Robin Swicord shares her screenwriting secrets

Thursday, October 29, 2015 - 15:30
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord answered questions today via Facebook about the craft of writing a screenplay. Swicord, who penned "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005)  and "Matilda" (1996), among others, is also the committee chair of the Academy's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. 
Here's a sampling of the questions she fielded... and her replies:
Q: Did the screenwriters take into account that Curious Case of Benjamin Button was more of a softer toned/light hearted film in contrast to Fincher's other films? (Panic Room/ Fight Club)
A: It’s possible that Eric Roth -- who wrote the final drafts of the screenplay that went into production – was given specific direction by Fincher regarding tone. I have no way of knowing. I never met with Fincher, who had carried around my drafts for several years, and then hired another writer – Eric Roth, a friend of mine and a great screenwriter -- when Fincher was finally hired to direct the film.
I wrote 16 different drafts of “Benjamin Button”, working with four different directors, over ten years. Frustratingly, technology had to catch up with what my vision of the film required, before the film could be made – 20 years of development.
I originated the project, adapting the short story in a way that wildly diverted from the Fitzgerald short story – I asked myself, “What would F. Scott Fitzgerald write today?” His story began with Benjamin being born in the American Civil War, and ended in the Jazz Age (1920s) – Fitzgerald’s era. I started writing “Benjamin Button” on the cusp of the 1990s, so the span of our entire 20th century was very much on my mind as we approached that century’s final decade.
To tell Benjamin’s story, I invented characters like Queenie and Daisy, and I set up the “rules” of the fable – that Benjamin was inwardly aging forward, even as his body aged backward; that only when he was 40 did he look anything like he felt.
My screenplays set a certain tone of fable and emotionality that is very much present in much of the final film, intertwined with Roth’s personal tone, which you’ll also recognize from his screenplay for “Forrest Gump”.
When I saw the final film, it was fascinating for me observe the “DNA” of both of our writing tones/styles mingled like that.
A director with a distinctive point of view greatly shapes the tone of a movie -- but what I admire about Fincher here is that he trusted the voices of the writers, and allowed himself to make an absurdly ambitious film that’s different in tone from much of his other work.
Q: How do you personally go about structuring a feature length screenplay?
A: I make a lot of notes about the story and the themes and the people; I do my research, if that's necessary; and I immerse myself in everything I'll need in order to tell the story. And then I start to write down short descriptions of just the scenes I already know need to be in the film.
As I do this, I begin to develop a sense of "This is a scene that helps set up the story" and "This is a scene that happens half way through the story that gives the central character's need much more meaning" and "This is a scene about how truly impossible things feel -- the character feels that they have no choice now but to make a certain sacrifice or transformation, to fulfill their need" -- and that sense helps me know where in the story these scenes must take place - Act 1, 2 or 3. I begin to feel what is missing: "I need something to happen just before this, or just after this."
Slowly I fill in the mosaic that becomes the outline. Then I edit the outline and re-imagine and question myself, until I think with some amount of confidence: "This is enough. Now I can begin."
Q: How did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
A: I didn't know I wanted to be a screenwriter - I didn't know screenwriting existed till I was about 20. I wanted to write, period. I had a strong visual imagination that I used mostly for self-amusement, I guess. I loved to act things out but I didn't want to be an actor. When I found out the simple fact that movies were actually written, *by writers*, it dawned on me that all the things I loved to do, loved to think about, loved to be part of, were gathered under one tent called filmmaking
Q: What advice to you have for young writers who want to succeed in today's film world? What advice do you wish you were given at a young age?
A: The most important gift a young writer can give themselves is the discipline of simply writing.
When I began to understand that I had to write every day, no matter what, my life gained some clarity, and I began to really become a writer.
The advice that would have helped me then: Write what you love, write what you want to see, and don't worry about what you think other people will like.
School teaches us to want to get good grades, to please others. But real writing begins, and your real voice comes, when you write for yourself, and don't worry about the possibilities of failure or success. 
Q: What is the best thing about being a screenwriter?

A: I think most writers say pretty much the same thing: The wardrobe.
I would add: Snacks at the desk. 
Read the entire exchange on the Nicholl Facebook Page