Action sequences should be like musical numbers, when words can no longer contain emotion: Simon Kinberg

Simon Kinberg

The anti-Michael Bay scripts of Simon Kinberg.  Bay shot Transformers 3 during writer’s strike, and admitted he used the plot and dialogue as fillers for action scenes he filmed. Whereas Kinberg and John Woo believe action reflects character. Prep, prep, and prep some more before writing the first draft.

Thrillers showcase great writing. Many first specs sold – Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest, Inside Job, Memento (actually Focus which is is Nolan’s first) and Mr. and Mrs. Smith which Kinberg sold while in film school – are in this genre. Thrillers have all the elements of writing: the ticking time bombs, the three act structure even if it’s convoluted as in Memento’s case, and enables you to do the 10-minute rule. One of the best pieces of writing advice that changed my screenplays is to make something happen every 10 minutes. A subgoal should be met; a goal should be met and new obstacles in place at the end of an act. Sounds formulaic but it’s so inherent in us as audiences that if the movie’s good, you don’t even notice it.

One of the masters of this genre is Simon Kinberg. Below are excerpts from an interview by Storylink of Kinberg, one of the few A-list screenwriters whose resume is to die for: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “First Class,” “Sherlock Holmes.” We’ll just let “Jumper” and “This Means War” slide (Reese Witherspoon was so not meant for that role). And in Hollywood absurdity, he was EP of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (highly recommend that movie though the title may be off-putting), but was credited as one of the screenwriters when in fact, Seth Grahame-Smith who wrote the novel wrote the whole thing as Kinberg’s own Wiki page states. Power gets you credit when you didn’t even do that role! But still love Kinberg.

Good time to mention a series that’s available to Amazon Prime members to rent for $1.99 and also to Netflix members (mail-in not instant video)– there’s an interview of Kinberg and other screenwriters in a series called “The Dialogue: Learn from the Masters.”

You have a knack for writing Action/Romantic Comedy without clichés. Can you give advice on how you incorporate love and adventure into the screenplay?

You are kind. I’ve been very lucky to work with actors who have a strong allergy to clichés. There were plenty of times on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith that Brad or Angie killed a line for being cliché. Robert Downey was the same way. But I think the trick (if there is a trick) is just to be honest. Write romance and comedy from personal experience. You’ll find specificity and texture from your own life. And start with the romance before you add action. Action should be an expression of character. Great action sequences should work like musical numbers – they explode when the characters can’t contain their emotion in dialogue alone. I had a chance to work with John Woo early on in my career, and this is one of the things he taught me. He looked at action as music and dance. It’s just another way to articulate emotion. And every action sequence should tell us more about the character – from the way they hold a gun to the way they run or fight in the face of danger.

When you first get one or more ideas for plots and characters, how do you process these toward a structure? Sticky-Notes, story boarding, blocking into a format such as Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, linear formats, or a legal pad with stages laid out in an outline form? 

I take notes on any possible surface. Then I input those notes into the computer at the end of every day. It starts with random ideas, maybe scenes or moments for the characters. Then eventually I turn that list of notes into a detailed outline, which can run anywhere from 15-50 pages, depending on how intimidated I am by the script (the more intimidated I am, the longer the outline, so I feel like I have more support). When I actually start writing a first draft, I have a very strange and inefficient process: I write everything by hand on blank white pieces of paper, front and back. I keep those pages in a folder, and don’t input anything into the computer until I’m done with the whole script. I don’t know why I started working this way, but I find it does a few things for me: first, I never have a real sense of what page I’m on, so I’m a little freer to experiment; second, I can’t really go back to rewrite (since it would get messy), so I end up moving forward without looking over my shoulder; and third, I end up writing a very, very long first draft. When I input the script, it’s almost invariably 40-50 pages too long, which forces me to be ruthless about cutting. I eliminate anything that isn’t absolutely necessary, because I’m fighting page count. It’s a good exercise. It forces me to justify every line.


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