Haywood by Charles Musser (Drama Screenplay Winner)

Congratulations on winning the Screenwriting Sage Contest this year in the Drama category with your feature screenplay, Haywood. How do you feel?

Thank you. I feel great. To have your hard work recognized is always a wonderful feeling.

What was the inspiration behind the story? 

Haywood is based on the life of “Big Bill” Haywood, a radical union organizer in the western United States in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and centers on his trial for murdering the Governor of Idaho. It’s a fascinating story, and Haywood himself was a man who was larger than life. It was also the first screenplay I ever attempted writing some ten years ago, and it has gone through numerous revisions and iterations since then. There was also an enormous amount of research involved, as anyone who has attempted to write an historical script based on real events, or any biopic, will attest.

The screenplay was very well-crafted, what process do you follow for your story structure? 

I never had the opportunity to attend a film school or an MFA program in screenwriting, so I had to teach myself the basics of the craft (and it is a craft that can be taught and learned) as I went. Although I’ve read many books and articles on the craft of screenwriting in particular, and dramatic storytelling structure in general, the first book I ever read on the subject was Blake Snyder’s, Save the Cat. It’s a wonderful, slightly hokey, but very practical, approach to understanding and utilizing the traditional three-act story structure, and I still use many of his techniques. 

For example, and this may date me, but to this very day I use a real corkboard on my office wall, divided into three acts, that has a bunch of colored 3X5 index cards attached by thumb-tacks, each one representing story beats. I know there are plenty of digital storyboard apps out there that are wonderful, but for me, it’s a tactile thing—choosing the card colors, the ability to touch and rearrange them willy-nilly, etc., is a great way to avoid writing anything while your subconscious is busy creating scenes and dialogue in your head in the background.

How long have you been writing for and what made you start writing scripts?

I wrote Haywood, my first script, about ten years ago. I came to writing creatively relatively late in life, my early 40s, via the genre of poetry. Interestingly enough, I sincerely think poetry and screenwriting are sister arts. Both reward and require concision in structure, both benefit from an affinity for strong imagery, and both seek to convey those images with simple (even terse) but powerful language. I’ve also written several novels, but my real love is screenwriting. I was a typical movie geek as a teen and in college (still am), and was always in awe of the skill and teamwork it takes to write, produce, direct, and act in something the end result of which can be so magical. 

How many more scripts have you written?

I think a total of eight features including Haywood, innumerable short scripts, and two original sixty-minute pilot teleplays. 

What is your writing routine? 

I’m an early riser, and I usually write very early, around five am or so until six or seven. After coffee, my mind is clear and the left hemisphere is chugging along with gusto. An hour before bed in the evening is also a good time as well, since the right hemisphere takes over and dreams and images and intuition bubble up to the fore. A thousand words is a decent day; two or three-thousand, I’m on fire.

What do you enjoy about writing?

The actual process of writing, at least for me, is painful. I do absolutely love, however, having written something.

What do you struggle with?

I think it’s pretty universal among writers, but the fear that nothing I write is any good. I have a terrible fear that a word in an action description is out of place, or the conflict in a scene is flat, or innumerable other neurotic obsessions. Hitting “send” on a script is very, very hard.

What are your goals with your scripts and writing? 

To be produced, of course. To see my characters come alive and the words I’ve written spoken by real human beings who are not in my head, and to know others are also experiencing the dream or vision I had. Good writing has everything to do with a love of the reader or viewer, in my opinion, and nothing to do with your self. 

Have you found it difficult to get your writing read by industry professionals? 

Generally speaking, yes. I have had other scripts do well in other contest venues. For example, I wrote a feature biopic on the great Spanish poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, and it was a semi-finalist in another contest called the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowships, and my phone rang off the hook after that from agents and producers asking to read it.

Do you plan to produce this winning screenplay, Haywood?

I’d love to, but time will tell. I’ve actually had a few producers show interest. They’ve loved the script itself, but it usually comes down to money. Haywood is a period piece, which are notoriously expensive to produce, and studios and prodco’s always need to balance costs with projected revenue from target audiences. We’re in the Golden Age of streaming, however, and there are so many competing platforms with plenty of money to throw around, perhaps Haywood will get a chance. Nobody really knows what will be successful and what won’t. As one of my favorite screenwriters, William Goldman, once said, “Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.”

What is your advice for aspiring screenwriters? 

First, it’s important to realize that good writing is five percent inspiration or pixie dust, and the other ninety-five percent is knowledge of craft and good, old-fashioned hard work. Don’t be afraid to write poorly; everyone does in a first draft. Revision and editing is the real heart of writing. Hire a professional script editor. I know your family and writing friends are well intentioned, but a good editor (and the good ones are expensive) is worth every penny. 

Secondly, don’t shy away from killing your darlings when necessary, whether they’re characters or scenes or snippets of dialogue. Be ruthless; the goal is the final product, not soothing your ego. 

And finally, no matter how much you love your protagonist, you’ve got to drag them down in the mud and stomp on their heart, you’ve got to throw everything you can think of, including the kitchen sink, at them. And when they claw and fight their way back up, knock them down again. It may hurt, but it’s what you have to do as a writer.

Finally, what will you do with the prize money?

It’s going in my white-sands-and-azure-water cookie jar, wherein I dream of leaving winter and face-masks behind and stroll onto the beach in Costa Rica, blue agave margarita in hand, sun and cool mist on my face, and commune with the angels of indolence.

The Performance by Daniel Betts (Short Script Winner)

Congratulations, Danny, on winning the Screenwriting Sage Contest this year in the Shorts category with your script, The Performance. How do you feel?

Can’t lie, it feels pretty good! Competitions like this mean a great deal to aspiring writers like myself. It’s fantastic encouragement and a big help in getting my work under someone’s nose.

What was the inspiration behind the story? 

I wanted to write a self-contained short where I could really lean into a big, satisfying ending. The Performance is set in a small pub theatre where there’s a generational clash of the older ‘hobbyists’ and the drama school kids. Enjoyment of acting versus being edgy and getting noticed. I thought about what the dynamics would be like in a small company that’s being pulled in two directions. Probably a bit aggy, a bit tense so…. screenplay! 

In the script, Marianne, has a great character arc transitioning from Act 1 to 3. What is your technique or thought process when writing characters? 

I spent a lot of time figuring out a way to make Marianne’s character flaw – she’s a gossip – blow up in her face in the worst kinda way. That was really my north star through this. 

How long have you been writing for and what made you start writing scripts?

I’ve been writing on and off for about five years. For some reason I became obsessed with story structure, I can’t remember why, maybe my tele was broke, anyway… Save the Cat, Into the Woods, the Mini-Movie Method… I hovered it all up. I initially started out with the traditional sitcom format before wading into more dramedy waters.

How many more scripts have you written?

Scripts that I’d feel happy with other people reading? Three pilots and this short. I also have a great deal of terrible half baked ideas rotting away in a Google docs graveyard somewhere.

What is your writing routine? 

I write for a couple of hours before work. I don’t love getting out of bed at the crack of dawn but it’s important to have time dedicated to writing. I have a bit of company too as my dog likes to sleep on my lap and offer up little farts and burps of encouragement as I type away. 

What do you enjoy about writing?

Everything! I love the challenge of fleshing out a character. I love rolling around a story in my head. Letting bits fall off and then adding some more bits then rolling that around. People love puzzles and for me writing is the ultimate one. 

What do you struggle with?..

Everything! I mean, it’s a bit of a slog isn’t it? But I guess that’s why there’s such a sense of accomplishment when things start falling into place – and they always do as long as you put the time in.

Also spelling. Seriously, f**k spelling. sometimes I get a word so wrong that Google can’t figure out what I’m trying to go for.

What are your goals with your scripts and writing? 

I would love to be able to make a living from it. I’m under no illusion as to just how hard that is. The odds are very much stacked against me. Luckily, I’m a wonderfully naive and optimistic fool. 

But, for the moment, like my am-dram seniors, it’s a fun pastime that brings me joy. 

Have you found it difficult to get your writing read by industry professionals? 

I have, but it’s difficult with good reason I guess. There’s a lot of bad scripts out there so it’s gotta be hard for agents/producers looking for that pearl. That’s why I think competitions like this one are important. Without qualifications or connections within the industry, it’ll definitely help to have a few awards under your belt.

Do you plan to produce this winning script, The Performance, into a short film?

I’d love to. Producers/directors get in touch at danieljbetts@gmail.com. I’d really like to start some conversations around this. 

What is your advice for aspiring screenwriters? 

Your script can always be better. Better and shorter! Seek out candid feedback. Run towards it. Embrace that painful, ego-denting criticism that will tighten your script no end. Growth and comfort never co-exist. A bit of fridge magnet philosophy for you there but it is true. Also proof read. [genuine unprompted plug] I use Screenwriting Sages’ proofreading services – they’re great. Use them. Or someone else. Just don’t put hours and hours of work into a script just to be let down by a typo on the first page.

Finally, what will you do with the prize money? 

I might treat myself to a few bumper packs of quilted bog-rolI. It’s been a tough year and I deserve a treat.