“Find Your Ironic Hook of an Idea” How Screenwriter Matt Lieberman Sold 9+ Screenplays
Between 2018 and 2021, Matt Liberman will have nine features in the works. We spoke with Matt about the “creepy” and “kooky” Addams Family not long ago, but now we’re catching up some of his other films like The Christmas Chronicles (and its sequel), Scoob!, and the Ryan Reynolds comedy, Free Guy.
“I came out to LA armed, knowing how to write a screenplay.” At NYU, the novice writer realized he had a talent for being prolific, as he was the only student to actually finish a screenplay during the semester. “I realized it was something I loved and you could make a whole movie [on paper] without having to call in favors or spend money making it.”
“I probably write faster than most,” he added. “The process always starts with an idea that I’m really excited about. I have a manager and I work pretty closely with him to figure out what idea I like that he could sell. I’m a high-concept writer. That’s how I get my head around character and story. What’s the ironic hook of the idea? Something that grabs me and feels fresh.”
As for his writing process, the day to day somewhat varies. With the Kurt Russell movie, The Christmas Chronicles, he originally wrote a spec script called “12/24,” which was something Liberman wrote in 7-10 days (with rewrites over the course of about 30 days). It sold a month later.
“I’ve got other scripts that have taken a couple of months to write. Sometimes, it takes that long, you step away from it, then it takes a couple more months to crack. It doesn’t indicate if a screenplay is going to be good or bad if I write it fast or slowly.”
For that particular film, the idea was a “found footage Christmas movie.” A portion of this idea came from David Guggenheim (Safe House, Designated Survivor) where two kids accidentally catch footage of Santa Claus on video.
Lieberman had a similar idea in the past, so when he received the half-page treatment from Guggenheim, he realized there was something more he could add to the story. “It hit me at the right time, in the right moment. It was November, so it was feeling Christmasy, and I saw the whole movie very quickly.”
This John Hughes-like mentality of writing so quickly seems harder to do today, with so many movies being made each year. But Lieberman has somewhat of a formula for what makes a high-concept idea worth pursuing.
The Liberman Screenwriting Formula
“Mostly it’s movies that I would like to see and ideas that excite me to get me out of my house and into a theater,” he said. “Usually, there’s something ironic about the concept, or something I’ve never seen before.” He listed favorite films like Back to the Future, The Truman Show, and Groundhog Day as movies that influenced him.
“Those were staples behind a big, original idea, and also a lot of wish fulfillment. Wish fulfillment is important in the movies I gravitate towards. I love Indie movies, horror movies, but the ones where I sit down and can ask myself, ‘What is the original idea that would get me to go to this even if I had never heard of it before?’”
Logistically, when in “idea mode,” the screenwriter sits down with the intention of “coming up with a new idea.” He starts to list worlds, ideas, and movies he’s seen before. But, he takes it a step further to dissect the ideas within ideas.
“I look at movies that I’ve seen before, that I like, but maybe had an interesting world they didn’t explore or didn’t make the most of the premise. Or, I think of movies I like and mash them up with other genres. And, of course, I read a lot of books and graphic novels and write [these ideas] on my phone or computer. Then, you start dreaming of ideas, literally. And, you write those down. Eventually, you hook on to 2-3 that float to the top. I’ll write a couple of sentences on each and send them to my manager.”
At this point, the manager’s fresh eyes help decide what might be interesting and what might be a fit for the ever-changing market. Then, he flushes out those discussed ideas a little more, and sometimes he’ll even write the first Act to see if the story holds water. He does so, “just to see what the feel and the vibe is and if it is a movie.” Then, he sends that to his manager.
Don’t fear the blank page
Rather than fearing the blank page, Lieberman looks for stories by using the rules of various genres and then capitalizing on big, high-concept ideas. “I’ve definitely been intimidated by stories that I don’t have my head around fully, but usually I’ve found that if the characters and themes are there, and it organically lends itself to the concept, I think of that as a motor. If that motor works, it will go all the way to the end.”
He continued, “Sometimes, you can set up something that’s exciting, get all the way to the middle of Act 2, and be like, ‘What is this?’ Usually, the problem is in the setup, or how you set up the characters, or maybe the movie is not about what you thought it was about. Maybe the theme is not emotional enough or too cerebral or doesn’t have enough meat on the bone. You have to go and rearrange everything upfront to get the right configuration. It sounds a little mathematical, but it’s true.”
This eye for detail comes from experience, but also the frequency of the writing, where he feels like his instincts take over. “If I’m writing scenes that feel arbitrary or plotty, or they aren’t firing on multiple cylinders, you know something is wrong. If your story is right, every scene is important and every scene moves the story forward – moves the characters forward.”
In many of the rewrites he works on, this is usually the problem. The original writer made it through the beginning to the end, but the story isn’t sound for whatever reason. “You have to have a fresh set of eyes to pull it back for them,” he added.
The Benefits of Multiple Projects
To produce multiple screenplays at such a high level, it’s really about having multiple projects in the works at the same time. If Matt Lieberman ever feels stuck on a script, he can easily move on to something else. “Part of the work is learning not to be so precious about things and get them out of your head. The more you sit and think of the perfect line, or making the scene perfect, you’re probably holding yourself back. The best thing to do is get it out of your head. People call it the vomit draft. Get the bad version out, because usually the bad version is pretty close to the better version, or if it’s not, you can get it out, see what it is, see what’s working or not working.”
Switching from project to project also helps him get out of his own way while he’s writing. “I find that when I have less to do, I get more precious about things or want to try to put too many ideas behind them. I heard a quote recently: ‘Perfection is the enemy of good.’ And, if I’m working on multiple projects, I’m too busy to be precious. There’s also a time every day when working on a project, that I hit a wall – usually after lunch.”
Perfection is the enemy of the good
Usually, he writes from around 9 am until 2 pm, then comes back from lunch to work until around 5 pm or so, where he’s “treading water” the second half of the day. “To be able to put that [morning draft] down and look at something fresh helps me be able to compartmentalize. Some people have to dream and live and feel the story they’re telling. I’m able to switch gears when I feel it helps give me distance between different projects.”
Despite the close relationship with his manager, most of his deadlines are self-imposed. “I’ve been doing this for ten years. I definitely have a sense of how long it’s going to take me to do something. I give myself a deadline, where I might call a producer and say they’re getting [the script] in two weeks. That puts pressure on me to finish it. Otherwise, I’ll take longer.” But, his manager does help with the big picture and career navigation.
To dive into the weeds of Lieberman’s prolific state a little more, he mentioned some of the software and programs he recommends. He uses Final Draft for screenwriting, keeps a notepad next to his desk for notes, stores an “idea file” on his computer, meditates in the morning and evening, and uses a whiteboard rather than cards to help spread out ideas.
“To have a whiteboard where I can break down scenes, character arcs, or sometimes cast a screenplay in my head – print out pictures of the actors I think can be the different characters – can sometimes help me. I’m a visual person, so any way to help me visualize it can help me. Also, just watching movies [in the same genre] helps. Look at your movie through the lens of that movie can sometimes be revelatory.”
Help From Other Writers
Depending on the project – and in what feels like a rarity that he does get stuck – he’s got other screenwriter friends he might send work to for advice. “It’s important to have other writer friends as sounding boards. If they’re not a writer, their opinions don’t really help as much as someone who knows their way around story. I have 2-3 close writer friends that I trust very much to help me out of a spot. Without them, I could be stuck for weeks. When I talk to them, I could have it cracked in an hour.” He asks for these friends to look at it with a very critical eye, and “look for truth because that’s the only way to make it better.”
Right now, Liberman’s movie Scoob! is out on VOD, as the theatrical release was canceled due to the COVID quarantine. As for Free Guy, it was a spec script that landed on the Blacklist. “It was an idea I had kicked around for a while. I knew it was a great idea and I put a fire under my ass and knocked it out in about a month and sold it in 2016. I sold it to Fox and then Ryan Reynolds saw it, and I took off like a rocket ship.” (This film has been moved from a July release to a December release for the same reason.)
In terms of advice for screenwriters who also wish to be prolific, he said for him it’s a passion because he always wanted to be a screenwriter. “It takes a couple of years and a couple of scripts to master the craft to know what you’re doing. But, don’t just always be writing; always have the next idea in your head because it’s a tough business and the chances are what you’re writing is not going to sell, but it will lead somewhere and you better have the next thing ready to go or ready to talk about it.”
Finally, he said once again, “Don’t get too precious. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a job. I had a day job for many years – writing nights, weekends, while watching my friends go to the beach – but I just had to do it. I love movies. I love writing. My head is usually somewhere in a story at any given time of the day. It’s where I live creatively.”
This article has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version here.
[woocommerce_products_carousel_all_in_one template="compact.css" all_items="88" show_only="id" products="" ordering="random" categories="115" tags="" show_title="false" show_description="false" allow_shortcodes="false" show_price="false" show_category="false" show_tags="false" show_add_to_cart_button="false" show_more_button="false" show_more_items_button="false" show_featured_image="true" image_source="thumbnail" image_height="100" image_width="100" items_to_show_mobiles="3" items_to_show_tablets="6" items_to_show="6" slide_by="1" margin="0" loop="true" stop_on_hover="true" auto_play="true" auto_play_timeout="1200" auto_play_speed="1600" nav="false" nav_speed="800" dots="false" dots_speed="800" lazy_load="false" mouse_drag="true" mouse_wheel="true" touch_drag="true" easing="linear" auto_height="true"]