An actor who’d been kicking around Hollywood for nearly two decades decided to take a stand one day. After years of toiling away, he finally landed a small role on a series that turned out to be very popular.
The only problem was, everyone on the show was making more money than he was, which didn’t sit particularly well with him.
One day he decided to phone the executive producer of the show and ask he be paid the same as his co-stars. It seemed like a reasonable request but was promptly denied. “You’re not worth as much,” came the reply.
So the actor quit.
To make the timing of his newly found unemployment more complicated, the actor’s wife was pregnant with their first child.
One would assume he did the sensible thing and looked for work with a steady paycheck, relocated to a less expensive city, or decided to “eat crow” and just get his old job back.
Instead, he had the bright idea of becoming a screenwriter. Not most people’s first choice for supporting a family, but he was also 40 and had never written one in his life.
But here’s where the story gets interesting…
The actor’s wife somehow agrees to this crazy plan and allows him to max out her credit card so he can purchase screenwriting software, which by the way ain’t cheap. He then sits down, writes a film, pitches it, and somehow gets it made.
That writer’s name is Taylor Sheridan and the little movie he wrote was called Sicario.
Not bad for a first go.
But to prove the $84 million and change the film made at the box office wasn’t a fluke or stroke of beginner’s luck, Sheridan went off to write two other exceptional films called Hell or High Water and Wind River.
So how on earth did Sheridan pull off such a remarkable feat?
According to the veteran actor, he’d received so many bad scripts over the course of his career he developed a fundamental understanding of what makes a good story.
“I have absolutely no idea how to do this but I know exactly how not to,” he said. “I write movies I want to see about things that interest me,” he concluded.
Sheridan’s two points are important ones:
Writing a good screenplay is difficult. VERY difficult. In fact, some of my early scripts were so bad my friends didn’t even know where to begin with their feedback. The dialogue was choppy, none of the scenes transitioned well to the next, and the plots were shaky at best.
The problem was, I was following what I perceived to be an algorithm for telling a story. And in fairness, there is one:
Every story must have a beginning, middle, and end with a character who evolves from start to finish in pursuit of what he or she wants.
Only, I was getting so caught up in all the information I’d amassed over the years, I drowned out my ability to think for myself.
I had to learn to not let my knowledge inhibit my capacity to think independently.
Instead, I integrated the important fundamentals of writing a story but infused it with my own creativity. I discovered I could do all the research in the world, but if I lacked imagination the story would too.
Sheridan does a brilliant job of incorporating the less rigid rules of screenwriting he’s picked up over his twenty-year career as an actor, and integrating those discoveries with fundamentals.
He’s learned to use the mistakes of the bad screenplays he’s read and polish them into principles when he sits down to write his own.
In other words, the missteps of other writers have evolved into precepts that have become the bedrock of his writing.
Second, Sheridan understands the power of simplicity. He writes the type of movies he’d want to see. If you watch his films, you see how he uses simple rules to govern complex themes.
Screenplays, like life, boil down to applying the basics.
What is the story you are ultimately trying to tell?
Figuring that part out can take years off your life, but it can also provide the basic framework for the story. Once you start, which is the most important part, it’s crucial to seek feedback.
Sheridan pitched the script, which meant he opened himself up to criticism. As playwright David Mamet once said, “You got to stand being bad if you want to be a writer, cause if you don’t you’re never going to write anything good.”
The danger in any collaborative endeavor is fiercely clinging to an idea that can be improved rather than stress testing it. It’s important to share your work because building up a tolerance for critique is imperative to improvement.
And once you cultivate a sense of resilience, you learn to interpret criticism as deferred success.
Not everything Sheridan touches is box office gold, but he’s learned to write from the heart, apply fundamental yet simple principles, and not allow fear to prevent him from sharing his work with the world.
As a result, movie lovers and people who appreciate great storytelling are better for it.
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