Frank Spotnitz… Ten truths ARE out there… and other Screenwriting Truth Bombs

The crowd arrived quietly. It felt like the middle of the night. Some of us had the absent look of the almost asleep… Well it was 9.30am, the crack of dawn for a room full of writers.

But within seconds we were on our feet. Suddenly there were screams and ferocious clapping. What triggered this mind-altered state? Paranormal activity right in the heart of London’s Regents Park?

Not this time. It was the wild reaction to London Screenwriters’ Festival Creative Director Chris Jones introducing LSF mainstay Bob Schultz, and the day’s main event: award-winning television writer/producer Frank Spotnitz to the LSF Breakfast Club.

Not this time. It was the wild reaction to London Screenwriters’ Festival Creative Director Chris Jones introducing LSF mainstay Bob Schultz, and the day’s main event: award-winning television writer/producer Frank Spotnitz to the LSF Breakfast Club.

What has Frank (one of the world’s most sought-after screenwriters and producers) been up to over the last 25 years? He wrote more than 40 episodes of The X-Files – the show that launched the Fox Network. He expanded this fabulous world with The Lone Gunmen and Millennium. This led to projects like Harsh Realm and The Man in the High Castle. The latter was adapted from the book by Philip K. Dick and produced by Ridley Scott. He co-wrote Medici: Masters of Florence. He has two shows on the air now: The Indian Detective and Ransom, and he is writing two pilots right now that he can’t talk about.

He shares three Golden Globes, a Peabody Award and has been nominated for four Emmys. We were honoured to have him with us on a morning that included insight, advice, and the reading of three X-Files scenes hand-picked by Frank. London actors George Taylor and Mary Jane Lowe played Mulder and Scully.

Here’s just some of what he generously shared with us in response to Bob’s notably perceptive questions:

He’s a “big believer” in luck. Be ready when it pulls up. “I think for all of us as writers – you work, you work, you work and you wait to get lucky. You can’t control when that’s going to happen. All you do is you just keep working and working and hoping you’re ready when that moment arrives.” He believes the reasons The Man in the High Castle didn’t get produced by anyone else were “one it was about Nazis – which scares people – and two it was vastly expensive. For Amazon, both of those things were pluses. They wanted to be noticed, they wanted controversy and they wanted to spend a lot of money. So it was just luck.”

Keeping a long narrative arc engaging is “really hard to do”. He reveals that in the X-Files “we were making it up as we went along and learning as we went along”. It occurred to him “probably in season three” that all the stories had to intersect into one. “I really didn’t know and it was when the movie came about that suddenly we had to have a coherence because the studio was insisting the movie had to give the audience something they couldn’t get from the TV series.” During the season four Christmas break they had to plot the movie, finish season four, broadcast season five and then release the movie. “So that’s when we really had a formal understanding of ‘how are we laying out all the clues of what’s going on with the aliens?’”

Writers learn things about themselves as they create their story worlds. As a writer he believes you “organise your fictional world in a way that you think is true…so it reflects you, whether you intended to consciously or not”. One of the themes he’s come to embrace is the importance of doing the right thing – but he says you shouldn’t expect the world to reward you for that. It’s something he teaches his own children. “I say you have to do the right thing because you have to live in your own skin.”

Character inversions can illuminate. In the Emmy-nominated X-Files episode “Memento Mori,” Scully is diagnosed with cancer. In one scene read with great sensitivity by Lowe and Taylor, Mulder visits her in hospital. “It was an inversion of the characters because it was (about) Mulder’s faith. It also, I think, was showing the secret of the show. In that ‘deeply romantic’ scene you see just how much Mulder loves Scully. “It’s a scene in a storyline that should belong exclusively to Scully, but actually the episode is as much his as hers. Because she’s so brave and stoic in the face of this diagnosis and he can’t accept it. I didn’t realise actually on the page the power of that scene until I saw how David (Duchovny) and Gillian (Anderson) played it.”

Popular references help convince the audience that the story is real. X-Files was his “film school for understanding that the way you scare people is by making things seem normal and familiar”. That’s why X-Files “by and large did not take place in big cities or with wealthy beautiful people – it was as ordinary as possible”. In The Man in the High Castle the cars were just like our cars – “only there were no optimistic tailfins like we would have had on our vehicles…It feels familiar but it also feels kind of upsetting, because it’s not exactly right”.

Be prepared to let go of some things. Especially in the Writers’ Room, so often the things he’s most attached to “fall out because it doesn’t fit the story”. When you’re doing it right “at a certain point the story has a life and logic of its own, and sometimes my external intention doesn’t survive”.

In serialised storytelling, “make sure you mine that moment fully before you go on”. In this environment of streaming, almost everything is serialised. In a serialised story “you’re only going pass this point in your characters’ lives once.” So “don’t go so fast in your plotting that you skip moments of realisation, character growth, emotional drama and texture”.

Hollywood really is a meritocracy in many ways – so if you have good material they don’t care where you’re from. American television “is a purely commercial market”. Developing a great script will open doors for you. “It’s as simple as that. I can guarantee it.”

Being a showrunner is not about you. It’s about saying here is the world that’s defined by this pilot, and “all of us together serve this common vision. If I’m doing my job right I’ve defined that so well that you’re going to bring to that room ideas that are consistent with that vision, but I never would have thought of them.” For Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s vision for that show “was so clear and all the other writers were organised around that vision”.

Good writers take their ego out of the way. “They learn and they get better. None of us is ever going to master this. I get terrified every script I write. I’m not exaggerating. Even then it’s not like I’ve written Shakespeare. Even Shakespeare in his best plays. I’ve got problems…. I’ve got notes for William Shakespeare!”

By Writer/Freelance Journalist Ann McGauran
Ann completed a playwriting course at London’s Jack Studio Theatre in 2017.

She’s completed a full-length play for stage and a number of short plays. She’s now working on a project to bring to the LSF.

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