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

Question: How did you get into screenwriting?

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

I got a job right out of \r\ngraduate school working for a local television show in Chicago and so I \r\nwas doing writing for that, but I was also writing music and I was doing\r\n a little bit of performing.  I was writing plays and also performing on\r\n stage and doing the music thing and playing coffee houses and blues \r\nclubs and, ultimately, I was just waiting for something to choose me and\r\n what happened was somebody suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a \r\nscreenplay for a movie?” and I thought, “I like movies,” and so I wrote \r\none and l looked at and said, “That was fun.”  I didn’t like that \r\nparticular screenplay and didn’t do anything with it, but then I wrote \r\nanother one and sent it out and somebody bought it and all of a sudden I\r\n was screenwriter and I thought, “That was easy.  I’ll do this.”  And \r\nso, I just kept doing it and I haven’t had any reason to do anything \r\nelse since. 

Question: What’s the hardest part about \r\nwriting a good screenplay?

Danny Rubin:  Making it \r\ngood, that good part.  Writing a screenplay is not so hard.  That’s all \r\nabout knowing where the margins are.  Writing a good screenplay is \r\nalmost impossible.

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

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

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

Question: Do you consider \r\nscreenwriting an art form?

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

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

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

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

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

A dark matter hurricane is crashing into Earth

Giving our solar system a "slap in the face."

Surprising Science
  • A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
  • It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
  • Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
Keep reading Show less

Orangutans exhibit awareness of the past

Orangutans join humans and bees in a very exclusive club

(Eugene Sim/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • Orangutan mothers wait to sound a danger alarm to avoid tipping off predators to their location
  • It took a couple of researchers crawling around the Sumatran jungle to discover the phenomenon
  • This ability may come from a common ancestor
Keep reading Show less