PASSION: Without It, Forget It
For a new screenwriter, the only way to tear down the Hollywood barriers is to burn them down with your passion. Your passion for the story and for the characters who drive it. Without Passion, your script is no more than a tinker toy network of rules and regulations, plot points and pinwheels, bare architectural bones which no one wants to see, or make.
My agent one time told me to hurry up to his office; he had the next great idea for a novel and I was going to write it. He sat me down and told me that I was going to write a saga, a 400-year multi-generational take on the fur industry.
The fur industry?
Wait, he shouted, and proceeded to spin out a tale that began in Thunder Bay, in 1610; the fur trappers that opened up the Mississippi River; St. Louis and the gateway to the West; John Jacob Astor's vast fortune via fur; the great salons in Russia and South Africa. The Communist influence in Congress, the murderous union battles; all told through two families, generation after generation, over four hundred glorious years.
"I even have the title for you," my agent cried. "Call it - MINK!"
By this time was I was up on his desk, inflamed, salivating to write this story. Off I went to the stacks, to the Internet, to furriers, to fisheries and mink farms.
For two years I worked and worked ... and failed and failed. I couldn't do it. I couldn't bear to write another 75 (of the proposed 700) pages on an entire family and then lose them because I had to jump 75 years ahead to the next leg of this miserable journey. Separation anxiety tore me apart. I could not tolerate this dark failure any longer. Nor did I want to spend another minute with these awful characters. But I'm nothing if not dogged, spurred on by some masochistic fiend driving me from within, and I kept kicking this passionless dog.
After two years of daily frustration, a friend asked me a question: "Chris," she said, seeing my despair, "do you even like to read these kinds of books?"
Oh my GAWD! In fact, I LOATHED reading these overblown windbag generational sagas. I couldn't stand to shift locations so often, and families - and GEARS! It took me two years to learn that. And the lesson was: never write anything unless you have a profound passion for the genre, story, and characters. Period.
So let me ask you a question. When you walk into a bookstore, where do you go? Thrillers? Woman's fiction? When you get that tingle at hearing about a movie coming out, what is that tingle attached to? Romantic comedy? Psychological Thriller? Action adventure?
Whatever it is, it means that what you write should be pretty damn close to that tingle because that's where your passion lies. Your passion and familiarity. Something in you clicks. You know more about that world, that genre, that form, than any other. You respond to it. You know it. You CRAVE it.
Why would you want to betray that feeling and write something that somebody else tells you to write? Or what the Industry is looking for? By the time you get on that bandwagon and get it done, the bandwagon will be long gone and you'll be left with a piece of derivative junk.
On the other hand, how many times have I seen a new writer feast on his or her passion by going deep into that jungle of desire where the flowers of originality bloom? And later emerge with a treasure so beautiful, so unique, so personal that it leaves you breathless.
That's where you should be when you write. You can learn the tools of the trade; they're available. Read the books and go to the classes and pore over the top screenwriting guns and their 112-page masterpieces. But, wherever you go, carry your passion for story and character with you. Without it, you have nothing.
You don't have to go to hell to find it, or into space. It may be in your backyard, or down the street, or it may be in you - something that once pitted you against the dogs from hell and you prevailed.
Remember that story about the woman in Lake Forest, Illinois, who every morning looked out of her kitchen window, over the planter boxes and across the lawn to next door - where one day a 17-year-old neighbor boy drowned in a boating accident?
From her kitchen window she watched concentric circle of pain spread like bile over the mother, father and younger brother who blamed himself for his brother's death.
Judith Guest, a writer watching this unfold, didn't have to go into space or anywhere else to find her story. There it was, in her back yard. And from this neighborhood tragedy Ordinary People was born. The title says it all. From ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, a writer can build a world filled with the best pathos, ethos and thanatos.
If you look inward, you'll find the capacity to embrace your passion and then outwardly paint it on the pages of your screenplay, day after day, until this original piece of art can make its way into the world where it will astonish all who read it.
Forget what's hot at the studios. What's truly hot is your passion for a story and the characters through whom to tell it.
You CAN burn down Hollywood barriers with it. Or you can follow trends for years and wonder why your work - far better than what others have done - has gone nowhere.
Good Will Hunting started out as a high-tech thriller - until director Rob Reiner got his hands on it. He asked Affleck and Damon why they were going into that old fray when inside their overripe piece of derivative fluff there was a true story, a small story about a tortured genius locked into a prison of his own fears. The story, said Reiner, is about releasing Will Hunting from his fears, not about whether the high-tech outfit gets to exploit the guy's genius, and the chase is on through Boston streets.
They took his advice and crafted a passionate story of a psychologically tortured young man whose fear centers - the heart, the genius and the psyche - were challenged by characters created to pull him out. A Harvard girl, the heart. An MIT professor, the genius; and an eccentric shrink, the darkest part of Will Hunting, his tormented soul.
And so, the real passionate feel for this small story with big human implications unfolded, with Will being pulled out and always trying to escape back to where he had been hiding. But the more he came out, the doors to his prison began to close. He had finally to face his demons, while Damon and Affleck had to face hundreds of millions of people when they went up to collect their well-earned Academy Award.
And all because somebody told them not to bother with the big high-tech thriller stuff that would find its way into the DVD bins, but to instead tap into their passion and their lost guy, Will Hunting, living in a shack on the docks of Southie who desperately wants to find his way home.
It's all about passion. It becomes the writer's signature, voice and uniqueness, and makes the difference between finding the way home or not at all.