In Part 3 of our interview with writer C. Robert Cargill and writer/director Scott Derrickson [here's Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them], we pick up with our discussion concerning screenplay writing.
Scott, you tend to play a lot in the horror field. Was that a conscious decision, or was that the field available to you to get started in?
DERRICKSON: It was a little bit of both. I do love horror. I think in the end I'm in it because I'm good at it. Does it mean it's the kind of film I most enjoy watching? Not necessarily. I enjoy the horror genre as much as I enjoy anything else, when horror is good. But I can't say that I love it more than good action films or even good dramas. But this is what is in me. This is the kind of thing that seems to come out that I seem to understand. I think it was an inevitable that I would end up in it.
Have you ever felt the desire to do the prose end of this writing business?
DERRICKSON: No, I couldn't do it.
Even short stories?
DERRICKSON: No, I don't have the skill set. What I do is something else. Screenwriting I understand really well; I understand dialogue and I understand structure. But that kind of prose writing? I read what good writers do and I marvel at it. It feels like magic to me, and it is a magic that I don't have the skill set for.
Yet, at the blank page, you start the same way with a screenplay.
DERRICKSON: But it's different; it just is. It's different because when it comes to the screenplay... and I know good writing when I read it. I read tons of books. I try to read a novel every week. But even with that love of it, I don't have that ability, I don't have the “writerly instinct” to write great prose. I think it's really important for people who work in the arts and entertainment field to understand what their capacities really are. It's one of the reasons why I gravitated so quickly to Cargill, because his abilities in that regard are obviously great. He's a good dialogue writer. He understands what I do as well. We complement each other, and I think together we make a better screenwriter than either one of us would ever make alone.
As a writer myself, the screenplay format always put me off because I never felt comfortable that I could say what I needed to say within its confines.
CARGILL: It's very mathematical. It's incredibly structured. There's actually a road map of how to properly write a studio picture.
But doesn't that bring along with it the word “restrictive?"
DERRICKSON: It's so restrictive. That's why screenwriting is so difficult. Because you have to have the ability, and I keep saying the skill set, but really it's almost a knack. You have to have a knack for reducing things down to their pure essence and then putting them on a page.
That's much more than just tightness.
DERRICKSON: It's much more. You have to understand tightness on top of tightness. It's not just about having a tight scene; it's about having an understanding of the overall narrative and what scenes don't need to be there. It's a very different type of writing, and I think that it still is writing... but interestingly enough, not writing that is meant to be read. I can do that kind of writing really well, but I'm not great at doing writing that is meant to be read. I will never publish a novel.
CARGILL: Just as I'm never going to direct a film, because I lack the skill set that it requires. There's a certain ease to writing a screenplay in which you just say “He enters the room, he does this, he does that, and this is generally what you see,” where a director turns that into this amazing visual, and you just wrote the basics that you would never write in a novel. “He sits at the table. He picks a glass of whiskey. Looks at it.” That's what you write on the page. In the movie it's the soulful moment of an actor engaging with this deep sorrow, and three different things are going on at the same time, and all you did was write that he looked at his whiskey.
But still there is a difference between novel writing and the collaborative effort that you have to go to as a director. You're dealing with all of these pieces of make-up, costumes, sets, locations, casting and so forth. So it seems to me that it is so much more than writing.
DERRICKSON: It is so much more than writing, even when you're talking about just the screenplay. I give Cargill screenwriting lessons all the time, because I've been doing it for a while now. I've worked on dozens of scripts, literally, that I've been paid for. One of the things that I always come back to with him is... it's almost embarrassing to say, but you have to have to write with an understanding that what you are writing is first and foremost a sales document. You're writing something that's going to be read by five or ten people at the most, who are going to decide if they are going to give you millions of dollars to make it. You're writing for an audience of very few people, and you need to be able to convey to them what this movie will eventually be.
So, we're not looking for pretty. We're looking for the pitch.
DERRICKSON: Yeah. There are tricks of the trade for making that a good experience for them. I see a lot of amateur writers making mistakes and writing things that are too dense, too descriptive. They want to turn the pages quickly. Dialogue needs to be good. The dialogue is what it is.
So that reader brings a different set of skills than the reader of this novel.
DERRICKSON: That is exactly right, and I think that is a really incisive comment. Not only do they bring a different skill set, but they bring a different motivation. When you sit down to read a book... again I read every single day, that's my time to disengage from the world and enjoy and immerse myself in the pleasantry of creativity. You know, what people can do with words, the stories they can tell, the way they can string words together. When somebody within the movie industry who's a producer or a studio executive sits down to read the script, they're in a hurry; it's work, they have an agenda on their mind, they're reading it somewhat cynically: “Convince me that it's worth it for me to invest in this movie.” You've got to win them over with speed and with efficacy in the writing... and with, of course, just a well-told tale that feels like a movie.