This is an interview
When I first approached Max for this interview, I was surprised to find her a bit hesitant. She asked a few questions about the site and the interview process and why I was interested in what she had to say, exactly. Of the few writers that I’ve interviewed, she was the first to be somewhat standoff-ish. But what I came to learn very quickly is that Max is of a very rare breed in this industry: she doesn’t like to waste her time… or yours. She’s direct, to the point, and will not sugarcoat any b******t. And it’s refreshing to speak to someone so brutally honest about this profession because screenwriting is not all happy-go-lucky; showered in puppy dogs and rose petals, and she’s the first in line to slap you in the face with that reality.
But don’t get me wrong, she is not — by any means — a pessimist. When it comes to screenwriting she is extremely pragmatic and what you’re about to read is some extremely exceptional advice from someone who has stormed the beaches, waded through the trenches, scaled the precipice, and stared into the black abyss — the very belly of the Hollywood Beast — and told it to go f**k itself. I have no doubt that when all other screenwriters have thrown in the towel, accepted defeat, and disappeared into obscurity, Max will still be there tapping away at her keyboard because she marches to her own beat, follows her own rules, and has acquired the very essentials to surviving this industry: resilience and determination.
Q: First off, tell us a little about yourself. Who is Max Adams?
A: I’m 5’6”, I weigh about 117 pounds, and I snore.
Q: When did you first become aware that films were actually made and that there was an entire machine and process behind what you were seeing on the screen?
A: I was in college and a boyfriend kept yelling at the TV screen, I could write better than that! It hadn’t occurred to me before that people “wrote” movies.
Q: What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of filmmaking?
A: The boyfriend took a screenwriting class so I went with. I was supposed to be a novelist but you could say I got sidetracked.
Q: What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?
Q: Did the boyfriend from college go on to have a writing a career of his own?
A: No, the boyfriend dropped out of the first class and today is a happy engineer living in some far distant city.
Q: When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?
A: I was sort of the ne’er do well in that screenwriting class, everyone was very officious talking about Linda Seger and sneered at me because I didn’t know who the hell she was. I think a lot of books out there aren’t really helpful and actually hobble writers. I learned a lot more reading scripts than I did reading screenwriting books.
Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Alternatively, what really inspires you to write?
A: I find this an exhausting question. It’s sort of like asking “Where do you find your ideas?” Which I usually answer, “1-800-IDEA.” I don’t seek inspiration. If you aren’t inspired to write, you shouldn’t write. You either are or are not a writer, so it’s not about outside inspiration, it’s being compelled — often against your will — to pursue a very difficult craft because you have something to say that must be said. And that comes from inside, not outside. You don’t have to seek it. It will find you. And it won’t let go. Sort of like the WGA.
Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?
A: I put off writing as long as I can and when I can’t take it any more, I sit down to write. Sometimes I can hold out an hour. Sometimes a month. I don’t do note cards. I don’t like treatments or outlines I only do those when I’m pitching a project that hasn’t been written yet for a studio. When I’m writing for me? I write by the seat of my pants. And it tends to turn out okay that way because doing that, the story remains a journey of discovery for me and stays interesting to me.
Q: What software do you use and why?
A: I use Microsoft Word. I started this in college. Broke college students can’t afford fancy scriptwriting packages and I wrote style sheets early and still use them.
Q: Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?
A: I let people who might buy it read it. If they balk, then I ask for back up opinions from friends.
Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach and what is your process in regard to rewriting?
A: I write till it feels done and then I stop.
A: It was pretty damn good. I feel like Arthur here. How does it feel to be really rich? Good. How does it feel to win big competitions and have people call you instead of you having to call them? Good.
Q: The prizes and obligations are pretty straight forward, I think, but I’ve always wondered what winning a Nicholl Fellowship really means, exactly? What do you really get out of it?
A: Notoriety and cash. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Q: Let’s talk about Excess Baggage. How did it come into existence; what was the inspiration?
A: I had something to say about family being broken, not you the child, but the parents, and that you can’t win a game that’s rigged against you going in when your parents are broken and cannot possibly love you no matter how much you want them to or try to change yourself so that they will. I didn’t know that was what it was about going in. I thought it was just a fun kidnap story. I usually find out what something is really about two-thirds of the way through, when it’s too late to stop. That is not exactly the movie that appeared on screen.
Q: How long did it take you to write it; from the first word to the final draft?
A: I don’t know. I started working on it and it wasn’t working so I set it aside. Then one day I knew how to make it work and picked it back up again. And I don’t know the time gap there.
Q: How many scripts did you write before Excess Baggage?
A: Six or seven.
Q: How did you sell it?
A: I won Austin and a producer who was a judge told an exec at Columbia Pictures about it and the exec read it on the plane home and bought it.
Q: What was life like immediately after you sold it?
A: Chaotic. I was getting out of college, moving from one state to another, and taking Hollywood meetings like a crazed ninja.
Q: What was it like to sit in a darkened theater with an audience and watch your words come to life for the first time on the big screen?
A: Kind of a disaster. The movie had problems. The studio execs were making jokes that I was probably throwing up in the bathroom when I went to the bathroom. The first cut was not exactly pretty.
Q: What lessons did you learn from that first film that informed or altered your approach to writing your later features?
A: That it’s better to be produced with a film you aren’t exactly fond of than it is to be unproduced. It’s an ugly baby, but it’s my baby, so I love it anyway.
Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?
A: I have a background acting on stage and also a background with some plays that were produced, so I had already seen my work performed and had already performed other people’s work. It wasn’t new seeing pages performed or produced. I think I’m the wrong person to ask this question.
Q: I know that you’ve written a couple plays and that you originally set out to be a novelist. Does the process of writing for each of those mediums differ for you in any way or do you approach each of them the same?
A: Prose, stage, and screen are very different mediums. When you set out to write a story, you sort of decide going in which medium is the best medium for the story. Then you play to that medium’s strengths in the story. So the difference would be in craft, in catering to the strengths of the medium you’re writing to and avoiding its weaknesses. I tend to really enjoy prose though when I do prose because I can break out and write first person and interior monologue, which you can’t do in film. So for me prose is a release when I get too pent by film writing and want to break form and go a little crazy.
Q: I’ve been able to find a lot of information online about how crazy the making of Excess Baggage became and the numerous rewrites it went through, but I can’t seem to find much information regarding The Ladykillers. Did you initially write the script and then the Coen brothers came on board or what, exactly? And what happened during the arbitration process that meant you lost your screen credit?
A: The Ladykillers was originally a picture out of the British Ealing Studios starring Alec Guinness written by Billy Rose. I wrote the first adaptation of the original. There’s not a lot other than that to say about it. Arbitration is pretty political and keeps getting weirder as time goes by. I can’t explain all that in a short answer.
Q: Your IMDb page lists Excess Baggage as your only writing credit, yet you’ve been working steadily in the industry since then. I guess this would be a good time to hit aspiring writers with a reality check: how many various projects have you worked on since then?
A: Are you asking about produced or unproduced projects? I worked on The Ladykillers and One For the Money. Those are both produced. I have worked on other projects that are not produced. They may be someday. They may never be. You don’t know in this industry. You just write what you write and go on faith what should happen will happen and if it doesn’t? You keep going till it does.
Q: I thought that, by the WGA’s own rules, unless they changed a significant percentage of the script then they were bound to give you screen credit? I’m not a member and I’ve never read the rules in their entirety, so I’m not sure.
A: You’re assuming it is easily computable what the percentage of different writers’ contributions or changes to the material are. It’s not. You don’t plug drafts into a computer that does a count on changed words and spits out an equation. The weight of different types of changes is arbitrary, the writing is all merged together without simple blocks changed here or there, and the readers are not subjective [in one arbitration I was in, suggested readers in the arbitration were writers I had previously been in arbitration against], drafts often go missing [the original draft of Excess Baggage mysteriously disappeared from the pile of scripts submitted to the arbitration committee during its arbitration], and Guild rules get weirder every day. Arbitration is very messy, not objective, and there is no clean answer about arbitration — or to arbitration. One of these days the Guild is probably going to lose a very big lawsuit over the mess that it is.
Q: Any chance we’ll soon see a reprinted and updated version of The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide?
A: God willing and the creek don’t rise, yes, towards the end of 2011, the new edition should be coming out. (*Note, this was completely optimistic thinking, it is more likely coming out sometime in 2012. Cross fingers.)
Q: What is your Academy of Film Writing all about? And do you enjoy teaching and workshopping?
A: I founded Academy of Film Writing because I kept seeing a pervasive lack of some skill sets in my workshoppers, things they weren’t learning in traditional teaching environments. The same old same old “Three Act Structure” blah blah isn’t really teaching people what works in film or how to set up a picture or how to write visually so a reader “sees” a movie. Often, the parroted teaching that just repeats and repeats in normal screenwriting programs actually hurts writers because it is parroted wisdom that doesn’t really tell someone how to make something in his or her head work on the page for film. So I started teaching classes that addressed things the general curriculum out there does not.
I enjoy teaching a lot. It is in many ways similar to the process of writing and pitching. You have these great convo’s about ghosts or talking cats on the moon and no one calls security. And there is this amazing moment when you see a student get it and the student’s writing just jumps three levels right in front of you. And that’s really cool. I’ve also seen my students and workshoppers go on to win significant competitions and get jobs in the industry and that is very cool. It’s sort of being the rock thrown into the pond and watching the ripples change the world.
Q: Can you give us an example of the curriculum you teach at AFW? How do I become a student?
A: I teach six classes twice a year online at AFW:
High Concept Writing
Art of the Pitch
The classes stemmed out of repeatedly seeing specific areas that were weak in scripts across the board — and not having anywhere to send people to take classes to learn stuff that was obviously missing from mainstream curriculum. Nobody appeared to be talking about stages of escalation in a story or opening and escalating a story in two parts going in. Nobody seemed to be talking about how to use motion and time jumps and space within a scene so that it works well on a screen. Nobody appeared to be talking about setting locations on the page so that pages read visually for a reader and make reading a script mimic “seeing” the film. I needed a place to send my workshoppers where they could learn this stuff and that place did not exist, so I created it and that’s what AFW is.
For more info on the classes, people can visit: :::classes:::
To register, visit :::register:::
People are also more than welcome to join the site forum at http://theafw.com/forum and ask questions. That’s the forum that houses the classes and workshop but the classes and workshop are in private forums and not visible to anyone not currently participating in a private class or workshop.
Q: Sum up your feelings of Hollywood today and the process of getting a script made into a film. Do you feel that it’s a good process overall?
A: There is no one process. It is different with every project. Sometimes you are lucky and it’s a good process. Sometimes you are unlucky and it is not so good. Bottom line, Hollywood makes dreams on screen the whole world sees. So, the end goal is magic. That magic. Getting there, because so many people and players are involved, can be problematic. But you shoot for the best and do your best with what you get. And you keep going till you get there, come what may. This all may sound very metaphoric. Bottom line, it’s a job. You do the work. You keep getting the jobs. You keep working on your own craft. You cannot control others, you can just control what you do and what you put out there. Which is pages. Make the pages good, cross your fingers people keep the pages good after you are through. That’s your job.
Q: If given the opportunity, would you write/direct/edit/produce your own film?
A: It depends. Producing is often a vanity title. Writers who attain a certain amount of clout are often given a producorial credit without actually producing. So asking about producing is asking about a subject that is very convoluted. Actually producing means you are going out there and either getting the money [executive credit], or you are line producing, putting together the budget and trouble shooting on set and making sure, if all the palm trees die, you have new palm trees for the next day shooting. Would I do it? Maybe. I’d rather someone else does it. If it’s the only way to get my film shot I’d do it.
Would I direct? Yes. If I couldn’t get a real artist. Directing is sort of like cutting hair, some people are artists, and most people are just cutting hair. I can give myself a decent hair cut. What I want is someone who can give me a great hair cut. So, my first choice? Is to get a brilliant artist director. There are not that many of those though. And, if I can’t get one of them? Then yes I would direct because most directors out there are just cutting hair and I can cut hair better than most of them.
Q: Are you currently working on any projects and can we expect to see anything from you soon?
A: Credited or uncredited? And I don’t say that totally tongue in cheek. With luck, soon. With less luck, in a while.
Q: Finally, this is where I usually ask the interviewee for inspiring words for aspiring writers, but I think I’ll just give you the floor and let you speak your mind about what’s really in store for anyone crazy enough to venture into screenwriting with the thought of making it a career.
A: Don’t follow rules. Most of the rules out there are crap. I know one rule in screenwriting: Don’t be boring. That’s the only one. Practice like it’s the real thing. Don’t outsmart yourself. Trying to be too smart on the page means you aren’t having fun and if you aren’t having fun, nobody reading you will either. Any time you get despondent or desperate, and those times will come – remember why you are doing this. Because you have something to say, because you have a story that needs to be written, because you have a story to tell. And if you don’t? You shouldn’t be in this business in the first place. Go out there and write like God. And to hell with the consequences.
*Originally published on myPDFscripts.com – excellent library over there go visit
*That art work at the top of the page is a collage by Cleland and the shot of me in there is by rock and roll photographer Deborah Chesher