“You are not alone, and keep writing.” This mantra ends each episode of The Screenwriting Life, the inspirational (it will make you cry) and instructional (you will learn about lava) podcast co-hosted by Meg LeFauve and today’s interview guest, Lorien McKenna.
Lorien comes out of playwriting, worked at Pixar on the stories for Up, Brave, and Inside Out, and recently served as showrunner for YouTube Originals’ Tab Time, which was nominated for a Children’s and Family Emmy Award for Outstanding Preschool Series. (Sadly, the Emmy went to those hacks at Sesame Street.)
Lorien is also a teacher, with her own workshops on character and dialogue, and experience teaching at writing retreats.
I had the pleasure of reading two of her screenplays, How to Set a Fire and Why, a feature based on the Jesse Ball novel, and For Worse, a gut-wrenching pilot about a college professor whose husband has just been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s Disease. Both pieces showed off such a finely honed perspective and voice—dark humor, biting wit, cynicism, and love above all of it—that the two stories, despite being radically different in plot, were instantly recognizable as being of the same author.
Since the question of “voice” is one I’ve been circling the past few months, that’s where I started the interview, but it quickly spiraled out of my control, as Lorien asked me to dive into my own personal motivations, my own “lava,” as they put it on TSL.
That vulnerability is scary, folks, and I thought about cutting vast swathes of this chat (and still did cut some), but this was our conversation, and I think it speaks so much to Lorien’s empathy, to her capacity as a writer, and even more to her capacity as a teacher, that, more than a simple exchange of questions and answers, this interview led to important insights about my own work. It felt a bit like I got a free masterclass for the low, low price of writing this introduction.
I hope that you, too, find some inspiration and insight in this here long-read. Please enjoy my talk with Lorien McKenna.
This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and to mitigate my own, personal embarrassment.
NOAH LLOYD: Congratulations on the Emmy nom for Tab Time.
Lorien McKenna: Thank you so much. It’s very exciting. I have no chill about it, and I don’t care. I think Hollywood is amazing, I love getting a chance to work with really cool people, but you know, it’s an awards show. I’ve been watching them on TV since I was a kid.
This one isn’t televised, the children’s and family one. But I’m going to act like it is.
I’ve been around enough to understand that the award shows are complicated and can be political, but I just love getting dressed up, and the pomp and the circumstance. And, you know, it does feel good to get external validation, for whatever reason.
But I get to get dressed up, and I’m getting my hair done, which is… I don’t think I’ve had my hair done since my prom when I was 16. I didn’t even have it done for my wedding, because it was so short. It’s a big deal.
NL: You get to treat yourself. Fully endorse.
LM: Anyway. So the part you can use for the interview is: “Thank you.”
NL: How does your voice come through both in Tab Time and the feature screenplay you’ve adapted from How to Set a Fire and Why?
LM: My voice is about identity, grief, friendship, and the people you surround yourself with. [For the novel] I had the source material. The writer had already written this character, and I had the benefit of that. His tone and my tone are very similar, so it wasn’t a far path to travel. Tab Time is a hosted preschool show, so it is a much more collaborative experience.
At one point [on Tab Time], I realized that we were all, in the writers’ room, making a show that we wanted to watch when we were kids. And so that was the beacon I had. What show did I wish I had? What was the message I wish I had?
In a feature, when I am telling a narrative story, I’m asking, “what does she learn?” At the beginning [of How to Set a Fire], the character is hopeless, and at the end she has a little bit of hope. That’s what she learned through setting fires. That’s her journey.
But in Tab Time, very early on, I needed to find a driving image. I got really good advice from a writer friend: “When you’re writing a show, what is your central image?”
I thought about it, and for me, for Tab Time, it was a big bowl of fruit. It’s colorful, it’s healthy, it’s sweet. You know what you’re looking at. That’s a banana, that’s an apple. It’s very clear, there’s no mystery, and it’s sort of eye catching.
And that was the start of everything. The show was a big bowl of fruit. The costumes, the set design, the scripts. Sweet and healthy and worth it and colorful and fun. And that is my voice as a mother, a combination of healthy and sweet and fun and, you know, “Eat that instead of candy.”
But also… I just realized this, as I’m sort of scatterbrain jibber jabbering at you. For How to Set a Fire and Why, the main character is 16, and it’s a movie I wished I’d been able to see when I was 16. To realize that no matter how horrible things get, you can find hope that there is a future to see, which I didn’t necessarily believe as a kid.
And for Tab Time it was, “What show did I want to see as a kid?” Which was someone telling me that my feelings matter.
So I think it’s all about me. [Laughter.]
When I write, I write to tell myself the truth. it’s always that. I’m always trying to tell myself the truth. Like I said, it’s all about me.
I’m not trying to put a message out into the world or teach somebody something. It’s really trying to figure out what the truth is, and tell it to myself, and then hopefully people like it. Like it and it wins an Emmy or an Oscar or, you know, whatever. That’s just a little cherry on the cake, I think.
I think my voice is about, what message did I want to know? [For instance,] the pilot that I wrote about a woman struggling with her husband’s Parkinson’s—my husband has been ill for a very long time. He had brain surgery very early on in our marriage, and I was getting a lot of pressure to leave. But you’re not supposed to leave. To even consider that, like, makes you a bad person. But staying is really hard, because then I become a caretaker. I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to think about that as I dig into the show bible.
What do I wish someone had told me fifteen years ago? Yeah, I think I just figured something out about my writing. Thank you.
NL: You’re welcome.
LM: I’m gonna write that down. Hold on.
We talk about writing as wish fulfillment, right? We’re providing a wish fulfillment for the audience, so why shouldn’t we be writing wish fulfillment for ourselves? What do I wish someone had told me?
NL: I’ve never gotten the title to one of these interviews as quickly as this one. “I write to tell myself the truth.”
LM: I do. That was a big process for me, figuring out why I write. I got to a point where I was like, “What am I doing? What is the point? Who am I doing this for? What am I doing it for? How can this be my purpose?”
Because it is so hard. Not just to write, but the life of a professional writer with a family to support and insurance to maintain. It became about identity.
And there’s all the answers: “I write to communicate, I write to share purpose, connection.” Or, “I write to win an award. I write to be known. I write to be famous, to make money.” And all those are okay and legitimate reasons, and all a piece of it. But fundamentally, what am I really doing? How can I connect to this on an intimate, personal, immediate level?
And I forget it all the time, which is funny. What am I today? What am I doing? I talked to a friend today and she’s like, “How’s it going?” And I’m like, “Terrible. It’s going terrible.”
NL: I had one of those chats today, too.
LM: For real. “It’s going bad. Here are all the ways it’s going bad.” It was because I think I had lost hold of my… it’s not just my purpose in my writing, I think it’s my purpose in life.
As a host of The Screenwriting Life, we really are trying to tell the truth as much as we can. And with my daughter, she asks me really hard questions, and I try to tell her the truth, as age appropriately as possible.
Okay, she still believes in Santa, and Miss Rebecca the Hanukkah Weasel, but, you know, gotta have a little bit of joy. And Miss Bunella, the Easter Bunny.
NL: But does she believe in Bunnicula, the Halloween vampire rabbit?
LM: Oh, no, we do the Halloween fairy. She gets her candy and then she gets a prize.
Yeah, I write to tell myself the truth. And I think that’s an important distinction for me, that it’s not to tell the truth, it’s to tell myself the truth. I don’t want to make my writing about telling you the truth, because then that gets a little mushy in terms of, what’s the truth you can hear?
The difference is, when I’m telling my daughter the truth about how babies are made. I have to smooth a few bits of it out, right? When I tell myself the truth, I have to be completely honest and vulnerable. I can’t smooth pieces out if I’m telling myself the truth, because I’m confronting the truth, whatever that means.
NL: My reaction, as you were talking about telling yourself the unvarnished truth, I felt resistance in my own body. It kind of sounds terrifying. How do you work with that? How do you work through those feelings?
LM: You can kind of tell just from talking to me that I don’t have a very sophisticated filter. I’m a verbal processor, so I talk to figure out what I think. I talk to figure out what the truth is. I’ll try things on. Which is why rewriting is so important.
I teach character workshops, and one of the things I do is say, “Okay, I’m in an interview.” You are your character, and I ask a bunch of questions. You have to keep your pen moving. You can’t stop and stare up into space, [you can’t] think about it.
You have to write whatever it is. What’s your favorite color? Red. No, green!
You’ve got to write it down first to see if it’s true. Red doesn’t work now. Green? Oh, their favorite color’s black. The way I work, I have to process.
So how do I stop it from being scary? It’s not scary for me to…
That’s not true. I’m really vulnerable and honest and truth telling about certain things in order to protect the things I don’t want to talk about or get into. My therapist could probably talk more about that.
NL: Should we get them on the line?
LM: Yeah. No thanks. Hard pass. I think I protect myself from that.
The reality is, if I don’t go there with my work, I’m not going to sell anything. Nobody wants to read something or watch something that doesn’t poke buttons. It’s the specificity of that pain, or those feelings, or that joy or that joke, that character, that connects with an audience.
So if my character is feeling a particular pain and articulates it in a very specific way, that’s what’s going to make you trust and believe that character, because you also have a very specific pain that you can articulate in a similar way.
I’m pitching on Friday. It’s based on IP, and I have to figure out why I love it, what my take is, and how I can make this very well-known character mine in a way that is special and different. And only I can write it, because that’s what you want to be. That person. Only I can write it now.
When I read How to Set a Fire and Why, I was like, “I’m the only one who can write this movie. It’s only me. I’m the only one.”
And I convinced people that that was the truth. I’m the only one. And I really like writing from IP, but if I can’t find that way into something, if I can’t figure out why it’s me, then I don’t really think I have anything to say about it.
It’s a good question. How do I [protect myself]? I don’t know. You just do it. You just get over it and you do it, because that’s what makes good writing.
Who’s your favorite writer?
NL: You’re asking me.
LM: Yeah, I’m asking you to do it.
NL: [Stalling.] Screenwriter or…
LM: I don’t know. Who’s your favorite author?
NL: I mean, the one that immediately comes to mind is Frank Herbert, just because I read Dune so many times when I was a pre-teen and teenager.
LM: Okay, what about Dune? What in that book just gets you?
NL: I mean… it’s because I had a distant relationship with my parents, and my father died when I was fairly young. And it’s all about a young man whose father dies, and then he has to continue on and figure shit out.
LM: So if [Herbert] hadn’t been able to access that—maybe not that specific story, that narrative, but translated there—that specific pain, it would not be as magic as it is for you. That author took the risk and put it all out on the page.
It could be the author had a different relationship, or the same one. But that sort of abandonment, grief, longing, anger. All of that is there so that you could process that shit, and feel seen.
As a writer, you’re telling the truth to yourself so that you can, I guess, hold up… not hold a mirror… but hold hands with somebody and say, “You’re not alone,” which is what that book is for you.
I read Anne of Green Gables in the same way. I was not an orphan, but I have always felt too big, too loud, misunderstood, too dramatic, getting everyone else in trouble. Like an outsider who desperately wants to fit in, but there is nowhere for me to be, you know? And I grew up in a terribly small town that had a lot of “interesting” points of view. So I read books about belonging and abandonment.
NL: [Retreating back into the shell of the interview.] One of the reasons I love The Screenwriting Life is that it gets into the day-to-day stuff.
[Forgot to mention that my favorite section of TSL is “Adventures in Screenwriting,” which is about all the day-to-day things that come up around the hosts’ screenwriting.]
So, what does your day-to-day writing practice look like?
LM: I don’t have one.
That’s so hard. I don’t. I wish I did. I crave structure and stability. One of the things I miss about my time at Pixar is that every morning, we would get a dance card printed out that had your schedule on it. And as meetings changed or moved around, you’d make little adjustments, or someone would hand you a new dance card.
But you knew where you were going to be, and what you had to plan for. When I was working with Meg on Inside Out, you know, I was, “Hey Meg, these three pages are due at this time and this sequence is due at this time.” I got to be that person for her.
I wish I had that full time in my life. I was just talking to a friend of mine, like, “I need a full-time producer of my life. You have this due, so you’re going to work on this for the next three hours. You’re going to ride your peloton here. You’re going to spend time with your kid here. You’re going to make dinner.”
I wish I had that because I don’t have the executive function required. I have A.D.D., which seems to be getting worse with perimenopause. It’s like my brain is being poisoned from all kinds of ends.
I have to wake up very early in the morning to get my daughter ready for school, and then I beat myself up about all the things I’m not doing. But I look through my email, get overwhelmed because of all the emails that I didn’t deal with yesterday or the day before, and I try to catch up. I try to carve out some time to deal with personal stuff, like bills.
The trick for me is not getting carried away. It’s not getting distracted in paying these bills and oh, I need to call…
Then I come down to my office, my basement, and I like to make lists. What are the things I have coming up?
It’s really, really hard to get me to start actually writing, because there are a thousand things I can be doing. The thing that motivates me the hardest, though, is the deadline.
I have this pitch on Friday, and I was playing around with an idea. I called my friend and I pitched it to him, and he’s like, “Okay, that’s good. But tell me more about this pitch.” And I told him this other piece and he’s like, “Why are you making up something new? Just use their IP. That’s what they asked you to do.”
Sometimes I need help reframing. But once I do start writing or working on a pitch, I go into this very strange place where time doesn’t matter. I’m disconnected from my body. I forget to eat, which is insane. I just lose time. I get very into it, to the point where people come into my office and talk to me and I don’t know they’re there.
I think that is scary for me in a way. Maybe why I avoid it so hard is because I get so in it.
But I don’t have a “writing practice.” I have a writer friend who writes from 8 a.m. to noon, has lunch with her husband, and then writes again from 1 to 5. That’s what she does. She doesn’t have kids, though, you know? And her husband is also a writer, I think, or a director.
I’m not sure, I might be speaking out of turn, but God, I wish I had a good answer for you. For your readers to be able to see that this is a great answer. I have this dialed in. I don’t. I spend a lot of time beating myself up about all the things I’m not getting done.
NL: I’m so interested by the flow state, though.
LM: I think it’s intention, right? “I’m going to work on this now,” and then I do it for me.
Getting to that point of intention, though. I handwrite a lot of stuff when I’m trying to figure something out. I have to write the structure out of something, then turn the page, rewrite it and then simplify. For me it’s, “I’m going to do this now,” and then once my body and my brain are both convinced that the only thing I’m going to do is this, then it easily goes into that flow state.
But I’m also horrible if you interrupt me when I’m in it. My daughter might come home from school and start chatting at me and I’m still just typing away. And she’s like, “Mama, mama.” And I’m like, “What?!”
I forget that there’s like a child there that needs my attention. I become something else. I become a monster.
NL: It almost sounds like you’re waking up, right? It sounds like someone is waking you up out of a dream.
LM: Almost. But then I can go right back into it, and I’ll forget that they came down and talked to me.
I feel like it’s the other side of A.D.D. So, I never know where my keys are, ever. I walk in the door with my keys in my hands, and when something gets my attention, I have no idea where I put my keys down. Or my husband will walk by carrying a box and I won’t notice because I was looking at the dishes that I have to go wash.
So in the same way that I’m not noticing actual, real, practical things, it comes in handy that I can tune out the world when I’m writing. But that is to say, I have to have that intention to do it, and commit to doing it right, which is the hardest part for me to connect to. I have to have that.
It’s really hard for me to get into that.
NL: Have you found any tricks to reach that flow state, or is it all deadlines?
LM: Deadlines. Not a fake deadline, like, “Oh, Meg wants me to deliver a scene to her,” no, it has to be a real deadline.
Which is why right now I have so many projects. I’m ready to pitch them in January. Now I need to come up with new things, but I’m not. So I’m looking for somebody, because I need accountability. I’m not the person who can sit and write eight hours a day by myself. I wish I could.
I wish I was inspirational and had some message or vision, but I’m not. I don’t. It’s a clusterfuck, and it’s really hard.
NL: I don’t know if this is a good segue or not, but on a recent episode of The Screenwriting Life you mentioned that you’ve been trying to challenge yourself with your writing projects. One of my frustrations—or maybe confusions—around writing has been: how do I know I’m actually getting better? And so my question is, how do you self-assess? How do you find the areas that you can work on to improve?
LM: That’s such a good question. I think what you’re talking about is that I challenged myself to write loglines, and to come at a project from a 30,000-foot view. Do the high concept, rather than digging around in the character bit.
Of course, what I discovered is that I wrote a log line, and then when I went to write I was like, “I don’t know who this character is or what they want or what’s going on or what’s in their pocket. Why do I care?”
And that was when I knew that I had to challenge myself, because I had this resistance. It didn’t come easily.
I keep bringing my daughter up, but I’ve noticed [the same] in her. She wants to be good at something right away, and when she’s not good at something right away, she gets really mad. And then I have to say, “Yes, we can be mad. We’re not good at that thing right away, but let’s take it one piece at a time.”
So I wrote a logline—super fun. I was going to write an outline. I hate outlines. And then, okay, character. What do they want? I don’t know what they want. I don’t care. And then I abandoned the project.
And that’s how I know that’s what I have to work on. When I was talking to my friend earlier, and I was pitching him my idea, he started to ask me questions about act two. “What does the character do?”
I was like, “I don’t know, this is terrible. I suck. I’m a terrible writer.”
And he’s like, “Calm down. Let’s break it up. What do you want to see happen? What’s a set piece? What would be fun?”
I struggle with everything. Here’s the thing though. The hard part of getting to where you know you’re good at something and where you know you’re not, is that there seems to be this thing where you can only hold on to about 70% of what you know.
So like, “Ooh, look at this! Act two is so nailed down. I got it. I love it.” And then you realize I have no stakes, right? Shit. I forgot to write it with stakes, AH! Put the stakes in. OOPS. No ticking clock. Crap! Lost the B story, now it’s just a twenty-page A story. With writing, there’s an expectation that you just sort of learn it and then you know it, right?
Math, you learn a little bit then you add to the skill, then you add to the skill. And I wish I could teach writing that way. “Okay, we got character. Great. Now let’s work on dialogue.”
I think when I get emotional is when I know what I need to work on, I want to throw my pencil on the ground and stomp away, which is every day.
Does that answer your question?
Basically, when I have a tantrum, I realize I have a block.
Except, sometimes resistance means, “That doesn’t work. Knock it off, figure something else out.” And that is the trick. It is being self-aware enough to understand where your resistance is really coming from, and knowing story well enough to know if you’re just changing it, or breaking it, or fixing it.
In everything having to do with writing, there is no “the answer.”
Now, what are you encountering as a writer that you’re asking that question?
NL: I mean, there are some personal things which we don’t have to talk about right now.
LM: But that’s what I really want to talk about. I want to find out how to make you confront your fears and your wishes as a writer and break through. Let’s do it.
NL: [I’m not going to share the whole story here, but basically I watched a bio-writing workshop with Joey Tuccio from Roadmap Writers, and something—]
—clicked, and I was suddenly like, “Oh, it’s because I wanted attention from my parents.”
LM: I’m going to go a little further. Why do you want attention from your parents?
NL: Man, we’re really in therapy now. [Note the resistance!]
LM: Why do I write? “Because I wanted attention from my parents.” Okay, that’s not really it. Why did you want attention from your parents? What does that mean?
NL: Because I felt like I had to prove that I was worthy of affection.
LM: Why did you have to prove you were worthy of affection?
NL: [at this point your stalwart interviewer is close to tears, having trouble articulating] I… I don’t know. At that point it feels circular. I had to prove I was worthy of affection because I wanted attention…
LM: You matter.
When you matter, you’re worthy of attention. You’re worthy of love, you’re worthy of validation. One way to look at it is “I write because I matter,” instead of, “I write to prove I matter.”
You have something to say, right? “I write because I matter.” It’s different than “I write to prove” or “claim,” right?
Your voice is who you are and how you talk and how you tell a story. So me on the page is not too different than me when we’re talking. If I were to tell you a story about…
I saw this woman driving like a crazy person, she had one hand out, flailing a beer bottle around, and she drove her car straight into a 7-Eleven and crashed through the doors. There was glass everywhere.
My point of view is that she is crazy. But I know crazy. I grew up with crazy. I am crazy, right? So I get crazy, and I’m telling you, as my audience, get ready. This is a crazy script, I’m a crazy writer. I’m intense, I’m funny, and you’re with me now. Your voice is your point of view about that character doing that thing.
That’s how I would write that scene. You would describe it in your way, right? That’s your voice, your point of view, watching a woman with a beer out the window drive into a 7-Eleven, and glass going everywhere.
And you write because you matter, because you have a voice.
And writers matter. We all matter. So you really do have to figure out how to get into that flow state. Push through that discomfort and tell the truth to others, or yourself, for whatever you write. Because we’re all reaching out to each other. That’s what we’re doing when we write. I’m reaching out to you [to say], “I’m not alone.”
We’re all trying to connect to each other through our stories.
NL: [There was another story here that I’m not going to share, except that it was about loneliness and wanting to help people feel like there’s magic in the world.]
LM: Because magic can connect, right? Most stories about magic are not about one person. It’s about a person and their friends. Willow, Lord of the Rings, Goonies even. It’s always about a gang. Stand by Me even, which is a fairly darker version about the magic of friendship and connection and loss and grief. But it means you’re not alone now.
I started in theater, so fundamentally I crave being with other people. I like being on a TV show, I like working with producers. Right now, sitting in my office trying to break the story a little bit, it’s torture.
But I love it. I love it. I love it.
I hate it. [Laughter]
NL: [still quietly recuperating] What are some other things you love or hate about writing?
LM: I think I love having written. I love being productive. And the thing I hate about writing is trying to convince myself to start. That pain of not starting.
I have a really messed up view of value, because I think it’s about productivity, but I’ve talked about that on the show.
NL: Okay, let’s do the lightning round before I have to have to let you go.
Favorite cocktail, mocktail, or other beverage.
LM: French 75 is my favorite cocktail.
NL: Alien or Aliens?
LM: Hmm. Pass.
NL: [Laughter] Okay.
LM: I mean, I’ve seen them both. Unlike most people, these are not movies that are burned into me. Do people have big opinions about these two movies?
NL: Oh yeah. The last person I interviewed [horror novelist Paul Tremblay]—I found out about this during the interview—actually wrote an article about the difference between Alien and Aliens, and John August talks about how Aliens is one of his favorite screenplays. I think the question garners some interesting reactions: including yours!
LM: Let me put it this way, if [someone] was like, “You have to watch one of these movies right now,” I’d go read a book. That’s what’s up.
I know they’re amazing, I just I don’t want to put my brain through that particular experience.
NL: That’s a totally valid answer.
Okay, so since you’d go read a book: if someone told you that you had to memorize an entire novel, word for word, which book would you pick?
LM: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.
NL: Love it. Why?
LM: I love her writing. In that book there is a charm and cynicism that I find so appealing. And unlike most people, I do not feel like it is a love story, I think it’s a story about wealth and property.
There is this moment when Elizabeth visits Pemberley, and that’s when she decides, “Yeah, I could love Mr. Darcy.” Most people get very angry at me when I suggest this.
But for me, that’s my experience of reading the book. I don’t find it any less a love story because she loves herself. She values herself enough to understand how the world works. The only power she has in that book is to say no if someone asks to marry her. She may make no other decision about her life, except who she says no or yes to.
And I don’t think she is not fond of Mr. Darcy, and she probably loves him, but she’s looking out for herself, which I admire.
Which is a little bit cynical, I know. But she also gets to live in that amazing house. You know, she’s not going to marry someone she finds disgusting or second best or any of that stuff. And Mr. Darcy loves her, I think.
I think Emma is a better book, because it invented a whole new narrative structure, which moves from third person to first person in a way that you don’t even notice, which no one had done. But Pride and Prejudice is for me, because I just love Elizabeth, because… you just keep saying “No.”
NL: Most underrated or sadly forgotten TV show.
LM: All I can think of are… so I wasn’t allowed to watch TV when I was a kid. We did have a TV, but it was in the closet. I was a latchkey kid, and when I was about 10 or 11, if I was ever home sick from school, or whenever I got home from school and my mom wasn’t, I would haul this massive TV out of the closet and set it up. And then I would watch the reruns that were on, like Petticoat Junction and Hogan’s Heroes and Beverly Hillbillies.
I don’t think those shows are underrated, they’re just so indelibly etched on my brain and my psyche. They’re so inappropriate for a ten-year-old kid to have been watching. But I don’t know. There’s something really nostalgic.
Okay, here’s my real answer. I really loved Teenage Bounty Hunters, and it got canceled after one season. They said because of the the pandemic, which I get, but I think about that show sometimes, I wonder what was going to happen in season two. But I don’t think it’s underrated.
Don’t put Petticoat Junction and Hogan’s Heroes. They’re not underrated shows.
NL: But you qualify those.
LM: Yeah… I like Hogan’s Heroes because it was about war, but it seemed so silly. I’m sure if I watched it now I’d be horrified, but like I said, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. So any time the TV was on, I was like, hyperfocus.
That’s what it is, the state I get into. It’s hyperfocus. Which is the only good thing about having A.D.D.
NL: Last question. Tell us about one thing we haven’t talked about yet today that lives rent free in your brain.
LM: I have this theory about lines of dialogue that live rent-free in our head, that, if you thought about it, are what the movie is actually about.
NL: What’s one of them for you?
LM: Okay, Godfather. “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Isn’t that what Michael’s journey is in The Godfather? He can’t refuse the call to become his dad. He becomes the godfather.
When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having.” That’s what Sally is trying to get the whole movie. She’s trying to find love like everybody else has.
Scratch all that. I wish I had something pithy like Dorothy Parker would say.
NL: I like the quote angle though, that’s great.
LM: I don’t think it’s true, though, now that I think about it.
NL: It’s not that it’s true of every line we remember, but maybe many. [And may I humbly submit Jurassic Park’s “Life finds a way.”]
LM: Heathers is one of my very favorite movies. I mean, very favorite. And I’m sure, now that you’ve read some of what I write, you’ll understand why.
Please don’t tell me you haven’t seen Heathers because just go watch it.
But one of my favorite lines in that is “Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?” It’s the way it’s delivered, with such disdain, which is why Veronica’s doing what she’s doing in that movie (I don’t want to spoil it for anyone), killing all her friends. Because there’s such disdain.
Yeah, that’s my theory. I’m open to being disproved.
When I talk about dialogue writing, we hear a lot about how you either have it or you don’t. But I’ve heard, from the very beginning of my writing career, “You’re great at dialogue,” probably because it was the one compliment I could hear. I took it in and I made it part of me. And then it became easy, right? If you believe it to be true about yourself, you do it much better. You take risks.
And I think that it is a craft. I don’t think it’s a gift. I think there are those of us it comes easier to, just like structure comes easier [to some]. But I think if you work at it, you can do it.
If you come at it from a character place, instead of inventing what your character is saying, you [the writer] actually have nothing to do with it. All you have to do is sit back and let your character get themselves into trouble. Let your character tell the truth. Let your character tell lies so it’s not actually you.
If you can do that, then give yourself the gift of just like, “I don’t know what they’re going to say.”
There are different ways to get really good at writing dialogue. I just hear that a lot: “You’re good at dialogue, you’re not.” Well, that’s really limiting. It’s hard to be a screenwriter if you’re not good at dialogue.
So don’t tell people things about themselves. That’s another piece of advice. We don’t want people telling us things about ourselves, so don’t tell other people things, because then people internalize that stuff and they hurt themselves. You know, they hold themselves back.
You write great dialogue. I write great dialogue.
NL: We all write great dialogue.
LM: And you matter.
That was really messy. You can put whatever you want.
NL: Good luck with your pitch.
LM: Who cares? It’s not that big. It’s just this piece of IP.
NL: I guess I shouldn’t be wishing you luck. Break a leg.
LM: And then I’ll be humiliated when someone else gets it.
That’s how you avoid humiliation, you don’t tell anyone what you’re working on… Oh, that! Here, that’s what I want to say, about the business. The business of Hollywood is: nothing is real! Nothing is real until you have that check in your checking account and it cashes.
Anyway don’t put that either. That’s so cynical.
NL: That’s what we’ve been talking about.
LM: Dripping with cynicism. Although I’ll tell you, I’m a realist, not a cynic.