When Script Central’s Scott Roberts told Stephen Guest in 2009 that his protagonist didn’t have much of an arc, it was the first time Stephen had heard the term. Fast forward a few years and Stephen’s third script, ‘The Other Side Of Normal’, recently won the Grand Jury Prize for the ‘New York Screenplay Contest’. Scott caught up with Stephen.
Scott Roberts - Congratulations. Bet your mum’s proud.
Stephen Guest – Funny you should say that because one of the things I’ve learnt over the years is, don’t get your mum to read your script. She knows less than you and that’s not a good thing! In fact, don’t give your script to anyone who doesn’t ask for it and isn’t script-smart. You can’t have dialogue with non-motivated fools.
Scott Roberts - Strong words!
Stephen Guest– It’s a tough industry. Intelligent industry. A director once told me that if a script is any good it will eventually be picked up. The industry demands structure, characterisation, subtext etc. You can’t write without it and non-writers don’t understand it. Sorry mum (laughs).
Scott Roberts -How did you learn it without formal training? You just walked in off the street, so to speak.
Stephen Guest–By not kidding myself that I knew what I was doing, embracing criticism and a lot of paid coverage. Especially the third. But it’s the first two that set up the third. For ‘The Other Side Of Normal’, I had seven lots of coverage with three agencies. Six panned it – I mean really panned it. Everyone hated the female protagonist - and I hated them for writing it. But I realized these people knew more than me so I had to find a way to accommodate their views while keeping my protagonist the way I wanted her.
Scott Roberts - How did you do it?
Stephen Guest–By becoming better at translating my thoughts on the page.
Scott Roberts - For example?
Stephen Guest– Getting the structure right, especially Acts 2 and 3, to relentlessly drive the story towards a conclusion. Understanding subtext – when a character says ‘yes’ they actually mean ‘no’. So when Pipa (the protagonist) says she wants to adopt out her daughter, we know she doesn’t want to but she’s frightened. Stuff like that.
Scott Roberts - Which brings us to ‘The Other Side Of Normal’. It’s a complex drama with a very simple logline:
‘An ambitious Manhattan lawyer is torn between her career and putting her Downe Syndrome baby up for adoption’.
Where did you get the idea?
Stephen Guest–About 20 years ago my sister had a T21 babe. As I was growing as a screenwriter, I realized an unannounced T21 babe was major conflict – pure drama! Why not, I said.
Scott Roberts - Is it about your sister?
Stephen Guest– No. But the issues Pipa faces are real, universal. It could be Beijing, Sydney or Rome. Pipa sees her life slipping away and starts thrashing about.
Scott Roberts -Why New York and not Sydney?
Stephen Guest– New York’s a global culture - blacks, whites, Wall Street, powerful lawyers, Central Park, Manhattan, yellow taxis. I thought about Sydney but felt restricted. I needed freedom to tell this story and New York provided it.
Scott Roberts -And you took three years to write it?
Stephen Guest– About three years. And 14 drafts. This is the hard part for beginners. I used to look at the names of winners and ask myself how did they do it? Well, I’ll repeat it: three years, seven coverages and 14 drafts. This story required a bit more than being chased by a zombie through Kings Cross at 2am when you’re half pissed.
Scott Roberts - Congratulations Stephen.
Stephen Guest– Thank you Scott. Thank you Script Central. I would have still been arguing with my mum about it if I hadn’t found you on the net that night in 2009. My mother, mmmmm! You got time to hear a story about her (laughs)?
Scott Roberts -Maybe next newsletter!