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Hampton Fancher: ‘99% Of Scripts Are Intolerable.’ Here’s Why

The Wall Will Tell You 

I had the pleasure of chatting with Hampton Fancher recently. He’s the screenwriter of the iconic sci fi movie Blade Runner (1982) and its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, which was one of my fave movies of 2017. I am one lucky blogger! Hampton is quite the raconteur, so our conversation was everything I hoped it would be. I had so much fun; I think he started interviewing ME at one point!

Hampton’s book,  The Wall Will Tell You came out last week. It is not your classic screenwriting book, but something quite special. I like to think of it as a ‘Zen of Screenwriting’. Hampton shares his insights and top tips in short paragraphs that connect with your creative soul to encourage you to come up with your OWN viewpoint on the craft. I love it! Plus at only 80 pages you can read it very quickly. I am already referring back to it and adding my own annotations in the margins.

To celebrate the book’s publishing then, I thought I would pick out my favourite snippets from the book to discuss with Hampton. Since 7 is the magic number, here’s seven of Hampton’s top tips, plus some further extra thoughts, just for B2W. BUY THE BOOK HERE (USA) or HERE (UK), or follow the links at the bottom of the article. Enjoy!

 1) Art doesn’t explain, it demonstrates.

As a script reader and script editor, the truth of this from Hampton’s book really hit me square in the eyes. He explains more:

‘Ninety-nine per cent of scripts are intolerable,’ Hampton says. ‘I’ve read lots of scripts, even by smart people, where this is the case. So it’s a defensive move to say, ‘You didn’t get it’. We don’t want to correct our mistakes.’

I can relate to this. As a writer, I so often feel like this. I don’t want to edit, but crucially, I know I have to. ‘Writing is rewriting’, after all.

As a script reader and editor, I can see the same in the eyes of my writers. So often I will tell writers, ‘I wasn’t sure what was happening with your characters, why they were doing what they were doing’ and they will reply, ‘Oh you didn’t read it properly.’

My thoughts when I hear this:‘Really? I read all day, every day. Maybe you didn’t write it properly.’ But what is writing ‘properly’? Back to Hampton:

‘A good story is self-evident. Most bad screenplays, it’s because of there’s too much exposition … Not enough DOING. It’s about action. We are attracted to the subtle of character in film, the physical presence.’

TOP TIP: Craft is everything. A ‘good story, well told’ may mean different things to different people, but the basic building blocks are the same – concept, character, structure.

 2) More of one thing, instead of ten different things.

Sturges said scripts are a diagram, not literature. That doesn’t mean screenplays can’t be a fun read, or use metaphors.’

It sounds like Hampton is talking about ‘writer’s voice’ here. Hampton confirms it, citing The Coen Brothers, William Goldman and Tarantino as all having strong voices … and doing something new with them:

‘They’re standing on the greats of film history, almost falling off the shoulders of their predecessors and building on that.’

TOP TIP: Know where you are and what has gone before … AND bring something new to the table.

3) Draw a tree of your story. Climb the tree.

Hampton’s vision relates to the metaphysical AND practical: ‘You have to look where you’re going, when you climb a tree. It’s playful, but you will fall if you don’t grab the next branch. We’ve all done the cards on the wall, the forty scenes, you have to visualise and assimilate … But you don’t want to go too far either as that is the antithesis of creativity.’

I can relate to this. As a script reader, I HATE the scripts that treat structure as a page-counting exercise. Hampton agrees: ‘It becomes a straitjacket, too corporate.’

TOP TIP: Structure is everything in screenwriting, but don’t treat it as a formula, but a framework – like a tree! There are lots of different types of trees after all, plus no individual tree is the same as another one.

 4) How do you get a person, a reader, a character to care about what happens next? For one thing, by something about to happen next.  

‘I think here I am talking here about anticipation,’ Hampton says. ‘There’s going to be trouble in the story. If a story is a journey from A to B, there’s going to be trouble on the way to B. If you’ve not got that? Then people are not turning the pages with enthusiasm.’

This reminds me of the writing adage, ‘characters are what they DO’. So often writers get caught up in back story, trying to find a ‘reason’ to make audiences care about the character … They will offer up traumatic pasts, try and make us pity or admire them that way.

But we need to invest in the character’s journey. This means we need to see the character’s responses to the events of the plot, what’s happening *now* in the story. ‘Writers need an objective AND an impediment in a good story,’ Hampton says.

TOP TIP: Drama is conflict, so what trouble can your characters run into and why? What is getting in their way of obtaining their goal?

5) The rats of banality. Make sure not even one is hiding in your work.

‘This one is kind of a note to self,’ Hampton says. ‘‘The ‘rats of banality’ refer to those supposed profundities. Those times I thought I was being innovative, hip, but I was an idiot of my times. It’s a way of saying, ‘kill your darlings, or your babies’.’

I like this, because ‘rats’ seem easier to kill than ‘darlings’ or ‘babies’! Very often spec screenplays have quite ‘novelistic’ scene description, something Hampton also has an opinion on: ‘It’s a good idea to be simple, rather than writing rich, baroque prose.’

Does Hampton have any specific writers who do this well? ‘Elmore Leonard was very instructive, like taking a tommy gun to my writing. I also read the screenplay of ALIEN, that really opened my eyes.’  

TOP TIP: Hunt down those rats – as Elmore said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’

6) Imagination is a greedy little pig that needs to be hand-fed. Fatten the pig.

‘All of us love research, ripping off the world for our stories, that’s a given.’ Hampton says, ‘But it’s also about having a little humility, thinking ‘Wait a minute, maybe I am not as good as I think.’

‘There are so many rules,’ Hampton says, ‘If you don’t follow them, you’re fucked. If you DO follow them … You’re also fucked.’

But how can writers do all this? Hampton has some suggestions:

‘They need to step outside themselves, take some chances … Have more fun in their mind’s eye, get down in the trenches with it. Thinking ‘What if …’, acting out, fucking around. Unlock the prison of yourself.’

Is Hampton advocating NOT ‘writing what you know’? No, Hampton explains:

‘It’s not even write what you don’t know, there may be things you don’t even know you know, waiting in the dark of you. You have to find it.’

TOP TIP: Don’t take the first ideas for stories and characters that come to you. Think, ‘Why this story?’.

 7) If you’re not in love with words, why are you writing?

Hampton’s route to screenwriting is unusual and (in his words), unlikely: ‘I’m dyslexic, not educated. I didn’t go to school. I moved around a lot and was a lonely American child in Europe.’

So many writers start like this, feeling like an outsider. I know I did. But there are a number of happy accidents that bring so many of us to the craft.

‘A woman told me, ‘You gotta start reading,’”Hampton says, ‘So I did … I started writing poetry. I became an actor. Another actor I was working with was writing a screenplay for a studio. I thought, ‘I wish I could do that’.”

But if there’s one important tip Hampton could impart to the Bang2writers?

‘I thought I was a writer,’ he says.

TOP TIP: Mindset is everything. You ARE a writer.

Thanks, Hampton!

Don’t forget you can buy Hampton’s book, The Wall Will Tell You HERE (USA) or HERE (UK). 

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