When Dana Stevens agreed to do an Email Interview, she'd just written her first big, breakout hit. Previously, she'd been an actress and had regularly gotten parts, but all in small, supporting roles. She started to move in a different direction and sold her first screenplay, the thriller, "Blink." A few years passed before she wrote the screenplay for the romantic fantasy, "City of Angels." Her writing career has kept going upwards since. In rereading what she had to say back near the start, I found it particularly amusing and appropriate that one of her influences in writing was the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, "The Hobbit."
By way of reminder to readers new to this, the Email Interview were originally written for the Writers Guild of America. I sent a series of questions -- usually the same, core ones -- to each writer, and they did the harder work of answering them.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
At the time screenwriter Dana Stevens did her Email Interview, her writing career had just started to blossom. She had first written the thriller, “Blink,” and then a few years later wrote her breakout hit, “City of Angels.” Subsequent to the interview, she has written “For the Love of the Game,” “Life or Something Like It,” and last year’s “Safe Haven”. She also created the TV series, “What About Brian?” and currently has filming the upcoming CBS crime drama series, “Reckless.”
>> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
DS: I was very influenced as a kid by “The Way We Were.” It was the first “grown-up” movie I saw, and after seeing it on television recently, I have come to realize that I am writing "The Way We Were" over and over again. It has influenced my writing style right down to the rythms of the scenes. That movie is really underrated and terrific, despite Barbra Streisand’s over the top performance. It’s a movie where so much is said with so few words. That’s what I try to do; it’s a game, how much can I convey with the fewest amount of words? I think screenwriters are like poets in this way. Another influential film was “Annie Hall,” because it was so theatrical, it broke rules, and it was personal. Books? I was very influenced by fantasy books like C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Hobbit.” I started out as a kid trying to write my own fantastical story. Later it was “Franny and Zooey” by Salinger. Yeah right, me and every other college girl. A guy I dated a few times, a Cuban named Carlos gave me that one and it really changed my writing style.
>> When you write, how do you generally work? Is there a specific time you prefer to write?
DS: I would like to be like a writer I admire, Nick Pileggi, who works from nine to five and takes lunch and coffee breaks and just does his work, like a normal person, but I have a hard time settling down. I get very distracted. I have recently rented an office and am attempting regular hours from nine to two. I used to love to write late at night, but that was when I was single. Writing a script is a very workman-like process for me; it doesn’t all come in a flood. Each day I work and slowly build up the connective tissue, slogging my way toward the end. After four hours my brain really gets tired and I start to hate everything I’m writing. So I stop. The next day I can look at it again and really see whether it’s good or not. I spend weeks prior outlining and thinking. At a certain point I do feel “ready” to jump in, even if the outline isn’t exactly complete. My one ritual is that I make a tape, a compilation of music I feel evokes the tone and emotions I’m trying to convey. And I listen to that tape until it wears out, all through the writing of a project. Sometimes I make a second one. The music really gets my head in the right place to imagine the film.
>>> What sort of characters and stories interest you?
DS: Well, I love a love story. I don’t think I would be a writer if I couldn’t have a romance in the plot. I’m not an action writer or a comedy writer. I tend to like to drive my plots with psychological motivations, with relationships, as opposed to outside forces. I like melancholy characters who are searching for something. I like a good cry. I am very inspired by people I see in the street or on the beach or whatever. I see certain little tableaus or hear snippets of conversations and I imagine the movie of their life. I also like research, real stories and places help me come up with ideas. I sometimes see a movie someone else has written that is totally unlike anything I would be attracted to or would be able to write, and I love that too.
>>> How do you work through parts of a script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
DS: What a horrible horrible feeling, those roadblocks. I had great advice from a friend recently who told me to take a break and just stop, even for days. I tend to think I have to sit there all day till my eyes bleed to solve it. But distance really does help. I also think it helps to just stop, go out for coffee, and think to yourself, “What would I do if I were this character? In this situation?” Try to make it really real. I also sometimes go back. Sometimes the actual problem is not where you are stuck at, but an earlier turn that was wrong and led you in the wrong direction. It’s good to go back and ask yourself, what if I change my mind, what if the character does this? How far would that get me? I think the secret of plot is a very clear chain of cause and effect. This happens. And because that happens, the next thing happens, and because that happens, the next thing happens and so on. It can be a psychological or actual events, but this is the key. If you’re stuck, it’s probably because there connections aren’t logical. Someone in the story did something that didn’t follow logically from the last thing.
>>> What is your best experience as a writer.
DS: “City of Angels.” I was very included in the process by the director and the actors. I loved the crew and being on the set, I learned a great deal about film-making, I made mistakes, I saw what worked in my writing and what didn’t.
>>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a sort of mentor to you?
DS: Ed Solomon. He was my boyfriend off and on all during my 20’s. He was a successful writer, but he encouraged me greatly when I made my early attempts. To this day he is my touchstone, my toughest critic, but also the smartest. He makes you go back and really think. Be clear. And be true to the vision you are trying to realize.
7) Why do you write?
DS: Here’s my touchy feely answer. I write because I like to feel. I love drama, all those intense, swept away feelings that movies can give you and have given me my whole life. I love to create those intense moments, to live in the fantasy world of the movie, and hopefully to see it realized on screen. I also write because I find it comforting to be able to take my time, in my little room, getting everything just right. Much better than the extemporaneous communication we have to face out there in the real world.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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