10 Questions with INSURGENT & JANE GOT A GUN Screenwriter Brian Duffield
Screenwriter Interview Series
November 16th, 2014
Pennsylvania-born writer Brian Duffield first broke onto the scene in 2010 when his spec script YOUR BRIDESMAID IS A BITCH made the Black List and sold to Skydance. Recently Duffield was honored as one of the top 10 screenwriters to watch in Hollywood. Not one to rest on his laurels, Duffield has been writing non-stop since then including the upcoming films INSURGENTand JANE GOT A GUN. He also hopes to make his directorial debut next year with the horror-romance VIVIEN HASN’T BEEN HERSELF LATELY. Oh, and Brian also recently got married. Fortunately for SU, Duffield took time out of his busy schedule to talk career, life, love, death, taxes, Obama, marriage... okay, just kidding. Mostly we just talked about career.
1. So just a few years ago (2010) you were working at a clothing factory, writing scripts when you could find time, and out of nowhere you get traction with your spec YOUR BRIDESMAID IS A BITCH. Tell me how that all came about?
It was a temp job at the time actually. I went from looking for a steadier job to calling them and saying, you know, “I sold a script.” I had no manager, no agent, it was really strange and took me a few months to adjust, it was such a huge life change. It’s kind of funny, I really had nothing to do with how it got to Circle of Confusion. A college buddy of mine was playing basketball one day with Zach and ended up giving him the script; which I didn’t know about and was okay with. So it all happened because of an old college friendship, not any of the networking I had been doing at the time. It was cool that it happened because of a friendship and not having to hound people to read my script, or take me seriously. It was one of the most bizarre weeks of my life.
1.a-That’s crazy, writers toil for so long building a network of contacts and you go the complete opposite route.
Well, I had worked as an assistant for people in the industry for a few years before that. It was miserable, really, but the one good thing is I was reading a lot scripts. I learned a lot from that. To put it bluntly, I learned just how bad so many scripts were. I was taking home scripts every night and on the weekends. I was always reading and always working. There came this point where I kind of looked at myself in the mirror and decided I was not going to be like that.
2. What did you learn from reading all those scripts?
You kind of get an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t, especially structurally. It burrows into your mind and influenced how I write. I started to think about the poor bastard who has to read my script and I wanted to make their life as easy as possible because I remembered whenever I picked up a 130 page script I instantly disliked it before I even opened it. If I got a 85 or 90 page script and its Friday night I instantly loved that writer. So that was something that influenced me, my scripts became shorter and sparsely written and that all came from my experiences as a reader. So as a writer you have to ask yourself, what’s the one thing you can control right off the bat, and that’s the structure of your script.
It’s almost a purely a cosmetic thing I know, but you are one in a pile of screenplays, or maybe the weekend read. So what can you do right away to get on the reader’s good side? After that they’re hoping that you’re a good writer.
Also, I learned to get rid of flowery descriptions; less was always more. As a miserable reader the less you wrote the happier I was. To this day those two things have influenced everything that I have written. I’ve never been asked to cut things, I am always asked to add. Just recently I was talking to a director about a script and they wanted me to add 10 pages.
3. You’ve written a lot of different genres – from western’s to sci-fi’s to romantic comedies – which is fairly unique. Not a lot of pros branch off into uncharted territory.
On a personal level I read everything. For me I don’t have a favorite genre or even one I lean towards. Also I haven’t been pigeon holed into one either. I really never thought there was a box that writers belonged in and a lot of my favorite writers do a lot of wildly different things. So maybe that hurts me because they might not know where to put me, but at the same time I am writing what I want and really care about; so creatively I am much happier. There’s also never been a point where I couldn’t tell Circle of Confusion I wanted to try something different; they’ve never batted an eye. They’ve always been really excited about my ideas, and very supportive. I’m writing things that are wildly different from each other – I’m directing a horror movie soon I hope – so yeah I’m doing a lot of different things.
4. So you must avoid a lot of situational approach to writing as that lends itself more towards specific genres. Do you focus on characters and theme?
I just focus on what moves or inspires me. For example, BRIDESMAID was sort of autobiographical where I was able to pull things from experiences I had. I usually start with an idea, marriage or whatever, then it’s “What’s the obstacle?,” and that’s when it’s kind of fun where you’re thinking about the theme as opposed to the genre.
5. What’s your writing process?
For me I don’t outline. I only write outlines or treatments if it’s a project I’m hired to do and it’s required. For my specs (BRIDESMAID, HONEYMOON, JANE GOT A GUN, MONSTER PROBLEMS, ect.) I don’t outline whatsoever. I really like to just think about ideas for a long time, so though I’m not actively outlining I’m thinking about the story for a long time – a few months and sometimes years until I’m comfortable sitting down and writing. I’ve found that if I make a treatment or outline by the time I get to writing the script, I’m crazy bored and find my mind drifting off to a new idea. JANE GOT A GUN was the first script I’ve ever written linearly. I usually write scenes all over the place and glue it all together. I wrote the last 5-10 pages of JANE GOT A GUN first and wrote it backwards from there.
6. You’ve got a fairly unique voice, there’s a pace and tempo to your writing that’s cool. You mentioned this with regard to your sparse structure and what you learned.
When you start off as a writer you write a lot of really bad scripts and then you kind of adapt to figuring out the voice of the screenplay. Each is different. BRIDESMAID has a completely different voice than JANE GOT A GUN. So each script is different, sometimes that comes from your main character and it’s as if they’re writing the script because they’re the one you’re going through the movie with. For BRIDESMAID, Noah has a very biting, fun, witty sense of humor even though he’s going through some painful things. Working from that place with regard to your voice, you pick up on that having the entire script serve your main character’s journey. This was something that I picked up early on and have been able to experiment with my voice. But I really don’t think about it much anymore because I’ve been doing it for so long, it becomes second nature. I do like to use scene headings, description and everything I can to express that voice, and I know that sometimes I’ve missed the mark. But I am always trying to figure how to best support the main character. After BRIDESMAID, the next few scripts that came out weren’t anything like it or in that voice, and I was happy to destroy that “Brian Duffield voice” in order to give the next character a stronger one. There’s always going to be a reader who doesn’t know who the fuck you are. You can’t just swagger in and be like, “this isn’t the voice you were expecting,” because every screenplay needs to be unique. I’ve been doing general meetings every week for the last four years and none of those people are thinking about my voice and what I’ve done before. So it’s important that every new screenplay has its own separate thing so that you wouldn’t even need your name on the title page; it wouldn’t matter. The material just stands for itself.
7. The language of a screenplay, its structure, is so unique to begin with. It’s important to make that connection with the reader. You have to establish that language or conversation with your reader.
Absolutely. It is a conversation with the reader. It’s so different than say an author who writes and publishes a book. For a screenwriter, no matter who you are, you send it off and a lot of people need to say “yes” for it to make its way up the steps. So there’s a line for how much indulgence you can give yourself with your voice, whereas an author you don’t have to worry about it in your novel. It has to almost be more than it being a great script, there’s so much going on. You’re writing so much more specifically to certain people as a screenwriter. So it’s a constant conversation and its one that has gone both great and terrible at times.
8. What was your mindset early on before you sold BRIDESMAID?
I moved out here to LA right after college when the strike was going on and then the recession. I felt like shit, but I felt like everyone for a time felt like shit. You know you heard horror stories because of the strike and then the recession hit. I think it is really dangerous to have that American Idol mentality, you know, where they can’t sing and afterwards in the interview they say, “I know I’m brilliant.” You can never have that mindset, but you have to be confident in yourself. I was actually at the time thinking about how I could take my situation into my own hands, so with BRIDESMAID I was thinking how could I film it with a couple cameras— as cheaply as possible. Then of course it sells and I was up to my eyeballs in debt and was never going to be able to film anything anyway. Skydance buying the script probably saved me from having to leave Los Angeles – I was so in debt. I’ve actually been doing a lot of self reflection on everything recently, it’s been interesting.
9. You tweeted recently that you were really excited about the shit (to quote you) you were working on.
Yeah man. It’s great, with Zachary Quinto’s company Before the Door I’m directing a movie I wrote hopefully next year. Any time I am on the phone or have a meeting about it, it blows my mind that I’m doing this. Even with BRIDESMAID it’s been cool – they’re into casting with it. There’s gonna be a lot of cool people in it. I can’t wait for that. There are a few other things that are percolating, a couple other specs I’ve written. It’s been a really good year.
10. JANE GOT A GUN has completed filming. What else do you have coming up or hope to have the next year or so?
Hopefully, I’ll be directing VIVIEN HASN’T BEEN HERSELF LATELY later next year. Directing is something I am really dying to get into. I also have a couple of spec scripts that are in the middle of packaging, finding a director. It’s been really interesting trying to build out movies from the ground up and being a part of the development team. It’s been a year where I’ve written some scripts I’m really proud of and sitting down with Circle of Confusion and finding the right way to do these. Building movies out has kind of been the direction which is also scary. But we’ll see –it’s been fun as well.
About the Author
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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects. Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.
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