Exclusive Q and A: 2012 “Screenwriters to Watch” on Notes, Fantasy Casting, and More

Variety's 2012 Screenwriters to Watch

Variety’s 2012 Screenwriters to Watch (from left, Scott Rothman, Reid Carolin, Ted Melfi, Patrick Aison and Kate Dippold) arrive at the red carpet for Amazon Studios-sponsored events at the Whistler Film Festival on Dec. 1.

Five up-and-coming screenwriters honored by Variety last weekend took some time to answer questions from Amazon Studios, proud sponsor of the 2012 Screenwriters to Watch festivities:

Hollywonk: What’s the best note you ever received? The worst? What did you do with it?

Katie Dippold (writer of the upcoming film The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy): Parks and Rec taught me to worry about the story first and the jokes second.  You can always punch up an episode but if the story is weak then you’re in trouble.   It was a lot easier once I started doing that. In general, if I get a note I don’t like and it truly doesn’t work, I’ll try to explain why but also give new suggestions instead of just disagreeing.

Patrick Aison (writer of Wunderkind, to be produced by J.J. Abrams): Good notes can take the thing you’re going for and bring it out more clearly. In general I like notes because sometimes I’m so close to what I’m working on I can’t see the obvious. Any bad note can sound OK out of context. That said, I got asked to make a hot female character hotter once, which was weird. I kind of wanted to say: “I can’t help you with your imagination.” In general I like to try to ignore bad notes to death.

Hollywonk: How do you decide which ideas are the right ones to pursue? How far down the road do you need to get before you know they may not be right?

Reid Carrolin (writer of Magic Mike): It’s generally a gut instinct.  You have to love something and believe you understand how to make it work.  You always realize mistakes you made later on, but if it takes a long time to realize that you never should have pursued the story in the first place, then you probably didn’t choose it for the right reasons.

Hollywonk: Do you have a “fantasy cast”/think of certain actors when you write?

Ted Melfi (writer and soon-to-be director of St. Vincent de Van Nuys, starring Bill Murray): I think it’s great to have someone in mind (actor wise) when one is writing a character.  This type of specificity is invaluable when you’re trying to find that unique and specific voice.  Many times I “fantasy cast” each character in the script … I then act it out in my mind, as I write the dialogue … sometimes I’ll even do this out loud – depending on where I am.  Talking to yourself in public is not as frowned upon these days, although it may never become vogue.  The only rub with “fantasy casting” is: if the character is sooooo specfic, in the way they talk … like say, if you were writing Christopher Walken’s tonality … then you may find readers locked into this actor (in their minds,) thus making it hard for them to imagine anyone else.  This can obviously be good or bad down the line.  But … at the end of the day … go for it … a specific voice and tonality is ALWAYS better than nondescript characterization.

Hollywonk: Do you outline before you write?

Scott Rothman (writer of Draft Day, with Kevin Costner attached to star and Ivan Reitman to direct): I always outline before I write.  I usually write out a fairly detailed 10-15 page treatment-ey type thing … even though I’ve never fully understood what a treatment is.  Outlining is my least favorite part of the process but, for me, vital.  That’s not to say I don’t deviate from the outline once I’m actually writing but I do need to know what I’m doing and where I’m going before staring at that blank page and goddamned blinking cursor.

Hollywonk: Is it better to develop your skills by sticking to certain genres, or branching out?

Ted Melfi (writer and soon-to-be director of St. Vincent de Van Nuys, starring Bill Murray): A tough question.  But not.  Great writing is great writing.  And it takes practice.  Failure.  Success.  And lots of trial and error.  You grow with EACH and EVERY script you write.  You learn technique, structure, how to bend the rules.  And the only way to do this…is to do this.  Any genre, any time, any place….write.  And keep writing.  One will eventually gravitate towards the genre and path one feels most comfortable navigating.  This always works itself out.  I write all genres (except horror) because I love to write, and to imagine.  So…never limit yourself.  Everyone has pain to touch on.  Everyone has comedy to touch on.  These things are predetermined for all humans.  So use it.  And never turn down the chance to explore other paths: you may find gold under that rainbow.  Sorry…that was painfully utopian of me.  I should end with a curse to counter that sentimentality: sh— f—-.  (2 for safety.)

Learn more about Variety’s 2012 Screenwriters to Watch.