Interview: Screenwriter Ryan Condal, Part 1

Ryan Condal first garnered industry attention after placing several scripts among the quarter and semi-finals of the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship screenwriting competition. He solidified his standing as a fast-rising Hollywood screenwriter when he earned a spot on the 2008 Black List with his spec screenplay Galahad, which he soon sold to The Film Department. Since then, he’s been hired on various studio projects, including adapting the comic book Queen and Country for Fox and Hercules for director Scott Derrickson.

So let’s start with the more obvious question – what were you doing before all this sudden success?

I went to business school for college. I went to Villanova University on the good old east coast, and I got a business degree there, so I kind of took the alternate route into writing. I mean it was something that I was always interested in, always wanted to do. Probably decided I wanted to be a screenwriter some time in high school. But my parents were very insistent on me getting a real job and pursuing the dreams on the side, and I think I agreed with them at the time and looking back, I’m glad I made the decisions I did. I came out of school with a business degree and ended up in marketing and that ended me up in advertising. So I worked in medical advertising for almost seven years before I sold my spec.

And what was the first script you had ever written? Before any of that?

Oh ever? It was a script called Mindframe, and it was a sci-fi thriller about psychic spies. And it was based on the old MK ultra experiments that the CIA allegedly did in the 60s. Looking back, it was a very clear rip-off of the X-files at the time, which was probably my favorite show on TV. I kinda tried to take one of their concepts and feature-ize it, but we all have to start somewhere.

One of the things that commonly gets told to aspiring screenwriters is “Don’t send your script out until it’s ready, don’t send your script out until you know it’s great.” How does someone know if a script is ready or great?

You don’t, but I always say that the nurturing and development of the inner critic is one of the most important milestones that you’re going to reach on your very long path towards writing. Once that inner critic becomes the meanest bastard that you know, then you’ve attained a sort of special level – sort of rite of passage, I think – once you have it. It’s almost a moment of self-awareness, where you can read your own work and be critical of it. Really, until you get to that stage you’re going to be lost in the forest. But it’s all part of the process.

Writing is not something that you just come out of the womb ready to do. Even talented writers – it’s a skill that needs to be nurtured and developed over time. Even DaVinci started out with some sketching skill, but he had to refine it in an apprenticeship, and all that. The first three scripts you write are not going to be good. They can show flashes of promise, but they’re not going to be good on the level that a studio executive would consider good or a producer that’s looking for scripts to buy or make is going to consider good. So the thing to be aware of, as you’re struggling through this, is that writing is a very, very, very long marathon. And you have to be committed to being a writer – not just writing a screenplay – but being a writer, I think, in order to really succeed at it, and that means being willing to write as many scripts as it takes to get there and to learn the process.

One of the things I realized early on, because I went through that whole period where I was convinced that the first script I was writing was great, and it was going to get me an agent and all that – and I think it’s an important self-delusion to keep you going early –but after that I realized, “Look, I’m just going to have to shut my door, write screenplays, and get better at it, and not send them out at all.”

I mean, I didn’t send out a script in earnest until… it was probably my twelfth, thirteenth script that I had written, where I was finally at a place where I felt like I had something to share, and people tended to agree. I mean I didn’t get an agent out of it or anything, but it started placing in contests and things like that. It’s a very, very long process. It involves writing a lot of scripts – a lot of bad scripts – and then eventually you’ll get there. But a big part of that is that inner critic.

How do you differentiate having a strong “inner critic” from being down on yourself and beating yourself up for the wrong reasons?

Well, all criticism can be good criticism if you make it constructive. So when I say, your harsh inner critic, it doesn’t mean, “You suck, put this away, never write again,” it means “You suck, but now let’s make this better,” that kind of thing. The path that you’re on is long and it’s a fraught with hardships and it’s something that no one is gonna hold your hand on, and people are actually going to be standing along the way telling you, “Just give up and turn back,” and you just have to find that inner motivation to keep going. And whether that’s just belief that you’re good enough or just a crazy desire to succeed at it… you do have to beat yourself up, but you have to beat yourself up in a way that you’re going to come back to the keyboard the next day and try to make it better.

What was the biggest rejection or hardship you ever had to face on this path?

Yeah, the crisis of faith. After I had written Human Resources [the script that placed in the Nicholl Fellowship], it was a sort of seminal moment in my writing career because I went from being nobody – where you can’t get anybody to read your work – to placing in a few screenwriting competitions and suddenly getting requests from managers and agents and people like that who want to read you. And after I had written that I said, “OK, well, I’ve gotten to this level now where people read my work, and they see me as a competent story teller, so now how do I get to that next level?”

So I wrote this other script that was read by a screenwriting consultant – which I now warn everybody off from ever doing – it was something for me to kind of check myself and see where I was at, and I had never done it before so I had decided to invest the couple hundred bucks and get some feedback, and the consultant came back and just absolutely eviscerated my work and questioned things like whether I had ever properly learned how to write or write in screenplay format, I mean just ridiculous things. It was a moment where I felt myself on the way up, and granted it was only one opinion, but it was this major, sort-of “Do I have any clue what I’m doing? Was Human Resources just like a lucky shot that I took?” I still felt like there was so much distance in front of me now that I had made myself a competent writer, now I had to tell a story that people wanted to see, that kind of thing. That was a real tough time, I didn’t write for three months after that.

Is that the only reason why you would advise against a script consultant?

No, I just think they tend to be failed writers – I mean, just to be harsh about it. And failed doesn’t mean not good enough, failed means maybe they didn’t have the right sensibility or whatever. I don’t think they have any real ground to stand on that makes their opinion worth any more than your opinion as a writer, or my opinion as a writer, or a producer’s opinion, or anything like that. I just think that it tends to be a bit of a predatory situation. If you’re going to pay money to have somebody talk about your script, in theory you would need to build a customer base, you’re going to be honest, while being encouraging, and even a terrible script, you’re going to try to find something positive to talk about in there, which this consultant did too. But they’re trying to get you to come back. I just don’t think you should spend money to get critical feedback. I think you should build your network, find other writers you trust, people whose opinion you trust, and get their feedback.

So how did you get yourself back on the horse after those three months of not writing?

Well, that very same script placed in the Nicholl Fellowship three months later, and I got the letter and laughed and just said “OK, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and I’m going back to writing.”

So that wasn’t Human Resources that she eviscerated?

No, no another script that I had written after that.

And that one placed in Nicholl too?

Yeah, they both did that year actually, because Human Resources – I submitted a newer draft to that and they both made the quarterfinals, and that actually led to me getting my manager.

How much would you emphasize reading screenplays for aspiring writers?

Oh, it’s huge. I mean, it’s absolutely a crucial, crucial part of the process and probably more important than writing screenplays right at the beginning, I think. Because if you read – if you find ten good screenplays – and I have to stress, I recommend not reading shooting scripts, but reading the originals – it’s the best thing you can do out there as a new writer.

A spec is one of the hardest things to sell out here. So, if you can collect a bunch of them, I would read them, because I think that’s sort of a pure, untouched format. You can see what really inspires people when they’re reading it at their desk. It’s not an assignment, so that producer or that studio exec has no reason to try to like it. They’re actually looking to reject it.

So what I did – and this is towards the tail-end of my run before I wrote Galahad – I went out and found the last 6 or 7 spec scripts that had sold in my world – that sort of action/thriller genre. And I read them all. And you can learn something from all of them, with varying degrees of success. Read, read, read, and don’t stop reading. I think you should be reading a script a week.

Just get yourself out there – there are a number of screenwriting forums that you can be a part of where script sharing goes on all the time, it’s very easy to get them and share them.

I know that you happen to be a huge fan of the sequence approach and you’ve talked about the benefits of it before. Why is the sequence approach so strong for you, and do you still apply the lessons you learned in your current work?

I’m not a paint-by-numbers writer in any way, and when people hear the sequence approach they think of Robert McKee. People hear sequence approach, and I think they think there’s a formula to screenwriting, and there certainly is, and anybody who says there isn’t is either kidding themselves or lying to you…

But formula isn’t a bad thing – I mean, drama is formula, screenplay is structure, playwright is, properly spelled includes the word “wright,” which means one who builds plays. Drama is structure, it’s not free form, it’s not poetry, it’s not novel writing. So this is just sort of an extrapolation of that, and when I tout the sequence approach (you know the screenplay is broken up into 8 sequences that tend to be 15 pages each), except for general act breaks (you know, first act, midpoint, end of second act and conclusion), I don’t get into specifically what each sequence needs to accomplish.

Screenplays and movies tend to happen in these little sequences, and each have their own beginning, middle and end, and that creates this nice sort of ebb and flow of peaks and valleys, and rising tension and mini-goals, and things like that, which lead to a bigger problem which you need to solve in the next sequence or need to solve by the end of the movie… So for me, the biggest help the sequence approach brought was in the second act, where it’s essentially 60-70 pages of no man’s land, and it can be very frightening and scary and you can get lost in there.

If you think about those 60 pages instead as four 15-page sequences, each with a specific first, second, and third act in them where your main character is trying to do something, solve something, either to fail or to succeed as you go through the script, it becomes much more digestible all of a sudden. And if you think about “OK, what does this sequence need to accomplish,” versus, “what does this act need to accomplish,” it’s just much more digestible.

Do you think that there might be a danger in Hollywood movies with all the screenwriting structure books that are out there? Do you think there’s a danger of people over-structuring their screenplays to a point where it becomes like it’s lacking some sort of genuine originality?

No, because the originality comes in the specific story you’re telling, and the way you tell it. If we were to sit here and play a game where we each listed our five favorite movies, I guarantee you they’re structured to a T.

However, your structure can’t be too good, it can’t be too perfect, because – a movie like The Shawshank Redemption, which for all intents and purposes has the perfect structure. I mean, every little piece of that movie – character, theme, story – everything intertwines beautifully. There’s symmetry, there’s resonance, all that stuff, and all that is based around structure, the way that story is plotted out, from Andy Dufresne’s mystery, whether or not he murdered his wife, to why he’s thrown in jail, to what happens to him when he’s first there, to what then happens to him as he becomes this prophet in the prison, and then his comeuppance in the end…

I mean, that’s all beautiful structure, and you don’t see Darabont doing that while you’re watching the movie, which is the real trick, to have wonderful beautiful structure and not let anybody see behind it. Structure is not something that you write on the page, structure is the underlying construct of your story. Dialogue, theme, character – all of those other things are what really need to be original, but the structure is what ties all that stuff together.

On a side note – there was a really great post on Scriptshadow – he did a review of The Shawshank Redemption script, and one of the things he pointed out was that it doesn’t follow the typical structure. There’s no clear protagonist who has a journey, or a clear goal. He’s stuck in prison. So he said one of the big things that kept the story moving was the mystery of whether Andy had done the crime or not…

We could do a whole interview on The Shawshank Redemption. I would argue that his goal the whole time is freedom. And that doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from prison, the literal breakout, but it’s freedom from guilt, from the oppression that he experiences inside prison, and he does achieve these moments of freedom all the way along, when he frees himself from the sisters and when he frees himself from the labor population and starts working for the warden. It’s all these – he’s kind of gaining his humanity back, which prison takes away from you – until finally the end when he makes his triumphant gain of humanity, and part of that is absolving himself from the accusation that he killed his wife, which he obviously knows he didn’t, but that’s a major dramatic beat in the story. But, anyway…

For Part 2 of this awesome interview action with Ryan Condal, click here.

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2 responses to “Interview: Screenwriter Ryan Condal, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Director Dennis Liu Talks About His Impressive Sci-Fi Short, Plurality·

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