A Tenth Anniversary Re-Post: November, 2009
I had the great good fortune to have screenwriter/director Shane Black visit my Writing the Character-Driven Screenplay class as guest speaker this past week. Creator of the Lethal Weapon franchise, he wrote The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the beloved cult fave Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Revered by those of us who know how hard it is to write good, character-driven action fare, he also became infamous, back in the day, for having committed the crime of being one of the most highly paid scribes in Hollywood history.
Shane turned out to be an uncommonly generous, vulnerable, honest mensch of a guy. I got to play James Lipton and ask the questions, and Shane gave us over an hour and half's worth of enlightening answers re: creating memorable characters and crafting effective big screen stories. A few times in our conversation we talked about digging into one's dark places and dealing with one's fears in the writing process. The last question of the night came from a student who wanted to know how Shane dealt with such fears - where the fear came from and what it was about.
"For most people, fear is daring to wish for something so bad that it matters to you, and then having that taken away. Fear is, I'm not going to get the things I want, and I'm gonna lose the things I have already. That's what fear is, to me. The idea of getting your hopes up? [When I was starting out] I would get my hopes up, and someone would say, What if they just smash you? And then you'll feel worse than ever! And I'd go: Oh, well, I know. I'd rather get my hopes up.
"Here's what the fear does: it's something called 'The Jack Story.' Jack Story's about a guy who's driving and boom, his tire blows out in a rain storm. By the side of the road, flat. He sees a farmhouse in the distance with a light on, and he thinks, I don't have a jack, I can't change this tire - but maybe the farmer has one. So he starts walking through the rain and the mud and after a couple of feet he thinks, Well, wait a minute, what if I get to the farmhouse and the guy doesn't have a jack? Then I gotta walk all the way back and I'm getting rained on and it's murder. And he goes, Calm down, it hasn't happened, see what happens, play it by ear, okay?
"So he keeps walking and he thinks, Hmm, what if the farmer has a jack, he does, but I bring it back and it's the wrong kind. And then I've made this whole trip and the expectations, and it gets ruined, and then I have to go back and I can't even drive - Ohmygod, it's even worse. He goes: Relax. It hasn't happened, just relax... Three quarters of the way there, he thinks: What if the farmer has a jack, and it's the right kind, but what if he just doesn't want to give it to me, and he says, I don't know you, fuck you, go out in the rain!
"So the point of the story is, by the time he gets to the farmhouse it's like -- " Shane knocks his fist on the desk. "The farmer goes, Hello? And the guy goes: You know what, take your jack and shove it up your ass!"
"Because you have in your head, already scripted, the conversation based on fear, and you've let fear just run rampant... And I have to remind myself, Stop having conversations that don't exist. I'll feel like I've talked to someone for an hour, but it's the future - the conversation I would be having, and inventing the things I would say, or I'm going to say. And then I never have that conversation. It's just wasted fear time, spent on all the bad things that could happen, instead of the really interesting things that might.
"Writing and getting away from your fear, is to me... You know, you might not sell a script. You might not be good. You might not this and you might not that. What's the point in going down that path? There is none. I know it's tough to say, 'Don't be afraid,' or 'Think positive,' but... There really is just no other way to go. You're up against a wall, you've decided you want to do something, you're having some adversity - you can either play out your hand or quit. And I suggest that... My career came down to one moment like that.
"I was working on a script called Shadow Company in 1984, and I was on page one, and I showed it to my brother - he hated it. I sat down and I thought, "I can't do this. I sat down to write a screenplay - I don't know screenplays, what am I doing, this is so stupid... And I thought: I don't want to write! I don't want to do this, I can't.
"I'm a one-finger typist. And I said - Just do it." Shane holds his one typing forefinger in the air, and jabs it an invisible keyboard. "I went, 'The... rain... lashes... Ground... Bla-bla-blah. I started typing - I hate this, I hate this, I hate this, I hate this - and all of a sudden, I'm: Huh, okay that's a good line. What would he say there? Okay, he says this... And three pages later, I had a scene, and it became a script - and it sold, optioned - and it got me Lethal Weapon."
"It came down to this. I had a piece of paper in a typewriter and my finger poised to hit one key and I couldn't do it, I didn't want to do it all. All I wanted to do was stop. And I hit the key. And now I have a career. So that's the leap of faith.
"I walked through the fear. You can walk through anything. That's the fabulous truth that I've discovered, is that fear never goes away. But it doesn't stop you from putting one foot in front of the other. And, the most important realization of all, it can't stop you from being creative. It can impede you, but it will not stop you from having great ideas. Fear will do everything except shut you down, mentally. It can't do that."
[Classroom photos: Erik Cooper]