Writers on Genre at the WGAW: Action-Adventure

If you ever need to find a screenwriter on a Thursday night in July, check out the second floor of the Writers Guild of America West office building in Los Angeles, California, and you can take your pick from about hundred: male, female, young, less young, tall or less tall. What brings them all there? A panel of accomplished screenwriters in a particular genre have come together to be interviewed on their careers and field questions from the audience of aspiring screenwriters.

July 1st, 2010, found Mark Fergus (Iron Man, Children of Men), Doug Miro & Craig Bernard (Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and Kurt Wimmer (Salt, Equilibrium, The Recruit) seated in a row opposite moderator Daniel Petrie Jr., himself an accomplished screenwriter (Beverly Hills Cop).

By far, Wimmer was the most gregarious of the group, never reluctant to jump in with an opinion or anecdote. Slouched in his chair, sort of coiled like a rattlesnake, Wimmer gripped his mic like a rockstar in his black fingernail-polished hand, booming words of bloodily-won wisdom to the masses. When asked by an audience member how to make action writing come alive, Wimmer cheekily replied, “Alliteration.” (Everybody laughed.)

More seriously, Wimmer elaborated, “I try to write action as viscerally as possible. You can cut the film for the reader on the page, where sentences begin, verb and noun placement [within sentences], layout on the page.” Also, emphasizing the importance of word choice when screenwriting, Wimmer revealed, “I’m going to use a different set of words in an action-adventure than I would in a thriller.” Yes, evidently Kurt Wimmer not only looks and sounds like a badass, but he has the brains to boot (not to mention the produced credits).

On the other end of the line sat Mark Fergus. While Wimmer’s tone and volume demanded attention on fear of pain, Fergus’s tone was softer, drawing audience members in, at times actually requiring you to lean forward in your seat to hear him. On writing for the reader, Fergus revealed, “You have to edit for the reader, guide them on, pace it for them. People want to be told a story; they don’t necessarily want to read.”

But seriously, how anti-reading is Hollywood? Doug Miro even went so far to claim, “We write for the treadmill.” As in, Miro knows of an executive who will read a screenplay while simultaneously getting his workout for the day on—you guessed it—a treadmill. Wimmer concurred, “The white space is almost as important as the stuff that’s filled.”

Perhaps the most fascinating section of the night revolved around the summer’s less than inspiring box office numbers thus far. Fergus observed, “Everybody’s thrown for a loop this summer. Branding’s not working anymore. I think it’s a good wakeup call. We’re at an interesting time. The 10-year-old rules have stopped working. Maybe now, the tide needs to change.”

“Branding” is the idea that a studio will only heavily invest in producing a product with a predetermined, pre-proven audience demographic and audience awareness (hence, all the sequels, remakes, book adaptations, et cetera, ad nauseam). Wimmer believes it’s “bassackwards” to start with the world, and then develop the characters and story wedged into that preestablished, branded world. Rather, “You always start with, ‘So there’s a guy.’”

Offered Miro, “Writers are always struggling for leverage, and our original ideas give us that leverage.” Fergus affirmed, “You have to build an arsenal of your own material: you’re selling your voice, what you can do that no one else can. Your samples will get you your first gig. Even if you end up doing *Pinkberry The Movie*, it’s going to be your original samples that get it for you. Ultimately, story and character will prevail.”

Wimmer: “Actors do want great roles, and they have big egos. That’s the only thing that makes any movie a ‘go’ is the actor.” This from the man who wrote lines for Al Pacino in The Recruit. When asked about how he wrote that film about the CIA and spy industry, Wimmer, in a rare unguarded moment, admitted, “Truthfully, I make a lot of it up.”

In closing, just in case you wondering, “Just how powerful is Tom Cruise?” Wimmer—badass as he is, opinionated as he is—described the process of working closely with Tom Cruise attached to Salt as…“interesting.” One got the impression that if moderator Petrie were to ask him to expand further on that experience, Wimmer would have declined. It just goes to show that in Hollywood, like your momma told you, “If you can’t say something nice… say something pithy and ambiguous.”

To purchase a ticket to the live-streaming of an upcoming Thursday night session of Writers on Genre, visit www.wgfoundation.org for more information.