The Oscars tonight reminded me that I haven’t reposted my summary of Gary Ross’s excellent lecture for AMPAS on screenwriting. I had this on the old website, but the webhost lost all the data, so I’m recreating it from memory.
Gary Ross has screenwriting in his genes. Son of Arthur A. Ross. (“Creature From The Black Lagoon” and “Brubaker”) and writer of “Big”, “Dave”, “Pleasantville” and “Seabuscuit”, Ross has the unique distinction of having almost every script he has ever written made into a movie. He admits to one unproduced screenplay.
Ross talked mostly about how he approaches a screenplay. He answered the question of character versus story with a flat out “story.” Ross says that in developing a screenplay, he thinks about what questions interest him at the time and writes a story to service those questions. He prefers to have multiple leads so that the script clearly services the questions rather than getting bogged down in irrelevant plot to move it forward. For example, in “Pleasantville” (nominated for Best Screenplay), Ross jumps from character to character, all of whom explore the same related questions in different ways. He says he did the same thing in “Seabuscuit” (nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay). When a story is built this way, says Ross, the second act complication naturally arises from the central conflicts of the story and leads to an appropriate third act.
Ross also discussed two other points. First, he believes that extensive outlining is a key to successful screenwriting. He says that he takes about five months to outline a script before beginning to write pages. For Ross, outlining is the place to play, explore and discover what the story is really about. He says that his outlines are so thorough that he often has dialogue worked out in the outline before he begins pages. He believes that extensive outlining does not stifle the discovery process during writing pages. Rather, according to Ross, it allows the writer to play and improvise at a higher level in executing scenes because so much of the work is done.
Second, Ross warned each emerging writer to protect his or her voice. Ross says that Hollywood is expert at taking a fresh voice and crushing it into the same old thing. If you lose your unique voice, says Ross, you are no longer anything special and Hollywood has no reason to hire you over the next new writer, who may be much less expensive. He warns that unless you maintain your voice, Hollywood becomes a heartbreaking experience.
Obviously, Ross’s overall approach is very Aristotelean. Sometime soon, I’ll do a post about Aristotle’s Poetics. Suffice it to say, some very prolific writers swear by it, others swear at it, but it cannot be ignored.