Tackling Writer's Block with MY COUSIN VINNY Screenwriter Dale Launer
“Allow yourself to cut loose,” Dale Launer advises on his recent visit to Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA. In order to write the way you should, Launer, the celebrated screenwriter of My Cousin Vinny and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, says all inhibitions must be erased. Write like a child -- back to the part of you that fell in love with writing in the first place.
Launer discusses this and other topics in his insightful chat with the podcast. Below are some snippets from the conversation.
Don’t Fear Writer’s Block -- It’s Only You
“What writer’s block is, is a form of depression and anxiety,” Launer says of the dilemma every writer faces on (probably) every project. But for Launer, diagnosing it as such means it’s conquerable. It’s a roadblock that’s all in the writer’s head.
“You have ideas, but for some reason, your inner critic is stopping it,” Launer continues. “That’s what writer’s block is. You’re sitting looking at a blank page or you’re looking at a scene, you don’t like it, you’re just stopping yourself.” Launer’s advice is simple: stop stopping yourself. Easier said than done, perhaps? For Launer, acknowledging that it’s something you can control is the first step. Often, we may give up, thinking there’s no way this script can be finished -- it’s a waste of time. But that’s the easy way out. Keep pushing. Find the part of the process that made you happy, that made you want to do this from the start.
Take the Leash Off
Piggy-backing off of the idea of finding the part of the writing process that made you happy, Launer delves deeper. It’s not just acknowledging your writer’s block is a form of depression -- the key is to also find your inner child, adult critic balance.
“I used to say a writer has two sides to them,” Launer explains. “One, the creative side is like the child that’s finger painting and just has fun. And then the other side is the critic, it’s the adult. And usually, your adult gets stronger before your child side gets stronger as a beginning screenwriter. I see it all the time with kids in their early 20’s -- they’re critical, very, very critical… that’s part of the process, I think, part of the evolution of a writer. At least it was for me. My ‘critic’ was like Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was strong, it was powerful. I had to learn to tell that side of me to back off and then get more and more creative.”
“Allow yourself to cut loose,” Launer simply says. Take the leash off -- just write.
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Be a Stand-Up Comic (Of Sorts)
Part of Launer’s process, especially for the comedy scripts he’s known for, is to cultivate and refine the jokes and story beats in front of an audience, sort of like a stand-up comic does before the big Netflix special.
“I often will do pitches to people and I’ll act out all the scenes so I know how they sound,” Launer details. “And if I act out a scene, I’ll get a response from people in the room. It could be like one person, it could be a few people. I can see how it plays… something I learned way back early in my career. That if I pitch a story, you can see where the laughs go. You perform it. It’s fun to do and it’s fun to get the feedback and you end up coming up with new material.”
The Benefits of Research
My Cousin Vinny is taught in some law schools. Many lawyers cite the film as the most realistic Hollywood portrayal of courtroom dynamics. Not The Verdict or A Few Good Men. No. My Cousin Vinny. It’s a testament to Launer’s research ethic.
“When I sat do to write [My Cousin Vinny], I sat down with my friend who was a lawyer, a litigator. And so we would meet for lunch and I’d ask him questions and he would often say things like, ‘Yeah but it’s a movie, you don’t have to…” and I’d go, ‘No, no, no, don’t tell me that. Don’t excuse it because it’s a movie… what would really happen?’” Launer remembers. But sticking to real-life creates benefits in his opinion. As Launer says, “When he tells me what really happens, that becomes fodder for the story.” As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: dalelauner.com