Words of Wisdom from Screenwriter Susannah Grant
BAFTA Presents the Susannah Grant Screenwriters Lecture at the BFI Southbank in association with the JJ Charitable Trust. Grant has worked on many films over the course of her career including Pocahontas (1995), Ever After (1998). Erin Brokovich (2000), 28 Days (2000), In Her Shoes (2005), Catch and Release (2006), Charlotte’s Web (2006), The Soloist (2009), and more recently on the TV Series, A Gifted Man (2011).
I had the chance to go to the recent Screening Q&A session and BAFTA screenwriters lecture at the BFI Southbank last weekend with Susannah Grant as the guest speaker. She was kind enough to leave some words of wisdom to up-and-coming writers, as well as share her own journey to success, and shed some light on the experiences she endured to get her where she is today.
The day started off with a screening of Pocahontas. Grant was one of many screenwriters as she would explain later, followed by a preliminary Q&A session before the main lecture in the evening.
Her earliest experience in screenwriting and filmmaking was an elementary school project where she had the opportunity to make a film with 12 of her classmates. Grant used this a a place to showcase her rendition of a classic fairytale in the form Smellerella, in which she wrote, directed, and starred, naturally. Even at this young age she took to filmmaking easily and was adamant about expressing her artistic vision through to the letter. Little did she know that one sick day absence would lead to a full scale revolt and overhaul of her story. Not to mention she was also replaced as the lead. Fortunately for Grant this was only the first of her opportunities to revisit the story Cinderella and Disney.
Working on Pocahontas was her first professional experience as a working screenwriter. She had been found by Disney after winning a competition whilst still in film school. Despite being a writer on the film however, she was only one of many who was contributing the specific vision Disney had in mind. She went on to explain that in prior animated films stories were told by the storyboarders as opposed to writers, so there was a slight dissonance between the two; the storyboarders didn’t want the writers to influence the visual storytelling they had already had in mind. She spoke of the Pocahontas as a bootcomp which imparted necessary rigorous experience for Grant which put her in the position to work on eventually move on the further projects where she had more creative control.
Despite being on board as a screenwriter her creative involvement usually varied depending on the project. Whilst working on Pocahontas she wrote to a specific story outline, and no scene was rewritten less than 35 times until it was perfect. She worked on Charlie’s Angels (2000) as one of many contributing writers, as writer #12 of #15 as far as she knew, where she was specifically tasked with making sure the dialogue was perfect.
Her advice for upcoming screenwriters: Keep writing and be very hard on yourself. Don’t hold onto praise, and find someone who loves you despite the poor quality writing you produce. Everyone writes terribly, and will only get better once the terrible writing is out of the way first. As on every project, there is naturally always a lot of writing and rewriting until everything is perfect. But it’s nice that you will always be able to come up with something else, and do something better eventually.
Grant also talked about how writing on a productions is a very collaborative process. She believes than things go smoothly when writing duties are down to a singular writer, with input from directors, producers, and others working on the production are also necessary to the process to get different perspectives on how to enhance one vision. As opposed to when too many writers are working together on one script – it’s not an easy process. The writers are almost competing to tell their own story.
She mentioned that television productions differ to film productions because television is a writer’s medium, whereas films are directors medium. On television, writers are only ever rewritten by the show-runners, but on films, the writer’s scripts can be written a number of times by a number of writers. It’s important to know who you’re writing for and what you’re contributing to a project. It’s key to know who’s vision you’re trying to fulfil.
Grant talked about the differences between adapting existing stories and events into screenplays and writing original work for yourself. There is a responsibility to stay true to the source material and capture the ideas behind what the original intended to convey, but to also stay true to what you feel comfortable with without pandering. This came up multiple times in her career such as when working on Pocahontas and on The Soloist; she decided that she had a responsibility to portray Pocahontas correctly for the young female demographic, being a good role model and realistic portrayal of an adventurous, athletic girl. As well as staying true to the true Pocahontas’ life story, and her not ending up with John Smith in the end. Not to mention it was important that while this film was intended to be light entertainment suitable for children, it was still condensing some of the dark times of American history in 90 minutes with song, as she put it. The idea had to still come across it was an important historical time, despite not necessarily being the core focus of the story.
Similarly on The Soloist, a decision was made to remove a character from the script entirely, who was present in the real life story the film was based on, but what the character represented and contributed in the overall context of the story was better applied to another character. This decision didn’t take away from what the film attempted to say about the character Steve Lopez’s life, despite changing factual events.
Susannah Grant has been lucky enough to work on varying genres on films, with varying degrees of creative control. She’s written male characters, female characters, young, old, black and white, from all across the world, and all across time. She’s had the opportunity to have her unique voice heard and is now using what she’s learned over the course of her career to impart some of her wisdom to the next wave of writers coming into the industry.