Friday, January 20, 2012

5 Questions with Xander Bennett

Xander Bennett, writer of Screenwriting Tips, You Hack, was kind enough to answer 5 questions for us:

1. How did your book come about?

Writing a book was never on my agenda... until one day when Will Akers, the author of my favorite screenwriting book of all time (Your Screenplay Sucks), emailed me. Will said words to the effect of, "Dude, I love your blog. You totally have a book here."

I was incredulous at first. A book? That sounded like hard work. But Will was convincing. He told me to write up a proposal and some sample chapters, which he would then help send out to his publishing contacts.

The first place we tried was Focal Press. Will told me: "They're the Cadillac of academic film book publishers. But it's worth a shot!"

They bought it instantly. Suddenly I had an editor, an advance and a deadline. Just like that, I was writing a book. Perhaps it was destiny?

2. What is the number one most common mistake you see in the screenplays you read?

I think I give a different answer to this question every time someone asks me. :) Today, I'm going to go with...

Your protagonist is the least interesting character in the script.

You'd be amazed how common this is for beginner writers. You see these scripts where the villain is fascinating, the love interest is sexy and mysterious... and the protagonist just sits there like a lump of coal. It's as though the writer had all these ideas for interesting scenes, plot points and side characters, and the main character's job is to go meet and experience all of them. Instead of being the force driving the action, the protagonist becomes a passenger on a rollercoaster ride.

This is incredibly prevalent in comedies, especially buddy comedies, bromances, raunchy dude comedies, etc. Often, the protagonist is a straight-arrow Everyman, and his best buddy is a hard-drinking, loudmouthed womanizer with a complicated past. It quickly becomes apparent that the screenwriter prefers writing the buddy, because that character gets all the best lines, initiates all the conflict and sometimes has the biggest arc. At that point, guess what? You've got the wrong protagonist, and now your entire structure is screwed.

Wait, can I pick two answers? The other most common mistake is a bit of a sad one: Your premise isn't commercial enough. There's nothing you can really do about this one except write it, get it out of your system and start again with a better idea.

3. What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever gotten?

That would be my Tip Number Zero, the piece of advice with which I opened both my blog and my book:

Don't be boring.

I stole that from Matt Fraction. Apparently, it's written on a post-it note which he keeps permanently stuck to his laptop.

I think there's a lot of wisdom in those three words. It really gets to the core of storytelling and why we're actually doing this. It's the ultimate reminder that the audience is listening, and they want to hear you say something interesting. You can be a lot of things as a writer -- long-winded, unfunny, chaotic, angry, incoherent, offensive -- but so long as you're not boring, there's hope for you.

4. What is your favorite movie from 2011, and what writing lessons do you think we can learn from it?

My top movie for 2011 was DRIVE. It's a beautiful film, at once complicated and uncomplicated. There's so much going on under the surface, and it subverts your expectations in a hundred different ways. Also, the soundtrack is pure joy in audio form.

What I learned from DRIVE was: trust the moment. If you've created a genuinely powerful emotional moment, don't ruin it with dialogue. Don't fear silence -- silence is your friend. Trust the actors to play it out, and trust the moment to carry the emotion through.

5. What is going on with your own writing (if you have any info you can share)?

I'm keeping busy. I have a few projects in development with a few different producers, and my managers and I are hard at work on a new feature spec. I may or may not have a super-secret comic book project in the works. Plus, my one-hour cable pilot from last year is still floating around out there, making friends and influencing people.

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