A 12.17 Wall Street Journal article by screenwriter Derek Haas (co-writer with Michael Brandt of 2 Fast 2 Furious, Wanted, 3:10 to Yuma) offers a rare look into the soul and the mindset of a successful Hollywood hack.
I don’t know Haas and therefore have nothing against him personally. The piece makes him sound like a nice enough guy. But Wanted was torture, and it wasn’t all the fault of Timur Bekmambetov — the script surely pointed the way. The shootout at the end of 3:10 to Yuma was ludicrous, and so was the bit when Russell Crowe whistles and the horse gallops after the train. I tried watching 2 Fast 2 Furious on DVD once, and I only got to the 25-minute mark.
The only passage in Haas’s article that I wholeheartedly agree with: “Readers will love you if you layer in theme, subtext and symbolism, but they’ll never forgive you if you bore them.”
Sample passage #1: “As a novelist and screenwriter, I’m sometimes asked to speak to a class of film or literature students at a university. Inevitably, a 22-year-old hipster with designer-chic black glasses and a permanent pout will raise his hand and ask, ‘What does it feel like to sell out?’ I smile. I tell the students, ‘Sell out? Are you kidding me? I sold in!'”
Sample passage #2: “From an early age, I knew that I wanted to write popular thrillers, but when I got to graduate school, I sensed an upturned nose and a haughty eye directed toward the fiction and films that I loved. I was taught over and over, ‘Write what you know.’
“‘Write what you know’ works if your father runs covert ops for the CIA. ‘Write what you know’ works if your mother infiltrated the mob. But when you grow up in the suburbs, you don’t have that sort of material to draw on.
“When I graduated, I had an epiphany. Forget ‘Write what you know.’ Instead, write what you think is cool.”
Wells interjection: “Write what you think is cool” is something you weave into a script or a story after you’ve decided to write something interesting, compelling, urgent or heartfelt. “Write what you think is cool” means that after you’ve got something solid you need to give it a good topspin and some nice pizazzy elements so people won’t be bored. But to start with “write what you think is cool” means you’ll end up with something like Wanted or something that will play well at ComicCon but die out in the real world.
Back to Haas: “What did I think was cool? A dark character, surrounded by a colorful cast, with the entire world turned against him. And then turn him loose and watch him wreak havoc. As soon as I embraced this popcorn side of myself, my work vastly improved.”
Actually, this last sentence I agree with also. To write well you have to accept who you are and what your influences have been and what really moves you and then work with that, which means forget trying to satisfy some arcane aesthetic requirement left over from a college writing class.