10 Takeaways from the 2022 ScreenCraft Summit
The 2022 ScreenCraft Writers Summit was a whirlwind of excitement, loaded with pearls of wisdom and gems of success shared by our diverse group of speakers. From Jeymes Samuel sharing his zealous creative process, to Sofia Coppola’s honesty about exploring her fears on film, to Spike Jonze’s chat about his mind-bending character journeys, there was something to learn from everyone’s unique struggle and point of view.
While each of our speakers’ experiences as a creator is different, the one thing they all had in common was the need to make stories both relatable and surprising, while mining characters for emotion. In other words, relatability + surprise + emotion = great storytelling.
Here is a recap of the most inspirational moments of the 2022 ScreenCraft Writers Summit, what you can take away from the speakers’ insight, and how to apply this insight to your own writing.
Table of Contents
Pay Special Attention to Your Character's Backstory
Michael Schur is best known for creating such shows as Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, not to mention his hilarious work on The Office and Saturday Night Live. He spoke about really digging into a character and learning how their background shapes them. He says sometimes it’s the smallest details that can lead to great character development and great comedy.
“Maybe a character is from Pittsburgh, [and I think] who cares where he's from? And then I think, ‘No, Goddamnit!’ I spend 20 minutes and think about who the character is, where he would come from him, and why he would be from that place – what being from that place would mean to him and everything else. Because that's the kind of stuff that audiences, whether or not they even intuitively know it, they can feel it. They can sense the craft and care and attention that's gone into those decisions and those choices."
Especially if you’re trying to mine comedy as Schur always does, small details about a character are what fill up the writer’s toolbox. If a character is an only child or grew up on a farm, don’t brush that detail under the rug, make it their superpower and see how that can add to their journey.
Prepare, Execute, and Present
Colin Trevorrow is coming off the box office success of the third and final film in the Jurassic World franchise that continued the legacy of Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park that reinvents the story for a modern audience. During his talk, he likened filmmaking to the way chefs work the kitchen: both have to painstakingly prepare, execute and then present their work to a hungry audience.
“I think that chefs and directors and filmmakers have a lot in common… By the time the dish is actually going out in a high-end restaurant, five or six people could touch that before it makes the table and that's the way filmmaking is, too – it's not all you. It's a collaboration and anything you see, like a sequence in one of the movies that I've directed, definitely five or six or more people touch that."
He also added that if you serve an unfamiliar flavor or taste that challenges the palate, give them something comforting to make the experience enjoyable.
“If you've been giving [your audience] some really intense, citrusy stuff, some challenging tastes – give them the best piece of bread and butter you know they've ever had. I take them home for a second.”
It's important to not only push and surprise your audience but also let them taste something familiar so they stay connected to the experience. For everything new you explore in a story, have something nostalgic and familiar too.
Explore Your Creativity to Grow in Your Writing
Jeymes Samuel is a purpose-driven creator bursting with talent. As the writer/director on the feature film The Harder They Fall (2021), and music consultant on Baz Luhrmann's film The Great Gatsby, Samuel shared that his mind can’t stop creating.
“Constantly, I wake up and I create until I fall asleep. I never have writer's block, whether it's music, film, whatever it is, it's all the same thing in my head… And because I'm always creating, there is no aftermath as it were. I live in the past, the present, and the future.”
Exploring any type of creativity will feed your writing process. Just getting your brain into that place of creation will help your writing in unexpected ways and keep you from getting caught up in judging yourself on your productivity. Creativity is a muscle and the more you exercise that muscle, the stronger it will be.
Create Relatable, Flawed Characters
Tanya Saracho is the creator and executive producer of the critically acclaimed show Vida, which explores her point of view as a Latina. She spoke about the importance of creating relatable, flawed characters.
“I sometimes think of the flaws first. That's more interesting to me.”
She added that she likes to present the flaws in a protagonist starting in the first season of a TV show and creates what she calls “ugly women.”
“I want more ugly women. Ugly to me means complicated. That's a luxury to get to tell the dominant culture about ugly women all the time. And look, I'm obsessed with Killing Eve, you know, those are two ugly women that are amazing. I want to be able to tell those stories.”
Don't censor your characters. Instead, have the courage to make them real, complicated, and “ugly.” It is the most powerful way to define your own voice as a writer.
Theme is at the Center of Character and Story Structure
Joby Harold has valiantly entered the Star Wars universe with his streaming show Obi-Wan Kenobi, starring Ewan McGregor, after producing such movies as Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). In his talk, he shared how theme influences character and story structure.
“I can’t separate theme, character, and structure because they need to all be part of the same engine. If they’re not speaking to each other, then something’s off.”
He also firmly relies on the process of creating an outline.
“I believe in doing all the heavy lifting before you get into the draft. I usually have a 60-page outline before I go to draft. And oftentimes that feels like I’m just going to format the outline. Turns out that’s never the case…I love The Hero’s Journey stuff and Save the Cat stuff and all those things, but it really comes down to watching the movie in your head as you’re writing the movie. I’m hitting the rhythms of the experience I want as a viewer.”
Keep your audience’s expectations in mind as your write and give them the experience you would like to have while watching a movie.
Let Your Characters Tell the Story
Spike Jonze is one of the creative forces behind the Jackass empire, has created mind-blowing music videos, and even won an Oscar for his original romantic sci-fi screenplay Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix. Jonze spoke about wanting his stories to feel like they are being told by the characters, not the filmmakers.
“From the beginning, I always wanted everything to come from the characters, that nothing was being put on the characters by the filmmakers. The story was made by what the characters wanted and needed.”
Understand the difference between the character's objective and the writer’s objective. As writers, we often need to take a backseat to what the character wants and needs, even if that means we have to work harder to shape the story around them. It will also make the story feel more authentic and relatable.
Hook the Reader Quickly
Derek Haas is best known as a showrunner and executive producer for shows like FBI: International and Chicago Fire. Haas has a wealth of experience and shared his advice about hooking a reader at the beginning of your script.
Haas said the first 15 pages of the script are the most important because that’s where you’re letting Hollywood know who you are.
“Just say, ‘Is this my best? Or am I trying to write something that I think the market might like?’ That happens a lot. Someone might say, ‘Oh, vampires are hot. I don't even like vampires, but I'm gonna write the hell out of this vampire thing.’ That never works because you can tell it’s fake!”
Write what you’re most passionate about and let that passion show as clearly as possible in the first 15 pages of your script.
Face Your Fears
After winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation (2003), Sofia Coppola has gone on to write and direct such films as The Bling Ring (2013) and The Beguiled (2017). All her films feature fearless female protagonists who will stop at nothing to discover their true selves.
Coppola spoke about facing fears in her work.
“You know, it’s always scary. And then I remember someone saying, ‘It’s not worth doing if it’s not scary.’ Because you’re challenging yourself and hopefully doing something you haven’t done before.”
She says she worries sometimes that she’s exploring familiar territory but takes comfort in the fact that she’s not alone.
“A lot of artists do the same story over and over in different ways. I guess you’re trying to figure something out. I’m not sure when it’s fear or when your instinct is telling you that you shouldn’t be doing something. You have to really be able to listen to your gut.”
Don't shy away from writing about things you’re afraid of. Use fear as a road map to your gut. Wherever there’s fear, there’s a powerful story to be explored.
Being More Productive Sometimes Means Being More Restrictive
Emily V. Gordon is best known for co-writing the semi-autobiographical feature film The Big Sick (2017) with Kumail Nanjiani, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. She’s written for such TV shows as Crashing and Little America. In her talk, she touched on the importance of creating strict parameters for her work week, like always taking a break for lunch and not working on weekends.
She said that by restricting her work hours she was able to become more productive and go deeper into a creative space.
“I'm a real big believer in creating spaces for your creativity, rather than acting like it's just like loose beasts that run around and can't be controlled. It absolutely can. Your creativity is not a magical thing from on high. I think a lot of times people are like, ‘Oh, I can't [write], I'm just not feeling it, so I can't do anything.’ But you can train that creature to come when you call it.”
Create discipline around your creative output and know that the more you practice that discipline, the better you’ll get at accessing your creative self.
Let Your Passion Lead You to Success
Steven Canals is the creator of the queer drama series Pose, for which he won a Peabody Award. As a producer, his mission is to develop diverse and inclusive stories that inspire a wide range of audiences. During his talk, he said the success of any project comes from the writer’s passion.
“If there isn’t a fire, like a passion burning within you to tell that story, then that might not be the right story to tell.”
He also mentioned his excitement for a new TV pilot he’s writing.
“The pilot that I’m working on, it lives in my fingertips. I wake up in the morning and I can’t wait to get to the computer to get the story out. I’ve fallen in love with these characters, and I’m super invested in their journey. It has to feel like that. If you’re not feeling it in that way, do a gut check to say, ‘Okay, let me put that to the side and find the story that does make me feel that way.’”
Find the project you feel most passionate about. Without that passion, not only will the script be difficult to complete, it will drain all your creative juices. Find your passion and keep writing!
This year's Writers Summit was one for the record books! If you missed the live event but still want to see each talk in their entirety, you can watch them on TSL360 right now!