Guess what, friends — screenwriting is hard. It’s hard in the ways that most things are: it’s time-consuming, it’s emotionally draining, it’s equally satisfying and demoralizing, which is a really complicated state in which to perpetually exist.
This is why it’s so important to learn from those who have fought the same monsters you’re currently getting pummeled by, so you, like the protagonists in your screenplays, can make it out of the inmost cave in one piece. And Lee Isaac Chung, the writer/director of the Oscar-nominated drama MINARI, has fought some major creative monsters.
Here are four great pieces of screenwriting advice Chung has shared over the years that might help make overcoming your creative beasts a little less…hard.Download the MINARI script for free!
Write The Themes You Know
One piece of advice screenwriters always seem to get at one point or another is “write what you know.” This is why you see so many fledgling writers in writers groups or college classes pitching what is essentially their life story — which is great — there’s nothing wrong with that. But if the thought of writing about yourself, even if it’s somewhat removed from reality, doesn’t really jive with you, then maybe put a spin on the “write what you know” axiom and “write the themes you know.”
MINARI was the result of Chung listing childhood memories and creating a workable narrative arc, so to call the film autobiographical is kind of an understatement. But he mentions something really interesting in an article Chung wrote for the Los Angeles Times — that, yes, the film contains a lot of details from his life, but it primarily contains the themes he noticed when looking back on his childhood.
“As an exercise, I devoted an afternoon to writing my memories of childhood… With each memory, I saw my life anew, as though the clouds had shifted over a field I had seen every day. After writing 80 memories, I sketched a narrative arc with themes about family, failure and rebirth. That’s how I got the idea to write MINARI; it began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.”
There’s No Such Thing As an Overnight Success
Chung didn’t wake up one morning, write MINARI, and get nominated for an Oscar the next day. He had been working as a filmmaker for 15 years before he found what many of us would call “success,” eventually finding peace in the possibility that he would never “make it.” In fact, in many interviews, Chung has stated that MINARI was intended to be his last hurrah before transitioning to a different career.
And if knowing that fills you with the warm fuzzies — good! So many screenwriters have to grind for years and years before they make big strides in their career, and that might be pretty depressing in and of itself, but the light in the darkness of that reality is that that experience is shared with so many other writers — even the ones who end up getting nominated for an Academy Award! Chung offered up this bit of encouragement in an interview with NOW Magazine:
“I want people to know that I’m not an overnight success only because I want to encourage the people who don’t feel that they are being successful — I’ve been there and it’s a long, hard road.”
It’s Okay to Write Sparingly
All writers have a different approach to storytelling and writing scripts. Some create extremely detailed worlds, some focus on very specific and intentional dialogue, and some choreograph action as if it were a ballet.
Chung explained in an interview with Final Draft that in the silent moments in his films, he likes to give his actors the freedom to express their interpretations of their characters. So on the page, he leaves the action relatively spare.
“In the writing, I don’t like to write out anything other than dialogue. I want actors to really take the lines and to inhabit them and figure out what are the expressions and what are the things they’re doing in silence.”
This is a great lesson for screenwriters to learn, because many struggle with not knowing if they’re writing “the right way.” That isn’t a thing. Chung also directs, so his decision to entrust those silent moments to his actors is motivated by his vision. If you’re a writer who really has a love for action and you can see those facial expressions and body movements clearly in your head, write ’em!
Dignity Over Success
We’re all trying to make it, right? I guess… but what does “making it” actually mean? Does it mean getting representation? Getting your spec optioned? Getting a job writing for a show you love?
Success means so many different things to so many different people, and the drive to achieve it and the utter devastation when you don’t can often become the centerpiece of your creative journey. But it doesn’t have to be. The lens through which you view your work doesn’t have to include achievements, accolades, or ladder ascension. What if instead of gauging the quality of your work based on your success you gauged it based on the dignity that comes with doing it.
Chung says something quite beautiful in an interview with Rolling Stone:
“Work brings dignity. Everybody’s got to work and everybody has to feel that dignity from the work itself. There are a lot of people who are doing incredible work right now and are not getting success or not getting the accolades, but they’re the ones who are really keeping society together right now…”
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