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Tips for Aspiring Screenwriters: Duke Haney, L.A Writer

Writing for Screen

Screenwriter Duke Haney with Arts Advisors, Jamie Hanton and Olivia Webb

Los Angeles based screenwriter Duke Haney was recently in Christchurch and gave a free talk to aspiring screenwriters along with some good tips on what producers are looking for when it comes to hiring screenwriters.

Duke has over 25 credits to his name – including one in the Friday the 13th franchise – and is also a novelist and essayist whose last collection ‘Death Valley Superstars’ tells the stories of some fascinating characters in Hollywood history.

We asked him to give us some advice about things he’s learned in his career.

How did you come to write the Friday the 13th screenplay?

It was pure serendipity. I had flown out from New York, where I was living at the time while pursuing an acting career, to Los Angeles to star in a movie for Roger Corman, the so-called King of B-movies, and camped on the dining-room floor of one of his assistants. It turned out there was no screenplay for the movie, so I ended up writing one, and Roger’s assistant was sufficiently impressed as to recommend me to someone at Paramount, where there was a such for a young writer to ‘revitalize” the ‘Friday the 13th” series. They had wanted the latest sequel to focus on a battle between Jason Vorhees, the killer of their own franchise, and Freddy Krueger, the killer of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, but the Freddy people had balked, so when I was coming up with pitch ideas, I tried to bear the “Freddy vs. Jason” idea in mind, and in fact suggested a battle between Jason Vorhees and teenage girl with telekinetic powers akin to the Sissy Spacek character in “Carrie.” It was the last idea I pitched on a payphone to someone at Paramount—I didn’t have a phone at the time, or a car, either, so that later I had to walk from the place where I was staying near the Hollywood sign to the Paramount lot for a meeting about “Jason vs. Carrie,” as the development person immediately dubbed my idea. I flew back to New York a few days later and literally I was turning the key in the door to my apartment when I heard the phone ringing inside and I ran to the phone and picked it up and was told “You got the job.” I had never even seen a “Friday the 13th” movie before I was asked to pitch ideas for one, so it was an odd turn of events as far as I was concerned.

Was it hard to write something with such a recognisable formula?

It was harder, really, to stick to the formula, since the development person was determined to outdo it. She literally said this would be the first “Friday the 13th” movie to win an Academy Award, and had me write many, many drafts to her specifications, drafts that weren’t in my contract, and ultimately her boss intervened and told me to follow the format in “Friday the 13th Part IV,” which I suppose he considered the best of lot, though of course there really wasn’t much difference between this sequel and that one. Ultimately I was replaced with another writer for the final tweaks to get back at my agent, who wanted me to be compensated for all those extra drafts I had written unnecessarily.

What are the different ways of getting a screenplay optioned or writing a screenplay?

Well, some screenplays are commissioned—that is, you’re approached with an idea and asked to flesh it out, but chances are, you’ll be one of a few, if not many, and of course, if you’re lucky, you’ll win what’s effectively a bake-off. Original screenplays are called spec scripts in the business, but maybe everyone already knows that. To get a spec script optioned, you’ll probably need an agent, but there are many stories of writers simply passing on their scripts to producers or directors or stars through mutual acquaintances or after simply bumping into X person at Y event and getting options that way. Of course successful people are wary of being approached with “Hey, I’ve got a screenplay,” and wary of being approached in general, so I wouldn’t count on anything coming of it. But it has been done, and personal charm is surely helpful.

Can a screenwriter afford to be too attached to their work?

I don’t think it’s a good idea for screenwriters ever to be too attached to their work, since scripts necessarily change based on input from directors, producers, actors, and so on.  I do believe in what used to be called artistic integrity, and I don’t advocate tossing away everything without at least trying to make a case for your own ideas, but too much “artistic integrity” is apt to result in a reputation for being “difficult” and screenwriters have always been considered expendable, certainly in Hollywood, which has long been the international model for the movie business.

How important is it, in your opinion, to watch old movies – what can you learn from them?

Oh, I think old movies are an underutilized resource for plot devices, character ideas, and so on. People think that because they’re old, they’re irrelevant, but I don’t think good writing is ever irrelevant, even if it’s sometimes a bit creaky, and Hollywood studios used to employ some truly great American writers, including William Faulkner, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Nathanael West, so when you steal from them, you’re stealing from the best. Roger Corman used to refer to the theft of plot devices as “the old switcheroo,” and honestly, Quentin Tarantino would have no career at all if he never borrowed from his, so to speak, ancestors. I think it’s as important for a screenwriter to know old movies as it is for a novelist to know literature.

What are some great examples of must-see movies for aspiring screenwriters?

In some ways, good screenwriting is often “invisible”—that is, when the writing works, the viewer isn’t sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous.” Likewise, I think people often attribute good performances to actors and not to screenwriters, when some roles are pretty much actor-proof: it’s going to come off no matter who plays it, unless the actor is particularly incompetent. But an example of a movie where the writing is conspicuously excellent is “All About Eve,” the 1950 backstage drama perhaps now best known for featuring Marilyn Monroe in a minor role as an aspiring actress who, as another character says, is “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art.” That line, right there, tells you something about the wit found in “All About Eve.” A lot of screenplays are so impersonal as to feel as if they could have been written by anyone, but “Bull Durham”—a 1988 comedy about that very American sport, baseball, starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon—is an example of a screenplay that does not feel as if it could have been written by anyone. The direction in “Citizen Kane” is bravura, but its screenplay is likewise brilliant, telling the story of its protagonist in a non-linear way. I’m sorry to limit my examples to American films. In fact I’ve been a fan of world cinema since my late teens, but inevitably I’m better qualified to judge the writing in American films.

Can screenwriters have their own style or do they need to be adaptable?

I think it’s always good for writers to have a style of their own, as long as it’s not too rarefied as to appeal to small, elite readership, and movies, from their inception, have been considered a democratic, not an elitist, medium, though I may risk the derision of art-house aficionados by saying as much. At any rate, I think it behoves a screenwriter to be adaptable, since, again, screenwriters are almost always called upon to modify their material based on the input of others. Then, too, they’re often called upon to rewrite other screenwriter— those fired, sometimes because they weren’t adaptable. Ageism is rampant in the movie business, so most screenwriting careers are short and it doesn’t strike me as wise to further shorten a career by being a one-trick pony, if you will.

Why shouldn’t screenwriters write the interior thoughts of a character as one would in a novel?

Movies show people, so all we have to go on is what we see, more so than what the characters say, since all characters aren’t trustworthy, so my rule, as a screenwriter, is to say what the camera—and the audience—sees rather than to tell the reader what the character feels. I might write, for instance, “Susan is visibly nervous,” not “Susan is nervous.” Writers are forever being told to show, not tell, but that’s especially important with screenplays.

Why is it important for a screenwriter to have a long list of ideas to pitch?

Well, the more ideas you have, the more you have to sell, so if the buyer doesn’t respond to the first five ideas, the sixth may do the trick. I learned that right away in the movie business, when I was pitching ideas for “Friday the 13th Part VII”—it was my final idea that did the trick. I’ve heard that it it’s “weak” for a screenwriter to pitch too many idea, since that indicates a lack of faith or commitment—“Oh, dear, they may not like the idea that I like most, so I had better come equipped with ideas that I don’t really like at all”—but obviously I’m not of that school.

How important is dialogue? What material would you recommend for aspiring screenwriters?

It used to be said, in the silent-film era, that the fewer title cards, the better the film, and I believe some have made a similar case for dialogue—that is, the story should be told visually as much as possible.  Still, nearly everyone likes a good line of dialogue, it seems to me, and personally I learned about writing dialogue from reading plays as a student actor. I was a big fan then of the plays of David Mamet, who in turn, I think, learned something about dialogue from the plays of Harold Pinter. I learned a lot also from San Shepherd and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams—apologies again for citing Americans. But I think plays generally can be very instructive to screenwriters in the dialogue department, as with old movies, plays are an underutilized resource these days, and of course there are novelists known for writing good dialogue. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century-Fox in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is said to have remarked “Make good stuff!” when asked about the secret of success in the moviemaking game. Actually he’s supposed to have used another word rather than “stuff,” but my advice to aspiring screenwriters—or aspiring writers, period—would be to “Read good stuff!” and to watch it also.


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