Thursday, July 7, 2011

Scriptshadow Interview - Elan Mastai (writer of The F Word)

Many of you know Mastai's work through "The F Word," one of my favorite scripts I've read here on the site, and a 2007 Black List member. Since then he's done a lot of assignment work, and it's really paid off recently. He wrote an upcoming film starring Sam Jackson called "The Samaritan," and is currently working with Oscar winner Alan Ball on his next directing project. This is one of my favorite interviews yet.  There's a ton of great screenwriting advice in Elan's answers. 

SS: How much time had you put in as a screenwriter before you finally found success? Are we talking years? Decades? How many scripts had you written?

EM: The short, simple answer is about seven years and fifteen scripts before I wrote “The F Word” and it launched my career in LA, scoring me my agents and manager, getting on the “Black List” and picked up by Fox-Searchlight, and opening doors for me to start writing studio projects, which I’ve now been doing since late-2008.

The longer, convoluted answer is that of those fifteen scripts, four got produced as low-budget independent features of varying degrees of quality, three got optioned but never made, five were assignments I got hired to write or rewrite, one of which also got produced but without my name on it (thankfully, because it’s atrocious), and three were semi-successful attempts to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be, what my quote-unquote “voice” was, that I never did anything with because I knew they weren’t there yet.

Even though I was making a living as a screenwriter (in Canada, where I’m from), it wasn’t as rewarding as it maybe should’ve or could’ve been, because I wasn’t writing stuff in my own voice.

So, a super-low-budget movie I co-wrote premiered at Sundance in 2007. And everyone was very complimentary and all that, but deep-down I knew I couldn’t really present that movie, or any of the scripts I’d written to that point, to anyone as an example of what I felt I could really do as a writer. I realized I needed to re-think my approach to screenwriting.

And that led to me writing “The F Word”, which was the first script I wrote that conveyed my point of view, told the story in a way that only I could. In retrospect, it makes sense that it was the script that got me all kinds of attention in LA. But I had a lot of kinks to work through in my writing before I had the solid storytelling skills to pull off a script as low-concept and voice-driven as “The F Word”.

SS: During that time, when everything's so uncertain, and that big beautiful dream of being a "professional" screenwriter is so unclear, what kept you going? How do you know whether to keep pushing through or not?

EM: Basically, I met other aspiring filmmakers through film festivals and film-related events. We watched movies, talked movies, made short films, read each other’s stuff and gave candid feedback, helped each other improve, kicked each other in the ass a little when it was needed.

In general, though, I’m pretty clear-eyed about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. So I also spent those seven years writing scripts that allowed me work on my weaknesses. I wrote, like, kid’s movies, horror flicks, crime thrillers, teen comedies, sports movies, anything that would teach me something I didn’t know and fill in a blank in my toolkit.

It was very cool to read your review of “The F Word” and the ensuing comments thread because, whether people love or loathe the script, they’re seriously engaging with my writing. That’s awesome. But it’s also a little odd for me because the draft everyone’s discussing is, like, three-and-a-half years old. I’m proud of the script and it’s been a fantastic calling card for me, but I’ve also had the chance to rewrite it twice for Fox-Searchlight and write four or five other movies since then. And it’s funny because all the points being discussed in the comments are the exact same debates I had with the producers and execs when I was rewriting the script. I’d say, in fact, basically all the criticisms you voiced in your review have been dealt with in subsequent rewrites.

My roundabout point is that being hyper-aware of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, without being so self-critical that you paralyze yourself from actually writing anything, is just as important before you break through as it is once you have.

Working as a professional screenwriter in LA, you have to present this confident, positive version of yourself to potential employers and creative partners. But you also have to be chronically objective about your limitations in order to improve as a writer. So the arguments in the comments thread (is my writing innovative and hilarious or overrated and boring?) are the same ones I ask myself every single goddamn day when I sit down at the keyboard to write something new.

SS: You're from Canada. How difficult was it breaking into Hollywood from a different country, and what do you think the key was? (i.e. Did you have to travel there a lot? Get a second home there?)

EM: I’ve never lived in Los Angeles. I got my agents, manager, and lawyer and set up all of my studio projects coming to LA for a week at a time every few months. In between trips, I keep in touch via phone and email. I have a good long-distance plan on my cell.

But the key was definitely getting great representation. If my agents and manager weren’t doing the day-to-day groundwork for me in LA, it would’ve been impossible to build a career without living there.

SS: Every writer has their own journey finding their first agent. How did you find yours?

So, this is a story that people either find kind of inspiring or totally aggravating…

I didn’t do anything.

I wrote “The F Word”. It actually started as an assignment to adapt this one-act play, which was very funny and charming, but ran about 30 pages, only had two characters in it, and was confidently “stagey” in execution. Which was great because, like a good short story, it allowed me to fill it out to movie-size with my own eccentric inventions.

The plan was to make it as a low-budget indie. So the original producer (Marc Stephenson of Sheep Noir Films, currently working hard to get the movie into production) sent it to a few agencies hoping to attract interest from someone who represented an actor who might possibly meet our at-the-time hilariously low standards of “bankability”...

So, what happened was, people at the various agencies liked the script and, for reasons I’ll never entirely understand, passed it along to other people at other companies. And those people liked it enough to do the same. And so, without me even knowing it, my script started circulating through Hollywood. And I’d cite all these people by name but I don’t know who any of them are. They’re total strangers who basically gave me a Hollywood screenwriting career by liking my script and recommending it to other people, who did the same thing, all for absolutely no possible personal gain, until it somehow ended up in the in-box of my future agents at Gersh. And they called me out of the blue one day and said, you know, they love my voice as a writer and they’d really like to meet me sometime to talk about my future.

Honestly, it was completely crazy and before it happened to me I’d have been way too cynical to ever believe that’s how this stuff works. Random strangers read your script and recommend it to other random strangers and eventually someone reads it who can change your life.

So, I don’t know, you tell me: inspiring or aggravating? Kind of both, right?

SS: What's your number 1 tip for aspiring screenwriters? How do you break in?

EM: I wish I had some magical secret insight to offer. But all I have is the usual advice that’s so easy to give but so tough to actually take: write your ass off until you find your voice as a writer, and then choose a story to tell that will highlight that voice in the clearest possible way. Because your voice, your unique storytelling point of view, is the thing that creates a market for your work. If anyone else can write a script the way you do, why should anyone hire you instead of them?

SS: As I pointed out in my review, The F Word is sort of a low-concept idea. With the screenwriting market being so competitive, what do you think the key is to sending a script out that doesn't have that obvious high concept hook? How do you make up for it? And do you recommend it?

I think it has to be the right kind of low-concept. In the case of “The F Word”, the draw was the universality. Everybody has been through their personal version of this story, either from Wallace’s point of view (falling for someone who is in a serious relationship and convincing yourself you’d be happy as just friends) or Chantry’s point of view (being in a relationship and meeting someone you find really interesting and convincing yourself there’s no reason you can’t be just friends) or both.

So I took a lot of generals with development executives who spent most of the meeting telling me about the time they had an experience just like the one in “The F Word”. Or even better were going through it right now. So instead of a stressful quasi-job interview kind of thing, we bonded about our personal relationship histories and how they made us who we are today. So, for me, the universality of the story was a huge boost.

I think that, fundamentally, the audience doesn’t care about anything other than empathizing with characters. Everything else in a movie is window-dressing on empathy. Now, in an absence of characters that the audience cares about, well, yeah, they’ll accept explosions and nudity and shocking plot-twists that make no sense when you really think about them.

So, with “The F Word”, I guess going low-concept showed people I could write characters you care about, especially since they weren’t operating in this propulsive plot-engine with world-rumbling stakes. Low-concept can be a great way to show off your pure writing skills. But, look, first you’ve got to spend a lot of time developing those pure writing skills. Or at least I had to.

SS: Your dialogue is great. Any tips you can give us to write better dialogue?

EM: Well, something to remember is that your dialogue will be read many times in script-form before it’s ever spoken by actors. So I use a lot of simple modifiers to make the dialogue read better.

Off the top of my head, here’s a flat line of dialogue: “She’s not coming back.”

Or you could write it like: “Look, I mean, you know she’s not coming back, right?

The two versions contain the same essential information. And I’m sure a great actor could make the former version sound awesome. But the latter version imbeds a lot of implied character information into the dialogue itself, the written-equivalent of all the nonverbal nuances an actor will eventually bring to the delivery.

Of course, you can overdo it with the “likes” and “you knows” and “wells” and “I means”. That’s why I read and re-read every line of dialogue out loud until the balance is there.

I also do live script-readings with actors. I did five full readings of “The F Word”, each with a completely different cast, so I could hear every line of dialogue in a different actor’s voice, hear what each line sounds like with varying intonations, pauses, verbal tics, emphases, and so on.

SS: One of the interesting things I found about The F Word was that the situations our characters found themselves in were situations I've seen characters in before. For example, we've seen the "both in the changing room scene" in Tootsie. Yet I still loved all of them. Knowing that you're walking on ground that's already been walked on, how do you still make your own scenes fresh?

EM: I guess my approach is, look, how many times have you had a “first kiss” moment in your life? Is it ever boring? Every first kiss I’ve been involved in was pretty electrifying because I really wanted to know what was going to happen next.

A person pointing a gun at another person can be tedious or riveting if you care about the people involved. The bond you create between your audience and your character, right off the top, that’s the fuel for the rest of your story.

The thing is, the audience brings certain expectations to every genre. And expectations are meant to be fucked with. When the audience anticipates something because they think they’ve seen it before, their guard goes down and that gives you a lot of narrative power to play around with them, sometimes without them even realizing it.

I mean, I don’t want to overstate it, because “The F Word” isn’t exactly “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. But basically I think about what the audience expects to happen in a given set-up and how I can mess with that a bit. And if you do that a few times, the audience gets a little off-balance, unsure whether their assumptions are correct, and that builds a useful slow-burn tension the audience isn’t necessarily even aware they’re feeling. Then if you do go for the expected result of a set-up every once in a while, the audience gets a little jolt of pleasure from being correct. And then on the next set-up you throw them off-balance again, and so on.

SS: You got to work with Alan Ball, who I think may be the best screenwriter on the planet. Did you learn any screenwriting advice from him? Feel free to go on as long as you'd like with this one. :)

EM: Well, look, I’m in the middle of the working relationship right now, so I don’t have a sweeping, incisive analysis of the experience for you. It’s a work-in-progress. And out of respect for the process, I don’t want to get too into it.

But, I mean, it’s been a fantastic experience so far. Alan is a writer first, thinks like a writer, talks like a writer, has a shockingly laser-like eye for raising stakes, revealing character details, propulsive storytelling. He’s the real deal and I’m lucky as hell to be working with him.

And, yeah, I know that’s all kind of vague and self-congratulatory and unhelpful to anyone reading this. So, okay, here’s something specific. When you introduce your main characters, give them an immediate decision that tells the audience who they are, right away. It doesn’t have to be a big moment. It can be a small, everyday choice. But it lets the audience notice that they probably would or wouldn’t make the same choice that the character just did. And that immediately tells them something important about who that person is.

SS: What do you think is the most common mistake beginning screenwriters make?

EM: Probably waiting for their big break to magically appear instead of writing as much as possible as often as possible. Because when you do get your big break, it really sucks if you’re not developed enough as a writer to take full advantage of it.

I say that as someone who did have their big break magically appear. But when it happened, I was more or less ready to jump on it. I was (thankfully) a much better writer than I’d been in previous years because I’d spent the previous years writing as much as I could.

SS: The relationship comedy genre is a crowded one. It seems like every 20-something writer is trying to break in with one of these specs. What do you think the key is to writing this kind of script successfully?

EM: The thing I really like about relationship comedies is that it’s the one genre you can’t hide in. You can hide inside horror flicks and family comedies and crime thrillers and sci-fi epics. But everyone is an expert in attraction. Everyone has intimate personal experience with falling in love and heartbreak and unrequited feelings and romantic longing and sexual tension and flirtatious banter and unforgettable first encounters. So what you have to say about those things exposes you in a very personal way to whoever happens to read your script.

Of course, many relationship comedies are bad. And the bad ones tell you a lot about the person who wrote them. Maybe it’s telling you they’ve got really screwed up ideas of what’s attractive to another person. Maybe it’s telling you they’ve had their ass kicked by love and still can’t stand up. Maybe it’s telling you they can’t open themselves up to a genuine human connection. Or maybe it’s telling you they’re not funny.

If there’s a key to writing a relationship comedy, it’s taking a good long look in the mirror and asking yourself if what you might accidentally show people is something you’re okay with them seeing.

SS: Screenwriters are constantly evolving, learning new things all the time. What's your most recent revelation that you've been applying to your writing?

EM: I have the kind of brain that tends to not learn from other people’s advice, so I need to make the mistake myself to figure out how not to do it again, even if it probably seems like totally obvious screenwriting territory.

Like, here’s something completely self-evident and basically corny when you boil it down to a snappy sentence: there’s no success without risk. I know, I know, such a brilliant piece of advice that no one has ever mentioned before…

But the point for me is to always try, as much as it’s possible, to work with people I can fail in front of. Because unless you take some real chances with your storytelling, try something bold enough to potentially veer into humiliating failure, you’re never going to truly excite anyone. Especially in comedy, but really in any genre. Anytime I’ve played it safe with a script, because I didn’t feel like I could take the chance of screwing up, I ended up with a screenplay that everyone liked but no one loved. And if no one loves it, it’s never getting made.

Now, taking bold chance with the storytelling means being potentially divisive. Some people may hate it. Hopefully the people who love it have more clout. It’s risky. But it’s the only way to get your material to stand out.

So, yeah, it’s a well-worn notion. But when you’re actually doing what you always wanted to be doing, writing studio movies, it’s so easy to not want to screw it up by doing anything too bold, even though being bold is what got you there in the first place.

SS: And finally, the question we've all been waiting for...Can a man and a woman really be just friends?

EM: Probably. But it kind of depends on your definition of “just”.

It comes down to whether or not both people are being honest about what they really want from each other. And that includes being honest with themselves.

Which is a good screenwriting lesson too. Being honest with yourself about whether or not your script is ready for outside eyes. About what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. About what you’re doing to enhance those strengths and bolster those weaknesses. About whether every line of dialogue sounds like an actual human could say it, since an actual human will have to when it gets made. About whether you’re avoiding that last polish because the script is really perfect or because you just want it to be done. And so on.

If there’s a basic theme to all my writing it’s this: You can’t lie your way to happiness.