Screenwriting Wisdom from the Oscar-Nominated Taylor Sheridan

By August 13, 2017Blog, Featured

The story of Taylor Sheridan — the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River — is an inspiring one, especially for those screenwriters that are getting somewhat long in the tooth as they continue the struggle to break through. 

Sheridan wrote his very first script when he was 40 years old. Sicario, written on spec, was then put into a drawer to write what he felt would be an easier script to sell. That script was the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water.  Formerly known as Comancheria, this spec would be Sheridan’s first sale. It was also one of the 2012 Black List Scripts. The sale of Sicario soon followed and would then go on to be the first of the two to make it to the big screen. Both scripts — and their eventual film adaptations — would garner amazing critical and box office acclaim.

His third script, Wind River, was then picked up with Sheridan attached as the director and has enjoyed much acclaim of its own. Not a bad start to a screenwriting career, huh?

Before he began to write, Sheridan struggled through two decades of acting, playing bit roles until he finally secured a regular gig as a recurring character on Sons of Anarchy. However, after taxes and commissions paid to his representation, it wasn’t enough for him to make a living as an actor while living in Los Angeles. He turned to teaching acting classes at night to make ends meet. But then he got some amazing news that would change the trajectory of his career.

When he found out that he was about to have a baby with his wife, priorities changed. Negotiations for more Sons of Anarchy seasons failed. “They had one idea about what I was worth, and I had a very different idea,” he said.

He began to reexamine his Hollywood goals and how it would affect his soon-to-be bigger family. “How can you tell your kid you can be anything you want to be if you’re not trying to do the same?” he said. “I imagined myself being 40-something years old and I can’t go to his baseball game because I got a Windex audition.”

So Sheridan quit acting. While pondering a ranch manager position in Wyoming, the Texas-native decided that he would try the one thing that he had always wanted to do — tell stories. He and his family moved into a small 900 square foot apartment off of Sunset Blvd. His wife maxed out a credit card to buy him Final Draft.

“I just sat down and thought, ‘I don’t know how to do this, but I’ve read 10,000 scripts in my life and most of them were not very good, so if I just don’t do all the things that bothered me as an actor it will probably turn out OK,'” he said.

It obviously did.

Here we share some of Sheridan’s various nuggets of screenwriting wisdom and perspective through many interviews and then elaborate on how you can apply such knowledge and experience into your own writing.

“I’m Allergic to Exposition”

Having performed and read thousands of television screenplays, Sheridan explains that the dialogue was riddled with exposition. As a writer, that forced him to be allergic to that type of writing, instead leading him to find “absurdly simple plots” so that he could focus on the characters. If you look at his stories found in Sicario and Hell or High Water especially, you’ll see the proof in the pudding.

Some of the best original ideas in spec scripts contain simple plots and concepts. This allows for Hollywood to easily ascertain the genre and story that they’re considering, and like Sheridan says, this also allows for the writer to let the characters take center stage, as opposed to the plot pushing them to the back. And because Sheridan’s plots are so simple, the audience doesn’t have to waste time connecting the dots from one plot point to another. Instead, they get it and they’re engaged in the characters — thus they can better focus on the ramifications of the simple and straight forward plot by seeing these characters deal with the conflict that is thrown at them.

In short, simple plots and concepts can often lead to better characters.

“I have to see the movie in my head before I start writing.”

Sheridan explains that before he physically sits down to write, he has to see and understand the movie before he types a single word. He needs to be able to visualize the story, character arcs, and what the script itself is trying to say. And he’s been quoted as saying that he doesn’t outline. The visualization is the outline in his eyes.

Because screenplays are written for a visual medium, they must be written in a very visual way. You can’t accomplish that by sitting down in front of the keyboard without having a visual sense of the story you’re trying to tell.

So the best writing usually starts before you type a single word. Sheridan shares that he often goes on long car rides to visualize his stories. For Hell or High Water he once drove from Los Angeles to Montana and back before he truly saw the movie in his head. Whatever activity you as a screenwriter can do to give yourself time to visualize your story and see the film through your own mind’s eye will be time well spent. It’s not about knowing every scene from Point A to Point Z. Knowing the broad strokes is what you need to have in your mind once you sit down to type those first words and beyond.

“I write movies that I want to see.”

If you’re trying to write something that you think someone else will be interested in buying, you’re likely going to fail to have any passion for what you are writing. And if you have no passion for it — the concept, the characters, the story — that will show in the work.

So always focus on writing movies that you want to see. Trust yourself as a movie lover and know that if you’re interested in a concept, setting, story, or character, it’s likely that there are many other movie lovers out there interested in the same thing.

Ask yourself: “Do you want to spend the next few months and beyond embedding every creative vessel and tool you have within you on this concept, story, and character?”  Because remember, there is a lot of you — the screenwriter — in each and every script that you write. If you go in trying to write something for someone else rather than for yourself, the script will surely come off as bland and one dimensional.

“I’m not a big believer in having people outside of the industry read things to give me notes.”

Sheridan was once asked what his feedback process was when it came to him reaching out to others for notes and thoughts. He quickly noted that he loved having actors read his scripts because it gave him the perspective of whether or not his character(s) could be played well. Directors and other industry insiders offered great feedback as well.

But he was specific in saying that he didn’t believe giving his script to people outside of the industry was a viable way to get solid feedback. They aren’t going to buy it and they often don’t know how to read that medium.

The best feedback you can get is from someone within the industry that has experience with scripts, the limitations, what should and shouldn’t be in there, etc. There are plenty of exceptions to be sure, but industry insiders are often the best litmus test because that is really the demographic that you’re writing for. Those that may want to produce your script.

“I try to write stage directions as very descriptive of imagery. And leave the directing to the director and the camera work to the camera guy.”

Screenplays are written to be read. They are technical blueprints for an eventual film once they are purchased and prepared for the screen with various production rewrites, but those initial pre-sale drafts are written for a reader to experience them. Because of this, no, you don’t include camera directions, camera angles, and other technical terminology to tell your story.

Instead, your job is to use the prose as a way to dictate the imagery — what the reader is supposed to be visualizing and hearing — and be as telling of the tone and place as possible through that descriptive prose.

But that doesn’t mean you go into detail. The art of writing great screenplay prose is being able to say more by writing less.

“[The film industry] does a really good job of telling you what you’re supposed to be doing — if you really listen.”

Most people don’t listen. Not everyone that pursues acting is meant to be an actor. Not everyone that pursues screenwriting is meant to be a screenwriter. Sheridan admits that he wasn’t listening after spending two decades trying to be an actor. When he did start to listen, that’s when he dropped everything to write that first script. Three scripts later he has three acclaimed produced films from his writing.

This applies to so many screenwriters out there. You have to truly listen to what the film industry is telling you as they react to what you have been presenting to them.

If you have a feature script that people within the industry are telling you would be better suited for a pilot or series, listen.

If you have a pilot that people within the industry are telling you would be better as a feature, listen.

If they are telling you that your writing would be better suited in this or that other genre, listen.

Steven Spielberg once said that dreams are never screaming at you in the face. It’s always the whispers that are telling the true tale of what you should or shouldn’t be doing. Listen.

“I never expected anyone to make [Sicario]. It gave me a lot of freedom.”

When screenwriters go through the process of writing a script, many place a lot of weight on their own shoulders while doing so. They have been bombarded by pundit and guru advice. They look at what movies they’ve seen and how their work measures up. They look at the trends and what is and isn’t selling. They think about how their script is going to be made and what choices they should make based on production needs and wants.

When you stop and just decide to write the script as if none of those things matter — as if the script is never going to be produced — it frees you from so many of those chains. Chains that have no applicable purpose anyway because every situation, every script, every development process, every journey, and every production is different.

Don’t be afraid to write the story you want to write. Don’t be afraid to write it how you want it to be written. Forget all of the things that are out of your control — and don’t even exist yet — and just tell your story.

“Let your characters live in the gray. Let the hero do some really bad things. Let the bad guy do some really good things.”

While it’s great to see a protagonist shine as the ultimate do-gooder, it’s not true to what audiences see in their own lives. And that can often disengage audiences from a character.

In reality, good people make mistakes. They have done some bad things in their lives. In turn, some really bad people have also showcased honorable elements in their past. They can be great fathers, mothers, and mentors despite some horrible choices they’ve made in life. That’s reality.

When you approach your characters it’s often smart to keep them in that gray area because it adds dimension and depth to them.

“I have no interest in telling a story that isn’t reflective of a place or a mirror to us as a people,” Sheridan told Collider.

Click the images below to enjoy these reads of Taylor Sheridan’s three ground breaking scripts!

  


Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies 

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