Brock Swinson’s Year in Quotes
Brock looks back over his interviews from 2016, and shares some of his favourite quotes.
Over the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview a number of screenwriters, from first-time writers to Oscar nominees. Below are a selection of my favorite quotes and pieces of advice from these interviews in 2016.
I hope you enjoy them, and of course, if you want to read more, just click on the link at the bottom of each quotation to see the complete article.
Set reasonable goals for habitual work.
There are some basic principles. I used to teach a lot of writing and you always set a reasonable goal. I may want to get five pages done in a day and while I might have to finish a script over a weekend, I would never think that I could write a whole script in a day.
Fives pages in a day is a good goal to achieve, and there was one day for Blunt Talk where I wrote eighteen pages in a day. That doesn’t sound so Herculean but when you’re under a deadline, those pages have to work, so they couldn’t be shitty pages. So set a reasonable goal.
Above all else, finish the work.
You have to write, and you have to allow yourself to make some garbage, too. I understand the impulse to be a perfectionist and only want to make great things but just finishing a screenplay is the achievement. That’s it. Don’t worry about if you’re going to sell it or what’s going to happen, just finish it.
I see so many people get to the halfway mark and then put it down and think they’ll just pick it up later and I feel like the biggest hurdle is one’s own procrastination or self-doubt. I tell my students that writing a first draft, for me, is always the race against one’s self-doubt, and if you put it down for too long, doubt’s going to win out.
Create an individual piece of work.
I’ve always been an all-day writer. All-day. All-night. I’ll wake up sometimes and write 2,000 words before I even make coffee. I get somewhat obsessed with it. I still do that. I even write while I’m directing. I’ve done it twice now.
That’s something that people forget too often in the arts. In movies, when people try to put together movies algorithmically, or tailoring them by genre for certain markets, they always get it wrong. A movie gets trimmed in postproduction in order to be reverse-engineered into a genre-project that they never were and that’s terrible, terrible groupthink, which drives the project itself away from where it should be. It should just be an individual piece of work. It should operate on it’s own rules, it’s own terms, for it’s own effect.
Be willing to let go of ideas.
Let go of ideas. You have to trust that ideas will come to you. You have to trust that there is always a better idea just around the corner. It can be really hard to let go of something that you think is the underpinning of the story. But often it’s not. If something is pushing you in another direction, you need to go with that feeling and let go of those ideas.
Deep down, I know the answer. The struggle is usually about my resistance. The other piece of advice that I wish I had known, was that once you do decide on something, commit to it. Do the whole version of it. Don’t do the half version. It feels like it’s more work and it may be, but it’s always worth it. Then, if you do the entire version and it doesn’t work, you will know next time because that knowledge will then guide your way.
Befriend writer’s block.
It’s usually that material that we oppress into the shadow-side that we don’t want to acknowledge. We tend to stick with what we think will sell, but that Writer’s Block has something important to tell us, because it’s speaking from the soul’s point-of-view, which is often ignored. The negative aspects will start to recede and the more positive aspects will begin to come back out. The overall goal is integration and it’s important to integrate your gifts with your shadow side. There is light and darkness and the combination of the two makes great writers.
Listen to people’s opinions of your work.
We’ve met many aspiring writers who don’t really like to write. It’s a very difficult profession for people who don’t like to write. You have to want to sit down to write jokes or to write scripts—part of that is just having the ability to sit down day in and day out and actually do it.
The other is willing to hear people’s opinions of your work. You have to convince yourself that it’s great just to get through the writing of it, but ultimately, anything can be better. Then you have to turn it in for notes and you have to honestly accept that criticism and then try to make your material better.
Choose the banana.
As we reach the climatic choice, I ask for writers to avoid choosing the rock or the hard place. Instead, I ask that they choose the banana. This is my code word for writers, to encourage them to find the inevitable, yet unexpected choice. It’s not a rock or a hard place—it’s not even in the same family. Rock, hard place, banana: It’s a simple code to help writers find that inevitable, unexpected ending.
Write stories people aren’t telling.
There are so few people like me in the industry. It took me a while to find my validation and learn how to write these stories. I had to ask myself if my ideas were marketable or not.
So I encourage people to write about their background. All of these things make up your unique voice and every person is different, so that sense of authorship or voice should be expressed. That will help you stand out more than trying to have the biggest budget or having the biggest actor in your film.
People want to discover the world and we can only do so with a more diverse industry and more diverse network of filmmakers.
Anchor fiction with reality.
When you start making up stuff, sometimes it can go a little broad or it might be something you haven’t experienced, which we all have to start writing about at some point. I kind of try to anchor it with the real stuff even if it’s been transformed a little bit in the writing. It just makes me feel like I’m somewhere in reality. It’s something I can relate to and, hopefully, other people can relate to as well. I do tend to cling to those nuggets a little longer than anything else.
Write the idea worth making.
Jon: Coming up with ideas that are horrible is actually okay, because it’s really obvious when they’re a bad idea. The hardest part is we come up with a lot of ideas that are like, “Eh, that’s probably a movie. I could imagine that’s a movie,” and that difference between something that you could really make and that’s something fun and different and just a movie that’s sort of a piece of commerce or that feels like it’s programming.
Scott: Coming up with ideas is the hardest part. Because there’s no craft to it, there’s no science to it. It’s hard to improve how you’re doing it. You just need to keep trying to think of stuff, whereas the writing process, if you write a scene that’s bad you can just re-write it.
Don’t waste a word.
For twenty years, I’d spent most of my time reciting lines by people who took shortcuts. Don’t take a shortcut. I always write the movie that I want to go see, and just assume someone else will want to go see it, too. It’s got to be saying what you want to say the way you want to say it.
I think to be a really good screenwriter, you have to be selfish, you have to write just for you. You’ll be your toughest critic, but trying to guess what someone else is going to like or want, that’s such a moving target. You’ll find yourself trying to write something that false. Constantly remind yourself to write what you’d want to see and that you can’t waste a word.
Defend your time to write and make it personal.
For me, personally, it’s about habits. I am a very, very slow writer and for a long time, I didn’t properly schedule the time I needed to write. I needed to learn to shut the world out and make that time. I didn’t defend that time. Once I learned to block out that time and not look at my emails, to turn off my phone and not distract myself by getting a beer with friends, then I could make a lot more progress.
Somewhere, I read a quote that said, “We overestimate what we can achieve in a short period of time and underestimate what we can achieve in a long period of time.” So I got into the habit of defending that time, and the progress really does accrue over time.
I’ve seen other writers who are clearly working on something so beautiful and so personal that it scares them, so they turn to another project or idea that fits the compatibility of the market place and what people are buying.
But that personal thing that they are so uncomfortable with is usually the most amazing thing that I have ever read of theirs. They’re just too close to it and it’s uncomfortable, so they can’t bring themselves to finish it. That’s another common problem, especially here in Los Angeles, when everyone is talking about who-sold-what, all the time.
Take chances where you might fail.
Back in school, I wish I had taken more chances. Back then, I would only do things I knew I was good at. I would do things to impress my friends or to impress girls, so I wouldn’t do anything where I might fall on my face. I think I would be better now if I had taken chances before. So I encourage young writer to do that. I encourage writers to do that and buck up their friends who will take the chance to fail.