Screenwriting the Dan O’Bannon Way

I remember many years ago reading an interview with Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter of Alien and Total Recall, where he said he was working on a book, and it was going to be a novel concept in the world of screenwriting gurus and seminars. A successful screenwriter was actually writing a book on screenwriting, instead of people who’ve never sold anything writing one. Great idea, right?

dan-o-bannon-s-guide-to-screenplay-structure_mediumMany years passed, I didn’t hear anything further about it, and figured I never would again. What I didn’t know was Matt Lohr, a screenwriting student who was mentored by O’Bannon, was working together with Dan’s widow to finish the last business of his life. The result is Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure, which has just been published by Michael Wiese Productions.

The book is indeed a terrific volume to read, and screenwriters in training will be very grateful that Matt and Diane had the dedication to see it through and get it out into the world. Now Script gives you the backstory of how it all came together and what you can learn from Dan’s lifetime of storytelling study.

SCRIPT: Diane, how did you first meet Dan?

DIANE O’BANNON: I met Dan about 1970 at USC. I was actually married to someone else at the time who became a film student. I was working at the university as a secretary, and at night I would act in student films. Dan was a pretty standout person at USC. He and John Carpenter were big men on campus, big idea guys. At that time, you couldn’t see films as easily as today. USC was one of the only places you could go to see them. You couldn’t get a copy of Psycho, and if they were showing it on TV it was all hacked up at 2 a.m. So USC brought that stuff in, and they brought the directors in to talk about the movies. We used to go to all-night shows in downtown L.A., and one time we went up to San Francisco. “Nobody’s seen this film!,” and we got in the friggin’ car and drove all the way up there to see this movie in Berkeley, slept in the van, came back home on Sunday.

SCRIPT: And Matt, how did you first meet Dan?

MATT LOHR: Diane met Dan when he was in the process of becoming Dan O Bannon. I had met him once he’d already arrived. I was a grad student at Chapman University in Orange County in 2001. I was in my second year of the screenwriting program. Dan was the school’s filmmaker in residence. Every year, a master filmmaker comes in and teaches master classes. Interesting enough, he wasn’t one of my instructors, but my primary instructor, was Leonard Schrader, best known for writing Kiss of the Spider Woman. He came to us with the information that Dan was working on a book about screenwriting, and he was looking for a graduate student to help him with film analyses, research, additional things like that. My entire class approached me and said, “Matt, this is all you. You’ve got to do this.” Dan and I spoke on the phone for the first time the next week, and I think the week after that I met him for the first time. I had to drive up in a rented car, I didn’t have a car at the time.  I was living in Orange County, and Dan was living in Pacific Palisades. I soon arrived at Dan’s door, and we started an association that lasted two years.

SCRIPT: How far along was Dan with the book when you took over?

MATT: I would say the manuscript was 70-75% ready to go. The film analyses that make a nice section of the book were not tackled yet. Dan knew the films he wanted to look at, and he had some thoughts on how he wanted to tackle them. A few rough drafts of analyses were written, including a couple that didn’t make it into the book, including analyses of The Godfather and Waiting for Godot. A large portion of the early work I did was looking at these films, taking fairly extensive notes on them, telling Dan where I think the things that you recognize in structure happen in these particular movies. But the core ideas were always there, and they were always well thought out.

DIANE: Not too long ago in some boxes I came across a paper written about 1971-72, and it says on the top: Dan O’ Bannon’s Rules of Writing. The first rule that’s down there, the only rule that’s down there, is: “Never Bore Your Audience.” This has been a 35-year book of writing experience. I remember he was working very hard with all of these films, going through and counting the minutes when certain things happened in films, watching with a stopwatch so he would track, “Okay, this is what happens in this one, here’s where the point of no return happens in this one, here’s where this plot point occurs in this one…”

But Dan said, “These are not rules. Rules kill a screenplay. This is Dan O Bannon’s guide to screenplay structure, this isn’t Dan O Bannon’s rules of writing.”

MATT: There’s a big difference between, “It’s a good idea to do this here,” and, “You have to do this here.” A big difference. And Dan says, “The most effective stories do it like this…”

bbSCRIPT: Long ago before we had Robert McKee and so many books and seminars, the big writing guide was Aristotle: Poetics for Screenwriters. What other screenwriting methods did Dan consult as they began to develop over the years?

DIANE: Dan studied everyone from the very beginning. He doesn’t throw or leave anybody out. This was a lifetime of studying for him. It was his life’s work writing stories, and he spent his whole life reading about them. One of the reasons I think this book is so valuable, is it is a distillation of 35 years. It’s not just something he thought about briefly, or did a specific study of.  He would be struggling himself and he would make notes: “How do you do this? How can I make this easier?”

MATT: Dan was working on Alien and he told producer Gordon Carroll he was looking for a template of story structure. Carroll showed him a book called Plotto, and Dan said, “Gordon, this is not helpful! I need something else.” Plotto shows you how badly you can approach a book like this. Carroll had some ideas, like the end of the second act is the lowest point, the darkest hour. Dan spring boarded from that and turned “the darkest hour” into “the point of no return.” “The point of no return” is less a system of understanding that moment from the point of view of just “the heroic character,” and more from the point of view of both sides of the conflict.

DIANE: It’s a structural point: What has to happen from here on out pivots on these points. I think one of the virtues of the book is he gives you several pivotal points that you’re aiming for, and once you get there, the story arc you need to get to the next point. He also gives you what you need to consider about what you’re taking your audience through.

MATT: There are analyses of five different screenwriting/storytelling methodologies that are in the book. Only two of those five were in the common canon by the time Dan started writing when he was at USC. They were Aristotle: Poetics, which was 3,000 years old, and Lajos Egri’s Art of Dramatic Writing, which was primarily written about playwriting, as Aristotle’s was as well because there were no films to write about then. But I think the way Dan breaks it down, particularly Poetics, it shows you that as far as storytelling goes that these principles were written 3,000 years ago, and they still hold water, albeit in slightly altered form.

SCRIPT: I know one reason Dan did a screenwriting guide is there hadn’t been one by someone who had successfully sold screenplays in Hollywood. Do you feel there will be more books like this in the future?

MATT: There was a book that came out while I was finishing up the manuscript which gave me pause, Thomas Lennon and Robert B Garant’s Writing Movies For Fun and Profit. But obviously the big difference between Lennon and Garant, and what Dan did, is Thomas and Robert’s movies have made a lot of money, but I don’t think anyone’s calling them classics. As endearing as A Night at the Museum can be in certain moments, I doubt it will be in the National Film Registry any time soon. Diane and I both read Thomas and Robert’s book, and there are some worthwhile things in it, particularly about the business of screenwriting, which not a lot of people get in book form.

DIANE: Dan said, “I can’t guarantee that you’ll write a great script, or be successful and make a million dollars, but I can show you how to put it together so that your story works, goes from A to B, and is a watchable thing.”

MATT: Dan’s trying to show you the points a story needs to hit whenever you think they need to be hit. Dan’s not saying, “The act has to be thirty minutes, the middle has to be an hour, the end has to be thirty minutes…”

DIANE: He’s not that specific about it, but he’s telling you, “Take these large pieces, and you can orient yourself in a story. You have an idea, you start writing, and you go until you run dry. Then you go, ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do now?’” So this is really a book for that kind of dilemma.

MATT: Dan quotes William Goldman in the book as saying that screenwriting is carpentry. Dan’s not saying he’s gonna teach you how to build a Monticello, he’s gonna tell you how to build a house that holds up. If you go to an architect, and say, “Build me a house,” if you take those instructions to Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ll get something very different than if you take it to Philip Johnson. If you go to David Mamet and say, “Write me a screenplay,” you’ll get something much different than if you go to Charlie Kaufman and ask the same thing. But the basic tools are there. When you watch their movies, those beats are in there, those moments are in there, but they’re deployed differently and to much different ends.

DIANE: The thing that’s surprising is people often don’t get what a story is. How about Prometheus? Prometheus is a fabulous film, it’s visually stunning, but it’s not a story. It wanders. At no point do you feel like you know who to watch next. Ridley Scott is a fantastic filmmaker, but he didn’t think it was important not to frustrate and anger a lot of viewers. Or he didn’t notice that he didn’t have a story that went from A to B, that brought you up, that brought you down, and completed itself.

MATT: A string of incidents is not a story, even if they involve the same characters. Prometheus is a string of incidents.

SCRIPT: Do you feel structure is a problem with a lot of screenwriters?

MATT: I think structure can be learned. I don’t think you can necessarily learn how to write great dialogue. Dan barely talks about dialogue at all because he said he doesn’t think it’s something you can really teach somebody how to do well. It’s something you really have to have an aptitude and an instinct for.

DIANE: Watching a story, hearing a story, is a physiological experience for a human body. You want to be emotionally moved. When you have a child, they want to hear the same story over and over. They get the build up and the release.

SCRIPT: Did Dan apply these methods as he was writing, say, Alien?

DanDIANE: Dan came across a lot of this stuff very naturally, but he would ask, “Why does Alien work, and why am I having trouble with this other concept? How can I get the same effect of ramping it up?” He gradually stumbled upon these things that worked well.

SCRIPT: What does this book have that you can’t get from other screenwriting guides?

MATT: Dan’s major innovations are:  Conceiving the conflict as double-sided. Not protagonist vs. obstacles, but antagonists in opposition.  If you can perceive your “negative antagonist” as a character with his own perfectly legitimate goals, his own “side,” the results will be much richer and more enveloping for it.

Dan’s “hedonic adaptation” is also a major innovation, Dan’s expression of the notion that an audience’s physical reaction is important to their overall experience of a film, and that it’s something that a writer can learn to be aware of and control in his conception of a story.  A lot of movies these days are described as “rides,” and Dan’s idea here will allow you to write a screenplay that affects an audience as immediately and as viscerally as an actual ride will.

SCRIPT: What’s an important lesson you learned from being mentored by Dan?

MATT: Dan never let anyone regard him as “just” a science fiction writer, or “just” a guy who wrote horror films. Because to Dan, they weren’t “just” anything, they were essential story experiences. You could be writing a low-budget creature feature that’s going out on Redbox before it hits any theater, but it’s your obligation to yourself as a writer, you owe it to yourself and to your audience, to write the best $15,000 Redbox creature feature you can every time out.

I always thought it was ironic that Dan died the morning Avatar came out. Several months later, Avatar went on to become a best picture nominee at the Academy Awards. If there was no Dan O’Bannon, or people like Dan O’Bannon, then Avatar wouldn’t get nominated at the Academy Awards. Dan elevated a genre through his respect for it. He elevated it in the eyes of others so they could say, “Yes, this movie has spaceships, monsters, and aliens, and it’s one of the best pictures of the year.” It wasn’t “just” a science fiction movie anymore. And Dan’s one of the reasons we have that. We didn’t write the book specifically for people writing genre, but I hope that the genre writers who read it take that away from it.

SCRIPT: You guys are also doing seminars where you talk about the book and answer a lot of questions from young screenwriters based on Dan’s methods.

MATT: For me personally, it’s very humbling. I introduced myself at one event we did where I said, “My name is Matt Lohr, I’m the guy you get because Dan O Bannon couldn’t be here.” There is always that awareness in the back of my mind that I’m here to fill a particular pair of shoes, and they’re a big pair of shoes.

My only hope is that I am making Dan proud, representing him strongly, and helping people to remember why his movies worked and how they can make the same principles to use on their own material. His ideas have made it to the final iteration of the book intact, and my belief is that he will appreciate being able to share insights that have served him consistently and well.

DIANE: There are still people out there who love stories. There’s always going to be stories. In the cave, in front of the fire, there was a guy telling a story, and out there on the holodeck there’s going to be someone telling stories.

MATT: We’re in L.A., and we’re slightly spoiled because we’re surrounded by it all the time, but I think things like this are valuable if you really have someone who has a passion for storytelling, but they’re in Omaha or Pittsburgh and they can’t drive twenty-five minutes out of their way to hear Aaron Sorkin or Ryan Murphy speak. This is a chance to sit at the feet of one of those masters, and you can get something straight from the source from someone whose movies I love. In a way, I think it’s a very magnanimous thing that Dan did. There this idea of: Now I have to give something back, and this is what I have to give.

A lot of people like the exercises at the end of the book: Take this and apply it to one of your own screenplays and see how it works. We have to thank Ken Lee, our publisher, for that because he said, “Why don’t you try to make this interactive in some ways.”

DIANE: I think Dan would have enjoyed that, and I think that makes it accessible for young people. We’re hearing from high school age people telling us, “Oh good, there’s an exercise I can do at the end here.” My hope for the book, and what Dan was putting out to the world, is he had a couple of good things to say about how to tell your story, how to get through it, how to not be afraid as a writer, and how to entertain your audience. And I’m hoping that this work will live for a long time to come.

Copyright 2013

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David Konow is the author of three books, including Reel Terror, a history of the modern horror film, which is coming October 2 from St Martins Press, and Bang Your Head, which was published by Three Rivers Press in 2002. David is a regular contributor for TGDaily (www.tgdaily.com), and has also written for over thirty publications and websites including Deadline, L.A. Weekly, The Wrap, Turner Classic Movies, Rue Morgue, Creative Screenwriting, Geek Monthly, Fangoria, Guitar World, and more.

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