William Nicholson’s 11 Priceless Advice on Being a Screenwriter
British screenwriter William Nicholson, which credits include Gladiator, Les Miserables and, more recently, Mandela, gave a passionate and genuine BAFTA Lecture, sharing what he has learned and what he feels is important to know as a screenwriter. Nicholson, who qualifies himself from the get-go as a failed novelist who never thought of writing screenplays, has had an interesting journey, starting in TV in England, going to Hollywood to make big bucks and advocating today young screenwriters not to fall for the million dollar paycheck but instead to write their best work all the times.
“We are, all the time, conditioning our society & we should take responsibility for that.” -William Nicholson on how every story matters
— Larry Wright (@refocusedmedia) January 15, 2014
A big thank you to Larry Wright for bringing my attention to Nicholson’s lecture. Below is a highlight of Nicholson’s lecture; do listen to it if you have time, you won’t regret it.
1 – The Standard is Very Low
“I see a lot of scripts, and any producer here will tell you, it’s a depressing experience. Most screenplays that are coming are really crappy.”
2 – Screenwriters Do Not Write Dialogs.
“We write stories. We create stories. You can have an entire movie without a single line of dialog and every moment has been written by a screenwriter. The screenwriter imagines what’s going to happen, puts it on paper, and some minor functionary called a director come and makes it happen.”
3 – Stories Matter Like Hell.
“Screenwriting matters like hell. Why? Because stories form a culture. The storytelling impulse is built into us and it’s the way we explain and describe our entire lives all the time. Every time we write a story we are in fact creating a moral structure, and that moral structure is influencing the people who see that film. And they build up, they add up all these films, to a sense of what is acceptable and what is not. So we have an enormous power.”
4- How to Make a Great Movie in 3 Steps
- Step 1-Structure: the structure of a story has got to mirror the reality that the audience is familiar with. And to do so best, Nicholson suggests you live fully and you lead interesting lives. “If all you’ve ever done is watched movies, the only movies you can write are movies that recycle the content of other movies.” You’ve gotta write something at some point that brings some value. And you do that by living an interesting life.
- Step 2 – Characters: You must have characters that the audience actually recognize. You can only care about people if you recognize them as true. And caring about characters, especially the central character, is key to Nicholson.
- Step 3 – Emotions: Screenwirters are in the business of generating emotions. That’s why people go to the movie. (or watch films in general) “I don’t believe you can generate decent emotions without true characters in a true story.”
5 – Don’t be Frightened of Directing
“It’s easier that you think.” For Nicholson, writing-directing is what gives you full power over your story. If you only write the story, then, once you press ‘send’, you lose power. He also explains that directing is a skill that can be easily learned, and that some movies are made with directors barely knowing what they are doing, but because they have a supporting team of experts, the movie can still happen. [Side note: this might sound insulting for us, filmmakers, but when you watch mainstream movies, how many of them lack personalities in their directing? Plenty. We could swipe directors credits and we wouldn’t know it.] Nicholson precise though that “the distribution process is hell“.
6 – Caring for a Character Doesn’t Just Apply for Your Hero.
It also applies for your villains and pretty much every character on the page. It isn’t enough to shape one great character you care about, all your characters need to feel real, and to feel real and have substance, you -as a screenwriter- need to care about them.
7 – The Three Things You Need to Become a Screenwriter.
- 1 – TALENT: “And talent can be learned.” Nicholson believes that hard work can help you build talent. He adds “You need self-confidence tempered by self-criticism. If you don’t criticize your work, you’ll go to hell, and if you don’t have self-confidence you’ll produce nothing.”
- 2 – DISCIPLINE: “This is not a game. You do it everyday, systematically. You make yourself write even when you don’t want to write, you make yourself write even when people criticize you and you feel like hell.”
- 3 – A PARTICULAR TEMPERAMENT TO SURVIVE NOTES: “You cannot be a shrinking violet with a passionate love for your own voice. They don’t want your voice, they don’t you, they just want a job done. And that’s ok, they’re paying you. You have to got an armored ego.”
8 – The Best Way To Fight Writer’s Block
If you actually do get blocked, the best way to shut down the critic in your head is to pretend you are not writing, and that you’re just taking notes. Nicholson predicts that soon enough, you will find yourself writing.
9 – On Responding to Producers’ Notes
Nicholson spends quite a great deal of time talking about Notes and how hard and confusing it can be for writers. You have to take into account the notes you are given, but you need to find the artistic space to do it the way you think the note should be done, instead of applying the solution give to you. Nicholson’s advice is as follow: “Take all the criticisms, understand what they are telling you, and tell the team “I know it doesn’t work but let me solve it. Don’t tell me what to do. That’s my job”.
10- The Three Things to Do If You Want to Write a Screenplay
- 1 – “If you possibly can, be a Writer-Director. You will have power. If you are just a writer you will have no power and you will suffer.”
- 2 – “Don’t go to Hollywood. You think Hollywood is the dream. Go there and you will be tortured to death, you will make money and you will piss your talent away.”
- 3 – “Write your best stuff, the best you’ve got in you. Because at the end of the day, your life is going to end, and you want to leave the best stuff behind.”
11- Be Zen
“Do all your work with all your heart, with all your passion. Put all of yourselves in every little stupid rewrite. Don’t grudge it, don’t be cynical. Be as whole-hearted, as talented and as passionate as you can. You owe it to your craft. Do that, and then let it go. Wave it goodbye, it’s gone. Put it out of your mind and start something else. That’s the only way you won’t go insane in this business.”
Listen to the full lecture below and watch a complementary 9 minute video here:
Discover more BAFTA Lecture :
- The Three Elements Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady, The Hour) Need To Write a Story
- A Conversation with Mat Newman, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Editor
For Story Makers:
For Story Lovers:
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