Talk Tuesday: Around the "Towne" and Festival Circuit with Award-Winning Screenwriter, Michael Begg
Melinda T. Falgoust
“Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”
The business of screenwriting does, indeed, require a certain amount of finesse. It’s a very different animal than prose writing, story stripped down to the bare essentials. This week on our “Talk Tuesday” feature, we sat down with award-winning screenwriter Michael Begg (Nicholl Fellowship Quarter-Finalist, Peachtree Village International Film Festival Finalist, Official Selection of the Richmond International Film Festival, Official Selection of the Sacramento International Film Festival, et al) to unravel some of mystery behind Hollywood’s secret handshake.
Michael Begg began writing scripts as a teenager, inspired by writers like William Goldman, Robert Towne, Billy Wilder, Paddy Chayesfsky, and Alan Sharpe. He earned a master’s degree in Communications and English from the University of New Orleans and studied the screenwriting craft under the tutelage of Professor Richard Walter, Chair of the screenwriting department at UCLA. He has a background in education, both in administration and as a teacher of writing and literature, all the while pursuing a screenwriting career. His latest project is a feature drama with Tiny Elephant Films, I AM and a period comedy THE ADVANTAGES OF WHISKEY OVER DOGS: A HOLLYWOOD FABLE.
Michael, you’ve listed some iconic Hollywood luminaries as heroes, William Goldman among them. Goldman, besides being known for such pivotal scripts like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and, of course, The Princess Bride, was also known as a bit of a curmudgeon. “Nobody knows anything” became his catchphrase. Would you say that, as far as screenwriting goes, that sentiment is true?
When it comes to selling your ideas to Hollywood, I think that certainly can be the case. No one in Hollywood really knows what they want. They are all trying to catch “lightning in a bottle”. Sometimes it strikes. Sometimes it doesn’t. Take, for instance, the project I’m working on right now. It was a totally out-of-the-blue thing. I got this call one day from a producer/director whose company was looking for a writer for a film project. He had come across my script THE MILK ROUTE and it struck a chord with him. THE MILK ROUTE deals with the devastation of a post-Katrina New Orleans, and he felt that it conveyed the same feel he wanted to bring to a story he was working on. I asked him where he had gotten a copy of the script, and he confessed he couldn’t remember. The point is, it didn’t matter to me whether he knew or not; somebody had seen a spark of lightning in my work, enough to forward it on to this producer.
Another hero of yours, the prolific screenwriter Billy Wilder, echoes Goldman’s sentiment in his “10 Rules of Screenwriting”. “#1: The audience is always fickle. Write the story you’re interested in.” Would you agree?
Absolutely. Most of my writing comes from what I’d like to see on screen. Many students in film school today are interested in writing the next super-hero movie or whatever the current trend might be. But, if you’re not willing to explore something you care about, something personal, you’ll never develop that drive that keeps you pushing forward, even in the face of rejection.
While we’re on the subject of rejection, how do handle rejection?
Not well (laughs). But, it’s a reality of the business. When I look at my career to date, the best way I can describe it is “discouraging exhilaration”. You have to keep pushing, though. I would guess that 99% of the scripts out there never get read, much less produced.
Steep odds. Did the thought of giving up writing ever occur to you?
Every day (smirk). Yes, but I write because I need to. It’s a love/hate thing with me. Sometimes I look at the page and think “Why in the hell do I keep doing this to myself?” and other times I’m so filled with joy and pride when I hold that finished script in my hand and think “Hey, I did this!”I just don’t want to die knowing that I didn’t do what I was put here to do.
So, what is your motivation for writing more?
Honestly, it’s a sense of survival. Of completion. It’s not just about success in the business. Don’t get me wrong! Financial success would be nice. But, that’s not the measurement of personal achievement.
As long as we’re measuring, what do you think is more difficult? Writing a screenplay, or writing a book?
Both are artistic challenges. As a screenwriter, I develop the story on the page knowing that I will hand it off to a team – a producer, a director, an actor – to bring it to life. For a novelist, there is more freedom to express the story in any imaginative fashion without worrying about the participation of other creative talents. The setting of the scene, the camera angles, the way the character talks, looks, moves…as a screenwriter, you’re not really expected to do that. In fact, that’s a surefire way to get a producer to put your script immediately to the side. A director will get offended if you put a camera angle in there. That’s his job. An actor’s going to get upset if you keep telling him to (look longingly). That’s his job. And if you try to sneak in what someone is thinking? Yeah, forget that. When I studied with Richard Walter, he told me “Never write what a character is thinking on the page. You can only write what the audience can see and hear.” You can try a voiceover, but again, too many of those and into the slush pile you go.
Okay. So, no camera angles. No “wrylys”. Minimal voiceovers. What else can screenwriters do to tighten up their form?
“Don’t use the passive voice.” Another piece of advice I received from Richard Walter. When you can use an action verb instead of the passive “is”, do it. When my frequent writing partner, Barry Lemoine, and I worked with Professor Walter out at UCLA, he took a look at FAT TUESDAY, our action-comedy script set during Mardi Gras, and pointed out that the passive voice was the first thing to change. Take out every “is” and replace it with an action verb. It’s positively amazing how that one little thing can change the whole tenor of your script. Now, when Barry and I get together to work on a piece, it’s almost a contest to see who can find and change the first “is.” I’ve gotten to the point now, when I’m working on my own, that I do it almost automatically without having to think about it.
Do you edit as you go then, or do you wait until the draft is completed then go back?
I edit as I go. This is going to sound strange, but I find sometimes it uncovers some interesting concepts that might have gone unnoticed if I’d waited until the end.
I had the opportunity to speak with Tony Hillerman, the mystery novelist, before he passed away. He mentioned that “it’s sometimes those little side trips where you find the most interesting details.” Is that along the lines of what you’re talking about?
Yes. Just be sure to keep that main through line going, though.
Speaking of “keeping going”, do you have a set schedule for writing, or do you just write wherever and whenever? How do you keep the ink (er, cursor) flowing?
I am always working. It’s just that it’s not necessarily in front of the computer. I never commit a scene to the page until it has been played out in my head. Sometimes that takes days. Once it’s down, I constantly rework it. I am terrible at setting self-imposed deadlines. However, I’ve recently discovered that I’m excellent at meeting a deadline that is set by a producer.
It can help being accountable to another. In that vein, you mentioned you occasionally work with a writing partner.
Yes. Barry Lemoine and I collaborated on multiple projects over the years. AUDUBON, an historical romance based on the life of John James Audubon, was optioned by an independent production company. It earned recognition as a top award winner at the Yosemite Film Festival, was a Grand Prize winner at the Mountain Film Festival, a Quarter-Finalist in the historical feature category of the Nashville Film Festival, and Official Selection of the Awareness Festival, a Top-Ten script at the New Hampshire Film Festival and a Semi-Finalist at the Denver Film Festival. An adventure/thriller script, THAT SINKING FEELING, was an Official Selection of the 2015 Oaxaca Film Fest and a Second-Rounder at the 2017 Austin Film Festival.
If you could recommend any reference books on the art and craft of screenwriting, are there any specific titles that come to mind?
I’ve used Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, but even more so I’d recommend Richard Walter’s book, The Essentials of Screenwriting. It explains both the craft and the business side of screenwriting in such a clear and simple way, I loved it! I was speaking at an educational conference at Notre Dame and wandered into the library during one of the breaks. I discovered his book while wandering through the aisles and wound up reading it on the plane home.
And how did you wind up with Professor Walter as a mentor?
I reached out in a letter. After I read his book, I was inspired to write him. Much to my surprise, he answered. I was even more surprised when he agreed to take a look at some of my work and he thought it was good.
Must be validating when someone responds to your work that way.
It is. Once a novelist has a book out there, you know it’s in the hands of a wide audience. That’s not always the case when you’re a screenwriter. The screenwriter is not writing a work to be READ outside the small circle of industry professionals who can decide to give it life. The screenwriter’s dream is to SEE the story on the screen with an audience. Sometimes you can get friends to read your screenplay, but if they’re not schooled in the craft, the best they can offer is encouragement. It’s not quite the same as having a professional in the industry say it’s up to snuff.
So, what can you do if you’re a screenwriter and you’re looking for that justification to keep going?
Read Pauline Kael, the legendary film critic of The New Yorker. She championed a lot of creative talents but wasn’t afraid to take those same people down if it was warranted. She was an absolutely brilliant woman whose criticisms read like a literary analysis. She’d pick film apart like it was nobody’s business. I often read a tattered copy of “I Lost It at the Movies” and am swept away by her insights. She makes you think about your craft. Kael observed this about our collective love of movies: “It may be a major factor in keeping us sane.”
Sanity from the crazy art of screenwriting? Sounds as farfetched as Kubrick script, yet deliciously enticing all the same. What drew you to scriptwriting as opposed to, say, writing the Great American Novel?
I would have to say it was a love of movies. There was a period where life was pretty rough and I spent a lot of time at the movies. I can remember back when I was about 15. I snuck into the back of Lakeside Cinema to watch Robert Towne’s CHINATOWN. The hero, Jake Gittes, was devastated at the end when there wasn’t a happy ending, and I can just remember being blown away by that concept – that there didn’t have to be a happy ending. That changed my outlook on the movies… and on life.
And, while we’re on the topic of happy endings, do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
See a lot of films (especially from the 70s). Don’t expect lightning in a bottle. Grow a thick skin. And, finally, you won’t develop your talent if you don’t write… and rewrite… and rewrite…
So, in the immortal words of Mr. Gittes: “What can I tell you kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.”