Screenwriting

Matthew Weiner on Screenwriting

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The Paris Review —that hipster-ish magazine that must be read with horn-rimmed glasses while smoking a pipe— features a not too frequent series of interviews with screenwriters under the title, “The Art Of Screenwriting.” I have only read their latest one, with Mad Men showrunner and creator Matthew Weiner. A few of his ideas called my attention and gave me interesting material to reflect upon.

  1. When it comes to narrative structure, Weiner is not too rigid. First off, because he considers epic to be inherently episodic: A character remains, the challenges vary. And secondly, because he usually finds the heart of a story in the “digressions,” the scenes that depart from the general principle of moving the story forward (such as in Apocalypse Now and other 1970s films.)
  2. From his work with David Chase on The Sopranos, Weiner has learned that a writer must not shut out his subconscious. He encourages writers to take a risk, or even “do the embarrassing thing.”
  3. He also draws from real-life anecdotes and sayings that may seem irrelevant at the moment but that sometimes, he says, hide a crushing truth. As an example, a line from Tony Soprano: “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”
  4. Weiner says the hardest part of his job is “dealing with exposition.” At the same time, he finds group scenes (e.g. meetings) very helpful to disguise and hide it.
  5. The idea of dramatic irony seems to be central to Weiner’s writing. He defines it —more or less— as characters going in the story “from having a private problem to having a public problem.” Secrets seem to be an excellent fuel for drama, and he illustrates this with an example of a scene that uses as many as 6 characters together in one room hiding 6 different secrets.
  6. A photographic reference for Mad Men is North By Northwest (he mentions the cropduster scene as an example of one of those aforementioned “digressions;”) and he admires Wong Kar-wai for his pacing of the scenes.
  7. For Weiner, it only takes one shot to properly introduce a new character so that we know all we need to know about him.
  8. Being “hot” or “cold” —in entertainment industry terms— is not nearly as important as being creatively “wet” or “dry.” And the possibility of finding himself “dry” seems to frighten him quite a little bit.

(Many thanks to @ruben_pereda for passing along this fantastic interview.)

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