Pamela Gray, screenwriter of Conviction and A Walk on the Moon, among other credited and non-credited work
For Chapter 7 of Moving Images — titled From Page to Screen – the Close-Up Interview offers insights and perspectives from screenwriter Pamela Gray. Gray’s first major feature film credit was for a story that had deep autobiographical roots for her: A Walk on the Moon. This movie featuring Viggo Mortensen, Diane Lane, and Anna Paquin was the directing debut for Tony Goldwyn and has the distinction of ranking in top 10 lists of most romantic movies ever. Her most recent major credit is the highly lauded script for the movie Conviction based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, also directed by Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell. Among her other credits are Music of the Heart (an “inspirational teacher” movie directed by horror expert Wes Craven!) and teleplays for such shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation.
You began your writing career as a poet. What inspired you to start writing screenplays?
A few years after getting a Master’s in Poetry Writing, I began noticing a shift in the content of my poems. I was losing interest in writing about my own experiences, and I started to write about – and write as – other people. My poems were turning into monologues or character studies, whether based on people I knew, imagined characters, or people I’d read about in newspapers, saw in photos, etc. At the same time, I was yearning for a larger canvas as a writer. My poems felt like disconnected quilt pieces, and I wanted to work on a whole quilt. I began writing plays, and while I loved the creative process, I still had one other dilemma to solve: how would I make a living as a writer? I could not find the answer until I took a sit-com writing class just for “fun.” Suddenly I realized that I wanted to be a Hollywood writer.
A Walk on the Moon, directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Viggo Mortensen, Diane Lane, and Anna Paquin
Describe one of your original screenplays. What was the inspiration for the story? Did the initial idea evolve much during the writing process?
The Blouse Man (the winning Goldwyn script) is set in a Catskill Mountains bungalow colony (a working-class Jewish resort) during the summer of ‘69, and tells the story of a Jewish housewife who has an affair with a hippie. Her awakening and transformation impact her marriage and her children, especially her fourteen-year-old daughter who’s coming-of-age.
My inspiration was my own history of spending all my childhood and early adolescent summers in bungalow colonies, and as an adult looking back, I was fascinated by a world that very few people knew about. During the week, it was only women and children, and the husbands/fathers came up from New York City for the weekends. In addition, while the tumultuous Sixties were going on, the bungalow colony world seemed to be trapped in the Fifties. I had a vivid memory of watching hippies pass the bungalow colony on their way to Woodstock during the summer of ’69, and I wanted to create a family story set against the backdrop of these colliding worlds.
In all the years of rewriting – up to and including production – the initial idea remained the same.
Describe a screenplay that you wrote as a work-for-hire, based on someone else’s idea or early draft. How did that creative process work?
I was given a one-line idea by a studio executive, and asked to write a screenplay based on that idea. I began by creating the main characters, figuring out the world they lived in, what they wanted, what their obstacles would be to achieving their individual goals, and I did the same for the secondary characters. I was then able to start thinking about a way to turn that idea into a story with three acts, and I brainstormed the story beats without really developing them in detail.
I had to “pitch” these ideas and characters to my producers and executives, and then incorporate their suggestions until they agreed I was ready to write the screenplay. Once I was writing the script, and the characters were coming to life, I was essentially writing an original screenplay that resulted from my own vision and imagination.
Conviction, directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell
What are the most important facets in creating a good story for the screen? Do you think those aspects are the same for features and short movies?
Beginning writers often don’t know what their story is, what it’s about, who it’s about, who their characters are, what their characters want, and what actions those characters will take to reach their goals. Writers also need to know what obstacles their characters will face, how they’ll deal with those obstacles, and how they’ll ultimately succeed or fail in reaching their original goal or a different goal that developed during the journey.
Beginning writers often start scripting before they’ve taken the time to clarify the story and to fully develop their characters. This has a detrimental affect on the story structure as a whole. The script meanders, and individual scenes don’t move the story forward; they’re often too long, too wordy, and lacking in conflict.
Beginning writers often rely upon dialogue instead of action and visuals to tell the story and move it forward -– and the dialogue itself doesn’t sound like it’s spoken by specific, individual characters. There’s often “on-the-nose” dialogue, lacking in nuance and sub-text, or dialogue that just states exposition, rather than organically incorporating exposition in interesting, subtle ways.
Whether the screenplay is full-length or for a short film, writers need to take the time to do the preparation outlined above. Rushing through a script will ultimately get in the way of the writer’s goal to create a great screenplay.
Directors, actors, editors, and other members of the production team all have a hand in shaping the story on the screen. How do you see the screenwriter fitting into the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process?
The ideal way for the screenwriter to fit is to have a good collaboration with the director from the start. Whether the two are working together to develop a new script or to improve a script that’s heading for production, this bond will make it possible for the film to incorporate both the original vision of the screenwriter, and the vision that the director brings to the project.
In the best-case scenario, the screenwriter’s opinions are included through pre-production – the director would welcome their thoughts about casting and include the writer in all rehearsals. The writer would also be welcome to share thoughts on art design, props, wardrobe, hair and makeup. Most importantly, the writer would be on the set throughout the production. At that stage of the game, the story is now in the hands of the director, but in an ideal world, the screenwriter would be there to rewrite scenes that aren’t working, to hear actors’ suggestions and requests for changes, and to make adjustments to scenes if the need arises during the course of production (changes in location, weather, scene length, actor’s schedules, etc.)
The screenwriter and the director should have an ongoing dialogue throughout the filmmaking process – albeit one in which the writer respects the director’s vision and understands that it is now the director who has creative control over the script. The director can benefit from the writer’s ideas, especially because the writer continues to hold a vision of the work as a whole, while the director is faced with so many immediate demands that it’s sometimes not possible to focus beyond the scene being shot at that moment.
The screenwriter and the director should continue their dialogue during the post-production process. After the director and editor collaborate to create a rough cut and an early cut of the film, the screenwriter should be invited to give input in the continuing evolution of the film – and that input should be taken seriously, whether or not the director decides to make changes based on the screenwriter’s suggestions.
I have been fortunate to have two such collaborations with director Tony Goldwyn, but I’m sorry to say that this is a rare occurrence. More often than not, the screenwriter is cut out of the process before production begins.
What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your screenwriting endeavors?
As a professional screenwriter, I am constantly challenged by my inability to retain control of my screenplays. It’s devastating to pour my heart, soul, and sometimes years of work into a screenplay that doesn’t get produced. It’s also heartbreaking to be “fired” off a project and to watch my baby be handed over to someone else to rewrite.
Once a screenplay is produced, it’s extremely difficult to watch directors, producers, and/or studio executives make changes that I find detrimental to the film. (This challenge also comes up during the development process, when I’m told that have to incorporate script changes I don’t agree with.)
And just when you think that you’ve experienced all the ways that screenwriting can break your heart, you can lose credit in a Writers’ Guild arbitration. You are erased: your name is taken off the poster, the DVD, the reviews – and you might even have to see the credited writer receive awards for a script that is partially –or significantly – the result of your work. You see your contributions on the screen (if you have the guts even to watch the film) but no one knows you have anything to do with those contributions. Even if you don’t like the finished film and feel a little relief that people don’t know you were part of the process, you will steal feel lousy every time you see the DVD in a store, or the film on television, and get reminded that, as an uncredited writer, you will not receive any residuals.
Pamela Gray with Betty Anne Waters, whose story is told in Conviction
What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in writing for motion pictures?
While it’s definitely thrilling to see the name of my film on a marquee, and to watch people walk into a theater with tickets to the movie I wrote, I find production to be the most exhilarating part of the process. For the first time, you’re watching the word become flesh. Those movie moments you’ve lived with in your head are suddenly ALIVE. You find yourself standing on sets that were just one-dimensional images in your mind; you’re hearing actors say words that you alone spoke out loud in front of your computer. And if you’re fortunate to have wonderful actors and a great director, you get to see an enhanced, improved expression of your creative vision.
Despite the heartache and struggles that this career can bring, I keep writing screenplays because of my desire to see my work produced, and to have my vision inform the finished film. What keeps me going is my love of the craft of screenwriting; patience and persistence; the ability to handle despair; my belief in my own skill and talent; and my passion to tell stories.
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