Neil Landau knows there’s no one way to write a great screenplay. His experience as a working writer (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Melrose Place, Tad: The Lost Explorer), and as a professor at UCLA and USC, has taught him that. That’s why his new book, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story, embraces those differences. He interviewed 21 top screenwriters, and if you’re expecting agreement in this book, well, you won’t find it. But what you will find is engaging analysis, rewrite diagnostics and inspiration.
Read an excerpt from the book here.
Here’s more from Landau on what makes his book different from other screenwriting, whom he chose to interview, and what surprised him the most:
What inspired the book, and what makes it different from other screenwriting books?
I’ve been teaching in the MFA in Screenwriting and Producing programs at UCLA School of Film, Television, and Digital Media (my alma mater), as well as MFA Screenwriting in the Writing Division at USC School of Cinematic Arts for many years. The genesis for my new book, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story, is a handout that I still use in my classes today.
These 21 Questions can be a valuable tool for beginning a new screenplay — and each screenwriter will use them in a different way; some will utilize them to create a structural blueprint before they start writing; some will use them toward character development from the inside out; some will use them to reverse engineer a more potent/resonant/surprising climax. In all cases, the 21 Q’s (corresponding to the book’s 21 chapters) are in service of DIGGING DEEPER into your premise, characters, plot-lines, and themes. These same questions can also be super useful as a diagnostic exercise when embarking on a rewrite.
What makes this book different than the glut of many other excellent books are the accompanying interviews with A-list screenwriters in each chapter. The thesis of my book is that there is no one way to write a successful screenplay. And each interview demonstrates as much common ground on the subject as dissension. Another distinguishing aspect of my book is, like Save the Cat by the late, great Blake Snyder, I’m a current working screenwriter with many movie and TV credits.
I don’t just write about writing. I do it every day.
How did you decide who to interview?
This was the fun part. It humbled me and educated me. I never approached this project like I was the Great Master on the mountaintop — far from it! Instead, I came at this project as a student of film and sought out those screenwriters who have achieved phenomenal critical and/or blockbuster success in their careers. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and by the time I finished all the interviews, the process had indelibly changed the way I teach and write.
My selection criteria began with screenwriters who are already friends and/or former students and/or professional colleagues: David Koepp (still my best friend from film school), Melissa Rosenberg, Stuart Beattie, Carl Ellsworth, Laeta Kalogridis, Ed Solomon, Jane Anderson, Andrew Kevin Walker. From there, I compiled a wish list and used the theory of Six Degrees of Separation to reach out. I wanted the most illustrious names, but I also wanted to keep the book as current as possible, so I ruled out some screenwriters whose body of work has been written about again and again, such as the great William Goldman.
I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and knew I wanted Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. Ditto: Contagion and Scott Z. Burns. I have a fanboy’s appreciation for the new Batman movies, so I wanted David S. Goyer from the get-go. I waited 8 months for Tony Gilroy to become available (he was out of the country shooting The Bourne Legacy) so I could ask him about one of my favorite movies from recent past: Michael Clayton. I also wanted an international perspective, so I reached out to Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Guillermo Arriega (Amores Perros and Babel and 21 Grams). I’m a huge fan of the sleeper dramedy, The Weatherman, and just had to interview Steven Conrad (who went on to write The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith).
I was most intimidated interviewing Eric Roth, and spent weeks reviewing his oeuvre to make sure I wouldn’t embarrass myself. Eric was incredibly gracious and generous with his time and insights. I tried and failed to get Judd Apatow, Alan Ball, Aaron Sorkin, William Monahan, and the late Nora Ephron. But that didn’t stop me from writing about their movies in the book: The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, American Beauty, The Social Network, The Departed, Julie & Julia — they’re all here.
You obviously have a lot of screenwriting experience — what surprised you most in the process of writing the book?
What most surprised me is how different each screenwriter approaches a given work — and how much each and every one of them struggles throughout the process. I once asked the wonderful screenwriter Leslie Dixon if the writing process ever gets any easier for her, and she said it really doesn’t; the only thing that gets easier is managing the panic when you hit a wall; from experience, she’d learned that she would, ultimately, be able to write her way out of the corner.
Other surprising things I learned in writing the book: how many of these great screenwriters don’t outline or try to predetermine Theme before they write. Guillermo Arriega doesn’t even do any research; he just starts to write and discovers where the work is taking him as he goes along; he also doesn’t do any rewrites! I wouldn’t recommend this approach to many, but what all 21 A-listers acknowledged is their discovery process that defies definition and transcends the so-called “rules” of all the screenwriting books.
To me, the best screenplay structure is invisible; the best exposition is subliminal. There are no sacrosanct rules. Whatever works, works. It’s the magic that occurs on the page when it’s just you and your computer and your Muse. While my book does offer the nuts and bolts of writing a great screenplay, I also endeavored to capture the unique and ethereal aspects of the imagination. It all starts with inspiration — and at the core of these 21 chapters is the spark that can jumpstart your story. Go for it.