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3 Screenwriting Lessons from the Writers of Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain

April 9, 2018

Final Draft is proud to support the WGA West’s Groundbreakers Screening Series, highlighting screenwriters whose groundbreaking works made an impact and opened our eyes to personal and universal challenges. This month’s screening was a double feature of Philadelphia (1993) and Brokeback Mountain (2000), followed by a live conversation with the films’ writers. The evening was an inspiring tribute to stories that have truly broken the mold. 

Here’s what we learned --

Make Your Writing Personal -

Ron Nyswaner: [Philadelphia] is very personal… the opera scene comes from me always choosing a piece of music that gets me in the mood when I’m working on something. I was playing that song in my house and I had this moment where I realized I was a gay man in upstate New York listening to opera music and crying in front of the person who works on my lawn… I felt an intense shame, but I also thought this is interesting and then it made it into the film because with Philadelphia, it wasn’t us saying, “Hey help us figure out who gay people are” it was Jonathan [Demme] and I figuring out who we were and then turning that into an attempt to make a big commercial hit about a socially relevant issue while making it very personal as well… it came from us.

Diana Ossana – When I called my manager to tell him we were going to option [Brokeback Mountain] he asked what it’s about and we told him it’s about two ranch hands in Wyoming in 1963 who fall in love. He said, “Are you out of your mind?” That was 1997, and needless to say, he’s not my manager anymore. When I read Brokeback Mountain, it was like somebody struck me with lightening. It tapped into some deep well of sadness and it pulled something out of me that was so profound and intense that I kept thinking, I have to get this out into the world. Because it had such a profound effect on me, I couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t have that same effect on the people…

 Be Specific with Your Characters –

 DO: It’s very important as a writer to be specific about your characters, and that’s what moves people. You can call Brokeback Mountain a universal love story – it might be that – but it’s about two men who fall in love. It’s very specific; we didn’t think of it as a universal love story – it’s about Ennis and Jack; it’s about their flaws and their mistakes; their struggles and their humanity.

Keep the Momentum –

DO: One of the great things Larry taught me about writing is momentum; you write everyday and it doesn’t matter what it is, but the important thing to do is get a first draft that you can work on… so, first, we scripted the story – just the story – then we decided what we wanted to add; we both knew we wanted to add their domestic lives, and the important thing we felt was to examine the ripple effect of Ennis’ homophobia because it had a huge ripple effect throughout the story. For me, I was excited to get up every day and start this because the detail was so good and so rich and it really fueled the imagination.

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