The Only Writing Routine That Matters by David Willis
Film Courage: Do you have a routine when starting a screenplay, whether it’s a feature-length or a short?
David Willis: I often write backwards. I often think of an ending and then I think “What’s a fun way to get there.” So I often do that and then I think about it. I think about it a lot. I just let it boil around in there for awhile. And then I outline it. Outlining, getting the story right, that’s the hardest part. Once you’ve got all that down, once you’ve got the story working and the characters working, then it’s just easy to write.
Half the stuff I’ve sold I’ve written with partners. Comedy is great to write with a partner because you can work off of each other. You can make a suggestion and then you play off of each other’s pitches. And then you arrive at something that neither of you would have gotten to alone that’s better.
So when you’re working in comedy with a writing partner, it speeds it up. You are like a draft or two ahead of what you would have been if you doing it alone.
Film Courage: What are your best screenwriting habits and then what are your worst screenwriting habits (and you don’t have to give me five of them. Just one or two)?
David Willis: My best screenwriting habits…you know…I hate to say this, but there is no like magic habit or thing. You just put your self in the chair and you just write. It’s a job, so whether you feel like it or not you sit and you do your job. I mean, there’s no magic. I’ve had some young writers say to me “Oh, I’m going on this writing retreat for a weekend so I can finally work on my script!” And I’m like “…Uh…I’ve never been on a retreat to write. I will just write, there’s nothing magical about it. Sure maybe the first draft will be poo poo but if you don’t write the first draft, you won’t write the second draft.” You just have to demystify it. Sometimes people just build it up into this big magical thing…demystification…just do it!
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In my own writing, the last thing I put in, is visual comedy and set pieces because that’s not where my mind goes first and I have to remind myself, make this visual, something physical, a big set piece where crazy, big stuff happens. And that’s just something that it’s the last thing I do because I don’t think about it first.
So that’s all, I just have to remind myself “Oh, we could use something big here…” and then I put it in.
Film Courage: And is that your worst screenwriting habit?
David Willis: That’s my worst.
Film Courage: That’s your worst? Okay.
David Willis: That’s my worst. It’s like a weakness that is not like there from the start. It’s like when you leave the house and you go “Oh…did I leave the stove on?” I have to be “Did I put in some physical comedy? No…okay?” That’s all. I mean there is nothing mysterious about it. You just write, write your script. You can’t teach writing. You’re either a writer or you’re not. You can teach technique, you can teach craft, you can teach how to fix certain problems. But if you’re a writer, you are writing everyday and if you don’t have time everyday, you’re thinking about it.
Film Courage: For the new writers though, don’t you think they almost need a ritual? I know this retreat idea (for someone who has written) sounds like why would you need all of that? Why would you need to fly there [to the retreat location] and pay money or whatever but maybe some people need that ritual…no? In churches they have rituals. Christmas time (is a form of a ritual). No?
David Willis: The only ritual is sit down and write. That’s the only ritual. There’s nothing else to it. There really isn’t. I mean I wish there was some kind of magical…and people also ask me “Gee, what book should I read on screenwriting? I’m just starting to write.” [And I say] “Don’t read a book!”
Film Courage: No?
David Willis: No! Don’t read a book. Write 5 or 6 scripts, then read a book because then if we read a book now it’s abstract, it’s theoretical. You haven’t done it, okay? That’s like saying “What sheet music should I buy?” “Do you have an instrument?” “No?” “Pick up an instrument, start playing it first, okay?” Because the books will make no sense. I’ve wrote like 5 or 6…I sold scripts before I ever read any books on screenwriting and then I got [the book] Story by Robert McKee and I’m like “Oh? That’s interesting.” Because I had a problem in a script and I couldn’t figure out how to solve it and I was reading it and I go “Oh? That’s how I could fix it.”
Now if I’d read that before I had the problem then that particular chapter would have made no sense to me because I didn’t have that problem yet because I hadn’t written enough.
I always say to these new writers when they are talking to me and about getting new books and doing things like that, I say “How many scripts have you written?” And if they answer me with a number and if they know how many scripts they’ve written, they haven’t written enough scripts.
You shouldn’t know how many scripts you’ve written. You should be writing so many scripts that you’d have to think about it for a minute and figure out “Oh…I wrote this and then that…” If you know how many drafts exactly you did or something, you haven’t done enough drafts. Once you do so much of this, you build the muscles, you just keep writing, writing, writing…you build up the writing muscles and then you don’t need rituals, you don’t need this stuff because you built it up, you can do it.
Film Courage: You said earlier about writers under [age] 30 that they really hadn’t lived life (and I’m sure it would depend on the individual).
David Willis: Yes.
Film Courage: I mean I’m sure there are people who could have lived [experienced a very diverse existence] by the time they are 15 and for others, even by the time they are age 50, everything has been safe and easy and taken care of for them. But what are some things [they can do] where they can live life? Let’s suppose [this hypothetical writer under age 30] has just a “normal” life with some good and some bad, regular ups and downs, how can they live life to get sort of a writerly-brain?
David Willis: [Laughs]
Film Courage: I know that is a really bad term, we’re getting toward the end here [of the interview with David]. But what I mean is so that they can become a little more well-rounded by 30 or whatever age. It doesn’t matter what age, I guess?
David Willis: You just have to be around people. You have to have friends and romances and things like that and get your heart broken and break some hearts and don’t sit at home watching…don’t go to work your day job, come home and watch TV for 6 hours and go to bed. Go to Meetups, go do stuff, meet people because that’s what matters.
I thought I was some weirdo who like doing this, but I found out that other people (other writers) like to do this which is if you’re in a cafe or whatever, eavesdrop on the people around you because you are hearing real dialogue and real stuff and it’s really illuminating.
I don’t know, that’s the only advice I can offer it so just get the heck out of your apartment. Get off your futon, go live life!
Question for the Viewers: How are your writing beliefs/habits similar or different?
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