Brit Bennett and Emily Halpern on Screenwriting’s Tips for Fiction
With Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, novelist and screenwriter Brit Bennett and television and screenwriter Emily Halpern discuss their projects and craft with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell. What is it like to adapt your own novel for the screen—for Kerry Washington? What’s it like to attend a big awards show? How can screenwriting tips apply to fiction? Which movies deserved Best Picture nominations? The episode discusses these questions and more in the run-up to the Oscars.
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Readings for this episode
The Mothers by Brit Bennett · Scandal · Trophy Wife · Carol’s Second Act (work-in-progress for CBS, by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins) · Booksmart, by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins (forthcoming in May 2019) · What Will Win Best Picture? 20 Oscar Voters Spill Their Secrets · Scriptnotes podcast · Russian Doll (Natasha Lyonne, Netflix)
Movies in Oscar discussion
Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)
Sorry To Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Congratulations on getting The Mothers made into a movie, and with Kerry Washington, who, as you know, is a favorite of mine. Can you talk to us a little bit about how that deal got done, and what it felt like to get the green light?
Brit Bennett: Yeah, I was on the book tour at the time, and some different people were interested in the rights for it. I think a lot of it came down to just the really good vibes we got from Kerry Washington and her team. It was a team of all women, which was really exciting for me, and as the process continued, it was really nice just to be able to go to these meetings and walk into a room of all women. I feel like that seems very unusual in many aspects of life, let alone Hollywood. So, yeah, a lot of it I think came down to the fact that I love Kerry Washington as an actress, and we got a lot of enthusiasm from them about the book.
Whitney Terrell: So when you say, walk into meetings, would she be there? Did you get to talk to her and hang out? I saw a picture of you two together on Instagram, but I want the backstory.
BB: I wouldn’t say hang out, but she was at many more of the meetings than I ever expected her to be. I thought—you know, her company buys the rights, and I met her and I thought—OK, that’s nice, you know, she wanted to introduce herself to me, and she has many more very important things to be doing, but she came to a lot of these meetings, she read a bunch of the drafts, she was very involved as a producer, so it was really exciting, as a fan of her work, to get to interact with her in that way. She invited my mom and me onto the set of Scandal, so we got to walk around in the sets—
WT: Oh, cool!
BB: —go through her closet and see the clothes, and everything, so she’s been awesome—
VVG: That’s amazing.
BB: —definitely one of the best parts. Yeah.
VVG: I actually can’t do the rest of the episode now because I’m dead.
WT: What does the set look like? I’ve never been on a television show set.
BB: Well, it’s funny, because I was walking with her—she actually gave us a tour while she was filming—and we walked into one of the rooms, and she was like—Oh, yeah, I don’t know whose bedroom this is. And it dawned on me, I guess if you’re in the show, you wouldn’t necessarily know each of the sets, but I immediately knew—
WT: [laughter] She hadn’t done a scene in that bedroom, so whose is it? I don’t know.
BB: —Exactly, it was like somebody’s bedroom who she would never be in. So I immediately knew, and it was so strange in that moment that I recognize this on sight, just as a fan of the show, and this person who’s the star has no idea. I got to meet the person who had written the episode, and watched them film a scene, and all of that was really exciting.
WT: So I’d be curious to know what it has been like to be working on the script. I have at least one writer friend who has successfully written a screenplay based on her own novel—Gillian Flynn is from Kansas City, but I can think of many more writing friends who’ve stayed out of the screenwriting process entirely. What made you want to be involved, or did you want to be involved?
BB: I think I came along to it very reluctantly. I had also heard from many writer friends to not adapt your own work. Very honestly, part of it was just Kerry Washington just charming me to death—because she asked me to do it, and I wasn’t going to tell her no. But then I think really, more practically, I was excited by the possibility of learning a new form of storytelling, learning a new way to construct stories, and to think about image, and all of the stuff that was so different than what I think we do as novelists, so I was excited by that possibility of learning a new skill, and getting to do it with somebody that I admired was the icing on the cake.
VVG: So you were writing script drafts and turning them in to her?
BB: Yeah, she was on the email chain. [laughter] She was on the email chain. She gave really thoughtful feedback, and had some really great ideas for it, so it was cool to be able to interact with her, and all the other producers and other people I was talking to—the studio, and all of that—in that way.
VVG: So how many people are on an email chain like that? I just don’t have any idea of the numbers. Are you getting a lot of notes from different people?
BB: So it was basically the production side, so Kerry, Natalie was the other producer I was working with—so it was that side of it, and then we had the studio, so it kind of was like a hierarchy, where it goes to the production side, and then they pass it on to the studio. So I don’t ultimately know how many people have read this, but I mostly interacted on my side, and they mostly interacted with the studio, so there’s a little bit of a buffer, I guess, perhaps to shield the writer. I don’t know the purpose of that, but that was how it worked.
WT: Is it done?
BB: Well, I mean, it’s one of these things where I think, my role has finished.
WT: Your part’s over.
Why don’t you just show them going to do the thing?
BB: My part is over. What happens after this I could not tell you. It’s up to the adaptation gods to see what happens with this project, but, yeah, my part in it is over. I was contracted to do a certain amount of work, so after this it’s up to whatever happens with the project from here on out.
VVG: That’s so interesting. So did you feel like you learned a lot about a different kind of writing, and was there a part of that that you found the hardest, or surprisingly easy?
BB: Yeah, I found it very difficult. I think the way I always thought about story prioritized language over image, and this was inverted. The thing that I think that was challenging, but also that I learned the most from, was the idea of being very efficient, because in a movie, a scene has to do five things, you know, it’s like you need to establish five things about the characters, where you are in the story, all these other things that you need that scene to do, where in the novel you can take your time. But I do think it is good to learn how to be efficient. I remember at one point one of the producers was like, you keep writing these scenes where people talk about doing something, and then they go to do the thing. Why don’t you just show them going to do the thing?
And it cut me deep, but it was also very true. So it was one of those things, now, that I’m very conscious of when I’m writing fiction. I don’t need to have people talking about going to the party and then showing them at the party. You can just get them to the party.
And that’s a thing that’s really important in screenwriting, for the sake of time, and also money, but I think it’s also very useful in the world of fiction.
VVG: Whitney, can we call this episode “Get them to the Party”?
WT: We’re going to have to find a party, Sugi, that’s the problem. So, one last question on this. We talked about your book when you were on our very first episode, and it’s a book that I enjoyed and know well, and I wondered if you could talk about any changes you had to make in order to make the book work as a movie. Very often, books do need to be changed to work in screenplay form, and part of the difficulty of writing a screenplay is being willing to make those kinds of changes.
BB: Yeah, I think that was one of the hardest parts of it. I remember this one writer who said to me, the reason why you shouldn’t adapt your own work is because they just want you to fix the flaws of the novel, and that’s what they want for the screenplay. I don’t know if I had that cynical of a reading of some of their suggestions, but definitely they wanted a really different structure, they wanted a flashback structure, so it wasn’t chronological in the way that the novel’s chronological, which you understand for a film, again, because you have a condensed amount of time, and you have to establish a lot of things—it’s about the characters, you don’t necessarily have the time to progress chronologically in the way that the book does.
BB: Structurally, that was difficult for me, because the order in which I had to present information was different, so instead of you meet this girl, and she’s a teenager, and this is where she’s going and the choices she’s making, you meet her as an adult, and it was almost like I had to think backwards through the story, so that was really challenging, and I understood why that was their suggestion, why they thought that was the way the book could work, but I think that was also a really hard thing for me to kind of rewire my brain, and rethink through this story that I had been thinking about for, you know, ten years, in a completely different way.
WT: You started in theater and television and moved to hour-long dramas, and now are writing sitcoms and films. How did you transition to writing movies, and what was that switch like on a craft level? What was it like the first time you wrote and had to pace something out longer?
Emily Halpern: The first movie I wrote was with my now-writing partner, Sarah Haskins, an incredibly talented and funny person, and I’m very lucky to write with her. She makes me say that every time I do anything.
EH: It was funny because I had written for The Unit, I was at that time writing for the show Private Practice on ABC, but was trying to make my way into comedy more, just knowing that’s where I felt most comfortable and that’s where I wanted to try and write, at least then. Sarah and I had also known each other in college, and she had been in Chicago doing improv, and was at Second City, and she moved out to L.A. to work for Current TV.
And so we wound up just connecting socially, but it was over a dinner, we were talking about—we both had a similar idea for a movie we wanted to write, which was about teenage girls in high school, and we felt like we’d seen so many movies about teen boys in high school, and they wanted to have sex, and that was always the goal, and we felt like we hadn’t seen a movie that really represented teen girls in high school.
The genesis of the idea was, having sex is negotiable, but for the girl it’s just about getting the boyfriend, so we wanted to kind of try and write a movie like that from the girl perspective, and we teamed up to do it, at the time because we just both had full-time jobs, and felt like the only way either of us was going to get it done was having somebody else to be accountable towards. And it worked. And we met up late nights after work, and on the weekends, and we were also in this early phase of our writing partnership where we were each too timid to say anything that might offend the other person, so every idea was like—sure, let’s try that, sure, let’s try that—[laughter]
I think actually neither of us was looking exactly for a writing partner. It more just happened organically.
So, we ended up with this, I think it might have been, a hundred and sixty pages. I mean, a screenplay should not—a comedy screenplay, a hundred and ten max. It was just this massive ridiculous tome, that we then had to go through and shorten, and take out the stories that weren’t working, but the whole thing was a learning experience. We just wrote everything we could think of, and then went through it, and learned to match our voices so that it wasn’t too obvious which of us had written different scenes, and bits of dialogue, and I think over the years we’ve gotten much, much better at that. We sold that movie, which is called Booksmart, which is now about to come out, so that also gives you a sense of how long it can take for a movie to go through the whole development process, because that was—I think—2009 that we wrote that movie.
VVG: It’s coming out at the end of May, right?
EH: Yeah, yeah.
EH: Thank you! And it’s funny, we’re very excited—it was the first thing that we wrote— but having gone through the whole development process, it has been through several other writers, it has been through several different studios that were producing it, and so at this point we’ve had very little to do with the final product. It’ll be exciting when it comes out, but at the same time it’s not the original script we wrote, so it’s just kind of a different experience.
WT: There’s a big difference between writing for TV and for movies. With TV, isn’t there generally a writers’ room, right, and this is a group of writers who work on it—but writing a script for a screenplay, for a movie, you often have a writing partner—two people are gonna finish that thing. Is that right? Am I accurate in thinking about those differences?
EH: Yeah, yeah, and it’s interesting. I guess it’s fair to say we’ve had some more success in TV, but one of the reasons we wound up wanting to try—
WT: Wait, when you say “we,” you mean you and Sarah Haskins? When you do a writing room, is she there, but there’s other people, too, or do you guys actually write—
EH: Yes! Absolutely, and whether it’s our show, or we’re hired as a team on somebody else’s show, it’s either the two of us as writers in the writer’s room, or the two of us as showrunners, and we hire a staff, but either way, she and I are—
WT: You come together.
VVG: And that’s pretty unusual. Is that right?
EH: You know, there are writing teams out here. It’s whatever works. I think actually neither of us was looking exactly for a writing partner. It more just happened organically. We wrote Booksmart together, that sold, it branded us as a team, and so then we were getting offers for different projects as a team, but that said—you know, everybody’s different, but we love working together as a team. I think from a writing standpoint, our skills really complement each other. Having written for the Lampoon I maybe come at it from the perspective of a writer, and Sarah has such a performance background, and she comes at it with that experience, and so I think our skills and weaknesses, they complement each other nicely.
But also, I will say—just as people in the world with various life events, like, I just had a baby, and we’re in the middle of making this pilot for CBS, and stuff—it’s just nice when someone’s got your back, you know? I’ve been there for her, she’s been there for me, and, it’s also nice, in a process that can often feel completely insane, there’s always someone there with you, where you feel like—I’m not crazy, right?
So, I think—for us—the advantages far outweigh the only one obvious disadvantage, which is sharing your paycheck with that person.
VVG: Right. So as you were working on Booksmart, which you wrote, as you were saying, in 2009—you’ve done so many other projects since you wrote that movie including other movies, other TV shows. Do you feel like you now have some sort of understanding or pattern for what things will work? I’m just a layperson reading the trades, but I can’t tell. When I talk to you about things you’re working on, I’m excited about the ideas that you tell me about, or the news that I see about you. But I don’t always have a sense. Sometimes I’m like—oh, that one landed, and, that one took ten years, but landed. Do you feel like it’s discernible to you, what the patterns are?
EH: No, not at all.
EH: I wish I did, and I feel like most of the time nobody does. So often, what is a hit is a surprise to as many people as it is not. What I can say is I think I, and Sarah and I, have gotten much better at writing—our stories are stronger, our comedy is stronger. Certain aspects of the job are not surprises to us any more. We created and ran a show called Trophy Wife for ABC, which was actually loosely based on Sarah’s life, and we are currently making the pilot for a show on CBS called Carol’s Second Act, starring Patricia Heaton, and should that go forward, which we hope it will, we will continue to run that show.
I feel like all the experience we have—it just better prepares us for each next experience, but, no, nothing has helped me understand. I also feel like everything’s always changing, like, the market’s changing, what people are looking to buy is always changing, one type of movie will succeed, and suddenly that’s what every studio wants to buy, and one type of movie will fail, and suddenly you can’t sell that type of movie for awhile. It’s just changing so often that I think any big success winds up being some combination of good writing and talent, but also luck, and serendipity, and timing, and it’s very hard to predict what’s gonna succeed and what won’t.
WT: That’s the old William Goldman line, may he rest in peace, since he recently died—nobody knows anything, right?
EH: That’s right, that’s right, and I do find that to be true. Yeah. I think that that line holds up.
This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF. Transcription by Damian Johansson.