Screenwriting Principles with Dave Moutray

by Dominica Malcolm

Dave Moutray is an accomplished screenwriter and director, with two feature films and various shorts to his name. I took a screenwriting workshop with him last year, and came away from it with so many ideas about what I wanted to write. I felt inspired. Dave will be teaching the Bay Area Film Mixer’s next workshop on writing for the screen. It’s coming up Saturday June 25, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center. Tickets are available from Eventbrite.

Dominica: What are some of the key topics you’ll be covering in your workshop?

Dave: How to write a screenplay with only your toes. That’s right, I’ll be teaching keyboard yoga, from the lotus position (okay, none of that is true, plus I don’t really know what the lotus position is. Isn’t lotus a flower anyway?).

In all seriousness, I’ll be covering a number of the obvious topics that need to be discussed to tell any story that has a chance of being good (effective dialogue, structure, pre-writing techniques, etc), but beyond that, I’m excited to cover something I don’t think is covered enough at the script development level: writing for a budget. It’s one thing to write your story, it’s another to write it as something that can actually be produced.

Dominica: Who have been your biggest screenwriting influences?

Dave: Terrence Malick for his sense of character composition through V.O., Aaron Sorkin for his insane ability to write crisp and poignant dialogue, Joss Whedon for story-weaving with strong, vibrant characters, and Richard Linklater for the pathos he layers into his characters/stories. At a personal level, Matthew Jacobs (Emperor’s New Groove, Dr. Who, Paperhouse) has mentored me through my early writing career and is a large influence even still today. My first feature, Losing Her, was inspired by Matt’s first attempt at an indie feature (Your Good Friend) — it made me believe that I could do more than write features, but I could produce them as well. We are now on our second feature, and it all started from watching Matt tell a wonderful tale of a rabbi and a pornographer wanting to create a kosher porn website on an indie budget in San Francisco.

Dominica: What would you say are the biggest differences between writing shorts and features?

Dave: Besides one being longer than the other? There really isn’t that much difference in terms of storytelling — you still want a solid three act structure. Personally, I prefer writing features because you can dig deeper into characters and the world you build for them, but on occasion, a story I’ll discover is best told as a short film, so I’ll write it that way. That’s another facet of screenwriting — knowing the right format for your story to be developed in. I know some writers who will try to cram an idea into a short that really should be a feature, and others who will try to stretch an idea best suited for a short into a feature. Know the limits/potential of your story before you commit to a format.

Dominica: What kind of feedback is good to solicit from other people on a screenplay? Is it a good idea to talk to people before, during, and/or after the first draft is finished?

Dave: Noooo!!!! Only talk to yourself in a mirror. And scream at your monitor. Okay, that’s obviously not something I really believe. I caution moderation with sharing your story — pick a few that you know will be honest with you. The problem with talking to friends/family about your ideas is they tend to lose objectivity and will just tell you how great you are. Through the development process, talking to friends is fine, but rely more on those in the business. As you write it, join a screenwriting group and submit pages for feedback. When you have your first draft, submit it for coverage through respected services (Blue Cat, Scriptapoolza, etc). And develop a thick skin, because the feedback that will help you the most is usually the most painful to hear.

Dominica: Are there any books you recommend for screenwriters?

Dave: One thing that aspiring screenwriters often don’t consider reading is other scripts. You should read as many as you can. Connect with the format, the structure, give yourself a chance to get to know the style (how beats work with each other), and find your style of writing within the successful scripts you read (you can find a number of scripts here, legally:

As far as books go, I can’t recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder enough. The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier is a must-have as well — one of the pitfalls of a screenwriter is not adhering to industry standards — there is no easier way to get a producer to stop reading your script, no matter how good it is, if your script looks like it was written by an amateur.

If you’re interested in learning more about screenwriting from Dave Moutray, sign up for the next Bay Area Film Mixer next workshop on writing for the screen. It’s coming up Saturday June 25, 12pm-3pm at Ninth St Independent Film Center. Tickets are available from Eventbrite.

Dave MoutrayDave Moutray, an award-winning Director and Screenwriter, has a M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in Screenwriting, and is co-founder of Crux Jinx Productions, LLC in San Francisco, CA. After winning awards for his short films, he tackled his first feature film, Losing Her, which won Best Feature at the Noor Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Golden Ace Award at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, and is now in post-production on his second feature called Lost in the Sun.

Dave has been trained by Matthew Jacobs (Emperor’s New Groove, Dr. Who, Paperhouse) and Robert Keats (head of Screenwriting department at Academy of Art University), and wholeheartedly believes as Alfred Hitchcock did, that “[to] make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”

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