From War Games to Word Play: Ashley Miller’s Unified Field Theory of Screenwriting

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Ashley Miller got his start as a screenwriter on the TV series Andromedaand as a co-writer on Agent Cody Banks. He’s gone on to co-write comic book blockbusters like Thor and X-Men: First Class. He’s also worked on TV shows including the 2003 Twilight Zone reboot, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Black Sails.

His latest project is an adult animated serial for Netflix, with the details under wraps, and he’s been announced as the co-writer for the Red Sonja movie and the reboot of Big Trouble in Little China. I spoke with him at the Austin Film Festival Writer’s Conference about his unified field theory of screenwriting structure he’s developed along the way.

Lauri Donahue, MovieMaker Magazine (MM)When you’re brought in to write a script based on a piece of pre-existing IP such as Thor or X-Men, what’s the process? Do you start with research? Are you given a brief from the studio?

Ashley Miller (AL): Generally, by the time the job actually lands in my lap, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with the studio. And the primary thing that I want to know from them is what movie they think they’re making. Because I need that to match up with the movie I feel that I want to write, or that is writable based on how I understand the source material.

If it’s something that I have a lot of deep, intimate, familiarity with—like Thor, or X-Men: First Class—part of my process before I go in and have that conversation is to think about my take. My take is really about doing some internal research.

Internal Research

MM: What you mean by “internal research”?

AM: Thinking about what my own emotional relationship is with the material. How I see it. Things it makes me think about. What is interesting to me about it.

MM: Were you a fan of both Thor and X-Men?

AM: For sure. And in fact, I have collections of both of those.

MM: You have your own research library?

AM: 100%. Just completely bananas. I knew how I felt about those things when I was 13 years old. It’s not about writing towards 13-year-olds, but it’s about when a 13-year-old first sees the material. For me, Thor was always about being the child of whom great things are expected. Thor is supposed to always be worthy, and yet he was always underestimated. The very nature of him in the comics is that he’s a doctor who’s not a warrior, not a fighter. He’s physically lame. And it’s fascinating that it’s that part of his personality, the part that isn’t physical, that isn’t the warrior, that makes him worthy. That always spoke to me. Because it’s kind of aspirational. You have to be Donald Blake to be Thor.

When we got into the film adaptation, our recommendation—and obviously we went that way—was not to do Donald Blake. And there were a whole host of reasons not to do it that way. But the essence of that understanding of the character really informed the pitch that we brought to Marvel for that movie.

It was kind of the same thing with X-Men—although the difficulty rating of the dive was a little bit higher. It wasn’t just an interpretation of the comics. It was also figuring out how to craft this story as an interpretation of someone else’s interpretation. We were writing in the context of characters that had been created 10 years earlier…

MM: …and by specific actors. So you had to figure out, “What is the young Patrick Stewart like?”

AM: Exactly. And that was all kind of new.

We had to figure out how to get the characters to arc to the point where they will become the characters from the movies that had previously happened—and still have a story that means something.

The thing about the X-Men story to me is that it was always about being an adolescent or growing up. Even though Charles and Erik are both adults in X-Men: First Class, they’re both still very much growing up.

Arguably, Erik never grows past being 13 years old, emotionally speaking.

But Charles does. That was really where that story came from.

If I’m exposed to material for the first time, I have to find myself living inside it in some way or I can’t really tell you what the story is. It’s not that I think nobody else can, but I don’t think I can.

Those are circumstances under which I’ll pass.

MM: What’s your process for working on an IP-based feature, from blank page to finished project? Once you have the emotional core, how do you go forward?

AM: The first thing that happens is that I try to tell the story completely but briefly.

Sometimes that’s just for me. I’m generally not big on document-sharing with the studio or the producers, unless it’s a producer or an executive that I know and trust. Because some executives and producers know how to live inside that process. Some do not.

Sometimes it’s okay when people see how the sausage is made. Sometimes it’s not healthy for them.

MM: Not healthy in what way?

AM: They don’t always understand that the document, whatever the document is, is just a way of talking about the movie that’s growing.

There’s nothing in those early documents that’s locked down, any more than there’s anything in the draft that’s turned in that’s locked down. Everything’s in a constant state of evolution.

In terms of process, it’s about finding the elements that are needed for the story to really congeal and evolve.

A lot of my process involves identifying what that story is. Identifying what’s the emotional story. What’s the through-line?

Who are the kinds of people this character needs to meet along the way? What’s the big thing this character learns at the end? What’s a great way of dramatizing that?

I don’t think about set pieces. I know I’ll figure that out.

I think about the lines of action. What’s the character up against? Internally, externally?

All of that has to happen in an iterative way.

When I start to beat it out, I get a sense of what the plot needs to be. I know what my major scenes are going to be.

MM: When you beat it out, what are you doing?

AM: I write out a sentence for a scene or a sequence: “character X goes to the mall.”

That way I can see it laid out in an unadorned way, and I can understand what the beats are.

Structure affects how we interpret story and can inform tone.

I need to look at it and just live with a little bit and start making judgments about how it’s feeling. Where am I feeling gears turning? Where am I feeling like I’m bullshitting?

As I refine it, I move pieces around. I don’t use cards. Cards confuse me. I don’t know why, but they do.

I’ll rewrite the sentences because that helps me, too.

Once I feel good about the structure, then I’ll write an outline.

My outlines can be anywhere from eight pages to 30 pages.

First of all, it depends on how much time I have.

Secondly, do I feel I need to tell myself the story as I’m doing this?

Do I need to find the voice?

Or am I just making a fairly detailed scene list that’s a big hypothesis test for the movie I think I’m writing?

No matter how long it is—eight pages or 30 pages—I recognize that I’m not married to it. Not even seriously dating. It’s just a bunch of helpful suggestions that I’m making to myself.

It’s a safety net—not a tight rope.

When I begin writing, with a scene heading and a description I can write a scene very quickly. The outline is something that I can lean on, to just pump out material.

I’m not afraid of writing an entire draft and then saying, “Wow, there’s this 20-page section that’s 100% fucked.”

I might have to throw it out. I will throw it out.

I’ll write a whole other version and see how it works. And if I dig it, I’ll drop it in. And I’ll happily get rid of the stuff that didn’t work.

But it always comes back to “How do I feel?”

I’m constantly doing research as I’m writing. Even when I’m not writing the words I’m living inside the world and the headspace.

I’ll go out and find critical essays. I’ll find things people think about and read that, or things that are related to the material in some ancillary way.

MM: For Thor, were you reading about Norse mythology? Or were you reading things people wrote about the comic books?

AM: Yes and yes.

I look for anything and everything I think might be useful—whatever will keep my brain in the right place.

MM: As you do this process, are you thinking formally in terms of structure? Are you thinking “there’s my act break, there’s my midpoint, there’s my ‘all is lost’?” Or are you just telling the story?

AM: Yes.

What I mean is, I figure out my beats fairly instinctively.

Even where I have a story synopsis, I tried to write my beats in terms of character needs rather than all that other bullshit until I get near the end.

I try very hard not to think about “what are the act breaks, what’s the mid-point?” at that stage.

It’s not until I’m into the outline that I get a better sense of how the beats interact and I start to go, “OK, by this scene, everything that’s required to meet the conditions of the premise that was stated to the audience have been met. So I’m out of act one and into act two.”

And this thing that happens here, that feels like where the structure of that person’s life or belief starts to pivot and flip over, and that’s probably what I’m aiming for in the middle.

I analyze it intellectually, emotionally. What I’m trying not to do is write myself a prescription for what those beats are.

I try to keep it loose. But then I do get formal. I don’t get super formal until I get into the revision process and then I’m a monster.

All the things—the tools—that many writers use to write—to plan—I used to analyze.

MM: What tools are you talking about?

AM: I’m not a fan of anything that smacks of formula—“If you do this, your screenplay will work.”

I don’t care if you’re talking about Christopher Vogler, or if you’re talking about Robert McKee, or if you’re talking about Blake Snyder. I don’t believe that’s how the creation process works.

What they’ve each identified is an analytical tool. They’ve identified a way of looking at a product in retrospect and telling you what the parts are.

MM: It’s an autopsy, not a recipe?

AM: That’s exactly right.

It’s not how you engineer something. The engineering process is something that feels different to me.

Sometimes, when I’m beginning the whole revision process, I’ll reread one or two of whoever the writers are who have opinions on how to do things—or whatever thing is in vogue.

MM: The Writer’s Journey versus Save the Cat?

AM: Or the random Yahoo on the Internet.

And I’ll say, “If I was that person and I was analyzing this story, what would I think? How does this map?”

And I start mapping. But not just to one or two models – to everything.

I did this insane thing at one point. I drew a line that was like a timeline for a script. It was all structural points and it integrates what all of these different writers about screenwriting said.

Then I mapped it to the script that I was writing, in terms of beats and page by page.

I’m not saying, “This isn’t working because it fails to meet any of these standards.”

What I’m asking is, “Am I getting an insight about what’s making me feel this bump in the story?

What’s making me hear and smell the gears grinding?”

More often than not, I’ll get inspired.

Usually it’s something random and stupid. But it takes a lot of thought to get to random and stupid.

MM: How long does it take once you’ve got your outline to write the script?

AM: If I had something of my own, and I had the outline, and I felt good about it, and assuming that the outline held for the most part, I could, if I needed to, bang out the script in two or three days.

In television, if I have to, I can write a one-hour episode in a day, if we’ve broken it.

I can do probably 10 pages an hour.

The X-Men: First Class script was a page-one rewrite. It was an emergency situation because the clock on Fox’s rights had begun to tick because they’d announced Bryan Singer to direct.

And they had a script that simply did not work, that they could not greenlight. So when we got the job, it was, “We have to have a script we can greenlight in 10 days or the franchise is at risk.”

So from zero, we wrote that script in 10 days. We threw out every syllable. We threw out “fade in.” It was madness.

I was working with my partner at the time, Zack Stentz, and we were each putting in 20-hour days. So that’s 400 hours of writing inside of 10 days. Which, if you think about, is almost a full writing period. We just did it all at once.

MM: How did you do it?

AM: Lots and lots of coffee. That was crazy pants.

We broke it, too. We spent two days re-breaking it.

The day we turned that script in, we didn’t have a third act. We were told that, not only did we have to turn it in that afternoon, we had to turn in earlier. So we lost four hours.

So it’s like 7 o’clock in the morning. I’m half insane from not sleeping.

Zack at that time was working in an office next to the Fox executive we reported to.

I messaged Zack. I hadn’t showered in three days. I said, “I’m gonna go do that.”

I had one of those “you have the idea in the shower” situations.

I realized that Banshee would make a pretty good sonar buoy if you dropped him in the ocean and they could find the submarine that way.

I ran down the stairs and messaged Zach. I said, “Here’s the pitch.”

He pitched it to the executive, who said “Go! Go! Go!”

I wrote that third act, 30 pages, between 9 AM and noon. Just BOOM! and it was out.

You know how in Romancing the Stone Kathleen Turner’s character is just sitting there with tears pouring down her face? If you were in my house watching that process happen, you’d think that I needed to be carted off to the loony bin. It was the craziest writing experience of my life.

A large chunk of what got written in that three-hour stretch went straight onto the screen.

MM: What do you do after you’ve written a first draft?

AM: Once I have the draft, no matter how I feel about it, I’ll print it out.

Maybe I’ll take the night off. The next morning, I’ll sit down with a red pen and start going through it page-by-page, line-by-line, making changes, making it better. Every drop of ink helps me stay inside what the script is and lets me understand it a little better.

MM: Why ink and paper?

AM: I can see simultaneously the original product and my changes.

MM: So it’s a redline?

AM: Exactly. I can review about 10 pages an hour.

Then I’ll sit down and enter all the changes electronically, which takes another 10 pages an hour.

And that represents another draft, because I make adjustments as I go.

Sometimes I’ll make a note—“fix later”—and I’ll come back to it.

Once I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I can’t make it better without more information, I pack it off and I send it off to beta readers

That’s also the point where I break out the charts. I get the feedback about the same time that I figure out the math.

Then I can separate myself emotionally.

MM: You’re looking at it like a third party, using analytical tools? You’re doing the autopsy as if you had no emotional relationship with the body?

AM: Exactly. And the consulting doctors come in and they help me check my own bullshit. And they also give me amazing ideas and help me see opportunities I didn’t see. I’m not precious about that shit. I love it when people see things that I didn’t see.

Beta Readers

MM: Who are your beta readers?

AM: They’re all professionals. Screenwriters, television writers. There are different people I seek for different passes.

I try not to kill the horse. There’s almost no one that I send every draft to.

Some people I want to get a late opinion from. Some people I want to get in early.

They say, “Never give drafts to family members.” But my wife is an excellent beta reader. She’s excellent at calling me on my bullshit. She knows my tendencies.

If there’s a scene that doesn’t work, or a sequence that doesn’t work, because I refine as much as I do, I’ve developed a facility for making it seem like it works when it actually doesn’t. I’m tap dancing. And she can always pick up on the tap dancing. She calls me on it

MM: How many beta readers do you have?

AM: Between three and six. It depends.

If I’m up against an insane deadline and I know I have to get some feedback fast, it’s scattershot because I know something will come back to me in time.

Getting Notes

MM: You sound a person who loves getting notes.

AM: I do. But I’m also human.

I love getting notes that are helpful and useful. I don’t mind notes that say, “This doesn’t work.”

Sometimes the notes process is stressful and demanding. I think very often – more often than not – you run into executives or producers who truly don’t understand story.

And they can’t do the mental math on what the script looks like when it becomes a film and how the audience experiences that.

There is usually an inverse relationship between the utility of the notes and the volume of them.

MM: The less they understand the more they say?

AM: Yes. Exactly. Although, in all fairness, I’ve dealt with executives and producers who give amazing, incisive, incredibly helpful, very detailed and expansive notes. Even if it’s stuff I’m not going to use, it’s helpful.

I’ve found that writers tend to give the best and most useful notes. TV writers especially.

MM: Why TV writers?

AM: I think it’s the Malcolm Gladwell thing.

10,000 Hours

MM: They’ve put in their 10,000 hours?

AM: One reason I think I write so quickly is because of all the television experience. Television writers have gone through the process of “breaking, writing, rewriting, getting notes, rewriting, getting notes” hundreds of times.

TV writers write hundreds of scripts and see them get made. They see what happens.

A television writer can give me a note like, “I totally love this scene. I get why you love putting it in. But we both know it’s going to get cut.”

Most feature writers, unless they’ve gotten a number of things made, don’t necessarily have that insight.

People who specialize in features have only been through that process a couple of times. They don’t really know what comes out the other end. It’s a mystery

It’s why I try to have a diversity of opinions—television writers and feature writers.

Studio Notes

MM: When you’re working on a big studio project, can you ever ignore studio notes?

AM: Yes.

Sometimes the letter of the note is exactly right. It’s dead on.

But writers in these processes sometimes forget that they’re not typists.

In my experience, nothing freaks an executive out more than getting back a script where all of his or her notes were taken word-for-word and not interpreted.

That freak-out happens for two reasons. Number one, because the executive hires the writer to do the writer’s job. Number two, if the script comes back and it doesn’t work, and it directly maps to that that executive’s note, it’s on the executive—not the writer.

Our job is not to take notes. Our job is to get a script to where can be green-lit. And then it’s our job to get it to the point where it can be shot, so it can be movie.

We’re providing the thing that makes everyone else’s job possible. And if they knew how to do it, they’d do it.

I do quite a few rewrites. What most often brings me into the picture is when there was a baby writer – or a feature writer who hadn’t done it very often – who made the mistake of taking all the notes.

MM: Because they didn’t know they were allowed to say “no”?

AM: Exactly. You’re allowed to have a conversation. You’re allowed to push back.

We’re all trying to get to a solution of the problem—not implement somebody’s idea. Those are two different things.

MM: You were in your early 30s when you had your first credit. Before that you were a high school teacher and consultant to the Navy. 

What were you doing for the Navy?

War Games

AM: When I got out of college, I was an eighth grade English and creative writing teacher—which is vaguely how I learned about screenwriting.

Then I went to work for a government contractor. Our company did a lot of support for the Chief of Naval Operations. We did war games.

When any organization spends money, they need to do a bit of analysis to figure out what they’re going to spend money on, and how much money they’re going to spend, and how effective that spending is going to be in accomplishing whatever that organization’s mission is.

MM: So how you get from budgeting and analyzing war games to writing screenplays?

AM: I had always been a writer from when I was two years old. I would wander around the kitchen dictating stories to my mom. It was adorable.

I eventually figured out that screenwriting was a job. It was a form of writing that appealed to me because I thought I didn’t have the patience to write a novel and the bottom had dropped out of the short story market in about 1885.

When I went to my next job, I was originally hired to be a technical writer to write proposals. The person who hired me was actually my future father-in-law, who knew that I wrote. So he hired me to do that.

A lot of hilarious things happened on the way to the forum. I had crazy hours on the job. I did like 70 hours a week, and I would still go home every week and write for 30 hours.

MM: So this was practice for that 400-hour-week you and your partner did?

AM: Exactly.

I developed sort of an understanding of the form, to the extent that I could. I watched a lot of shit. I read a lot of shit. I wrote drafts of things that weren’t very good. And I just did that until I met Zack Stentz—who became my writing partner—on the Internet.

Andromeda

MM: Where on the internet?

AM: We argued about Star Trek on Usenet.

I also met Robert Wolfe, who was our first boss, on the Internet. He hired us on Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda – really, in the same conversation.

I was still in DC and Zack was in northern California. He moved down to Los Angeles. I was starting to make plans to move to LA when Robert got Andromeda and he invited us in to pitch.

He knew that we’d been in to pitch to some of the Star Trek shows and he liked some of the pitches we had for that. He’d been a producer on Deep Space Nine.

We pitched him seven stories. He bought five. And he gave us an assignment as our audition.

I think I’m joking, or maybe it’s true. I think we turned in the script roughly three hours after we finished breaking it. Because we were writing the script and writing the outline at the same time.

I got a call from Robert a few weeks later—April 1, 2000 – to say, “You got the job.” So I packed up everything and moved LA.

Writing for TV

MM: Is the process for writing for TV the same as writing for film, or how is it different?

AM: It’s a little different in terms of the actual writing. The first difference is that there’s a room. There’s a lot of brains sitting around the table trying to figure out a story. That can happen very quickly. But sometimes the room can make it happen slower. Running down the wrong roads, getting attached to things, can become a conversation that goes on forever.

The other difference is that the deadlines are real.

The X-Men: First Class deadline was real. But for the most part in features your deadline is not real. It’s just, “This person wants to read it for this thing.” But they’re probably not going to read it.

In TV, you actually prep this on Monday. And then they start shooting the Monday after that. They can’t shoot blank pages. So if you have blank pages, you have to shut down production. And that means people start getting fired. That’s real.

And there are certainly structural differences between episodic television and film.

In television, you can spend years fooling the audience into thinking that you know how this is going to wrap up in some satisfying way.

The other thing about television is that you have to think more specifically about production—which is something that feature writers who have never done TV don’t know how to do.

They can’t quite get their head around it. The time to shoot the page or the cost of the page or even keeping a running tally of how much money this is going to cost…. Being aware of that can be important.

In television, I know what my standing sets are, and who my actors are. I know what my availabilities are. I know what locations I can go to and what it costs me to turn the cameras on. I know what it costs me not turn the cameras on. It’s an artistic exercise, but there’re a lot of limitations that matter.

Generally, you have way less time in television. In features, we have a three-month writing period. In television, maybe you got a week. Sometimes you have a day. Sometimes you have a few hours.

Serials versus Anthologies

MM: How is it different working on a serial like Black Sails versus an anthology like Lore?

AM: We started breaking the fourth season of Black Sails in late June, early July of 2015. It took us until about February to break all 10 episodes of that season.

It was very exacting and precise process, because while we’re breaking one big story we’re also breaking small stories.

For Lore season two, we had six episodes and four weeks to break them all.

A serialized story takes more time. It isn’t just sitting down and creating a show from whole cloth. This was a show that had been on for three years.

MM: You had setups that need to be paid off at some point.

AM: Exactly. But it also had to be satisfying on episode-by-episode basis.

I don’t want to say that breaking Lore was easy. We had a strong idea what we wanted the show to be, but we didn’t know yet that any of it worked. We were still figuring it out.

MM: What wisdom have you gained over the years you wish you could go back and tell your younger self? What would’ve made your life easier earlier on?

AM: I was basically an idiot when I started.

The number one thing is, listen to everyone. That doesn’t mean do what they say. But it means listen. And listen actively.

To the extent possible, be empathetic to the place they’re coming from when they talk about story.

And that goes for executives, networks, studios, whatever, as well. They’re all coming from a certain place.

They’re just seeing the world in a very specific way. And it’s worth trying to get inside of that and see the world from their point of view. Turn the map around, as they say in the military.

There are some toxic human beings in this business. There are people who have no business doing the jobs they’re doing. But the only way you can truly and fairly identify them is to make an effort to understand them.

Now I’m better at seeing what that person is actually saying, versus what I’m projecting

MM: The classic “note behind the note”?

AM: And on an even deeper level, the emotion behind the note. There’s an anxiety somewhere that’s being expressed through the note that needs to be addressed.

I would definitely tell myself to spend more time being mindful of the other people in the room and where they’re coming from because it makes the process so much easier. I think I would have avoided a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety.

When you’re sitting at a table or on a phone call you need to respect people in an active way.

Active Respect

MM: How do you actively respect someone?

AM: By engaging them.

I’ll say, “Let me pitch that back to you” And I’ll tell them how I heard what they just said to me—the note or the suggestion.

And that, even by itself, is pretty good. Because then they feel listened to. Their time isn’t being wasted. Their presence matters. It’s validating

Then, I’ll say, “Tell me more.” I’ve given them the floor to let them riff, to speak spontaneously.

And then I’ll riff on that. And I’ll do that until it crystallizes for me or I realize what the problem is.

Then I’ll say, “That’s great, thank you so much. That was such a great idea.” Whether or not I actually use it, in the moment it was great.

Courtesy MovieMaker. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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