Tony Gilroy, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters, is responsible for The Devil’s Advocate, Armageddon and the Bourne films, to name just a few. Alison Feeney-Hart met the man whose 2007 film Michael Clayton saw him receive Bafta and Oscar nominations for best original screenplay to find out his Top 10 tips for writing a Hollywood blockbuster.
Go to the movies
“I don’t think there is anything you can learn from courses or books. You have been watching movies since you were born. You have filled your life with narrative… and food. It’s already way down deep inside you. Going to the movies, having something to say, having an imagination and the ambition to do it is really all that is required. You can learn how to do anything.”
Make stuff up but keep it real
“This is imaginative work — screenwriters make things up. Everything I have in my life is a result of making things up. There is one thing that you have to know that is a deal-breaker — human behaviour. The quality of your writing will be directly related to your understanding of human behaviour. You need to become a journalist for the movie that is in your head. You need to report on it; every scene has to be real.”
“Big ideas don’t work. Start with a very small idea that you can build on. With Bourne I never read any of the books; we started again. The very smallest thing with [Jason] Bourne was, ‘If I don’t know who I am and I don’t know where I’m from, perhaps I can identify who I am by what I know how to do.’ We built a whole new world around that small idea. You just start small, you build out and you move one step after the next and that’s how you write a Hollywood movie.”
Learn to live by your wits
“My father was a screenwriter but it’s not some pixie dust creative family thing. I learned from watching how hard he worked and learned about the tempo of a writer’s life — you have to live by your wits. If you are living with someone who lives by their wits, it seems normal to you, it doesn’t scare you as much and you understand the rhythms of it.”
Write for TV
“It’s getting harder and harder to make good movies. TV is where the ambiguity and shades of reality live, it’s where stories can be interesting. A lot of writers are very excited about TV right now and it’s a writer-controlled business. When writers are in control, good things happen. They are more rational, they are hardworking, they are more benevolent. Every time writers have been put in charge of entertainment, things have worked out, so with TV maybe we will see a writer-driven utopia.”
Learn to write anywhere, anytime
“I have an office at home, I’ve written in a million hotel rooms, I can write anywhere now. My whole goal is to want to be at my desk. If the writing is going well, I don’t want to quit. I’m older and wise enough now that if something is going well, I don’t stop. I call and say I’m not coming home for dinner and just keep going. More than anything else, I want to want to go to my desk and to not be afraid of going to work.”
Get a job
“I spent six years tending bar while I figured out how to write screenplays. If you want to write, if you are a young writer and nobody knows you, find a job that pays you the most amount of money for the least amount of hours, so that you have the most amount of time left over to write. You want to live some place where you have some sort of cultural connection and can see as many films and be around as many people as possible. You want to be some place where you can just write and write and write.”
Get a life
“If you don’t have anything to say and if you haven’t done anything except see a bunch of movies, then what’s the point? You can only write what you know about and that will either limit you or open the possibilities to everything. Be interested in lots of things and stay interested. My knowledge is very wide and incredibly thin. It’s much more interesting when journalists and cops and doctors and bankers become screenwriters than 20-year-old film students. There are some exceptions, of course, but if you don’t have anything to say, then why are you here?”
Don’t live in Los Angeles
“I don’t think there is any reason to live there, I think LA is probably very bad for you. It’s a bad place to feed your head. In LA you are driving around all the time, surrounded by people who are making you depressed. I don’t think Hollywood really helps a young writer feel any sense of romance about their life. Even if it’s a delusion, you want to feel special when you go to work in the morning.”
Develop a thick skin and just keep going
“I have assumed both positions of the Hollywood Kama Sutra - top and bottom. It’s very important to be able to handle rejection. I think one of the reasons writers are shy is because we are all very suspicious of our own process because it fails so often. It’s no different from being a novelist or a composer or a painter. When you get rejection from the outside world, you either move on or you don’t. But I think the hardest times are all the days when nothing happens and everybody who has ever written anything knows what I’m talking about. A great day of writing tops everything.”
Tony Gilroy explain his simple rules for writing an original screenplay in his BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture from September 29, 2013.
This is required listening, Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy discuss one of their favorite films, The Third Man directed by Carol Reed. This track was recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2007.
Thanks to Chris Chibnall for the heads up