Divergent and Hope Springs Writer Vanessa Taylor
Describes her bumpy transition from Game of Thrones to feature film writing and gives advice for women working in Hollywood
by Shanee Edwards
Television scribe Vanessa Taylor has had great success on the small screen. She’s written for such shows as Alias, Everwood, Tell Me You Love Me, and most recently, seasons two and three of the uber-popular Game of Thrones. But moving to the large screen with last year’s Hope Springs and the upcoming movie Divergent proved challenging, even for this multi-genre talent. Creative Screenwriting sat down with Vanessa Taylor at her home in Santa Monica, CA, to discover the secrets of her success.
SHANEE EDWARDS: Vanessa, you’re one of the few TV writers who have been successful in moving from TV into the feature world. How did you make that transition?
VANESSA TAYLOR: It was very difficult for me. I think it’s easier to transition the other way because the television world sees value in the feature world, so when a feature writer wants to do TV, they tend to be very receptive to it. It doesn’t seem to work as easily in reverse.
EDWARDS: You took a break from TV and wrote a spec script. How did you know what kind of spec to write?
TAYLOR: I asked my TV agent at UTA and he gave me a copy of Lars and the Real Girl, which I thought was really smart. I think he was trying to say write something in your own voice, it doesn’t matter how commercial it is. So I wrote the script that became Hope Springs.
EDWARDS: Was this the first time you’d written a feature script?
TAYLOR: No. When I first started to learn to write for film and TV, I wrote seven specs, all of which were bad. So this was the first time in a long time I had tried to do that. But I really felt like this one was good.
EDWARDS: So you finally have a good script, now what?
TAYLOR: At first, I tried to make inroads within my own agency, but that was difficult I think, because they saw me more as a TV client. I decided that the best way to go about the whole thing would be for me to get a manager, someone I could approach solely for help on the feature side, though they did end up getting me Game of Thrones. I really got lucky. I met with a few managers, but turns out my good friend Robyn is married to a great manager, Guymon Casady at Management 360.
EDWARDS: That is lucky! So what did he do?
TAYLOR: Guymon and Doug Johnson at 360 were very responsive. They weren’t like, “Oh, we think the writing’s good.” They really wanted to get it made. And they did. They decided to send it out to about 25 people who they called “taste-makers.”
EDWARDS: What are “taste-makers?”
TAYLOR: Influential executives and producers. The script got a strong response. Based on that, I got onto the Black List.
EDWARDS: How much did being on the Black List help you?
TAYLOR: That was extremely helpful, because I feel feature producers read it as a resource of who the up and coming writers are. My managers were also able to get it to my producer, Todd Black, who ultimately made the movie. I think it was a combination of having great representation and something that people really responded to. There was a reason I didn’t show people the seven bad scripts—I knew they were bad. This thing, I thought was good. I was able to be very confident in approaching people, because I felt they would want to read it.
EDWARDS: What compass do you use to know when something you’ve written is good?
TAYLOR: Honestly, I don’t know. I feel like it’s been a stroke of luck in my life and career that I’ve always just known. I don’t get all upset if something’s bad, but I know the difference. It’s easier for me to deal with outside criticism, because I know if people are wrong and vice-versa, if people are telling me something’s great, and I know it’s sucky. I’m not at the mercy of other people’s opinions. But part of why I knew, was because the script [Hope Springs] had its own life—it seemed to have a life beyond me. The way I wrote the script was to keep writing until I hit a false beat, and then I would stop and do something else. It was as if the script was trying to dictate itself. That was part of how I had a feeling it was better than other things I’d written.
EDWARDS: Do you always employ the strategy of writing until you hit a false beat?
TAYLOR: No. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever done that. I had decided to write it in a more naturalistic type of way. It doesn’t have a huge amount of plot so I was able to do that, but I really started in an open-ended way by asking a question and really wanting to know the answer. As a writer I didn’t approach it and say, “Here’s what I want to happen.” I just said, “I wonder what would happen if…” and I just followed it to its logical conclusion. That was different; I’d like to do that again. I’m not sure if it would work for something very structurally complicated, but it worked well for this.
EDWARDS: What’s it like to work on your own screenplay vs. other people’s ideas in screenplay format?
TAYLOR: It’s really, really different. For instance, there was a draft of Hope Springs that was terrible! It was fine for 20 pages but then it just careened off the rails. But I had the ability to go back and toss out all that work and find out what it wanted to be. But when you’re working for hire, you’re often working under a lot of time pressure, and there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, everybody’s got an idea of what they want. Sometimes you’re coming into a project where something’s been written already and you’re making fixes, so it really feels much more like you’re a workman, like you’re being paid to quickly and competently get something to a certain level. I’m sure it’s possible to do that and write something fantastic, but I haven’t yet figured out how to marry those two things. From the very beginning it’s a compromise.
EDWARDS: What were the most exciting things about making Hope Springs?
TAYLOR: Obviously, having Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell in your movie is delightful regardless of anything, right? But the fact that Steve Carell didn’t seem to have any need to be funny—I thought that was surprising and interesting. And that he seemed, to me, to be such a good therapist, I honestly would have gone to him. Meryl Streep you know is going to be phenomenal, she’s Meryl Streep so what can I say except that she’s still surprising to watch in person, you’re like, holy shit! There were things she did in the movie where I thought, how cool, I didn’t think of that, but I should have. I found Tommy Lee Jones’ specificity to text delightful, I was like wow, that’s an actor who really has respect for the written word. It was flattering and exciting.
EDWARDS: Do you think film actors have more respect for the text in general than TV Actors?
TAYLOR: I think it really depends on the actor or director, and it also depends on the text. Give actors something great, they tend to want to say it. I did find that working on Game of Thrones, there was a tremendous respect for text, also because it was such a large ensemble and because there were a lot of British cast members.
EDWARDS: Let’s talk a little more about what’s become this cultural phenom, Game of Thrones. Was fantasy something you’ve always been interested in?
TAYLOR: As a kid growing up I liked to read that kind of thing, but it was more of fantasy-lit, as I like to call it. But when I read the Game of Thrones pilot, I just thought the writing was so beautiful! And when I read the books, I thought they were just incredible. Whenever I wrote scripts for Game of Thrones, I incorporated a lot of [George R. R. Martin’s] dialogue because I thought it was so terrific.
EDWARDS: Were you ever intimidated?
TAYLOR: I didn’t know if I could write period voices and also this fantasy element and action—so that was anxiety-provoking in the beginning. I was like, “I hope I can do this job,” but it was also exciting.
EDWARDS: Tell us about shooting in Northern Ireland.
TAYLOR: I was there, three months a year for the two seasons I was on, and I loved it there. I loved the people, I loved everything about it except being away from home for three months a year—that part was difficult.
EDWARDS: So you left the show to pursue screenwriting?
TAYLOR: Partly because of that and partly because I couldn’t really maintain a personal life and be gone three months a year.
EDWARDS: Then you got hired to write Divergent. I know you can’t give us any spoilers, but do you think the screenplay is close to the book by Veronica Roth?
TAYLOR: I feel like it is. Divergent was a really hard story to break. It took many more drafts than I would have thought, given how much material we used from the book. I’ve been interested to look at the press that’s been coming out because I was never able to put it into a log line. Now, I see that others struggle with it, too. It was really challenging to adapt.
EDWARDS: How loyal do you feel to a book when you’re adapting it for a film?
TAYLOR: In some ways, I feel too loyal to original material. I get too married to it and it’s problematic. You’re much better off using parts, but being able to jump off from it.
EDWARDS: Changing gears here a little bit, Hollywood has long been considered sexist. Do you find it challenging to be a woman in this industry?
TAYLOR: There is one thing I found challenging in the beginning, when I was trying to get into the feature side. Because my spec involved a married couple, and was in some ways female-skewing, and maybe because I’m a woman, I got submitted all the chic-lit titles. Books that have names of stores in their title, it was just all chicks all the time. I said to them, I don’t feel like this is an exciting niche to be in, and I really wanted to be considered for what I was calling more “male” movies, but I think I just meant more mainstream movies. But in truth, once I began working on Game of Thrones, I had other opportunities, so perhaps it had more to do with what I was writing than being a woman. I’m not really sure. I don’t think that most men, regardless of what they wrote, would get submitted these chick-lit books, but who knows? So, I found that frustrating. But I also feel that you can always write yourself out of your own problem. Say if I was to come up with a spec like say, Argo, I would instantly not have that problem anymore. Part of it is always on your own shoulders. If you want people to think you can do something, go ahead and show them you can.
EDWARDS: Do you think things will get easier for women in Hollywood?
TAYLOR: Obviously, there’s a certain amount of sexism in Hollywood, and I do see situations where women get hired because they’re the hot chick. But, generally speaking, the good thing about writing is it’s on the page. If you’re good, if you’re really good, you can break through. If you do something extraordinary, people will pay attention. So, I guess I would say that all things being equal, it may be somewhat harder for women, but… I had this conversation with some female friends of mine when we were first getting into TV, and we were talking about it being harder for women because, statistically, there were fewer women. What we said then was, “We have to be so good that we are undeniable. That it just doesn’t matter.” So, I don’t know if it’s harder for women, but I do know you have to set the bar at, “I’m so good, nobody gives a shit who I am.” Because that’s the level of competition you’re dealing with.
Divergent hits movie theaters in March of 2014.
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