eric heissererWho are you and what do you write?

My name is Eric Heisserer, a screenwriter and (soon to be) director. I’ve worked with a number of studios on a variety of genre films, but the ones that have withstood the arduous trek to screen are all horror movies like Final Destination 5 and The Thing (2011).

I’m looking to break that streak by shooting a script I wrote based on the short story Hours, first published on Derek Haas’ anthology site Popcorn Fiction. We’re in pre-production now, aiming for an April 2012 shoot date.

I’ve written a few other stories for Popcorn Fiction this year, like Last Vegas and Simultaneous. I try to write in at least two different mediums each year because it helps me develop/maintain new creative muscles.

On Twitter, I’m @writerspry.

Where and when do you write?

workspaceI’m a hallway commuter with a home office. I’ve been writing at home my whole career (and before then, too), so I’ve come to find a discipline in keeping a normal work schedule. Before this I was a cubicle monkey in the white-collar world, so my body is used to getting up and putting in eight hours every weekday (typically 9 – 6).

If I don’t write at least a little each day, I start to feel nervous and on edge, as if I were quitting caffeine cold turkey. My best hours are typically just before and after lunch. When I need to stop for a meeting or to eat, I try to break at a point where I know the next thing I want to write, because it makes getting back into the work so much easier when I return to the keyboard.

In my home office I have my computer desk, a reading chair, a TV, and a cork wall where active projects are tacked in the form of a hundred different index cards plus photos and magazine clippings as visual inspiration. The cork wall and a few of my magazine clippings are relatively new to my process, courtesy of my brilliant wife Christine Boylan (@KitMoxie), whose home office is just across the hall from me. (Check out her Workspace post.)

What hardware to you use?

I’ve recently upgraded to a desktop iMac with a cinema display, but my last iMac was four or five years old. I also have a small MacBook I take with me to set or when I’m going out of town. Both Macs get the job done, but I get best results from my desktop.

I use a lot of 3×5 index cards. White ones. Colored ones. Lined and unlined. I use whatever I can get my paws on when I’m seized with a new thought.

The cards are the first form my projects take, and they fall in two categories: Story and Snippets. In the story structure side of things I’ll have cards like “[hero] states his goal” or “[villain] collides with [hero] for the first time.” These are basic milestones that form the frame of the thing I’m building.

The Snippets side of the cork wall is for all the flotsam and jetsam that comes to me for the project. Specific details. A line of dialogue. A character description. An illustration from a comic book. A photo of a setting.

Once I have a critical mass of cards on the board, I take them all down and Voltron them into a single document. I will scan visuals if I need to. Then I create a new set of cards, this time designed to look more professional, and I print them on my color printer.

This is probably the most important step for me, because it tricks my brain into believing it’s a real project and not some crazy collection of thoughts. I use photos of actors to cast the major roles, and I look for images and key words that evoke the tone of the project. The casting choices aren’t meant to be realistic options for the actual production, but they remind me I’m writing words for someone else to say. And if I can’t envision the actors delivering a convincing performance in a scene, I know I’ve strayed off-course.

I do this with every project, but where these cards are most helpful is in a pitch. Studio and network exes love visuals and they love structure. It helps that the movie or pilot is already pseudo-cast for them, because it reinforces the tone and the size of the story. Through trial and error I’ve come to learn not to put too many words on a card, otherwise the execs will read them instead of listening to the pitch, and sometimes the writing on the card spoils a reveal before you speak it.

Here’s an example: I adapted the Popcorn Fiction story Simultaneous into a TV series concept, and then built the pilot structure as a modified procedural. When I designed my cards for the polished version, I made a title card (at top), my major characters, their supporting characters, and then the guest stars for that episode (at bottom). My villain/crime for the pilot episode is the card placed in the center; the Ash Killer card.

The right-hand column offers a card with two films as my thematic or tonal touchstone for this project, and then three sample episodes that I had developed. This particular layout of cards resembles a Tarot spread; the Celtic Cross. That was intentional, as one of my characters reads Tarot.

cards example

Again, at this stage there isn’t a lot of words on these cards, because all that content now lives in the Voltron document I built from my first round of index card collecting. These new cards go on my cork wall where I can see them as I write the script. They’re visual cues. They speak more to the characters’ motives than to story, because that can be my blind spot during scripting.

That was a terribly long tangent. Sorry. On to other hardware:

  • Sharpie pens. For that first round of index cards. I like their fine-point retractable ones, but any will do as long as it’s black ink.

  • Office Depot 4×6 postcard sheets. The fancy cards. There are other options; Avery makes some, but generic brand works just as well.

  • My Canon MP560 color printer. For the fancy cards.

What software do you use?

I use Photoshop and QuarkXPress for the card design process, because I worked in print design for many years, but they could just as easily be made in a word processing application. I’m just more familiar with Quark and Photoshop.

For the scriptwriting, I use Final Draft. I’ve worked in Movie Magic Screenwriter, too. Both get the job done.

What would you change?

Not to cheat off Phil Hay’s answer, but: I would write more.

I tend to abandon ideas before giving them the proper attention. I have a bad habit of expecting a reader or studio response long before I get one, and I can talk myself out of a good idea like a pro. I need to be better about silencing the voice who discourages new ideas and new hope with my work, because it is painfully easy to say “This won’t sell” or “This won’t survive production.”

There is a town full of people ready to say “No” to my projects. I can’t be one of them.