We have already touched on various aspects of how you go about writing a screenplay, but that was mostly in the abstract. This section concerns the nuts and bolts of writing.
Although it’s a routine portion of almost any interview with a writer, I’m nevertheless always interested in writing routines and the writing process.
I am an insomniac. It’s 3 in the morning now and I need to be on a plane in 6 hours!! I used to do it on purpose. I would stay up all night. I’m not sure why it’s happening now. I’m hyped up and excited for HANNA’s release I guess. I’m at an existential point in my career where I need to be aware of the paths I go down and what is the best way for me to keep on doing what I’m doing or even if I should keep on doing what I’m doing. I’m debating moving to L.A. for a short time. I’m debating if I want to direct and what are the best avenues for me to pursue such an endeavour. It’s a hard fucking job and if I’m afforded the opportunity in the future to take on the mantle of director, well, I want to be prepared and I want to respect it. I haven’t been a student of directors the way I have with writers, in a practical sense. Directing is a public art, everybody is watching you. It’s not a place where, right now, I could see myself falling into my artistic trance. I’m not sure it would be helpful to anyone (especially me). I do really like the idea of being the ultimate reader of my screenplays. It’s very appealing to me. But also not at all. There’s a safety in being the writer. You’re shielded from the criticism and the praise.
What can you tell us about the writer’s role in film production?
The spec screenwriting vs. the production rewriter. There is a big difference. A lot of what I described above applies to me coming up with stuff out of thin air. Production work (even though it shares elements with origin work) is a completely different animal. Like I said, after creation, I’m a reader and I’m working with a whole crew of readers (actors, directors, grips, everyone) and it’s our job to interpret and render practical while also maintaining the art and the subtext of the origin work. So the writing, for example, becomes less about an open reading and more about creating a list of instructions. In the production draft of HANNA, I am ashamed to say, I would actually fully write out emotion. Like literal emotion “she feels bad, she feels all warm inside, etc.” It wasn’t exactly like that, but, still, ugh. I got very fucking detailed. I know I blew the script up to 160 pages at one point. At the table read, at my first table read ever, John Macmillan (he plays Lewis) read the action lines. He read them so fast because if he didn’t we would’ve been sitting there for 4 hours (at least). I remember Jason Flemyng made a joke about the amount of detail, I must have turned red because he patted me on the shoulder after and said, “All kidding aside, it’s a really great read.” Or something like that. I wanted to point out that, actually, in the real world, not in Berlin, I’m a freakin’ minimalist and the stress of writing under immense pressure has forced me to overwrite the shit out of the action lines. But I didn’t. I guess I did just now. We’ll have to somehow guarantee Jason Flemyng reads this.
To write convincing dialogue, do you act out every part as you go?
No. Not the dialogue. My dialogue is pretty barebones. My screenplays don’t hinge on dialogue (in my reading of them anyway). Not that you don’t need great actors to perform it, just that the dialogue is not the performance. Joe kept telling me to write a play and I kept giggling (he probably thought I was insane). I love dialogue and maybe, one day, I will write a play, but I write screenplays.
I do sometimes act out some of the action. Just to get the physics of it in my head, you know. To find the emotion of it. I don’t think people realize how important the action is to me. That’s why I think I got along with the stunt coordinator Jeff Imada so well (he played Needles in Big Trouble in Little China and did a lot of Carpenter’s movies). He takes his action seriously. When I write action, I try not to write it for action’s sake. There has to be a real visceral element to it (something that you, the reader, can connect to simply – like the popping of a knuckle as an image when I break someone’s neck; everyone has popped their knuckle, not everyone has broken their neck) and there has to be an emotional element above all else. Ideally, in my scripts, this is where the “drama” happens.
Is screenwriting an organic or artificial process for you, or is it somewhere between these two extremes?
It’s instinctual, that’s the best way to put it. Intuitive, maybe. My instincts/intuition change constantly. It was a trip to come back to a script I’d written, my first script, and rewrite it as my 7 or 8th. But it is all instinct based. I am very decisive. I know what I don’t like in the moment. It might take a few hours or a few days of thinking to find what I do like, but I always find it.
How much did you know about Hanna‘s story before you started writing it?
The HANNA you read was my first draft. I only knew what was happening as it was happening. I followed a logic path from beginning to end. Hunting the deer. Fighting the man. The man is her father. Etcetera. Same goes for her emotional thread. I examined her emotions as she faced certain obstacles. It took me 6 months (this is a relatively long time to write a first draft). But besides an edit (where I go back and clean up lines and cut words and sentences and dialogue and simplify, simplify, simplify) I didn’t do any hard rewriting until after Focus came on board. And even then, because I was, basically, a novice I didn’t do much rewriting. I tinkered. I added in the “flip the switch” stuff. And played with not killing Marissa or having Hanna not kill Marissa directly. It never felt right to me. Whatever they saw, in their notes, I didn’t see it.
I read that a good writer will come up with ten different version of a scene and then choose the most affecting: is that accurate in your experience, or just rhetoric?
Myth. That’s bullshit. You’re creating ten different ways to fuck up just as easily as you’re creating ten different ways to succeed. It’s lazy. Yes, I said it. Doing all that work, generating all those pages, is laziness. And it is emotionally confusing. The deeper you get into something, the more you read it, the harder it is to have a visceral reaction to something. Use your brain, do your drafts in your head, and when you find the emotion you are looking for, that gut reaction, write it down as quickly as possible. I’m not saying my methods will lead to “perfection”. I’m saying I’m not interested in perfection. Perfection is boring. And when all is said and done, all a writer has – no matter how many books he reads – is his gut.
What is your opinion on the modern action movie?
We go to the movies to be awed. Modern action movies to me – superhero movies, what have you – tend to think awing the audience means giving them something they’ve never seen before. I think that’s sound logic and I agree with them. But I don’t always agree with the execution. Watching earth implode, seeing giants beat each other with clubs, endlessly, it doesn’t awe me – not anymore. I have no connection to it. It isn’t real to me. Bigger is not more awesome. More awesome is thinking about who and what those giants are. It is finding something human and relatable within the workings of your fiction. I’m not just talking about the giant’s love for his giant dog. I’m talking about storytelling. About creating stakes. It’s forcing your audience to empathize – yes, empathize! – with the giant and feel bad when Jack blows his head off with a rocket launcher. You need to care. Action – no matter how inert – needs to be imbued with meaning and subtext.