Alexander Payne reveals the secrets to writing a great screenplay

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The Oscar-winning filmmaker offers insight into his screenwriting process and what he looks for in a screenplay.

Filmmaker Alexander Payne takes a break from preparing, casting and researching his upcoming film, “The Holdovers,” to talk to us about screenwriting and how to create a great screenplay. “I am still at the beginning of the preparation”Leftovers, ‘”Says Payne. The movie, set over the holidays in 1970, is about a hated prep school teacher played by the “Sideways” star. Paul Giamatti. “I spent the pandemic working on a few scenarios that I hope to shoot quickly. As with “The Holdovers”, [which David Hemingson wrote], I do not write all of these scenarios directly; I supervise others.

Working as a team comes naturally to Payne. His friend and former roommate Jim Taylor co-wrote five of the seven feature films he made: “Citizen Ruth” (1996), “Election” (1999), “About Schmidt” (2002), “Next to”(2004), and“ Downsizing ”(2017). “Everyone is different, but Jim and I still have the same specific process,” he says. “We are fortunate to be writing partners. It is as if we are two lobes of the same brain.

What is their process? “The rule of thumb is that a screenplay takes about six months, whether it’s an original or an adaptation,” he says. “And then you keep tinkering with it even while filming. Jim and I are always together in the same room when we write. First, we talk about what’s going to happen next, then one of us will go to the computer and write two, three, or four pages, then invite the other to join us. At this point, we rewrite together; we usually have a Mac with a monitor and two keyboards.

Self-publishing is essential

Payne’s films won 19 Oscar nominations. In addition, he personally won two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Sideways” and “The Descendants”. Obviously, he understands how to take a story from the script to the big screen, which is why we asked Payne to explain what it takes to pique his interest in someone else’s original screenplay, as in the case of “Nebraska”.

“It’s good when a screenplay is written concisely,” Payne says. “I find it laborious to read a crushed script, which asks you to imagine too many details. When you read a script, it should suggest the same flow that the movie itself will end up having. “

Reduce details

“When I write a script, I think of a lot of details when writing a particular scene, but then I ask myself, ‘Does the reader absolutely have to know this?’ If the answer is no, then I separate these details into a separate file, which I want to remember later when making. The reader does not need to know that the house is yellow with a wooden porch and Cape Cod siding. I imagine this and want to remember it, but the reader does not need to know this detail. The flow of the script is essential and every word must be weighed. Payne explains.

Stay under 120 pages

“If I open a screenplay and see it’s 98 pages long, I’m like ‘Great. This writer knows what he’s doing. On the other hand, if a script is over 120 pages, the director thinks, “Oh my gosh, I have to direct and go up with a gun to my head,” Payne says. “The rule of thumb is one minute per page, so when the number of pages in a script goes over 120, I think, ‘Oh, I have to direct and edit this at a fast pace to have the whole story there- in it and keep it together. When a script is shorter, the director is more free to let the scenes and the moments breathe. ‘ Sure, you can want a long movie, but I like to keep the movies two hours or less. But whatever the duration, making a film is a constant search for savings in the three phases: writing, directing and editing. Too many films today are just too long.

Tell real stories

As for the content, “I like it when it’s a very human story,” Payne says. This is only my personal taste, but I like when the script suggests something that could possibly happen in real life. “” The beautiful thing about being a filmmaker is that our clay is real human behavior, “he says. This desire for reality and grounding is why he shot five of his films -” Citizen Ruth, ”“ Election, ”“ About Schmidt, ”“ Nebraska, ”and“ Downsizing ”- at least, in part, where he was born and raised in nebraska.

And he has no interest in gratuitous violence. “I become disappointed when cinematic gadgets, especially unwarranted violence, are introduced,” says Payne. “I don’t like when the brutality is there for effect, or when it tries to adhere to a convention expectation of violence from an American narrative. Again, it’s strictly my taste, but I love good human films about people, and like my mentor and friend Czech director Jiri Weiss told me “the mysteries of the human heart”.


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