Hawk Ostby, one half of the scriptwriting team of Children of Men and Iron Man, will provide an insider's take on the screenwriting trade at the Omaha Film Festival's Filmmaking Conference.
Speaking by phone from his Vermont home, Ostby says a big part of making it in the industry is "perseverance and discipline."
"You really get tested when you start off," says Ostby, whose writing partner is Mark Fergus. "I was fortunate in that I knew somebody who had a foot in the door, and he said, 'Look, if you really concentrate for three to five years you'll be doing what you want to do,' and I sort of had that tattooed behind my eyelids.
"Three to five years can be a really long time when you're watching your friends go on to their careers, doing really well, and you're still tapping away in a sweaty little band box, but then one day it happens. It doesn't seem so weird or outlandish when somebody calls and says, 'Hey, we read something of yours and we really like it and we want to try and make it.' I think in your own mind you fantasize about that moment so often and then when it finally happens it feels right because you've done the work."
Knowing your craft is essential.
"I just was so enamored with the idea of trying to make a living by writing, and I realized I enjoyed it so that it was going to be with me for the rest of my life anyway, so why not knuckle down and really try to learn what it is, what is a story?"
Hollywood seems unattainable but he says he and Fergus prove it's not.
"Look, I'm not a genius by any means. I just love stories and I stuck with it. It was more like play, and I think if it's that for you then you've got a shot. If you're trying to get rich or famous, you can do it a lot easier than trying to make it in this business. It's not really what it's about. To learn storytelling and all those things it's a long apprenticeship, at least it was for me. I know there are people who are way more natural who write two scripts and they're smash hits and they go on to have long careers, but that certainly wasn't my story, and not Mark's."
Collaborators for 15 years, Ostby and Fergus play to their respective strengths.
"Mark is very analytical. He can look at a script and say right away, 'Ah, page seven is where it goes wrong.' He's very clever at those things and I'm not. I'm more instinctual. I'm not sure what's wrong. I have to take it home to the cave and sort of chew on it. We don't sit in the same room and fire dialogue back and forth, it's more of a two-headed thing. We discuss at length the story and how to lay it down, and then Mark will go in, write the outline, sculpt it down to its essence, and then I will take that and do the first draft, and use that as guide for where we want to go. That draft is often written very maniacally and quickly. I don't stop to edit myself. We used to write and edit at the same time and what happened was we never got the flow of it."
After each makes another pass, he says, "usually we're left with a couple things he's holding onto and I'm holding onto and we just sort of argue those out and whoever has the best argument or is able to convince the other is what we go with. Sometimes we find a better solution spitballing things."
The pair have adapted Philip K.Dick (A Scanner Darkly), a comic book (Iron Man) and an animated film (the forthcoming Akira) but their adaptation of the P.D. James novel Children of Men may have been most instructive.
"If there's one thing we learned, especially on Children of Men, you can't always follow the book. It's just a totally different experience. But if you can capture the feeling of the book then that's what you're really aiming for. The book just wasn't working as a film. What broke it for us is when we came up with this idea that it's really Casablanca set in a dystopian future, complete with a spiritually bankrupt protagonist who has nothing to live for and then finds something and sacrifices himself for something greater."
The writers are trying to get a television series and two original feature scripts off the ground this year. One feature puts a twist on the heist genre and the other dramatizes a manhunt in the wilderness.
For details on Ostby's OFF Filmmaking Conference panels, visit www.omahafilmfestival.org.
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