Josh MacDonald is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright based in Dartmouth. We talked to him about movies, writing, paper routes, sneaking into the old Hyland theatre, and what to expect in his upcoming workshop, Building the Screenplay Behind the Movie.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and screenwriting in particular?
I’ve been writing my entire life—my entire life where I knew how to write, at least. According to my parents, my earliest completed work was about a duck and a rabbit, in a story entitled… “Duck & Rabbit”. Naturally, the duck and the rabbit fought crime.
Even when I was relatively young, I was drawn to writing as a form of “telepathy”—it struck me as so cool that I could transfer thoughts and ideas from my mind to yours, many days, months, or years after my first imagining had taken place. But my simplest answer, dating all the way back, is that I was drawn to writing because I was drawn to reading.
Flash-forward a couple of years, and I had a paper route that took me around the Halifax Rotary: one of my deliveries was to the old Hyland movie theatre. As part of my tip every week, the manager of the Hyland let me sneak into any show I wanted to watch, free of charge. For a few seasons, I saw everything from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to revival showings of Rear Window. Not only that—I saw these movies multiple times. In an era before VHS machines became commonplace (much less YouTube tutorials!), I feel like it was at the Hyland where I began to understand how movies were put together, and where I began to dream about telling my own stories for film.
Flash-forward a few more years still, and I was trying to follow my dream, somewhat, by getting a Fine Arts degree at Concordia University in Montreal. My parents called to tell me some bad news from back home: the Hyland Theatre had burned to the ground. It struck me as poetic, though—or like something out of a screenplay—that the Hyland had burned down while showing the movie Backdraft.
What’s the biggest misconception about screenwriting?
I don’t know if this is the biggest misconception about screenwriting, but I can tell you it’s a common one, even among my own friends. A couple of Oscars ago, during the “Best Screenplay” categories, the presenters would read from the nominated scripts, while those excerpts were written out across the screen. Excerpts like, “So-and-so steps into her bedroom, drops onto her CREAKING box-spring, then slowly becomes aware of the crumpled NOTE waiting for her in the tangled, unmade sheets.” Scanning these excerpts, my friends were surprised. “Hey,” they said, “we thought you only wrote the dialogue!”
It’s such a weird presumption to make—nobody would ever believe that a novelist just wrote their characters’ dialogue, and their dialogue alone. Maybe auteur theory has convinced everybody that the director is a movie’s principal shaper. Certainly, it is a very collaborative medium… but it is the screenwriter who’s there first, telling the story in full, for everyone else to imagine.
What can participants in your workshop expect to get out of the experience?
We can’t write a feature screenplay during a day-long workshop, but we can certainly develop our fundamental understanding of three-act structure, then build up our screenwriting grammar so that we might better tell those three-act stories on film. It’s those “telepathy skills” I was writing about earlier: we’re going to figure out how you can most powerfully craft your words on paper, so that you can conjure a “mind-movie” in the imagination of a reader (or a film executive!) waiting to receive it on the other side.
The better you can pull off that magic trick, the likelier your movie will actually make it to the big screen (but not the big screen at the Hyland)!
We’re going to watch a lot of movie clips, read a lot of movie excerpts, and set our pens to paper with a few fun writing exercises. It’ll be better than an afternoon at the multiplex, and I can’t wait to collaborate with everybody:
Josh MacDonald is the screenwriter of the feature films The Corridor and Faith, Fraud & Minimum Wage, distributed by IFC Films and eOne Entertainment, respectively. His stage plays Halo and Whereverville have been produced around North America. His latest work, The Mystery Play, will be published by Talonbooks this fall.