How To Make a Movie About a Writer
by Carrie Hoffman and Rusty W. Spell

The Writer

The writer should probably be a man. He should definitely look bookish. He should wear glasses—round and/or dark, assumed to be thick. His clothing should be in bland shades of khaki or olive, unless the writer wears all black like a beatnik. Make sure he wears wool jackets with leather patches on the elbows. He probably shouldn’t have a full beard. Perhaps give him a goatee, but he should definitely have scraggly whiskers because he is sort of unkempt and rumpled-looking.

He drinks lots of coffee and smokes, optionally but preferably an alcoholic.

He should live in New York City, where all writers live. His apartment is squalid, even if he’s a "successful" writer, success in quotes since all writers are by nature struggling.

The writer reads a lot (though not as much as he writes), so the apartment is full of books, old-looking ones, filling bookcases, stacked in the hallway by the staircase. Messy stacks, with no seeming order. Your writer’s apartment, like his clothing, should be more or less messy, though he should claim that the organization is in his head, getting upset when anyone tries to arrange his seeming non-order. All of this demonstrates the writer’s difference from other "normal people" the writer doesn’t follow convention. He is a misfit, possibly a curmudgeon, and lives a life of solitude. Also, because the writer is so busy with his bustling ideas and with his incessant writing, he simply doesn’t have time or patience for things like "vacuums" or "dusting" or "tidiness" that normal people care about.

The Problem

The writer will have already sold his novel/screenplay to someone very important, even though he hasn’t written a word of it, and probably doesn’t have an idea of what it’s going to be about. Because people just buy things that don’t exist, which is how the writing world works. The writer’s struggle isn’t with getting published, but with writing something after someone has solicited it.

The important person or writer’s agent will call, and there will be lunch meetings—these must happen at lunch. The important person will praise the writer highly for his craft even though the important person probably knows little about the writer. The writer will assure everyone involved that yes, yes, yes, it is going very well, though of course it is not.

The other part of the problem might be that the important person wants him to write something "commercial," where the writer wants to write something important and artistic. The writer knows that commercial is bad and artistic is good.

The Location

In early scenes, the writer may have tried to write in a dirty notebook while at a coffee shop, and he may have gone to a park and sat under a tree to write, possibly with a fountain pen, but these things didn’t work out for him. The writer will realize that he can’t write in the busy city of New York, so he will decide he needs to "get away from it all" and go somewhere peaceful. Possible locations might include the country, the beach, a cabin in the woods, or anywhere he can lock himself away in a room with a window in front of the typewriter. Distractions from real life are always bad, since writing comes solely from the mind.

However, the writer will find new distractions in his new locations. At first, he will scream at these distractions – maybe at first it’s the noisy hoot owls in the woods or the hotel clerks on the beach – saying that he "just wants some peace and quiet to finish his book!"

The Agony

Writers are almost always in agony, but they are especially in agony when they have a deadline, and they are most especially in agony when they have writer’s block, which they get every time there is a deadline.

The audience will be aware of this particular agony because the writer is constantly staring at a blank sheet of paper in his typewriter, perhaps sweating.

(Important note: Do not – do not – give the writer a computer. In fact, make the typewriter particularly old-fashioned. Writers are old-fashioned people who detest technology. This typewriter should match with the dusty, yellowed, earmarked, note-filled books.)

You should show the writer attempting to write the first sentence over and over again, with close-ups on the white, grainy paper, and super-close-ups of the individual letters. This will demonstrate the importance of each letter to the writer, showing how utterly difficult it is to write.

Instead of saving paper by crossing out the bad sentence and starting the new sentence on the next line, the writer will rip out and ball up the paper each time he gets the sentence wrong. He will show a great amount of emotion each time he tears the paper out, and the audience will see the frustration in his face. He takes writing very seriously. He cannot write a bad sentence.

The writer will throw the balled-up paper toward – but not in – the trash can. The paper will end up on the hardwood floor near the trash can, and you should show dissolves of the paper building. Occasionally, instead of staring at the new blank paper, the writer will stare at the balls of paper as if staring at his own failure.

If you feel the writer needs to say something, it’s not a bad idea to have him talk to himself. He might say, "The first sentence is the hardest. I just have to get that first sentence." Every writer knows how critical the first sentence is.

The Community

Writing is all about having ideas, and it is terrible to run out of ideas. Luckily, your writer thinks, other artists exist who your writer can talk to. They will inspire him, he thinks. Even more than writing being about ideas, writing is about being inspired.

The writer may have a particular mentor, an older and established writer he admires and has befriended or an old college professor. Like the writer, these people should also be men. The mentor should be played by someone with the physical presence of James Earl Jones, and actually you might as well go ahead and cast James Earl Jones—Kevin Kline will do in a pinch. The writer visits his mentor, and the mentor will be stern with him, but also helpful, saying inspiring things about the importance of writing. During this scene, the writer will think that the mentor makes it sound so easy when it is so hard.

The writer may also visit friends who don’t have to be writers, but do have to be artists. They meet at outdoor cafes for coffee and talk about books they like. You might have them talk about Proust or Joyce. They can talk about each others’ writing, but they shouldn’t talk about other contemporary writers, since real writers read only old books. Together they may recite certain lines from famous poems by Yeats or Shakespeare or Milton, perhaps something about the sun or the stars. The artist-friend may start the quotation, speaking like an actor with a fake British accent, and the writer will interrupt to finish it. This tells your audience that all writers memorize the great, classical works that inspire them. They may also talk about philosophy, which they like because it is about ideas. But mostly your writer will be pretending to enjoy the company of his friends, when in reality he loathes them and their abundance of ideas. He thinks many of them are phony, and perhaps that they are poseurs.

Your writer doesn’t have any non-artist friends because normal people don’t understand him. Occasionally normal people will approach the writer in public, maybe for an autograph or to tell him how much they like him, and the writer will pacify them like the dull thinkers they are.

From time to time, however, the writer will use normal people as an opportunity to expound on his art and why he is a writer and why it is important. Typically, the normal person will tell the writer how they like romance books, or thrillers, or that they don’t like reading at all. The author will sometimes be at odds with himself during these conversations if he’s supposed to be writing a commercial book instead of an artistic one, since he feels as lowly as the normal person.

The Solution

The writer's block is remedied by a number of occurrences. Ironically, the writer finds that the things and people who were most distracting to him when he first arrived at his new location are now the people and things that solve his problem.

Because the writer will meet someone – a woman usually, falling in love usually – that will spark his ideas. At first, she will seem the largest distraction to his work, but he will eventually think of her as his muse, and they will go on romantic adventures in this beautiful new locale. If he is in the woods, they will hike. If he is at the beach, they will horseplay in the water and we will see the writer’s playful, less intense side. He will become a tenderhearted and sensitive writer. Not being so before was his problem all along.

Furthermore, in the writer’s conversations with the normal people he runs into, the writer will realize that his lofty ideas are perhaps too lofty, and in talking to the common man, the writer will be inspired to write for and about the common man, which allows him to marry commerce and art with a clean conscience.

The combination of his new love and his new approach toward his work has solved the problem, and now the writer has plenty of material because of his recent experiences. He will go home to his hardwood floors and his typewriter and he will write, write, write—about exactly what happened to him, with him as the central character, with the woman as his love interest, sprinkling all the local color of the characters about town, using his now-pompous artistic friends as villains.

At this point, you should use similar shots from the agony scenes. Only this time, he is sweating from excitement. And this time, instead of balls of wadded-up paper, sheets of paper will dissolve into each other, forming a huge stack on the desk next to his typewriter. The writer is flying. He writes like the wind. Nothing can stop him. The sentences are perfect. Which is good, because that deadline of his was the next day and the important people had been breathing down his neck, not much being nice to him anymore.

Your writer should finish his manuscript at midnight or some late night hour, maybe even early in the morning because he was so excited about his ideas that he forgot about sleeping. We will see him typing "THE END" in the now-established close-up shots of letters hitting paper. He smiles at these words, and takes the page out of the typewriter, adds it to his stack. This stack should be very tall, made up of at least two reams of paper, and your audience will understand that it is a great work because all great works are long. There’s no need for the writer to read over the stack or revise it, since his opus is perfect as it is.


If you want your movie to be all-around happy, have an epilogue demonstrating that everyone loved his work and now the writer continues writing one successful work after another, marrying his romantic interest.

If you prefer endings that demonstrate a more bittersweet realism concerning writers’ lives, have the people for whom he was writing the novel/screenplay hate the work, claiming it still wasn’t commercial enough or happy enough or that the studio passed on the idea or something similar. However, your writer by this point has arrived at an inner peace with himself and doesn’t need this particular project after all. In this version too, he should marry his romantic interest.

And if you can’t get James Earl Jones or Kevin Kline, there’s always David Ogden Stiers.

Copyright 11 Jul 2003 We Like Media.
You may email Carrie Hoffman and Rusty W. Spell.