My conversation with the writer of the winning script “Death of an Ortolan”.
Justin Piasecki wrote the original screenplay “Death of an Ortolan” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Justin about his background, his award-winning script, the craft of screenwriting, and what winning the Nicholl has meant to him.
Today in Part 6, Justin gives his take on the question: what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters trying to learn the craft and break into Hollywood:
Scott: What about characters? If you’re developing characters how do you go about doing that?
Justin: I’ll read three or four scripts that I think are kind of the pace of what I’d like to see things go at for my own thing.
I’ll make a timeline across my giant dry‑erase board thing. For characters, I can literally see on the left side of the room, “OK, at this point this is where his or her mind is. If he was forced to make this decision on page 12, this is what he would decide.”
Then at page 37 or something and ask “Now he wouldn’t be sure because the things in the seven inches before that on this big ruler of story that I’ve made, those things would happen.” By the end you’re looking at the right corner of the room and you’re saying, “Now if he was asked the same thing as he was on 13 he would make a totally different decision.”
I’ll color‑code, too. Like you said, there’s a lot of plots that need to wrap up in the third act. One part is orange dry‑erase marker and that’s his relationship with Vince, the protege prison cook. I’ll say, “God, we haven’t hit all the steps we need to hit for that because I’ve got a little bit of orange down here, and then we never hear from him again.” For me, that sort of crayon system works. If I was color‑blind, I’d be screwed.
Scott: [laughs] It fits. They say movies are a visual medium, so why not write from a place where you’re organizing them in a visual way. How about dialogue? Your dialogue in the script is great. How do you go about finding your characters’ voices?
Justin: Super annoyingly to anyone around me. I’ll read everything out loud as I’m writing it which means a ton of bad Southern accents or what I think a prisoner is going to sound like or a bureau chief or a cop or a little girl. I’ll do them all, because if they sound stupid in a room read from me, then I think they’re going to read stupid on a page.
If I’m embarrassed to say it out loud in front of no one in my house, then I should be embarrassed to write it down. That goes a long way. That’s the rule, for actual voice, for dialogue.
Look up interviews, too. I read cook books, I read chef’s bios, I read Anthony Bourdain for how food is described.
I read Nancy Mullane’s book Life After Murder. Those are four or five in‑depth stories of prisoners, and they’re interviewed. You really do get a dialect from that, I would have never been able to come up with.
The guy that wrote “Lincoln” read an entire dictionary of 19th century English in order to make the dialogue absolutely authentic. That was a little inspirational or at least made me feel a little bad for not doing homework. That guy did his work.
Scott: Tony Kushner.
Scott: How about theme? Do you start with theme? Do you find it along the way? How do you surface central themes, sub‑themes?
Justin: Along the way. I’ll start with the character. I think if you stick with your arc and your three tent poles there’s only so many themes that will work. I didn’t want to force anything in there, and staying true to your character and his journey will determine the themes.
Scott: How about writing a scene? Do you have any specific goals in mind, top of mind, when you’re writing a scene?
Justin: People do vomit drafts. I don’t do that. But I’ll do vomit scenes, then I’ll go back through and I’ll cut it halfway. “
Scott: Basically give yourself the freedom to explore long, write long, but then go back and trim and tighten so that it’s efficient.
You look at your scene and you say, “What is the goal of that scene?” If you realize that you have 30 lines of dialogue, but you actually reach that goal by line seven, stop at line seven. That keeps your best stuff in there. As much as you like that joke that you came up with for line 15, as much as you’re proud of yourself for making the scene directions on line 26 only three lines instead of four because you hyphenated something…
I just found myself doing that a lot. Probably originally came from that Blake Sneider school of I’d like to be here by 12 and here by 18 and here by 25. Page real estate was something I really had my eye on. I think you need to try to ignore that if you can the first time.
Scott: Have you moved away from that now? You said ignore that. Do you mean just allow yourself the story, the freedom to exist wherever the page count need to be?
Justin: It’ll naturally happen. If you look at the three or four guide scripts that you map out on your dry erase, those moments are happening within plus or minus four of the Blake Sneider page rules anyway. Whether it’s his rule or just the good pacing or the pacing of a good story, I think they’ll happen no matter what, but the first time you’re writing, I would just write dialogue freely.
Scott: I like your approach that you mentioned earlier. You find three or four scripts that have that kind of tone and feel and pace that you’re looking for. Go through there. Read those scripts. Analyze them. Track their timeline of plot points and just see, generally, what that is and let that be more informative of your process than say some strict adherence to these rigid so‑called rules.
Justin: Right. I’ll do it watching the movie too if I can’t find the script, then you sort of have the input of an editor.
Scott: Let me ask you a couple more questions then we’ll let you get back to your holiday festivities. Five or ten years down the road, Justin, perfect world, what are you doing?
Justin: I’m doing what I’m doing right now, which is waking up and writing for my day and then doing family at night. But I can only do that right now because I saved up a lot. [laughs] I would love to be working in features. I’ve got a few assignments in front of me now that I might jump on.
Scott: Finally what advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters trying to learn the craft and break into Hollywood.
Justin: From the perspective of someone that had no connections and is getting on in years, I’d say this:
With no connections, the route I found luck in was competitions and fellowships. Do your research, because there’s a million of them, some more professional than others. I’ve placed in a few, and how high you place matters of course, but personally I’ve had good results with Bluecat, TrackingB, Script Pipeline and Tracking Board (and of course, Nicholl). Some come with money, but they all came with exposure, that was my first pipeline to getting representation.
The fees can add up though. Film festivals usually host one, and there may be some niche places that could fit your script really well. So, like with anything, do your research.
Peter Samuelson, Justin Piasecki
And in terms of age, I was about to turn, I think it was 29. Lots of people go the assistant route for connections, I sort of found myself priced out at that age though. So for writing, there’s no rules on what age this can all happen, but I realized that if I didn’t take this seriously right now, then I was screwing myself. So, go work. It’s a full time job.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, here.Interview (Part 6): Justin Piasecki (2016 Nicholl Winner)