Carter Blanchard is a great example of talent meeting persistence. His first writing credit is a short film he directed in 1989. Since that time, he has landed numerous writing assignments and sold multiple spec scripts including “Virus” (1994), “Frigid & Impotent” (1995), ”Bedbugs” aka “Dead Asleep” (2004), and “Near Death” (2007). For anyone working in the entertainment industry, that is a long stretch of time. However it is with his most recent spec script “Glimmer” that Carter’s fortunes took a quantum leap, the script selling in a bidding war and making the 2012 Black List and Hit List.
Today in Part 6, Carter shares more insights into his approach to the craft of screenwriting:
Scott: How about dialogue? Writing dialogue, is that something that a writer is born with, or is that something you think that they can develop?
Carter: I don’t know. I think you can develop that. I think it’s a matter of listening. You hear people talking and you pick up little mannerisms… the way people talk. You obviously don’t always want to write all the pauses and the stuttering as people do in real life, but you can get an idea for character through dialogue, or vice versa. You want to come up with characters who go well together, whether in harmony or in conflict. You usually want a little of both. I think dialogue for me just is another way of informing who the character is.
But I really just write what’s in my head, and then as the script gets further down the road, I start to define character more distinctly. That’s when some of the dialogue mannerisms come up, like Ben in “Glimmer,” who is just a little bit more from the wrong side of the tracks. I can be guilty in the early stages of writing just a little too… not phonetically, but just obvious, I guess. It’s bad dialogue, just because I’m trying to force this character into existence by hearing him talk in my head. For Ben in the early stages; he kept saying, “Hey, yo, what up, yo?” Everything was “yo, yo, yo.” I kept seeing him in my head as Jesse on “Breaking Bad” who talked like that. That’s already a dated way of talking, but it helped me get him there. Then later we took all the “yo’s” out. I think there might be a couple left. I don’t know, it’s hard for me to define this stuff. I don’t really know how I do it. [laughs]
Scott: You just do it.
Carter: Yeah, and half the time it’s terrible. Most of the time, I would say, it’s terrible. You wince your way to the finish line.
Scott: How about theme?
Carter: It’s another thing that comes to me later. I think people who tell the best stories or make the best movies probably think about that from the beginning. I’m always impressed when I meet writers who… I hate pitching. I’m probably better at it than I give myself credit for, but I’m just always so impressed when I talk to a writer, they pitch me their story, and it’s 10 minutes long and sounds amazing. Or they’re thinking in terms of theme first. Or they’re thinking in terms of what demographic they’re targeting. All that stuff to me is like, “What?” [laughs] I always feel I just wandered into this business and got lucky.
But theme‑wise, it’s something that Adam was pushing me toward once we got much further down the road. “What is this about?” That helped inform the conflict between the two friends and the love story a little bit more. I don’t know. I feel like an idiot when I talk about stuff like this, because I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about it. I was on a writing panel last year. I broke into a sweat, like, “What am I doing here? I don’t know how to tell people anything about writing.” That was one of the things, when I did start to think about teaching, I told my friend, “I don’t know what the hell to say!” [laughs]
Scott: Then maybe it’s a good thing that one of the bonus points of selling “Glimmer” is it kept you out of having to teach 18 and 19 year-old kids.
Carter: [laughs] Yeah. I went to speak to this high school film group once at Fairfax High. I just started talking to them about how studio development works. They were staring at me for 10 minutes… and as you can tell, I can talk fast… and they were all looking at me with their mouths hanging open at one point. One girl finally raised her hand and said, “We’re just high school kids.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, right. Well, here’s a camera…” [laughter]
Scott: I want to pick up on another craft question here. You mentioned this earlier, having the experience of reading all those scripts that you did when you were first out in LA, how important it was to convey something entertaining about the story in the first Act. But I was struck when I was reading “Glimmer” how efficiently you introduced your core cast of characters and established that story world. How important do you think the first 10 pages of a script is?
Carter: They’re critical, for sure. I might have been generous before, saying that they’re going to read the first act. I would hope most of them do, and I’m sure no one’s going to want to hear me say that they might not, but just the volume of scripts that come through, a lot of the younger executives have to read all of them. And if you know something isn’t working early on, you know it. So it’s really important to start off well. If you grab people that early in a script, they’re going to keep reading. That’s the main thing.
Scott: What’s your actual writing process?
Carter: I get up, make coffee, check the news, start writing. I take a hike in the middle of the day or go to the gym, come back, have lunch, write some more. That’s basically it.
I always work at home. For a while I was going to The Writer’s Guild, but too many people start talking to you there. Being in control of my writing environment is important to me. Except for the occasional cat ambush that I can’t ever control. But it’s good to be home and not have to deal with going anywhere. When I want a break, I hike, do errands, meet a friend. There are always general meetings to break up the week.
Once I’m in the writing stage, I really like listening to music while I work. Once I’m in the flow and I know where the story is going and I’m feeling good about it. The right music really helps me write action… good heavy music. I get physical with the writing when I’m writing action, I guess, sometimes, like listening to loud music and then really hammering the keys. I’ll catch myself with all this tension in my shoulders and then be exhausted after.
Scott: What do you do if you get stuck?
Carter: I’ll take a hike. That’s always good. Just being outside is really good. Anything to distract me… if I was still in a place with a big yard like where I grew up back east, I’d probably mow the lawn, something repetitive, something focused.
There are some trails in Griffith Park where you’ve got to pay attention to where you’re going. It puts you in the present and takes you out of spinning everything in your head for a while. Usually I come back and have answers unless it’s a bigger problem, and then maybe it’s just a case of the story not working. That’s the case usually if you’re banging your head against the wall for two or three days, talk to your guys about it… if they don’t have answers, they don’t pull you out of it, then usually within a week it’s a good indication that it’s time to move on for me. Though if it’s an assignment you can’t… then you just fake it. [laughter]
Scott: It’s interesting hearing you talk about your process, your relationship with your agents at Paradigm and managers at Madhouse Entertainment. You talk about them being intimately involved in the creative process. Could you unpack that a little bit?
Carter: They have the long view and the short view. The short view is literally like when I was developing this new idea and talking to them about it, my lead character is 15 years old. Adam said, “Age him up a little. Make him 17 or 18 if you can. It’s not going to hurt the story. It’s just going to be easier to cast that role and help sell the movie and help get the movie made.” Things like that are part of the strategy from the beginning, thinking in terms of how to make this movie… make the spec script appeal to as many people as possible and make the biggest impact possible. There are times I’ll disagree and say, I see your point, but I want to do it this way anyway. Like the original situation with “Glimmer” structurally, we went through a bit of that.
The long view, career‑wise, they’ve all had some talks with me about where they see me going and what I can do from here given what I’ve done already and then if “Glimmer” gets made, what the best approach is.
We contemplated television because it sold right at the height of selling season for TV. I’ve dabbled in TV before, and I just went through that and came out of it thinking, this isn’t really what I feel comfortable with right now. So there’s that to consider, too. And they’re all very flexible in terms of strategizing based on what motivates me.
Scott: I have one last question for you. It’s always the one that I’m sure you get hit up with whenever people talk to you about this stuff. What advice would you offer aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft? When they ask, “How am I going to break into Hollywood?” what advice do you have?
Carter: Just write because you want to write, first of all because there will be a lot of times when you’re not making any money at it and you’re struggling and you’re trying to figure out how to do it. So you’d better love it to start with. You’ll find that out pretty quickly, when funds are running low. You’ll either keep going and find a way to make it work or not.
If you do love it, don’t make excuses for yourself. You’ve got to live the life and write every single day. It would be better to write an hour every day of the week than six hours on Monday and then not again until next Monday. There’s something about getting up every day and writing. If you don’t have any ideas on a given day, keep a journal and write about your life instead. Keep a little morning notebook or something. Write about what happened to you yesterday. Just get in the practice of writing as a routine, that’s the most important thing.
Once you have something that you’re proud of, show it to friends and get feedback. Be gracious and show appreciation to the people who are taking time to read your script and give you notes. If they don’t like it, it’s not because they don’t like you, so separate your personal feelings from a solid critique. There are few things more valuable to a writer. Sometimes people who have not liked my scripts have given me notes that I’ve used and the script later ends up selling. You can get very valuable feedback from negative comments. Negative’s the wrong word… critical comments.
Always thank people for their time. The quickest way to get someone to stop reading your scripts is to be an asshole if you don’t like their notes. Being defensive and arguing with someone who’s trying to help you is a bad idea. That person has just given you their time. You want to keep that relationship strong so they’ll read your next one. Take them to lunch, send a follow-up email or a hand-written thank you card. But learn how to take notes well, because your whole career is going to involve getting notes from people.
Don’t just force in every note you get, because nobody is always right. People don’t want you to put in their bad notes because they’re going to get it back and read it and say, “This doesn’t work.” They’re not going to remember if they gave you that bad note or not and they won’t care. Learn how to separate good notes from bad ones… and learn how to execute the good ones, because that’s what going to make your script better in the end.
Once you’ve gone through that process and have a decent script, then getting representation is very hard these days. If you can swing working in the industry on some level as well as writing on the side, do it. Because then you’ll have a direct pipeline to get your script to somebody who’s in position to help in a far more concrete way, like getting you read by an agent or a manager… or their boss. It makes the process of finding a rep much easier. But you still have to write a good script.
Carter has parlayed his success with that script into a high profile writing assignment, adapting the best-selling video game “Spy Hunter” into a movie for Warner Bros.
Please stop by comments to thank Carter and ask any questions you may have.
Carter is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.
You can follow Carter on Twitter: @CartBlanch.