FILM

Things We Learned at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference

Written by Adrianna Floridia and Andreas Babiolakis.

Last weekend, Live in Limbo had the utmost privilege to attend the prestigious Toronto Screenwriting Conference, held this year at Daniel Spectrum in Regent Park. Honoured guests included screenwriter David S. Goyer, who is currently in production on the highly anticipated Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Eugene Levy and his son Dan Levy who have a new Canadian comedy hit with their CBC television show Schitt’s Creek, and Showrunner Mara Brock Akil, who has helmed such popular television series including Girlfriends and The Game. 

The conference was a highly educational experience for all in attendance, but especially for the young eager screenwriters who had the most to learn from these seasoned professionals, that offered both advice for the writer’s room, and for real life. Here are a few of the major lessons that we learned from the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. 

Your Audience Is Human 

David S. Goyer gave a seminar on Crafting Mythic Stories, as the man is most known for his writing on the Christopher Nolan helmed Batman series (Batman Begins in particular), Man of Steel, and Blade, and the television series Da Vinci’s Demons and Constantine. For someone whose skill is so rooted in recreating some of the most prolific characters known to man, many of which possess supernatural powers and superhuman qualities, he reminds us that our audience is human. Even the most extensive fantasy stories are rooted in humanity, and as a writer, it is often a good idea to bring your own life and experiences to the table. 

Goyer explains, for example, that in Batman Begins, it was his idea to have Bruce Wayne train with Ra’s Al Ghul in Tibet, and for the audience to experience the character of Bruce Wayne experiencing this process, as opposed to just his alter ego of Batman. This idea came from Goyer’s own personal experience, as he travelled to Tibet on his own and realized that this part of his own life could be embedded into Batman’s story. 

As well, basing Batman’s identity on a childhood phobia of bats humanizes the character and justifies his decision to confront his fears by becoming them- by embodying the thing that he fears most. 

There are many ways to humanize a character, and that is the best way to reach out to an audience. Every character has desires and motivations. The villain of the story is not a villain in their eyes. Everybody is the hero of their own story, and in writing characters we must view them this way. These are the ways in which characters become relatable- good or bad, they all have to possess human qualities to be believable. 

Bisociation 

Screenwriter turned college professor Corey Mandell taught us an incredibly important term for any aspiring television writer. 
Bisociation is the dissolvement of apparent paradoxes. 
It’s one thing to have a great idea for a television series. In fact, HBO this year alone will purchase 200 pilots. That’s an insane number considering how many of those shows will actually take off.  So how do you stand out from the pack? The best television series take two of the most contradictory ideas and find a way to bring them together. This is what is known as bisociation. To do it believably is the trick, because our mind naturally rejects the joining of these two paradoxes. However, when done correctly, by pulling these two paradoxes as far apart as possible, we must find an in-between of how these opposing ideas may come together. 
Take Breaking Bad for example. Breaking Bad takes the most weak, innocent, good hearted man and turns him into Scarface. No one going into this show would believe how Walter White would turn out. According to Corey Mandell’s model, A is Walter White, B is Heisenberg, and C is when he is both simultaneously. Each character possesses a “heart of darkness”, which is some sort of combination of what they love, what they fear, and the worst thing that could ever happen to them. In the case of Walter White, his heart of darkness is the fact that he may die of cancer, to leave his wife, handicapped son, and unborn child alone to fend for themselves. This is the motivating factor that makes Walter become Heisenberg. It’s high concept, and it’s unexpected, but once you have your A and your B and they are pulled far enough apart to be nearly unbelievable, you have the potential to create something extremely satisfying and can create a vehicle for amazing television. 

Keep on Pitching and Taking Notes 

Showrunner Mara Brock Akil was incredibly hard working in the writer’s room before she helmed her own television shows. She knew her place as a staff writer, where you can’t just see you own vision- you must help the showrunner complete their vision. With this knowledge, Mara kept pitching, and for every idea of hers that she loved that did not fit what the showrunner envisioned, she kept notes. Those notes accumulated to what she would use to eventually create her own show, Girlfriends, which lasted for an astonishing 172 episodes. The fact that she would pitch in the writer’s room also allowed her to stand out among the other staff writers, eventually being trusted to help out with other aspects of running the show, which all contributed to her skill set when it came to being a showrunner herself. She even credits her day job at the Gap to helping her get to where she is today. Taking a job that just allowed her to pay the bills and get by, gave her the freedom to write at night and to keep going with her passion. Instead of pursuing journalism straight out of college, (which she had majored in), she worked away during the day and focused on writing at night. If you know that you want to write, do whatever you can to pursue it. Mara even says that her job as a manager at the Gap gave her the skills to help manage a team of writers. As a Showrunner, it’s her job to motivate and to lead the pack- to have her vision manifest. In the end, it all paid off, as she now has two successful comedies under her belt, and a new drama series called Being Mary Jane which she calls a passion project. 

Writing Can be as Fun as it is Challenging, Especially with your Team

The team behind the investigative thriller 19-2 sat on stage for us all to stare at. This is a process they are very familiar with producer name sitting right at the end of the table. We were bolted to our seats with our gazes peering into their creative brains as they tried to pitch a new episode idea. The team, led by writer Bruce Smith, worked on a story idea that morning in a quick hurry to show the students of that lecture what it takes to function as one unit. There was a whiteboard caked in notes and different coloured scratches. We listened to the new episode’s blueprints and then heard how it can be questioned by a higher up with financial success on the brain (Tom Hastings comedically put pressure on the team). It was a highly informative session, because it is interesting to finally see how the interview process may go down and not just the literary resumé.  The team worked on an initial theme to branch our from and a multi-act structure to flow with (they had about five or six in their example). They could not stress enough how important it is to write with a sense of relevance, especially since they focus on making a realistic show and not a sensationalized one that grips its viewers with cliff hangers. 19-2 depends on captivating viewers with pure depth, so a cohesive story is essential. With the main writer Bruce Smith pitching most of the episode himself. We truly got a sense of how a team works, which is necessary at such an event where we are so often guided to write for ourselves (which is always good but not always the scenario you will be in). 

Be anchored by what works, but strive to push that mold

Eugene Levy is a comedic legend. To even attempt to list the productions he has been a part of is to surely limit all he has done. His son Dan Levy has tried to follow in his father’s footsteps as being a representative of Canadian talent. To have both father and son talk to us about their collaborative effort Schitt’s Creek was a humbling experience that had everyone engaged, roaring with laughter and applauding with the utmost sincerity. We had a different approach to screenwriting with this seminar, because both Levy men write characters with more detail than they write lines. “I can’t write a joke” said Eugene Levy. Yes, that Eugene Levy that has been a part of every Western household for decades. He discussed the notion of writing within a fixed formula that has worked in comedy since the dawn of the nuclear family sitcom: The straight man. To have one character act neutrally while the world around them acts crazily has been successful for generations, and both Levys know this (Eugene is this role on Schitt’s Creek). I asked them how they come up with fresh comedy since they use a format that has been done for over sixty years. After Eugene claimed that he is not a joke writer, Dan joined in by stating that they put their priorities on making funny characters. That way, situations can be funny since the people are. They feel that pushing jokes out can call for stale writing. If anything, both of them want to go against typical comedy writing next season. Dan claims he wants to have an uncomfortably long moment of silence in one episode that may be too awkward for television viewing. On that note, both Levy men also stated their love for comedy that is not afraid to stand back from making the audience laugh for moments of clarity and development. They hope to achieve such power with their show. They encouraged us to do the same; break ground but do not forget what works, too. 

The event was an overall success that pushed us but also made us remember that we are all in this position together. Even writers who have made it struggle, but their tips on how to work around the difficulties is an absolute gold mine for any aspiring screenwriter. Quentin Tarantino once said that one has to make Reservoir Dogs in order to make it in the film world. He is not wrong, but it is an event like this that both adds confidence and sense to such a startling line and to also make that impossibility all the more obtainable. 

Eugene Levy is a comedic legend. To even attempt to list the productions he has been a part of is to surely limit all he has done. His son Dan Levy has tried to follow in his father’s footsteps as being a representative of Canadian talent. To have both father and son talk to us about their collaborative effort Schitt’s Creek was a humbling experience that had everyone engaged, roaring with laughter and applauding with the utmost sincerity. We had a different approach to screenwriting with this seminar, because both Levy men write characters with more detail than they write lines. “I can’t write a joke” said Eugene Levy. Yes, that Eugene Levy that has been a part of every Western household for decades. He discussed the notion of writing within a fixed formula that has worked in comedy since the dawn of the nuclear family sitcom: The straight man. To have one character act neutrally while the world around them acts crazily has been successful for generations, and both Levys know this (Eugene is this role on Schitt’s Creek). I asked them how they come up with fresh comedy since they use a format that has been done for over sixty years. After Eugene claimed that he is not a joke writer, Dan joined in by stating that they put their priorities on making funny characters. That way, situations can be funny since the people are. They feel that pushing jokes out can call for stale writing. If anything, both of them want to go against typical comedy writing next season. Dan claims he wants to have an uncomfortably long moment of silence in one episode that may be too awkward for television viewing. On that note, both Levy men also stated their love for comedy that is not afraid to stand back from making the audience laugh for moments of clarity and development. They hope to achieve such power with their show. They encouraged us to do the same; break ground but do not forget what works, too. 

The event was an overall success that pushed us but also made us remember that we are all in this position together. Even writers who have made it struggle, but their tips on how to work around the difficulties is an absolute gold mine for any aspiring screenwriter. Quentin Tarantino once said that one has to make Reservoir Dogs in order to make it in the film world. He is not wrong, but it is an event like this that both adds confidence and sense to such a startling line and to also make that impossibility all the more obtainable.

About author

Adriana Floridia is a film critic and singer from Toronto. She founded the website Fresh from the Theatre, and her other writing credits include Scene Creek, The Toronto Film Scene, Movie Mezzanine, IndieWIRE, and Live in Limbo. She also sings in a dream/pop band She Said She Said. She loves film and music and enriches her life with both everyday.