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Tips from Justin Zackham

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

I got to spend a very enjoyable afternoon chatting with the wonderfully talented and charming Justin Zackham, screenwriter, director and producer of films including “The Bucket List”, “The Big Wedding” and “One Chance”. Justin is in Ireland as he is writing the adaptation of the feature documentary “Southpaw” with producer Liam McGrath. Justin very generously gave us his time, insight and advice on creating film and TV drama.

It is no surprise that A lister cast want to work with Justin (Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams, James Corden, Julie Walters…) as he is, like his films smart, funny, convivial, entertaining and a great storyteller.

Justin explained that his love of film is about the first few minutes after he comes out of the cinema and he can see his own life more objectively. What a wonderful observation of the power of film; in a story well told, we are so absorbed in the screen character’s journey we have a little distance from our own lives and are afforded a rare external glimpse of ourselves and the possibility of greater self-awareness.

Some of his top tips

Get audience at the end of a film, blow them away with what the film is driving toward. In his words “the ending better be satisfying”.

The closer you can get a joke to the emotional moment, the more powerful the experience for audience.

Look for how you can show something on screen without saying it in dialogue.

To appeal to talented actors

· Give them something to chew on. Write the great lines for the star. Have them tell a story that offers insight into the character and make sure to avoid the preachy speech.

· Write great dialogue that reveals character. Avoid, at all times, having character say what they feel. Justin observed that actors are most concerned with the dialogue.

· Actors want opportunity to act. Write the moments of the character’s self-discovery. Actors are looking for growth in the character, give them something to explore.

· A movie star must play a character that is heroic in some way. He told us how Morgan Freeman initially passed on his role in “The Bucket List” at an earlier draft, as his character wasn’t making enough decisions. Justin heard the note, rewrote, making the character an author in his own journey and Freeman took the part. And the term “bucket list” was coined!

On story

Justin believes that every film is about two big ideas. The first big idea is the poster, the marketing angle (the concept). And the second big idea is the protagonist’s journey: how the first big idea works on an emotional, character level. He says that the trick to the great screenplay is relate-ability.

Justin observed that a character at the centre of a film must have a passion. He referenced Frances McDormand’s character in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” as a case in point. [A character who is unable to not act because of her want to have her daughter’s murder investigated.]

On film versus TV

Justin noted that, for TV, the central character must be great at something. And that the show must to be about a group of people who love each other, or grow to love each other. As he observed, people watch TV to see their “friends”.

On theme

Justin never starts with theme. He says trying to fit plot around theme doesn’t work. In his view many of the awful movies that come out of Hollywood don’t work because they started with theme. For Justin, theme usually starts to present itself after he has written the first 15 or 20 pages. He then goes back and rewrites to work the theme in.

Justin notes that If the central question of the pursuit of the story [theme] is not kissed in some way in every scene, that scene will be cut, even if it is shot. As a writer and producer if a scene is shot and cut Justin said he is kicking himself for how he could have better used the shoot time.

On writing

Justin had written, what he calls a large stack [indicating waist level] of awful screenplays, that he thought were wonderful (at the time he wrote them), that will never see the light of day; but he says the constant writing improved his craft and in hindsight were a necessary training.

It was reassuring to hear Justin say he finds it difficult to sit down and write, it is something he avoids as long as he can. He researches until he feels he knows the characters really well. If he is writing a true story he likes to meet the real people as he gains insight into what makes them tick. As the screenplay develops he finds that he is chasing the characters down the page, when that happens he knows the script is working.

He commented on how many writers don’t write good scenes and suggested that people should work hard at their scene writing, coming into a scene as late as possible, having a turn in the scene and maintaining tension. Justin feels no scene should be more than two or three pages in length.

Justin takes notes from lots of different people. His wife is his first reader and her inbuilt bullshit detector, is something he highly values. On taking notes, he says that even when the note doesn’t make sense to him, he tries to get behind the note and understand what made the reader respond the way they did. He observed that often the issue is with an earlier scene and that a sequence is dragging and needs to be cut down. He says he has gotten some great ideas from notes and likes notes that tell him where the reader was bored.

Justin has just finished a film starring Jennifer Lopez and learnt from one of the other producers to write a response to every note given by the studio, he says this is something he plans to do from now on.

Thank you Gráinne Bennett and all at Screen Training Ireland and Liam McGrath at Scratch Films for setting this up. And above all, thank you Justin Zackham for your wonderful insights that you shared so generously. I for one can’t wait to see the film of the Francie Barrett story.

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