The cinema lost one of its most original voices with the untimely death of screenwriter and director John Singleton. What screenwriting lessons can we draw from the words of this late, great director?
Singleton grew up in South Central Los Angeles. A time and place that would inform his work as a film director, producer, and screenwriter. He studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, where he quickly won three writing awards from the university, leading to him signing with Creative Artists Agency during his sophomore year.
In 1991, Columbia Pictures bought his script for Boyz n the Hood, and he was set to direct the film with a budget of just $7 million. The film portrayed life in crime-ridden South Central L.A. and was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in 1992. His nomination made him the first African-American and the youngest person ever to be nominated for the award. Singleton also garnered a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The auteur followed that debut film with Poetic Justice in 1993 and Higher Learning in 1995. While not as highly praised as his first film, both continued to examine modern race relations and enjoyed success at the box office.
He also offered 1997’s historical drama Rosewood, 2000’s Shaft remake, and 2001’s Baby Boy. In 2005, Singleton produced the critically acclaimed indie Hustle & Flow and directed the box office hit Four Brothers.
He sadly passed away on April 29th, 2019, from complications after suffering a stroke.
Here we feature some of John Singleton’s greatest quotes on directing, writing, and cinematic storytelling as a whole — followed by our own elaboration.
“I try to keep focused on the things that really make me happy and just do those same things.”
Too many screenwriters chase the trends and try to live up to the expectations of what the industry insiders believe they are looking for. Focus on writing the things that make you happy and give the industry what they didn’t know they wanted and needed. That’s what will drive you and your work.
“I’ve got passion, and for people who don’t, I make them see how trite their lives are.”
If you’re not writing what you love and what makes you happy, you’re going to lose your passion for the work. And if you lose your passion, it’s going to show in the writing.
“You can only really write about what you know about.”
Writing what you know is an often misunderstood piece of screenwriting advice. Every screenwriter has heard or read this advice, and most misinterpret it as meaning that your best writing will be on subjects that you know about or experiences that you’ve experienced. There’s some truth to those statements, but there’s more meaning behind the phrase.
Screenwriters have written about space travel, worlds of fantasy and magic, and the afterlife — but those are worlds and experiences that none of us have ever come across in our lives. Writing what you know is about applying your experiences, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions into any necessary storyline. That’s how you connect with the material.
Yes, if you’ve lived through a certain tragedy, adventure, experience, or specific trade that is compelling enough to warrant a cinematic interpretation, then write what you know. But know that those words of advice are so much more than that.
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“As a storyteller, when you see somebody who is the character you envisioned, you feel this energy in the room.”
That is what you should be striving for as a screenwriter — the dream scenario of seeing your characters come to life. Cinema is magic, and if you write characters that are worthy enough to be translated onto the screen, there’s no more magical feeling for a writer than seeing that character come to life.
The magic is what you write for. That’s what drives you. The thought that one day your characters will stand before you on that screen should be enough to fuel your desire for years.
“In Boyz N the Hood, every female character was three-dimensional.”
We used to live in a time where female characters — as well as minority characters — were written one-dimensionally. Thankfully, we see that norm changing, but it can’t stop here. You have to continue to push the boundaries and ensure that every character you write is three-dimensional.
“I make notes about things I see in films that really affect me… I think about how I can utilize things in my work.”
Watching movies is the best way to prepare for your future projects. It’s not about stealing. It’s about noticing cathartic moments in other pieces of work and finding ways to apply those powerful emotions to your own stories.
“Now, I’m so relaxed that I have to make myself nervous. I feel better when I’m second-and-third guessing myself over everything. I play with the mice in my head, all the time.”
Complacency is the killer of all great writing. When you become complacent with your writing, the writing suffers — and you, the writer, do as well. Challenge yourself. Don’t get relaxed. And if you find yourself overly relaxed and comfortable with everything you write, try to shake things up. Look at every line you’re writing and second-or-third guess yourself. Ask yourself if there’s a better version — or a more interesting version.
Play with the mice in your head.
“I like writing because it’s introspective. It’s a serendipity kind of thing when you’re really in a place that no one else can be but you at that time. And it’s your decision to share with the world if you want to — or not.”
Writing is more than the pursuit of money and making a living doing what you love. It’s magical. It’s introspective. It allows you to be in full control of yourself and your work.
Making a living is great. There’s nothing wrong with trying to attain financial security. But never forget how amazing writing really is — and how it can not only feed you and your family but also your soul.
“I also improv the dialogue as I write. So I’m saying the dialogue to myself while I’m writing it. And I’m being loud and using profanity…”
One of the great ways to write sharp dialogue is to act out what you’re writing. When you do that, you feel what is real and what is not. It helps prevent you from writing dialogue that exists only to move the plot forward or explain things. It helps prevent you from writing bad exposition.
Don’t be afraid to get up and act out those scenes.
“My first real job in the business was a production assistant and security guard at the door of the stage at PeeWee’s Play House.”
Every great screenwriter and filmmaker has to start somewhere. When we look at these icons, we often feel that they came from some storied place of greatness. The truth is, everyone starts at the bottom. Some of the most talented screenwriters and filmmakers started as studio security guards, interns, production assistants, mailroom clerks, waiters, etc.
Let this knowledge give you some calm when you’re grinding away trying to break through those Hollywood walls.
“[Filmmaking] is a job, but there’s an energy to it. And I get off on that energy.”
If you love what you do, that energy will always be there. But you have to make sure you’re in it for the right reasons.
Screenwriting and directing isn’t an easy ticket to success. Even when you’re successful, it’s pretty damn hard. If you love it, that energy will always be there to feed you.
“Be patient. Be well-read and relaxed. If things aren’t working out, don’t panic… there’s a certain amount that you have that’s in your control, and there’s a lot…that’s not in your control.”
You can’t control everything in your screenwriting journey. In fact, most of it you can’t control. You can’t control who loves your script, who hates it, or who is indifferent to it. You can’t control who signs you, who options your script, who buys your script, or who offers you an assignment. All that you can control is what you write, how well you write it, and the work you put in to put yourself in the position to be considered. Don’t worry about the uncontrollables.
“My greatest achievement is that I’ve been in this business for over twenty-six years, and I haven’t lost my soul… I’ve had my highs and my lows, and I’m happy.”
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to sell your soul to Hollywood. You don’t have to become a sellout. The industry is hard. You will face a lot of ups and downs. But you never have to lose your soul. Choose projects wisely. Choose who you work with wisely. And everything will be fine.
Rest in peace, John Singleton. You’ll be missed, but not forgotten.
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