David Gordon Green (writer/director Halloween Kills) shares his process for turning real-life inspiration into screenplays, by itemizing the quirks and characteristics of people he encounters in everyday life.
DGG: Last night, I was at a bar having a beer when a 90-year-old woman started talking to me about her mixed feelings on everything from masks to vaccines to airplane travel. She's giving me her philosophies on everything and contradicting herself the whole way, and I'm doing two things: I'm taking snapshots of her face with my eyelids, because she was very eccentric and had a wonderfully textured expression. And I'm processing the manner of her speech and the style of her contradictions in her accent. Then I wake up this morning and that affects me in my writing today.
AH: That’s David Gordon Green, writer-director of movies like 2018’s Halloween and the brand-new Halloween Kills. He’s a storyteller who likes to absorb inspiration from everywhere, including – yes – bars frequented by chatty 90-year-old women (her name was Beatrice by the way). It’s an important part of his process. A movie like Halloween, about an unkillable monster who stalks suburbia, might have elements of the supernatural that on paper, push the boundaries of believability. But when it comes to characters, David is always itemising the quicks and characteristics of people he encounters in everyday life, in the search of authenticity that will ground his sometimes otherwise otherworldly stories.
DGG: I think taking public transportation is an incredible asset for writers. I love taking the bus. I love taking the train. Nobody ever talks on airplanes, so I've surrendered to that as just a part of getting from A to B. But I do love listening and eavesdropping sometimes and other times contributing. The way that people's voices are around the world in any scenario is pretty outstanding.
AH: I’m Al Horner and coming up on How I Write, a series about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting – David Gordon Green reveals why his creative routine involves bike rides and ice baths, why everything he writes is informed by John Carpenter’s advice to “keep it simple, keep it relentless” and how a movie like Halloween Kills is written – from outline to the finish line.
DDG: I've had a lot of shitty jobs in the world, from a doorknob factory to a medical supply assembly line to a janitor at a mental institution. I've had rough, weird, crazy jobs but the one I appreciate most is when someone says: “We want you to make this movie.” Because I have a toolbox ready to go.
AH: That’s all to come today on How I Write, presented by Arc Studio Pro – the screenwriting software that lets writers stay focused on the stories they’re trying to tell on the page. Get your free trial today to check out its intuitive design, seamless real-time collaboration features, excellent outlining functions and easy-to-use import and export capabilities. More on those guys later – but as for now…
DGG: I'm David Gordon Green and this is how I write.
DGG: What I like to do is, I wake up and I take a 20 minute bike ride. I take a seven minute ice bath, and then I write for three hours and then I'm done. Before 10 in the morning, I'm done with my day and my duties – the responsibility of my job as a writer has been done. And then I have other responsibilities, but that's my writing ritual.
AH: The fact that David gets his writing done before 10am may surprise some. After all, this is a man whose last couple of years have been spent writing a trilogy of Halloween movies to be followed by a much anticipated trilogy of Exorcist sequels. You would have thought such nightmarish, violent visions demand to be written in the black of night when the world outside is eerie and quiet, right? Well, the truth is David doesn’t see his recent films strictly as horror movies. Ask him about the types of tales he loves to write, and he’ll explain that, from Halloween all the way back to his 2004 psychological thriller Undertow, he’s drawn to stories that dissolve boundaries, in which audiences are invited under the skin – or in Michael Myers’ case, under the mask – of people you might not be naturally inclined to root for.
DGG: I am drawn to stories that blur the line. That may be a blurry line between comedy and drama or maybe a blurry line between good and evil. But I like things that are imperfect and have different perspectives upon which to challenge an audience, challenge a reader. I go for the underdog. I want to go see what makes the villain villainous. And what's the sadness behind the bad guy? Because the truth is, everyone and everything is way more complex than just their face value. So I'm always just trying to dig a little deeper and put a plot twist in there.
AH: David’s writing process typically begins with a pen, a piece of paper and a period of free-form idea generation, in which he scribbles, listens to music and lets ideas flow unrestricted onto the page. From there, he’ll start to play around, building out premises, plot ideas and characters in a ten-page snowstorm of early ideas.
DGG: I start with just a little circle – a little black star, and then see what spirals out. There's always a dot where you put your instrument and then I just start going from there. I typically have an idea for a feeling. Sometimes it's a piece of music – I'll put on Neil Young's Cortez The Killer, put my dot down and start writing. You know? It keeps the blank page from being intimidating. Just immediately jam a dot down there, throw a word down there… and then you can start scribbling. I play jazz for a little while and I improvise a lot with words and characters, then I step back when I've got 10 pages and I think, “where should this go? Maybe what I've just written should be act two, instead of act one.”
AH: That last point is an important one. David has a strategy, he explains, designed to give his stories the feeling of being thrown into the deep-end of a story already in motion. Often, once he has an idea for a story, he’ll write out what would happen in the first 30 pages of its screenplay – then he’ll discard them completely, effectively starting his screenplay in act two. The result is something leaner – more economical – without all the slow-moving set-up and exposition that sometimes drags first acts down.
DGG: Very often, I'll write a whole first act and then think: “now the movie starts.” So I'll throw away the first act, but that gave me the subtext and the setup. So now the movie is act two and three. I made a movie 20 years ago called All The Real Girls and we filmed the first act and then I just cut it out. And then that became a big lesson as I'd written all this character exposition and set up, and these things that I thought were necessary foundations for the story that I wanted to tell. But then when I'm watching the first cut of the movie, not only is it long – it's not essential until 23 minutes in. That's when the movie starts being unique. So we just edited the first act out. And then I've been doing that as a writer probably ever since.
AH: But hold up – when an idea comes to David, how does he know it’s one worth pursuing and committing the hours of work and infinite emotion that a full screenplay requires? This is where it gets interesting. For the 46-year-old, the right stories don’t give you the option of saying no to. They grab you by the scruff of your neck, throw you in a chair in front of a laptop and scream at you to get typing from somewhere within.
DGG: Sometimes there's a story that you just have to write. And that's a passion thing for me. I know that if I'm going to sit down and write something I'm passionate about, that is from within me, that’s a story that needs to get out, I know that that will more than likely, never get made. In a world [where it’s] very difficult to finance anything… [where] if you can finance it, it's hard to make it, and if you can make it, it's hard to distribute it, and if you can distribute it, nobody goes [to see it], I do have a little bit of a pessimism about the unique threads of stories that are inside me. When they come out, they come out very weird. Maybe someday I'll all evolve to the culture or the culture will evolve to the stories I like to tell. But right now I have a lot of scripts that don't get made and there's a logical reason as to why. So there's that side of my career. And then there's the other side where Jason Blum and Malek Akkad come to me and say: “let's make a Halloween movie.” Then there's a certainty that that will happen. At least, if I don't fuck it up.
AH: As David alludes to, there are two sides to him as a storyteller, as there are for a lot of filmmakers in Hollywood these days. There’s the David Gordon Green who makes intimate dramas, like 2013’s Prince Avalanche or 2007’s Snow Angels. Then there’s the David Gordon Green who’ll re-energise an existing franchise like Halloween or Hellraiser, which he’s also involved in a TV reboot around. Working on these types of projects is surprisingly freeing and allows David to experiment and explore in fun ways. Halloween Kills is a good example of this by the way. Sure, from the outside, it looks like a simple slasher movie about a killer on the loose in a quaint American town. Nestled inside, though, like some kind of blood-drenched Trojan Horse, is machete-sharp social commentary on public panic and the effect that fear can have on a community. He might not get to make a film about that topic with a spec
DGG: That title, Halloween, means that you can be as creative as you want. Because the title has just taken care of your movie star, of your concept, of your responsibility financially to a degree. I have this beautiful blank canvas [on which] I can be as creative and spastic and weird and eccentric. I can bring my heart and passion and appreciation of the John Carpenter film. I can dance forever within these confines because I know what's going to happen. And there's something really nice about that for me as a tradesman. I have the best job in the world.
AH: Next in David’s process, he hits up his trusted collaborators. You’ll know at least one of them: actor and writer Danny McBride, with whom David has worked since meeting in college in 1999. After working together for so long, they have a sort of telepathy on the page that shines through in their work on movies like Halloween. To David, collaboration is key not just because he also has directing to be thinking about – the ways that this story might actually be executed on camera. To him, collaboration elevates the quality of what he’s working on, and accelerates its creation.
DGG: Almost everything I do now, I have a co-writer or two. On Halloween Ends, I have three. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We bring ideas to the table, delete pages and re-invent characters. And to me, having that collaboration gives me great energy. When I do wake up at 4.30 in the morning and some of my co-writers are night writers, they [have] gone to sleep an hour ago as they're on the west coast and I'm on the east coast, I'm going to rewrite what they wrote and send them my revisions. [Then] they're going to rewrite what I wrote [and] send me their revisions. And I love that collaboration. It keeps me from getting moody.
AH: Now in David’s process, it’s time to outline.
DGG: If I'm outlining by myself, it looks stupid because it's just like little slug lines for maybe two pages. It's nothing. But if I'm writing with co-writers, which I'm doing a lot these days, then we have a 20-page document that is pretty thorough, so that I can say: “Hey Danny, you take these scenes, I'll take these scenes, and then we'll swap.” I have a co-writer I'm working on Halloween Ends with named Paul Logan. He was my neighbor in Austin, Texas, and we just started writing together. And it's just a fantastic collaboration because he'll do a first pass at an outline and then we'll have a big fight about what he's trying to do, and then I'll get in there and I'll get so mad when I read it. I'll just be so mad [that] I have to immediately push everything aside and start rewriting it, and then I'll point to it and say ‘see? See? see?’. And he'll be like, ‘no, no, no, no.’ And then the beauty of that conflict is where we talked through it [and I can see] what I've misunderstood through the reading. Now I hear it out of his mouth, I know what he means. And I think I can translate that to my ability. He understands a little bit more of [where] I'm trying to go tonally. It's a back-and-forth spitball, [constantly] playing devil's advocate: ‘do we really need that scene? Because it's now we're at 94 pages and I want it to be 93.’ I get really upset about long screenplays if you haven't picked that up already. Um, so, um, I don't know what that says about my attention span, but I gotta get to work and make more movies.
AH: Coming up – why David insists rewriting is part and parcel of finding the truth behind your story and characters, the trick that refreshes David creatively whenever he hits a brick wall with a scene or story beat and the piece of paper in his office that reminds him what this is all for – why he makes movies. But first, a word about Arc Studio Pro.
Screenwriting to me is all about immersion. I want to stay immersed in dreamy fantasy state while I weave my story and craft my characters. I don’t want to be distracted by anything and I certainly don’t want to be thinking about text formatting. Arc Studio Pro understands that. It’s so intuitive. It has a minimal and dare I say beautiful interface that allows me to stay completely focused on the story I’m trying to tell. If you like to work with a writing partner, like David does, well, good news – Arc Studio Pro has seamless real-time collaboration kind of similar to Google Docs which allows you and whoever you’re working with to stay and literally and figuratively on the same page, wherever you and your collaborator are working from. Importing and exporting other formats like PDF and Final Draft files is easy. And best of all, it has an always free plan. Meaning you can sign up today and start writing. To take your screenwriting to the next level, visit ArcStudioPro.com. Click the link in today’s show notes to find out more. Okay, back to the conversation.
DGG: The older I get and the more experienced I get, I feel like if I'm having fun as a writer then the audience will have fun too. This is as dumb as it sounds. I think having fun is a really good idea. If it's torture – if it feels like homework and the deadlines are frustrating – then I think the creative process is compromised for me.
AH: This is the philosophy that guides David when it’s time to start jumping into scenes. It’s a simple but effective approach that makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If you’re not having a blast writing your story, how much fun is it going to be for your audience watching the thing? Elsewhere when it comes to writing scenes, David these days falls back on a piece of advice once given to him by John Carpenter – the horror master who created the original Halloween. “Keep it simple. Keep it relentless.” It means to find the forward momentum in every scene and cut anything slowing you down.
DGG: That's the greatest advice ever… And I think if we look at the craft of screenwriting as a blueprint for what its particular objective is, if you're a screenwriter that’s struggling to make a living and trying to sell a story and convince people to invest in you, then take John Carpenter's advice: keep it simple and keep it relentless. If you're out there on the hustle and you're trying to get your idea across, and you've got this amazing concept, or you have this experience or this, this thing, that's close to your heart and you want to get the movie made, keep it simple, keep it relentless.
I don't ever make a movie that's more than 95 pages. If I see a 100-page screenplay, I'm going to fall asleep and ask someone to read it first and tell me what it's about. I do believe as a writer, you want to let it all out and then tighten and tighten and tighten it. Nobody's going to be mad when they read a 93-page script, no matter how much it sucks. What they will be mad at is if they waste their time and it's 133 pages because you needed to fulfill something specific. There's very few filmmakers I think that can make a two and a half hour movie and keep [you entertained]. There's the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Tarantinos, and certainly the Robert Altmans from [back in] the day that deserve that length of time, and I enjoy those experiences, but for the most part – man, if I see a Marvel movie is two hours and 20 minutes, I know I'm going to be fast forwarding at least 20 or 30 minutes within the middle of it.
AH: When David gets to page 95, you guessed it – he goes right back to page one. Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting some more is part of the process for the filmmaker, whose 2018 Halloween movie, it was reported, required eighty drafts. That’s actually not true though, says David. It was way more than that.
DGG: More than a hundred! Hundreds of drafts. We had a new draft every day. I have a new draft of Halloween Ends that I gave to Danny [McBride] last night. He's going to give me a new one on Monday. It was funny to hear people say, wow, it took them eighty drafts to get it right. It took us a thousand drafts to get it right. I'm rewriting every day on set. When I go home or I wake up after my subconscious has done its homework based on the previous day, I'll rewrite a scene before I go to set and hand it to the AD and say, these are the pages for today. You know, it's an informal process I'd say.
AH: Like anyone, it’s not always plain-sailing in writing and rewriting. Sometimes, David will bump up against something that’s not working – a scene that isn’t clicking or dialogue that isn’t popping. In these moments, David does two things: call on his collaborators for help, or do more research. Sometimes, if something isn’t sitting right, it’s because he doesn’t have the real-life materials yet needed to unlock that scene or piece of dialogue.
DGG: Another reason I advocate for writing partners is because typically I hit a brick wall when I have to write what a police officer would say or a doctor would say or some sort of technical bullshit that I have to deal with in a story. And so I just stop writing it because I don't know how to word it. I love to be able to call my writing partner and say,’ listen, Dr. so-and-so was talking to officer so-and-so and I don't fucking have a clue where what they're going to say to each other. The scene is about X. Will you just do this?’ Technical writing and research is a big struggle for me. And I'm writing now, right now, I'm doing an Exorcist trilogy that is very academic. You'll read a whole book or have a two hour interview with someone so that you can word two sentences correctly. It's very time-consuming and it's a lot and it's not always fun.
AH: Sometimes, when the writers’ block hits especially hard, David needs to step out of the project and into something else. Throwing himself into another project altogether hits some kind of creative reset button in him and allows him to come back to the original project refreshed and with a new perspective on what wasn’t working.
DGG: I'm really motivated by the excitement. There's another script I've been working on for five years. And when I hit a brick wall on my Exorcist movie, I go to On The Promenade, which is this absurdist movie that I'm also writing with that writer I mentioned earlier, Paul Logan. I go there and it's just my happy place where I can just go and screw around with this character and think about absurdity, because the script defies gravity in its logic and structure. And so I like to go there. And who knows, maybe that ends up just being my sketchpad so that then I can find my inspiration and get back to work in my trade. But I like to believe that someday, someone will look at the trade work I've done and say, now let's bring that sketchpad to life.
AH: Eventually, it’s time for production and a whole other part of David’s creative process kicks in – the directorial side, which is a story for another podcast. The emotion when a story he’s written or co-written finally sees the light of day is always an intense one, especially when it’s a movie as long delayed as Halloween Kills, which was pushed back and pushed back again by the Covid-19 pandemic. The movie’s set to debut a few days after we talk. David suggests that on that day, he’ll be reminded anew why he does what he does – and why he especially loves the storytelling side of moviemaking.
DGG: I love to write because directing is a pain in the ass. Every day is an obstacle and a frustration and a disappointment and a confusion and a reinvention and a compromise. Since I was a kid growing up in Dallas, writing was a place that I could go and be in control and it didn't cost money. I wasn't good at sports and I was a half-assed musician. So it was a creative place I could go and I could be in private [where] I could write something and then delete it, or I could write something and then share it with my friends. Or sometimes I would write something strange and then put an absurdist flyer on the cafeteria wall at school, and just have people be perplexed as to who wrote this absurdity that's nonsense.
That's actually a great example of a moment when I saw the power of words. I made a list of words that rhyme, but didn't really rhyme. I still have it in my office. I made it in like, 1993 and it just says: ‘words that are cool because they rhyme’. There’s no name. I just put words that did not rhyme on a page of paper. And I would watch the confusion of students, as they turn to each other like, ‘who the fuck is this idiot? These words don't rhyme.’ And what that created in the school cafeteria, showed me the power of a written word. And these were just, it was nothing vulgar. It was just absurdity. I loved what I could do, and that it didn't cost any more money than a nickel for a Xerox and some weird ideas that could make people's heads spin a little bit. So that's what gets me going – writing something that I either need to communicate with myself or communicate with the high school cafe.
AH: David Gordon Green is the acclaimed director and co-writer behind Halloween and Halloween Kills. His other writing credits include Prince Avalanche, Snow Angels and the new Exorcist trilogy mentioned in this episode. You’ve been listening to How I Write, hosted by me, Al Horner, with production by Kamil Dymek and music by Oliver Knowles. Our theme song is by New York-based artist Nafets. How I Write is brought to you by Arc Studio Pro. Get your free trial today at Arc Studio Pro.com. Thanks for tuning in – we’ll see you next time.