The tips below are taken from a masterclass given by Gill Dennis at the Galway Film Fleadh 2011. His work ranges from Walk The Line (2005), the Johnny Cash film, to the cult classic, Return to Oz (1985) He has worked on scripts as diverse as Apocalypse Now, Pollock and The Black Stallion.

There’s wisdom here, and helpful, stimulating stuff...


These questions Gill asks himself when he’s writing a script – and then uses to create character arcs for main characters - are:

• What is the saddest thing that ever happened to you?
• Most terrifying?
• Most shameful thing you ever did that wasn’t done under the influence of drugs or drink?
“This is the touchstone of everything.”
• What’s the angriest somebody ever got at you?
• When was the time when you said I love you
• When was the time when you said I hate you?
• When was your most joyous/ proudest moment?
• When did you laugh until you cried?

What these have in common is that they are moments when you lost control. Each represents a time when life was baffling – therefore these are the times when we know each other.

He would do this and end up with a hundred record cards – one word on each representing the memory. Then he’d whittle it down to 20 maybes, then to three. They would form the arc of a character’s journey through a series. Then he’d, “turn the characters loose on each other”.

Stories are made memorable by the depth of emotion felt, not by their structure or whether they were good stories.

Jodie Foster: She told him she always worked out what was her character most afraid of and most ashamed of.


Most terrifying thing = backstory. This leads to the most shameful thing. (ie when you do to someone else what terrified you... ie you have been there and now you are doing it to someone else, hence shameful). The character’s arc/ story ends when you reach the most joyous things– ie when s/he has a second chance, a chance to do it right.

“Get loose: there are 20 different ways to write each line. If you get a note, try it.”

Exercise: “write ten things that happened to you today. Now write another 20 and
another 20... That is how you get down to what really happened.”

VS Prichard: “It took me a long time to learn to listen to bores.

• Any good line will do – ie you can come up with a better one.”

• “I always tell students to write this script as if it were the last script you will ever write.”

• “Always write sound – spend a lot of time writing sound.”

• Non sequitars – those lines that don’t seem to make sense – generally because a scene or
subplot has been cut – Gill says leave them. “They give a sense of the randomness of life.”