Screenwriting Secrets From About Time Writer/Director Richard Curtis

by Chris Goss on November 15, 2013

Richard Curtis creates expectations. His films carry his trademark because he writes what he knows. They’re personal -- based on lifelong appreciations seen through his eyes only. As such, his criticisms are polarizing, yet his success is nonetheless apparent. He didn’t write his first feature screenplay until age thirty, and discusses the why behind his writings in a lecture presented at the BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series of 2013. Disclaimer: He is the reason (as I’m sure many other thirty-something husbands of wives agree) my wife loves movies. Notting Hill. Bridget Jones. Love Actually...

In summary, his presentation hits on several keys points that well-represent the varying viewpoints of the screenwriter.

Nobody knows. Perhaps the single greatest hope and single greatest discouragement about screenwriting. There are no answers, rules, or road maps. It’s like the American dream -- available to all who aspire without any instructions for guaranteed success. Each path is unique, so stop comparing yourself to that twenty-six-year-old who just made a seven figure deal with Sony.

His view is entirely his own. It works for him but that’s not to say that it will work for you. As a contributor to ScreenCraft, I can’t stress my agreeance with this enough. Much of what I learn, I learn by doing. It may read like creed to me, and hogwash to you. But through the exploration of our craft -- and the sharing of that exploration (ScreenCraft) -- we can form a productive dialogue to fuel what matters: writing. It keeps us going.

Write you. An age-old screenwriting-ism. I go back and forth on this. A lot of why I write is because I like to explore that which I don’t, nor will ever, know. It’s escapism in its truest form, from the comfortable seat of my home office. Serial killers don’t write horror films. Aliens don’t write science fiction. Superheroes don’t exist. None of these movies would ever be made if writers stuck to writing solely from their own life experiences. However, nothing is as powerful in film as the true ring of emotional clarity. As such, I believe our task is to combine that which we know, with that which we want to explore. Such a meeting is the pinnacle of creativity and often results in the best material.

Stay involved. Curtis talks about being present throughout the entire filmmaking process and being selective in those who you work with. The cynic in me laughs, as what aspiring writer will ever have that much pull? But the core of his advice rings true. We, as writers, should care about how our films get made. We have a valuable insight and should fight to be heard. This is entirely circumstantial, especially when becoming a successful screenwriter is likened to winning the lottery. In other words, you don’t win the Powerball and then request instead to win the Big Spin -- you take the money and run. So, this is tough, and perhaps a point only well-taken with experience. As aspiring writers we fight so hard to get our material into the hands of Hollywood, then suddenly want to tell Hollywood what to do with it? I wish I could say it worked that way… Take a listen to Richard Curtis’s full lecture on Soundcloud. Where do you stand on his points about writing what you know and pushing to be heard?

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