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Take your time. You have to be detailed, and you have to make it as good as you possibly can. I got good advice early on. Someone said to me, "Don't write three good scripts in a year, write one great one." Don't think that you have all these ideas and you have to get them all down in hopes that one of them will hit a chord with somebody and make a big film that changes your life. You have to be involved in the process, you have to submit to the time it takes and the detail it requires.
I think it took 18 months to write my first script. But because I took 18 months, it was as good as I could make it, and that comes across on the page. If a first time writer goes and writes a script in 4-6 months, it's going to read like a first time writer who wrote a script. If a first time writer writes a script and it takes 12-18 months, it's going to read in detail and clarity that other writers who've written a couple of scripts might not match. It's your calling card and it's got your name on it. That's your art, so take your time and really dive into it. Makse it as good as it can possibly be. Because whether someone wants to make that or not, or whether they like your story or not, they won't be able to argue with the writing and the way that it's constructed. The architecture of your words is your trade. That's your craft. So make sure it's as good as it can possibly be, and that there are as few of them as you need.
Character. A great character makes a fantastic screenplay. In my mind, that's the short and the long answer. It's the simple and the difficult -- that's character. A great character involves us in a way that most plots can't. Even the greatest of plots with a thin character doesn't involve us, but a great character with a thin plot does. It's all about character.
I didn't approach [American Sniper] as if I was writing a screenplay about a wartime movie as much as I did write the screenplay about a man: the exploration of this warrior, what kind of man that is, and what kind of challenges that evoked. And that was the real effort. It wasn't exploring the war, it was exploring the warrior and the archetype.
Chris' story encompasses every warrior that goes off to war and the sacrifice that they endure for various reasons -- their dues and motivations. It was certainly a challenge to articulate the tension and the impossible stress that these guys endure in theatre. I find that I am a better writer when I can feel something of what I'm putting down on the page when I can put myself through it. Emotionally, it resonates deeper on the page. So I try to create a war between my ears and experience what that must feel like -- the tension, the stress, the loss, and the devastation of that kind of chaos, the impossible despair that is war. So that was the challenge, to live through that little bit of the writer and willingly lean into torment for weeks on end. That was the real challenge.
Like most people, I was in the kitchen. I was with my wife; we woke up early to watch. It was an honor and a surprise. My wife was crying and fell into my arms. It was a beautiful moment, because you realize that it's not only about us, but also our family, the people that love us, surround us, and have sacrificed for what we do. The long hours, the kind of art that we produce, it consumes us in many ways. It occupies us, distracts us, and affects us, the good and bad. It changes us by its subjects, motion and influence. So it was beautiful to see it on her and to watch that sacrifice of hers reflected in that moment. It was beautiful.
Jason Hall is a screenwriter and former actor. His screenplay for American Sniper has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and his past works include screenplays for Paranoia and Spread. Jason started out as an actor with guest starring and recurring roles on Without a Trace and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
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