THE INSIDERS – Screenwriter Frank Hannah
STC: You were a fan of Blake’s. How did that come about?
FH: I was introduced to Blake the way most people found him. His books. I remember reading STC and its sequel and thinking that, for the first time, I knew at a really deep level how a movie should be structured. Even successful writers can look at the second act of their scripts and see a huge blank void. I truly believe that Blake’s unique use of language and metaphor helped to propel the STC model into the stratosphere. When people would ask me about his books I would tell them Blake was like a really good yoga teacher that knows exactly what words to use to communicate the postures or movements required to advance. That was Blake’s power.
As for meeting him, I took his structure course just a few months before he died and dragged a writer friend along with me. I found him to be even more engaging and charismatic in person than on the page. I felt extremely lucky to have had that experience when I did, in light of his tragic passing, just a few months later.
STC: You were born in Scotland. How is it that you ended up on this side of the pond, writing for Hollywood?
FH: I was born in Scotland, but my family moved to America when I was very young. Essentially, I am a Southern California dude, but as I like to tell my friends, I was raised under Scottish Rule. Scots are storytellers and my father was no exception. I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was instilling in me the power of story. It seemed like a natural skill that he could wield without any real effort. I picked up that habit and as I got older, started to put those stories down on paper and hence the writer was born. A bad writer, but a writer just the same.
As a teenager I began a love affair with movies. Especially from the 70’s and 80’s. Movies like The Mechanic, The French Connection and Jaws. The Michael Cimino films The Deer Hunter and Year of the Dragon were particularly meaningful to me. I began to notice that morally ambiguous films with real human drama intrigued me more than the usual tent pole, popcorn fare. The film Ordinary People, for example, had a profound effect on how I saw stories. Here was a film that for the first time, reflected perfectly onscreen the problems of the dysfunctional family in a way that had never been seen before. Realistically. It showed me what movie stories could be and exactly what kind of power they could harness. As a child, I saw movies as an escape, but with age I began to see movies as a way to reveal truth even when that truth was not particularly pleasant. Eventually, it seemed only logical then to marry my love of movies with my love of writing and hence, the screenwriter was born. A bad screenwriter, but a screenwriter just the same.
From there, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Most of it was crap. Some of it had a glimpse of passable genius, but never enough genius to break through. Over time, you take notes, read other scripts, study the craft and slowly, your work gets better. During this period, lots of people tell you how talentless you are, say “no” a lot, and even your family constantly reminds you that this writing thing is “just a hobby.” Sadly, they are probably right, but you mustn’t believe them. If you give up, you’re a failed screenwriter. If you keep trying, you’re an aspiring screenwriter. I think we both know which is easier to stomach.
Then, if by some miracle, you continue on in the face of this onslaught, your game will improve enough that you can sell a script or compete in the world of the Hollywood screenwriter. The truth is, if it doesn’t feed some part of your soul, it’s just a job and there are easier ways to make money. If it’s a passion, then you will keep writing no matter what happens. That’s been my experience, anyway…
STC: Do you prefer scripting a project alone, or with writing partners? What about each scenario do you like — and what challenges do you face with each process?
It’s a struggle for me. I love writing alone because you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor and know you were the Alpha and the Omega in giving birth to a story. There is an inherent joy in that. It does, however, make for a lonely journey. When the ideas aren’t flowing, you spend sleepless nights thinking and thinking and thinking. You wait for an answer to come and sometimes, it does. It feels transcendent! Like you are divining some kind of mystical power. Sometimes, the answer doesn’t come and you feel like a complete and utter fraud.
Writing with a partner is fun because you can benefit greatly from a second point of view in the plotting stages of the script. The issue is that, generally speaking, we want to take the ideas of others for free and run off and take all the credit. You don’t feel so bad about this, because the other person wants to do the same thing to you. Ultimately, you share ideas and if your ego is in check, the best idea wins and that’s how it should be. The struggle in collaborative writing is that at the script level, the story must have a singular voice. In most cases, unless a team has always written together, one of the writers must submit to the other. That’s where the problems arise. If you are identified too closely with the story or characters, changes to the script can become a personal attack on not just your talent, but your identity.
It sound ridiculous, but it’s true. Writers, on a whole, aren’t happy, well-adjusted people. They’re neurotic. Trust me, I know. Keep this in mind when you find yourself fighting with a co-writer over that one piece of dialogue and wonder what the big deal is. Now you know.
STC: Tell me about how The Cooler began its journey.
The Cooler was an idea I came up with after spending a great deal of my twenties in low-rent casinos in downtown Las Vegas. While standing at a Craps table, everything would be going great. Then someone would walk up and everybody’s luck would start to turn. It occurred to me that there was a collective karma at play. Eight of us might have enough good karma to make winning possible. The only problem is, that new guy with the horrible Karma just stepped up and that is throwing all of us off.
It was so much easier to blame him than to admit to myself that I was the loser. That character became “The Cooler” and it seemed reasonable to me that a casino might hire him to make people lose. Of course, that wasn’t a story. The story really began to emerge when I added the love interest character. If the loser falls in love with her, his luck would change. He wouldn’t be a “loser,” but a “winner” and while that is great for him, it’s ultimately bad for the casino. Now, we have a story! With conflict and drama!
It had everything I could ever want in a movie story. A great setting in “Sin City,” amazing characters, and that morally ambiguous quality I had seen in so many movies in the seventies and eighties.
After that, my friend and mentor Wayne Kramer agreed to direct the movie. We would end up collaborating on the script and it was written in less than six weeks.
Believe it or not, the script was great and everybody felt like we had a winner. It doesn’t always happen like that. Unfortunately, it would be a full three years of pushing and pounding the pavement before the film would get financed.
STC: That’s quite a roller coaster. How did you keep the faith?
FH: Strangely enough, I had a strong feeling that the movie would eventually get made. In my mind it was a “when” and not an “if,” which was an important shift in my thinking. It’s certainly disappointing, but you move on to the next idea and keep generating ideas and material. I think the more you write, the easier this becomes. I recently wrote a script I thought was the best piece of writing I had ever done. When I sent it to my managers they just blinked. They didn’t get it
And neither did the rest of the world. It was a misfire and I was left scratching my head. What went wrong? Who knows?!
In the end, I just went onto the next thing and life goes on.
STC: Do you believe writing for television and writing for film require different skill sets? Do you prefer one form over the other?
FH: There is definitely a difference between writing for TV and film. From a 10,000 foot view, film is a medium that asks for an immense and dramatic change in your hero. From start to finish he is usually completely unmade and put back together again. As Blake says, a mixture of Thesis and Antithesis or Synthesis. Blake’s “Shard of Glass” or defining trauma is resolved. This makes for the greatest stories and is usually a large part of the creation of your story.
TV differs in that its characters do not change in any real meaningful way. They have external problems and conflicts, but internally, they remain intact. Dr. Gregory House might get clean from Vicodin addiction, but he will remain an asshole for the duration. It’s why the sexual tension between two co-leads will never be consummated. It’s why Ally McBeal was always a plucky lawyer, but a hopeless romantic. Solve the murder, by all means, but please don’t solve your “Shard of Glass” issue.
I prefer writing for film, but I’ve been trying to crack the TV world for a while now. I guess I just don’t like to leave my characters unresolved.
STC: Do you see the new technologies offering avenues and more accessibility for writers, or are these new, enticing roadblocks?
FH: Writers today are in a tricky situation. While there have never been as many outlets for scripted material as we have now, it seems the amount of jobs available is a real problem. The recent downturn (read implosion) in the economy has finally begun to take its toll. While it is always good to be mindful of one medium such as film, TV, or Video Games, it does seem intelligent to cast a wider net. I think, ultimately, what all writers should strive to do is not be a jack of all trades, but generate new material constantly. You shouldn’t be made or broken on one idea. Generate plenty of material, hone the best of it, and there will always be a chance for you in the marketplace.
STC: I’ve read your quote “A special skill is a cry for help. You are simply marketing your misery.” Can you elaborate on this?
FH: Marketing Your Misery ©. It’s my self-help book in 10 easy chapters! Ha. Okay not really, but kind of.
The whole idea goes back to storytelling. All of us have known people in our lives that suck the oxygen out of the room with their constant complaining and pissing and moaning. We see them coming and we quickly get up and try to avoid them. I believe strongly that those people have failed to market their misery properly. If I have a Debbie Downer story to tell (and you know I do), you have to know that I am gonna make that complaint the funniest, most compelling story about getting screwed at the drive-thru you have ever heard. That’s what good storytelling is all about.
So, when I see someone with a really amazing skill, I can be pretty sure that didn’t just happen on its own. Chances are, it was a cry for help or attention. A way to market their misery. Some people sing or juggle. I’m not judging. I tell stories, remember. Love me, daddy. Love me!
STC: If you had one piece of advice to give a writer who had not yet launched his or her career, what would this be?
FH: My one piece of advice for aspiring writers is to go out and live life. See the world. Gain a unique perspective on things. A lot of people can string sentences together. The real question is, do you have anything to say? Another way of saying this is to have a fresh take. Then when people read your script they’ll say, “If you see one talking pig movie this year, see this one…!”
STC: What is your favorite word?
FH: philosophunculist, which means: “One who pretends to know more than they do to impress others.”
Don’t forget to polish your entries for the Final Save the Cat! Challenge of 2009! Deadline ending soon!