Creator of the HBO series Lovecraft Country, Misha Green, explains why she loves to write stories set in yesterday that say something about today. She also dives into the places she looks for story inspiration and how a series like Lovecraft Country is written.
AH: A while back, the filmmaker Misha Green wrote a short piece of prose that’s a window into the way she writes. I’ll read a quick extract, and Misha if you’re listening, apologies in advance if I mess up the deliverya. “A long time ago, back when I was just a disillusioned film student, an exec asked me what one of my scripts was about. I said, desert heat, fast cars, and broken girls. He asked me if it was based on my life. A true story. I told him it wasn't. He told me it would be better if it was. Flash forward to now. When someone asks me if I ever lived in a rundown middle of nowhere desert town in New Mexico and drove a midnight black '68 Chevelle, they're asking because they thought my screenplay was just so real. That need for adventure. The eagerness for vicarious fulfillment. So I spin a story. Sometimes the answer is just no. But more and more often the answer is yes… We're all liars. All of us writers. Us storytellers. But it's those lies that help us find the truth.”
MG: I wrote that ages ago. Now I'm like, it's not just storytellers – it’s human beings. We're all living our lives through narrative. We're going out and we're saying, this is my story, but that's not necessarily your story. I think we have the story we give to the world. And then we have our inner story. That's the true story.
AH: That voice you just heard is Misha, who explains that this storytelling philosophy underpins pretty much everything she puts her pen to. It was there in Lovecraft Country, her monstrously compelling HBO series set in 1950s America (emphasis on monstrous). It was there in Underground, the tense TV thriller that she created about Antebellum Georgia. You can bet it’ll be there in the much anticipated Tomb Raider and Black Canary blockbusters she’s been busy writing of late, too. Whatever it is she’s working on, it all comes back to a core belief that there’s a gap between the person we want the world to perceive us as, and the person we truly are.
MG: My aim is something that I think Zadie Smith articulated well: “I just wanted to be truer than the last time.” And I feel like that's what I do when I write. I just want to move closer to that real inner truth we all have that we try to hide from the world.
AH: I’m Al Horner, and coming up on How I Write, a podcast about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting – Misha Green explains why she loves to write stories set in yesterday that say something about today. We also get into the places she looks for story inspiration, the vital lesson about writing scene descriptions that she learned from Point Break, and how a series like Lovecraft Country is written – from outline to the finish line.
MG: Even though my things that I've done and set in the past, it's very much about the present. I'm very much telling stories about trying to find the truth right now. I feel like the social commentary that's in my pieces, it’s in there because I'm just trying to find something that's true about right now and what we're going through and what we're feeling.
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 feature, excellent outlining functions and easy-to-use import and export capabilities. More on Arc Studio Pro later – but as for now…
MG: I’m Misha Green… and this is how I write.
MG: I got a doll house when I was like seven. I played all the roles with my pieces. You collect them. I had a police academy house, which was really weird. Why I had a police academy one, I don't know, but it had like the little jail cell and all the pratfalls inside of it.
And I used to play incessantly with those things. My sister would always be like, “you know you're just talking to yourself, right? Like, this is weird. You're doing this for hours.” Now I can see, I'm like, oh, I was already doing the storytelling thing then when I was just playing dollhouse.
AH: Misha has come a long way since those early days playing with her police academy dollhouse. Today she's one of Hollywood's most in-demand voices and an expert crafter of what she describes as “stories of physical and metaphorical survival.”
MG: I'm kind of obsessed with that. What are we as humans willing to do to survive? I love horror, I love intense [movies] like The Revenant – that kind of shit is written for me. Because I'm like, “and now there's a bear!? Oh my God, what's next?! What's happening?!” It's drama, you know? Metaphorically, it’s like: “What do we do to protect ourselves? What lies do we tell? What people do we seek out? What narratives do we tell about ourselves for survival?” So I think that's the connective tissue. It's the intensity of what it means to survive.
AH: One thing that stands about Misha’s work is how she often employs genre to tackle important real-life concerns from a different perspective. Lovecraft Country for example filtered America’s history of racial inequality through tales of monsters and malevolent beasts. Underground meanwhile was pitched as a heist thriller in which “the heist just happens to be enslaved people who are stealing the most important thing in the world - their bodies.” It’s a storytelling habit forged in formative experiences watching Jurassic Park and Aliens as a girl growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento.
MG: It just heightens everything. I feel like if you add a monster to the thing, suddenly it's not just emotional drama – [you have] that physical side as well. And I think with thrillers, it's the bomb under the table. You just want it to go off and you're waiting and it's exciting to me to be like, “let's surprise ourselves.” That's what I like when I write stories. I like to be surprised. So it's always [a case of] going: “Where is the true place that we never would have thought to go, but it's obviously the only place to go?” And I think that that's, you know, easier to do in genre than it is just in straight drama. So that's why I gravitate toward it. And it's just fun.
AH: Okay, so how do you write a story of physical and metaphorical survival, rooted in genre filmmaking, that may or may not feature monsters but is guaranteed to feature insights on the world we live in today? Well, for Misha it usually begins with a spark. That spark, she says, can come from a book. That’s what happened with Lovecraft Country, which she adapted from a 2016 novel by author Matt Ruff. But it can also come from history – a piece of the past that reveals a little bit about today.
MG: I think in adaptation, something in that book sparks you and then it makes you go: “okay. okay , okay, okay.” It was the same with Underground – it was history. History sparks. You go back and you read stuff and are like: “I can't make this up. This is a heist thriller.” You read slave narratives, talking about their own lives and you're just like: “so, y'all went to plantation dances?” And then [you’ll be] reading about an enslaved man talking about how “I got five lashes for going to that dance, but it was worth it to see that girl.” Suddenly you [realise] these are people. There's whole lives. There's things happening in this world. So I feel like, where do I get my inspiration? I'm just really good at being like: “oh, that's dope. Let's keep that. Now let's add on to that with this and this and this, and then do this.” I feel like that's the spark for me, always – something little that [makes me] go, “huh, that's intriguing.” And then you place it down.
AH: Often it takes a while for that spark to become a story, simmering in the back of her imagination for a while while her subconscious uncovers a rich narrative idea to wrap around it. That was certainly the case with Lovecraft Country.
MG: I let it sit forever in my head and I just keep pulling. It's little things – collection. You have the spark, but you don't really know what it is yet. You're like, “I want to do something.” But even with adaptation, it's a different medium, so you have to find what it is. [With Lovecraft Country] I was like: “I know I love genre. I know I love Black people. But what is it? What is Lovecraft Country?” And then you sit with it. You read. You do the research on sundown towns. You listen to some music from the time and then you start to go: “Ohhhh! It's a family story! Yeah, there are monsters, but this is a family story. Families, families, black people, families, generational trauma.” [Then you might say:] “Ooh, I don't want to talk about generational trauma.” The minute I go, “Ooh, I don't want to do that,” that's where I know to go. I have to go there. That's the morsel. That’s what’s intriguing. That’s the thing that needs to be told, that needs to be unpacked.
AH: If you’ve watched Lovecraft Country, which is so full of intention in what it wants to say about America’s racial divides, you might have guessed that next in Misha’s process is sitting down and working out what this thing is gonna be about – the message or thesis of the show or movie. The truth is, it’s a more gradual process than that. Misha may begin with a sense of what she wants to express, but through writing and rewriting, new themes will unearth themselves and work their way into the story.
MG: I have to work it out. It has to come with a thought to the page. There's a feeling that starts [it] but then through the outlining and through the rewriting it's solidified. The thesis solidifies over the course of working on the thing. I think with TV writing too, you bring in other people's opinions. So it's not just you talking about a thing. It's a whole group of people sitting around a table being like, let's work this out, let's move through it.
AH: Armed with a premise, a few characters, some imagery and a feeling she’s striving for in the material, Misha then begins outlining. This is usually an iterative, instinctive process, she says, in which she assembles lots of pieces and moves them around continually till they click.
MG: It's interesting. It's ever evolving. It's different every time, but there are similar things. I think, think, think. I write notes by hand, type up those notes, organize those notes, [and then] discard those notes, like: “Who cares about all that!” [laughs] Then I just start to go, “okay, so this happens, this happens, this happens, this happens, this happens.” Then you go back and realise: “Actually, this can happen, then this happens, this happens, this happens.” You go back and do that again. And then you go: “Ooh, that works.” I do extensive outlines. The Tomb Raider 2 outline I did was 56 pages, which is basically half the movie already written. I do that work there, so that when I can get to the draft, the draft happens in like a week and a half. I’ve just got to go put it in order so you can read it, but it’s done.
AH: As a showrunner, unlike when she’s feature-writing, Misha will often have a writers room to help devise a season of TV – where the plot will go, the big surprises in store, the emotional journeys its characters will embark on over the next however-many episodes. Having collaborators around her change doesn’t really change the end goal for Misha, which is creating a story that goes to uncomfortable places in search of something truthful and real – that Zadie Smith thing. Her job in the room, she says, is often just ushering people in that direction.
MG: The way I like to work in a writer's room, it can be a push-pull. Because I like to move towards the scary thing. Not everyone likes to move towards the scary thing. There can be a little back and forth because [some people are] like, “I don't want to go there. I don't want to do that.” Whereas I always want to go there. Let's go. I'm like: “Ooh, you did something. What was that? Let's explore it. Talk about it.” I like the secrets. I like the things that we don't want to talk about. I want to excavate those things. It's uncomfortable until you start doing it all the time. And then you're like: “Oh, it's not that uncomfortable.” You know to recognize it. I feel like I know now to be like: “Oh, yep. That's it. That. Now let's go in that direction.” Then it becomes exciting for me. That's one of the things too in the writer's room. I'm always like: “What did you just say? Go deeper. What is that? What just happened there? That was something.” That's intriguing to me.” That's the mystery, the investigation. That's where we're all Agatha Christie. I'm [always] like: “Ooh, tell me more about that. That weird little thing that's probably not that weird. It’s probably universal and we just don't acknowledge it.”
AH: Still to come – why Misha writes chronologically, tearing through scenes at a fast pace then fixing later, why at every point in her story she’s asking “are the stakes high enough for my characters?” and the screenwriting rule she loves to break again and again. But first, a word about Arc Studio Pro.
AH: Screenwriting to me is all about immersion. I want to stay immersed in that 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, 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. 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.
AH: Something you need to know about Misha is that she writes chronologically. Not all writers do. But for Misha, there’s something logical about beginning with page 1 and moving through the story as your audience is going to experience it. Oh and speaking of page 1 – if you want to read a masterclass in grabbing your audience’s attention with the opening page of the script, I heartily recommend tracking down her pilot for Lovecraft Country which features, on page one, Jackie Robinson hitting a giant tentacled monster with a baseball bat in the middle of a violent warzone. All on page one. If that doesn’t get your audience’s attention, nothing will.
MG: What do you have to achieve on that first page? Get the person to turn the page to the next page. You know what I mean? For Lovecraft Country, I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to say, this is not going to be what you think. I think that was my aim there was to say, this is the treatise for the show. We're going to do a lot of crazy shit and you're going to be on board and here we go.
AH: From that moment on, Misha is constantly making sure that there is real jeopardy to her story – that her characters aren’t invincible heroes inoculated from harm. She wants her protagonist to suffer. For the stakes to feel real. As Misha puts it: “if it’s bad for the character, it’s good for the audience.”
MG: At least for me, I always want that intensity. I always want it to feel different. Like, if it's not feeling dangerous – I watched a ton of blockbusters in prep for writing [Tomb Raider 2] because that's another thing I do is I write, watch movies in the realm of what I'm doing. And I was like: “Where's the danger? Where's the real stakes? It’s just a bunch of superheroes who you know are never going to get hurt. Nothing is ever going to happen for them.” And I feel like for me, I'm always looking for that place of how do we make sure we understand that this is dangerous, that you could lose your life, that the stakes are the highest, and that it's never going to just be, “everything is working out. Yaaay!”
AH: When it comes to writing scenes, one thing you’ll notice if you read Misha’s screenplays, is she’s not afraid to be descriptive in her scene descriptions. She really paints a picture in a way that isn’t always encouraged in screenwriting books and classes. In her Lovecraft Country scripts, she’ll often describe “fear clinging to” a character or a look on someone’s face that’s “as serious as a heart attack.” The screenwriting world is full of people who’ll wag their fingers at you for writing quote-unquote “unfilmables” into your scripts – anything that’s not a literal action. But for Misha, little moments of literary flair take you somewhere. They establish a mood. It’s an exercise in screenwriting rule-breaking that she learned from a surf action heist movie classic – Point Break. But that wasn’t the only script that changed her life and moulded her into the writer she is today.
MG: The Point Break script [is] fucking amazing. It has lines like “vampire morning.” You're just like: “I know what a vampire morning looks like!” That was one of the first scripts where I was like: “oh, we're doing more than saying: ‘two people in a room…’” The Lost scripts [meanwhile] were the first time that I realised there [could be] cursing. I was like: “Ooh, you can curse in scripts in action descriptions!? You can be like, “it's fucking amazing” in the action description?! I want that! I love that!” Also, the Alien script – the way that Walter Hill wrote that script, you're just like: “Oh… you can do whatever the fuck you want! We [talk about] screenwriting format and yes, you should assimilate that, but then you have to make it your own. When I first started out, people were like: “You're really writing a lot in your scripts. You don't have to write this much.” And I'm like: “Okay, but I've seen what your episodes look like, and I've seen what my episodes look like. So I'm-a keep doing that.”
AH: Once Misha has written a first draft, usually in just a week or two because so much of the creative heavy lifting was done in outlining, she’ll start rewriting. That rewriting process kind of never ends.
MG: Someone once said that writing is rewriting. And I do think that's the thing. A lot of people go: “Okay, I've got this draft – let's make a movie!” And I’m like: “Uh huh – on the 50th version of this draft, we'll make a movie.” I don't think there's a done. There's never a done. You finish the script and then you go into production and then you redo what you're doing in editing. It's all a process of writing. You're making a movie three times when you finish a script to go into production, in production then in the editing room. So it's always continuous and then you put it out in the world and then you're like: “Oh, well now it's out in the world. Is it done? I don't know if it's done, but it's out in the world now. We don't have any more time.”
AH: If you’re listening to this, the likelihood is you already know that the process of writing and rewriting can be hard, as you try desperately to make the plot and characters sparkle as brightly as possible on the page. Misha says that she knows that feeling well but that it’s a process she can’t help but love anyway. There’s a magic to creating characters, getting to know them intimately and gradually discovering that they’re beginning to write the story with you – directing you where your script needs to go next. It’s something she says that as writers, it’s important to remind ourselves of.
MG: I love to write. I can write all day. I can break story all day. That's my favorite part. It's everything. After that, I'm like: “Oh, do we have to do this part? Like, can we not?” Because that was the fun part. The magic of seeing it come alive on the page, when the characters really start talking to you and you're just like: “This is great. That's so funny what you just said.” That's my favorite part. That's the joy in it for me.
AH: So what’s the feeling at the end of all this? When a script is finished, and when Misha has brought it to life onscreen – she’s a talented director as well as writer, but that’s a story for another podcast – what’s the emotion for her? Having gone to “the scary place” as she puts it – the part of herself that’s uncomfortable but contains an important truth – does Misha experience catharsis when a show like Lovecraft Country airs?
MG: I think I got extensive catharsis. It was short-lived because I think that Lovecraft at the end of the day turned out to – because you're moving through it and you're working through it. It turned out to be a lot about rage. And so I think there was a lot of catharsis on the rage side of that and the rage of generational trauma of what it means to be black in America. But then at the same time, you in Lovecraft and you're like, they still kind of won. Like, like they still kind of won. So it's, it's, it's, it's a short-lived catharsis, but you move through it a, you keep, you keep molding the story and letting it see where it takes you. I want only for conversation to happen because what's, what's the point of doing it. If we're not doing that, you know, if it's art, it's about conversation, it's about what it evokes in you and what new things are spoken because of that. But is it cathartic? It depends on if you get the answer you want, right. [laughs]
AH: Misha Green is a writer, director and producer whose credits include HBO’s Lovecraft Country and WGN’s Underground. Her other credits include Heroes, Sons of Anarchy, an upcoming Netflix action thriller titled The Mother and Tomb Raider 2, which as someone who grew up playing those games, I am personally very hyped about. 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.