It’s often said in screenwriting books that scribes should write about what they know. I personally think it’s advice that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Oftentimes when you are hired to pen a script you have to write about something you know nothing about and bear in mind that assignments are more common and more often paid than spec screenplays which tend to be about your favourite subject matter, what you know about, whereas assignments are more likely about something you know nothing about, such as say politics, golf or astrophysics. But, more importantly, we shouldn’t narrow down our narratives to life as we experience it because for the most part we have boring lives and cinema can go much further in the way of escapism. That’s why I believe that screenwriters should stretch themselves, step out of their comfort zone, and write about things they don’t know about.
However, if you write stories about something you don’t know from your own perspective and experience, it will feel fake. And that’s the problem I have with a lot of scripts I read. Screenwriters write about gangsters, mobsters, and art dealers, but it’s clear they are just rehashing things they have seen before in movies or TV, so their screenplays sound cliché. That’s why screenplays that take me into a rich, well documented world stand out. For example, last year I read a script written by a Raindance MA student which captured a world I knew nothing about in a visually, compelling way. Although it dealt with lumberjacks in the early days of what was yet to become Ottawa, I felt that it came from a place of authenticity because the characters and world jumped off the page. It turned out that the screenwriter had done a lot of historical research prior to writing the script and it showed.
This is an example of why I believe research is an essential part of the screenwriting process, especially when you are not writing about a world and/or characters you know well from personal experience. When you can’t write from first hand experience and sit down in a New Orleans jazz pub like Alan Parker did to adapt ANGEL HEART from the horror novel byWilliam Hjortsberg, you need to do research and become a mini authority on the subject you’re dealing with to make your story as authentic as you can. That’s what Bram Stoker did when he wrote “Dracula”. He had never set foot in Transylvania, so instead he spent hours reading descriptions of disquieting Romanian mountains in a library in Whitby, a quaint coastal town in North Yorkshire.
However, while you need to become a mini expert on the subject you are exploring you also need to ensure you aren’t getting too drawn into too much research and spend months without writing a word. So, how do you make sure research doesn’t keep you from writing the actual script?
1. Figure out what you want to write about first!
I’ve met some screenwriters who are a bit too literal in their interpretation of McKee’s STORY and spend months – if not years – doing nothing outside of “researching”. Well, then, research becomes another word for procrastination. Writers love researching because it’s a good excuse to avoid sitting at their desk and actually writing. Don’t we all love guilt-free binge watching of Netflix content related to our subject matter but not actually writing?
That’s why I recommend you never start your screenplay research before knowing what your story is about, or at least “what” you want to write about, such as elephant poaching in Kenya, or a rogue agent in the CIA. First, write down a short outline so that you know what you actually need to research. Doing research in the hope that a story will come knocking at your door is a sure-fire way to wander in the dark for a very long time. You’ll just end up being a PHD candidate on a subject but still without a story to tell.
So, before you even start your screenplay research you’ll need to know “what” you want to explore at the minimum, even if it’s as broad as a 19th century explorer going to Greenland in the hope to find a Viking treasure. What is it about? Who’s your hero? What’s the timeline? What’s the theme? And if it’s a biography, what specific moment in your protagonist’ life are you interested in exploring? (for example Charles Dickens’ life is seen through the prism of the affair he had with an actress in Abi Morgan’s script for “The Invisible Woman”). Of course, it’s a retroactive process and you’ll feed off of the elements you gather along the way to further develop your story. But the core idea should already exist to ensure that you know what you’re looking for when you start researching.
2. Develop a system.
Get a notebook or your I-Pad, compile a list of facts you need to research and use it as a roadmap to save time.
You might want to compile a list of Wikipedia entries you need to check out as preliminary research, followed by movies and TV series that are good references for you story and its particular genre. Oscar calibre screenplays would ideally feature on your list as well so that you can be inspired by brilliant writers who are experts in that particular world.
But please don’t turn into a Netflix junkie under the pretense of doing research. Compile a list of documentaries and TED talks featuring the kind of people that are in your script, possible music that might infuse your world, articles, museums and places you might want to visit, etc. And last but not least draw a list of fiction and non-fiction books that you need to read. I completely subscribe to what Stephen King said: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot”. I can’t stress enough how important it is to read a lot as part of becoming a mini expert on a subject. The brain has a funny way to process the information we read, which somehow seems to sink deeper into our mind. Neuroscientists believe that the brain can’t make the distinction between reading about an experience and actually experiencing it in real life (here is a great article on the subject), which probably explains why “a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” (William Styron).
3. Set aside a block of time for research… then write.
Set aside a block of time (I’d say two or three months maximum depending on the amount of research involved by the subject matter and the time you have on your hands) where you diligently go through all the material you set out to watch and read. Take ample notes in your file or notebook and keep to a strict schedule.
When the time is up do the exact opposite of what you’ve done during the last couple of months or so: spend your writing time actually writing, expanding on your outline and turning it into a script. Stick to your regular writing schedule, whatever it is, whether it’s eight hours or one hour a day. But still find a little bit of time every day to read or watch something that is related to your story, and keep absorbing information that will keep your mind fired up and excited about the world of your script.
That’s exactly what my partner at Frenzy Films, Sean McConville, did when he was commissioned to write “The White Shaman”, a supernatural adventure about a missionary doctor who goes looking for his father in the jungles of Papua New Guinea in 1975. First he mapped out the story before starting the research process. Because Sean had never been to Papua New Guinea a lot of research was in order. So he spent weeks reading every book he could find on the subject and watched plenty of documentaries.
All of this information went into Sean’s research notebook. Then he went off to write the script. While he was writing the script he kept reading books and watching documentaries during his leisure time. It helped Sean infuse his script with details that are authentic, like the fact sorcerers have amulets called a marupai they fill up out with human flesh to make them more powerful, or that pigs are used as tokens to solve conflicts, and that crocodiles are called “puk-puks” in pidgin language. It’s the fun part, the small tidbits of verisimilitude and colour which help your reader and audience see the world you create. It also gives them and you the pleasure of learning new things, which is invaluable. And Sean must have done something right with this project because “The White Shaman” screenplay was one of the 13 winners of the Scriptapalooza competition out of 4000 entries; and I have a fond memory of helping Sean throughout the development process because I learned so much myself about Papua New Guinea as I was the script consultant on that project.
4. Talk to people!
Screenwriters need to get out of their garret and talk to people who are experts in the field they are dealing with. For example, as he was developing UNITED 94 Paul Greengrass interviewed military and civilian participants involved in the 9/11 event and those who had lost loved ones on the plane. Similarly, TV writers have an armada of consultants and experts at the ready, which is how they come up with such cool ideas for BREAKING BAD. And don’t get daunted because you haven’t had anything produced and you assume nobody is going to take you seriously. It’s the right time to make good use of social media and LinkedIn. Human nature is so inclined that people enjoy talking about themselves and their expertise and they love feeling that you take their field a seriously as they do and respect their subject. Back when I was a film student in Los Angeles I did a short film involving earthquakes in the Californian desert so I knocked on the door of geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey and they were very generous with their time, and even loaned me equipment that I could use when it came to making the film.
5. Become a mini-expert but don’t write a textbook/manual.
Refrain from cramming all the knowledge into your script just because you know it and don’t add scenes just for the sake of showing off your knowledge. Don’t overload it with scientific facts to the point that the story gets lost or it reads like a manual. The story and the emotions come first. Always. The tremendous amount of research you did should be like 90% of an iceberg which remain invisible, and the plot and characters are the tip of that iceberg.
A brilliant example is MARGIN CALL, a sharply-scripted thriller written and directed by J.C. Chandor which takes place over one night inside a Wall Street traders’ room. A rocket scientist type discovers that the firm is on the verge of financial disaster and the top executives have to decide before the markets open in the morning whether they or their clients will take the brunt of a wrong equation. Clearly J.C. Chandor knows his stuff (his father used to work on Wall Street) but I was impressed by the way he cleverly gets across complex information without ever taking us out of the story. The Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons characters frown at financial mumbo jumbo and always make a point of asking experts to talk in “plain English”, a clever trick which also shows the writer’s deep understanding of his subject for “What you understand well, you enunciate clearly “, said French author Boileau. Here is a link to the script, and to a scene. There is a lot to learn from that movie.
6. But use creative license.
I have an historian friend who shakes his head in disapproval whenever I mention BRAVEHEART because the real William Wallace was nothing like the noble man depicted in the movie and there are historical gaps the size of a skyscraper in the script. But, still, I personally think it’s a compelling movie. Although you should strive to avoid blatant inaccuracies, by the same token the worst thing you can do is give it to an expert and make sure everything is 100% accurate as the story always comes first. Just accept the fact that your screenplay may never be completely true but always favor the story first and then do your best to make it realistic without letting the facts keep you from writing. If screenwriters couldn’t have creative license I am pretty sure a movie like last night’s BAFTA winner GRAVITY wouldn’t exist. Cuarón moved around various pieces of celestial hardware, and endowed the Chinese with a space station, when in fact they don’t as yet, but it doesn’t matter because GRAVITY keeps us on the edge of our seats for 90 minutes – that’s what matters!
Have fun researching!