Danny Strong shares his advice for young screenwriters and why acting was a helpful preparation for becoming a writer.
Question: What advice would you give an aspiring screenwriter?
Danny Strong: Well, the only advice I would give to a starting up screenwriter, it’s very simple. You have to write something you love. So if you love these kinds of movies, then go for it. Now, from a career business standpoint, they’re not good movies to write, because studios don’t seek these out. These aren’t movies that studios are looking to make. I mean, but that changes all the time. I mean, right now they’re making comic book movies. I mean, those are the huge hits, and animated films. I’m not going to write either of those. I don’t really enjoy going to see those kinds of movies. The type of comedies they make now are very, very broad. I think the Judd Apatow comedies are actually quite smart. But the really broad type comedies, I don’t really care for those either. So I would be a bad writer for those. Now I learned that lesson the hard way, because that’s what I tried to break into the business doing and wasn’t ultimately successful. So if someone wants to write an historical film, go for it, but you should just write it because you love it. When I came up with the idea for “Recount”, it was from a business standpoint insane, because there was only one company in town that would make it, HBO. And HBO is famous for being somewhat snobby in the writers they hire. They sort of writer [sic] the classiest of writers. I had never sold a screenplay. So not only was I not the classiest of writers, I was off the radar completely. The idea of me selling a pitch to HBO was ridiculous. And my representatives and everyone I knew made it clear that I knew that going into it, that this probably can’t happen. And I said, “I know. I totally know that this is a terrible idea.” But I didn’t care, because after my research, after reading those two initial books, I just loved it so much, and I thought this could be such a great movie. And I thought even if they don’t buy it as a pitch, I’m going to write it. And even if no one likes it, I will have had the experience of writing what I think is a really, really interesting film. And that was all I cared about. And I think that’s how screenwriters, and I think writers of any kind, need to approach their work of this may never make a dime. No one may ever read this, but the experience of writing it was incredibly rewarding for me and there’s nothing else I would have enjoyed spending my time doing more than getting to write this. And I think that should be the standard for what a writer chooses to do.
Question: Why was your earlier work so different?
Danny Strong: These were my first scripts, so I’m learning how to do it. I mean, I don’t, you know, it’s a very unusual process, screenwriting. I mean, you’ve seen novelists, great novelists, fail at it, famous stories of the novelists from the ‘20s and ‘30s coming out to Los Angeles and becoming alcoholics. And it’s always blamed on the studio system destroying them, but I think in some ways it’s also the form itself of screenwriting. It’s not a free form. It’s a very constricted, very tight form. You’re creating a blueprint to be shot by a camera, and that’s going to cost a lot of money to shoot that blueprint. So it wasn’t. You know, when I look back upon it, I think, yes, I was fighting some of my natural tendencies. The script that I was talking about that blew up, the “Liar, Liar” type script, was a movie about a corrupt senator, who’s cursed with instant karma. So everything, “Dave” meets “Liar, Liar.” So everything that happens to him, every deceitful act that he does as a senator, happens back to him immediately, very broad. And all the scenes in that movie that were the easiest for me to write, were the political commentary scenes, you know, the really broad, “Liar, Liar” type scenes, very forced, very kind of pulling teeth. And they’re not even that good in retrospect. But I think the other ideas is ultimately why it got a lot of attention. So, yeah, I guess I was fighting my natural tendencies, but at the same time I was just trying to figure out what the hell I was doing.
Question: How do acting and writing compliment each other?
Danny Strong: Well, I think they complement each other really well. I think I know a number of actors who have become writers, and when an actor can write, they make very, very good writers. These friends of mine, they’re really successful. They actually haven’t had films made, but they’ve sold a lot of scripts and are very high in demand. And it’s because we’ve spent our whole life trying to figure out how to make these scenes work as an actor, so that when we write scenes, it’s very natural. Dialogue for me is very natural. It’s very easy and very fun. Really that’s the fun part, when I finally get to the point where I can write dialogue and writing characters, because I’m a character actor. I’ve spent my whole career playing all sorts of different types of characters, from very shy, cocky, whatever. And so to write different types of characters is just kind of a natural extension of what I’ve been doing as an actor all these years. And I think at the end of the day a scripts you know, Arthur Miller said that why people still do his plays is because there’s great roles for actors. That’s why his plays keep getting redone. I mean, I think he’s underselling himself. His plays are brilliant. And then he also said that’s why Shakespeare’s plays are still done to this day, because these are great roles for actors. Well, who runs theater companies? Actors run theater companies. And I think the same thing goes for movies, that how do you get a movie star to be in your movie? Because it’s a great role. And I think who else is going to be better to write a great role than an actor himself.
Question: Would you encourage aspiring screenwriters to learn to act?
Danny Strong: Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, to take some acting classes absolutely, and I’ve been, because I stayed in acting classes pretty much. As soon as I graduated from theater school at USC, I was in acting classes for the next eight, nine, ten years. I mean I literally stopped taking an acting class after I sold “Recount” to go research. And there were writers in and out all through the years of these acting classes.
Question: Who is the most interesting actor you’ve ever worked with?
Danny Strong: That’s a really good question. Well, Christopher Walken was certainly the strangest. He just has this energy around him. And I remember, and everyone’s so- I don’t know if they’re, yeah, they’re intimidated. People are pretty intimidated by him. And something happened where I went up to him and said something kind of jokey, but in a confrontational kind of way, and he went from the Prince of Darkness to this kind of geek. He’s like, oh, no, no, I’m joking, you know, and he got very geeky. And it was really funny just seeing him go from that to that. I think a lot of these guys, they kind of want people to be normal around them, but people aren’t. I remember during “Pleasantville”, Jeff Daniels was very, he never said anything. And people were kind of intimidated by him. And one day I just started talking to him, and the reality was he was just the most normal person you’ve ever met. And it seemed like he just wanted people to be normal around him, because once you start talking to him, he’s just so nice and down to earth, and he couldn’t be a cooler guy. So I find that kind of that aura gets created by everyone on eggshells around him. But some people, you know, I hear Meryl Streep on a set goes out of her way to make everyone feel at ease because she knows that everyone is so freaked out by her. So, you know, just different people have different approaches.
Question: How does a young screenwriter break in?
Danny Strong: Well, in my case it took several years, and it was a build. I mean, the first script got a few of those people interested and willing to read my next script. That’s kind of what it is. It’s not, okay, we’re not going to buy this one, because no one every buys a script, but everyone’s always looking. So when they read something of yours that they thought was well written, they’re completely open to reading the next one. And that’s how you build a career, and that’s exactly what happened in my case. One was a few people. The next one was a few more, but a manager. And then the next one was a lot, because it spread very quickly. But none of them sold. But it put me in a place where I was able to sell the “Recount” pitch, because I had many. There was about 10 or 15 producers who would be very excited to hear an idea from me, based on the previous scripts. So that’s what it is. It’s hard. I mean, and when you think about that, that’s a lot of years of writing with no economic reward, and a lot of work, because each script was not something that happened in a month. Each script took six, seven months and multiple rewrites. So it’s and as it should be. I think my track, four years, four scripts, the fifth pitch was a sale. I think that’s a fast track. I think it went very well. But I was very committed to it because I loved doing that. I loved writing scripts, and I kind of had made the decision. Who knows if I would have stuck with it, but in moments of despair, which are, you know, there’s many. I mean imagine the rejection, the daily rejection of an acting career. So you start writing to get your mind off of it, and it becomes a daily rejection of a writing career. That’s just a lot of rejection for what you perceive as your artistic talent, and you start to doubt those talents. But I kind of made the decision that I will continue writing, even if I never make a dime, and I won’t stop until I don’t want to write anymore.
Recorded on: 06/27/2008