An Interview with Screenwriter & Director Brian Duffield

Thursday 22 October 2020

Into The Script is BACK and what a treat I have in store for you all. Today's guest arrives with a literal bang, in his latest film and directorial debut "Spontaneous".  It's a genuine pleasure to be able to welcome one of my favourite screenwriters- Brian Duffield (Jane Got A Gun, Insurgent, The Babysitter, Underwater) to the blog. 

So let's hand over to Brian to hear more about his latest film!

Can you share how you first came across Aaron Starmer’s novel ‘Spontaneous’, and the process of adapting the novel to a screenplay format?  Were there any challenges you encountered or key lessons you learned when it came to telling the story in this different medium?

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I was sent the book before it was published, and I *think* was even finished writing the script before it was published, since there's such a long lead time between a publisher picking up a book and releasing it. 

I had a great experience with Aaron, where I sent him (I believe) every draft and he'd give me notes, almost all of which was to be less faithful to his novel to shape a better movie, which is why some characters from the book aren't in the movie and a few of the character that die live, and vice versa. 

I know many writers feel called to pursue directing during their career, and that Into The Script readers would love to hear of your own experience as the screenwriter and director of Spontaneous.

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Directing was always the plan for me, and I don't think I'm telling tales out of school to say that I was pretty frustrated with my experience as a spec writer. 

It felt like spending a lot of time throwing a party and then not being allowed to attend the event. I think that's true of most writers while starting out, and as I got older and felt more prepared to direct I started working towards that goal. 

I had a couple original scripts that came close to happening but fell apart for various normal reasons. 

When Aaron's book came and I read it, I knew I had to direct it because I was ready, but also because I didn't trust another director to get the tone right. Which, when you're killing a bunch of kids, is essential! 

I adapted the book by reading it straight through a couple of times, making notes of everything I wanted to keep, and then writing it without touching the book again.

I sent drafts to Aaron and he would give me notes, all of which were about making the best movie possible as opposed to truest adaptation. He was a terrific partner.


What would be your top three tips for other writers who are interested in pursuing directing, and have you found that this skill also adds an extra layer of understanding and communication during the process of writing for a screenwriter?

Top three tips are:

1) If you're adapting, include the author, if it's someone else's script, include the writer.

2) Build your team with people you know that will have your back, but will push you to challenge yourself. 

3) Honestly, be prepared to spend your own money. 

I think directing has made me a better writer in that it forces you to be faster on your feet, and to make decisions where both options might "hurt" the film and figure out how to quickly spare injury as fast as possible. 

Given the state of the world currently, Spontaneous has some major parallels which audiences can relate to in regards to dealing with a pandemic, minus the self-combusting teenagers!


Main character Mara in particular over the course of the film endures a brutal transformation from a confident, fun-loving girl to basically trying to figure out how to navigate a world where she has no control over what is happening around her.  

How did you go about establishing her character arc in terms of pacing, and figuring out how much of what she endures is to be revealed/focused on. Much like Cole from The Babysitter, these characters are very much descended into total chaos.

A lot of Mara's journey is from the book!

The movie is essentially plot-less, and there are two sections that are specifically designed to be a little too long for character reasons (without being spoilery), so it was important that Mara's personal journey be compelling enough to sustain a movie, and in post we refined that as much as we could. 

Something Katherine Langford and I talked about is that Mara is crushing it when the movie starts, and is completely destroyed, and has to figure out how to become herself again, with some modifications. 

Like a Mara 2.0. 

So her arc is a little bit of a circle, which is a neat challenge. 


Given that you do this so successfully, do you have any method in particular that helps you centre a character in the middle of the mayhem, which also enables you to highlight the aspects of their story that enhances the narrative? 

I think Katherine is really only off screen for one scene in the movie, and there's really very little in there that isn't directly related to her character. 

For Mara, it was giving us a teen girl's POV through a really wild experience, and filtering that strictly through her eyes. 

So tonally, everything is "what is Mara's reaction to what's happening" as opposed to "what is happening with the explosions". And because Mara is in denial for much of the movie, the movie tonally can play with that too, until the heaviness of the losses becomes too overwhelming for her. 

It's just being as true as possible to your lead character and her voice as possible (and again, I stole most of this from the book!).

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