Thursday, February 9, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - Brian Duffield

Writer of one of my Top 25 favorite screenplays takes a few moments to share his experiences with Scriptshadow Nation.

Brian Duffield shot onto the scene with his Black List script, "Your Bridesmaid Is A Bitch," about a young man who must endure a wedding weekend around his ex-girlfriend, who he's still trying to get over.  Since then, he's sold two screenplays, "Worst Honeymoon Ever" and "Jane Got A Gun." I think you guys will enjoy this interview because, as you'll find out, Brian broke in purely on talent, not because he was best friends with Steven Spielberg or something. Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianDuffield or check out his blog.

What a bitchy ex-girlfriend bridesmaid looks like.

How did you get into screenwriting? Was it completely independent of what you were doing before or had you done other types of writing as well? 

I was a big pop culture geek growing up in Pennsylvania, and when I was nine my family moved to middle-of-nowhere Ireland. I remember our tiny school had some movie novelizations and, since we lived nowhere near a movie theatre, those more or less became my movie substitute. I think when I was around fourteen or fifteen I knew I wanted to be a writer and had the massive revelation that scripts were much shorter than novels, plus they would be turned into movies. That sounded pretty awesome to me, and I haven’t grown out of it yet. I really don’t have anything to fall back on besides prostitution, so fingers crossed I don’t have to grow out of it anytime soon.

When you first started, was it easier than you expected or more difficult? What was the most difficult thing about the craft for you in those early days?

I don’t ever remember writing screenplays being “difficult,” but it took years and years before it seemed like something that could potentially be a real career instead of something I dreamed of doing but didn’t actually think could happen, like going to Mars or working at Jurassic Park.

The most difficult thing about starting to write screenplays is that I just had no idea how to do it. I think it’s safe to say I was the only person I knew who wanted to be a screenwriter until I went to college. I didn’t have any screenwriting books, but I remember when people started uploading classic scripts onto html and txt back in the day. It was better than Christmas. By the time I got to college I had a lot of unique writing habits that came out of teaching myself what I thought a screenplay should be like.

I was also obsessed with Jeff Goldsmith’s Q+A’s with screenwriters that he’d put on iTunes - I’m not sure when he started putting those out, but I honestly found those more educational and helpful than college. He’s not even paying me to say that. I think a big part of that was just hearing the voices and stories of real screenwriters. It made the career less of a fantasy and more of a possibility.

After how many scripts did you start to feel like you had a grip on screenwriting? Was it “Your Bridesmaid Is A Bitch,” or was it a script before that? What would you say was that “ah-ha” moment that got you over the hump?

I’m still not sure I feel like I have a grip on screenwriting. I feel like I’m getting better at it in general but I'm constantly terrified everything I write is garbage. I think the first time I felt really proud of something I wrote was in college when I wrote a man-in-suit monster movie about mankind's need for a god, and I think the reason that one clicked for me was because I realized pretty early on that no one else would probably think to tackle these questions I had about faith with dudes in giant monster suits beating the crap out of each other. That was a pretty big moment for me, because I think I finally understood that even if what I had to say was completely idiotic, there probably weren’t too many other writers out there that would say it like I would.
I think YBIAB was something like my tenth script. It was the first one people paid attention to and I haven’t really shown the earlier scripts to anyone in LA. They served their purpose and I’m proud of them but I’m more interested in what I’m going to write next than rewriting some lousy script I wrote when I was 18.

Many writers want to know if they should write something personal to them and not worry about its marketability, or write something marketable, even if their heart and soul isn’t as into it. Which one of those was “Your Bridesmaid Is A Bitch,” and what’s your opinion on the matter? 

For my specs, I don’t really see any reason why personal and marketable can’t go hand in hand. I just read this amazing quote by Jonatham Lethem which went “every book is an inadvertent journal” and I think that (should be) exactly true for screenwriting as well. I also just really wanted to be cool and drop a quote in this interview.

I think there’s a lot of really good screenwriters who reveal nothing about themselves in their movies, and I think you can tell instantly who that may or may not be when reading their script. Personally, I’d always like to err on the exposing too much side of things, because as a viewer/reader those are the movies I latch on to the most. I think some of the greatest blockbusters of all time are also some of the most personal movies ever made. There’s no reason why you can’t do both. I know a lot of people say they hate “Hollywood” movies, but I think what they mean is they hate bad Hollywood movies, in the same way they’d probably hate bad indie movies. The difference being bad indie movies generally never get seen by anyone.

I can source every script I’ve ever written to a particular feeling I was struggling with or issue I was trying to sort out in brain. And when you make those personal problems a character’s problem, just take all the stakes they’d be going through as far as they possibly could go. For “YBIAB,” I think it came out of a) a string of really terrible relationships, b) everyone getting married around me and c) perpetually being afraid to see an ex at a wedding. I don’t really see how I write scripts to be any less biographical than how Taylor Swift writes songs about all the boys she’s angry at, except sometimes I add explosions and dinosaurs. Which Taylor Swift should really do as well.

How did all of this lead to you finding your manager and agent? Were you sending out naked query letters? Did you build up contacts, one of which finally got a script of yours to someone important? How did that happen?

The space between getting a manager, an agent, and selling YBIAB was probably about two weeks long. It was October and I was working at a clothing factory in Vernon, CA and I wasn’t actively sending the script out anywhere. I had worked a string of typical crappy assistant jobs and had reached my breaking point, so I was just trying to regroup and work with people that smiled and shit like that and I didn’t really care that I was “outside” of Hollywood at the time.

I had finished YBIAB the previous December and shown it to some of the industry people I knew and nothing had come of it. I had given it to some pals of mine out here and one of them, a Mr. Matt Downing, gave it to a friend of his he played basketball with who worked at Circle of Confusion. I’m not really sure what the time gap was between Matt giving it to Zach (Cox, now my manager) and Zach reaching out to me. But eventually I met with Zach, Noah Rosen and David Engle at Circle of Confusion and they said they wanted to manage me and try to sell the script. And I thought that sounded cool since I was working at a clothing factory in Vernon, and they then sold it a week or two later. I got my agents (Devra Lieb and Bayard Maybank at Gersh) around the time it sold. I got really lucky because my managers and agents are about as far from being douche bags as possible.

You’ve had a few sales now and a few scripts on the Black List. In your experience, what’s the determining factor that leads to a script sale? What should other writers be focusing on? 

I feel like every week my opinion on this changes. Look, a lot of amazing scripts never sell and a lot of horrible ones do. It’s just the nature of Hollywood. At this point, I try to just write the best script I can and as soon as I turn it in, I try to pour all my energy into the next one. Possibly because I’m a neurotic pessimist, I just assume none of my scripts will sell. If I had to tell other writers going through the spec market how to handle it, I’d just say to ignore it as much as possible.

You work in comedy, which is the most competitive genre on the spec market. In your opinion, what’s the most important thing about making a comedy script work? 

For me, probably the fact that I’ve never thought of myself as a comedy writer. I think my last spec, “Jane Got A Gun,” is relatively unfunny. For “YBIAB” I never sat down and thought “time to write a rom-com” and I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever write another straight forward rom-com again. I kind of viewed YBIAB as a horror film because at the time it was literally one of the scariest ideas I’ve ever had. I also thought of it like a war film, because whenever I had been cheated on in the past it felt like I was suddenly plunged into a battle with some other dude who had spent all this time building his defenses and arsenal, while I was just flailing about. Noah, the lead character, never realizes he’s in a romance or a comedy, and I think that’s the key. He really just wants to survive this wedding. He’s not looking for love and he’s not trying to make anyone laugh. I’m not really sure I ever thought any particular scene had to be funny. I remember watching “The 25th Hour” a night or two after getting dumped and when Ed Norton has his big “Fuck You New York!” scene, it really affected me because I felt the exact same way, just about a girl. I wanted to include that in YBIAB not because it was funny but because it’s the farthest thing from funny to Noah and those feelings felt honest to me.

I think, in short, break-ups are the funniest thing ever in hindsight and the least funny thing ever when you’re in the middle of them.

I’ve never been too married to genre conventions. Some of my favorite movies are absolutely hilarious but you’d never find them in the comedy section, and vice versa. I think it changes from project to project. I know I tune out when characters act like they’re in a comedy and they’re begging for you to laugh at them, so I try to avoid that as often as possible.

Comedies and romantic comedies usually require a likable main character. How conscious are you of creating a “likable” hero or do you not pay attention to that stuff? Are there any instances in “Bridesmaid” you can point to where you’d say, “I deliberately wrote this scene so that you’d like my main character?”

I don’t necessarily agree that characters need to be likable, I think they just need to be watchable.

With YBIAB though I thought it was important that the reader is rooting for Noah. A dick being upset over getting cheated on isn’t very watchable. Before he gets to the wedding, I wanted to show that even though he was hurting, he was still doing the best he could. He loved his family, had friends that cared for him and most of all, he didn’t want to be depressed and hung up on this girl anymore. He was doing everything he could to be better and be a better person. He wasn’t lounging around being depressed - he was out in the world, he was working out, he was going on dates, he even moved to a new city - but he was just stuck. I think that feeling of being stuck is pretty relatable. Or at least I hope it is and I’m not the only weirdo that’s felt like that before.

I wanted to establish all of this because I knew how easy it would be for him to just become a whiny little bitch boy, and I knew how easy it would be to lose the entire female audience if this depressed asshole kept calling this girl who left him for a better man a bitch.

What’s your approach to structure? Are you a traditionalist or do you not think about 3 acts when you’re writing? Some people like to be as specific as breaking down their screenplay into 20 or so “beats.” What’s your method? 

I’m staunchly against Blake Snyder type beat sheets and ordering out pages for scenes. I used to write outlines and found that once I got into the script writing I would want to break from the guideline 100% of the time. For me, those outlines really restricted my creative freedom and from letting the characters lead. I know that sounds douchey, but I think a lot of the fun in writing specs for me is just letting them evolve and change.
I think the best argument I have for this is the fact that my last spec, “Jane Got A Gun,” started out as a modern day reluctant road trip movie between two guys. And now it’s a western with a female lead. I realized while I was working on my thoughts or beats for the project that the story I was trying to tell was much more interesting from the woman’s point of view, and once I knew that I tried to figure out what setting her character would be the most affective and interesting in. If I had blocked myself into a rigid outline I never would have felt I had the freedom to go as far off track as I did. The most outlining I wound up doing on that script was a series of post-it notes on my wall so I could keep track of everyone I had shot.

For studios/assignments outlines and structures like that are vital, because it’s so much more of a team effort than specs. With my specs, I never show anyone anything until I’ve done a draft that I’m proud of. It gives me the freedom to be a moron and it’s both the most frustrating and exciting part of writing for me.

I was a script reader for a few years and I found that I never gave a crap about people’s structure, I just cared when a) something was terrible and b) something was boring. At the end of the day, that’s really all anyone cares about. Just figure out what works best for you.

Did you ever enter screenwriting contests? If so, how did your scripts do? What’s your opinion on entering contests overall?

I submitted a couple times when I was in college. I think I got some honorable mentions or quarter final shout outs a few times. The best thing that happened through those is that it helped convince me that I wasn’t the worst writer of all time. I don’t see anything wrong with submitting to them, as long as if you don’t put too much stock in their opinion of what you write.

I’m sure with your recent success, you’re taking a lot of meetings around town. For future writers, what should they be prepared for in these meetings? What is it they should be looking to get out of them? 

Be prepared for everything. I’ve made some really close friends out of general meetings, and I’ve had some bizarre generals where I’m 99% sure they hate everything I’ve written. Sometimes people have really cool ideas to pitch you and sometimes they’re really horrible and you have to fake enthusiasm. When I started out a year ago I was terrified all day every day because it’s like going to a dateapalooza (I’ve never been, I’m just guessing, I swear) and I’m typically pretty shy. But for the most part, they’re meeting you because they liked what you wrote, and they’re looking to start a relationship with you. I think going on generals has forced me to come out of my shell a lot more, which probably isn’t a bad thing.

If you could go back in time and do it over again, what would you have changed as a screenwriter to accelerate your success? 

I honestly have no idea. I’m sure there are some things I could have done differently, or done better, but I’m thankful that it happened at all so I’m not going to nitpick too much. If present me could time travel back to crying-in-the-shower-because-I-kept-get-cheated-on past me and tell him that it was all just research for the first script I would sell, I would probably do that.