David is an award-winning screenwriter (2013 Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for a historical drama screenplay “Legion”) the script which he kindly sent me to read (I can confirm its terrific!).
I think it was Alexander Dumas who went out onto his balcony and fired off pistols in the air whenever he finished writing a novel. We should all do that! David
David kindly answered some questions for me on his approach to screenwriting.
Interview with David Alton Hedges, Screenwriter (and knockabout apparently!)
- How did you become a screenwriter, was this planned or did it find you? I was failing classes and circling the drain at my university when a professor pulled me aside at the perfect moment and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?” I don’t think anyone had ever asked me that before so bluntly and in such a way that suggested any answer would be better than no answer. When I replied “I want to write movies” he said, “Then do it.” Like it was the simplest thing in the world. That was the first time I’d said what I wanted to do out loud. I started chasing that elusive dream. My first script was one endless, dull scene that wandered to nowhere in particular and I realized I didn’t have a clue how to craft a story. A dozen scripts and many years later, I wrote a screenplay with another writer and we entered it in the Nicholl Fellowship. When the Academy called to say we were finalists, they told us “you’re going to get a lot of attention when we release your names on Friday.” They were right. Everything changed that day.
- Legion was co-written, how does this process work practically? Any struggles with opinions on the story/characters or is it an easier process to collaborate and share ideas? I’m awful to work with, frankly. I have such strong ideas in my head – even when they’re not working as story elements – that it’s hard for me to hear anything else that might affect the downstream flow of the story. I feel like I’m still learning how to take notes properly; it’s a skill you could spend the rest of your life perfecting. So I would say it’s potentially better to collaborate on a screenplay but definitely not easier, at least for me.
- When you have a story idea, do you create an outline first and work from there? I have to have an outline. I don’t understand how someone can sit down and just write a script without one. I actually might have to watch someone do it to believe it. The very first thing I do when I have an idea is try to write the idea down in a way that captures what is exciting about it. Not a logline, exactly, because trying to craft a good one can suck the creative energy out of the original idea. I just get it down in a way that will hopefully paint the same picture in my head when I read it later. Sometimes, it does. Often I read the idea and throw it right into the compost pile. These ideas are never thrown away. Sometimes I dig in there later and find good stuff.
- Legion is set in the last Roman fort in Germania, how long did research take you? Both Frank and I are history buffs so the research was fun. And the internet makes it so easy. Once upon a time, the poor bastards writing historical action screenplays had to go to libraries and squint at old books. The cool thing was finding little clues about life in those Roman forts that wound up inspiring story elements, such as the presence of children among the soldiers. I even got ideas from studying pay scales for different jobs within the legion!
- How do you work with dialogue to make it make it sound natural? Specifically in terms of Legion set in Roman times, how did you make this authentic? That part is always tricky. The way I looked at it, people are pretty much the same today as they were then. So when I wrote I just imagined the Roman legionnaires as guys I knew and worked with. I was a police officer and on the SWAT team for many years so I have an honorary degree in unit-member insults and friendly sarcasm. I guess you try to add a Roman-sounding jibe where you might be tempted to have one character call another an “a**hole.”
- Do you write for yourself or do you write so that it could potentially sell – i.e. 3 act structure? I guess I always try to write what I want to see but you have to be honest about how it fits into the real world. It’s easy to write a script that people like. It’s hard as hell to write a script that people like so much that they’re willing to risk their professional reputation and future on it. I try to play the game where I’m the producer or studio looking at this project, so I can ask myself “would I buy this script and spend millions to make the movie?” If the answer is no, I haven’t done my job as a writer.
- Would you say you need a ‘Screenwriting Master’s’ or similar qualifications to be taken seriously? If I told someone in Hollywood I had an advanced degree in screenwriting they’d ask, “Why?” It does seem more efficient to take all that energy and just pour it into your own ideas, instead of collecting degrees that no one will ever ask for. Just write and get better at it. That’s what so few writers talk about: the concept of just being good. Everyone wants to know about agents and managers and how to break in but very few aspiring screenwriters say, “I want to learn to write REALLY GOOD scripts.” And pointing out all the “bad” movies that Hollywood has made is the worst response to this, because those were probably not spec scripts from a new writer. If you write a crappy first script and sell it and it gets made and makes no money and everyone mocks it, you’re probably done working in Hollywood. Or at least you should be.
- Writing is cathartic to me, drawing on life experience to construct my stories, how much of yourself should you put into your writing? The trap is to make yourself the protagonist every time. That’s the hard part for me: totally separating this character from who I am and letting them want their own future and have their own drives. Otherwise you’re just writing a fake adventure about you wearing a Roman helmet or paddling up the Nile. It has to be a real other person. But as far as my life experiences I suppose it’s more about what I’ve learned from studying other people. And no one sees other people without their masks like a police officer, so no character feels too extreme to me.
- What are your sources of inspiration and why? I’m terminally enraptured with what could probably be best described as “old Hollywood,” especially if you include the 1980’s, when so many one-off ideas were made into movies. That’s incredibly rare now. Even the sequels during that period were top-notch. I can watch a movie like “The Road Warrior” (1982) and find a hundred reasons why it’s a near-perfect film. John Milius inspires me, but so does Neal Stephenson, so it’s not just about screenwriting. It’s about creativity and telling a damn good story.
- What are the biggest challenges you face as a writer? I’m always struggling to find time to write. I try to explain to part-time writers that it doesn’t get that much better when you go full-time. It certainly doesn’t get any easier. And every time I finish a script I think, “Well, that’s the last one.” It always feels like I don’t know what else to write. And then when I start a new one I feel like I’m writing my first script! I think: “How do I do this again?” You have to go to this place. My close friends can look at me and see I’m not really here, which means I’m in that other world. Getting there can be difficult so I get annoyed when the real world interrupts me.
- I’ve been enjoying your Instagram journey of filming the Scorpion King movie in South Africa, what was it like to hear your words being filmed? Sometimes it was fantastic and sometimes it was cringe-worthy. You’re never really done re-writing script until someone tells you you’re done. I could have re-worked the dialogue and story for another six months and not been satisfied. But it was good to hear the actors take my words and breathe life into them. That sounds cliché but it’s true: a good actor can make your dialogue work. They were so professional and enthusiastic about it. Zach McGowan finished one scene and came back to the tent and sat down and I said, “You nailed that.” He said, “Thanks – I had to. Without that scene, there’s no reason for the movie.” He was 100% right. Never underestimate how much the actors understand what you’re trying to do. Which is why you should try your best to not give them crap that they will struggle with.
- Any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to share with me while I embark on this mega-challenge? The wonderful and terrible thing about screenwriting is that there’s no definitive win or fail. If you set out to run marathons you know exactly where you stand among all the other marathoners when you cross the finish line and look at your time. With screenwriting, you get mostly silence but that doesn’t mean you’re failing, it just means you’re not selling at the moment. It could change in a day. So the question is when do you consider yourself a screenwriter? When you finish a script? When you get an agent? When you sell a script? When one of your movies gets made? It’s a very elusive condition. You have to celebrate every little victory. I think it was Alexander Dumas who went out onto his balcony and fired off pistols in the air whenever he finished writing a novel. We should all do that!
David, thank you for your time answering these questions and for your never ending patience with my Q’s (and you thought it was the last! So did I, honestly!).