Writing Excuses 12.47: Screenwriting And The Writers Room, with JD Payne
Key points: In the writers’ room, your job, as writer, is to be delightful. It is intensely collaborative work. Be good to work with. Keep your ego out of the way. Try “Yes, and…” to reduce conflict and make that idea grow! Half of the job is getting everyone on the same page with the creative vision. Pitch, treatment, and then screenplay. When you get the note that destroys what you’ve been doing, the only thing you can control is your pain. So take a deep breath and figure out a whole new approach.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 47.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Screenwriting And The Writers Room, with JD Payne.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And we are joined by screenwriter extraordinaire, or maybe ordinaire, I’m not sure…
[Howard] JD Payne.
[JD] Wait a minute. Is there someone else who is supposed to be on this panel? I don’t know.
[JD] I’m JD Payne. Yes. I have the… good to meet you.
[Dan] JD, tell us about yourself.
[JD] So, I grew up in Washington, DC. I attended college in Yale University. Graduated with a bachelors in English. Served a mission for my church in Rome, Italy. Then moved out to Hollywood in 2006. Got an agent in 2008. Had my first screenplay sale in 2010. Quit my day job in 2011. Which was a joyous and wonderful moment. It’s like the moment in Ben Hur when he finally gets out of the slave galleys.
[JD] Then I’ve been working basically on assignment ever since. I’ve done a couple that I’ve been really lucky to get involved with. I wrote an early draft of Star Trek Beyond. My cowriter and I, Patrick McKay, are currently writing Star Trek 4. We worked on a reboot of Flash Gordon that’s currently at Fox being directed by Matthew Vaughn. We worked on X-Men TV show that didn’t come together at the end of the day, but it was for Fox and it was fun to work on also. So I working with a bunch of different IP and some brands that are near and dear to people’s hearts, and I’ve had a great time. Been really lucky.
[Dan] That is awesome.
[Howard] Outstanding. That’s… When I said, “or perhaps ordinaire,” that is by no means a dig. We are fascinated by, our readers are extremely interested in, the screenwriting process. The Writers Room. This is something that as novelists, as prose authors, many of us have little or no experience with. Tell us about it. What…
[Howard] How does it even… How does it even work?
[JD] Well, I mean, there’s a couple of different layers at which I could answer that. I mean, there is a writers room that is just you by yourself as a writer doing your thing. There’s a writers room, if you have a writing partner, in which you’re collaborating that you need to come together and figure out how to work together and how to bring something from idea to being a completed screenplay. There’s a writers room where it’s you, your writing partner, and a bunch of people doing a roundtable on a script. There’s writers rooms that are for TV in which you can have… Dozen-ish people that are all together, in which you have show runners and staff writers and show creators and so kind of everyone coming together. There’s writers rooms that are where it’s you taking notes from producers or from people at the studio. There’s a lot of different rooms you’re in as a writer. You’re… The one sort of thing I could sum up and say that your job in all of them is to be delightful.
[Dan] No, I absolutely think that that’s a great way to sum it up. I had the chance to work in the writers room on a show for BYU TV, which I think by this point, you can actually watch. So if you have access to BYU TV, it’s called Extinct and I was a staff writer on it. First of all, it’s intensely collaborative. Coming from novels, I was not expecting it. But really, you’re right. Your job is to be delightful, your job is to entertain the rest of the writers. Because if you can entertain these bitter, jaded writers who’ve seen it all and are sick of it, then you know you’re going to entertain the audience.
[JD] What are you talking about? There’s no bitter, jaded writers.
[Mary] Well, it also… It doesn’t matter how good you are if no one wants to work with you.
[Mary] So, that’s something that my mentor told me back when I was in theater and I was working on LazyTown. There were a couple of writers who went through. One of them was delightful. He was very good at his job, he was kind, and he turned things in on time. There was another writer who was very good, not always kind, turned things in on time, but he didn’t get invited back.
[JD] Had the funniest phone call just recently. I’m not going to name names, but we were considering working on a project, and we’re sort of doing some initial thoughts on a pitch with someone. The call was one of those ones that sort of goes sideways, and the person on the other in the of the phone was a little bit brusque. The producer called us like two minutes after the phone call ended, and said, “So, that person’s a little maybe on the spectrum, a little bit? So we just want you to know that that wasn’t about you, that that was more about them, and we’d love you to keep working on this project.”
[JD] People definitely notice when you’re less than personable in any of those situations.
[Howard] It’s funny because we’ve had this discussion about breaking into comics. The way it… It’s an equation. You can be very, very best at what you do. You can always be on time. You can be great to work with. Pick two. Okay? If you don’t pick great to work with, you really do have to be the very best at what you do. Since it’s so hard to be that good, err on the side of putting a few points in charisma. It’s not a dump stat.
[Mary] A lot of times, this… What this comes down to is, is not sucking up to people, it’s just keeping your ego out of the way. Like, if you’re coming in and thinking I’m the best person who has ever walked into this room, and trying to demonstrate that, you’re just going to annoy people.
[JD] Humility is such an important part of every single step in the writing process. If you come in thinking you have the answers, then the thing is partially dead already. Because part of what makes writing exciting and worth doing is it’s an adventure. You’re starting off with a general end in mind… I mean, you know you want to go to El Dorado. We’re all going to El Dorado, and you have a basic map of how you’re going to get there. But exactly who you’re going to go… What… Who’s the captain of the ship that you’re going to meet as you’re on the river on the way to El Dorado? Who’s the crazy sidekick that you’re going to pick up in the village who’s going to help you resupply? That’s the adventure of these people. A lot of times, as you’re working with producers and directors and with studio people, you need to remember what your role is in the larger process. It can be really, I think, terrifying to be someone who’s an executive and knowing that you’re trusting your future job to the delivery or nondelivery of a writer who’s working with you on something. So your job as a writer is to be the steady hand at the wheel and to come in and let them leave that meeting feeling really, really good about knowing that it’s in your hands. You’ve got it. You’re going to take notes. You’re going to work with them, and you’re not going to stop until it’s done. You’re not going to let your ego get in the way of making everyone be able to come together on something.
[Dan] Yeah. The kind of collaboration… One of the great things about a writers room collaboration is that by the time the episode is done, or by the time the movie is done, you really can’t, in most cases, look back and say, “Oh, I came up with this idea, and he came up with this one, and she came up with this one,” because you’re all throwing ideas at each other. If you’re able to put that ego away, and build each other up and work with those ideas to make them great, rather than just keeping score…
[Dan] That makes the end product so much better.
[Mary] I’m just going to flag, for people who are not interested in screenwriting, that this is actually something for… if you are collaborating with a fellow writer for a novel, partner writing, that this kind of collaborative thing and keeping your ego out of the way, is a very useful skill.
[JD] Yeah. Frankly, it’s a useful skill in life in general, also.
[JD] Any relationship you’re going to have differences. There’s a couple things I’ve learned. I started working with my current cowriter… The only cowriter I’ve ever really worked with… Since high school. It’s the business or creative equivalent of marrying your high school sweetheart.
[JD] I just feel so lucky to have found him. I don’t know how I would go about like even thinking about… Like, what would people do if you were in your 20s? Like partner dates? Like, do you like date to see if you could write together?
[JD] I don’t even know, it’s a natural organic thing at this point, but there’s a couple things that we talk about that had been really helpful for us. One of them is, it’s a game actually used by improv comedians, called Yes, and… You’ll notice, we’re kind of doing it on this panel a little bit even as we’re talking. Someone will throw something out, and someone else, well, yes, and dadadada. You sort of use that is a graceful transition into the next thought. It becomes a little bit like slalom skiing. Each of you sort of like takes it in a slightly different direction, but you’re always moving downhill. If someone says, “No, but…” Suddenly, the energy dies. It’s like crashing as a skier. Suddenly, like everything has to start over again.
[Mary] I just… I’m gonna, for our longtime listeners, flagged that this is different than the yes-but, no-and that we use to… About how to create conflict in a story. This is about how to reduce conflict, which is why it is Yes, and. Yes!
[Mary] One of the things, when I was in improv, is that what they say is that that Yes is I am not going to deny your reality. I am going to add to your reality, and find ways to keep this moving forward.
[JD] Absolutely. There’s ways even to do it where you’re going to… Even if you’re going to go 180° in the other direction, you can say, “Yes, that’s really interesting. What if we sort of turned out on its head, actually, and look at it from sort of the other way, and do it like this.” That way, you’re sort of saying, “Hmmm. What you’ve just said contributed to this sort of creative pot that we are all working with and gave me an idea. I’m going to take that idea and now sort of like taken in this direction.” So you’re not just sort of like stopping things cold and restarting somewhere else. You’re sort of including the idea and helping nurture it along to where it’s going.
[Howard] Let’s pause for our book of the week. Do we have…
[Mary] We do. The book of the week is Boilerplate by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett. I think you’re going to tell us a little bit about why you think it’s fantastic?
[JD] I love Boilerplate. We adapted it as a screenplay for Bad Robot a couple years ago. As soon as we read the graphic novel, we fell in love with it. It’s a little peculiar in terms of its format. It’s a little bit like Jon Stewart’s America. It’s sort of like a faux history book of American history, where they’ve taken this steampunk-esque robot and kind of photoshopped him into all these different historical situations. So you’ll see Boilerplate hanging out with like Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders or with like Tesla or with Pancho Villa and all these sort of turn-of-the-century luminaries or historical figures. The robot goes on all these various adventures. It’s just very whimsical. Wonderful, wonderful book.
[Howard] Okay. I’ve got another process question. I’m very familiar with this collaborative environment, where you’re bouncing story ideas, or business ideas, or cooking ideas, back-and-forth. How does it work when… When do you sit down in front of the keyboard and just make all the words happen? Are you talking to each other at that time? Are people looking over your shoulder while you write? Because that’s terrifying to think about.
[JD] Well, so, a lot of the work for a writer, and particularly a screenwriter… At least half of the job is politics. Half of the job is getting everyone on the same page with that creative vision. Some of the tools, of the Yes, and… That’s one tool we use, there’s other tools like creative listening that I won’t get into as much now, but there’s all these tools that we use to get people on the same page. Sometimes that can take weeks, sometimes it can take months. Sometimes it takes years. But I mean, it takes a long time to sort of get everyone involved, from your writing partner to the producers to the studio, everyone on the same page. Once they finally are on the same page, you get commenced. That’s when they’ve said, “All right, we’re going to pay you whatever your lawyers negotiated,” and now you’re going to go write. As soon as that has happened, then it’s the part where it’s now finally just you and the page. With my cowriter and I… It works differently for everyone, but for us, we’ve sort of done this job of getting this shared vision together. Then we just sort of start dividing it up, and saying, “Look, you felt like you had a great sort of sense for Act I, you had a great sense for the Act I climax leading to Act II, I had a great sense for Act III.” We just sort of divide and conquer. We start writing a treatment. Basically, we say when something is about a 20 minute pitch verbally, it’s time to go to treatment, time to go to the page. Once it’s about a 30 to 40 page treatment, it’s time to turn it from a treatment into a screenplay. Which is a different kind of document. So each one sort of has its limits. And we speak in terms of pregnancy, where I’ll say, “All right, this one is nine months pregnant. It’s ready to come out into the world. It’s ready to stop being a pitch and be a treatment. Now, it’s ready to stop being a treatment and be a screenplay, now.”
[Howard] Okay. You’ve just described a format I’m unfamiliar with. I know what screenplay format looks like. And I know what a pitch conversation kind of looks like. What is a treatment?
[JD] A treatment is a… It’s a very detailed outline.
[Mary] Basically, the treatment is the short story version.
[Dan] Yeah. Back when I was… Years ago, in a small TV production company, the treatment is what I would today call a proposal. When I’m trying to say, “Okay, editor. Here’s what my next book or series is going to be about.” It’s a long thing. Descriptions of characters, descriptions of the world, descriptions of the kinds of stories we can tell within it. That kind of thing.
[Mary] A sense of where the scene breaks are and things like that. Actually, I’m going to back up, because you think you know what a pitch is like, but having seen an actual Hollywood pitch, the pitch session is nothing like what we do in fiction. So, can you describe a little bit about what it’s like to be pitching something? Because it’s a fascinating thing.
[JD] Every pitch is a little bit different. I went in once and pitched an actor… I won’t name names with him, because [garbled. Maybe I understand you have a wide listenership] but we went in and this actor had just come in and he had just exercised and was all sweaty and just like sat down, like this, “Hoh!” And looked at us and said, “Go.” So we were just like awed, and we had to start dadada. You start sort of tap dancing and doing your thing. But every single one is different. We’ve had pitches where we prepared about 20 minutes of material, and you get in and there’s a studio head who comes in and he or she says, “All right. I’ve got five minutes before my next meeting. Go ahead.” You have to take what was 20 minutes and make it into five minutes. So you sort of… You have to know your story so well that you could give them the three word version, you could give them the 3000 word version, they might want to keep going and you give a 40 minute version. If they really… Because sometimes they’ll be like, “Well, wait a minute. That little bit of story logic you pitched doesn’t make sense.” You have to have five answers for… Oh, well, there’s going to be another scene here, another thing here that’s going to make it work. So you have to just really have a mastery of your subject. Then, just call me and ready for battle and to know whatever, like the time they have.
[Dan] Now I want to go back to one of the things that Howard asked about, at what point do you actually sit down and write? In TV, at least, you might never sit down and write. You look at the credits of a TV episode, and it will list written by or lead writer. That is the person who wrote the words on the page. Everyone else in the room is listed as a staff writer, which means that they just kind of sat around and brainstormed and came up with cool stuff. Working on Extinct, I’m a staff writer. At no point did I ever actually contribute prose to it. Sometimes, it might take you a few years, depending on some of the stories and war stories I’ve heard, before you will get to the point where they say, “Hey, kid, why don’t you take the lead on this episode?” Then, all of a sudden, you’re… This is your big break, because you get to write one.
[Howard] We’re going to let you touch the keyboard now.
[Dan] Yeah. Exactly.
[JD] Yeah. It can take a while. Some of it depends on sort of where you come in. If you had success in features, you might be able to come into TV at a slightly higher level, where you’re not having to sort of start at the bottom floor again. But if you’re starting off as a writer’s assistant or a PA or something, then you’re going to have to sort of work your way up each sort of rung of the ladder or step of the food chain or whatever you want to call it.
[Howard] Okay. I’m going to put you on the spot here and ask you one of my favorite questions. What is the proudest you’ve ever been of a solution you had to come up with for a terrible problem?
[Dan] Ooo, I like this question.
[Howard] I should have told him that I was going to ask that earlier, because it’s kind of a stumper.
[JD] It’s a difficult one. In some ways, I want to go back to what Dan said earlier, where like the best solutions, you don’t even really remember who came up with it. You just remember that it happened. I mean, there are times where we’ve had… It’s almost like Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, where they say, “We are one step away from solving the mystery that has baffled mankind for two millennia.” Indy says, “Well, that’s usually when the ground falls out from under your feet.” That happens with every single movie project. There is this moment where like it’s either going to go or it’s not going to go. Often, right at that moment, either like someone like high in the food chain, the director or the studio or someone, will give a note that just like… You get this sort of deer in the headlights moment, where you’re just like, “I don’t know how I’m going to possibly field that note, like that entirely destroys the back half of the movie.”
[Howard] No ninjas, it’s now a western.
[JD] Yes. Like, that happens. Like… So… I can talk more about the best way to react to that, more than I can any specific thing. Like Craig Mazin, who’s a sort of [Warner Bros.] screenwriter, does his own podcast Script Notes with John August. He talks about, as a writer, the only thing that you can really control when you’re in these situations is your pain. You can’t control the note that’s been given, the note has been given and you have to grapple with it now. But, you can control whether you sort of are a diva about it, whether you like get up in a hissy fit and say, “Fine. I quit.” Whether you allow it to sort of spiral you into this sort of like place of miseries, where you can’t create anymore. Like, that’s on you, as a writer. So I’d say the proudest I’ve ever been of myself as a writer is the times when, between my cowriter and I, we were able to sort of take one of those potentially like movie torpedoing notes and respond to it by sort of putting our pain to the side, and doing what we do, which is be screenwriters. Go figure out how to completely like shift, sometimes overnight, and come up with a totally new Act III in the course of three days.
[Howard] Outstanding. I love that answer. Good life advice.
[Howard] Who’s got our writing prompt?
[Mary] That would be…
[Howard] JD again?
[JD] Yeah. So they asked me to come up with one right before the panel started. I thought about it for a minute. Describe a character using only visual cues… Or introduce a character using only visual cues in 20 words or less. If you can, do it in five words or less. There’s a couple great descriptions I read in screenplays where they’ll say Palmer comma a bloodshot soul. That’s like the only description of the guy. It’s like… Another one I liked was Smith, Superman with a hangover.
[JD] Just like… You instantly get those characters. So, like, the pithier you can be, the better. In screenplays, every word is your enemy. I think short story writing is probably similar. I mean, every word you write is an opportunity for them to get off board. So, particularly with your character introductions, if you can instantly get them on board with knowing who this person is, then that’s half the battle.
[Howard] That sounds like such good practice, that I think they should do it…
[Mary] A couple of times.
[Howard] For each of their characters.
[Howard] And see how short they can get them. Listeners, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Go write.