“Dive Deep and Flush Out Your Craft.” Patrick Massett and John Zinman on Gold
Watching movies with the script in your lap, the rhythm of a scene, and why you should not send out your first script.
Gold stars Matthew McConaughey as businessman and modern-day prospector Kenny Wells. Eager for his lucky break, Wells will do just about anything to find gold. And after experiencing a “foretelling”, he teams up with a geologist (Édgar Ramírez) to search for gold in the uncharted jungles of Indonesia.
Screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman were inspired to write the script after Massett saw the story featured in a light-night documentary, and decided to take their chances on writing it on spec. A gamble which paid off, when it was developed by Paul Haggis, and eventually directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Traffic).
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Massett and Zinman about watching movies with the script in your lap, the rhythm of a scene, not sending out your first script, and why working in Hollywood is like prospecting for gold.
How did you get started, both in the industry and as writing partners?
Patrick Massett: I ran into a famous actor in a bar, who knew I was writing poems and short stories. He said, “You know, you should try writing a movie sometime.” It was really that simple.
I started there, and then backtracked by reading books. I went to a Robert McKee seminar, because I didn’t have a formal education screenwriting.
I had always loved films, but didn’t see it as an employment option until it fell in front of me.
John Zinman: I was a theater major in college. I did acting and playwriting. My senior thesis was a play. But I didn’t really know what I was going to do.
Then, like Patrick, I started reading books on screenwriting and reading screenplays. And I found advice to “Watch movies with the script in your lap.” So I would read along a shooting script while watching the movie. That way I just started picking up the structure.
Patrick and I became friendly because we were both trying to work. I think I had just sold a script and Patrick had just finished a script. I read his and I was impressed with it. Eventually that script sold, and during our celebration, we were like, “We should do something sometime. We should write something together.”
It was said off-handedly, but we actually came up with an idea that night.
Patrick: I think we actually started writing the next day. I jumped right in.
John: Part of the reason for that was that I had a child on the way and I was flat broke. So I was thinking, “Yea, we can do this, but we better sell it in nine months!”
So that was our goal. We had nine months to write this script and we hoped it would sell for a billion dollars and solve all of our problems.
Clearly you’re talking to some very bright people here.
Patrick: It actually did solve our problems, though, which is the great part. That script didn’t sell, but it got us a really big assignment with Larry Gordon (Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life). That was eighteen years ago, so we’ve been pretty steady since back then. We kind of looked at one another like, “How did this happen?” but thank God it did, because that helped us buy houses.
John: If you look back at our career we’ve been all over the map, genre-wise, and I think that’s served us well. We’ve been able to adapt to opportunities.
You mentioned being self-taught by watching movies with the script in hand. What were some of those movies you were following along with?
John: For me, I read a lot of William Goldman scripts. His writing is very visual and very spare. Then Butch Cassidy, The Sting, Chinatown, Godfather films—especially the first two—Chayefsky’s Network. Those were probably the big ones for me. And Die Hard is a perfectly-structured action movie.
Patrick: It is. It still holds up.
I got a job covering scripts, which taught me how to write by seeing what was wrong with the material. I probably covered over 500 scripts over the course of a few years, making fifty bucks a pop.
I think I read a lot of the scripts John mentioned as well, but the job was sort of a boot camp for me.
What I noticed was that every script had a good idea, but 95 percent of them were then poorly executed. So I figured that was the key. You really need to do the deep dive to flush out your craft. The ideas are going to work, but they need to be executed well.
John: Screenwriting is a huge amount of craft. It is a technical form of writing and that is often overlooked. It’s not overlooked in film school, but it takes time to feel the rhythm of a film or a TV show.
Writing dialogue, on the other hand, is something you can get better at, but is the “gift” part of the equation. Either you’ve got that talent or you don’t. Some people are just good at it while others aren’t. The structure can be taught and learned. The subtleties of dialogue and knowing what not to say is something you either have or you don’t.
I don’t think we’re the best, but I think we do it pretty well. I think we write natural dialogue. And I think that comes from the fact that both of us were actors in our early days.
There’s nothing worse than getting a scene ready for an audition, and the first guy comes in and it’s terrible, so you blame the actor. Then the second guy comes in and it’s terrible and you blame the actor. But about the third or fourth time, you have to start blaming the scene. As actors, we are very attuned as to whether a scene can be played or not. Sometimes a scene can read beautifully, but it may not play worth a damn.
Patrick, you said that 95 percent of scripts are missing something. Besides structure and dialogue, what screenwriters can hope to improve upon?
Patrick: I think it’s what John was saying about needing experience. I wrote eight or ten full-length screenplays and it took a long time for me to write something market ready. Once I got it, though, I do feel like I got it.
John: I’ll agree with that in a different way. If it’s the first script you’ve ever written, don’t send it to anybody. Even though you think it’s awesome, it’s probably not. You will meet people who will want to help you, but don’t squander that because they’re only going to read one script.
By the way, I give this advice because I learned this lesson the hard way. Most people are going to do that anyway, so I’m probably shouting into a well, but don’t send out your first script. Send it to friends and family, but not to your connection at Paramount. If he’s nice enough to read your script, make sure it’s the script you want read.
Patrick: I also listen to the opinions of those around me. Sometimes we get bull-headed, but part of the success of this partnership is that we do listen to one another and we do argue in fairness about an idea.
For young writer, it’s about staying in your chair and listening to everyone. To some degree, everyone is probably right. Then, begin to trust your instincts and simply be productive. Be prolific if you can.
John: Being prolific is a really important thing.
Patrick: That’s where the learning comes from: spending time at the keys.
John: Also, I’ve used the word rhythm a few times, and I can’t stress that enough. Every scene has a rise and a fall, and if it doesn’t, it’s not working.
My advice is to find someone you really admire, and try to write a script in that style. It’s good training and you’re going to be following the rhythm of someone really good, and hopefully their rhythm will sort of get into your bones. Then you can branch out and take that into your own style.
For me, it was tremendously helpful to find someone I could emulate. By the way, the side effect here is that it will also train you to be a TV writer. If you can emulate someone else’s style, you’re going to be a very successful TV-staff writer. That would be my advice for anyone starting out: find someone you really admire and then rip them off!
Patrick: I also feel you can stay up-to-date with other writers. Every year when the award nominees are being chosen, those scripts are available to read online. We still do that. I want to know what my fellow writers are doing today.
It’s amazing, because if you read the scripts out this year, the scripts are excellent, but they’re all very different styles. Each of these writers probably found a different type of mentor so they could read, study and adapt that work.
All of the styles are so different, but really effective. Part of a script is not just getting a story across, but selling it to a reader or to an actor. That has to be baked in as well. That’s kind of a drag, but it’s true. You can see how the first five or ten pages might be hooking people in.
If you’re emotionally involved by page fifteen and you can’t put it down, try and see how they actually did it.
So how did Gold come about?
Patrick: I was watching a late night documentary show called Masterminds. It was a half-hour show with cheap production values, but interesting stories. I called John to tell him to watch the documentary, and that launched us into about a decade of hard work.
John: We got that tingling feeling and just jumped on it. It really lined up with a lot of the things we were already thinking about in our own lives.
We had kids and we were trying to make a living in Hollywood. And in a way, that’s kind of like prospecting for gold, because not everybody strikes gold when they come out to Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood Boulevard used to be called Prospect Avenue.
There were also the themes about what it means to be a “success” in America. These ideas really resonated with us, especially at a time when we were coming into the financial crisis, and questions were being raised about income inequality—the commercialization and consumerism about America at the time.
This story seemed tailor-made to study those ideas. What does it mean to find gold? What is consumerism? What’s the value of gold? The quote we always throw around is, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” [From Matthew 16:26.]
Patrick: So that’s the concept we had, and we pitched it to everyone—the whole town—and everyone passed. Everyone liked the story and the plot, but then they would say it is “execution oriented,” which is not-so-subtle code for, “We don’t think you can pull it off.” Meaning, we’re not going to pay you to write this.
So we decided to just spec it. We put the weight behind ourselves, and decided to just write it.
John: During that time, we were beginning to gain credibility as drama writers. So when we finally finished, more people wanted to read the script. Gold happened at a point where we were in a good place to re-introduce ourselves to the film community and it worked out.
The character Kenny Wells seems to care more about gold than money, even though they’re often thought of as the same thing. Can you elaborate on what gold really means for him?
Patrick: Gold is the idea. It’s the adventure. It’s the journey of getting something unique and valuable. For Kenny, gold seems to represent everything good in life. It becomes symbolic to him, because it’s that adventure and that exploration.
John: He needs to be taken seriously. He needs to be seen as successful…
Patrick: But not just successful, successful as a prospector. Successful as a man who has discovered gold. He feels that will make him successful. Money can come in a variety of ways, but to become a “gold man,” or a prospector, is what he personally feels to be the highest achievement.
John: Yet by the end of the movie, he realizes what’s truly important to him is love and friendship. The gold itself didn’t matter. The people slapping him on the back was all bullshit, but the love of the woman who stood by him all of these years, along with the friendship and adventure, that was important.
Featured image: Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells in Gold. Photo by Patrick Brown – © BBP Gold, LLC
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