James DiLapo’s original screenplay “Devils at Play” not only won the young screenwriter a 2012 Nicholl fellowship, it also landed on the 2012 Black List, garnering 28 votes, the 9th highest total of any script on the list this year. In January, Warner Bros. hired DiLapo to write the futuristic re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey.
In addition for those of you who happen to be in Marfa, Texas this weekend, there is this:
James was kind enough to agree to an interview and recently we had a wide-ranging hour-long conversation in which we covered a lot of territory related to screenwriting. I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week, definitely a Q&A you will want to read in its entirety as James offers some terrific insight into the craft.
Scottt: I’ve got some craft questions here. How do you come up with story ideas?
James: It hits me. I don’t go looking for them, they come looking for me. I find that the entry point for me typically, is the setting, and the world. Getting a chance to live in that place, and flesh out the characters and story within it, is where I get the most rush.
Scott: How much time do you spend in prep writing? You know, brainstorming, character development, plotting, research outlining?
James: I spend a lot of time on that. I actually have a tendency to write my stories as novellas first. I wrote “Devils At Play” that way before I wrote the script it. I recently finished one for “The Odyssey.” After I write it out that way, I go back and structure it more clearly in an outline.
The amazing challenge of our profession is that you have from page 1 to 120 to tell a story. A little bit more, or less, depending on the genre. You have to be so economical when you get down to what you’re showing the audience, and what you can afford not to show them. Outlines are crucial for that.
Scott: How do you go about developing your characters? Are there some specific tools that you find yourself using to do that?
James: One of the things I find extremely helpful comes Robert McKee’s Story. He says that you have to try to inhabit the head of yours characters and live with him for a while, almost like how an actor would. Whenever I struggled with lines in “Devils At Play” I would stop and would run the whole story in my head from the characters perspective, trying to feel what they are feeling and thinking how they would.
It’s not always easy. I think that’s probably the hardest element of screenwriting. You have to find a way to stretch beyond your own understanding and become, for a moment, someone who is so foreign to the way you live your life. In my experience, however, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Scott: So then that’s probably, you would say, is the key to writing and good dialogue, is by immersing yourself in the characters, right?
James: That, but you have to also be cognizant of the dictates of the narrative. You have four pages to do this scene, for example, so it’s a balancing act. You understand the people. You understand what they want and how they will go about it. But you also have to understand realistically how quickly you have to do the scene and where you move from there.
Scott: How do you work with the idea of theme and how important is that to you in the writing?
James: I think theme is immensely important, but for me, it’s not always readily apparent when I begin the process. With “Devils At Play” we were talking about the idea of redemption, that there can be angels and devils inside our own personalities and societies. That, for me, is the theme of the story, but I didn’t know it when I began. Eventually the story itself will tell you what the theme is.
Scott: How about when you write a scene? Are there specific goals you have in mind or questions that you want to make sure that you answer when you approach writing a scene?
James: Well, typically because I’ve done the outline first, I have an understanding of where the scene begins and where it ends. But I think it’s also helpful to break the scenes down into their own mini stories. Scenes can have a midpoint inside them. We were talking about the interrogation scene. That almost is a miniature story in itself with its own beginning, middle, and end.
When you approach scenes from that perspective I believe it reward the audiences. If you can give them a sequence in the story with it’s own obstacles, conflict, and satisfying conclusion, then it helps move the pages.
Scott: How is scene description ‑‑ your script does such a great job of doing just enough to get us there and make us feel like we’re in that moment, and yet ‑‑ so it’s entertaining in that respect, and yet not so much that it creates this kind of cumbersome feel. What are some keys that you have to writing entertaining and good scene description?
James: Poetry. Good poets are masters at breaking complex thoughts and themes down into the simplest forms possible. I think writing and reading poetry can really help you craft the prose of a script.
Scott: Yeah, I’ve always said that too. I’ve said scene description really is more like poetry than prose, because you’re using these really strong verbs and vivid descriptors and economical use of words. And trying also to get people to be present in the moment, which poets sometimes do very well.
James: Yeah, I agree entirely.
Scott: When you finish a first draft and you’re faced with the inevitable rewriting process, right? What are some of the keys you have to rewriting this script?
James: Stephen King has some great advice, which is that each draft is the last draft minus 10% or 15%. I also think the key is to get some distance from the story. I don’t begin the second draft immediately. I take some time away to just watch movies and read and play video games. It gets my mind flowing with creativity from other sources and disconnects me from what my mindset was when I was writing.
Then, when I approach the story again, I try to approach it solely from the perspective of the audience. I try to build movie in my head, actually watching it while I read. It lets me see how it flows. It shows me places where I can push story faster, where I can clear up plot points that aren’t put together as coherently as they could be. I think it’s a good process to have.
Scott: What’s your actual writing process like?
James: I love noise. I listen to a lot of music. I like to be in public places. In New York City I wrote a lot of “Devils At Play” in taco shops in Spanish Harlem and in pizza places in the Village. For me, being around people, especially at night, helps a lot. It’s a lonely profession at times. Especially when you spend the whole day working in your room. So I try to get out and be some place else. Also, it gets you disciplined to it. You’re getting out of the house and going to a job like everyone else. I think traveling to and from work helps you stay in that mindset.
Scott: What’s your single best excuse not to write?
James: That’s a good question. Nowadays, it’s emails. Emails creep up on you, especially when you’re working in the industry. It’s a great problem to have, but it’s definitely a problem. They collect every day. So I’ll take time off from writing, and listen to some gangster rap, and just chew through emails for a few hours.
Scott: Finally, what do you love most about writing?
James: The biggest pleasure for me comes from when other people get to experience my stories and enjoy them. That makes it worth all of the effort I put into it. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see whether or not “Devils At Play” is going to me made into a film, but the fact that there were people read it and enjoyed it, that means the world to me. It keeps me going onto the next one.
Please stop by comments to thank James for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
James is repped by Verve and Kaplan/Perrone.