Oscar nominee Will Collins says there is only one way he finds writing fun. He writes in 15 minute time chunks. He breaks down how he wrote his critically acclaimed film (which received a 99% Rotten Tomatoes rating), Wolfwalkers.
WC: A big part of my process is I work in fifteen minutes chunks. I set a timer and I write for fifteen minutes. And when that timer goes off, I stop because if I don't work that way and I stay writing for an hour, I become exhausted. So what I do is I give myself little mini breaks and it allows me a chance to kind of refresh and regroup – then two or three minutes later, I'll just go right back into it and do another 15 minutes. The work seems much more manageable when I break it up into small little chunks. There's no way I can contain an entire film in my head. There's no way I think I could ever write a screenplay if I thought I had to do it. It's a strange thing. But if you told me to write a screenplay for 15 minutes? I'll do that easily. For me, discipline comes 15 minutes at a time. Because I can't handle discipline beyond 15 minutes – but I can trick myself...
AH: That’s Will Collins – a screenwriter from Donegal, Ireland who last year wrote his way to an Oscar nomination, one quarter of an hour burst of creativity at a time. If you saw Wolfwalkers, the gripping and beautiful story of a girl in seventeenth century Ireland who befriends a tribe of magical wolves, you’ll know all about Will’s timeless storytelling style, blending dreamlike fantasy with grounded emotion and coming-of-age introspection. What you might not know about him is that, everything Will does, he approaches in fifteen minute chunks: whether that’s scene work, character creation or a writing ritual he does each morning to get his creative juices flowing.
WC: I try to, you know, plug in a period of fifteen minutes slots in the morning where I can just free-write for fifteen minutes. I start a story just as prose, then I come back and continue that story for 15 minutes. Then I'll do it again the third day and the fourth and fifth day. By the end of the fifth day, I have a little weird short story written just all in fifteen minute chunks. It might be completely weird but it’s a great creative exercise just to, I suppose, mine whatever is going on in my subconscious and let it pour out. Usually it's just for me and it's completely private, but sometimes in those little quiet moments, uh, some gems are going to be found there as well, you know? So, yeah – the mini sprints. That's how I survive.
AH: I’m Al Horner, and coming up on How I Write, a podcast about the highs, lows and workflows of screenwriting – Will Collins explains why his best work often comes in those bleary-eyed moments right after he’s woken up, the trick he stole from Stephen King that unlocked a new way of working for him, the single post-it note that keeps him ontrack in his storytelling and how a movie like Wolfwalkers is written – from outline to the finish line.
WC: ...invariably when I get to the end, I visualize myself as a marathon runner crossing that tape and the finish line, and I collapse right onto the track. I don't even use my hands to protect myself – I fall and just get scraped and bruised. [laughs]
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 those guys later – but now, with no further adieu…
WC: I’m Will Collins… and this is How I Write.
WC: I love writing animation because you can let your imagination go wild. In the case of Wolfwalkers, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I'd be writing an action-adventure, coming-of-age gothic horror set in 1650s Ireland. And for it to be realized in such a dramatic way.
AH: Dramatic is one way of putting it. How else would you describe the way Wolfwalkers wowed the world in 2020, becoming an against the odds rival to Pixar hits like Soul and Onward for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the film – by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon – benefitted from a magical screenplay in which, as Will explains, he was able to let his imagination flow, completely unrestricted. But how do you begin writing a movie like Wolfwalkers? What are the practical steps, the daily routine that Will takes when he sits down to write a script?
WC: I think the time just before you go to sleep and the time just after you wake up are these magical twilight hours where your subconscious is completely awake and your adult, logical mind is kind of going to sleep. That's also where the devil can do dangerous things and kinda crazy thoughts enter heads. Sometimes if you're looking and you're a creative person – for me, I know I'm quite often preoccupied by story problems. So what I do if I'm really stuck on something – I will make sure it's the last thing I think about before you go to sleep.
And I really concentrate on a particular specific story problem. I make sure when I get up in the morning, I try to focus on that problem and see what comes out. A certain degree of free-flow happens. Usually I come up with some interesting ideas and I'll definitely come up with one solution. It might not be the right solution. But there's something magical that happens at night when your brain is still ticking over and kind of trying to solve these problems that produces some sort of solution the next morning. So yeah, for me, the early hours are particularly important.
AH: I should mention at this point that Will is speaking from a bright pink ocloured room. This it transpires is where the magic happens. This is his writing room, and his current set-up is inspired by one of his writing heroes: Stephen King.
WC: My writing space, I took Stephen King's advice – I started off with say an office that was in a room overlooking a window and had a beautiful view of the valley and out the window we're looking down on a gorgeous valley. I was positioned there and I realized that I spent half my time just looking out the window and just, you know, going: “isn't that pretty? Oh, there's a hawk up there!”
I remember I read Stephen King's wonderful book on writing, and he said he had a similar problem, but he just positioned his typewriter or computer up against the wall. And he just faces a wall and he's focused on the screen. His focus should be on the text. And now that's where I am – I'm just facing a wall. So just give me something to write with and give me my headphones so I can, you know, drown out the noise and I’ll write, you know, anywhere I can be.
AH: Some screenwriters’ working spaces, and I’m talking from experience here, look kind of like that meme of Charlie from Always Sunny In Philadelphia. You’ll know the one I mean, even if you haven’t seen the show – a guy with a frenzied look on his face stands in front of a giant wall of paper, post-it notes and connecting lines. It is a scene of total, conspiratorial insanity. That’s not the case for Will who has one single post-it note pinned up next to his computer. It’s an important one – three words that keep him anchored to a storytelling philosophy he swears by.
WC: I have one post-it note on my wall and it's a quote that I stole from Neil Gaiman. It simply says: “what happens next?” If I'm not telling a story that creates the sense in an audience of wanting to know what happens next, then I'm doing something wrong. So that's kind of my goal when trying to fashion a story, I'm trying to make sure this is creating that sense of well, “what happens next to these people? Am I interested enough to continue on this journey?” That's a kind of principle that I like. It's still sticking in front of my face right now. As a matter of fact, it's been there for a few years. Eventually the glue will wear off. I'm sure. But yeah, that's what I have right now.”
AH: So that’s where Will works. But a huge percentage of writing has nothing to do at all with being sat at your desk, putting words on paper, Will explains. At the start of projects, he likes to get away from where he works and mingle in the real world. That’s where inspiration lies and where truth lies – the way people interact, the things they want, their fears, their desires. All that good stuff that you want to feed into your story, no matter how fantastical its plot or setting.
WC: When I'm looking for new ideas for projects, I used to look in the wrong places and the wrong places are what's happening in the marketplace. What's popular, what's happening? What are people interested in? What are producers looking for? And that will lead you nowhere. And that certainly led me nowhere for a while. I've since learned that the place where original ideas are born is in the real world. It's around you. It's always in some place, that's not a film, not a book you've read. It's an idea. It's something that's happened in your neighborhood. It's something that someone said someplace, or maybe it's something you've seen in a documentary or what, basically something that captures my interest and usually.
I try to catalog these. I'll try and journal these. I'll try and put them down, and sometimes these ideas just stick and they kinda get under my skin. And if it gets under my skin and also triggers some sort of emotion in me, whether it be fear or anger or intrigue or whatever, some sort of strong emotion – then I know a germ of something is there. It's not an idea yet, but it's the germ of something that could become a story idea.
AH: Next up in Will’s process, he has to figure out if that germ of an idea is rich enough to sustain an entire screenplay.
WC: How I stress test ideas to see if they're rich enough to become a screenplay, is I try to frame these stories in a way from the point of view of a character. If the story I'm trying to tell has a character at the center of it, who is going through a pivotal moment in their life – like for instance, we all live long lives and as we see our own lives, it feels like we're on a train track most of the time. But when you are kind of further down the train track, sometimes you can reflect back and realize that there were certain junctions. There's certain junctions we came across and those are the moments that we are filmic. Those are the moments in people's lives that are filmic, and we all have them. They're all pivotal moments. So I look for that. I look to see if this is a turning point. If the stories that I'm trying to come up with have a turning point to describe a character's life, if there's a before and if there's an after, if there's a them before and a different them, after the events of this story – that's one thing I look for.
AH: Coming up – why Will always looks for what he refers to as the “painful truth” of his characters and why he likes to write an outline then veer off-course according to what his characters tell him on the page. But first, a word about Arc Studio Pro.
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.
WC: The most important thing, I think, when I dive into a story is if there is for me, what I call that a painful truth – something that exists in the character that they don't even know exists, or are afraid to face. The entire journey is about them opening up that chest of pain. It’s in there that there's an emotional epicenter that can really permeate through an entire story, a cinematic story.
AH: Think of your favourite movie, and the likelihood is its central character is wrestling with a painful truth, as Will calls it. This is something at the heart of the character that’s resolved by the end of the movie – an impossible internal dilemma that’s mirrored by the external adventure they’re forced on. Working out his characters’ painful truths is key to unlocking the rest of his story.
A really good one is in ET, as a matter of fact. Okay. So we all know that it’s about young Elliott, and he befriends this wonderful, magical alien creature , but ET has to go, right? Underpinning ET and the subtext of ET, is that it's very much a family drama about a child who is coming to terms with the loss, the divorce of his parents. And in my eyes, Elliott is a character that hasn't gotten over the fact that his father has left the family home. He wants to hold on to the embodiment of his father. He wants to hold on to his father and he acts out in a way – his relationship to ET becomes a kind of a surrogate relationship that he would have with his father in an unusual way.
ET says to Elliot effectively at the end of the movie, “I love you. I have to go.” And Elliot has to learn that he has to let ET go but that doesn't mean that ET - also his dad – doesn't love him. And there's a painful truth that Elliott learns in that film that he's holding onto ET. For me, that's a, maybe it might be a crude example of that, that idea, but I think the emotion is very real and it's very true. And that's one of the reasons why I feel ET is and always will be a classic tear-jerker for me.
AH: Once that painful truth has been identified, next in Will’s process is outlining.
For me, outlining is vital to the process. Now, I don't overly outline, I don't overly outline. I try and make sure I know where the film is going and where each sequence will go. I try and keep as much detail out of the outlines as possible. So I track all of the emotional journey and I track the plot beats in an outline. But if I over-outline, like go into treatment mode, sometimes you can kind of, or I can certainly, I feel like I'm partially writing the actual film before I'm writing the film and it kind of takes away from that excitement and adventure of the process of writing a screenplay. So my outlines are crucial and I will spend – actually, I would probably spend more time working on an outline than I will writing the screenplay. This is just trying to figure the thing out. Once I actually have a locked-in outline, I can write my screenplay really relatively fast. The outline for me is crucial, but I don’t like big chunky 100-page scriptments. A good sub 10 page outline is great for me.
AH: Next in Will’s process? Actually diving into some scenes. He has his outline to guide him – but it’s not something he clings to religiously.
WC: When I'm writing the actual screenplay, I'm always looking forward to what the characters are going to do when I'm in the scene, because it's all well and good planning your mission in an outline, but it's not actually going and doing it. It's not actually living the film in your head. When I’m writing a screenplay, when I'm in a scene, characters will often reveal themselves in unusual ways or surprise you when they kind of say an actual fact, I'm more interested in that. And I suppose, really, that's because I'm visualizing the film in real time. When I'm writing a scene, I'm also aware of maybe where a scene might be lacking or ways I can make a street scene stronger. As I'm writing it, I might get a new idea of like, hang on a second, you know, we shouldn't be here… In actual fact, this character is the wrong character leading the scene. So I need to totally reinvent the scene and have that character leading us.
But if my outline is strong enough, and if I know where I'm going and the overall journey of the story, then there should be wiggle room and there should be that room for adaptation and invention. That has to be there.
AH: Will may have written an Oscar-nominated movie but he still experiences the same emotions we all encounter when we sit down to write: excitement, fear, trepidation, slight nausea. It’s all part of the process, says Will.
WC: The emotional arc for me, writing a screenplay, on nearly all of my screenplays, is that the first first page is nervous. I am nervous and excited and I feel like I am an imposter and, and that I shouldn't be writing and should never have written any screenplays in my life. But once I get past the first page, the creative flow starts to kick in and I'm with it. The first act is always great. The first act is always just a joy ride, meeting these characters for the first time. I'm playful. I'm enjoying the new space. But usually when I get to around the mid act climax, in the latter part of the second act, that's when there's this doldrum kicks in. That’s where this moment of, “oh God” happens and this weight kind of drags me down and I'm like, “I'll never finish this. I'll never finish this.” But that's also why I lean on my process of writing in 15 minutes. 15 minutes at a time, because if I don't lean on that then maybe I would succumb to that sense of doldrums.
By just focusing on writing for 15 minutes at a time, it pushes me one page forward at a time. And, before I know it I'm on the other side and I'm in the final act. And then usually in the, in the final act, there is a sense of an adrenaline rush as you're in those last couple of pages and you just want to get to the end.
AH: You hear that? It all comes back to the key part of Will’s process – breaking down the overwhelming task in front of you by approaching it as fifteen minute chunks. Commit to sitting down and grappling with your story, one fifteen minute burst at a time, and eventually you’ll have your story. But you have to commit, says Will.
WC: It took me a long time to figure out what discipline was. And discipline really is consistency. That's a big thing. If you can be consistent and deliver what you're supposed to deliver when you're supposed to deliver and be consistent to yourself and your own work process, then eventually you might be successful. If not on the first script, you might be successful on the second script. If you can just keep chugging away and keep listening to your gut and, and keep improving then eventually you will find your place. So that's my two pieces of advice. Be disciplined and listen to your gut.
AH: Before we leave Will, one last question. We’ve covered how Will Collins writes. But why does he write? What is the impulse that makes him, and all writers, put themselves through that emotional wringer each time they set out on a story?
WC: Why do I write? Oh Lord. I ask myself that question almost every day. Why do I write? I think I write because it's an impulse. It's in my blood. I think that's the reason I love cinema. When I'm at a keyboard and putting words on the page, it's inherent to me. I can't describe it. It's like an impulse and it's like an affliction at times. But when I write, I always feel better. I always feel better after I've written and it elevates me, it elevates my spirits. It makes me happy. And I have just been blessed that I have a passion and a love for cinema, and I can point my, I can merge my impulse to write and my love for cinema. And they have converged into what I do know, which is a screenwriter.
AH: Will Collins is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind Wolfwalkers. His other credits include Song Of The Sea, My Brothers and a Netflix festive special called Angela's Christmas. He hosts the excellent Best Bits podcast, with fellow screenwriter co-host Kevin Lehane. Thanks for tuning it to How I Write, hosted by Al Horner, with production by Kamil Dymek, and brought to you by Arc Studio Pro. Get your free trial today at Arc Studio Pro.com. We’ll see you next time – till then, get writing.