I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Bill Kelly, the screenwriter of the Disney film Enchanted starring Amy Adams. His other screenwriting credits include Premonition with Sandra Bullock and Blast From The Past with Brendan Fraser. As we noshed on breakfast he graciously answered those questions that I had about being a working Hollywood screenwriter.
DF: What is your writing process?
Bill Kelly: I get up in the morning, I have some coffee, and start working. I put on some bland 70s love songs that are the equivalency of white noise. In other words, there’s no music that would be challenging or interesting to me. I can’t write in silence so it gives me the distraction to go out of the present and disappear into your mind and imagination.
DF: How much of the writing is done behind the desk, and how much of it is done when you are walking or doing other activities?
Bill Kelly: The truth is I don’t use a desk, I use a laptop so I will move around the house with the Mac Book Air; fool myself that I’m in different places. But knowing what you are going to write is a huge part of it. Knowing what you want to write, knowing the story you want to tell. And then in writing leaving yourself open to the discovery and exploration that process provides. Finding out things about the character and about the story. In the ideal Zen state of it all, you will literally find yourself caught up in the story and you’re transcribing… your characters are talking to you – you’re like a court stenographer. You’re just listening to those voices go back and forth in your head.
DF: Is that when you know that a story is working for you?
Bill Kelly: Yeah, that’s one indication. I think the big thing is – this is like screenwriting 101 – what does the character want? What is their goal? Who is trying to stop them? What is the conflict? Is it interesting and something you care about? Set the windup toys in motion and see where they go.
DF: As you were learning the craft of screenwriting who were the writers that inspired you?
Bill Kelly: I read the book Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman – which referenced his screenplay for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Marathon Man – I really loved his writing style. He’s such a great writer – The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies. He has a very much, “Sit down, I want to tell you something.” There is a casualness. I was an assistant where I had to read a lot of scripts; so you would read these script by people who were trying to impress you. Like ACTION, GUN, BOOM, THE HOTTEST GIRL YOU’VE EVER SEEN – you feel like you’re being sold something like someone is trying to push Amway on you. Are you telling me a story or are you trying to show me how cool you are in terms of telling the story? I love the affability of William Goldman’s writing. This goes to all the great writers I connected with like Billy Wilder. It’s that idea, “let me take you by the hand; I’ve got a great story – we’re not going to rush – let’s walk down here together.” There are strength and confidence in that.
DF: Are there movies that inspired you?
BK: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I remember going to see it on the big screen – the mystical experience – I was just sucked in. My favorite stories are when extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. I’m probably less more so a fan of fantasy in an entirely different world: like when it’s on Planet X and it’s a bunch of weird, made-up names – I don’t relate to it. But if I’m telling a story and I’m in the 7-Eleven getting a Slurpee, and suddenly a giant Lizard foot crushes a Volvo in the parking lot – I’m all over that. I really like the prism of our everyday life – something extraordinary happening to an ordinary person.
DF: Do you think that’s what most people respond to when they go to the movies?
BK: I think it’s totally subjective. I think there’s an appeal in that I’m not watching someone other than me… I am me. It’s the human element. i’m Peter Parker. I’m a college kid. I know what it’s like. I’m on this boring tour and I get bit by this spider, and now suddenly I can spin webs and climb buildings – it’s fun.
DF: Did you go to film school?
BK: No, I have a sad but helpful two year Community College degree in journalism. It was very helpful in that we would have to literally write on typewriters – that’s how long ago it was. We were forced to come up with a story. It wasn’t like, “Do you feel like writing today? What’s your mood? Is the muse with you?” It’s like go, “Make mistakes. We need five hundred words in ten minutes!”
DF: So you think that regimen of being a journalist helped you as a screenwriter?
BK: Yeah, the big dictum for journalism is efficiency of language: how do you say the most with the least amount of words. And that’s a hugely helpful thing in terms of screenwriting because the minute you get verbose and self-indulgent you’re not serving the story, you’re serving yourself, and everything has to be a slave to the story.
DF: Do you think in your work, you’re trying to say something about not only you but for humanity as a whole?
Bill Kelly: I don’t think anyone should try to teach a lesson, but I think a movie has to have a thematic underpinning to resonate because those are the movies that stick with you. They’re the ones that you remember. A lot of movies – they’re fun and they’re popcorn – but they’re nothing new and they’re not about anything. You forget them by the time you eat dinner. But the one you think about three days later, five years later, you think God I love that movie because it connected to something bigger. So I think thematics are huge, but never being didactic or to proselytize.
DF: What were some of the mistakes you made early on when you were starting out? What did you learn from them?
Bill Kelly: I think my biggest mistakes were I came up with ideas and wrote scripts based on thinking this is an idea that someone else would like. And that’s just the path to failure. Trying to second guess what someone else wants. To be original, to be striking, to set yourself apart you have to ask yourself first – at least for me wanting to have a more commercial audience – “Do I love this story?” Because I’m going to have to devote my time and energy and ignore the people I love for months and months. And then you have to ask yourself will someone else connect with this as well. I was doing it the other way around: what is something that someone else will like and I’ll write that as opposed to what do I love… what’s really interesting to me. If it’s really interesting to you [as a writer], then there’s a pretty good chance it will connect with somebody else.
DF: Did you have that experience when you were writing Enchanted?
Bill Kelly: Thematically, yes. It was very much the idea of naked innocence confronting cynicism, fearlessly. And you needed a character that could do that fearlessly. The joke in Enchanted is never on Giselle; the joke is always on the people who are cynical because she’s pure and pure-hearted. That’s what I love about that.
DF: Do you have a technique for generating new ideas?
Bill Kelly: I’m not proud, I’ll watch old Twilight Zone episodes – I’m a hooky kind of guy. I like big premises and big ideas. Can I see a movie – what if there’s a certain part of that idea – and I can twist it. I’m not a fan of theft, but I’m not above an homage [laughter].
DF: Anything from Richard Matheson [writer on the original Twilight Zone series]?
Bill Kelly: I love Richard Matheson. You look at Twilight Zone you’ll find all the movies that came out of them. Those stories had great little gimmicks and twists, but they also had a thematic underpinning.
DF: What are your criteria for what works as a story idea and what doesn’t?
Bill Kelly: It’s sort of a gut thing. If I like an idea I talk to the people around me. You can tell in their response. I love an idea that generates enthusiasm in other people. Where they ask, “And then what happens?” If they simply say, “I don’t get it,” then I have to ask myself maybe something’s not there.
DF: As a writer does your friendships or relationships influence the stories that you write?
Bill Kelly: Yeah, your life experiences would intrinsically be influenced by the people around you. Enchanted is the story of a single father, and I was a single father. A lot of that language talking to his daughter is just me, verbatim, how I spoke to my son. Any time you can draw on that I think is great. And to see people around you that might represent a piece of a character, and their behavior and how they would act I think is enormously helpful.
DF: What inspired you to continue through the struggle as a screenwriter before you made it, and now that you have, how much of the struggle still continues?
Bill Kelly: I was too stupid, too broke, and I had nowhere else to go. I was Richard Gere in An Officer and a Screenwriter. So I was fortunate that it finally played out, but it took a very long time. I was literally at the quitting line. It was a Sunday night and my car was in the shop; I didn’t have the money to pay for it. My son – I carried him home to our little one-bedroom apartment on my back – and I realized I had to move back home to Chicago, not because I wanted to but because I was all out of tricks. And then the Tuesday after that I sold my first script. And is it still hard? It’s really hard. It’s harder than ever. That’s the hard-learned lesson: that there is no point that you say that I’ve arrived and everything is easy. It’s climbing a sheer cliff rock, and if you’re lucky you’ll get a ledge this big [indicates with his hand the space between his thumb and forefinger]. So you take a breath and there’s another sheer cliff rock, and that’s all there is.
DF: Do you see a change in the industry for screenwriters, and if so in what way?
Bill Kelly: I think it’s a much more challenging environment for original material… IPs [Intellectual Properties], sequels… those kinds of rule the day, because you have people who are operating not creatively or out of gut instinct but out of fear; and they have these lovely jobs with lovely parking spaces [and they ask themselves] “how do I keep them?” The easiest thing is to be risk-averse. In terms of original material, it’s a night and day.
DF: So that would explain why you see a lot of movies that were made in the 80s coming back.
Bill Kelly: Yeah, the Reboots: based on original material, but because it’s from a movie it’s no longer original material – it has the legitimacy to it.
DF: How can writers have more control over their scripts, or does Hollywood know what’s best for those scripts and the best way to change them?
Bill Kelly: Hollywood doesn’t know the best way to change them. The best way a writer can maintain control – I’m not even sure control is the right word because it is a collaboration. I think it’s a talent to navigate personalities, and rooms, and situations – to maintain and retain as much of your original vision as you can while being open to collaboration with other people that have talented things to offer.
DF: If someone were to come up to you and ask, “How do you break into screenwriting?” what would you tell them?
Bill Kelly: Now, if I was nineteen I would NOT go to film school. I would get a Netflix subscription and internet connection: anything you want to know about screenwriting is for free on the internet. Find out who the great filmmakers. I would get a camera. Learn to be your best critic and your biggest fan, and I’d go out and make a movie.
DF: Are there any projects that you’re working on now?
Bill Kelly: I have a movie called Timeless. It’s a science fiction story about a man who loses his wife, doesn’t believe in forever, discovers that this girl he only knew slightly is this heiress to a fortune. He decides to spend every dime to do the modern-day Manhattan Project version of a time machine to go back to her for one moment.
DF: That sounds REALLY exciting.
Bill Kelly: Yeah, I’m really excited about that.