Beyond Words 2020

Discussion with this year’s WGA West nominees


Each year, in light of the upcoming 72nd Annual Writers Guild Awards on February 1st, that celebrate nominated screenwriters, the WGA, West and The Writers Guild Foundation put on the Beyond Words event at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.

This year’s acclaimed screenwriters sitting on the panel were:

The panel discussion was hosted and moderated by Aline Brosh McKenna, who adapted The Devil Wears Prada and co-created the comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She did an amazing job in getting the nominees to reveal their workflows. A large part of the talk dealt with the outlining process, whether the nominees are writing with a theme in mind, and different writing techniques/styles.

From left to right: Aline Brosh Mckenna, Noah Baumbach, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman, Rian Johnson
From left to right: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Greta Gerwig, Lauren Greenfield, Mark Jonathan Harris, Scott Silver, Steven Zaillian


Most of the writers said they wouldn’t necessarily think of a theme to tackle and frame the story fitting to that message. On the contrary, all the panelists agreed that a theme might reveal itself naturally during fleshing out the storylines. It’s not something they focus on rather it develops later on in the process. Mark Jonathan Harris specifically explained how he choses a story he wants to tell. He said, and that applies to documentaries particularly well, he looks for an answer to a correctly posed question. If he finds the question intriguing and truly interesting, he then moves forward with the story.

Greta Gerwig talked some more about her thought process on Little Women. Even though she didn’t focus on forming a message to convey with the film, after rereading the book the overall theme that guided her while writing was money.

“The one that jumped out at me page after page was this boo is about money and authorship and ownership and women and art and money. […] The opening scene when she’s (Jo) trying to sell the book to Mr. Dashwood is almost lifted word for word from the book. She’s trying to pretend she hasn’t written it. She needs to ask how much do I get paid, which is humiliating to ask, because she needs the money. I was thinking this could have been me yesterday talking to the head off a studio to figure out how much I can compromise and still get it done.
It was so modern and urgent, that it felt like lines were written in neon.”

While “theme” in and of itself doesn’t trigger most writer’s storytelling, the outlining stage generally prepares them to actually start working on a script.


One take away from that evening was that there is not one right way to outline before writing the actual script. Almost every nominee offered a different approach.

Noah Baumbach, for instance, doesn’t outline. He takes notes whenever he makes an interesting observation, has an idea of a scene or simply thinks of a captivating dialog. Once he feels like his notes are suitable for a storyline it all slowly comes together and the idea becomes an expression. However, he still goes back of course and adds changes to scenes later on. He mentioned that in Marriage Story Adam Driver’s character has an interview with a social worker scheduled at his home. Such a situation alone is awful for any parent, however, he later decided to take it a bit further and included that Adam Driver accidentally cuts himself and bleeds badly but still insists he’s okay.

“I love the idea that humiliation trumps pain,” Baumbach recalled. “The whole scene is about keeping up appearances.”

Greta Gerwig, who has worked with Noah Baumbach multiple times, had a similar reaction when asked about outlining:

Scott Silver, co-writer of Joker (with Todd Phillips) admitted “I try to put off writing for as long as possible, but I can outline forever.”

Interestingly enough, if I recall correctly, all writers start out their projects not electronically, but instead in handwriting. Whether they jolt down notes in small notebooks which they carry with them at all times, like Noah Baumbach does, or manifesting ideas for scenes on flash cards.
Writer & director of Knives Out, Rian Johnson, joked “My handwriting is so bad. It looks like the opening credits of ‘Seven.’” He typically writes out 12-15 minute sequences and also draws a diagram that lays out the entire plot before he starts writing.

Knives Out – Handwritten outline


Regarding storytelling-styles, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a “Who done it” movie for which placing plot twists is particularly challenging. In another interview he explained writing plot twists in more detail:

Rian Johnson: Crafting the Perfect Plot Twist

Knives Out Movie director Rian Johnson breaks down his process for creating unique, cinematic plot twists, while revealing some of his favorite moments in film history.

Posted by IMDb on Tuesday, December 24, 2019

For Steven Zaillian working on the Irishmen the difficulty was to find the right tone. He settled for a narrative style which included a lot of information. Writing a voice over is challenging he stated, because the narrator has to be ahead of the viewer, either its purpose is to explain what the audience is seeing or the voice over says the complete opposite of what is shown on the screen.


The best source to read Oscar frontrunners & winning screenplays from this and
the last years I found is on indiefilmhustle.

Happy reading!