Find The Emotional Core Of Your Screenplay

Find The Emotional Core Of Your Screenplay

Jake: This week, I am so excited to be doing something we’ve actually never done before on the podcast: we have two different writers, Doug Jung and Emily Dell.

Emily tends to come at things from more of the independent film side, and Doug has been involved in some very famous blockbusters and big name TV shows like Star Trek Beyond and Big Love.

And what’s really cool is that both of these writers have transcended a lot of the genre conventions in their writing– doing everything from really beautiful, personal, character-driven stories, to big budget action movies and sci-fi.

I want to start by asking you both– when you first broke into the industry, what do you think it was that led to your success? And in the face of the commercial and genre demands of so many different kinds of projects, how do you hold onto who you are and continue to grow your voice as an artist?

EMILY: I want to say this, I am still finding my way in, I think this is a long term process and in fact maybe  that one of the biggest “aha!” moments for me being early mid-career but not quite mid yet.

I feel like my writing has grown and expanded through the help of friends who are also mentors who have given me feedback and Doug has been one of those.

And on the content side, always trying to write what I believe in and write what is connected to me, but also to see how that fits into an organic brand that maybe was part of my identity– never having a difference between who I am and what I write is a clear part of the way that I look at my art.

And I think that is what makes people connect both to it and then to me, and then makes it easy for people to be like, “hey here is this Emily girl and she writes grounded emotional genre because that is also what she loves in life.” So that is one thing that I found to be really helpful lately.

But also, as I have been in LA for a while more than a couple of years and I have developed friendships and working relationships, I really tried to listen as much as I spoke, learn as much as I can, ask questions from the people whose work I admire and whose work I seek to emulate, and use that to improve. But also if they someday become comfortable even me and want to form an organic working relationship, then that is something I am obviously very open and welcome to.

Doug:  I ended up in a very fortuitous way getting some work in television which you know literally like these sort of freelance things for weird shows, and that enabled me to quit my day job. At that time I also had a very lucky stretch where I managed to bank a little bit of money.

But I was able to take this time and I wrote a script that ultimately was picked up, then optioned, and then eventually made. And I suddenly had, in a very lucky way, both a foot in the door in the TV world and a foot in the door in the feature world. And I have just sort of managed to stay in that position this whole time, which is great.

But as much as I can say it was hard work and I applied myself, there is an element of luck. And for my case it took a long time, but I do believe that luck is a byproduct of other things that you are doing to put yourself in there.

Jake: I feel the same way with my career, almost everything that ever happened to me that was good was luck, but I worked so damn hard to get to that lucky moment. And I think one of the places where I was luckiest was that it happened at a time where I had enough craft to actually back it up.

Doug: There is this element that I always see with people in these kinds of panel discussions, or this meet-and-greet kind of thing that I have been to– you know the most often asked question seems to be: How do I get an agent? How do I get somebody to read this thing? Totally valid, totally get it. But, nobody has the same origin story. Nobody has that thing where it was a particular path that you took.

And you kind of have no control over that stuff. You write something, you put it out into the world. Someone is going to love it, someone isn’t going to love it– certainly you can have some direction in how it goes, where it goes, all that sort of stuff.

So a lot times I get that question in like panels or film festivals or something and I say, “I don’t know…” I mean in the nicest possible way I say, “I am not really quite sure if you must know somebody, more importantly, what are you doing now?”

Because, if you are just going to sit there and say, “I wrote this little nugget of gold, a diamond in the rough, someone just needs to recover it…” a lot of times it isn’t like, “Hey, this is this great thing and we love it,” they go, “We like the potential this thing shows, what else are you working on?”

Emily: Yeah, it comes along with you doing the work, and you having three or four things ready, or you having the one thing ready that when they do ask for it, and they read it, it is really, really good.

Doug: That is exactly right. I think the other thing that you know there is this kind of cliché about writers being on a certain level of the totem pole, but another way that I always try to look at it is that we actually are in the most democratic position in Hollywood.

We’re not directors, we’re not production designers. We aren’t beholden. We start with nothing other than your time, your imagination, a blank page and you are off. So, you don’t need 50 other people to accomplish the creative thing you are trying to do.

There aren’t many places out there, or not many positions other than being a screenwriter, where you can do a whole movie just by yourself.

And I have found that as I have been lucky enough to have a career, and do these things, that, more and more, time becomes the greatest commodity. And how you spend that time. Because if you are lucky enough and you are good enough, at some point you can kind of say, “Well I can get work, but now how am I going to spend this time in the best way?”

And one of the things that I always find really interesting about talking about mentors and mentoring relationships, there is this idea of “beginner’s mind”, this sort of Zen Buddhist idea that there’s nothing but possibilities, there is nothing but opportunities, and you aren’t loaded down by experience, or you haven’t developed all these bad habits. And you connect very easily to this part of you that is so wide open.

You have access to all these parts of you that I think you can kind of lose a little bit as you start to get a little bit further on in your career. You fall into the conventional world and you start taking on those other voices in your head constantly. And a lot of times, it becomes about beating those voices back and getting back to your authentic thing.

Jake: One of my really great mentors was a guy name Joe Blaustein, and he actually—he wasn’t a writer he was a painter—and I used to study painting with him in Los Angeles when I lived out there.

And Joe used to say, “Don’t paint on canvas, paint on paper. If you paint on canvas, you are going to start thinking you are making art and you will forget what it is to really be an artist.” He said, “You want to paint on paper. Feel like you could throw it away.”

And for me that was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned as an artist, was this idea that rather than like trying to create the one product that is going to get me where I need to go, losing myself in like the joy and the play and the creativity of childhood. “Hey I want to make something, and I’ve got these characters that want to say something or want to do something,” and the practice of navigating back to that, even as you emerge into your professional career, is challenging, especially as you get an agent and you get projects.

I am curious, how do you navigate yourself back to that place?

Doug:  I have a hard time connecting with a project if I don’t find that thing in it that feels like it is a part of me. So, if a project is presented to me, or if I have an idea, really taking a lot of time to figure out, “What is appealing about this to me, and what is the thing that I want to say, or how do I connect with it?”

So, for example I recently adapted this graphic novel, a vertigo book called Scalped, which is a crime noir by this great writer named Jason Aaron and it is set on a contemporary Indian reservation. I really didn’t want to let it go, because I knew there was something really great in it and it took me a long time.

So, I sort of came to this idea that it wasn’t that I had the direct experience, but what I saw in it was this idea that all of the people in the book are searching for some form of the American dream, like they are trying to get to that aspiration.

To me that was an immigrant story, and I am Korean-American, my parents were immigrants. So, now I can say, “Well that is what I can always go back to.” I know that whatever the story and the plot becomes, underneath it all, in my mind I knew that what I am doing is a reverse immigrant story.

Now I had a connection– and when we got to the point of shooting the pilot, I could then talk to the Native American actors we had and say to them, “I am not trying to emulate something that I am not; this is my take on it.” And that is what enabled them to trust me.

So, that was one example of finding yourself in some material that wasn’t originally yours, but it also maybe had a very on the surface disparate connection to how you had seen it on paper or whatever.

Jake: You’ve done a lot of rewriting work, you’ve come onto a lot of projects where they didn’t originate with you.  I was thinking about your work on Star Trek Beyond where you really use that theme of unity versus independence.

And I am curious when you are coming on to a project that already exists, where someone has already done a lot of work and maybe pieces are working and pieces are not working, how do you look at that existing material? What is your approach as you start to think about how you are going to take this into a direction that can matter to you?

Doug: Well, for Star Trek Beyond we were given a blank slate, whatever work was done was thrown out. So, we were really going off of the franchise, and Simon Pegg and I and Justin Lin had a lot of very fast discussions because we were under incredible time pressure.

But like a lot of discussions were like, “What is it about this franchise that we all gravitate towards?” And we all worked towards that.

But certainly the idea of you coming in with a new piece of it is the big attractor. You know it is hard for me to accept that where’s like— “We want to do this, this and this,” and you go, “Great!” and then you go home and you go, “Why did they hire me? I know nine people who could do that just as well as me.”

But, what is that thing that you are going to bring to it that feels like, “Okay, people can do it— I am going to do it this way, and it is very specific, and it feels like me, and I can connect to it myself?”

And, I have had projects where I couldn’t do it. Where I would read it and I would go, “I don’t know, kind of feels okay to me” or, “there is nothing in here that I get, it’s not my experience.”

So, I think it is a little bit of “know thyself.” I kind of know when it is a “square peg in a round hole”, and I am not afraid to say, “I am not going to try to convince you that I am going to really do a good job with this,” because, when I have is usually when I have gotten into trouble.

Jake:  When you are looking at an early draft of your own work, when you are looking at something that you are writing that is not working, how do you approach it in order to reconnect with what that thing in you is? Or to take it to the next level, is there a process that you have?

Doug: Yeah first you’ve got to like stop yourself from jumping off a building. And then, I think you have to be really honest with yourself. I think you first have to admit what’s not working and what’s not right.

So, sometimes I will look at a scene in a script that maybe doesn’t work, but a scene works, and I will say, “Why does this scene work? Well, this scene works because it is really about how these two characters are talking non-stop to each other but not really communicating at all.” And I’ll go, “Okay, now that works for me.”

And then the other thing that I find to be—and this is something that actually it took me a while to understand. But, I am completely willing to start over completely.

That is a drastic thing, but it is usually that something is going to come out that reminded you of why you wanted to do this or what you felt was good about it, and it is going to be evident somewhere.

Jake: Emily, Doug was earlier talking about you know sometimes you get a movie and you look at it and you are like, “There is nothing of me in there, I am going to pass.”

Do you feel like you have the power to say no? Do you feel like at this point in your career can you say, “I pass”?

Emily: I have in the past taken things that came my way even– opportunities that you know were like no to low budgets, and I said yes because I was so eager to do the work. And when I didn’t have an emotional connection to what we were doing, it was an experience that I later came to regret.

So I learned the hard way on those that it wasn’t just simply as an emotional connection, it was an understanding, you know who are the people you are getting involved with? Look around the room you guys better be comfortable spending long hours, you better have good trust within you.

And I have been in a couple of situations where I was just so eager to do the work, or one way I was so flattered that I was asked, you feel so good, “Oh gosh you want me, wow!”

Then you make a choice that maybe you shouldn’t. If I had divorced the ego from that decision I would have been like, “Actually maybe there is something here that makes me not the right fit for this.”

But, I am much more judicious now. I think this is a really important lesson for all writers, especially emerging ones that all you have is your work, which means all you have as your name is the quality of that work, so you have to protect that quality judiciously.

And that is, I would say, the North Star for me now.

Doug: I’ve had this happen a lot, which is I will work on a script, and it will be something that I was paid to do, and it might be a script that is like, “Well, it is going to be tough to get set up, or, it may be doesn’t have the most obvious legs in the marketplace.” But, it came out really well, and it is like light from a dead star.

There was a script that I wrote on spec years ago and I always joke about this because it was an adaptation of this graphic novel, and I agreed to do it, and I agreed to spec it because I really, I really wanted to be in that world, I wanted to sort of investigate that world and do the research on the suppression of the time, politically.

And I didn’t make a penny off of that thing. I had certain people in circles that I had going, “This is crazy, why are you doing this, it is never going to get made, you aren’t making any money off of it.”

But, you just don’t know. And those things tend to hang around in the best of ways, and can result in something totally unexpected, or help you get a job in a way you never purposely meant it to do to.

So, it is a really good piece of advice that Emily is saying right now.

Emily: It takes longer than you hope, but the stuff that you do, as long as it is good, as long as it is representative of who you are and what you can do, it is good to have out there in the world.

Jake:  I think so much of this is about finding your tribe, and it kind of relates to what we were talking about at the very beginning of the podcast. It is going to take a little bit of luck, and it might not be the project that you think is going to make you rich that actually gets purchased, but that might be the project that 10 years from now gets you that piece of work.

And I think that there is some value in refocusing and then asking, “How do I find my tribe, how do I find my mentor, or how do I find the director who is going to push me, or the writing partner who is going to open something new in me?”

Would you guys would like to talk at all about like what the collaborative process is for you?

Doug:  Everybody says it is kind of like a marriage, which is the cliché. I don’t necessarily totally believe that because you get to go home to your respective homes and not be with them 24/7.

But, the idea of you know understanding what the other person is going to prop up in you that you don’t have is important. And then also being able be getting honest with the idea of, or accepting the idea, if it is working, that we are better together than we are apart in this particular instance.

And I think that to me is always the key: seeking out or being lucky enough to partner or meet with someone who you really, really respect. And for me that is the only thing that absolutely makes it worthwhile and makes it work, otherwise you can get out of that.

Emily: If I could jump in on that real quick, so Doug and I met last summer I think it was and we were actually at another film festival in this awesome side gig I do with Screen Craft where I help put together panels at film festivals. Doug was on the panel and we got to talking afterwards.

But, during that time last year I finished a graphic novel that I had been writing for two years, and it came out in March on Comixology, to give myself a shameless plug. But then, it was like, “what is next for that with the publisher?” And we decided this would work great as a television show, but it took a lot of engineering to figure out, “how does the thing that lived as a graphic novel live as a TV show?”

And that was a lot of story work. Frankly that took me from like April 2017 all the way through to when I finally pitched it to Doug for his feedback in December of 2017. So I did bunches of rounds of this and then finally when I got I feel like it was in a place where I was like, “Maybe there is something here,” I said, “Doug would you listen to this pitch and give me your feedback?”

And I have to say that it was extremely valuable, so he was able to kind of slice through and be like, “Actually I think you keep saying this other stuff, but I think you need to root up to like what is the track that our train is running on story wise.”

Without going into a lot of pieces of the actual story here, there are two main characters at the center of it, and he was like, “Just keep bringing us back to those two characters over and over again, because that is what we care about, that is our emotional core.”

And it helped me really strip out a lot of parts of the pitch, and I took like pages of notes while Doug was giving all of this feedback. And then I rolled up my sleeves, and I had to throw a bunch of it out, but then I kept what was good and clarified it. But it was an important first step in the process.

And so I would just like to say to Doug, thank you.

Doug: I am glad I could help you with that, Actually when we met and we talked about that, my experience with what I was telling you wasn’t so much about like the plot points. I’ve sat in a bar with Emily and we’ve talked about movies and we have dissected Game of Thrones episodes.

I know how you talk about things and I know how you think about stories and stuff like that, so I had a little bit more of an advantage. But the only thing that I really wanted to encourage you to do as I was hearing your pitch was: be that person. Because I have seen that person, I have listened to that person, I have talked to that person. That person is really engaging.

But just talk to me like I am in the bar again, like we are having those stupid Game of Thrones cocktails. And that is going to get you to connect with those people. That is going to let you demonstrate that you have a deep well of understanding for this material.

They want to understand: A) is the concept something we are into? And then B) what is our level of engagement and understanding with the thing?

So that is really all I was encouraging you to do.

Jake: I think it is such good advice. So often writers, especially writers who want to do big budget blockbuster things, they think that the answer must be somewhere outside of them. That it is in hitting the formula or some kind of specific beat or some kind of specific rule.

And what I love, Doug, is that you just keep on bringing it back to this idea of authenticity. Or what Emily called, “What is the track that this train is running on?”

It is that personal thing in you that is actually going to create your project, and your career, and your connections, and your tribe. All that stuff actually grows out of remembering who you are, and being yourself in the room, and being yourself on the page.

Doug: It’s funny, this is something that I think about often. “Should I take this project? Is this project worthy? Does it have merit?

But, I remember listening to this interview with the Australian director Peter Weir—and he was talking about when he first came to Hollywood his agents were like, “Okay, they are offering you Salem’s Lot, this is a very hot book by Steven King,” and he ultimately turned it down.

And his agents were saying, “You are crazy, people would chop off their right arm to do this movie!”

And he talked about how he went to Japan—and he was really like in this conundrum “How do I choose my projects, how do I like address my work, how do I think about it?”

And he went to Japan—he was doing this documentary on one of those living national treasures– a sculptor, I think he was like a potter or something, and he would use these ancient Japanese techniques.

And he was chatting with this potter and said, “You know it is so amazing that you get to come here everyday and every day you work on your art”.

And the guy was looking at him like he was all nuts and said, “You know, we actually don’t call it art here. We don’t look at it that way. That’s why if you look around, everything I make it is a bowl or a plate or a vase, it is something that you can use.”

And he was like, “Every now and then you get a little lucky, and the hands of the gods reach down and they touch something and it sort of elevates beyond, but I am here to do things that are useful.”

So Peter Weir was saying that that is what changed the whole outlook on this stuff. He was saying, “I will make movies and I will find things that I am interested in, and every now and then I might get really lucky, and it might elevate beyond what anybody thought it was going to be.”

And I remember listening to that and I thought, “that is such an incredibly healthy way of viewing your work! And it is all the things that go along with any other work. But every now and then, you might get really lucky, and something really good will happen.”

Jake: Well, I think that is a really beautiful place to end, and great piece of advice for all writers: to take the Buddhist approach to writing, let go of the need to be a great writer or a great artist, and instead to focus on telling the stories that really matter to you. Because there’s one way as a writer that you can’t go wrong, and that’s by making something useful for yourself and for your audiences.

So, one more thing before we sign off– Emily is actually organizing a pretty cool event with ScreenCraft down at the Atlanta Film Festival. Emily could you tell us a little more about that event?

Emily: Yeah, I have to say, I am so inspired by the conversation that we are having right here, because I am unabashedly a nerd about the work that we all do, and I love these kinds of conversations. And one of the most fun parts of my work with ScreenCraft is being able to present a forum where that happens in an environment where people can just get a beer at a bar and dissect an episode of Game of Thrones and maybe it leads to a working relationship or a friendship or something like that. And it just makes me happy to be a part of that.

I am really proud that we are putting together something like that at the Atlanta Film Festival in mid-April of this year. I really encourage any writer who is listening who wants to come join us, to please do.

Doug will be speaking on all things that you’ve heard on this podcast and more. But then a great additional lineup that includes writers like Eric Heisserer from Arrival, Geoffrey Fletcher from Precious, Diana Ossana from Brokeback Mountain and Eric Haywood from the TV show Empire.

So, please join us. And please come and say hi to all three of us that were just on this call, and yeah, I think it is going to be great.

Jake: As you all know, mentorship is such a big part of what we do here at the studio. There’s so much we can all learn from other writers. Which is why I’m really excited to be a part of this event. So thank you, Emily. Doug and I will be at the Atlanta Film Festival April 13th through the 16th doing panels, lectures and talking with writers. So if you are coming down please come say hello. You can learn more at And thank you both Emily and Doug for all of your time today!

Doug: Thanks for having us. This was great.

Emily: Thank you!

Over his years in the entertainment industry, Jacob Krueger has worked with thousands of writers, actors, and other artists in pursuit of their artistic goals. Jacob is an award winning screenwriter, playwright, producer and director. Jacob’s screenplay, The Matthew Shepard Story (2002) won him the Writers Guild of America Paul Selvin Award and a Gemini Nomination for Best Screenplay. The NBC film, directed by Roger Spottiswoode (And the Band Played On), and produced by Goldie Hawn, was based on life of gay hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard. The film won Stockard Channing a SAG Award and her first Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Sam Waterston a Gemini Award for Best Supporting Actor. He has collaborated on original film musicals with Tony Award winning composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon) and with four-time Academy Award Composer Michel Legrand (Yentl, The Thomas Crown Affair).

1 Comment

  1. Elaine 4 weeks ago

    Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast. I’ve been a writer of novels and short stories for a long time, and a newbie to screenwriting. Your examples of working across formats (graphic novel to TV, for example) and making the right emotional choices on accepting work were especially helpful.

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