Originally published June 1, 2021 by Tim Buckley (MFA 2014) through the Academy Bulletin, the AANYAA is delighted to re-publish this spotlight on the AANYAA's website. Here, Nick Lepard (MFA 2015).
Tim Buckley: I know that you are working on a screenplay. You went from one hard-sell, painting, to an even harder-sell, writing for the big ol' screen. How did that happen? Have you always been a writer? What kind of writing are you interested in?
Nick Lepard: After graduating from the Academy I found myself wanting a project that would work some of the creative muscles painting did not, so I enrolled in a continuing studies screenwriting class at NYU. I’ve always been interested in writing and have always loved movies. Screenwriting was a natural bridge between the two. Screenwriting has its own challenges but a benefit is that you can get away with more than you can in literary writing and it requires only a tenuous grasp on grammar. What’s paramount is the story, characters, and imagery. In fact, art school was an oddly useful education for screenwriting in that a screenplay is in some way just a list of images. Critiques also prepared me well for receiving feedback and not having hang-ups about deleting scenes or even rewriting entire scripts. It took me about a year to write my first script and I was fortunate enough to have a production company` pick it up. I’m now working on my third script for the same company.
TB: I can't say that I really know anything about it, but you hear stories about the limbo that scripts or movies can languish in -- it can be a very long-drawn-out process of editing, or whole-hog changing direction, or crushing compromise. I think the most important lesson that I've learned as an artist is that this idea of waiting for inspiration to hit you and then Art is just made in some sort of fugue, is total nonsense. Making something for me is always a long-drawn-out process full of compromises, and I'd like to think, partly for my own comfort, that everything else is total romantic nonsense. You must work every day and you need to have a routine. So, what is your daily routine like? Do you have any stories about the life of your screenplay(s)?
NL: I find that inspiration is a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to happen. You gotta do the hard work of getting it going. Once the ball is rolling, it can get bigger and bigger, practically on its own, and maybe pick up some surprising things along the way. At first it is a slog but you just gotta do it and put yourself in a position to be inspired. You make your own inspiration sort of thing, maybe. I find exercising is good for inspiration or working through problems too. Lately I’ve been jogging and taking voice notes. It's helpful when working dialogue. My phone is full of these really awful breathy conversations of me talking to myself pretending to be different characters.
As for schedule, mine is pretty rigid right now because I have a kid who is not yet in school, so basically any free time I get I really try to maximize output. For painting or screenwriting, I find it very helpful to have a clear goal organized the night before. Tomorrow I’m going to paint the under-painting or I’m going to outline Act 1. Without that goal, I could spend half my time futzing around not doing anything. This way, I get to the studio and hit the ground running.
I haven’t had one of my scripts butchered on screen yet but I’d like to think I could get over it if it did happen. I’ve gotten big notes before. For example, I got hired to write a script, pre-Covid, and then finished during Covid, and they were like “can you get rid of all the secondary characters and any interior locations?” Ouch. But ultimately it made the script better. I kind of like the anonymity of screenwriting vs painting. Nobody cares about the screenwriter. It is rare that the public thinks of a movie as the writer’s movie. You sort of hand over the script and it becomes the director’s movie. After my experiences painting, of hanging this thing on the wall or, God forbid, the Internet, and everybody having an opinion about your very essence as a human being in 10 seconds flat, I kind of liked the idea of creating behind the scenes. Having said that, if you finish a painting, it is a real physical thing. You can hang it on a wall or whatever. A finished script is a file on a computer that nobody looks at unless somebody is willing to throw millions of dollars at it. I am slowly learning about the ups and downs of the business and it is intense. So far the successes are outweighing the disappointments.
TB: For me, composition is everything. I can like anything if it is composed well. I could read a book about nuns playing golf if it had great style. My appreciation for anything -- whether it be a novel, a film, a chair, or a building -- springs from, and is seen through, the lens of painting. I am interested to know how you think about making things. How do you compose a story? Other than the most basic beginning-middle-end sort of thing, could you tell me about any new and exciting insights you may have gained into the construction or composition of a story? What parts of writing do you find the most interesting? Do you think about painting while you write?
LP: I think about painting all the time. You do this thing everyday for years and it is a part of you, for better or worse. Certainly the lessons of art school — learning how to think critically about what I am making and developing the discipline necessary to keep working on a project even when things are going poorly — has translated well to writing.
It has also gone the other way too. Learning about writing has helped with painting. Scripts are projects of extreme economy; because you are trying to keep a fickle audience’s attention, you cannot waste a word. You have to know exactly what you are trying to communicate. Everything needs to be in service of your goal. Applying that laser focus to painting has been helpful. Painting is so endless and nebulous that asking yourself these questions can help you narrow in on a goal and start making productive decisions. I find myself asking things like: Why use that color? Does it reinforce your objective? Do you even know your objective?
A few of my favorite differences between painting and screenwriting is that with screenwriting “craft” is not such a dirty word. That is a nice respite from painting. The other is being able to save a document so if I make changes I still have the original. That has got to be one of the hardest parts of painting: you can erase something forever quite easily. Without taking the time to properly think about it, I’ll go ahead and say painters/ drawers/ sculptors are the only ones doing that.
As for how I write a story — I work in the horror/thriller genre — I basically come up with an unfortunate event and follow my characters as they try to deal with it and a lot of the things they thought they knew about themselves begin to unravel. It’s a back and forth between outlining and writing on the fly, following my characters as they say and do things but also trying to make sure events contribute to a larger story or theme. You never want a reader to ask “Why am I reading this? What is the story here?” You need tension that pulls them in and keeps them reading and eventually (hopefully) watching.