Max Adams

An interview with Lisa Ford

Photo by Colleen Patrick

Max Adams became a hero to screenwriters everywhere when she won The Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Heart of Film Festival in one week, and then sold her Austin script, Excess Baggage, to Columbia. Next she completed screenplays for Touchstone, Tri-Star, and Universal. Now she’s online with her site seemaxrun and in bookstores (The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide: Or, Guerilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War). In addition to screenwriting, Max’s creative work includes plays, narrative fiction, essays, and web design.

Lisa: The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide was an instant favorite with the screenwriters I know. Too bad the title Screenwriter’s Bible was already taken. :-) What’s next? Are you planning on writing another book on screenwriting?

Max: David Trottier is brilliant with titles, isn't he? He is a past instructor of mine. I have thought about another book but right now I want to work on my movies and web stuff and books are enormously time consuming so other books will have to wait.

Lisa: Is there anything you left out of Survival Guide that you wish now you had included?

Max: I get calls from a friend, George, telling me what I left out of the book so I know there is stuff not in there. George is a past student and the calls are very funny. George will call and say, "Max, I need some advice and this isn't in the book!" And it will be something like a question about cars in Hollywood. They will be shipping George down from Seattle and this town car will pick him up and he's feeling weird about this huge black car he is in and is embarrassed to get out of it at the hotel and wondering, What is the deal with this huge black car? And I will say, "George, they always send that kind of car for the writer, you should see what they send for the star, don't feel weird." That might have been a funny chapter, "They Always Send That Kind of Car For the Writer." Maybe next edition. But by and large I think everything that has to be in there is in there.

Lisa: In your book, there’s a chapter about "writing marketable." You explain how Andrew Marlow figured this out and went on to write Air Force One. Also, you explain how you realized, at a certain point, that although you were writing solid scripts (like My Back Yard, the script that went on to win the Nicholl in ’94), you knew that your next script, in order to sell, should be marketable. You decided to write a marketable, concrete story line," without supernatural elements, and the rest is history. Excess Baggage won the Austin competition and sold to Columbia Pictures. Okay. So I read the original script for Excess Baggage on your website. There’s a hell of a lot more going for your script than marketable story! Please share some craft with us. Any tips on pacing a script? Also, how do you come up with and develop your characters?

Max: Craft itself would require another book. Craft is huge.

As far as pacing goes, well, writing is like singing. Every story has a rhythm, and when you hit that rhythm, you know, but you have to find it. And it is different with every story. And with every writer. Every writer has a different voice and pace for telling every different story.

Characters, well I know I do make the characters up. I sit here for hours and think about characters, who and what they need to be. But there is a time in the writing process when I am not thinking about that anymore because the character has come alive and it is not me dictating who or what the character is anymore, the character is doing that and I just have to build the story now around that character. Because I don't have to ask myself what would this character (who is now a person to me) do in this situation? All I have to ask myself is, what has to happen in the story to get this character to react this way? And after that point, in my head it is not like making characters and even events up anymore, it is like remembering something and writing it down. I do not know if it is like that for everyone. But it is for me.

Lisa: Clarification please. When you said, "Characters, well I know I make the characters up," did you mean "I know how I make the characters up"?

Max: No. I meant what I said. I know I make the characters up. It just doesn’t feel like I made them up after a script is written.

Lisa: At the point when the characters become people to you, do you "see" them physically? Do you ever imagine specific actors playing the characters?

Max: Yes. I "see" the whole movie. After scripts are written, I imagine different actors and actresses in the roles. I rarely do that while I am writing a script, though.

Lisa: Your dialogue is great. Any tips?

Max: The only dialogue tip I know is "listen." If you can hear how people talk, you can write how people talk. But you have to be able to listen to hear how people talk. I do not think everyone knows how to do that.

Lisa: We know you like Shane Black’s writing. Favorite scripts, in particular (Shane’s or other writers’ scripts)?

Max: Lethal Weapon. Last Boy Scout. Those are two of my favorites by Shane Black. Black has amazing voice, it sings. That is one of the reasons I love his writing. And Black takes every piece of action one step extra. Say these two guys open the trunk of a car and hello the trunk is packed with C4 and about to blow because they just triggered the firing pin opening the trunk. Help! So they dive off an embankment and the car blows and they are lying in an embankment ditch going, Whew!, Saved! Only the blown up flaming car rolls over the embankment after them and is careening for their ditch and now they have to out run it.

I love that about Black's writing. That just when you thought it was safe to lie in a ditch, it isn't.

Another favorite script of mine is Romancing the Stone by Diane Thomas. That script sings with voice. And that is what stands out to me about the scripts I am drawn to. The voice of the writer is special and so there.

Lisa: Are you interested in becoming a writer/director? I read somewhere that you were either producing or directing your Nicholl Fellowship winning script, My Back Yard. True? If so, how’s that going? And what’s My Back Yard about?

Max: I am attached to My Back Yard as director. It’s a comedy about a woman afraid of marriage. We got derailed during the pre-strike frenzy on that project and haven't gotten back on track with it yet so for now we're not doing anything. I figure one of these days we will. Films you really really care about making are never dead. They are just catching their breath till you go back into the breach and it may take years, but one day you will get there.

Directing. Well. Directing is a horrible job. You have to get up at freakish hours of the morning. For days on end you have to get up at freakish hours of the morning. Freakish hours when I am usually crawling into bed not getting out of it. You work like a dog. Everyone brings their problems to you and they are all your problems now and you have to have all the answers or find all the answers and solve them. You are the cast's only audience, and actors need an audience, (I know this, I used to act), so actors have to see themselves through you when they are working in front of a camera and that takes enormous concentration and projection while behind you there is this entire set and process going on that you also have to be aware of and on top of because you have to know everything that is going on with the camera and the set too because no matter how brilliant your DP is, he or she cannot do it alone you are responsible for what's showing up in that film can. Directing is not something I ever thought I would want to do at all. Then I went through "development." That was very educational and now there are scripts that I have to direct, or they will not be directed at all. Just because that is the only way to control the film's final outcome.

Lisa: (Readers, take a look at Max’s "Too Many Writers" essay on her website for a very cool look at development and interesting data about Best Screenplay Oscars.) Max, what are you working on now? Are you writing specs and/or assignments?

Max: I'm working on a new spec, working off and on on getting My Back Yard made, and doing website design. I love website design. That is an instant gratification medium if there ever was one. A film takes years to make. Books are the same, they take years from the time you write them to actually arrive on book stands. Even with magazine articles, you are talking a three month lead time in almost all cases, if not more. But websites, websites, once you create them, go up in seconds. Here it is in your head. Then there it is on the computer. Then there it is on the internet. Magic. And you can look at them and say, I did that. And it is all you. And it is instant. I love that.

Lisa: We know you have been "online" for years, participating on screenwriting lists and discussion boards. Why did you start your website ( Other than networking and support/companionship from fellow screenwriters, do you see any promising marketing opportunities for screenwriters online?

Max: I started the website by accident and it wasn't actually me who started it. It was a friend of mine, Laura Warner, who is a website genius, and Laura was always telling me I should put stuff about the book and class schedules online. And I would say yeah yeah yeah, and never do it. And then I sent out an update email to people and she loaded it on a page on her site and said, "Look, it's really easy to do this, you need to do this." So that was my first web page, just an update letter I sent out that she loaded on her site. But she convinced me and I started learning how to do this stuff and it was hard. Which I liked. That it was hard, it didn't come easy, so each thing I learned how to do and pulled off was an accomplishment.

Marketing scripts on the internet, well I am not sure what I think about that. A lot of people are attempting to do that, with little pages about their scripts and excerpts and loglines online, but I think for that to actually work, it cannot be a whole bunch of fractured inconsistent individual sites scattered around the internet completely un-findable by search engines just buried in the sea that is the internet. I think you have to have a united front or one source for locating this stuff because development people will not go searching for individual websites, but they will cruise one large site where many scripts are gathered.

I also think that web design is a lot like writing, everyone thinks they can do it, but most people do it very badly. And a bad page is not going to help your cause, selling a script. So people need to be careful of that. And need to be as objective about their sites as they need to be about their writing. If the site is no good, it's not going to sell your script, it's going to make you look sort of, um, well bad. So if you do a site, do it right. And if you can't do it right, acknowledge that and get help from someone who can.

Lisa: Do you think the tide is turning when it comes to development people accepting electronic copies of scripts, favoring email queries, and so on?

Max: I don't know the answer to the email query question. Ten years ago when I was in the query trenches (okay now I feel old), just explaining to non-cyborgs (read everyone in Hollywood) what dot com or dot org meant was an exercise in valor. Now, everyone knows what those mean and how to use them but I'm not in the query trenches so have no personal experience with email queries. I know they save postage so it's worth a shot. Postage is not getting any cheaper.

As far as script submissions go, though, I would stick to hard copies. Querying in email is fine, but I think you lose control of where a script is going when you send a script out as an electronic attachment. Electronic attachments are just too easy to forward. There is no way to know where an electronic attachment goes after it leaves your computer. Or in what form. I want to know where I sent a submission and I want to know it stopped there or where it went from there, so I would be real leery of electronic submissions and would stick to hard copies.

Lisa: How have the September 11 terrorist attacks affected you as a writer? How do you think future Hollywood projects will be affected (other than the obvious initial reluctance to showcase projects with terrorism-related stories)? And, what are your thoughts, post-Sept. 11, about the artist/storyteller’s role in society?

Max: You know people keep asking that, how does September 11 affect writers? And I hate that question. But here it is.

Writers and artists are the visionaries of the world. Artists go someplace and touch the ether and bring something back intangible and precious, a vision of what the world can be, a vision sometimes of what the world should be, a vision of what we, humanity, are capable of achieving, when we are on the right track, and when we are on the wrong track. We bring back visions of humankind at its worst, and at its finest. And that will never, ever change. That is what artists do. What artists were doing in the time of Socrates. And what artists will be doing, when you and I are gone and forgotten on this earth.

September 11th will not change that. Nothing will ever change that, unless we manage to somehow annihilate humanity and our world completely. And then I figure whatever voice out there in the cosmos found its way to be heard here, through artists, will just find another way. Because that is bigger and better than all of us, it is strung across the sky at night in the stars, it rises every morning with the sun. And is not going to disappear, ever, no matter how many planes crash into buildings.

That is what I think.

Lisa: Okay, next to last question: I can’t walk in heels, so I’m tickled about the sneakers/jeans/jacket thing. But do I really have to wear HIGH-TOP sneakers??? (Readers, please see Chapter 27 of Max’s book.)

Max: You do not have to wear anything I tell you to wear. You do not have to take my advice at all. You probably should. But you do not have to. It is up to you. (wink)

Lisa: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Max: Well I have to put in the commercial blurb or my publisher will beat me so, yes, um, buy the book: signed copies are available at .