Today on the show we have screenwriter and best-selling author Alan Watt. Alan Watt is the author of The 90-Day Novel, Amazon’s #1 book on writing, as well as The 90-Day Rewrite: The Process of Revision and The 90-Day Screenplay: From Concept to Polish. He runs the publishing company, The 90-Day Novel Press which has also published The 90-Day Play. Watt has written screenplays for numerous production companies and is the author of the L.A. Times bestselling novel Diamond Dogs.
He has taught everyone from award-winning authors to A-list screenwriters, USC business school students, journalists, poets, actors, professional athletes, war veterans, housewives, doctors, lawyers, maximum security prisoners, television showrunners, Emmy-winning directors, and first-time writers.
Many of his students have gone on to successful careers, writing New York Times and International bestsellers, appearing on Oprah, winning major literary awards, becoming top screenwriters and television show-runners, and most importantly, developing a craft and methodology that delivers consistent results.
We get into the weeds on how to write a screenplay in 90 days. Enjoy my talk with Alan Watt.
Alex Ferrari 0:32
I like to welcome the show Alan watt, man, thank you so much for being on the show, bro.
Alan Watts 3:53
Thanks for having me. Yeah, man, we're,
Alex Ferrari 3:55
we're hanging hanging in there in the quarantine, aren't we?
Alan Watts 3:59
Sure. Yeah. Four weeks in? Yeah, gone forever. Yeah, I
Alex Ferrari 4:04
don't know when it's gonna stop. But but at least you know, for writers they have now they have no excuses. They're locked in and they have to write.
Alan Watts 4:13
You know, in theory, that's true. And yeah, I talked to my writers and they're also freaked out. You know, we got to remember, we're also artists. And we're freaked out. We got to factor that in and know that that it's challenging. I get so many writers say I've got all day to write and I'm still struggling. So I think it's important to get your writing done before you watch the news.
Alex Ferrari 4:36
Without without question, so less Tiger King and more. Final Draft.
Alan Watts 4:44
That's right, yeah. Get up, take a leak, start writing. And then check your emails, watch the news, but get the writing done first, because that's when you're fresh. That's when your imagination is firing.
Alex Ferrari 4:57
Yes, absolutely. So before we get started, how did you Get your start in the business.
Alan Watts 5:03
Well, I started as a stand up comic in, in Canada. And I did comedy for a long time. And I moved to New York. And then some managers brought me out to Los Angeles many years ago. And, and then i i So standard was going well and and I wrote a novel, and it got to auction for a ridiculous amount of money and I didn't have to go on the road anymore. So I just focused my I'd always been writing screenplays. But that's when I really focus more on on novels and screenplays and, and then I started when I wasn't I wasn't going on the road anymore. I started la writers lab about 19 years ago,
Alex Ferrari 5:48
now. Wow. So it's been it's been around for within around for a minute.
Alan Watts 5:52
I started Yeah, I started teaching I my first. My first class was, somebody asked me to teach a screenwriting summer screenwriting class at UCLA in 98. And, and I loved it. I just loved it. And I started and I was always giving notes to to all my screenwriter friends. And then I just kind of opened the doors on La writers lab in a really small way in about 19 years ago.
Alex Ferrari 6:20
Very cool. And I and you wrote a book a really good best selling book called the 90 day screenplay. So I have to ask you the question, how do you how do you write an idea? Yes.
Alan Watts 6:30
Well, yeah, let's get into that. Yeah, I've got I wrote a by wrote the 90 day novel, and I need a screenplay, the 90 day rewrite. And, and, and so yeah, let's talk about it the 90 day screenplay is, is a process of writing a, a, it basically, the first month is outlining your screenplay. So we spend a full month allowing the outline to emerge. And then we spend the second month writing the first draft. And then we spend the last five or so weeks polishing, polishing first draft. Three sections.
Alex Ferrari 7:11
So that's the basic there. So let's break it. Let's get into the first part, the outline. I know a lot of a lot of filmmaker, a lot of filmmakers and a lot of screenwriters, they tend, I've heard this, this complaint, this objection is like I don't outline I just let the thing free flow, man, I'm an artist, I, I just gotta see, when inspiration hits me, I just kind of see where the story takes me, and where the characters are talking to me and all that stuff. And it to a certain extent, I get that. But I've always been an outliner. I love to hear your point of view on on the outline the importance of it, and why you believe it to be such an integral part of this process.
Alan Watts 7:48
Okay, I understand why people say that. And it's because screenwriting is so often taught by story analysts, or really screenwriters themselves, and so it's taught so so a lot of artists rightfully hear outlining or story structure as some kind of a formula. And it's not story structure is the DNA of your protagonist transformation. And so, what I'm teaching is a process of marrying the wildness of your imagination, to the rigor of story structure, but you have to be doing both concurrently. Okay. And so, oftentimes, story structure is taught as this formula. And so understandably, an artist is going to recoil at that idea. But there's a process of outlining that allows the wildness of your imagination to, to run free, so you're not you're not outlining isn't figure it's not a it's not a right, it's not a left brain process. You're not figuring out your story, like it's a math problem. That's not outlining. I don't know what that is. But that's, that's a guaranteed way to get stuck. Einstein says you can't solve a problem to the same level of consciousness that created the problem. In other words, he's talking about let me back up, the purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. And so what, so we can't figure our way out to a transformation, which is what Einstein is saying, Can't figure your way out to the solution to a problem. Every protagonist begins with a dramatic problem. They get this problem that that they think needs to be solved, but what they're going to discover over the course of the story, is that what they're actually struggling with is not a problem. For example, Jimmy Stewart wants to leave Bedford Falls, so you can have a wonderful life. He thinks his problem is how do I get out of bed for fault? What he discovers is he doesn't have a problem. He never had to leave Bedford Falls. What he discovers it, he's got a dilemma. And his dilemma is that as long as I believe that a wonderful Life lives outside of Bedford Falls, I'll forever be in bondage to my limited idea, as Einstein says of my problem. Does that make sense? It makes perfect sense. Okay. And so the reason, it's, you know, I want to ask people out there, have you ever written a screenplay that you did an outline? And you felt like it did everything that you wanted it to do? I think the answer is usually no. And I think also, sometimes we hear about those screenwriters that claim not to outline and we think, Well, Charlie Kaufman says he doesn't outline Woody Allen says he doesn't outline. But the truth is, these guys have been writing for years, and they have mastered their craft. And so they, um, while they may not be writing their outline down, I've talked to a number of writers about this, who are really successful. And they go, Well, I used to outline and but now outlining is second nature, or I have the outline in my head, but I don't write it down. So they don't call it outlining. But I think it's a real misnomer to suggest, especially to novice screenwriters that not outlining is going to give you a really satisfying story where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, it's just not going to happen. But what's also not going to happen is if you go to some screenwriting class, where you're being taught by a story analyst who's teaching you some kind of formula, and and you're expected to adapt to their formula, that's not gonna work, either. And so what you've got to do is you got to find a process of marrying the wildness of your imagination, to the rigorous story structure. And that's what I'm teaching in the 90 days screenplay,
Alex Ferrari 11:49
is it so it's, it's the equivalent of me going, I'm going to go build a house. But I don't want a blueprint right now. I'm just going to start throwing up walls. And I could only see the four walls that I've put up right now. But I don't see it as a whole of the house that I'm trying to build. But if I would, but if I had that blueprint, the architectural blueprints, I'm like, Okay, I could put this house here. And I can decorate those walls wherever I want. I can put the window wherever I want. I can put the door wherever I want. But you still need to know where it's all going and how it's all going to work together to form the final house. That makes sense.
Alan Watts 12:20
Well, here's, here's the problem with that analogy. The problem with that analogy is it's it suggests that a screenplay is a house, but it's not a screenplay, the character, the protagonist, and the House are inextricably linked. So character is structure. And that's why people people hear that house analogy. I've heard it before. And they go, yeah, yeah. But so I don't know how to build the house. You're not supposed to know how to build the house. Einstein again says you can't solve the problem at the same level of consciousness of the creator of the room. So let me explain a little bit about what I'm teaching is that all these store all these books and story structure talking about the dramatic problem, but the truth is that your protagonist doesn't have a problem. They have a dilemma, and there's a difference. problems are solved. They're intellectual. Okay, they're intellectual. You can't solve the problem. At the same level of consciousness, the creative dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception. What your protagonist has is a dilemma, not a problem. Jimmy Stewart and it's a wonderful life has a dilemma. The dilemma is there are two ingredients to a dilemma a powerful desire, I want to leave Bedford Falls and a false belief. A leaving Bedford Falls is what will give me a wonderful luck. Okay, two ingredients to a dilemma, a powerful desire and a false belief. When you understand when you when you connect to your protagonists dilemma, you're connecting to the source of your story. Okay, everything. What we really care about in your story is your theme. The plot is the vehicle that carries the theme. Okay, and so your theme is explored through this dilemma. I always say you know, you've got a story when what your protagonist wants is impossible to achieve based on their current approach or their current identity. Okay, Jimmy Stewart has to die to his old identity in order to be reborn. Okay, in other words, you can't have a transformation without their first being a surrender a dark night of the soul at the end of the second act. So,
Alex Ferrari 14:37
okay, okay. All right. So then, so you're talking about as you just said, Acts, there's a lot of miscommunication about what an actual story is the the three act structure, the five act structure, the seven extraction, there's so many different kinds of structures. Can you can you discuss some I mean, obviously, we all know the three act structure is like the big the one that Is but can you talk a little bit about those? Because I know that's confusing to a lot of people? Yes.
Alan Watts 15:03
Okay, well, when I hear five acts structure I'm hearing, I'm hearing like a one hour TV. And they break, they break it up into a teaser, typically in four acts or a teaser, and five acts. But those acts are those acts are, they've been designed for in order to have television commercials. So those are those aren't story acts, those are just acts that were created by studio executives so that they could sell advertising space. The three act structure is for feature films. And it's also it's for a story and and I, you know, the big thing you hear now, you you hear some of these, these, these these writers who sort of want to be progressive or, and then they talk about how this three act structure is, is sort of dead, or that the three act structure is only one kind of structure, however, and I my radar has been on this for years, they never tell you the other structures. Now I've ever heard them. There's other there's other structs there's there's three act structure is old, it's it's only for novices. I've heard so many of these, these writing gurus talk about this, but I have never heard them in a really sort of granular way about the other structures, because I'm dying to hear what they are.
Alex Ferrari 16:32
Well, so yes. Well, real quickly want to
Alan Watts 16:36
Okay, good. Well, the three act structure is is not a formula. And so when I hear people, when I hear the story, and I was talking about the three structures, not not the only other structure, they're not understanding that the three act structure can be distilled to three words, desire, surrender, transformation. That's the three act structure. Okay? Your protagonist wants something, the stakes are life and death. If I don't get blank, my life will be unimaginable. By the end of Act Two, your protagonist surrenders the meaning they made out of their goal, okay, the meaning they made out of their goal, not their goal, and they let go, and in letting go they reframe the relationship to their goal. And they accept the reality of their situation as opposed to the appearance of their situation. And that allows them in a third act to pursue what they need, as opposed to what they want. And that leads to a battle scene, which is an oftentimes an internal battle that may manifest itself externally. But it's a battle scene where they make a difficult choice between what they want and what they need. And that leads to the new equilibrium. You give me any screenplay that works, and I will show you that structure.
Alex Ferrari 17:49
What the So when you hear some of these Greek, the, you know, the old Greek plays and things like that, that force for x or 5x, or things like that, how is that different? And I mean, I've heard someone talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark having five acts as opposed to a three act.
Alan Watts 18:06
Okay, but what I'm talking about is the DNA I'm sure. So they can be broken up into four acts by Shakespeare a lot of his plays were five acts. But Romeo and Juliet, if you break it down, it's it's it's not typically it's not a three act play. But the story comes is is the most traditional three act structure. You know, Romeo, the inciting incident is Romeo su sees Juliet through the window. The opposing argument is Romeo discovers that Juliet is the enemy is his father's father, an enemy of his, of his, any of his of his father, the end of Act One, Romeo makes a decision that he can't go back on to profess his love to Juliet. And, but he's reluctant because he's afraid that her father will kill him. Okay. And then the dark night of the soul is that Romeo realizes that it's impossible to have Juliet based on his current approach. Okay. And so that leads to him accepting the reality of a situation which is that they are Doom lovers. That leads to the difficult choice where he, uh, you know, takes the care remember where the poison is? Remember the poison.
Alex Ferrari 19:27
I don't remember the name of the poison, but he took poison, he drinks the
Alan Watts 19:31
blanking on it, but he makes the difficult choice. He too, I want to I want to be with my love for eternity. And so he he kills himself.
Alex Ferrari 19:42
I mean, spoiler alert. I mean, come on.
Alan Watts 19:47
It's like it's, this is this is where people get into, they misunderstand the semantics, and they confuse they confuse the way a A script has been broken up into pieces with the DNA of the protagonist journey. So don't Yes, you can break, you can easily break up any screenplay into four parts, because Act Two is typically twice as long as act one and act three, you can call your screenplay for x, it's not going to change a word of your screenplay to call it for x, you break it up into 5x If you want. Got it,
Alex Ferrari 20:28
it's semantics. At the end of the day, it's still three points.
Alan Watts 20:33
If if, if one doesn't master a story structure, it's three act structure. If you don't master that, if you don't, then then you're really going to struggle with with writing a, you know, writing a compelling screenplay.
Alex Ferrari 20:51
So let's talk a little bit about character. Because character is something that when we see a bad when we see a bad guy, it's like, we don't know a good one, too. We see it and we don't know a bad one till we see it. It's hard to explain but, but like, you know, you watch some of these amazing characters like an Indiana Jones like, a Luke Skywalker like Darth Vader as a as a protagonist, or an antagonist. And you see these guys, but when you see some of these bad movies, you just like, oh, god, that's so blah. This guy has like, No, this or this girl has no that is like, what makes, in your opinion, a really good character, and how can we any tips on writing a more compelling character?
Alan Watts 21:33
Okay, first of all, we got to let go of this idea that character has to be likable, the character has to want something really bad. And that's going to make us care about them. If we understand the circumstance that they're in, there will be a we're gonna care about them. My first novel Diamond Dogs, the main character, the protagonist, accidentally killed somebody on the highway in the opening chapter in the second chapter. And I'm told people really care about him. It was a best seller, it's we're making it into a movie. Um, but the point is that the character isn't necessarily likable. But we understand his relationship with his father, we understand the circumstances that led him to this accident. And so hopefully, we care about him. So so what I want to say is, you've got to have a protagonist that wants something, the stakes have to be life and death. I don't mean literally life and death. I mean, I mean, if Jan Brady doesn't get a date with tad Hamilton, she will absolutely die. I have to get this or my life will be unimaginable. That's life and death. The character wants something, the stakes are high. And then at some point, the protagonist is going to let me let me walk you through, just like the really primitive, necessary stages in every protagonist journey, okay. And every three extra is that your protagonist is going to have there's going to be an inciting incident. Okay, something happens that sets the story in emotion. It's the moment where the audience collectively goes, Oh, this is what the story's about. Romeo sees Juliet through the window. Oh, this is what the story's about. And then, and then there's got to be a decision at the end of the first act. That decision needs to be coupled with reluctance. Why? Because the reluctance keeps us connected to the protagonist dilemma. Okay, dilemma is tension dilemma feels like I'm being pulled in two different directions at the same time. You can feel it, it's an experience. And so our protagonist makes it just the reluctance doesn't mean indifference. It doesn't mean I don't really want to do this. Well, the reluctance means that we understand what it will mean, if they don't do it. Okay. I've got to do this. In other words, you know, it Luke Skywalker. He gets on, you know, the the ship, but he looks back and there's his farm burning and his aunt and uncle are dying, okay. He's reluctant to leave. But he, what does he want? He wants to go and be a star fighter, right? So he's not reluctant to be a star fighter. He's reluctant to say goodbye to the status quo his whole life. Don't fuse reluctance within difference, otherwise, it's going to kill the aliveness of your screenplay. The next major really big point is the midpoint. A lot of screenwriters, I hear this word it drives me nuts because it's an intellectual word. They call it the reversal. If you try and figure out I can't figure out a reversal in the middle of in the middle of my story, but but think in terms of experiences. I teach story structure as an experiential model. A lot of teachers teach it as a conceptual model. But if you think in terms of experience, you're going to you're going to realize the character suggests plot. So your characters experience is going to lead to an event happening. So think in terms of the experience of temptation. In the middle of your screenplay, your protagonist is going to experience temptation. You know, gosh, I made some notes, and I gonna do this today. So I'm reverting back to some of the old. Uh, you know, in Rocky, everybody's seen the movie, Rocky. Rocky is offered to fight the heavyweight champion of the world. What does he that's the midpoint of the movie? Yeah, it
Alex Ferrari 25:38
is actually, right. Yeah. It's seven minutes. No, no, I'm good. No,
Alan Watts 25:45
he says, No. And Jurgen says, this is the chance of a lifetime. Don't pass it by, and then we cut to him on the screen with Apollo Creed. Then he says, yes. If he doesn't say no, there's no context for the Yes. It's a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart has offered to work for Mr. Potter. Okay, if you're writing a screenplay, and you're, I always say our idea of our screenplay is never the whole story. It's not that it's incorrect. It's that it's incomplete. If you are writing your idea of a guy trying to leave Bedford Falls, it might never occur to you to have the devil Mr. Potter offer him a job. But what's happened is that he's become so successful with the savings and loan, that the devil does offer a job. So in other words, if you think in terms of your protagonist experiencing temptation, it might occur to you oh, what would what would tempt him? What if? What if the devil offered him a job. So this is this way of working is a way of moving you beyond your limited idea of your screenplay, and stretching your imagination, story structure. If you explore it as a as a, an experiential model, you're going to start to invest yourself into it, you're gonna have some skin in the game, you're not just going to be trying to figure it out from your prefrontal cortex.
Alex Ferrari 27:04
So with a protagonist, generally speaking, everything that you've said makes absolute sense that there's a transformation from the beginning to the end. But there's two characters that I that one specific kind of story that doesn't kind of fit the transformation because the main character doesn't change, which is the detective story, the detective story, or like the original James Bond stories, where James Bond is absolutely no transformation whatsoever, but everybody around him transforms and same thing for the detective story. How can you how does that work with the detective story?
Alan Watts 27:35
Okay, good. I'm glad you brought that up. So So in cautionary tales, for example, as in a cautionary tale, the transformation can be for the audience. So So in other words, the purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. The transformation doesn't necessarily have to be for the hero in a cautionary tale. It's not in a cautionary tale. They're led to this difficult choice between what they want and what they need, and they choose what they want. Okay, as Judas lays dying, he still sees the error of his ways. Okay, and so in, you know, think about, I'm remembering, I don't know why but Carlitos way, it's like, he dies at the, you know, as he's getting on the train, he's trying to get away, and he realizes it was too late. I was I was, you know, I got I got hung up with my ego. And so don't confuse transformation. With a happy ending. It's not necessarily transformation is simply is simply a shift in perception. It's seeing the situation in a new way. And so you think about Goodfellas you know, the transformation is, is when we realize that oh, look, crime doesn't pay in the theme always comes full circle. So, so it doesn't mean that it's always happy ending.
Alex Ferrari 29:00
Yeah, so like, if you look at like Sherlock Holmes, you know, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. I mean, there's they're so wonderfully written and Sherlock is obviously one of the greatest characters ever developed, or constructed. But Sherlock from the beginning of from any of his stories. He's T Sherlock. He rarely ever does change, and specifically James Bond, those early Sean Connery's and Roger Moore, they chat he was just the womanizing guy who does this. The only time that changes when Daniel Craig showed up, and that's when you gave, I felt that they gave such depth to him and then James Bond actually transformed and that's what made Cassina raw right out such an amazing Bond film. But those early there's only movies worked and they are those always move for what they were. So what would you like how would you say the transformation was in a Sherlock Holmes story or James Bond? Sorry,
Alan Watts 29:53
so and I haven't read Sherlock Holmes in years. What's his sidekicks name?
Alex Ferrari 29:59
A Holmes. Sherlock Holmes and Watson Watson Watson,
Alan Watts 30:03
Alex Ferrari 30:06
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Alan Watts 30:16
Okay, so So it's possible that Watson is the protagonist. In other words, Watson. In other words, Watson is he's not the protagonist, let me take that back. But Watson is the lens through which the audience sees the story. And so So, so Watson can be the one who has the transformation is that he can be the one who's sort of watching his shirt homes with admiration, perhaps confusion, of judgment, and then, by the end of the story, understand something because Sherlock Holmes is sort of the embodiment of wisdom. He's not going to change, he doesn't need to change because he's already like the god figure, right? But what needs to change is that we need to change we need to understand our impatience, our judgment, our leaping to assumptions, and that's the thing that gets changed. So so so Watson, is the lens through which we become transformed.
Alex Ferrari 31:27
Excellent, that was a great, great explanation of that. I've never actually I've posed that I've posed that question to many of my guests and you're the first one to kind of really lay it out in a very distinct way I'd never thought about Watson because he does Watson does change Watson is always the one that he's the emotional one he's the one that starts one way and ends another one but Sherlock never he's he's essentially the God he you know, he's Zeus. He is Superman. He does not change
Alan Watts 31:53
change in the you know, like the the archetype of the of God the you know, the mystery of the the the car the comic the low they
Alex Ferrari 32:07
don't change. Oh, yeah, no, they I was thinking Loki mischief but no, no, I know. You said the comic. Yeah.
Alan Watts 32:14
You know, the Trickster one for Forrest Gump. Oh, God, he did. Forrest Gump doesn't change. He's already he's already got the Wisdom. You know what change we are transformed as a result of understanding is his total acceptance of the world His compassion, his his love his open heart. We that's what we're aspiring to become. He's already there from the beginning.
Alex Ferrari 32:46
Yeah, Rain Man, it would be rain man would be the same way. Dustin Hoffman? Absolutely doesn't change but Tom Cruise does. And we as the audience look at it through Tom Cruise's eyes.
Alan Watts 32:56
Right. And Tom Cruise is the protagonist in that story. He's the one that that typically the protagonist is one that has the biggest change. Um, but that's why that's why I'm I'm wondering and I haven't read Sherlock Holmes since I was like 14 years old. Seeing the Robert Downey movies. Um, but the the a lot of a lot of times, there's the story where the main character isn't necessarily the protagonist, you know, think about Great Gatsby, where the story is told through the lens of Nick Caraway. Well, Nick, careful, you know, Gatsby, you know, dies in the end, but Gatsby doesn't really he doesn't he, it's a tragic story. But we're, we are changed through through the narrator's eyes, you know, we're, we're seeing the story through next eyes. And so sometimes there's, there's, there's some movies where it appears that the, the, the where we, it, you know, like ordinary people, the main character, could it could be argued that the main character is the Timothy Hutton character. But the protagonist is probably the Donald Sutherland character. He's the one that had whose eyes become opened by the end of the story. He's the one who says to his wife, I don't know we've been playing it in this marriage for 20 years. And then she leaves. Donald Sutherland is you can hang the structure on Donald Sutherlands Ark, desire to I want to bring my family together. And and he can't the more he tries to bring them together, the more Timothy and Mary Tyler Moore, become polarized leads to a dark night of the soul where he's sitting in the garage in his car. And he says to his wife, he starts to question his wife what the hell happened? The day we buried our son, All you cared about was the shirt I was wearing this shoes. And what's the matter, she freaks out on him and the lights start to go on. And he starts to realize that, that what he's wanted is to have a happy family. But he's failed to consider that he's a member of the family. And so that's when he starts to realize that until I consider myself I'm never going to have a happy family. I'm just going to be trying to control all the external forces.
Alex Ferrari 35:25
So in Shawshank which I consider one of the one of my favorite films of all time. Love it. You know, a lot of people think Andy do frames the main character, I argue that red is the main character. That's because Andy does does change, but he is who he is. i This is my own personal and I've talked about Shawshank at nauseum on the show, because it's one of my favorite scripts of all time. But yeah, and he does change because he's definitely different than when he walks in than he is when he walks out. But I don't know why I feel that his essence stays the same throughout the piece, but read read is the one that has this, I feel even more dramatic change. From his point of view from he was already there. He was he was a veteran when he when Andy walked in, and where he walks out at the end. I don't know, I'd love to hear your opinion on that.
Alan Watts 36:20
Well, you know, here's the thing is I don't, I don't, um, it's it takes, it takes me a while to sort of thoughtfully break down a script and analyze it. So I don't like to give sort of quick off the cuff. And I haven't done that with Shashank. And, and the way I work is it's, it's a, there's craft, but it's also it's instinctual. And so in other words, that what I'd rather address with this question, rather than sort of, do I think Andy or read is the protagonist? Is, is I love that you're bringing up this question? Because what we need to talk about with screenwriting, is the holistic approach to screenwriting. That, that, um, that, that I love, when we look at a script by Guy and go, You know what, it's possible that red is, so let's, let's, let's, let's break down this script. And let's see if we can hang it on, on, on red arc, what is the inciting incident? You know, why is this day like any? And, you know, I would I would submit that you might be right about that. The day that Andy comes into the prison, you know, you do we do have red narrating it and, and and that is the day unlike any other Okay, inciting incident. That's right around page 10 of that script, I think, why is this, like any other is the day that Andy comes into our lives, and forces us to start to find the beauty within and he's the one that plays the opera music, but read is the one who is allowing himself to be transformed by this external force. You've got you've got a great antagonist in that that old man on the ward and is so no, no, the old man who the little little guy who ends up getting out? Oh, yeah.
Alex Ferrari 38:24
Yeah, forgot it. Yeah, with a bird with a bird with a crow. I forgot his name.
Alan Watts 38:28
In other words, in other words, here's here's, I think, I think, personally, a more valuable conversation for what your free your question is, is I want to talk about how all of the characters in your screenplay, want the same thing at nature. Okay, they all want the same thing at nature. In other words, they all want freedom, right? And what does anyone they don't want to be free. But notice how all the characters constellated around this dilemma. Okay, another dilemma is a powerful desire, I want to be free freedom, and a false belief. And everybody's false belief is different. And that's what makes that so think about all the characters in Shawshank as archetypes. Okay, primal forces of this dramatic question. How can I be free? What we do get a guy who leaves the prison and then hangs himself? Because he's got a misperception of freedom. His idea of freedom is the familiar. I want I want things the way they are, he can't accept change. Okay, Andy is a guy who accepts change. This is what makes him so powerful is that he spends 20 years chipping away at a hole in his cell and putting a poster over it. Okay, and so he he is that's why the ending is so moving. Because it's the you know, the the filmmaker flips it, and we begin to understand what the movie has been about the whole time. Okay, that freedom comes from within, but we thought that freedom meant Escape the beginning of the story. So the story is isn't about will plot is will Andy escape or will read get out? Or Will anybody get out? But theme is about how do we reframe our relationship to freedom. Freedom of the beginning means escape. By the end of the story. Freedom means I must find it within Morgan Freeman says, You know what? I know you're never letting me out. Fine, but I'm not gonna I'm not gonna kiss your ass anymore. He finds freedom within. Hmm,
Alex Ferrari 40:31
yeah. And we could talk about Shawshank for another three hours. So let me ask you this. So the, how would you tackle because then the third part of your of your process? How do you tackle the dreaded rewrite? Because the rewrite is something that really does. It's where a lot of a lot of writers myself included get stuck. Because then you start nitpicking you start losing scope, you start getting into the weeds, all this kind of stuff. And what's your process on the rewrite? How do you approach it?
Alan Watts 41:07
Okay, well, I I'm going to answer that one second of the one, I want to back up for a second because I can't do the rewrite, unless I've done the first draft. Remember, I talked about earlier marrying the wildness of our imagination to the rigor of story structure. In other words, what I, you know, I want, I want my first draft to Oh, and I can't do that until I've, I've done an outline where I've because because the way I outline, the way I teach outline is very different than everybody else. Okay, the outline, I would say that everything that you imagined belongs in your story, if you can distill it to its nature, okay, so I don't want I, I, I really encourage, um, we've got to understand that human beings are contradictory creatures, we want adventure. But we also want security. We want love and connection, but we also want our individuality. And so what happens sometimes I see this all the time, particularly with screenwriters is that in wanting to be a good screenwriter, we start to employ logic and logic kills the aliveness of your story. There's nothing logical about Jimmy Stewart considering taking a job with Mr. Potter. Okay, you know, there's, there's, there's nothing logical about a guy who's wanting to be free his whole life. He gets out in the first day, he checks into a motel and hangs himself. Nothing logical about that. But there's something so true about it. And there's something primal about it. And so what the so in the first month of the 90 day screenplay, I keep bringing writers back to the primal, what is your protagonists want? What are the characters want? What do they all want? That is the same, that's primal. Okay, it's not intellectual. But it's, I want to be free. I want connection I want meaning I want purpose. I want justice, I want revenge. It's primal, the set, okay. And so once you get that, that outline where you feel like there is a primal drive, through your, for your protagonist through the story, you write your first draft, and you write it really, really messy. And you surprise yourself with all the crazy places these characters seem to go. That make no sense. Now you've got a rod document to work with in the rewrite. In the rewrite, the first thing we do, is we do a new outline. Okay, and so the new outline, you ask yourself two questions. First question is, Have I said everything I set out to say, and this is where you do an inventory, you go, alright. There's actually scenes that feel like they're missing or there's a there's stuff that I felt like I pulled back, I want to I want to just do now I just want to vomit this onto onto onto a random page. What is all the stuff that I that? I said, I'd say sometimes you've said it all. And the second question is, Have I said it in the most effective way? That question leads you to do a new outline, but the new outline is not a regurgitation of your first draft. And that's where a lot of people think, Oh, I've got it, I got to just tighten up the first draft. No, you need to be willing to pretend that the first draft doesn't exist. And you do a new outline, because now you, once you've written the first draft, you understand your characters in a way you could never have understood them otherwise, because you've gotten them to the end of your screenplay. So you got to get the first draft down fast. Don't rewrite half a screenplay you got once you get to the end, you're going to understand them. And then you're going to go back and do a new outline pretending you didn't write a first draft. And you're gonna start to ask yourself, now that I know more about this story than I ever did before. Let me pretend I didn't write it. And let me start to explore the most effective way to Tell the story. Let me let me, let me look at you know, when I, when I wrote the first draft, I thought I had two or three inciting incidents, let me start to explore what might be the inciting incident. Oh, I'm starting to see that it's When Morgan Freeman sees Andy do frame come in to the prison for the first time. Wow, I thought that ending was my protagonist, it might actually be read, I had no idea but because I'm holding it loosely and pretending I didn't write the screenplay, I'm actually open to that to considering that. And now my story story starts to take on a new shape. Because I'm not trying to make it conform to my idea of my first draft.
Alex Ferrari 45:39
That's, that's brilliant. I love that approach. I really do love that approach. On the rewrite, it's very, very cool. I mean, I thought look, I've talked to, I've talked to a lot of people about the craft. So I always love bringing new new guests on, because with different approaches, because you never know, when you're going to get the nugget that is going to gonna hit you personally, the right way you might be hearing from this guru, or that screenwriter or this process or that, that, you know, structure or whatever. And there's always that one thing. So the that's probably one of the better ways to rewrite I've ever heard on the show period. So it's very, very cool. Now, how do you deal with writer's block? That's a question I ask all the time. Because writer's block is this rough
Alan Watts 46:25
writer's block, okay, let me get to that I just want to address you just use the word guru. And some of my students want to call me their guru. And it is a request. But I want to say something, I want to say something to the screenwriters out there, because you got a lot of screenwriters watching this is that I see this all the time. And, and it costs writers years of really great dedicated work is the you are your own guru. And that, that I see writers all the time, they write a really great messy first draft. And then they give it to a friend, or a guru or whoever. And, and, and they get feedback on it. And the problem is that the feedback give you like, the primitive example would be, I really liked seeing three and four, but I don't like seeing two and nine. And so I I'm being you know, sort of facetious, but they get rid of seeing two and nine. And, and and you start to it's really subtle, but screenwriters writers tend to we want to write something that's really wonderful. And that works. And what happens is we start to abdicate authority over the thing that excited us at the beginning. You can do that at your peril. That thing that excites you that you might not yet be able to articulate is the thing that you've got to hold on to. And so you've got to be able to disseminate the notes that are valuable to the notes that are I especially with careers, other screenwriters always want to tell you how they would write your screenplay. That's fucking useless. Because it's not their screenplay. What if you don't have a stream? If you don't have somebody giving you notes? That is endlessly curious about what you're trying to express? They there they can be their help can be really counterproductive,
Alex Ferrari 48:26
damaging Yeah, without question damage. So how do you how do you deal with writer's block?
Alan Watts 48:36
I think writer's block is an absence of information. And so the way the This is why the first month of the 90 day screenplay is, I always tell writers that that we're not outlining for the first week, by the way, all we do is we imagine the world of the story. Okay, now, this is what three year olds, I got a seven year old. So you could you go to eight year old. This is what they do all day long. They just you tell me a story. They don't get writer's block. They just tell you a story. It might not make any sense to us. But there is there's a there's sort of like a super logic to it. You know, when they tell you a story that there's like, my son does it all day long. He tells me stories. And and and so what we need to do is, is writer's block is where we come to a place when we think we're supposed to know something, and then we start beating ourselves up for not knowing what we shouldn't be. We're not yet supposed to know. And so there's a process of going from the general to the specific, the most general is what's the thing that excites me. Oh, this is this is a story about a boy who meets a girl. Okay, I wonder how old they are. And I start to ask myself question, how old are they? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? Why? Are they attracted to each other? Um, what are their relationships with their family members? What's the what's the obstacle standing in the way of their love? And, and and that that's going to lead to every every question begets 50 more questions. That's what I call imagining the world of the story. I also give my students six writing exercises every day. These writing exercises are designed to connect to the primal forces in your characters. When you start to do that, by the end of 28 days, you've you know so much about these characters, and, and you are experiencing them in relationship to each other. But you're not trying to plant or graft a, a, an a plot on top of these people. Character and plot are inextricably linked. A plot it's only a character lives inside of a plot. You know, what makes screenplay so powerful is that nobody other than Andy do frame could have done what Andy did. His his his actions are in extract the plot that happens is inextricably linked to the character to who the character is.
Alex Ferrari 51:16
Right? Yeah, you can't make it. Yeah, of course, you can't throw Indiana Jones in a James Bond movie. You know, there you go. Which would which by the way, I would watch that movie, it'd be very interesting to watch. And I would like to throw in the I'd love to throw James Bond in an Indiana Jones movie. That would be that would be a very interesting movie. But generally speaking, in the is the catalyst for the adventures he goes on. Because you can't you know, it's time it's plays. It's who that character is. You can't you can't write. You can't write a Shawshank with Indiana Jones. Like, again, an interesting idea. But that's not who the core of that of that character is. Make sense.
Alan Watts 51:54
Exactly, exactly. And I think that on on some level, there, there is an I really think that it's a product of the way screenwriting is taught. It's just, it's so often taught by academics. And it's, you can't, just because you can deconstruct a masterpiece, doesn't mean you know, for your student, doesn't mean now the student ought to be able to write a masterpiece because they've seen that deconstruction, deconstruction is valuable. But I think what's more valuable, is understanding process. Because deconstructing somebody is going, here's the result. Here's the thing that was created, but it doesn't explore the process that created it.
Alex Ferrari 52:43
Fair enough. Now, I'm going to ask you a few quick questions I asked. All of my guests are. What are three screenplays that every screenwriter should
Alan Watts 52:51
read? Oh, man, that's Boy, that's a that's a great question three that everybody should read. Yeah. Well, a
Alex Ferrari 53:03
political change tomorrow. But but for for Right, yeah.
Alan Watts 53:06
Well, I want to just be a little bit. Here's the thing too, is, is that what you want to do is you want to if you write in a particular genre, you want to become a master of your genre. And so I just want to say that, that I don't want to I don't want to, again, I don't want to be like the guru. You should read these three screenplays. But what I would say is that if you write if you write romantic comedies, you might want to study When Harry Met Sally, if you write a you know, dramas, you might want to, you know, study, ordinary people or the Godfather, or Cuckoo's Nest, um, you know, so it's sort of like kind of the question you're asking me is, sir, right, you know, all right. I'm just gonna tell you that this three screenplays that I would recommend you read our Paddy Chayefsky keys network. Um, and then I would say that that was original screenplay, I would say, it's the same year within a year or two is cuckoos. Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because that's a brilliant adaptation of a novel. And, and if you read that novel, and you read that screenplay, you'll you'll you'll see. You'll you'll see that these are two completely different animals. And it's a it's a great way of understanding how a screenwriter needs to think in order to tell a story visually, and, and then Tootsie I would say Tootsie because I think Tootsie is a masterpiece. It's the it's got it's got like five it's got five subplots that are so brilliantly interwoven. that, you know, when I read that screenplay, I, my jaw drops that that that I think it was Alvin Sargent that wrote that, and it's such a masterpiece. So I guess those would be my let him remember what I said.
Alex Ferrari 55:16
Now what? What advice would you give a screenwriter trying to break into the business today?
Alan Watts 55:22
Well, I would say that there's two businesses. There's Hollywood and then there's independent film. And so which is we talking about?
Alex Ferrari 55:28
Let's do independent film because Hollywood. It's interesting.
Alan Watts 55:33
Okay, yeah. Because because Hollywood is a completely different thing. And the thing is that if you break into indie film, and you really make your masterpiece, which is going to be very different than a studio picture, the irony is that the studio is going to want to hire you. You look at the great, like Ryan Johnson and Jeff, what's his name? Now that made mud and
Alex Ferrari 55:58
oh, yeah, that Yeah, well, yeah. What's his name to Kugler rank roller?
Alan Watts 56:05
Cool, brilliant, so many brilliant filmmakers who really pursued their vision. And, and then, of course, the studio, I mean, Spielberg's perfect example, for the studios come calling so so I love it. Let's talk about how do you break into indie film? Um, read the Duplass brothers book? Yeah, it's like, bro,
Alex Ferrari 56:31
it's great book.
Alan Watts 56:33
Oh, my God, it is so inspiring. Those guys are so brilliant. And and I can't give any better advice than what the Duplass brothers gave, which was they made it they basically make a movie on your I'm totally paraphrasing, but basically make a movie on your iPhone. Yeah, for three days, make a short film on your iPhone, and then make another one and it's going to suck. But you're going to start to find I think they call it the huge you Yeah, it's you're going to start to find your voice. You're in your passion. And and and then make make another one. And then and then make a feature for 1000 or $3,000. And, and keep it Yeah, I look at Joe Swanberg Mm hmm. The guy's brother keeps turning them out prolific and every, it just starts to improve. And so I guess that would be that would be my thing is don't wait for anybody. I just I just shot a I just I just directed a music video right before this. This thing and we did it for Brexit we, the artists, brilliant singer Abbey, Abbey Lyons. She did a she did a Kickstarter campaign raise the money and we went and shot it. And I'm thrilled with the way it turned out. But we didn't, you know, we didn't wait for a bunch of money to show up. So we could make a, you know, really perfect, but it looks it looks great. We had a great crew. But it didn't cost a lot of money.
Alex Ferrari 57:59
Good. Good. Now, can you tell us where people can find you and your work and tell us about the later the LA writers lab.
Alan Watts 58:08
So you can go to LA writers lab.com. And that's that's my website. And I'm teaching the 90 day screenplay June 10. And it's a donation based workshop. And I make a donation based so that everybody can if there's a minimum donation of 250 for a three month workshop, suggested donation is I think it says 650, something like that. But I do that because I want I want to make great instruction affordable for anybody who wants it. And yeah, that's it. I teach a bunch of workshops that teach you the 90 day novel, I teach rewrite workshops, the rewrite workshops are all completely full with a waiting list. But if you're interested, you can always get on the waiting list. And and I teach benefit workshops every month that are a minimum of $5 to join I donate the money to different charities each month. But I their craft workshops. So I'll teach a I've got one coming up. end of May. It's on my website and it's called unlock the story within. And basically it's everything we've been talking about. It's it's it's connecting to the story that lives within you, so that you're able to it's a great workshop to take before the 90 day screenplay. So that you begin to understand the DNA of the story that wants to be told. You know, rather than going oh, this is a story about Andy to frame I got I gotta make it my protagonist and they start to read these books and figure out some conceptual way to get them to a transformation, only to discover that the transformation belongs to read. You know, I just love that you gave that example.
Alex Ferrari 59:49
Alan, thank you so much for being on the show man. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you and sharing your method and your ways and your use you with With with our audience massive thanks again for being and please stay safe out there. It's, it's rough.
Alan Watts 1:00:07
Thanks for having me.
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- LA Writer’s Lab
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