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Screenwriter David Kajganich Talks Agents, Plots, Characters And More

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May 16, 2016 1 comment
Bigger Splash

We were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to interview screenwriter, David Kajganich, for the latest in our series of screenwriter interviews. 

In it he talks about his latest film, A Bigger Splash, and some offers some fantastic advice on how to get an agent and on plot and character. Plus much more — so let’s dive on in.

Tell us something about your background, where you grew up, where you’re living now, how long you’ve been a screenwriter, etc.

I went to high school in the ’80s in a small Ohio suburb not too many years out of its roots as a farm town.

It’s close enough to Amish country that if I go home to visit family and get south enough from where they live, I have to watch for bug-gies in the road. I’ve almost hit two.

They don’t have lights at night, and what you might not know about the Amish is how late they stay up.

Did you go to film school? And if so, would you recommend it — how much of a help was it to your career?

I actually didn’t study film or screenwriting at all, but went to grad school for fiction writing. My plan was to teach at university, work summers as a backcountry guide, and write fiction when I could.

I did that for about a decade and I loved that life so much when I started screenwriting I made a promise to myself not to move to Los Angeles until I had work.

So I wrote a two scripts on spec, and through a friend of a friend I met at a film festival, one got passed to a producer who then passed it to a jun-ior agent, and I was able to sign with a rep while still living in the Midwest.

The next spec I wrote was a horror film called Town Creek, which sold to Warner Bros. with a blind script commitment, and suddenly this scenario that seemed completely impossible — moving to Los Angeles with work ahead of me — was suddenly on the table.

How could I say no to that? So I rented a U-Haul and made the move. That was twelve years ago.

I can’t speak to how useful film school would have been to my work as a screenwriter, but I can tell you studying fiction has been tremendously helpful.

The Aristote-lian basics of narrative are everything. Knowing how to write plot, for instance, out of char-acter action should be the core of any training in screenwriting.

And being able to take apart a book with equal parts respect and ruthlessness has helped me find work adapting novels for studios I’m not sure I would have gotten otherwise.

Regardless of the discipline, I think serious training helps you treat the work, and your own intellect, seriously, and that’s cer- useful.

But the real education anyone needs to write for film and television is primarily about exposure to a wide range of narrative forms and attitudes, so as long as you’re getting that somehow, I certainly wouldn’t say a proper film school education is necessary, or that the lack of one should get in anyone’s way.

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What inspired you to become a screenwriter? Were there any particular movies or screenwriters who turned you onto writing?

I have to admit, in graduate school, my class-mates and I were a little dismissive of screenwriting. We were going to be poets and novelists.

Screenwriting seemed so mechanical and simplistic by comparison. But then I walked into a triple bill of Polish director’s Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy and that changed how I thought about it completely.

You couldn’t give an audience that kind of metaphysical experience in a novel. I was intrigued.

I’d been writing these novellas about the British occupation of India that had almost no dialogue, so I thought why not try a screenplay for fun? It would at least force me to practice that.

Your first feature, The Invasion, was an adaptation of a book by Jack Finney, can you tell us how you got involved in that?

As part of the blind script commitment with Warner Bros., once I’d finished the rewrites on Town Creek, the studio had me start meeting producers who had WB projects needing writers.

I met Doug Davison and Roy Lee, who were producing an Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and we got along very well.

I thought it would be interesting to try to adapt Finney’s novel in a more political direction, given that we were in the middle of the disastrous Bush Administration.

The Body Snatchers mythology once again felt pertinent, and there was still something new to do with it, so I signed on.

I wrote a script I was proud of, we got an amazing cast and director, we shot the film and were deep in editing when WB second guessed our ending and hired the Wachowskis to do a “light” re-write on the ending. Then the nightmare began.

One of the most common questions we get is “How do I get an agent?” We mostly tell aspiring screenwriters to contact managers and producers rather than agents. Do you agree and how did you get your agent?

For me, my agent came first. She found me off a spec that had been passed to her through a chain of people that began with a friend of a friend of mine who worked as the receptionist at a small production company in LA who’d read it and showed it to his boss.

I don’t know what advice I would give to anyone looking for representation except to write the best scripts you can and keep finding ways to make them public, to get people — even receptionists at small production companies — to read them.

It can take years, and it will most certainly test your resolve, but good material find champions in this industry eventually. Someone raised the gate for me, and I’ve since helped raise the gate for other new writers. That’s mostly how I’ve seen it work.

If you had to recommend one screenwriting book aspiring screenwriters should read, what would it be?

I hope this doesn’t sound cranky, but I think aspiring writers should find a script to use as a model for formatting and then watch great films instead.

I’ve only read one “screenwriting” book in my life and the subject of the book was the importance of ignoring typical narrative models taught by other screenwriting books.

It felt like I’d entered some kind of “how-to” death spiral, so I got the hell out of it and went back to just watching terrific films and taking them apart to learn how they were built.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see aspiring screenwriters make with their careers?

I avoided reading other people’s screenplays for a long time, thinking that doing too much of it might be its own potential mistake, and it wasn’t until I had to staff a writers’ room for a cable series that I had to.

I’ve read hundreds of scripts now, so I have a strong point of view about this question now.

First and foremost, I consider prioritizing anything over character to be a big mistake. It’s easy to think of plot and character as two different things, but in the best writing they are not.

Plot is a documentation of character action. Period. To put anything above that dilutes the power and soul of a script.

That’s a mistake I see aspiring writers make a lot. I also see so many scripts that are soulless bids to mimic something already in fashion.

God, is that a mistake, and it’s a hard one to watch young writers make. The zeitgeist is always moving.

If you’re going to make a mistake there, let it be that you tried to land in ahead of it with something new that genuinely fascinated you.

How do you know when a script’s ready? Do you have a circle of trusted friends who read it and give you feedback?

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt a script was ready. That sounds lovely. I usually work until someone is so annoyed with how late I am on a draft, my shame begins to outweigh my ambition.

I do have a few friends I ask to read early in the process — if not drafts, then scenes.

I want to make sure the world of the script is feeling grounded and actual, and that there’s a tailored energy to the project that feels appropriate and new from me.

I can count the number of these readers on one hand and they are all writers or filmmakers I love and admire.

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How do you get through a script? Do you have a set working routine? Working hours? Page count per day?

I tend to write research-heavy projects and stay inside the research as long as possible, usually past the point I should.

Then I end up playing these horrible games of Beat the Clock with first drafts. I used to be defeated by this until I just came to an agreement with myself that I should stop feeling shitty about it and let it be something to expect and embrace.

So apart from that kind of forgiveness, I don’t have much of a process for a first draft. I try not to fetishize the work, for sure, or ask the way I work to justify itself any-more.

I let fear be my co-pilot on first drafts. The closer I get to a deadline, the more pages I write in a day, generally. But that’s not due to procrastination, it’s just due to wanting to wring out all the juice from the research.

Later drafts are much more organized and methodical. I do switch to editing a certain amount every day, always starting from the first page.

I know writers who hate revising and editing. I don’t understand that at all. That’s where the real conversation with, and between, the characters begins for me.

I really enjoyed your latest film A Bigger Splash, in which a rock singer and her boyfriend’s holiday is disrupted by the arrival of an ex-lover. How did you come up with the idea? And how do you know when an idea for a script is worth developing?

I’m glad you enjoyed it. The basic premise of the film wasn’t mine; it’s from the 1969 film La Piscine by Jacques Deray, adapted from a novel by Alain Page.

The director, Luca Guadagnino, and I rebuilt and repur-posed an enormous amount in our reimagining of it, but the basic premise was given to us. As for how I know when an idea for a script is worth developing, it’s when it won’t go away.

Do you think it helps to write detailed character bios for your main characters — who their parents are, what they eat for breakfast, etc. — before writing the script?

I do, and I find it essential. But I think you’ve got to go deeper than breakfast for it to yield something vital.

I try to get at biographical details that suggest internal conflict, elements of a character that others might see as contradictions, but which the character — him or herself — does not.

There’s no substitution for how the pressure of specificity shapes a character on the page.

Even if only 10% of that information makes it into the text of the script, you can feel the rest there, validating and problematizing a character simultaneously in so many helpful ways.

How do you give each character a different “voice” in your scripts?

Primarily by understand-ing “voice” does not start with speech. How we speak reflects a constant conflict between the things about ourselves we can’t control and the things we are attempting to control.

Even the most uneducated character has rhetorical strategies and agendas. Understanding what’s driving those things is how I begin to differentiate one character from one another.

If I can understand that, I feel like everything else follows.

What are some of your favorite movies of the past year or so that you’d recommend people watch?

My idea of a good time at the movies is to be provoked. Pablo Larraín’s El Club is a film from this past year I admire greatly for how quietly it speaks a language of ambiguity in its first half, and how loudly in its second.

Don’t read anything about it, just watch.

Antonio Campos’ Christine, about the final weeks of Christine Chubbuck’s life, is just a titanic act of empathy. It’s remarkable.

And I finally saw Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin this year. I missed it in theatres and have been stubbornly waiting to see it on a big screen ever since.

The Nuart here in Los Angeles finally projected it last month and it was all I hoped it would be and more.

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring screenwriters what would it be?

Develop the habit of a strong point of view — about your own work, the work of your peers, the films you see, the books you read, the leaders who represent you, the history of the piece of land you live on, everything.

You want to be the weak link in every collaboration you’re a part of; that means you’re working with people who will push you.

And you don’t keep the attention of those people unless you’ve got a strong voice are willing to use it. That’s sort of a terrifying piece of advice, but I think it’s true.

Are you on Twitter — is there some way people can keep up to date with your work?

I am happily antediluvian when it comes to social media. I heard too many horror stories early on to want to join up.

My understanding of social media is that 80% of the experience is former classmates from the second grade you haven’t seen in decades getting pissed off when you don’t immediately return their electronic high fives. That sounds awful.

Thanks so much David, we look forward to seeing what you come up with next! 

You can also catch David on Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A podcast here: http://www.theqandapodcast.com/2016/05/a-bigger-splash-q.html 

1 Comment
  1. Kenny says:

    Great interview, loved this film.

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