Terry Rossio, Writer of Pirates of the Caribbean Part II: The Craft of Screenwriting

Nov 30, 2017 | Interviews

We talked at length with one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters, Terry Rossio, perhaps best known for Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean.

In Part I: The Business of Screenwriting, Rossio spoke about his vast experience in the industry and the business aspects of writing for the big screen. Here, we discuss the craft of screenwriting, taking notes, and choosing stories to pursue.

FD: Your Austin Film Festival class “The Rewrite,” where you revise attendees’ scripts on the fly, is always jam-packed. What are the most common script problems you run into?

TR: It never seems to be the case that the scenes are too sparsely-described, or the dialogue too terse, or dramatic structure overly abbreviated. Scripts are always overwritten, even my own stuff. The goal is to reach the efficiency and power of poetry, and that’s hard to do.

Relative to story content (rather than execution) scenes often lack a clear and compelling situation. It doesn’t have to be an aerial dogfight or the Titanic sinking—a simple poker game will do—but you gotta have something that raises a question as to outcome.

FD: How did you and your writing partner Ted Elliott find each other and realize you worked well together?

TR: Ted and I met in high school, working on the school newspaper. Then we even did a comic strip together.

FD: Your life partner, Jocelyn Stamat, is also an active screenwriter and filmmaker. With little ones at home, how have you adjusted your work habits in order to get writing done and still take care of family time?

TR: Our technique is to fail miserably. We live in a constant state of not getting enough done. Behind schedule and overwhelmed. Personal hygiene gets neglected first.

FD: Is the collaborative process substantially different working with Jocelyn because you are life partners, as well?

TR: I can’t think of any way in which the process is different. The process derives from how stuff needs to be done, not who does the doing.

FD: How do you stay motivated and inspired when you don’t feel so attached to a story anymore, say, after your third film in a franchise?

TR: Actually, with later films in a franchise, one is all the more attached as now you’re writing for a group of real-live actors—some of whom are friends, playing roles one has (with great effort) invented, in a world that has been created to your own sensibilities. It’s like the senior year in high school … you know everyone and you kind of don’t want to leave.

FD: What about when a producer or director gives you notes you know will steer the film in the wrong direction?

TR: Bad notes are fascinating, as they rarely mean anything close to what they purport to mean. Often, bad notes reveal a profound lack of desire to make the film. Or at least the film you wrote, there might be some other film they might want to make, but who knows? To use a dating analogy: It’s like after your first long-slow-wet kiss, what you really want to hear is, “Take me to bed, now!” And, instead, your would-be lover gets a far-off look and says, “Maybe it might be fun to go skiing.”

So the best thing a writer can do with bad notes is exit the project, somehow, as painful as that might be. Let the bad note-givers waste the time of some other writer, as well as their own. It seems crazy to walk away from any kind of opportunity but, in the long run, you’re better off putting your energies into something new that has a chance to be good.

FD: Writers trying to break in hear a lot of conflicting advice about “write your passion” vs. the nebulous “high concept” idea, which often seem to be in direct opposition. You’ve talked before about “strange attractors” and how writers should be proactive in choosing their material, whether for specs or assignments. What advice can you offer writers about being aware of industry sensibilities while still retaining their unique voice?

TR: This is a false dichotomy. Go ahead and write your passion as long as your passion is a compelling story with great characters and desirable roles for actors, and the concept is so high, and so kick-ass good that it feels like it should be made on the concept alone. Anything less is a waste of everyone’s time.

FD: Any other insight you’d like to offer, maybe something you wish screenwriters knew but you never think to tell them?

TR: After writing thousands upon thousands of words in essays, participating in dozens of panel presentations, and giving hundreds of interviews, you think there’s something I’ve missed?

These days, I emphasize: Be productive, do your work, and move on. Use this as motivation—when you make progress on your current project, you’re actually making progress on everything else you may do in your life, because they all will move up, one step further along.

Asmara Bhattacharya

Screenwriter / Playwright / Script Reader

Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. More can be found on her website: www.dickflicks.net or follow her on Twitter @hotpinkstreak