“The Skeleton Should Really be Followed”
Outlining and Tone From Writing The Skeleton Twins.
By Daniel H. Mintz.
In The Skeleton Twins, one of the most anticipated independent releases of the year, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play two suicidal siblings who converge after a long period of estrangement. Such dramatic turns by the wildly popular comedians has generated a ton of buzz for the genre-bending film; though it wasn’t their casting alone that bent it. The foundation for fusing funny with sad was laid long before by Craig Johnson and Mark Heyman, the film’s incredible writers.
Craig, also the film’s director, is no stranger to the world of independent cinema. He wrote and directed 2009’s award-nominated True Adolescents. Mark has closer ties to the mainstream movie universe, penning the 2010 award-winning blockbuster Black Swan. As for The Skeleton Twins, they first wrote it nearly a decade ago, while both were still just classmates at film school. Sharing similar sensibilities, and a goal of getting into Sundance labs, so began their friendship, their writing partnership, and a process of discovery that would greatly inform their subsequent work.
What was the origin of this script, and the inspiration for it?
Craig: I met Mark in grad school at NYU. We were both in film school together and we kind of just became fast friends. Actually wrote a script together before we wrote “The Skeleton Twins” that was very different. Kind of a broad, dopey, sort of Will Ferrell comedy. Just to kind of see if we could do it. And we had a great time working together even though the script was never gonna see the light of day. But we liked writing together and thought we shared a sensibility.
Mark: We decided it’d be fun to try to do something that was a little bit more dramatic. A little bit more emotional. And personal. I remember we sat down in a coffee shop, actually about 10 years ago to the day, and just started sort of spitballing different ideas. Different things from our lives and stuff that we’d be interested in writing about.
Craig: Mark told a story about someone he knew who was in a student teacher relationship when he was in high school. And we kind of thought that was fertile ground for a movie. Thought it was interesting territory to explore. So that kinda kicked off some of the storyline. Then we gave the student character a sister, and it just sort of expanded from there. None of it is directly autobiographical of my life or Mark’s life. But there is a lot personal stuff in it. Our own concerns. I have a sister I’m very close to, and my relationship with her really is a huge, huge, huge, part of it. Though I’m not estranged with my sister, my sister and I sort of share a weird off-beat sense of humor that is very much the heart and soul of the relationship between Maggie and Milo in the movie.
What kind of work setup did you have? Were you writing everything together?
Craig: We would both be together. We would be at a coffee shop or at our apartments with kind of dueling laptops. We’d each have our own, and we would just split up the scenes amongst us. You take this scene, I’ll take a pass at this scene. We’d just kinda write together next to each other, and after a little while, one of us would go, “Ok. I think I got something.” We would then read it back and forth to each other, sort of show and tell style. Then each of us would chime in and that was great ’cause [it allowed for] rewriting as we went.
Mark: There were two very initial drafts of the script that had a very, very different storyline even. Part of our process in writing this was learning the value of outlining. Our first two attempts at starting to write something down and get it going, we had done with a loose sense of what we were doing. But without really nailing it down in an outline. There were still twins with some of the same elements. But wildly different storyline. Back then the script was called Maggie Saves Milo.
Craig: So we did our outline. We did a whole note card board. You know just like they tell you to do in writing school. And guess what? It helped. Tremendously.
What were those first couple of drafts like?
Craig: The first two attempts at writing the script, we made it to like page 40 twice, and then just had completely run ourselves into a wall and kind of ran out of drama in one version. And then did another version that had all this action upfront. Then there was nowhere to go. So there was a moment where we got together and said, “Ok, wait a second here. What sort of movie are we making.” We had some tonal issues in the first couple passes. There was a moment where we were at page 40 the second time. And I kinda looked at Mark and was like, “You know what this movie’s reminding me of tonally?” And he’s like what. And I said, Showgirls. The Paul Verhoeven film.That’s where we had a little come to Jesus moment where like, “Wait a second. That is not exactly the movie we wanna be writing right now.”
Mark: We were writing a movie that was very, very different than the one we had set out to make. And one that we were actually interested in making. We had a big tonal conversation, using other movies as examples, [to figure out[ what is it that we’re going for here. You really do have to nail down the tone and then stick to the rules. Because I think often times early scripts can feel like they’re tonally jumping around from scene to scene. Tone is a very hard thing to nail down because it’s not like what the story is, or what the characters are. It’s a subtler thing, I think it’s very important in the writing to establish very clearly from the first page what kind of movie this is gonna be. Just in the tone of the writing itself, and make sure you stick to that tone throughout.
Craig: At the time, movies like The Squid and The Whale were coming out. The Noah Baumbach film. Me and You and Everyone We Know, the Miranda July movie. We liked that sort of, funny, sad, bittersweet kind of, offbeat tone. We talked about old Hal Ashby movies in the ’70s. Stuff like Harold and Maude and Shampoo. We talked about some of the older Robert Altman movies. Alexander Payne was a tonal touchstone for us. Very human, real people. Funny sad balancing act.
What happened with the script next?
Craig: We were rejected three times from the Sundance writer’s lab. By the third time they were basically like, “Thanks a lot guys, you don’t need to apply again.” So in our heads, it was like, that’s it. For the movie. You know it was a good shot. Cause the Sundance lab was always encouraging. They really liked it. But they just ultimately, you know, wasn’t gonna work for them. So it just sat in a drawer actually for about two and half, three years.
Mark: After that last rejection which was about two years after we had first started working together on the script, Craig went off to make his first feature. I actually had been working with Darren Aronofsky at the time, so I went off to help produce The Wrestler and then do Black Swan later. After Craig had finished his first feature, he dug The Skeletons Twins out of deep storage.
Craig: It was like I hadn’t written it. It had been so long. I was just like, “This is not half bad. I still believe in this thing.” At that point, I sent it to Mark Duplass who’s now my buddy and said “What do you think of this. Do you like it? Would you wanna exec produce and help us try to get it made.” And Mark Duplass just loved it, and said “Absolutely. Let’s try to do this. I belive in it.” We got Avy Kaufman on board, the casting director, soon after that because we knew the way to get this movie made was to hire a couple actors. It was off to the races at that point.
Did casting Bill and Kristen affect the script at all?
Mark: It didn’t really a whole lot. Bill was attached to the script for about two years before it finally went into production. He explicitly wanted to do it because it wasn’t a comedy. There was obviously some humor in it and some funny scenes. But he wanted to do something that was more dramatic and had some darker undertones. So even once he got attached, there wasn’t this feeling of like. a need to try to lighten it up and take advantage of the fact that he’s a comedian. It was, if anything the opposite. Kristen officially got attached maybe only about a month and half or two months before production. Craig did allow for some room on set for, especially during the more humorous scenes. for some improv and stuff. And allow them room to put things in their own voice in certain instances.
Craig: I’m very very open to actors riffing on the lines. I am not precious about anything. Especially when you’re working with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, the best improvisers out there. Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell, were all phenomenal. They all have these shining moments I can point to in the movie where it’s like, I did not write that line. They just kind of improvised that. Now the script is very written. Most of it is pretty much what was written. But that was a really pleasant surprise, when the actors would kind of tweak it and riff on things a little bit. It just made everything feel a little more authentic and natural feeling in the finished film. And often funnier.
Mark: When you’re lucky, you cast people that feel like they fit the role so well, that it almost seems as though the script was tailormade for them in some way. That’s just sort of a very, very serendipitous, happy accident. There was an organic way that it sort of melded with them as performers.
What do you think you took away from the experience of writing this film?
Craig: I definitely learned that in the script, you almost always are sort of explaining things a little bit more than you need to. I’ve had this experience on both the films I’ve made now. That by the time you shoot it. And by the time you get into the editing room, so many of these scenes, that you thought were critical and just helping the audience understand what was going on, you don’t need. There’s so much when you’re sitting in a theater, watching a film that can just be conveyed visually, that intuitively implies everything you need to imply. I found when we were editing this movie, we cut out a lot of the exposition. I’m not the first one to say this, as the old saying [goes] burn the first reel, which tends to be a lot of setup and exposition. You sort of need it in a script, because you don’t have that visual storytelling element working for you. But I really learned that there’s a massive process of reduction that happens as you go from script to shooting to editing. That so much can be told visually. Now that said, I think you still, when you write your drafts, need to, kind of start from a place of getting all the information out there in the script. And then have that reduction process happen a little bit later. But it really did surprise me how many of the scenes that I thought were critical, just from an information standpoint, that we ended up shooting and then cutting.
Mark: It really did start with The Skeleton Twins, but has now become an obsessive part of how I work..the outlining phase is so crucially important. The thing I always tell people when they ask, “How do you know when you’re done with outlining and ready to move on to the script?” For me, my tip to people is always, write an outline, and then show it to someone that knows nothing about the movie you’re writing. Someone you trust obviously. But not someone who you’ve already told [about] the thing you’re working on. They’re only having to look at this outline. See if it makes sense to that person. Or see if they raise issues. Because to me, that can be a really, really stark indication if it’s working. If you’ve really thought through everything. then that person should be able to figure out and follow along with what this movie is. Or if there’s still gaping holes. The plotlines. Or character. Or whatever it is, Because outlines that you just write for yourself, you can put in shorthand. You can leave things to figure out later or be like, “And then for some reason or another, the character does blank.” But if you’re forced to show it to someone that knows nothing, you’re gonna be forced to think through like, “Well why did they do it?” Once you get to the scriptwriting phase, it’s just almost the easy part. Because hopefully you’ve thought through major issues and questions already previously. Then you can have fun filling in the flesh and blood. But the skeleton should really be followed.
The Skeleton Twins is in theaters now.
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