Write For A Star
Today’s post will be the last in our series featuring lessons learned from a 20-year look-back at The Legend of Bagger Vance. Today is also the final day of our Black Irish Christmas Special. I will stop blabbing about it forever!
Write for a star. That had been a mantra of mine for at least ten years before Bagger. It’s a screenwriter’s axiom. But I never realized how true it was till my agent took the manuscript of Bagger “out to the town.”
The rights were snatched up within days. Almost immediately Robert Redford came aboard. He wanted to direct and to play the lead, Rannulph Junah. Eventually he decided that the role needed a younger actor. Matt Damon signed on.
This was no small thing for me, or for any writer. To write a character that two such A-list dudes want to play … that’s something. It cemented, for me, the concept of “writing for a star.”
Are you working on a novel or a screenplay? Who’s the protagonist? What kind of role is it? It’s an extremely powerful and revealing exercise to ask yourself (as I’ve done with every book and script since Bagger), “Would an A-list actor or actress want to play this part?”
Think about Fight Club. Is it any wonder that Brad Pitt wanted to play the role of Tyler Durden? How about Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich? Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling?
Why did Matthew McConaughey want to play Mud in Mud—or Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club? Why did Reese Witherspoon option Wild? Did anyone have to talk Benedict Cumberbatch into playing the lead in The Imitation Game?
These roles are star turns. They’re Oscar bait. They’re career-makers.
When you and I write for a star, we have to ask ourselves:
1. Is this role vivid? Memorable? Unforgettable?
2. Does the character drive the story? Is he or she “the straw that stirs the drink?”
3. Does he or she change? Is it a radical change? Does the character evolve in the face of adversity? How much adversity? (The more the better.)
4. Does the character want something desperately? Does he or she pursue this “to the end of the line?”
5. Does the character have internal contradictions? Is she complex? Does she act in unexpected ways?
6. Is the character a hero? Is he epic? Is he larger than life?
Sometimes we as writers will be tempted to tell our own story. We’ll write a central character who’s a thinly-veiled version of ourselves. This can be a trap. Because you and I are real people who live in the real world, we unconsciously and inevitably impose limitations on characters based upon ourselves.
You and I aren’t going to shoot someone. We’re not going to cut off our right arm or parachute into Kobani to fight ISIS. But the hero of our book or movie might have to.
It’s an enlightening exercise to pick a few A-list actors and actresses and see what roles they’ve chosen to play in recent years. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and A Winter’s Bone. Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. What kind of role would it take to attract Meryl Streep or Jeff Bridges or Robert Deniro or Hillary Swank?
Keep in mind how smart these talents are, how many difficult and different roles they’ve played already. Can we give them something that will challenge them? Can we write a part that they’ll be desperate to play?
Story counts. Structure is critical. Theme is all-important. But at the heart of it all is the protagonist, the hero. They’re our locomotive. We’ve got to give them something to play, something that will stretch them, something they can’t say no to.
We’ve gotta write for a star.
This is a useful new barometer for ensuring that the stakes are set high enough for our protagonists and antagonists. Thanks for a very helpful series – I look forward to another year of “Writing Wednesdays” and “What It Takes.” Happy New Year to the Black Irish group and to all my fellow commenters!
I am not a writer nor do I have a career or make a living by being an author, screen writer; etc. etc. So the perspective through “my eyes” and question I need to ask: Why do “you gotta” write for a star?” I experienced “the difference” in what screen writers can do with a story. What a director, producers can do for a movie when I went to see the movie BIG EYES who gave respect and honored Margaret Keane’s talent and Life’s Story. My comparison: Comparing the movie BIG EYES to the movie THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. Even though Bagger Vance is a fictional story, Big Eyes is NOT. For me, I don’t know that Robert Redford and the screen writers respected Steven Pressfield’s talent/vision/soul when he wrote the book THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE. I saw the movie first. Then I read the book. I said to myself where in the heck was Robert Redford’s and the screen writer’s mind when they read “the story” written by the author of the book. So doesn’t make any sense to me “you gotta write for a star” which for me takes away from “The Authentic Self.”
I write essays not novels but I try to use this technique too. How would what I am writing sound if John Houseman or Morgan Freeman were reading it as a podcast?
I equate a Big Hero with a Big Hurdle. One elevates the other.
If the hero is coming out small, I would elevate the hurdle and then ask myself “can this fella get over it?” When I admit that it’s a No, then I ask “what type of character would narrowly make the jump, get scraped, lose blood in the process, and then keep on trucking until the finish line?” THAT is my hero.
Thank you for a great year full of insightful posts, Steve. Here’s to an amazing 2015!
Best advice in the post is don’t write about yourself. “You” keep getting in the way, and the only guy recently who could have written about himself and told a story a star would want to lead in was Louie Zamperini. Somehow my life doesn’t quite measure up, at least in terms of potential for the big screen. Or the little screen. Or any screen.
I’ve tried writing with the director of a film in mind: would Tarantino want to get behind this story and turn it into a film?
But thinking about writing a character that would attract the most discerning star is a really refreshing (and actionable) way to look at writing an MC. Thanks for this! I’m gonna give it a shot.
Thank you for this. I’ve cast a big A-list name to my protagonist. I thought it was hubris to do so, but you’ve just made me feel a whole lot better.
I find I sometimes write differently, when I conjure up my actress/actor.
The book-turned-to-movie that I loved was GONE GIRL. I devoured that book, and was in line the first day the movie came out. Why? One reason was because Ben Affleck was BIG enough to fill the shoes of Nick Dunne, the husband. It was perfect casting, in my opinion!
Thanks Steven and everyone who played a part in this blog 2014.
I am looking forward to another year of my favorite web site.
Shalom – BING
This post has made me think about who is the real star of my trilogy. I will keep this in mind as I start the third book.
Steven, I am eternally grateful for your books and for this blog. I wish you and all the readers of this blog a very productive 2015.
Great insights. I think the best, for me, was when you pointed out that–
“You and I aren’t going to shoot someone. We’re not going to cut off our right arm or parachute into Kobani to fight ISIS. But the hero of our book or movie might have to.”
Because sometimes we limit the hero to ourselves x 2, instead of x1000.
I got trapped by ‘not cutting off my right arm’. Once I saw that issue I tore the scenes and progression apart, changed the career of my star and now love my Romantic Comedy. Now, do I need to discover the perfect star and add his name to the Query and Logline? To better attract the producer or agent?
“We’ve gotta write for a star.”
Ok, just for that you get a cameo (it could become more) in my WOP.
Happy syn-fun 2015!
My sister and I watched Bagger last night and enjoyed it. Matt Damon was great and I loved Will Smith. That child actor was amazing. Thanks for writing this, Steven, so we could watch it. Now I will go back to working on my authentic swing. God bless and Happy New Year!