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Screenwriters on Writing: NY Times Asks Linklater, Polley, Holofcener, Delpy, Gerwig and More About the Art of the Film Script

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood November 27, 2013 at 12:12PM

The New York Times queried 14 talented screenwriters, asking simple questions like "What's the trick to writing realistic dialogue?," and many of the responses are fascinating. A highlight of responses below, from Richard Linklater, Greta Gerwig, Nicole Holofcener, Sarah Polley, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and more.
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Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke during the "Before Midnight" production
Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke during the "Before Midnight" production

The New York Times queried  14 talented screenwriters, asking simple questions like "What's the trick to writing realistic dialogue?," and many of the responses are fascinating. A highlight of answers below, from Richard Linklater ("Before Midnight"), Greta Gerwig ("Frances Ha"), Nicole Holofcener ("Enough Said"), Sarah Polley ("Stories We Tell"), Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy (both "Before Midnight") and more.

Gerwig on a good screenwriting tip:

Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"
Greta Gerwig in "Frances Ha"

Whenever you have an “idea,” as in a concept that you could explain to someone, like a hook or at worst a gimmick, that is a bad thing. It feels good, but it’s not good. The best ideas reveal themselves, you don’t “have” them. For me, anyway.

Let your characters talk to each other and do things. Spend time with them — they’ll tell you who they are and what they’re up to.

Hawke on the trick to writing a heartbreaking scene:

There is no trick to writing a believable love story, a heartbreaking scene or real-sounding dialogue. All you need is to tell the truth. It’s always heartbreaking.

J.C. Chandor ('All Is Lost," "Margin Call") on writing a terrific villain:

Always remember that the person (character) probably doesn’t think that they are evil in any way.

Sarah Polley on the set of her documentary, 'Stories We Tell.'
Roadside Attractions Sarah Polley on the set of her documentary, 'Stories We Tell.'

Polley on the trick to writing -- anything, at all:

Discipline. And readers who are honest with you.

Linklater on writing realistic dialogue:

The “trick” is being able to do it in the first place. It’s probably one of those talents that you can only get a little better at by trying very hard, studying, and all that. No one ever quantifies a particular skill in the arts the way they do in, say, sports, but being able to write real-sounding dialogue might have something to do with rhythm and memory, not to mention having characters and voices in your head talking all the time. I couldn’t really hit a 93-mile-an-hour slider, so I didn’t have a major-league baseball career. I could always write realistic dialogue.

Holofcener on the trick to writing a great female character:

Make her human.

Delpy on the movie that inspired her to be a writer:

My motivation came out of observing others (home, street, etc.), not films.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Greta Gerwig, J.C. Chandor, Nicole Holofcener, Sarah Polley


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.