With key projects like Dope, To tell about and game changing under his belt, Danny Strong knows a thing or two about crafting the perfect headline-ripping yarn that’s sure to generate Emmy heat. Here, the writer-director-actor (what, you don’t remember him from Saved by the Bell: The New Class?) gives a five-point masterclass for budding screenwriters.
1 – Rely on the masters
Arthur Miller is one of my writing heroes, along with films by Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. These are big inspirations for me when I do these kinds of projects that are very intense and powerful, moralistic and about something. The perennial is All the President’s Men. William Goldman’s screenplay is sort of the North Star of powerful, immediate, and true stories. It’s extremely tense and feels like a thriller without really having those thriller beats. Those four are definitely my biggest influences.
2 – Avoid “vaguely inspired” tales
I think the audience is convinced that this is not a word-for-word, moment-by-moment reconstruction of what is really going on. But I think the execution still needs to feel anchored or they won’t buy it at all. I refer specifically to true stories. The second you undermine that sense of what really happened, even if it’s dramatized, it undermines the whole play. I just watched a true story – I won’t name it – that was executed in a heightened way where they really wanted to make it fun and not make you feel like that’s what actually happened . It is an intensified and dramatic account of events. I enjoyed it very much. But he lost the sense of dramatic tension because he had this foundation of entertainment versus reality.
3 – Don’t sweat the little things
I’m not a perfectionist at all. I know I will rewrite a script 50 times, which I do. And then even on set, I don’t mind that the actors sometimes change the dialogue or it gets a little sloppy, as long as they don’t make it worse, and they usually don’t. I like it when it feels a little loose. On Empire, the actors were polishing the dialogue all the time and I thought it sounded good. I don’t consider him to be generous. I just think the work is better and can give it an edge of reality. I’m in unless there’s a tough joke written in there. Next, I’d like to give the joke a chance before I start tweaking things.
4 – Remember what Jay Roach said
It was something he told me about To tell about and game changingevery time he got nervous in preparation, and that was still preparation. This seems like the most nerve-wracking time, because once you’re on set and you start going, you go, right? So it’s no longer theoretical, you actually do it. But Jay kept saying, “Screenplay and cast. Screenplay and cast. This idea that in the end, all that matters is the script and the actors. This is going to be the heart and soul of your piece. I’ve always really liked that.
5 – Stick to your strengths
I don’t think I would do a good job on a horror movie. It’s not really my jam, which is a shame because I’m very good friends with Jason Blum. But I have nothing to give him on the horror movie front. Fortunately, he also does prestige dramas, so I’m working with Jason there.