A new audio series asks filmmakers like Joe Cornish and Stephen Merchant to dissect their first screenplays. BFI NETWORK's George Rogers speaks with creator Al Horner
Script Apart is a new podcast that focuses on the evolution of the screenplay; how the original drafts we never see become the movies we can’t wait to see. For each episode, a different screenwriter discusses early versions of their eventual screenplay and the ups and downs of writing for the big screen. So far, the podcast has featured Joe Cornish, Stephen Merchant and David Hayter, each offering their own unique insight and experiences, from realising a singular vision to telling a true-life story, to adapting existing source material. Script Apart succeeds in breaking down the art of storytelling while making screenwriting seem more accessible, and is a fascinating and valuable new resource for aspiring writers.
I spoke to the host of Script Apart, journalist and screenwriter, Al Horner…
Firstly, why podcasting? What was it about the medium that appealed to you and how have you found the experience of establishing a brand-new podcast?
I have been asking myself the same question: ‘why am I going into podcasting!?’ a lot over the last couple of weeks. It is definitely a learning curve, let’s put it that way. In terms of the genesis of it, first and foremost I listen to so many podcasts, it’s a medium that I love. As a writer, I do so many interviews and take quotes and thread them into a free-flowing story, but there is something I love about conversation, and I love that with a podcast, you are able to keep that conversation intact.
With Script Apart you focus on the screenwriting process, from the first draft onwards. Why did you choose to concentrate on how a screenplay evolves on your show?
For the last 18 months or so I’ve been writing screenplays, and through failing over and over again, I’ve come to really appreciate the magic of storytelling and screenwriting. It's made me think, ‘I wonder what the state of some of my favourite movies’ first drafts were?’ I wondered what the process was for writers, tightening up their initial splurge of ideas, and how that ended up becoming the film that everyone knows and loves today?
I went down a bit of a rabbit hole, searching all over the internet for first drafts, and some that I found were really fascinating. One of the first ones I came across was an early draft of The Truman Show that was a completely different film; it was way darker, was set in New York and at one point Truman tries to drown his wife in a bathtub! It was insanely different and dark and weird. I was really interested in how it went from point A to point B.
I’ve always loved story. I was quite keen to do something that gave a little bit of recognition to a part of the filmmaking process that films can’t exist without, but that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.
How have the writers you’ve spoken to for the podcast responded to journeying back in time by looking at their original drafts?
There have been some guests on where they've said, ‘Oh God! Please delete this straight after you read it!’ but then there are some that like owning the process, and I think they remember the labour that went into breaking the story and turning it into the finished product. One of the guests that we have coming up worked on their screenplay for nine years, it went through so many iterations. They had a folder with, I think, 23 versions, all very different. Everyone who has agreed to come on has been awesome about showing their vulnerability and demystifying the process.
Who are your dream guests for the show?
The wish list is long! The idea for the podcast did start with: ‘I want to interview Andrew Niccol about that first draft of The Truman Show,' so he is someone that would be up there in terms of bringing the whole thing full circle. My list of filmmakers and screenwriters I admire is pretty nuts, we are in conversation at the moment with some people that fall into the ‘dream come true’ category.
I was lucky enough to meet Francis Ford Coppola last year and he was one of the most generous people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing, just so revelatory and entertaining in his discussion of the fabric of film and storytelling, so he is someone who would be an absolute dream to get back together with… round two with Coppola!
Lastly, I’m wondering if you could let us in on one or two of the best pieces of advice you have received so far on Script Apart. What have you discovered about screenwriting through your interviews?
In every single episode there is a revelation! Something new that makes complete sense, and I can’t believe that I hadn’t considered before and that I know I will factor into my own writing when I’m working on future projects. I found the episode with Joe Cornish very helpful in terms of how vital it is to really do your homework; the underlining of how important and useful research is because it gives you the essential building blocks to go on from.
Also, Stephen Merchant made the point that there is a lot to be said for looking for stories in places you wouldn’t otherwise normally look, keeping yourself open to stories wherever you may find them instead of boxing yourself in. He ended up finding themes in Fighting with My Family that he had spent his entire career writing about. You often find really rich stories that, as an outsider, you can bring a new perspective to.
Al Horner is a freelance film journalist and screenwriter who, to use his own phrase, ‘has prose in different area codes.’ He has written for the Guardian, BBC, Empire and Little White Lies to name but a few.
You can listen to Script Apart here.