it's one of the few science fiction pieces that isn't cold, this is a very emotional story. But it was also the hardest thing I've ever worked on because I don't normally like science fiction, don't read, and have never written it before. Also, the source material was virtually non-adaptable. Which is why I said I'd do it

QUESTION: Some time ago screenwriter Burt Kennedy said, "I was driving by Otto Preminger's house, or is it 'a house by Otto Preminger.'" I love that quote. You've experienced a director staking claim to a film (GET SHORTY comes to mind), are you disappointed the WGA didn't fight harder to get "A film by" credit removed?

SCOTT: It's a hard one to get removed once you've given it away. My favorite was "Barney. A Steve Gomer Film." Fuck me! Steven Soderbergh doesn't take the credit Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet.... there are others I'm not thinking of... I think the only way to get directors to not take the credit is to make them feel stupid taking it. Get Chuck Workman, you know the guy who does all of those Academy montages? Get him to do a montage on all of the film by credits... Beginning with Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean And ending with Howard Deutch and Michael Bay. That will be the end of that.

QUESTION: How close to the short story is MINORITY REPORT and what other writers worked on the script and will (are) being credited?

SCOTT: The concept of "Precrime" and people being arrested for crimes they're going to commit is from the short story. The basic set up of the head of Precrime being accused of such a future murder is also from the short story. But that's it. The history of the scripts development…Way back when, 1995 or so Ron Shusset and Gary Goldman optioned the short story to be a sequel to Total Recall. They worked with a guy named Gary Goethals, the three of them, and wrote Total Recall II based on the short story. Most of it takes place on Mars and ends with one of the moons of Mars caroming into another moon so that it's doesn't destroy Earth. They wrote this for Carolco, the company that made the first film. When Carolco went bell up, Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights, and Shusset and Goldman, alone this time, wrote a script that was to be Minority Report. It adhered closely to the short story and the film stalled for about two years. When Jan Debant came on he hired Jon Cohen to write an entirely new script. And at the end of 1998 Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg committed to Jon Cohen's script. They never read the earlier material. Which pissed off Shusset and Goldman. Meanwhile, Steven hired me to rewrite Jon Cohen. This was the beginning of 1999 and shooting was to begin in like April. Well Mission Impossible II went over schedule and Steven suddenly realized he had more time. And when we started looking at the material, we realized we wanted to make a different movie. However, a lot of what Jon Cohen did structurally, as well as in terms of Sci-Fi gadgets, and many other details we kept. Shusset and Goldman meanwhile sent their script to Steven. He read it. I read it. The studio awarded credit to myself and Jon Cohen, which I think was fair...but Shusset and Goldman are arbitrating for credit as well as Bob Goethals. They are stalling the process by arguing, so we'll see.

FINAL QUESTION: What Screenwriting Software do you use?

SCOTT: Movie Magic Screenwriter.