Booksmart Screenwriter… ‘Use two conflicting words to describe your characters’ and six other tips I learned from Susanna Fogel


By Guy Mannerings

NOTE: We recorded this event and will be posting to the LSF delegate 2020 area, so if you want to hear it the full hour, sign up and you will get a link when it is uploaded.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be in the audience of a London Breakfast Club interview of Writer and Director Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me, Booksmart, Life Partners).

As well as sharing her hilarious anecdotes from Hollywood, Susanna gave the audience some great insights, tips and tools that she has used in her career-to-date.

Here are the top 7 things I learned during her talk.

You have to take your career in to your own hands

When Susanna moved to Hollywood when she was 21, she wrote a script that she kept trying to get made for six years. It would come together, then fall apart, come together, then fall apart, but ultimately it did not get anywhere. During this time, she was working temp jobs to cover her bills and writing in her spare time.

Frustrated that her script was not getting turned in to a film, Susanna set out on taking her career in to her own hands. She wrote a 1 Act play – Life Partners – and had it produced for the stage by a friend. This script ended up being developed further in to a feature film, and ultimately being shot.

The point of this is that it is all too easy to fall in to the trap of writing scripts but never having them made. As writers, we want our scripts to get made and it can be incredibly disheartening when something you work for years on never sees the light of day.

So if you have written scripts that have not been produced but are keen to take your life in to your own hands, a key takeaway is that you can go out there and get your stuff made. You don’t have to wait for other people to see your genius. Put your genius out there!

If you want something, don’t ask for it – demand it

Following on from this, Susanna talked about the process of making The Spy Who Dumped Me. After making Life Partners, Susanna kept getting offered directing jobs that were all very similar in tone.

She wanted to try something different and not be pigeon-holed in to a certain kind of film or genre. So she set out on writing The Spy Who Dumped Me, with the intent to direct it.

When it came to the process of pitching The Spy Who Dumped Me, rather than going in to the room and saying that she would like to direct it, she pitched it saying that she will be directing it – no ifs and no buts. She did not present any other option.

That confidence in herself, coupled with the fact she wrote the script, meant that she was put at the helm of the film.

So the take away here is to demand what you want out of life and out of a situation. Don’t sit back and hope. Don’t ask or beg. Tell people what you want, demand what you want, and stand firm and confident in your position.

Act confident even when you’re not

Susanna revealed, following on from this, that she was, in fact, entirely unconfident in directing the film! But she knew that projecting anything but confidence when she pitched it would meant that she wouldn’t land the job. And she really wanted to direct it.

So she acted like she could direct it, like she would do a great job at it, and that no-one had anything to worry about. Her tactic was to simply figure out how to direct it after she got the job. Which she did!

So use this tip, just as Susanna did – act confident even when you’re not. When you act confident, you are far more likely to get what you want in any given situation. And, often times, when you act confident, real confidence follows. It might take some time, but eventually you will become confident in whatever you are doing.

You never know where a script is going to end up

It was a ten year journey putting Booksmart together. Ten years! What you saw on screen was not what the script was originally like at all. In fact, the script went through a number of drafts to better suit the social times as the years went on.

Originally written by some friends of hers, Susanna was brought on to help adjust things and move it towards what we ultimately saw on the screen.

So take heart when you write something and keep putting it out there only for it not to get picked up. Sometimes it just takes a long time! And be prepared to make any necessary changes to help give it the best chance of being produced.

If what you are writing is not unique in some way, it is inherently boring

Susanna is a believer in trying to avoid clichés wherever possible. You should be able to look at your script or scene and be able to see that it is unique in some way.

To Susanna, if your script or scene is not unique in some way then it is inherently boring, as audiences and readers have seen it before.

Now, that’s not to say that you need to go so far past cliché that you don’t deliver the message of the scene or script. It simply means that you should try and find a way of doing each scene a little differently.

Ultimately, audiences are smart. They don’t need to be told what to feel. So feel free to find ways to make your scenes and scripts unique knowing that audiences will likely still understand what you mean to get across.

Actors want to act – give them roles they don’t usually get

Here’s an incredibly useful tip if you want to increase the chances of getting your script made, especially if you are going to produce or direct it yourself – write parts for actors that they don’t usually get.

Actors want to act, and actors want to stretch themselves. Just like Susanna didn’t want to get pigeon-holed, actors don’t want to be pigeon-holed. So write parts for them that allow them to show a different side of themselves. This can help you get actors on to your project that might have otherwise been unlikely to be involved.

Use two conflicting words to describe your characters

Kate McKinnon shared this idea with Susanna and Susanna has gone on to adopt it herself.

Kate likes to play characters with two conflicting words to describe them. For example, in The Spy Who Dumped Me, Kate described the role of Morgan to be a “confident loser”.

These two conflicting words help to create a character with more depth than one word descriptors. And more depth in your characters makes a script and a film inherently more interesting.

So, there you have it, my top tips from Susanna Fogel’s Breakfast Club talk. I hope they help you on your journey towards screenwriting success!

If you want to connect with me, you can reach me via @GuyMannerings on Twitter and @GuyMannerings on Instagram, and my website is Human Growth Lab.

Happy writing!

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