Friday, October 9, 2009

Interview with Paul Guay - Part 2

Here is part 2 of my interview with Paul Guay

Doug: How do you develop your characters?

Paul: Just add adjectives till something sticks.

If I’m writing a high-concept film, the concept implies the protagonist’s character arc (and vice versa). For example, Liar, Liar is about a birthday wish which requires the protagonist to tell the truth for 24 hours. Therefore, the protagonist must be someone who is incapable of, or hates, telling the truth. What might that kind of person do for a living? What kind of problems might arise personally and professionally if he’s suddenly unable to lie?

Plot is the revelation (and the changing) of character through action. So if I do my job right, my plot requires certain things from my characters and my characters require certain things from my plot. The characters and the plot grow together.

That said, I don’t have anything more than a theoretical fix on my characters until I start typing their dialogue and hear what they sound like. I’ll edit and make choices and adjustments and changes, but it’s not until I hear them talking that I really know who they are. When I hear them singing, I’m home free.

Doug: What’s the biggest mistake you see neophyte writers make?

Paul: Not hiring me as their Script Consultant.

The two biggest mistakes are choosing subject matter that’s not marketable and beginning to write too soon.

I have a lot of ideas for scripts, but when I finish a script it always takes me awhile to choose my next spec because it has to be something a) that I love enough that I want to spend the next six to 12 months of my life writing it (yes, I do assignments much faster, but we’re talking about specs here) and b) that I think enough people will want to see that a studio will choose it from the 180,000 or so scripts that are written every year and will be overjoyed to spend $71 million to make it and $36 million to market it, which were the average costs for a studio film in 2007.

Many neophyte writers ignore a), so they spend irreplaceable months of their lives on something they don’t love, or they ignore b), so they spend irreplaceable months of their lives on something they can’t sell. Of course, even with a passionate writer and a commercial subject no script is guaranteed to sell... but it sure beats the alternative.

The other major mistake I see is that writers go to draft too soon. I see remarkably-good ideas go to waste when writers didn’t spend the time to brainstorm, to ask “What if?”, to explore alternatives, to ask themselves, “Given this premise, given these characters, what’s everything that could happen?”, then didn’t sift through all those jokes and scenes and bits and arcs and setpieces to choose the best and forge them together into the strongest-possible whole.

Doug: You frequently write with a partner. How does that work?

Paul: I get the pit. He gets the pendulum.

Doug: Do you sit in a room together and toss around jokes, or do you divide up the scenes and write separately?

Paul: I’ve written different ways with different partners. Usually we do the brainstorming and outlining together. Then either I’ll type while my partner looks at the monitor and throws out hilarious lines, especially if it’s a comedy, while keeping tabs on the plot and tone and character choices and advising me when I’m typing seven different approaches to a scene that we really can stop at five... or we’ll take the first two scenes, divide them, write separately, move on to the next two scenes, etc.

Doug: How many drafts does it usually take before you feel like a script is ready?

Paul: The last spec I co-wrote, an action comedy called Blue Flu, went through 15 drafts. I don’t edit while I’m writing; I put down whatever comes into my head and know that I can choose and reshape and cut later. If I’m writing jokes, I might write five or 10 or 50 jokes for a particular line, and then as I do subsequent drafts, I’ll have a better and better idea which joke best reveals character, advances plot, pushes theme, and is funny.

This means, by the way, that my first drafts are long. But I find it much easier to make choices and reshape and cut once everything is written on the page and I can read the script as a whole.

I never send out a script until I think it’s ready. “Good enough” isn’t good enough; it has to be the most artistic and most commercial writing I’m capable of. It’s an extremely-competitive business; no one’s best guarantees a sale... but again, it sure beats the alternative. And I have pride in what I do. If I’m remembered for anything, it’ll be my writing. Or my height. But I have more control over my writing, and I’d like it to be remembered well.

Before my scripts go out, I give them to 10 friends who are working screenwriters. I want the benefit of their objectivity and their criticism so that what producers and directors and talent and studios see is as good as I can make it.

Doug: Liar, Liar was an enormous hit. What impact did that experience have on your career and on your creative process, positive or negative?

Paul: The career impact has been extremely positive; I now get the best table at my house. The only caveat is that sometimes when I pitch I’m told “That’s too similar to Liar, Liar” or “That’s too different from Liar, Liar.” I also get “That’s too visual,” but that’s another story.

In terms of my creative process, I probably put more pressure on myself to hit it out of the ballpark with each script than I did before. But that may also be a function of experience -- I know better than ever how challenging it can be to get a film made, so I put even more effort into making sure each script is as strong artistically and commercially as I can make it.

Doug: You sold Liar, Liar as a pitch. What do you think are the most important elements for a good pitch?

Paul: Choosing a story so compelling that moviegoers have to see it on opening night -- and telling it so well that your listeners “get” it in the telling. Don’t make them hunt for the gold; do the panning, do the sifting, then hand them the nuggets yourself.

Doug: Do you have any advice you wish someone had given you when you were just starting out?

Paul: Yes. Don’t bet on pro wrestling.

(c) 2009 Paul Guay. All rights reserved.

* * *

Paul Guay’s movies have grossed over half a billion dollars. He conceived and co-wrote Liar, Liar, at the time of its release the sixth-highest-grossing comedy in history. The screenplay received an Honorable Mention (along with Fargo, Million Dollar Baby, The Full Monty and Catch Me If You Can) in Scr(i)pt magazine’s list of the Best Scripts of the Past 10 Years.

Paul co-wrote The Little Rascals, Universal's second-highest-grossing film of the year, and co-wrote Heartbreakers, starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman and Jason Lee, which opened #1 at the box office, and the rights to which he co-licensed to MGM for production as a stage musical.

Paul is a sought-after Script Consultant (

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