Screenwriter Phil Robinson ("Field of Dreams", "All of Me", "Sneakers") took part in our ongoing Academy Q&A series. Here are some highlights from his hour-long interview.
Q: As I writer myself I find it hard to stay committed to finishing a script. Do you have any tips for beating writer's block and maintaining a passion for the story?
A: My first advice is to not call it "writer's block". Once we give a syndrome a name, it's almost an excuse not to write. What I believe happens when we think we're "blocked" is that we simply don't know what comes next. So when that happens to me, I just get very simple: what does the character want to do? What does he need to do? What's stopping him? If I can't answer that question, then I need to go deeper into the character and make their situation more complicated - come up with deeper needs and more difficult obstacles. And here's the thing to remember: if you know what comes next, nothing can stop you from writing all day and all night. So make it easier on yourself. Know that you don't have a psychological condition stopping you - you simply have what we all have: the need to know what comes next. And good luck.
Q: What's your approach in finding structures that involve the audience in the story (to make them experience what the Hero goes through)?
A: Great question. It changes from film to film. And for me it usually has to do with thinking about how LITTLE information I can get away with giving the audience so that they're curious, but don't already know enough to sit back and be complacent. Structure addresses this. When do I tell the audience what I want them to know, how do I tell them, and what do I hold back. It's not easy, and there's no one answer, but for me, it's a key set of questions.
Q: When you go the movies, say on a Friday night with friends, are you able to just enjoy a film or do you find yourself analyzing it, and if so, what do you look for critically when watching a movie at the theater?
A: Very good question. When I started out, I thought of myself as an all-knowing expert, and so I would analyze things when I should have simply been sitting back in my seat, eating popcorn and enjoying the ride. That's what I do now, and I highly recommend it.
Q: What are the challenges writers face while writing script for a movie?
A: So many that it's hard to know where to begin tot answer this. The first challenge is coming up with a good idea for a movie. Then figuring out what's the best way to tell this story. What's the structure, the tone? Who are the characters, why d they do what they do? What's the sub-text to all of this? Why tell this story at all? And what information do we tell the audience early on, and what do we make them discover as the story unfolds? There are a thousand more, but this is a start
Q: What advice would you give to recent college graduates looking to break into the film industry?
A: There's no one way to break in, but here's what makes sense to me: 1) watch a lot of great movies and learn what you can about why they were great. 2) use your cellphone and your laptop and make movies. Over and over. You'll learn from editing what mistakes you made in writing and shooting, and it costs you nothing. Your generation has this tremendous advantage over mine: you can make a feature film for next to nothing with tools you probably already have. So keep writing, keep shooting, keep editing, and learn. And good luck.