Last week I went to a talk at the Writers Guild of America. It was an interview between Winnie Holzman, writer of Wicked and My So-Called Life, and Cameron Crowe, writer of Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Say Anything and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, among many others.
He’s exactly as nice as he seems in this picture he kindly agreed to take with me (I had just thanked him for making Almost Famous, a movie that especially resonated with me and my wife when we saw it in LA just before getting married):
So here’s some of his advice:
Life is a better storyteller than you are. Just after moving into a new apartment Cameron heard a knock on the door. He opened it to find a man dressed in martial arts gear who introduced himself as Lloyd and proceeded to explain that kickboxing was the sport of the future. He invited Cameron to watch him fight but Mr. Crowe declined. When Lloyd left Cameron went back inside to tell his roommate what had just happened. His roommate asked what he was waiting for and told him to write it all down. Check out Say Anything.
He actually wrote Say Anything as a novella first. This was advice from James L. Brooks, who said it would mean he’d have a lot of background material to give his actors and lots of nuance to use in his script. Cameron found this very helpful.
He thinks that people really just tell the same story over and over, but from different perspectives.
His family motto was from Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up.
The most satisfying writing you can do is have two characters look at each other and say nothing. That’s when you know you’ve written them well.
Choose your own music. Don’t come up with entire story then let some music supervisor add his own taste to your work (or even worse, the taste of what he thinks the audience might like).
He has a list of names for characters all ready. When he needs one he just calls them into action, as if they’ve been sitting on a subs bench.
You have to really earn an ‘on the nose’ line (such as ‘You complete me’) by building up to it in a way that makes the audience OK with accepting it.
This one isn’t advice, but he once interviewed Pete Townsend for Playboy. It was going to be a cover story but Pete thought that was the kind of thing you did at the end of your career. So Cameron explained that the alternative was a little 750-word piece with a small mention on the cover. Pete preferred that, but proceeded to give him a five hour interview, almost all of which couldn’t be used.