Writing a Good Screenplay Is an Art—And Also a Craft

Screenwriting is like creating Frankenstein’s monster; assembling body parts is easy, but giving them life is “almost impossible.”
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did you get into screenwriting?

Danny Rubin: I’ve always done writing as part of everything that I’ve done in the past, just various creative enterprises.  I write songs and do music and write essays and short plays and sketch comedy and all these things and during my 20’s, I was living in Chicago and probably pursuing everything creatively that I could think of all at once and waiting for something to choose me. 

I got a job right out of graduate school working for a local television show in Chicago and so I was doing writing for that, but I was also writing music and I was doing a little bit of performing.  I was writing plays and also performing on stage and doing the music thing and playing coffee houses and blues clubs and, ultimately, I was just waiting for something to choose me and what happened was somebody suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a screenplay for a movie?” and I thought, “I like movies,” and so I wrote one and l looked at and said, “That was fun.”  I didn’t like that particular screenplay and didn’t do anything with it, but then I wrote another one and sent it out and somebody bought it and all of a sudden I was screenwriter and I thought, “That was easy.  I’ll do this.”  And so, I just kept doing it and I haven’t had any reason to do anything else since. 

Question: What’s the hardest part about writing a good screenplay?

Danny Rubin:  Making it good, that good part.  Writing a screenplay is not so hard.  That’s all about knowing where the margins are.  Writing a good screenplay is almost impossible.

I think it - part of it has to do with being original, trying to do something that feels fresh when there have been so many movies made and also particularly in Hollywood, a tendency to try and remake the same movies over and over again.  So, it’s writing a movie that’s original that becomes really difficult and there's something very formal about the enterprise of writing a screenplay.  It can’t be longer than two hours.  So, the kind of story you tell, whatever it is, it has to be as engaging and as exciting as possible within that one and a half to two hour period and that forces certain kind of conventions on you.  Places where we really want to have them gripped in the story by here or else they’re going to leave or change the channel or walk out of the theater.

There's a certain kind of efficiency built into screenwriting that’s very elegant, but that makes it as hard to craft as a very finely crafted piece of sculpture, furniture, something like that.  And making it all come alive when you just start putting together all the pieces of things that you visualize that would wonderful.  It all seems in your mind to be wonderful, but then when you look at what you’ve created on the page it’s like a Frankenstein’s monster.  You’ve got a head, you’ve got the hands, you got the feet, you’ve got the body.  You’ve thought of everything and when you look at it, it’s still just a bunch of dead meat lying there on the table and you're trying to get a pulse to go through the thing.  What makes it real?

It’s complete artifice.  It’s completely made up.  It’s all these things from your head and your desires and dreams and it isn’t real yet and somehow, something has to spark off the page that makes you to join the life that’s going on in this world that you’ve created.  And to make that smooth life feel real when the whole thing is artifice.  It all has agenda.  It’s all people you’ve created and worlds that don’t even exist.  Making that feel real, that’s the absolute impossible thing.  Being original, making it feel real and making it all fit.  It’s the easiest thing in the world and it’s absolutely impossible.

Question: Do you consider screenwriting an art form?

Danny Rubin:  Screenwriting is an art form, but it’s also a craft.  It’s both of those things.  It’s a commercial art and both of those things you need to be good at.  If you just know the craft and you don’t have any sense of the art, that means you don’t have anything to say and you don’t have an interesting way to say it. 

If it’s all art and no craft, then you’ve got these great ideas, but you aren’t able to articulate them in a way that makes it all work out as a good blueprint for building a great movie.  So, I definitely think there's a great deal of artistry involved.  I’ve never seen a good screenplay that was nothing but craft.

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman