Nature or nurture: Screenwriting takes time says Sebastopol-based writer Pam Gray.

Case Studies in Screenwriting: Pam Gray

Lisa Rosenberg December 19, 2008

Sebastopol-based screenwriter Pamela Gray’s approach to screenwriting is the literary equivalent of the slow food movement: she takes the time she needs to find her story, nurture it along, coax her characters into life, and find deep truths that don’t emerge through a formulaic approach.

Best known for A Walk on the Moon, a ’60s era drama, and Music of the Heart, the inspiring tale of a violin instructor in East Harlem, Gray writes real stories about ordinary people who experience transformative moments in their lives. Her upcoming film, Betty Anne Waters, based on the true story of a high school dropout and single mother who put herself through law school to defend her imprisoned brother who she believed was innocent, will begin shooting in January.

Over time, Gray has developed a potent mix of creative habits that guide her raw ideas to rise and take shape as finished screenplays. Her writing process has much to tell us about how to grow a story, how to access character subtleties, the importance of staying tuned to the power of the visual, and when to step in to impose necessary structural elements.

On a daily basis, Gray cultivates a writer’s awareness—a heightened sensitivity to the world around her—by always carrying something she can use to document an unexpected thought, conversation, or event that may later feed her creative work.

"It’s key to carry a notebook to get down an idea or a snippet of dialogue," says Gray. "I’ve found that I really need to record things."

When Gray begins a new screenplay, she sets her intuitive and structured processes in motion at the same time. She brainstorms ideas related to her subject—thoughts, scenes, and dialogue—and also uses Lajos Egri’s ideas on character bone structure from his book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, to create focused character biographies.

When she becomes deeply engaged in the writing process, she finds her intuitive powers automatically at play; bits of life she has unconsciously absorbed begin to make their way into her script.

"If I’m really in the world of my screenplay, I find that I begin to pull from things I have seen that relate to it—something I overheard or saw on a bus, for example," Gray says.

Every writer has times when the process of creating a character isn’t flowing. When Gray encounters these, she uses techniques that both invite and will the character to come to life.

For example, she might write a loose flow of dialogue between herself and the character. Or, she has the character write his or her own biographical material, instead of writing the material herself. Sometimes, she investigates the character’s back-story by writing pivotal scenes that might influence the drama in the present day, such as, a first date or break-up scene.

If she is working on an adaptation, she begins with the same combination of intuitive and organized approaches, and then organizes the ideas she plans to draw from the source material—the book or true story on individual index cards. Then, she loosely organizes the cards into piles for the three acts, and begins to create a more disciplined step outline.

Gray’s film-watching habits also involve a focused awareness.

"I pay attention to what I want to be better at," she says.

She pays special attention to scenes that are emotionally compelling and move the story along with little or no dialogue.

"I notice how the writer trusts the audience," she says.

She also keeps an eye on the structure, noticing where she thinks the first act, midpoint, and end of Act Two fall dramatically, and then checking her watch to see whether these pivotal moments follow expected screenplay structure.

Gray’s evolutionary approach to writing extends to what she has learned once her stories have left the page. Gray says that being on the set of her first produced screenplay, A Walk on the Moon, showed her that there is more to a film than she had been able to imagine on the page, even after years of rewriting; She was able to experience her screenplay as a living thing.

"On set, I learned that, no matter how much I thought I knew about my script, you see other things once filming begins," she says. "It’s like being in one of your dreams; your imagination has been made flesh."

In writing her upcoming film, Betty Anne Waters, Gray had to tackle material that was not in her experience. On such a project, she uses a combination of imagination, research, and an effort to find a common thread between her own experience and that of her character.

"Primary research is a big part," she says, "speaking with the real people the story is based on, if possible."

Her research for this script meant a trip to Rhode Island to spend time with the people the story is based on, and reading hundreds of pages of court transcripts. She also got to know Barry Scheck, one of the directors of the Innocence Project, a legal advocacy group that uses DNA evidence to try to exonerate innocent people.

Gray also makes cold calls to sources. Though she says that she hates having to contact strangers, she has learned that people love to talk about themselves.

"People appreciate the fact that you are trying to tell their authentic story."

She says that the most important thing she has learned about the screenwriting process is the need for consistency.

"Even if your writing on a given day is terrible," she says, "it’s more important to keep the thread going. You must immediately get back to work after a bad writing day."

Gray’s biggest challenge as a screenwriter isn’t her internal writing process, but the difficult act of combining her creative process with the agendas of others in the industry.

She explains, "I still like to think that screenwriting is creating art, like poetry is. But it’s not; it’s entertainment. A lot of other people are involved in the process, and I have to find a way to make peace with that."

Lisa Rosenberg is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran story consultant whose credits include independent features, television, home entertainment, and Internet narrative and documentary productions. Currently, she is seeking production opportunities for her feature, Crawl Space, based on Edie Meidav’s novel, and consulting privately on screenplay projects. She has written articles for Film Arts magazine, the Oregon Star Film & Video News, and the French edition of Vogue.

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