A Simple Conversation: Dwain Worrell on The Wall
Dwain Worrell discusses writing naturally in the three-act structure, stripping your protagonist naked, and not worrying about formatting your script.
Shortly after the end of initial major combat operations in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, two U.S. soldiers – Sergeant Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) – are on the lookout for an insurgent sniper that had killed several contractors working on an oil pipeline.
After watching for signs of the sniper for nearly a day, the two assume the sniper has left the area. Unfortunately, they are wrong – the sniper (known as Juba) not only still has his sights on them, but pins an injured Isaac down behind a crumbling wall.
But the very real danger of being killed by Juba is secondary to the mind games that Isaac must contend with while trying to survive.
The Wall is the first spec script that was ever purchased by Amazon Studios. The screenplay was written by Dwain Worrell, an American writer who was living in China at the time.
Prior to The Wall, Worrell wrote screenplays for the hybrid horror movie Walking the Dead (2010), and the thriller Operator (2015). On the strength of the screenplay for The Wall – it was featured on the 2014 Black List – Worrell his seen increased interest in his upcoming projects, and was hired as a member of the writing team for the Marvel superhero series Iron Fist on Netflix.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Worrell about how The Wall screenplay resulted from having first written many “bad” and “mediocre” screenplays, unconsciously absorbing screenplay writing techniques, and why screenwriters should support movies that were written on spec.
The Wall was written under unique circumstances – can you talk about the genesis of the idea, and writing it in China?
I went to Georgia State University, and majored in theater and playwriting. But when I graduated, there weren’t many jobs for a playwright in Atlanta. I had studied Chinese for two years, so I went to China.
While I was there I was teaching English, translating, and acting in Chinese films. There aren’t many Black Americans in Beijing who could speak Chinese, so I got most of the roles I went out for.
As far as writing, I wasn’t necessarily a screenwriter yet. I dabbled in playwriting and fiction, with screenwriting barely on the side. I think in my first few years there I didn’t write many screenplays.
But slowly – and I think instinctively – I honed in on screenwriting. I wrote a bunch of bad movies, followed by a few mediocre movies, and then eventually I wrote one that was OK and another that was good. Both of those scripts were produced, the bigger of which is The Wall.
It’s interesting that you have a background in playwriting – I feel that with a few tweaks The Wall could be a stage play.
I agree with you, and a lot of people have mentioned to me that it’s almost like a play. What interested me about it was the simple conversation between two people. That could almost be had on a New York City park bench with two guys playing chess. There is that sort of dynamic between the characters in the film.
I want to ask you about the structure of the film, because it almost perfectly fits in the classic three-act structure: The first third establishes the rising stakes that trap Isaac behind the wall, the second third features the bulk of the conversation between Isaac and his adversary, and in the final third the stakes continue to rise until the ending. Did you have this structure in place from the beginning?
It’s very interesting, because it’s something that happened naturally. I say it’s interesting, because when people were asking me about doing rewrites, they said, “You know structure so well.” I wasn’t sure why people kept saying that.
I wrote the draft that was sent to Amazon in two and a half weeks, and then did a two or three day sweeping for typos. That’s not because of skill – I think a lot of it is luck. I think I just hit the right screenplay with the right subject matter.
Without giving anything away, there is something that happens at the midpoint, that when I first started writing the screenplay I didn’t know was going to happen. It was something I realized within the rhythm of the screenplay. It didn’t come from an outline and I didn’t write it with that structure in mind.
It was something of a happy accident that it came together like that.
One element that raises the stakes is that many of the tools of warfare fail Isaac – his scope, his radio, and even more basic, his canteen. Can you talk about stripping the character down over the course of the story?
When writing it I wanted to make him under the underdog. I wanted to put him at the bottom of the bottom of the barrel.
For example, one thing that happens that isn’t played up too much in the film, but was a bigger thing in the script, is that the bricks fall on his trigger finger. It peels off his fingernail and his finger is swollen, bruised, and bloodied. Anything that could go wrong, went wrong. Anything that would’ve made him more of an underdog happened.
That was important to me, because I honestly felt that Juba was smarter than our main character, more intelligent, and a better shooter. I wanted my character to basically be naked out there, so I stripped as many things away from him as I could.
On top of the external conflict, Isaac also struggles with an internal conflict regarding why he doesn’t want to leave the battlefield. Can you talk about that?
In my theory of writing, I think it’s important that you parallel your internal and external conflicts. One thing that was big for me in the script and in the film, is that this is a character who is hiding, both literally and internally. That was an important aspect to play out on screen.
The things that he is hiding from are brought to the forefront because of this conflict, so the conflict is as much internal as it is external.
Earlier you mentioned that wrote bad screenplays and mediocre screenplays until you wrote something you considered good. I assume one of the answers is “practice,” but what else did you learn while working on these projects that improved your screenwriting?
I remember when I first started writing, I was so concerned about how to do things like an intercut or dual dialogue. I didn’t know how professionals did it. The real answer is, “Nobody cares.” Your format isn’t all that important. It’s about the story.
Final Draft does most everything for you, so you don’t need to worry much about getting your format right.
That’s a small thing, but if you read my screenplays right now the style that I have is so different from your average screenplay. I don’t care because it’s about the story.
Also, as I was writing, when I would run into problems I would look up three act structure, character development, and all these other things online. I was almost taking a class every time I had writer’s block. It was maybe a short, ten-minute YouTube clip class, but it accumulates over the years.
You asked me earlier about three act structure – I feel like it was just in my head, and the story sort of fell into the shape like water in a glass. Over the years I molded my brain into three act structure, so when you pour a glass of water in there it’s going to naturally take that shape.
It was those little things I learned over time, including learning how important theme is, and paralleling theme with the character and the plot.
Having these three things align and coming to a head at the end are all things I learned after finishing a bad screenplay. Once I got to the end of it, I realized, “You know, it would work so much better if this, this, this, and this connected.”
When I start writing a new script, from the beginning I’m thinking how it all connects, so I can write it better. It’s practice, and learning little by little every time you write.
You also worked as a writer on Iron Fist. Can you talk about that experience?
Iron Fist was a huge learning curve and learning experience. For a lot of the people who work in television there is a path. Most people start as assistants and they work their way up into the room to the different levels of assistants. Eventually you work as a staff writer after slowly building your way up. I skipped all those steps and landed right on the staff writer role.
There were things I didn’t realize about TV, like the importance of the writer and how more influential the writer is than the director. When working on The Wall, I took a back seat when Doug Liman, the director, stepped in, and he steered the ship. Which I was fine with. It was great watching him work.
On Iron Fist, RZA directed my episode, and I expected to sit back and watch him do his thing. But then people were coming up to me and asking me about wardrobe, costumes, and props, and I said, “I don’t know, I’m just the writer!” But on television the writer is the leader of the pack and the captain of the ship, and I slowly learned that while I was on set in New York.
I feel that as far as storytelling goes, a film is more like a short story. You have to pump everything into those 90 to 120 pages. On television, you get to tell the novel, spend time with the characters, and slow things down through ten episodes per season. You can tell a longer story, and focus on more characters and more background.
I really do like both and want to play in both sandboxes more in the future.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add about the film that we haven’t already discussed?
I want to ask both cinema-goers and my fellow writers to send a message: Hollywood is going to make whatever you pay money to go see, so support good films.
I do like superhero movies. Who doesn’t, right…
Of course. I mean, you did Iron Fist!
…Exactly. But I feel like two or three a year would be good, instead of seven or eight. Instead of pumping so much money into the superhero genre, go out and support an indie or low budget spec film. If you build up that market, I think it benefits us all.
The Wall is in selected theaters from Friday 12th May.