Category Archives: Interview
You write about boldness, trust, and courage in creative work. What do these mean to you and where do you struggle?
I think the greatest struggle, and perhaps the one we all ultimately face, is having the courage and boldness to trust ourselves. We grow up taught that other people hold the authority to approve or disapprove of us and our creative expressions. Maybe this comes from the grading system in schools, I don’t know. But we quickly learn to create something, offer it to the appropriate “authority” and wait to see whether or not they validate it (and us). We hand over what should be our authority alone to say “yes, we have created what we intended, it is good and pure, and it matters because it is of us.” I grew up with this like everyone else and I am still climbing out of the system. I’ve spent years giving others a voice – individuals and corporations – and it has taken me a long time to put my own voice in my own creative work, and put it out there and let it stand for itself. So this is where I struggle most and what I find to ultimately be the most important. Trusting your own opinion more than anyone else’s. Not that you shouldn’t seek and heed feedback from trusted advisors; but ultimately, you have to give that approval to yourself and your work. And that is very challenging to do.
Talk a little bit about tenacity.
Tenacity is really just refusing to give up when it gets tough or you get slammed with self-doubt and fear. It’s a term of endurance and like any long-distance activity, it means there are going to be times when you stop and rest, but when you’re done resting you get up and continue. It’s really a matter of not giving yourself the option to not finishing what you started out to do. People need a motivation that means something to them in order to make that kind of commitment. As a writer, it’s the writing process and the relationships with characters that are my rewards. It’s knowing when I start out that the characters and story are going to change me as much as it will change them. So there is this wonderful, rich, fertile soil that stories rise up from and all this activity and effort and growth happening in the writer and characters underneath the soil, if you will. I love that. I love knowing that when you trust your characters it’s going to pay off. I have spent the last two years on a feature drama script, and the year prior to that on a novel – and I can unequivocally say that I am bolder, stronger, and more willing to step up to my dreams today because of having spent the last three years in the presence of amazingly tenacious and vulnerable characters. When you think about it, tenacity is really the core requirement for a protagonist and antagonist. Without that the conflict and tension disappears. The same is true for our lives.
What’s the difference between quitting and letting go?
Quitting comes from a place of defeat. Letting go comes from a place of power. I’m not playing on words. The result of either one is cessation. But the intention is entirely different. When you quit it’s because of fear or exhaustion – either way, you’re not coming from a place of empowerment. When you let go of something, it’s life-giving. It releases you from what has inhibited you, what has held you under water, and the result is that your spirit bounces back up to the surface and you breathe. And sometimes breathing is more important than anything else you could do. Letting go involves trust. Trust in the Universe, trust in yourself. It’s a result of growth. Either we outgrow our dreams and desires or they outgrow us; either way, letting go opens the doors to possibilities. And that’s where you want to be. Open, breathing, relaxed, trusting. That’s when the Universe can give you more than you ever imagined in far more aligned ways than you could orchestrate. Ultimately, when you let go, you do so with faith that no matter what happens, you’re going to be okay.
‘The Numinous Place’ is the world’s first truly multidimensional work of fiction – technology and creativity merge harmoniously to create a uniquely experiential new medium. Every aspect of ‘The Numinous Place’ feels chillingly authentic…From realistic news reports and video to genuine documents, articles, diagrams, photographs, websites and phone calls; readers will believe they are witnessing actual events unfold, as they immerse themselves in a discovery that will change the world forever. And, the powerful narrative moves beyond the screen into the real-world and beyond with an interactive element that has only ever been dreamt of before. – thenuminousplace.com
Hollywood screenwriter, Mark Staufer, recently unveiled the prototype for The Numinous Place. I caught up with Mark, and Dean Johnson, VP of Innovation at Brandwidth, the firm who designed and developed the app, to see how things are proceeding for this emerging franchise that is generating a lot of buzz.
Mark, you unveiled the TNP prototype and introduced it to the world at the Frankfurt Book Fair. How was it received?
The Frankfurt Book Fair was like the second moment of truth for The Numinous Place after Kickstarter. With nearly every major publisher and more than 300,000 (yes—Three. Hundred. Thousand) industry professionals in attendance, this was the best possible launch-pad for us. We were confident we had the goods, but with so many people, I was concerned we might get buried. I was also worried I was skiing way off-piste—I know Hollywood and how it works, the world of books is a different animal: impenetrable, haughty, somewhat hidebound. And The Numinous Place is so different from what they’re used to. I was anxious I was turning up at a cat show with a platypus. But, you know, I’ve always believed this is my destiny project, and that our time had come, and in the end everything conspired brilliantly. I’m overwhelmed by the response.
Dean, how was it from your perspective?
The positive response in the US, at the Frankfurt Book fair and back in the UK has been quite overwhelming. It really does feel as if the audience is ready for someone to raise the bar. Six months ago, this wouldn’t have been the case.
Without giving away trade secrets, how did Brandwidth adapt technology to meet Mark’s vision? What was the greatest challenge?
It’s all about the seamless narrative as we are still primarily catering to readers, not viewers or gamers. They don’t want interactive content to break their reading experience and obstruct the well-written text. Our audio enhances, video is contained within the key text and interaction occurs as a result of the narrative, not in spite of it. The secret is to produce an app where the technology is recessive, not excessive. Mark understood all this so the text and the tech met in the middle.
How much of a “stretch” has TNP been for Brandwidth?
Brandwidth works with some of the largest global brands to select, design, develop, market and maintain great digital content. The end product takes many shapes on the most appropriate platforms – from Enterprise-level websites, apps, iBooks, 3D and gestural screen technology to the future of Smart TV.
That sounds a little dry, but when our clients include publishers, music labels, TV and film studios, automotive manufacturers and museums with some incredible raw materials, we love bringing this stuff to life and engaging our audience. TNP wasn’t unfamiliar, but presented an interesting challenge.
One of the misperceptions I see in this type of work is that collaboration within publishing just exists for licensing deals and a client/supplier relationship. The Numinous Place wouldn’t have existed without genuine teamwork across an incredibly diverse set of disciplines, from writer, musician and dream expert to designer, developer and marketer.
Dean, what do you see as technology’s role in facilitating Storytelling? What should writers be aware of as they approach new work?
Apps allow us to push the boundaries, and Apple’s platform in particular caters to the highest possible denominator, rather than the lowest. Transmedia projects are employing gaming and multiplatform (and multi-reader) participation with mixed results. There’s a great opportunity to appeal to a different audience with these elements but not necessarily a familiar readership. Too much interaction can be a distraction, but I envisage future developments taking the story beyond the book, with online and electronic billboards continuing the narrative between reading sessions. Well, perhaps not that far in the future.
Authors should be aware that there’s a whole bunch of bells and whistles available. Throw everything at your readers and you’ll soon find you’ve lost your audience. I would advise them to write with technology in mind, rather than adding the digital experience as an afterthought.
We were confident that we had a really great story to tell, even so, we were telling that story in a way like never before and the publishing industry isn’t renowned for radical forward thinking and risk-taking. Also, attracting a publisher for the e- and print-book parts of the puzzle was just part of it. We also needed investment for the four app-book versions which would allow us to release and market them, and hopefully begin developing the game, and screen adaptation. We ticked all the boxes.
That’s wonderful. Did the Universe open any different opportunities beyond what you had imagined while you were there?
As always, the Universe had much more in store than my mere imaginings. I met some wonderful people, who I made a deep connection with, and the whole experience underlined my belief that you get back what you put out. The publishers and investors who came my way were the ones who got it, and if they didn’t at first, as soon as I showed them the magnificent prototype that Brandwidth designed, they got very excited. Showing works better than telling with The Numinous Place, definitely. I met a Brazilian writer and publisher, Francisco Pereira who offered support and guidance and will be my friend for life. And, after my presentation, author Jonathan Gottschall approached me. Gottschall is a bloody genius, by the way—check out his website, and if you’re a writer, or in business, or just interested in the immense power of story, you gotta get his book “The Storytelling Animal.” Seriously, buy it right now.
We evolve as our projects do. Mark, what changed in/for you during your time in Frankfurt?
I trust my intuition much more. It’s the most profoundly important sense/talent that we human beings possess, and it needs to be nurtured and tuned. The Numinous Place is a supernatural thriller, but it’s also a spiritual quest. The main character, Henry Meat, has insisted on certain narrative directions that I’ve sometimes fought against for writerly reasons. Even though my brain tells me that such-and-such should now be happening, Henry will fight me tooth and nail if it’s not the authentic story. Sometimes, I’m just not even sure where he’s taking me plot-wise, and I’ve put it down to luck when things work out in the narrative and it comes together. Now I realize that with Henry, and with life, you’ve gotta have faith and rely on your intuition. I’m also cognizant of the fact that I sound a little crazy with all this “Use the force, Luke” Sufi-stuff. Don’t take my word for it—dive in yourself: see if intuition and trust and honesty don’t improve your writing and your life.
How important is it for creatives to have faith and stay true to their vision during the development/financing/production phases of projects? Words of advice?
OK, so let’s talk about energy for a moment. The Dao, the Force, the Universe, nature, chi, the Field, prana, lung, the Gods—even if you’re a complete atheist like I used to be, and materialist science is the infrastructure within which you place your faith, at some stage you must let go. You must construct each of the phases of your creative endeavor to the best of your ability, and only when you are supremely confident that you’ve done your best, and the time is right, should you move onto the next one. And then, at some stage, when your intuition tells you everything is aligned—and you possess the energy necessary—shepherd it out into the Universe. The right people will find it, and they will help you.
I should add that, initially, when I sent the Numinous Place out into the Universe, it clearly was not the right time.I didn’t listen to my intuition, and about a year ago, I sent the manuscript and concept to more than 100 agents. The few replies I received were pretty dismissive. Even though they didn’t even read the manuscript, they didn’t see the vision and couldn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. Things have moved along now technologically, and for us as well—we’re still operating without representation which is clearly not an essential piece of this particular puzzle. I’m sure there are some big-thinking agents out there, the Universe just doesn’t believe The Numinous Place needs one at this point, and maybe other creatives need to approach their work in such a way. The old ways are not always the best ways.
That can be so true. We really do need to start looking at our work in terms of what will best serve the story and facilitate reaching the audience. We need to be courageous in being willing to be different. What’s next now for TNP?
Business stuff. Deals. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together—app, ebook, print-book, game, screen adaptation. Lots of meetings. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to going back into the dark room and getting on with the writing side of things. Henry’s getting impatient. Luckily, I have good people around me who are handling the business side of things. But I should mention, our philosophy, even with business is much more “Bhagavad Gita” than “Art of War.”
Thank you, Mark and Dean. We’re looking forward to following TNP.
Two years ago, on a rainy summer afternoon, I just happened to turn on PBS to find Masterpiece Theater coming on. The feature that day was an episode of BBC’s Wallander, a compelling series about a Swedish detective played by Ken Branagh (who has won a BAFTA TV and other awards for his performance in the series).
That afternoon changed how I write.
It was my great joy this fall when screenwriter Peter Harness, the lead writer on Wallander Series 3, graciously agreed to be interviewed. He has some great advice, insight and a story to share.
Peter, tell us your story. How and why did you become a screenwriter?
I don’t know, really. Looking back, I think that I’ve always been in love with television as an art form, and that when I started thinking about writing, it was probably always with the ambition of writing for TV in mind. Along the way, I think I did theatre and (bizarrely) even film as an alternative, but really my love has always been television. To be honest, I feel I was raised by TV, and I owe it a debt. A lot of my education and my view of the outside world came through my TV screen when I was growing up: in factual programming, comedy, children’s television, and drama. When I graduated university, I half – or three-quarters – completed a doctorate about Dennis Potter (pretty much the English TV dramatist of the 60s and 70s), which I abandoned when I coincidentally won something called the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Prize for TV drama. So, I guess I became a screenwriter because I wanted to work in television and to do homage to people like Dennis Potter who had shaped my understanding and my life, watching TV as I grew up. Dennis Potter died in 1994, and did a very poignant final interview, and I took tremendous inspiration from that, and wanted to continue what he had done.
How did you land the job on Wallander Series 3 and what about this project keeps you challenged/inspired?
I landed this job – I don’t know, after several years of working in UK TV and film, doing bits and pieces and seemingly getting not particularly anywhere. This was, in fact, the first job (aside from those odd ones that I’d pitched myself) that I didn’t need to compete or do an interview for. This was the first job that I was actually offered. And that felt fantastic. It was very nice that the producers had read and seen my various efforts and felt that they’d like me to do Wallander. And I was even more delighted to discover that they’d decided to do that before they found out that I actually live in Sweden, where Wallander is set.
What is it that keeps me challenged or inspired? You ask a lot of big questions, you know that? Uch. I don’t know. I wrestle with that character, Wallander. He’s a difficult bugger to pin down and he’s not very cheerful to spend time with. But I guess it’s his honesty and his humanity and his relentless appetite for making the same mistakes which makes me want to see him through. And the fact that I’m going to get rid of him in a year or so.
What have you learned about fear and faith in your creative journey? How do you deal with them?
I think that the fear and faith element of the job falls into two categories. The first is the choice that one makes to become a writer in the first place – if you can call it a choice. For some people it’s a need, it’s a compulsion, a sense of vocation, for others, it just happens by accident when they’re doing other things. But somewhere along the line, you make a choice between being someone who wants to write, or who dabbles a bit, and actually being a writer. Because everyone wants to write. So many people come up to me at parties and say that they really fancy knocking off a novel or a screenplay. But the difference between me, and any professional writer, and them is the commitment. I tend to reply, if I’m drunk or bold enough, that “if you want to write, resign from your job, forget your pension scheme, get rid of your car, fuck your mortgage, and certainly forget all about success.” Because if you’re prepared to do that, if you can live with crippling uncertainty, and the terrible ultimatum that you absolutely have to make it as a writer, because you’ve fucked up every other means of earning a dollar that you can possibly think of, then maybe you can give it a go.
There have been times in my life when I have mourned my prospects and my fortunes very badly. But I’ve never doubted my decision. It was the right choice to make, and I went in with my eyes open. You can fail miserably at this, you can be penniless, you can crash and burn. And you can be a success. But even if you are a success, you’ll probably still have similar doubts and paranoias.
Secondly, and perhaps more optimistically, one of the most important things you need to develop as a writer is an ability to negotiate between self-confidence and self-criticism. It’s very easy to have too much of either one, and you need to keep them balanced if you want to get anything decent done. It can be very hard to keep hold of the good stuff about your work when it’s being rejected and criticised and having dozens of notes thrown at it all the time – it’s a long process to learn which criticism to trust and which to take with a pinch of salt. So, with all the rejection and with all the self-criticising one ends up doing, it’s easy to be too down on yourself. Conversely, however, it’s easy to be too enamored of your own stuff. It’s easy to ignore other people’s input. It’s easy to fall in love with words, phrases, stories or characters that you should be getting rid of. Successful writing is reaching a place where you’re finely balanced between all of these things, and you’re being honest with yourself about your work and how good or bad it is. It’s not an easy place to get to, and most of us are only temporary residents there.
Besides screenwriting, do you write in other formats? Novels, etc.
Not at the moment. I have written plays in the past and would like to do so again, and I’d also like to try and write a novel one day, but screenwriting is where my brain and my talent (such as it may be) is just now.
What is most challenging to you in the creative process?
That’s a difficult question. One of the things I most enjoy about writing is the constant challenges is sets up for you, and the various structural or character-based problems that writing any story forces you to face and to solve. So in a way, the traditional “challenges” of storytelling don’t feel like challenges for me, because (usually) I find them reasonably enjoyable and engaging. I suppose if we’re talking about “challenges” in terms of things that I find difficult or unpleasant, then it would be some of the elements that are inherent in the life of most writers. I find it difficult to discipline myself to write every day; I find the solitariness of it a bit of a pain sometimes; and I find the grind-work of drafting and redrafting (between the joy of starting a new project and the relief of finishing it) hard to handle sometimes. And of course, there’s the nag of self-doubt and the worry about where it’s all going in general. I’m also rubbish at hitting deadlines, and I find that fact very stressful.
What brings you the most joy?
I love being a writer: I’m thankful that I can earn my living doing something that I enjoy, in a job that means I can be my own boss, choose my own projects, and manage my own time. I love being in production on any given project. I like the collaborative aspects of getting something made and shot. I love the exhilaration of starting work on something new; I love the rush you get when you know you’re writing good stuff; I love being on the home stretch of a project, when things are finally starting to drop into place, and it’s clear that it’s going to turn out okay; and I love having finished something that I’m proud of, and holding it in my hand, whether it’s a wad of papers, a book or a DVD. And sometimes, though by no means always, you’ll be doing something that you’re just so immersed in and in love with that you can’t tear yourself away from it, that you can’t wait to get back to, that your mind is always half on it when you’re doing other things. At those times, the exhilaration of writing is unbeatable, like the crazy, consuming passion of first love.
What do you wish other people knew about your work as a screenwriter?
I think a lot of people are baffled as to what a screenwriter actually does: the overriding impression seems to be that the director or maybe the actors make up the story as they go along. People often seem to think that I maybe just write the dialogue or even (in the case of Wallander) just translate the novels into English. I’m never particularly offended by this from people who don’t work in the business – after all, I don’t especially know how a sheet-metal worker or a quantity surveyor goes about their job – but occasionally, the attitude persists in reviews or on sets, and I do find that a bit galling. What I’d like people to know is that the screenwriter tends to write pretty much everything that ends up on screen: structures the story, invents the characters, decides and describes the locations and action, and writes all the dialogue. That they create the world and the story that you see.
What is the most helpful advice you would give other screenwriters?
That’s a very big question. Very tough to boil it down to a couple of pieces of advice, as the tips I might give to those just starting out are very different to those I might offer to someone with more experience. Some vague maxims:
- Don’t be tyrannised by other people’s advice.
- Don’t get in the way of yourself.
- Get stuff finished.
- The best way to write interestingly and to avoid cliché is to be truthful.
- In a screenplay, there’s no place for any line, scene or character that doesn’t have a specific purpose.
I guess that’s what I’ve got. Until I write my book on how to be a screenwriter, which will be longer and probably more explanatory.
How do you know when a script is “done”?
I think you just know. You develop an instinct for it. Often, you think that a script might well be “done” when you’ve added or subtracted this or that specific thing, and then you find that you’ve uncovered a whole new other level of stuff that needs to be addressed. It goes on and on. But I think I feel that a script is done when I’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, and ended up on what I think is the best way to tell the story; when I’ve dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees and I know why every single word of it is there.
Based on your experience, what do actors need from a writer? What can writers do to make an actor’s job easier, characters more accessible?
I used to do quite a lot of acting, and I think that an understanding of acting and an actor’s process helps in creating actable characters. Actors need to know how and why their characters make their choices. They need to be able to make sense of how their characters behave. I think the best that writers can do is to write truthful characters, who behave in a truthful way, according to their own lights. That gives actors the security they need to work. Also, writers should try their best to write dialogue that any real person would actually say.
Let’s talk about Wallander which is based on Henry Mankell’s novels. The BBC version has a strong reverence for silence, a slower pacing and incorporates a sharp contrast of natural beauty against violence/crime. None of this is written in the novels. Where did this idea come from?
I disagree with the idea that it’s somehow slower paced. I think the scripts that I’ve done for Wallander have much more action and move a lot quicker than anything else I’ve written. They’re very lean and there isn’t room for anything that doesn’t move the story along: and I certainly don’t write silences or brooding moments in just for the sake of it, or just to add flavour. There’s a lot of progression and incident in every ninety minute film. However, I totally appreciate that the series has more silence and maybe feels more thoughtful than a lot of other TV. I think this probably comes from the fact that we try to think as cinematically as possible, so we do cut as much unnecessary dialogue as we can, and we do tend to think strongly in terms of visuals. And so maybe it stands out as unusual in the television landscape. As far as the contrast of natural beauty versus violence, well, I think it’s a visual representation of a theme which is very much there in the novels, i.e., the notion of a “perfect” society (which Sweden, in some ways, sees itself as) somehow being corrupted and blemished by inexplicable violence and degradation.
How, as a writer, do you write “silence” and “slower pace” into a script, yet still keep the tension tight?
By making sure that you earn every single moment of silence and every single pause for breath by making the rest of the story so tight and tense that the viewer needs those little breaks every now and again to bed down what has just happened or to take in the impact what they’ve just seen has on a given character. You have a precious few of those moments to spend on any given script, and they have to justify themselves.
How much collaboration goes into the final script? How much does Branagh and the other actors weigh in on the writing?
It depends. Ken had more suggestions on the earlier scripts because I think I was still getting to know his interpretation of the character. Once I’d gotten comfortable with that, we were very much on the same page, so I think he had fewer notes. Of course, there’s quite a degree of collaboration with the producer and the various directors, and there’s a lot of conversation so that we feel we share a common understanding and vision for each film. The late stages of writing a script, just before you start shooting, when you’re refining it and honing it alongside the other members of the creative team, are some of the times that I enjoy my job most and find it the most fulfilling.
In the past, Mankell has mentioned his surprise with how much was stripped away to tell the Wallander stories in the BBC version. As a writer adapting material, how do you determine what to strip away from the original work and how much to include? How much leeway do you feel to create a new story and veer away from the original? What do you hold sacred and unchangeable?
I think what Henning Mankell likes about the BBC version is that it is so stripped down – at least, that’s what he’s said to me. He likes the economy of the storytelling and the precision of the film-making. That being the case, I feel that I’m trusted by the original writer to honour his work, and so have a lot of leeway to change and create if I think it’s necessary. Also, the three stories for the most recent series of Wallander all necessitated fairly big changes for different reasons. The first was based on a fairly brief short story; the second was very definitely set in a Cold War environment and needed reimagining for the present day; the third didn’t really feature Wallander as a central character. So they were always going to diverge from the originals anyway. Basically, I feel that I can make whatever alterations are necessary to make the story work as a film. I tend to ring-fence the most memorable set-pieces and characters from the books, and work them back into the story in whatever way I can; because what I do hold sacred is the principle that the adaptation should feel like the book. It should be a similar experience for the viewer as it was for the reader. That even if many of the details of the story and the character end up being different, I should always honour the spirit of the book and the original author’s intention, in so far as I can understand them.
Mankell’s Wallander has been done several times by other production companies. Were you focused on making this version fresh? What did you not want to do in this version?
I didn’t watch the other Wallanders because I didn’t want to be influenced by them. I think each of the separate adaptations has carved out its own take on the character and the way to tell his stories. I guess I was focused on making this version fresh, but primarily because it was the third series of this particular Wallander and I wanted to give the character new challenges and journeys and to move him into new territory. I wanted it to feel like progression and not repetition. So I think most of the anxiety of influence came from the BBC series itself.
Wallander gives the viewer time to absorb the emotions that Branagh is so skilled at portraying, and it really is the story of a man first, a detective second. Each episode is a revelation of the character’s inner life as it evolves against the backdrop of a crime. Screenwriters are told to have conflict in every scene, to never have a “slow” scene – but what you have done works and works beautifully. Is that because the audience is most invested in Wallander the man? Why does it work? How do you see it?
I think audiences are invested in Wallander because the films are about him. Because his character and the emotional journey that he goes on is the story, and everything else is tied into that and informs that. If you start from the assumption that character leads plot, and not the other way around, then your audience will invest in your character. The only reason that a scene is ever “slow” is because it doesn’t move the story along in some way. You can have scenes in which a character just sits in a room and doesn’t move, but which are the most compelling in the film because they’re somehow key to the whole story. Similarly, you can have a million dollar action sequence that flags and feels boring because it doesn’t move anything along. I don’t think it’s right that one has to have conflict in every scene, and I don’t think it’s especially good advice. What every scene does need is dramatic purpose and a dramatic progression, and some element of dramatic tension, which doesn’t have to come via traditional “conflict.”
Let’s talk about characters. I recently wrote a blog post on how characters seem to exist whole and know their story long before a writer gets involved. When the writing flows, it seems more like channeling than “creating.” Is this your experience, too?
Yes. In a lot of ways it’s a process of discovering your characters and getting to know them. They almost always take on a life and a voice of their own. And once you get to know them well enough, it does become like channeling. Which can cause problems, because sometimes you really want a character to do or say something which they end up stubbornly resisting. But then they’ll surprise you by doing something you didn’t expect which takes the story in much more interesting directions than you could have imagined before you got to know them.
You have a full cast of characters – ones I’m sure you know well by now. Does that make it easier or harder to write the next episode? Do the characters still surprise you?
I think it makes it easier because as long as the challenges they face are new ones, they’ll continue to react in new and interesting ways. I’m always trying to find situations which might open up a different aspect of their personalities. And yes, like I said, they do surprise me.
What have you learned most from working on Wallander?
I find that I learn a lot from every project I get involved in. And this has been by far the biggest, in terms of time, length and work, so I’ve learnt all sorts of things. I think I can now tell quite a good crime story, which I’d never tried doing before. But I feel I’ve also learned a lot about economy of storytelling, and how to bind character to story as closely as possible.
Will there be more Wallander episodes? What’s next for you?
All being well, yes, there will be another series of three films sometime over the next couple of years. But it’ll be the last, and that’s been the plan all along. Next for me is a new six episode series for BBC1, which is very different to Wallander and which I’m really excited about and really enjoying writing. Can’t give details yet, but it’ll be quite crazy and different and it’s scheduled to start shooting in about nine months. And then hopefully a long rest and some thinking time to dream up something new.
Artists must accept risk all the time. What’s your opinion on risk-taking in creative work and in life in general?
Anytime you’re bringing forth what hasn’t been, you’re faced with risks. Primarily, rejection, but also the risks associated with digging deeper within yourself to expose more of who you are to the world. Be certain: we are not our work. But we are responsible for it and we are the ones who have been entrusted with it. So, there are risks involved in facing our fears about the quality and potential of our work against what the work is in itself and how it is received. Most artists create because that is simply who they are and they can’t imagine life without creating. Creating itself doesn’t necessarily involve risk. But when you take that work out into the world and release it, then you definitely have risk.
There are more important risks to take though and those are the willingness to actually create a life you love. Those risks are life risks – and have nothing to do with whether or not you work in a creative field. It’s so easy to assume that life is just what it is – and not ever get to the point where you not only imagine a bigger life, but actually create it. The biggest creative risk in life is not having created your own life.
How do you create a “bigger” life, pursue your dreams?
When you get to a point where you understand fully that you are Source Energy and that you are here to experience joy – not just occasionally, but most of the time – much of the traditional “risks” begin to fall away. You begin to realize that you really have nothing to lose by pursuing your dreams and crafting a life that brings you joy.
Most of what we learn to fear in life are things that should never be feared, because they cannot actually destroy us. Financial ruin is one of the biggest fears people stumble over when considering doing something that would make them happier and more fulfilled. If you get to a place where you understand that money is simply energy, like the air we breathe and the food we eat, it’s replenishable, renewable, you let go of that intense fear of losing it. It’s meant to flow in and out of our lives much like the air we breathe. You can create money in your life and when you truly learn that, you know that if you lose it, you can create it again. Money becomes a tool instead of a fence. That really sets you free.
If you know that you will essentially be okay, that the Universe will provide, that you are Source Energy and have the power to create your experience, then you open to risks. And how you set yourself free is by becoming conscious of what you think and believe about money. You examine those beliefs, figure out if they still serve you and replace the limiting ones with ones that do support who you want to be.
Essentially, you have to set yourself free to take risks. We hold ourselves back far more than any other force can ever hold us. And what holds us back is limiting beliefs. A belief is just a thought that you keep thinking over and over again. Stop thinking it, stop assuming it’s true and, presto – you change it. It’s a process – you start somewhere and as you open and take more risks, you start dreaming bigger and bigger. You accomplish one dream and it’s replaced by another. It’s a lot like climbing a mountain – what looks so far up and impossible from the bottom of the hill, doesn’t look that way when you get closer to it. Once you reach that place, you look higher, you keep climbing.
So what’s changing is your perspective. And what is perspective? Your thoughts on something.
But how do you get to the point where it’s not just wishing, but reality?
Action. You don’t have to change your beliefs first. Start climbing. Your beliefs will be challenged as you do. And, you’ll have to either change them to accommodate your new goal or stop climbing. That’s how we grow, that’s how life either gets bigger or stays small. Many, many bigger lives, happier ones, incredible accomplishments never happen because people do not make up their minds and decide that that’s what they want. Decision is so essential to creating a life you love. We tend to wallow in a space of wishing, hoping, dreaming then talking ourselves out of it, tallying all the reasons it couldn’t work, feeling afraid, shrinking because we fear we’re inadequate, not good enough, that we’ll fail – and cycling through this. And what happens? We never decide.
Decide what you want – and a whole new force of energy rushes in.
You can’t wait for perfect timing. Perfect timing doesn’t exist. You start by deciding what you want. Taking action, changing your beliefs along the way, essentially growing into your dream.
Do you have to start small?
That’s a great question. Most advice out there tells you take baby steps. Inch your way along your dream path. For some that’s good, practical advice. It’s not right for everyone. You don’t have to start small. In fact, you may want to start at the top. And by this, I mean start seeing yourself, your life through the lens of who you want to be, what you want to have achieved and live from that perspective. As Mike Dooley says “Dwelling from, not upon, the space you want to inherit is the fastest way to change absolutely everything.” That’s absolutely true.
One of the joys of being part of the Twitter community is being introduced to some awesome people. One of these is Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) – whose tweets and My Blank Page blog posts never fail to resonate. Why? Because not only does Mark have some great advice based on his 15 years working in the business, but his professional, caring attitude shines through. No ego, no flagrant self-promotion; but heart and soul and a genuine commitment to helping other writers learn their craft and find their place in the profession.
I hired Mark as a consultant on Restoration and he fully lived up to my expectations. He took the time to get to know the script and characters, he picked up on the nuances of the theme and he provided detailed notes to further its development. All the while making me feel cared for, heard and trusted as a writer. And that’s what you want in a script consultant – someone who will see the big picture of your career while examining the structural, format and details of your writing. Mark is as much a coach in his approach as a consultant, and his humility and professionalism makes him a strong ally to have on your screenwriting team.
Mark is currently teaching a workshops series titled “You’ve Just Finished Your Screenplay, Now What?” at LA Creative Workshops over at Canoga Park in the west valley area of Los Angeles. I asked him if he’d take some time to share more about his experience as a screenwriter and what his workshop is all about.
Mark, thank you for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did you become a screenwriter?
It all started when I was twelve years old. My best friend as a child, Matt Reeves (co-creator of Felicity, director of Cloverfield, and director/writer of Let Me In), received a film camera from his grandpa and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers. We co-directed our first film, a secret agent adventure that we also starred in, and we eventually became part of a collective group of pre-teen filmmakers who premiered movies at the Nuart Theater here in Los Angeles. The sold-out screenings even garnered a feature article in the LA Times.
We loved movies and knew it was our life’s calling. We were influenced by the movies that we loved and I gravitated toward the comedies of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis and absurd extravaganzas like“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “The Great Race,” and the “Pink Panther” movies. I thrived on the spy/action/martial arts/heist film genre. As a kid, I remember loving the James Bond films and looking forward to the next Bond movie. I was an avid reader of “Martial Arts Movies” and “Kung Fu” magazines and they gave behind the scene stories on the making of the current action films and interviews with their stars. I was a huge fan of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, too. I would see every martial arts film I could find try to mimic those films in style of the movies that we produced. We were also very lucky to be living in Los Angeles at the time where the most popular films and television series filmed on the streets of our neighborhood.
I continued making films throughout high school and after I graduated, I was accepted to UCLA Film School where I continued my film studies. I started to write feature screenplays there and it wasn’t until after I graduated that I made some noise as a writer. One of my scripts nearly won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and it took five scripts to finally get a script sold and eventually produced. At the time, I was also the co-founder of a Los Angeles-based live sketch comedy troupe. It was a great creative outlet and we created a new live show once a month. We shot a TV pilot, a music video, and had a hit parody song on syndicated comedy radio. After this I wrote for a popular MTV game show, my sold screenplay worked its way through development and eventual production, I co-produced an indie feature that I also co-wrote, and eventually started to get hired for screenplay assignments and script doctor/consulting jobs.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned in your creative journey?
If you’re going to be in this business as a screenwriter, you must accept the fact that it’s a business first and a creative art form second. If you can effectively blend the two into your work, you’ll have a much easier time on your journey. If you fight the reality of the important business aspects, you will constantly hit the wall. Screenwriters don’t work in a bubble and if the idea is to work in Hollywood and get your screenplays produced and distributed, you will need to be aware of the way Hollywood works. I’ve learned about compromise, rewriting, and treating my career as a business—it’s one of the biggest real-world lessons that I learned early on in my career.
What role does fear and faith play in your creative process?
I have embraced fear and do my best not to allow it to interfere with my creativity. There have been times when I’ve gone back to my well of creativity and came up dry. It was terrifying and the more I focused on the fear, the more it fed upon itself. When I allowed my anxiety to cloud my ability to create, I become blocked and couldn’t see. This is the true definition of “writer’s block.” Instead, I didn’t avoid the trouble by leaving my desk and procrastinating, I faced the problem head on—even in the face of fear. I know the only way is through it—and not around the problem.
I think from so many years of screenplay assignment work, I’ve trained myself to work effectively under a deadline and at my full creative potential. The fear is still looms, but my faith allows me to work past it, as I know I’ve been in these situations before. I’ve proven ability many times over having written twenty-six screenplays—eleven as assignments. If you’ve been to the rodeo before, you know how to ride that new horse. Every new project is loaded with surprises and pitfalls you may never have expected, but I do my best to stay flexible and adapt to every new situation. I know eventually, I’ll figure it out and see the scene or story solution in my head. There is a wonderful quote from the late Bruce Lee that sums it up, “Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
What has been your experience with characters? Do you create them or do they already exist and “channel” their story through you?
I create the characters and write up a page or two of their biography and spend time getting to know them. Once I start a script, I just follow their lead, and at times it feels like they are waiting for me to get back to the page so they can move forward in their journey. I do feel like I’m channeling their story when I follow them through the script. It’s a strange and very cool experience and humbling as well. Like Michelangelo’s statue of David, believed trapped in the block of marble waiting to get out, I feel the stories are out in the ether waiting to be told on the blank page.
What myth about screenwriting would you like to bust?
That it’s a road to fame, fortune and celebrity—it’s not. The myth doesn’t include the years of hard work as you master your craft, the many late nights, sacrifices, constant rewrites, rejection and criticism, magnificent highs, bottom scraping lows, and the constant search for validation and respect. A screenwriter must navigate this Hollywood minefield on the journey to a career as a working screenwriter. I find many aspiring screenwriters decide to write scripts because they believe in the myth of a huge payday. They read articles in Variety or on the Internet about “A-list” screenwriters making huge deals and they want a piece of that action. I’ve heard too many times, “If I just write a good script, I’ll sell it for big money.” It’s a fantasy life with a house in the hills, a pool and three cars in the garage, but very few screenwriters achieve that level of success. I read a WGA statistic for 2011: Only fifty writers in the entire guild made a million dollars or more last year. That’s out of nearly 10,000 guild members—half of those didn’t work at all last year. Any aspiring screenwriter must be in the game because they simply love to write.
Even if you finally do get paid to write or your script is purchased, the money may not be what you expect, and you may have to live on it for a year or more before the film is made—if the film is ever made. Your daily reward must be that you love to write and create the material. Even if you do “make it,” your overnight success will be ten years in the making. Trust me, those will be years of sacrifice, ups and downs, criticism, self-doubt and fear. A constant test of just how badly you want a career as a screenwriter. So, if you want to make big money or get attention in a career, pick another profession besides screenwriting.
What can be taught to screenwriters and what can’t?
I believe format and structure can be taught, but you can’t teach creativity or talent. I believe a writer is born with the basic storytelling tools in his/her DNA and like the professional athlete, you will only reach your full potential by training, discipline, focus, drive, willpower and setting goals. It comes naturally to some writers and it’s difficult work for others. I’ve read scripts from writers who will never get better because they just don’t have “It.” I think “It” is a natural point of view, a unique voice and the ability to channel emotions, creativity, and stories to the page. You can read two different scripts by two writers and one script is a ten and the other is a two.
I also believe you can’t teach passion. You either have it for your craft, or you don’t. If you love what you do, nothing will stand in your way from doing it. You can’t teach courage or commitment either. Sadly, countless splendid dreams have been squashed due to fear or self-doubt on the part of dreamers. You can teach someone how to live without fear—or at least how not to allow fear to cripple splendid plans. But at the moment of truth, writers must step off the cliff themselves into the dark void and believe there is a net below to catch them. This feeling only comes from within the screenwriter and you can’t teach it. It has to be experienced and understood through passion in their dreams.
Both the screenwriter and the athlete need time to study, learn, fail, and succeed while constantly building the endurance it takes to achieve a particular level of success. Over time, the process will become effortless, as both have reached a higher level of performance at the top of their game.
There are so many “How-to Write Screenplay” books out there. Do you have a favorite?
You’re right, I checked on Amazon.com and if you type in “how to write a screenplay” they list 434 results! I still love my signed copy of “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” by Syd Fields. He used to be the guru of the three-act structure for a long time. There have been so many “How to…” books written about screenwriting over the years—some good and others bad. A recent favorite of mine is the late Blake Snyder’s book “Save the Cat.” A fellow screenwriter turned me onto it a few years back and I’ve found it to be a fresh look at the three-act structure. Blake uses specific examples and breaks screenplay structure down into a beat sheet format. His companion book, “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies” is also very good as he breaks down fifty landmark movies of the past thirty years. It’s an extremely valuable and informative tool for learning structure. I also discovered a fantastic book a few years back called “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. He based his book on the work of Joseph Campbell, so it’s all about the mythic structure of The Hero’s Journey with examples from Hollywood movies. Two fantastic books on screenplay format are “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier and “The Hollywood Standard” by Christopher Riley. Any aspiring screenwriter would be smart to purchase both as a constant reference tool because format separates the amateur from the professional.
In your screenwriting workshops, what topics do you address? Who should attend?
Yes, my new workshop is called “You’ve just finished your screenplay—now what?” I’m very excited to be consulting to a room of aspirants about how to build and establish a career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood. I didn’t want to teach a “How To Write A Script” workshop, but instead teach important disciplines to use before, during, and after you finish your script. The workshop grew out of my screenplay consultation business and my frustration when I consult for aspiring writers and they just don’t understand or respect the mountain they are climbing. I get a feeling sometimes new writers believe they just need to write one script and when they fall out of bed the next morning, they will get an agent and a three picture deal.
There is so much more that goes into the long haul of a screenwriting career. This is why I created my intense, one-day workshop that presents a vivid portrait of what is really needed to go after a screenwriting career. I share practical advice and my real-word disciplines to guide a writer through the minefields of Hollywood. I’ve broken the day into five major topics relating to a screenwriter’s journey and spend an hour and fifteen minutes on each topic with time for questions and handouts. My workshop is geared to the beginning screenwriter to enlighten them about the larger picture of what it really takes to carve out a career in Hollywood. It’s basically a real-world survival guide to weather the storm in the trenches. I hope to save fellow screenwriters precious time from making the same mistakes that I’ve made along the way. If they take away a few choice nuggets from my advice and it helps them on their journey, I’ll be extremely satisfied.
What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter?
Honestly ask yourself, “Do I have the all-encompassing drive and talent it takes to achieve any type of success as a screenwriter?” “Are you willing to put in the work necessary to achieve any level of success?” I don’t mean, can you write and finish a script—I mean can you endure the endless slog over time, maybe five to ten years, working on project after project with many never seeing a frame of film (or video). You need to be a professional in all manner and action.
The great author Steven Pressfield in his book “The War of Art” says, “The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”
- Ask yourself if you have an artist’s mentality — or the insanity to believe that even as you stare into the dark void of the unknown, your fear won’t cripple you and your burning passion will guide you across yet another hurdle. You’ll need to withstand continued rejection, criticism, failure, ridicule, and times when you make no money. If you’re okay with all of this, you just might have what it takes.
- Be humble or learn humility. Do not consider yourself superior to your craft. Recognize those who went before you and learn from them, but find your unique voice.
- Master format. I find many aspiring writers have a serious lack of knowledge or respect about screenplay format. It’s what separates the professional from the amateur.
- Don’t overwrite. I read too many scripts that are overwritten. Many new screenwriters feel the need to micromanage every scene and will even explain the color of the wallpaper. Producers and executives hate to read—funny in a business where the script is so important, but they like to see a lot of “white” on the page. This means the fewer words the better and it’s the job of the screenwriter to stay the hell out of the way of the story. The death of your screenplay can be from 1,000 little format, story and structure issues. It’s all about the attention to the little details. I can start reading a script and by the first page know it’s from an amateur. The producers and executives will notice too.
- Respect story and structure. I find a lack of respect for the treatment/step outline/beat sheet and how it related to the screenplay structure. This arrogance will get a writer into trouble when they end up in Act 2 and lost on page sixty or with a hundred and fifty-page script and have no idea where to cut.
- Understand and accept this fact: Screenwriting is rewriting. Many believe their first draft is perfect and needs no rewrites. Reality check ahead! After I read someone’s magnum opus and they tell me it took six months to write it without a treatment or even a step outline, I grimace and realize they just don’t understand. A reader or producer will stop reading after the first few pages.
- Take the time to create a viable body of work. Always have a ready a new pitch, synopsis, treatment and script to offer. Hollywood is a business, and agents and managers size you up to see your career potential. Are you a one-script wonder — or a writing workhorse with a pile of material? Are you good in a room pitching your ideas — or are you horrible live? Do you execute notes well and can you meet deadlines — or do you bristle at criticism? This is all part of being a professional screenwriter. Potential reps will look for these traits because your potential employers will as well.
- Find your unique voice and the type of material that attracts you. “Don’t write stuff you can’t handle. If you don’t like romantic comedies, don’t write “Annie Hall.” You have to always write your best, or you’re dead.”— William Goldman
Most of all—please be patient. Overnight success is usually ten years in the making. If you are in this for the long haul, constantly learn and become a better writer. Also enjoy the journey and the little successes along the way.
Thank you, Mark. We appreciate your insight and the opportunity to get to know you more. Follow Mark on Twitter at @scriptcat.
About Mark Sanderson
Mark is a veteran of the screenwriting game with over fifteen years of experience and blessed to be living his childhood dream of being a filmmaker. From his start in sketch comedy writing and performing live with The Amazing Onionheads and writing for MTV, to his eleven writing assignments that have garnered six produced films—the emotionally compelling I’ll Remember April, An Accidental Christmas, and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir Stingers, and action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below and Silent Venom—Mark’s films have premiered on Lifetime, SyFy, Fox Family, HereTV, and have received worldwide distribution.
His long association with Hollywood veterans and award-winning filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay, and has since worked with Producer’s Guild of America nominees Paul Colichman (Gods & Monsters) and Mark R. Harris (Academy Award winner Crash) — legendary genre directors Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Mendeluk, Fred Olen Ray, and Bob Clark — and Academy Award acting nominees Seymour Cassel, Pat Morita, Haley Joel Osment, Tom Berenger, and Emmy nominees Mark Harmon and James Hong. Mark’s films have also been recognized around the world and have opened and premiered at major film festivals.
His popular screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE has developed into an internet sensation with over 29,000 readers—in addition to his screenplay consulting services, he’s finishing his first book, shopping two TV pilots, and from his five projects in development comes two comedies Last Christmas and Area 54—his latest script assignments scheduled for production later this year. Visit Mark’s website: Five O’Clock Blue Entertainment.