Brian Helgeland Screenwriting Lecture at BAFTA

The tricky thing with a movie — because you can have a great script and a great director, and everyone’s heart can be in the right place – you still need to get massively lucky to pull it all off.

I love how matter of fact and humble Brian Helgeland is (not to mention his eerie resemblance to one of my favorite actors of all time, Mr. Michael Keaton). Even with sixty-plus screenplays under his belt, eighteen of which have made it to the screen, he doesn’t label himself a writer: He’s a filmmaker, goddammit. As far as he’s concerned, writers are novelist, playwrights are dialogist. He stands along side the many technicians and craftsmen who come together and make a movie. Just another cog in the machine. There’s something very genuine about that sentiment, especially considering it comes from the guy who is Mr. Adapation ’round town, with films like L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Man on Fire, and The Bourne Supremacy under his belt.

Helgeland on the Screenwriter’s Fight

Screenwriters have to fight. And you have to fight with everybody. You have to fight if someone looks at you the wrong way. You can’t be happy in meetings. You can’t feel grateful. You can’ t have any of that stuff. So you can never apologize for being a writer. You have to absolutely be known for being difficult. Executives should dread when they see you’re coming in. And they should dread that you’re coming in because you should make them feel stupid. And you get away with this by being good at what you do. So be good and embarrass them. And never give an inch to them.

Take this advice in context, my friends. What he’s saying is that, in the event of landing a gig, they’re not paying you to agree with them; they’re paying you because you know how to write screenplays. That’s not to say politics don’t play a part in the game. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be a fool, either. These are the words of a fifty-two-year-old Oscar-winning screenwriter, speaking with hindsight and over a quarter century industry experience in his favor. Trust me when I tell you he wasn’t battling hordes of mindless executives when they were giving him notes on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and 976-EVIL.

Helgeland on his Oscar and Razzie

If you really want to make a great film, you have to take the risk that you’re gonna make a really bad film. If you make a safe film, it’s never gonna be too bad or too good. That’s why I like the Razzie, because that movie could have been great.

Brian has the distinct pleasure of being the only screenwriter to win both a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year (Sandra Bullock would share the same honor as an actress in 2010). Ron Howard hired him to write The Postman back when it was a vehicle for Tom Hanks, but the film, like many others before it, changed hands. Kevin Costner took the reins as director and star, and according to Helgeland, insisted on making the con-artist protagonist more sympathetic, even though that flaw was essential to the arc. On the weekend of March 22-23, 1998, Brian would win the Razzie for The Postman on Saturday, and on Sunday, take home an Oscar with Curtis Hanson for L.A. Confidential.

Helgeland on Writer’s Block

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s the price you pay for the good day you had on Thursday. You do more work sitting, staring at the wall than you ever do feeling it and writing stuff out, fingers flying across the keyboard. And if you’re unwilling to go through the pain of that, then you will not get the reward on the other side.

Helgeland on Movie Talk

Movie dialogue has never been how people really talk. It’s not supposed to be how people talk; it’s how we wish people talked. It’s what you wished you said to somebody when they insulted you. It’s what you wish you had said in a romantic situation.

The trick to dialogue is about rhythm. You want to say it out loud. You want to say it often, repeat it over and over again, and above all, you want to shorten it.

Helgeland on The French Connection


Brian believes the car chase still holds up today because of the character. If Popeye Doyle hits the woman with the baby carriage, he’s still going after the train. This puts the audience on the street, not the car. They’re more scared because he’s the driver. There’s been enough development of his misbehavior to know he’ll stop at nothing to get his man.

Helgeland’s Top Ten


Lucas Jackson is alive to me. He is the only man whose approval I have ever craved. I measure my life against his and continually come up short. And he’s a movie character…the title character in Cool Hand Luke. It is, in my opinion, the highest achievement in Western civilization.

  1. From Russia with Love
  2. The Outlaw Josie Wales
  3. The French Connection
  4. Klute
  5. The Bad News Bears
  6. The Great Escape
  7. The Road Warrior
  8. The Guns of Navarone
  9. Manhattan
  10. Cool Hand Luke
William Robert Rich
William Robert Rich

William Robert Rich is a story analyst, screenwriter, and co-author of Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan. He's currently based in Austin, Texas.

Articles: 120

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.