1. Finish it
I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when?
You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
3. Have something to say
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs.
4. Everybody has a reason to live
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites.
5. Cut what you love
If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them.
7. Track the audience mood
You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times.
8. Write like a movie
Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely.
9. Don’t listen
Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter.
10. Don’t sell out
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good.