Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ben Ripley: Writing And Sacrifice

Source Code (Directed by Duncan Jones)

Ben Ripley wrote the script for the sci-fi thriller Source Code while doing studio re-writes on horror movies. His initial pitches to studio executives left them baffled by the complex storyline. Eventually he had to put it on the page to make his case. In a recent interview with Scriptshadow, Ben Ripley discussed his writing process:

Once I have an idea that I think works, my first step is to take pages and pages of notes, whatever comes into my head. Research is important. You need to steep yourself in whatever subculture you’re writing about, enough so that you develop a confidence to invent within it. Next I try to come up with some compelling central characters. This is always the hardest part for me to get right, but it’s a critical one. If your characters aren’t distinct, comprehensible and somewhat relatable, you’ll never hear the end of it from your readers. And it’s really about the hard work of understanding who these characters are and what makes them interesting.

‘I’m not much attracted to Everyman characters. I’m more intrigued with mysterious, unusual or even extraordinary characters. If you look at Stanley Kubrick’s films, most of his characters are compelling for who they are. They’re not ordinary people who depend on a movie situation to come alive in. The outline comes next, but I don’t get overly detailed with it. I like to leave some open spaces for discovery. Only when you get in there writing scenes, writing description and dialogue, will the best things about your script occur to you.

‘That said, I absolutely know what my three acts and midpoint are, even if they sometimes shift around during the writing. The more I write, the fewer pages per day I turn out. I wish I wrote faster, but I tend to consider pretty carefully each moment. I take my time with the language until it feels right. I never gloss over stuff. After that, I always go back and find material to remove. You can always say things with greater efficiency, always trim and tighten action. You look at any good film and you realize just how economical and propulsive the scenes are, especially in the first act as they work to set up the world. You can never get too good at that skill.

‘A midpoint is a plot turn that happens in the middle of a movie. The midpoint in Jaws is when Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss pile into the fishing boat and head out to the open ocean to hunt the shark. The midpoint of the original Star Wars is when the Millenium Falcon reaches the Death Star in order to rescue the princess. It’s the point to which the action of the first half of the story is ending and, as a result, sends the second half of the story in a new – or at least more focused – direction. A good midpoint turn will differentiate the action between the first and second half of the movie and keep things from seeming monotonous. The post-midpoint portion of the second act (pages 60-90) is often where you get much closer to the story’s real themes and you’re not as much focused on straightforward action.

‘The reason I’m a screenwriter today is that I believed in my talent and made the sustained sacrifices to become one. I eschewed other career paths. I worked day jobs to support myself. I wrote on weekends when maybe I would have had more fun at the beach. I started and finished scripts and then started new ones that were better. I kept at it. There are no shortcuts. The dues-paying process can be bewildering and lonely, but its job is to separate out the professionals from the merely curious, and when it’s over, you’re oddly thankful for having asked a lot of yourself…

‘I remember being so impatient for my difficult, outsiders life to stop and for my ’real’ life as a working writer to start. It’s easy for professional writers to be benignly nostalgic about their early days coming up, forgetting that those days often felt tedious, frustrating and unsustainable. But your life shouldn’t depend on getting an agent within the next month. If it does, there’s something wrong.

‘You should never let your life get to the point where you look at screenwriting as a lottery ticket that’s going to save you. What saves you is your belief in yourself and your commitment to getting better at your craft, regardless of when that craft is rewarded. And a decent script probably won’t get you an agent. If you’re still at the point where you’re writing “decent” scripts – as opposed to great scripts – you’re not ready for an agent. But the magic of Hollywood is that the appetite for great scripts far exceeds the supply of great scripts. So when and if you finally write that great script, word will get out. People will ask you to read it, not the other way around. Stay optimistic. Stay focused. Write well and the agents – and the success – will come.’

- Ben Ripley

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