Following up on our interview with D.L. Snell, here we present an interview with his Demon Days writing partner.
Richard Finney is a Los Angeles-based producer and screenwriter who has worked for such movie studios as Walt Disney Pictures; Sony Pictures; Warner Brothers and Dreamworks. He has been cited in such books as Screenwriting on the Internet by Christopher Wehner and The Ultimate Writer’s Guide to Hollywood by Skip Press. He has also produced several award winning independent movies. In July of 2009 the graphic novel The Wind Raider that Mr. Finney co-created and co-authored was published by Ape Entertainment.
D.L. Snell: How did you learn screenwriting? What advice do you have for beginners?
Richard Finney: I essentially taught myself how to write screenplays by reading other screenplays. Now more than ever, screenplays of movies are published, allowing a would-be writer to see not only the proper format of a movie script, but also how a scene was written before it made it up on the screen. But I admit that teaching yourself screenwriting is hard.
I see a lot of people take up screenwriting because they love watching movies (or TV) and believe their love for the medium will go a long way toward their writing. But actually when you begin writing professionally, one of the things you have to do (to succeed) is to change the way you watch movies. You can no longer just be “entertained” by what you are watching; you must begin to think about why you are being entertained. You need to become obsessed with why something is or isn’t working on the screen. It’s similar to the difference in simply enjoying a good meal or going into the kitchen and figuring out how they made that good meal – what ingredients went into the recipe, how did they cook it, what were they thinking when they came up with the presentation.
The single best way to advance your skills as a screenwriter is to try and follow the process of writing a screenplay all the way to a finished movie. Obviously this is very difficult to do; one would have to know another screenwriter who is getting a movie made from one of their scripts. But if that can be arranged, there will probably never be a better learning experience. Being able to observe the process of a screenwriter rewriting their screenplay to accommodate the notes of a producer, director and actors is invaluable. This development phase is part of the business that a lot of beginning screenwriters never go through, and yet it is one of the most important processes that impacts the quality of the finished film … for better or for worse. Some of the smartest and most constructive notes any screenwriter will receive to enhance their screenplay may come from another member of the creative team. Unfortunately, some of the worst ideas could also be thrown in. The job of a screenwriter is trying to figure out which is which and making it all work with each rewrite or polish.
Just as important for a beginning screenwriter is seeing how the script ends up playing on the screen in front of an audience. That’s the great thing about movies: you can actually be there and watch as your audience absorbs the work; witnessing that will definitely have an impact on your future writing.
D.L. Snell: When adapting a novel or story into film, what are the top three things that need to be changed or addressed?
Richard Finney: Because books tend to be internal (you are often in the heads of the characters in a book) one of the things a screenwriter has to do is “externalize” the actions of characters in a book adaptation. For the longest time, the use of Voice Over Narration (V.O.) by a main character in film was considered a lazy way for screenwriters to convey the essence of their story. But in the last ten years, V.O. Narrations have been better written and have clearly added to the artistic achievement of certain movies. But even when it’s done well, a V.O. narration usually only illuminates a single character’s thoughts, so the goal of a screenwriter remains the same – how do you reveal character through external action?
Dialogue in a book can go on for pages and often does. This is just not possible in a movie script. Screenwriter/Director Nicolas Meyer once said that the first thing he does when rewriting another screenwriter’s script is to throw out 50% of the dialogue. My rule is that any scene in a feature script shouldn’t be longer than three script pages (a script page generally equals a minute of screen time) unless it’s the most important dialogue scene in a movie between two main characters (for instance, the scene between De Niro and Pacino in the diner in the movie Heat, which definitely goes on for more than three pages) or unless it’s a script by Quentin Tarantino, who has a real talent for writing great and lengthy dialogue that entertains but also advances the plot and deepens the characters. Hey, it’s not just novelists that love their dialogue.
As a screenwriter you need to understand that when you are creating a screenplay you’re also running a relay race. You are the first runner (or the second runner if you are working on an adaptation or a rewrite) gripping a baton and running the first leg of the race. Eventually you will hand off the baton to another runner. It may be another screenwriter, a studio executive, a producer, or a director. But you are handing off that baton, or the screenplay never crosses the finish line (i.e. your screenplay never gets made into a movie).
As a novelist, you are also running a relay race, but the baton you are carrying will eventually be handed off to your … reader. You are handing that baton off to a reader that you hope appreciates the race you’ve just run. In fact, you hope the reader wants all the batons you hand them in your writing career. As a screenwriter, knowing there will be so many people that need to touch the baton before the audience gets a hold of it is one of the essential artistic differences between writing screenplays and writing novels.
D.L. Snell: Demon Days is your first novel. Now that it’s out, do you have any advice to first-time novelists? Any mistakes or opportunities you overlooked?
Richard Finney: Writing Demon Days was creatively the most rewarding experience of my writing career. It was very satisfying not to worry about whether a studio executive, a producer, or an actor was going to respond to my work. I’m sure there will be mistakes or missed opportunities as we attempt to get the book into readers’ hands. But with that said, I will put forth some of the basic edicts that I dragged over from the screenwriting world that were in the forefront of my mind as I conceived and executed Demon Days –
- You better be writing about something that others will care about, or else don’t bother.
- Make sure that the first pages of the book grab the reader and won’t let them go.
- Write about some big themes, but put it in a story/plot that is entertaining.
- Imagine that your readers want to “escape” into a good book. So take them on a trip that is fast, twisty, and unforgettable.
- Create some characters who readers will want to spend some time with and will miss when they finish the book.
- Leave your reader wanting more.
D.L. Snell: How much of your own life do you incorporate into your writing, even if you are writing in the horror/supernatural genre?
Richard Finney: I definitely incorporate my experiences into the stories I write. For instance, I went to Hawaii and rode on the tour helicopter that the two main characters of Demon Days ride in. And the female protagonist, Sandy Travis, is a producer for a TV news magazine; I worked at the Fox News station in Los Angeles for five years, which allowed me to draw on that journalistic world for the novel. But that’s not all I bring from my life.
When I write a story, I write about themes that fascinate me in real life. For instance, I’ve always been fascinated with the phrase “the banality of evil.” It’s often used to describe the systematic and unemotional way the Nazis went about killing millions of Jews. So when it came time to explore a storyline where evil looks for a few select individuals to aid in its master plan, I didn’t want to present the possessed people as screaming, slobbering, diabolical killers like “Regan” from The Exorcist. I wanted to depict possessed characters whose most identifiable change in personality was their detachment from loved ones and from life itself. Their possession is signified by a removal of their personality, their inability to feel and control their emotions, and a complete absence of desire for another human being. In my life I’ve seen personality transformations occur to people I’ve known, even loved. And not being able to seriously recognize a person you’ve known for years is a very scary feeling. Worse – looking in the mirror and realizing that you don’t recognize yourself.
D.L. Snell: In your capacity as a screenwriter and producer, are you working toward adapting Demon Days to film?
Richard Finney: Yes, now that the novel is done, I have my running shorts on and the baton is in my hand. It’s time to start the first leg of that relay race.