Screenwriting : What Lengths Do You Got To For Researching Your Work? by Trev Lewis

Trev Lewis

What Lengths Do You Got To For Researching Your Work?

I have recently read a a book about Andy Kaufman by his close friend Bob Zamuda - and in the early chapters he discusses a job he had as an assitant to a screenwriter he calls Mr X (apparently Norman Wexler screenwriter of Saturday Night Fever and Serpico) who would drive around with three tape recorders causing all sorts of trouble in an around New York whilst recording the reactions of the stunned and unsuspecting public just so he could use authentic dialogue in his screenplays. Okay - so the guy wasn't right in the head but...what lengths have you gone to in the past to create the perfect screenplay?

Frank G. Lind

Trev, the internet is my best friend! LOL! I actually write with 3 computers going at with Final Draft to create the script...the other for researching anything and everything when it comes to that screenplay and the other for hot topics that will relate to current things that are happening in the world today to plug into the dialogue. Hope this helps.

Trev Lewis

Yes, Frank, the world wide web has certainly made researching so much easier for all of us - but back in the seventies (when hollywoods films were becoming a tougher and grittier place) Wexler endangered himself by confronting and insulting people to see what reactions he could muster. The guy had mental health issues - but the lengths of depravity he went to would make a legendary film in itself. We tend to hide indoors these days behind our monitors and research from home - which in many ways is a shame - as there is no substitute for actually getting out there and smelling the roses for yourself! Thanks for the comment and the add by the way

Frank G. Lind

I would agree with your statement. Human interaction is at an all time low. To know your topic and craft from those depths is commendable. Good luck!

Trev Lewis

Yea, well lets say that research is a given, no research and obviously your film falls flat. But rather than seeking advice I'm really jut starting a conversation about the extreme lengths one can go to for research. The grimier side to research as it is. Almost like Oliver Stone going to Vietnam on a whim and coming back with the screenplay for Platoon!

Thomas Bailey

... I am gooning around with a story about a guy who tends to only communicate through via phone with the outside world, so, I tend to pick up the phone, pop on Photo Booth, and record my conversations in character.

Lisa Clemens

I listen to people around me and make notes on my phone's notepad when I hear a great line!

William Harrell

i have never written a script without thorough first hand knowledge of what I was doing. and yes, i agree with above post: always carry a notepad and pen.

Rich James

I am a novelist and an academic writer as well as screen and from that perspective (depending on genre/subject) IMHO over-researching screenplays can stifle the life out of them. More than any other form of storytelling, screenplays need an emotional through-line, and not a whole bunch of technical details/locations/jargon.

Trev Lewis

That's an interesting comment Rich. You dot want the film to bog down and bore the audience. We made a short about sleep paralysis called HAG (see my reel) to which I wrote the screenplay. In it was a device that records dreams, and I had researched the technology currently in development to include in the screenplay. However I cut the inclusion of the information down to the bare minimum for the sake of keeping pace ad I think it works.

Rich James

Definitely agree, Trev. (Going to go and check that reel out!) A matter of horses-for-courses to a large extent though: CSI (ditto, many cop/detective procedurals) is a good example, up to its Gills in detailed techno-speak but this is because it contributes to character's emotional arcs -- arcs they've had a few seasons to get us involved in already. Another crucial point, good dialogue is basically subtext -- wherever you can contribute techno details adhering to the rules of subtext it can be powerful -- or at least you can get away with more that might otherwise be branded as the dreaded "exposition" hehe.

Alan Hostetter

I bought a replica of a .36 Navy Colt and travelled to Plymouth NC to write a Civil War screenplay about the Albemarle Ironclad. I went to Munich, Berchtesgaden, Berlin and Vienna and visited the British Museum Library and the National Archives in Washington to write about Hitler and his niece.

Trev Lewis

That sounds like a good researching excursion. So much better than browsing the web! Although technology is beneficial and we would miss it if it was to fail us, you still can't beat the traditional methods of gathering information from the source.

Tony Cella

I go on zombie hunting safaris, accept mercenary contracts from the CIA and transform into a werewolf once a month.

Trev Lewis

Nothing like some carnivorous lunar activities to gain some substance in your work.

Theresa Hayes

Nothing beats living it.

Lisa Michelle Seaman

I recently read "A Father's Story" by Lionel Dahmer & watched "The Dahmer Files" to get family & friends' feelings for characters.

Rich James

Ditto Theresa and Lisa. I think it gets back to "write what you know" ... meaning of course relating the emotions and character arc of your characters to your own experience. Okay, if its a psychopathic serial killer there STILL must be a part of you that (after research, self reflection) can at least feel and empathise with someone whose gone down this path, even though I'm obviously not suggesting anyone condones it. If not, maybe you haven't lived enough... (Well, there's a window onto my world for ya! :))

Stephen Mitchell

In preparing to shoot a police film, I took my lead actor for a ride to familiarize him with the terrain:

Rich James

Ah, on that point -- and congratulations on the filming Stephen -- I want to point out the difference between "preparation" for a writing role and an acting role: the former is about the process of the "allocation" of emotions whereas the latter is about the "dislocation" from this process to essentially channel them.

Stephen Mitchell

I'm sure it is understood that a writer must inhabit each of the characters in his story if he or she is to write effectively--this while maintaining the narrative voice which may sometimes be in conflict with all of the characters in the story...

Mike Grell

When I started out as a cartoonist, I thought it was going to be like Jack Lemmon's character in "HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE", who acted out every story before he drew it. Now I realize all writers draw a certain amount from their personal experiences and knowledge. I went on safari in Africa to research "SABLE", about an African hunter in the concrete jungle, but I had a lot of knowledge on the subject before hand. Any story is "10 percent plot, 20 percent characterization and 70 percent whatever the writer knows best." Write what you know. If you're a hired gun handed a subject you don't know, you'd better learn it by whatever means it takes to get the job done.

Christopher Kardos

I agree that writing what you know is a good idea. For me, it's a start. But that won't stop me if I'm fascinated by an unfamiliar subject, then I use the script as an excuse to get into it. And it's a wonderful excuse. Regarding acting vs. writing, I think in terms of thinking about the whole script and the preparation, there are many parallels. These two are the closest. That's why I'm writing (Originally an actor) which might also mean that my input is just too subjective for the collective whole, so for what it's worth. Pissing people off, just to get 'real dialogue' seems a bit off. Otherwise, I would go even further, but if a screenwriter can't write natural dialogue, than he missed screenwriting 101 and should go back to basics and also create firm and different characters. Plus, sometimes 'real dialogue' can be misleading, 'Oh, everyone's interrupting each other, ok, so I'll write it that way', that's a big no-no. Just because we catch a glimpse of a real conversation, doesn't mean we know the people, the dynamics behind such a rude conversational disposition, nor any other necessary data to know WHY they do it. Even for real reactions, we have to use our imagination. For any other reason, I do applaud this kind of 'mentally disturbed' behavior as long as other people don't get hurt. Like moving into an insane asylum because that's where the script is set. Like travelling halfway around the world because you wanna get a feel of the place. In my instance, for one of my scripts in the works, I'll have to go to London to have access to some scientific papers that were written 200 years's stuff like that. In the meantime I'll also have a look at the places they lived, attended, etc... Preparing as an actor, I've scared people in the past, just be being the character I was creating. I didn't do anything but people were scared nonetheless in the street.

David Taylor

A big problem with writing screenplays is persuading the characters to move out of your house after the screenplay is finished. They tend to follow you around for a while.

Trev Lewis

That being said David, my characters have usually always been with me. All my neurosis and faults seem to find their way into each of my characters

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