Your Voice As Your Brand

By Elizabeth Quinn

Sunday was day four of the festival and the final day of the screenwriting conference. For those of us unlucky enough to make it to Vince Gilligan’s back-to-back screening of the series pilot and finale of Breaking Bad, there were still plenty of great panels to attend. Today’s post comes from the “Your Voice As Your Brand” panel featuring Ashley Miller (Agent Cody Banks, Thor, X-Men: First Class), Justin Marks (He-Man, Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max), Ric Roman Waugh (Felon, Snitch), and Scott Rosenberg (Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, Beautiful Girls, Con Air, High Fidelity)

What do you think it means to have a writer’s voice and/or a brand?

Ric: I think having your own writer’s voice is having the confidence and courage to write from your heart and not mimic someone else’s voice – which can be really scary!

Justin: A brand means being at the point where people want to read you. Frankly, you want to be put in a box so that you’re known. Then you can shape shift within that box.

Ashley: Having a voice means you can hit all of the notes. There’s clarity and emotion there. It can only come from practice and building your skills to the point where you have the confidence to do it.

How do you feel about the industry’s tendency to pigeonhole a writer or put them in a particular box?

Scott: I like to be typecast as someone who writes great characters with great dialogue. It’s good to strive for diversity but you have to know where your sweet spot is. I personally always thought it would be cool to not be put in a box; I like to write in different genres or else I get bored. But then you look at someone like Alan Parker, and I’m a huge fan of his work, and he’s someone who really can’t be categorized because he does so many different things; yet his name never comes up in the same breath as Scorsese.

Ric: If you write from your heart and you’re put in a box at least it’s a box you want to be in. It’s horrible to have to write in a genre or box that you hate or are not good at – no matter how much money they pay you.

What are your thoughts on being a “gun for hire” so to speak? How do you write for something that doesn’t feel like it’s in your wheelhouse?

Ric: I don’t. If I get offered something that I can’t get passionate about, I don’t take the job. You only get so many chances in this town and you don’t want to do a bad job on something you don’t care about.

Ashley: It’s best to ask up front “what are you trying to do? What kind of movie do you want to make? Sometimes they still don’t know what they want but having that conversation can save a lot of time in the long run.

Scott: Yeah, I think when you’re struggling and not enjoying the writing, it shows on the page.

Ashley: If you take a gig for money, write the thing that you feel in it. Find some part of it that speaks to your voice.

We’ve been mainly focused on film, but how is writing in your voice the same/or different for television?

Justin: A good show runner will give you the freedom to write within the boundaries of the show they’ve created.

Ashley: Working in television is like being in a choir: you each have your different parts but you all have to be singing the same song.

Scott: You have to write in the showrunner’s voice but as the showrunner, I want my staff to feel a sense of ownership. I don’t have to piss on every page – that’s just ego.

How do you maintain your voice when you’re writing an adaptation?

Ashley: It’s not just transliteration. It’s translating. It’s finding the core of the story and how to tell that in the medium.

Scott: I think when you’re intimidated by the source material it’s harder. If the idea is great but the material isn’t good that can be easier. When I worked on the screenplay for High Fidelity I was such a fan of Nick Hornsby and the book that it was hard in the beginning to get past that but eventually you just have to do it.

How do you deal with criticisms about your voice, your writing or dealing with notes from executives?

Scott: You can’t say no but if I disagree with a note, sometimes I’ll just get very humble and  I’ll just say something along the lines of, “You know, I hear what you’re saying but I’m just good enough to execute it.” There’s a rumor that William Goldman was working on the screenplay for Maverick and the executives came to him and said “We just wish it were funnier,” and his response was “So do I!”

Ric: A note is them asking you to find the solution. I usually say “yes, let me think about it” and then I go away and digest it so I can figure out the answer.

Scott: I’ve heard Jonathan Demme will be very enthusiastic in agreeing to notes but will do his own thing anyway once he returns to the script. In other words, say “yes” in the room!

It seems that it’s easier to stand your ground once you’re an established, proven writer. What if you’re a new writer – can you still be adamant about defending your choices?

Justin: It’s easy to be combative but you’ll get known for that around town. Being a writer is about being a collaborator, a problem solver. When you make their (the executives’) lives easier it only helps you.

Ashley: You don’t have to say no to a note but you need to engage the note. You need to collaborate – that’s your job. Execs don’t want to see their dialogue mimicked back to them. They hired you to be the writer because you’re the one with the imagination. You’re there to solve problems.

Check back later this week for my festival wrap-up including more panel discussions, film reviews, and interviews!