By Ann Baldwin and Pen Densham
Get to know some of the best-selling screenwriting and filmmaking authors/teachers in the industry in The Future of Story Interview Series and meet them in-person at The Future of Story Conference in Los Angeles on August 27.
Pen Densham is an accomplished and award-winning writer-director-producer-author and a principal of Trilogy Entertainment Group. He’s spent his lifetime in the business of entertainment, selling films and television series, as well as hiring, mentoring, and collaborating with A-list writers along the way. Pen created the story for the revisionist Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves and co-wrote and produced the screenplay with his Trilogy partner John Watson. He wrote and directed Moll Flanders for MGM, as well as writing and directing Houdini for TNT. Pen and Trilogy have produced fourteen feature films such as Back Draft and Blown Away and worked with talent such as Jodie Foster, Morgan Freeman, Jeff Bridges, Robin Wright, Bill Murray, Ron Howard, Kevin Costner, & Sylvester Stallone. Pen is proud to have personally revived both The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone franchises for their return to television. Pen recently released his new book, Riding The Alligator: Strategies For A Career In Screenplay Writing (and not getting eaten) (Michael Wiese Productions 2011) http://www.ridingthealligator.com. Pen is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts.
Ann: In your new book, Riding The Alligator, you talk about the correlation between movies and dreams; what did you discover through your research?
Pen: I don’t think it is an accident that Hollywood is called “The Dream Factory”. Scientists have only recently had the ability to study brain behavior while people sleep, but they seem to be coming to a consensus that mammals like us dream as a way of integrating daily changes into our overall psyche, sort of like a computer hard drive being optimized to make all its information more integrated and effective. I believe we go into a trance-state when we watch a movie and through observing the characters’ struggles and strategies on the screen we perceive their behavior on what I call our “dream receptors” and we integrate what we have learned into our own knowledge base. So we don’t have to be stabbed like Caesar to learn what betrayal is, and we don’t have to suffer like Romeo and Juliet – we have the privilege of learning from their portrayed experiences.
Ann: Have your sleeping dreams played a part in your professional career? Can you explain how?
Pen: I have come to learn that the phrase “sleep on it” actually works. When I run into a roadblock I have found that it is frequently a good idea to stop trying to solve the problem and let my subconscious integrate it into my knowledge while I sleep. I often find solutions coming when I am awake the next day that I never would have anticipated. I also am grateful when I am infrequently – buy joyously – able to let words flow out of my subconscious onto the page while writing. This is almost like taking dictation or channeling. I find that usually works created this way are narratively much richer.
Ann: Tell us about what you call “The Nugget” and what you found in regard to habits and change.
Pen: In order to try and more effectively communicate with writers, Trilogy and myself have conjured various words to short-hand concepts. One of them is to describe a character’s internal change in a story – what we call “The Nugget”. We create our characters so that, in the first act, this negative element – the nugget – is in their backstory: one simple, powerful, defining, and sometimes, horrible thing. They live with that thing, but haven’t absorbed or dealt with it. In a sense it haunts them – a failed life script or emotional program. I.E. a man got a woman pregnant and married her. He constantly blames his daughter - the child - for trapping him in a marriage, creating a woman who has deep uncertainty with her own relationships. When the daughter realizes she is not responsible for her father’s feelings, she is able to throw off her old habits and become her true self. This character’s nugget could take place in any background – ancient Rome, on a spaceship in the future, or in a romance where the woman must learn to trust herself before she can trust the love of another. When we’re watching a movie, we’re really watching these kinds of character struggles and changes, and if a character does not have a nugget and does not change, the story is unsatisfying and will probably not attract the most talented actors, as they instinctively will know there is not a rich character to play.
Ann: In your book, Riding The Alligator, you discuss “Imaginary Bears;” what are they and how can we deal with them?
Pen: One of the perspectives I have on creativity is that it is fueled by the same psychological engine as anxiety – part of the ability to conjure things that haven’t happened. I think people with an artistic nature are more prone to suffer doubt and create negative anticipations and fears. These can be quite frightening and I’ve seen them termed as “Imaginary Bears”, where the idea of rejection, failure, embarrassment, and/or really quite horrific and rugged thoughts can overwhelm us even though they have no basis in reality. Writers block is a small aspect of this fear of failing. The cure for imaginary bears is to find some comfortable place and invite them to attack you rather than to try and push them away. Pushing them away triggers your fight or flight reflex and can even give you physiological responses to these ugly thoughts, whereas embracing these difficult and negative thoughts on your own terms – although at first repugnant – pretty soon makes you realize they are nothing but your imagination at work, with no proven substance behind them. You may even find yourself chuckling once you stop trying to run from them and explore how insubstantial they truly are.
Ann: In the beginning of your story-creating process, what are some of the tools you use to help you build upon an idea?
Pen: One of the key things that Michael Wiese has done with my book, Riding the Alligator, has been to let me distribute a free chapter from their website http://www.mwp.com/ and from my own website, www.ridingthealligator.com It deals with creativity and how there can be no rules on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of where ideas come from. The process is almost magical and I consider it sacred and yearn to protect those instincts in myself and in others. The most powerful way to write is to allow your passion and instincts to bring out of you in any order that it comes, the creation of your stories. Sometimes they may be quite linear, at other times I have started with an ending. I have written some scripts in five weeks and others have taken many years. All I know is that the scripts that I wrote from my creative nature, my voice as it were, when I felt that I might be stealing time from my “real” work of writing for pay – those scripts have gotten made more frequently than the others.
Ann: What are some of the common challenges that new and experienced screenwriters face and what advice do you have for over-coming them?
Pen: When you are discussing originating your work or have a very early draft, whether you are a novice or a pro, it is important to avoid showing or discussing your early work with arrogant, dogmatic, or insensitive people. The creativity of screenwriting is linked to the natural instinct of self-doubt. One should only look to other trustworthy people for advice. I call the people I trust “story mid-wives”. These are empathetic people with an artistic soul who try and help us push through the pain of our own creative birth without attaching their own agendas and undermining our hope. Their feedback gives us the clarity to help reach our goals. It is inevitable that the script will go out to the most broad audience (ours is a communal business) but it should not be exposed until you have certainty that it is in its best shape, thanks to the help of your story midwives.
Ann: What is your favorite room in your home and outside environment? Can you describe them and tell us why you like them?
Pen: I find it very hard to write in a business office space, unless I am working with a partner or a writing assistant. My natural instinct is to poke my head around the door to check in with all the other exciting things that are going on in the office, rather than get to work. So I have installed a writing office at my home, with as few distractions as possible save for my antique camera collection, a few family photos, and my selection of iTunes favorites that try and lull me towards optimism! Even then I’ve noticed that my writing process seems to take me a long time to wind up to, instead of the words coming to me. I always feel guilty I’m not working hard enough when this happens and yet every day I seem to blurt out somewhere in the late afternoon a few doubt-filled pages that, when I read them the following morning, amaze me how much better they are than what they had felt like when I was writing them.
Ann: Do you have any special quotes or sayings that you keep visible in your work environment to help inspire, motivate, and encourage you?
Pen: One thing I say to myself - and my family, apologetically – when I have to retire to my office is “scripts don’t write themselves”. When I’m editing my material my mantra is “No dead time” – the story must not plateau, it must always move. And when I’m trying to write something that is too complicated I find myself muttering “simplify and win”. I’m not sure if these are profound pearls of wisdom but they keep coming back!
Ann: What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
Pen: Two of my current favorite projects are quite diametrically opposed – one is a Oscar caliber drama called LAND OF ENCHANTMENT, about a cop with a tragedy in his past investigating the murder of a Navajo artist. The other is a 1700’s steam-punk historical swashbuckler called ROGUE, with all the fun and energy of Robin Hood.
Ann: Can you tell us about The Future of Story conference coming up in Los Angeles on August 27th and what your role is?
Pen: My book is published by Michael Wiese and Ken Lee who run MWP. They are the most innovative and artist-friendly film publishers in the world and because of their approach they have also become the largest. They have a genuine desire to support creative filmmaking in all its kaleidoscopic possibilities, and this conference is an extension of their philosophies. I’m privileged to be running a panel with several very celebrated authors and futurists, and am looking forward to learning from them.
Ann: How is this conference unique and what do you think attendees will find useful?
Pen: MWP have organized the Future of Story conference with an amazing number of film book authors present and on panels, so that the people who use these books can meet and explore with their writers and also interface with the panel guests on what is perhaps the most dynamic time ever in communications media.
Ann: Tell us about the value of networking at this upcoming conference.
Pen: One of the benefits of the conference is seeing, in-person, the authors of books that you may decide to buy after you have heard their philosophies in person. It’s a pretty amazing thing to have this many creative and analytical film thinkers in one place.
Ann: Thank you, Pen, for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights with us.
Pen: Thanks, Ann, I am really looking forward to this event.
To learn more about how you can meet Pen Densham and over 30 other MWP authors of some of the best-selling books on screenwriting and filmmaking in the industry, visit http://www.mwp.com/thefutureofstory and sign-up today to attend The Future of Story Conference in Los Angeles on August 27.