Screenwriting Wisdom from 2017's Top Sundance Screenwriters

by Ken Miyamoto on November 10, 2017

You often hear great advice from some of Hollywood's best and most successful screenwriters — but what about those that come from the indie market?

The Sundance Film Festival has been educating screenwriters and filmmaking for over three decades with labs, grants, and fellowships that offer programs to support independent storytellers in developing their craft.

Throughout those years, some amazing screenwriters have come through that system.

Here we feature advice from some of 2017's top Sundance screenwriters, thanks to Screen Prism's Screenwriting Tips: Best of Sundance Screenwriters video where they spoke to top screenwriters at this year's Sundance about the process of writing for the screen. They asked what makes someone a good screenwriter, how to adapt from source material, and what advice they'd give aspiring writers.

Darci Picoult (Where is Kyra?)

Darci Picoult's script for Where is Kyra? tells the story of Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer), a disenfranchised woman who loses herself mentally and physically in the wake of her mother's death. Using negative space and out-of-focus shots, the film's visuals render the main character's isolation and confusion as to where – or who – she is anymore.

"I think one of the most important things with screenwriting is that you give yourself the chance to really get into the heads of each of your characters. Also, not to control a story, but to let it reveal itself to you. That’s why I loved being on set. Michelle would do something, and I would write something that never would have come to me [otherwise]," Picoult told Screen Prism.

She went on to say, "I think that the most important [advice I have] is that if you have a story, tell it. Don’t worry about whether it’s going to sell. Don’t worry if anyone’s going to like it. What your focus should be is your heart, getting uncomfortable, getting into the world you want to portray and letting yourself marinate in it. I tell my students that all of the time: just marinate in this. That’s when things will come to you as opposed to when you’re trying to make it happen."

She later explained what the difference is between writing for the stage and writing for the screen.

"What I tell people is that when I write for theater, I write with my ears. And when I write for film I write with my eyes... it's a different way of capturing a story."

Ben York Jones ( Newness)

Ben York Jones's script for Newness tells the story of a couple — played by Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa — in contemporary Los Angeles navigating the world of online dating and social media–driven hookup culture.

Jones (Like Crazy, Breathe In) originally sent the script to Scott Free Productions’ Michael Pruss, who later helped raise the entire under-$10 million budget from producer Mason Novick’s company, Lost City.

He advised screenwriters that "... being able to empathize with people and strive for understanding, even in the most difficult of situations, is important. And it's important to be alert and aware and observe."

When asked if there are different kinds of screenwriters, Jones replied, "I think there are screenwriters that are a little more 'puzzle-makers' if you will. People who are a little more plot-oriented. And then I think there are screenwriters that are a little more character-driven."

He was later asked about the difference between writing outlines versus writing a conventional script.

"One of the ways I like to describe it, I suppose, is that [outlines] are like giving driving directions by landmark instead of street names."

Daniel Clowes (Wilson)

Adapted from Daniel Clowes’ 2010 graphic novel of the same name, Wilson (2017) follows a neurotic and lonely protagonist (Woody Harrelson) as he reunites with his estranged wife and meets the teenage daughter he didn’t know he had.

When asked what it is like to see your script projected onscreen, Clowes replied, "It’s like seeing your dreams projected onto a wall. Every character is based on someone I know and there are little intimate details from my life. It’s very odd to see that in front of an audience."

R.F.I Porto (The Yellow Birds)

R.F.I. Porto's script for The Yellow Birds (2017) – adapted from Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers’ 2012 novel of the same name – depicts the all-encompassing “fog of war” as experienced by young soldier Brandon Bartle (Alden Ehrenreich). We follow the main character through a rush of memories of before, during and after deployment, as he tries to piece together what exactly happened while he was at war.

When commenting on what it was like to adapt a novel for the screen, Porto shared, "The funny thing about writing is that sometimes being faithful means not doing exactly what’s in the source material. It’s about figuring out what that other author meant, and finding a way to turn that story into the one the director most wants to tell."

Jason Dolan (Sidney Hall)

Jason Dolan's script for Sidney Hall (2017) tells the story of a writer that finds accidental success and unexpected love at an early age, then disappears without a trace.

Dolan was asked if he writes specific instructions for actors in his scripts. He replied, "Personally no. I don't like to put any emotion — you know how it says 'Jim, (Aggravated) what are we doing here?' I would rather just write 'Jim, what are we doing here?' and let the actor make that choice."

He went on to say, "As the writer, you are the seed. And then everybody else — these are the gardeners. And you want to grow something that people are going to want to devote their time and their ideas..."

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring writers? "Jot out a rough outline of where you think the story is going to go and then write the terrible version of your movie. Write that first draft!" 

So the general takeaways from these talented Sundance screenwriters is:

  • Get inside your character's heads
  • Empathize, be alert, and observe
  • Know if you're a puzzle-maker or a character-driven writer
  • If adapting, figure out what the source writer means and don't feel that you have to preserve everything
  • Find the seeds that others — directors and actors — will want to make grow
  • If you have a story, just tell it
  • Let the bad version first
  • Let it marinate

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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