For our third interview in the Black List Interview series, we talked to writer Tasha Huo. Tasha’s script BLACK BELLE (FKA THE DARKNESS) was the finalist chosen for the first Warner Brothers partnership on the site in late 2013. Today, we talk to her about how the past, present, and future have shaped her screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster his journey as a writer.
What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?
TOP GUN is competing with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in my memory timeline. They both literally altered the way I did things in my everyday life — the glorious uniqueness of great movies.
The first one made me obsessed with fighter jets and air shows at all of four years old, and left such an impression that in college I nearly joined the Marines to fly fighters. The other drove me to study History and fostered my love for all things ancient and mysterious. To this day, I’m sure Indy is why I write adventures. And Maverick is why I love character-driven action, volleyball, and never eat goose.
Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?
I wish I could say it was a deep, complex, and critically compelling work of film art that made me want to be a screenwriter, but sometimes the switch is clicked on in the most random of places. Like, say, GLADIATOR.
To be fair, Disney was my gateway drug into film addiction, but it was really when I broke down GLADIATOR for a history class in college that all the pieces fell into place for me and I had my Ahah! moment. A paper forced me to watch Russell Crowe’s silent hero kill and mourn frame by frame until I saw how intricate film could be. I was a prose snob at the time, but Ridley Scott’s precision in conveying emotion through visuals, blocking, sound design, careful and specific word choice, an expression…It was the first time I really grasped how refined and effectual film could be, and that the themes, subtleties and emotions I wanted to work with in writing novels could be wielded just as effectively in film, if not more so. Until then, I never saw a movie and thought — someone wrote this. After that, I couldn’t stop seeing the writing.
Also, DOGMA. It was the first movie with an on-the-nose point of view, like one hilarious thesis paper, that it lifted the veil for me on how movies could be written.
Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?
That’s a toss-up between running a homeless shelter on Skid Row in Los Angeles and working as an assistant in Hollywood.
How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?
I don’t really actively seek out ideas. I envy writers who can just pull an idea out of thin air and you think, Damn. That’s a movie.
At least the way my brain works, doing that usually leads me to disingenuously follow a lead and build a story from the wrong place, i.e. a concept, rather than from a place of meaning to me. For example, I once sent my rep two pages of loglines to figure out what I should write next. I knew when I sent it that none of them had any heart behind it, because I didn’t feel like I couldn’t live without telling any of those stories. They were just…ideas.
No surprise, he shot them all down and told me to go back to the drawing board.
After that, I stopped trying to find ideas. I’m a notoriously bad on-the-spot “idea generator” anyway. I will fail the elevator pitch 11 times out of 10. To know if an idea is something I can write, I usually need to put a lot of thought into it first. Ideas take work. So I overwhelm my browser and hard drive with saved articles or photos that fascinate me, make me think, make me wonder, make me feel like a little kid, or scare the holy hell out of me. And when it’s time to find that new script idea, I’ll peruse them. Usually one or three will stick out at me immediately. Then I’ll focus on those and figure out why they fascinate me right now, at this present moment. Why now? Usually there’s a story in that answer alone.
I’ll also read a lot and watch movies lingering on my Netflix list; it’s new inspiration, a passive intake of what inspired other good writers. Often this all happens subconsciously, at least at first. That’s probably why most of my ideas start with a feeling or a scene or a tone. Then, I just build out the idea from there until, after lots of thinking and notes, I can snap off an “elevator pitch” like I grabbed it from thin air.
For instance, the idea for my script that got notice on the Black List came from an image I had of the main character, debating whether to leave the wilderness to enter a civilized town. And the script became my attempt at answering the question of why the character had to debate that.
I used to think I had to be a super snappy idea girl to be a truly great screenwriter. But I’ve come to realize, at least for my brain, that the ideas only come after a lot of hard work and hours of careful thinking, and that’s totally okay.
Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?
I’ve been writing full-time for a little over a year and I still haven’t figured out what a normal writing day looks like. All I really know is that I literally write more than I do anything else. Check back with me in a couple years, and maybe I’ll have figured out a healthier routine.
But right now, I typically get up between 6:30 – 8AM, make a cup of coffee, plop on my sofa and start writing. This means re-reading what I’ve written the previous day in order to get back into the flow — sometimes re-reading the entire script, depending on how much warming up I need. I’m rewriting as I do this, and then flow right into new pages.
I never count pages, but I will count scenes. Especially if I’m on a deadline, being at a certain part in your story at a certain date becomes critical. This sometimes finds me writing 18 hour days, just to get to that spot because, as we all know, some writing days are more difficult than others.
But, if I’m not on a strict deadline, I write until my brain shuts down. A good indicator is when I start writing utter garbage just to fill pages (which inevitably means more work tomorrow when I have to delete it all and start again), or I come to a scene that somehow makes me feel like Sisyphus. Nine times out of 10 I’ll wake up the next morning and that scene will not appear as daunting as it did yesterday, so stopping when a scene feels daunting has become a good indicator for me that I’m done. “Done” usually means hopping to another project, which can give my brain a second wind, or if that doesn’t work, I catch up on movies, TV or video games (research!).
Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?
At the moment…JANE EYRE, the Cary Fukunaga film, is something I’ve been playing almost on loop of late. His use of POV and his ability to create a tense character drama out of rather plodding source material is something I find incredibly inspiring. Not to mention, that script hits all the plot points they teach you in film school and you never feel like it’s formulaic for a second.
MAN FROM NOWHERE, this Korean film by Jeong-beom Lee. It’s a character-driven revenge tale that takes that over-done, mostly stale trope and just amps up the heart so much it sometimes feels like a drama that just so happens to be extremely fast-paced. I write a lot of action, and I’m a firm believer you don’t have to lose deep, complex characters in the process. This film reminds me I’m right, and pushes me to do better.
INHERENT VICE, and really anything from P.T. Anderson. His movies continue to push me to be better, write smarter, and take more risks. It can sometimes feel like everyone is telling you to do less of all those things because less is what will sell or make sense in a room, but P.T. Anderson motivates me to at least try not to disappoint my higher standards.
If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?
There’s a fantasy series that I’ve loved since I was a teenager, and I can already perfectly see the movie. But it’d be a huge Lord of the Rings-style movie of a book series nobody’s ever heard of with a female lead. Sadly (and rather disturbingly), all those are elements that frighten people right now.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I pretty much have zero skills beyond writing and reading, and talking about writing and reading. So if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to be a professor. Unless I could find a way to make a living off horseback riding and making macaroni and cheese.
Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?
I have no idea why this question is here except to rub it in how my fantasy will never come true… But, in no particular order, Joss Whedon, Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare. That reads like a really weird list, but hopefully at dinner I can, through osmosis, absorb Joss’s ability to tell a better screen yarn and wield ensembles effortlessly (and also get Nathan Fillion’s number); absorb Hemingway’s skill with sparsity and silence, and how to knock out a bull with a single right hook; and grill Shakespeare on, well, everything? Also, I could die happy after hearing Joss and Will discuss their versions of Much Ado About Nothing.
Oh, and I’m sure I’d feign for the check, but Joss would insist on paying because, by all accounts, he’s a much nicer person than I am. Plus, by now, I’ve spent my life savings on time travel equipment.
The Black List
How did you first hear about The Black List?
I’d been working in features at Universal Pictures for a while, and every year the publishing of the Black List was (and still is) a big to-do. Every year, we’d read all the scripts and watch as a ton of them — considered unmakeable before the Black List — suddenly got interested buyers and filmmakers. It very quickly became this seemingly democratic place where quality rose to the top, not bureaucracy or money or popularity.
Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?
The Black List’s partnership with Warner Bros. is 100% responsible for me being able to leave my day job and embark on a concrete writing career. Through that partnership, I got a two-step blind deal with the studio after they read one of my scripts hosted on the site. I am officially a working writer.
Any tips for writers interested in the site?
I’d say, don’t just throw all your scripts up there and hope one will stick. The site is engineered through its rating system to help the highest quality work rise to the top and get seen. Put your best foot forward, and you’ll likely yield greater results. This isn’t about how many times your name is on there, it’s about how many people read your script and think it’s exceptional.
Also, as with all aspects of writing as a job, don’t expect the Black List to do all the work for you. It can’t be the only basket you put your eggs in. Keep writing even though one of your scripts may already be hosted. Cast a wide net with your scripts, explore other fellowships and festivals to bolster any notice or laurels you get from the Black List. If you’re using it as the only tool in your tool box, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
And finally, apply to all the partnerships the Black List has to offer if you can and as often as you can. There is no other site out there as democratic as this one, meaning that anyone, if they are a good writer, can get their start from obscurity through one of the Black List’s partnerships. But, remember, after that “start”, you’ll have to be doing all the work. I feel some people have a misconception that once they get success from the Black List, they’re coasting. If you’re not writing other scripts, if you’ve been passive outside simply hosting a script on the site, no matter how many partnerships or ratings you get out of the site, the career will stop at the door.
Thanks so much Tasha!