Creative Screenwriting was lucky enough to chat with A-list scribe Zak Penn about storytelling in the rapidly-evolving technological age, how the film industry is evolving and how great things are right now for screenwriters. There are more writing opportunities than ever before. Find them or create them yourselves.
Zak Penn is a screenwriter who has a self-proclaimed winking cynicism or sarcastic tone in his writing. Friends told him there were lines throughout Ready Player One (from T.J. Miller as I-R0k) that sounded just like his voice.
Some of Penn’s screenplays and story credits include Last Action Hero, Behind Enemy Lines, X-Men: The Last Stand, Suspect Zero, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, Alphas, and the recent blockbuster, Ready Player One. I guess we can say, he’s made it.
The latest film, which was directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on the best selling book by Ernest Cline. The movie stars Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Ben Mendelsohn. The complex narrative involves the creator of a virtual reality system called the OASIS. When the founder dies, he leaves his fortune to the VR player adept enough to find the hidden Easter Egg.
In this exclusive interview, Penn discusses the ins and outs of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality), the key to narrative storytelling, the importance of a good experience, and why now is actually the best time for screenwriters.
ENTERING AN EXCITING NEW WORLD FOR SCREENWRITERS
VR is a created universe or digital universe that you enter through goggles to be immersed in the digital world. AR is the project of digital elements into the real world, which could be seen through glasses or a screen. These new technologies are changing the way movies and games are being experienced and written.
“First of all, I think there are games that use both of those technologies and games need some sort of narrative to them,” said Penn. “However, having to write a narrative that fits a game is not usually helpful. Narrative fiction and games do not naturally go together. A very clever person has to figure out how to marry the two.”
Game playing is active and storytelling is passive, so it’s difficult to create a compelling story within a game. Penn wants for each individual audience member to think they are part of his story. In a game, they need to feel like a character that is playing the game. Essentially, the points-of-view between a movie and games are different.
“I think there are opportunities for writing within the other media,” he added. Likewise, aspects like 3D can enhance a viewing experience, so perhaps these newer technologies can also enhance the passive experience. In movies like Ready Player One, new technologies enhance the viewing experience, especially on the big screen.
“When great directors use [3D], it really does accomplish something. But, I think AR also has that possibility of helping the theatrical experience. I don’t know if it can help narratively, but it will help with the experience of watching a movie. It could make it even more exciting if you can see a character step off the screen.”
At this point, to see a film in 3D, viewers need specialized glasses, so the technology Penn is discussing isn’t fully available for the general viewing public. The cinematic 3D glasses also have their own problems. “[3D glasses can] make the image darker. Some people don’t like the experience of it,” said the screenwriter.
“With AR, most of your vision is the same. You’re seeing the movie like everyone else, except there are moments of AR that enhance the image. You can take the AR glasses on or off and still see the same movie in front of you,” added Penn.
THE KEY TO NARRATIVE STORYTELLING
Despite the various differences in narrative storytelling, the important, and potentially only factor to consider, is the character that the audience is following a movie. Without this, there’s trouble. Aside from avant-garde filmmakers that go outside this narrative, great characters are the only way to tell a great story. Technology can only enhance the film-going experience not replace it.
“For the most part, you have to create a character that is compelling to an audience. If they want to tell someone else what they’ve read or what they’ve seen, they would describe the main character. That’s the cornerstone of the whole idea. Usually, you have to make more than one character,” Penn said.
In gaming, this can be different. A video game character can have a rich backstory, but the character’s abilities and the mechanics of the game are more important than the backstory for the gamer. Most players, including Penn, will even skip over the written portions because it’s less significant than the gameplay.
Some games are good at making something feel like a movie, but it’s at the expense of the ‘playability’ of the game. “I don’t get it. Why don’t you just make a movie?” asked Penn about this unusual practice. “Everyone claims they’re going to prove me wrong, but I look at VR for experiencing things, not for storytelling.”
Storytelling can exist within VR. Watching a film or series within VR could be something completely fresh and new. Friends could gather and watch a screen together so it would feel like they’re at a film or concert, even though they’d physically be in different areas (this is basically the idea within Ready Player One).
MOVIE SCRIPTS AND GAME SCRIPTS
Penn hasn’t ever written a VR script, but he did discuss the differences between a feature screenplay and a game script. Earlier in his career, Penn would write dialogue branches that were very tedious. Since every reaction is based on an action, there would be multiple scenarios necessary for the script.
“It’s all variations of the same thing. The story is often shoe-horned back into the game by necessity,” said Penn. “So you’re desperately trying to figure out, ‘How can I make it make sense that there is an unlimited number of creatures crawling out of the walls in this otherwise fairly sensible story?’ That’s what it was like for me.”
Penn clearly prefers screenplays, which are less tedious. For games, most of the “real writing” had been done before the writers even get involved. The storyboard artists or animators tell the bulk of the generic story before they bring in someone to write down all of the “tedious” talking points.
“I was hired [on Ready Player One] after they had already figured out a lot of the game and a lot of the key story elements. I was like, mopping up. That’s what it felt like to me.”
GOOD VR VERSUS GOOD STORYTELLING
Fundamentally, those who create VR are obsessed with technology, while screenwriters are obsessed with the story. For Ready Player One and various other movies that using advanced technology, it’s best for everyone to get together earlier. Like any film, collaboration is key and setting the stakes upfront is vital.
“It’s best to decide how much we want to compromise the experience in order to tell a good story or vice versa,” said Penn. “By the way, if it were me trying to create a VR experience, that’s what I would do. I would say, ‘Look, no matter what, the experience comes first.’ That said, the demands of good storytelling will be easier to deal with at the beginning of the process.”
For Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg brought in Zak Penn early on for the storyboard meetings. “As long as I’m willing to sit and listen, which I am, it’s helpful for both sides because I hear all of these great ideas. Then I say, ‘Here’s the thing to keep in mind. It still has to come back to, does Parzival/Wade do X, Y or Z? We can’t lose focus on that.”
“Take these great moments and make sure they are experienced by one of our characters, not just things that are happening in the background,” he added. “I think that some of this can be accomplished in VR if you’re starting with some sort of premise of what you’re going to do.”
CREATING THE BEST OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Clearly, there is a chance that movies could move too far toward gimmick or spectacle versus story and character. At this point, however, Penn doesn’t believe that’s a problem. “If the VR experience is good… I can very easily overlook some narrative problems, or ignore them altogether.”
The screenwriter compared the VR or gaming experience to going to a rock concert and hearing songs that don’t tell a story. Basically, it doesn’t matter if the emotional experience is positive. In another example, he mentioned trying to enhance visiting the Grand Canyon with a narrative. Clearly, it’s more about the experience than anything else, which is how Penn views the tech.
“You’re there for the experience and narrative has got nothing to do with it,” he added. “With games, narrative can be helpful and writers can help make it better and write better dialogue and make it be more consistent, but fundamentally, your goal [as a writer] is fundamentally different.”
As additional changes come to the entertainment industry, there is a general state of nervousness throughout Hollywood. Things are somewhat in a state a flux, but Penn believes there are countless opportunities for screenwriters to find or create work.
NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR SCREENWRITERS
“There’s so much content being made. There are so many writers employed. The Writers’ Guild is growing because so many more people are getting jobs, writing for television particularly,” reported the screenwriter. “The movie industry for a number of years now has kind of pushed Hollywood filmmaking to these bigger, blockbuster movies. That certainly hurt screenwriters [as a group]. It’s helped a few.”
As more and more blockbusters get made, there are fewer opportunities for non-sequels and smaller films to find their way to the big screen. But, this also means the outlet described as television (streamers, webisodes, etc.) is growing. Penn confirmed, “I look at it as a net positive, compared to the situation 8-10 years ago.”
The need for good writing continues to grow. Audiences who are watching smaller avenues, like television, are not willing to put up with bad writing. It’s too easy to change the channel or scroll for something better. There are literally thousands of options, so there’s no need to watch bad television.
“The industry needs more people who know how to tell good stories well—and more different stories,” added Penn. “That’s good for all writers. No matter who you are, it should be better for writers breaking in and for writers who have more unusual stories. In theory, it should be better for everybody.”
The screenwriter also believes that two-hour streaming movies are different than two-hour movies meant for major theatrical release. The bulk of Netflix movies are more like movies-of-the-week that NBC used to broadcast. But, of course, there are also differences within the many movies streamed and Amazon has been trying to get some projects released in theaters.
“They still have the same artistry that many films have. Most films are seen that way anyway. It doesn’t bother me. I feel like, if you’re a screenwriter, that doesn’t say what screen you’re writing for,” joked Penn. “When you’re thinking of how is this going to play in front of an audience, it’s a very different thought process than how am I going to get each individual to watch the next part of this?”
“You can’t change the channel in a movie theater. Once you get the audience in there, you have them captive. You can make them think that things are going one way and then take them in a different direction. I mean, you can also drive them out of the theater,” he concluded.
INSPIRATION WHILE SCREENWRITING
These days, Penn is paid to write for the majority of the time. But, he’s also inspired by taking ideas in his mind and conveying those ideas to others. “I do sometimes look at it as the nuisance of—I do still have to sit down and bang it out at a computer. I wish it could come out of my head fully formed.”
There’s a thrill to giving these ideas life and making them real. Whether it’s a television or movie, he gets excited thinking about how others are going to view and take in his work. The notion that his work is going to move an audience inspires him to keep working and grinding away at the computer.
In the past five years (with three years on Ready Player One), Penn hasn’t worked on any spec scripts. That said, he does encourage others to give it a shot. “That’s often where you do the best work—writing a spec. Some of the best writing I’ve done has been on spec. It’s more satisfying sometimes. I am good at pitching, based on my history of doing it, but I always feel like, ‘I should just write this.’”
“I have to write something that convinces you to make it, so why don’t I just do that?” he asked himself. The more he cares about an idea, the more he prefers to simply go ahead and write the story. Another way Penn remains inspired is by creating projects outside of his wheelhouse.
SCREENWRITING IS A WAR OF ATTRITION
Over the course of his career, he said there haven’t been many points where he felt like the creative well was dry. Instead, he feels like there are often stories that he is burning to tell. In a conversation with James Vanderbilt, who is known for the variety in his work (Zodiac, The Rundown, Spider-Man), Vanderbilt pointed out they both jump genres, which is often poor advice for a screenwriter.
“It generally is not good career advice but it’s what I like to do,” said Penn. “I just have ideas that fit in a lot of different boxes.” Penn’s current list includes a biopic and historical piece that he is keeping under wraps at the moment. As for good career advice, he advises for writers who want to quit to do so.
“If nobody can convince you to [quit], you probably will be a screenwriter,” said Penn. “I know that’s somewhat of a self-profiling prophecy, but the truth is that if you won’t take no for an answer [and] you feel excited at writing your own material, then even after people tell you it’s a bad idea or it’s a bad market, [you’ll succeed.] Rest assured, that’s what everyone has said to everyone else before you. That’s what they said to me.”
“Being a professional screenwriter is a war of attrition. So many people get their foot in the door and it’s who stays [in it] the longest is who ends up being the most successful. I never try to discourage people, but if I do and they find it discouraging, that’s not a great sign. When people told me to consider a different career, I was like, ‘Okay, next. Who else has some bad advice for me that I don’t need to hear?”