Interview with 2015 Joplin Award Winner: Leonardo Noboru de Lima
Best Screenplay from outside the US, UK and Canada
An unhappy family man faces another level of his mundane existence when he wakes up to find himself inhabiting a sitcom version of his life.
George! is a unique and captivating story filled with both drama and laughter (literally). Can you talk a little bit about how you approached the themes and how you came up with the idea?
My first contact with international culture came in the form of Friends episodes, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve been watching American sitcoms for as long as I can remember. It took me a while, however, to notice how uncanny their conventional format was; it wasn’t until I found out about stuff like Modern Family and Community that I realized not every comedy show had to have cardboard furniture and disembodied laughs and the like. Then, once that bubble was burst, watching multi-camera sitcoms became a somewhat bizarre experience, to the point that I started wondering how weird it would be to actually live in a universe that operated under those rules. I think I was watching some terrible pilot for one of those cheap star vehicle shows when I had the idea to actually explore that contrast.
At first, I had no intention to write anything other than an all-out parody. I was going to have the main character lose his mind and start screaming at the other characters, tearing down the fake sky backgrounds, pointing out how artificial all of that was right to the audience’s face. I was a very angry 14-year-old, I see that now. Of course, when I did get down to outlining the story, it became clear that I couldn’t write a hundred pages of some angry guy reacting to assorted absurdities — at which point the real core of the story emerged, and I began to fancy a redemption tale about a man in midlife crisis who has to confront his own fantasies of a better life. I struggled with that hypothesis for a while, because I kept imagining how fun it would be to just bang out a whole feature-length screenplay with nothing but escalating genre madness, but the more I considered, the more I thought that a story that outlandish might turn out to be a lot of sound and fury signifying squat.
And so it was that the sitcom universe, initially just an inconsequential comedic gimmick, ended up as a metaphor of sorts for the empty “this could all have gone another way” illusions that people sometimes nurture when they’ve hit rock bottom. Part of the reason it seemed to work was that, these days especially, comedy stars often get starring roles in autobiographical sitcoms when their careers are at a low point, and there’s something to be said for the overlap between career slumps and midlife crises. On that note, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that the script’s emotional bulk is largely based on my own relationship with my family, what with our recent participation in the same suffering economy as everybody else in the world.
The laugh track in your script can almost be viewed as a character itself. Where did the idea of having audible laughter as an element in the story come from?
That was actually one of the first concepts I came up with. I do enjoy and appreciate a fair amount of traditional sitcoms, but the one thing I’ll never be able to get past is the laugh track. I mean, I understand the appeal of emulating a room full of people giggling with the viewer, but the way they do it is just so over-the-top that it would have been a wasted opportunity not to add that to the pile of obnoxious idiosyncrasies that Marvin has to put up with. It was a little risky, because I didn’t have any formal reference points for writing an invisible meta-audience, but a sitcom world without laughs would have felt incomplete so I had to play that gambit. In the end, I think it paid off.
What is the significance to the name of Marvin’s alter-ego, George?
I wish I had a more profound answer, but the truth is that Marvin’s pseudonym isn’t symbolic or anything. You see, another thing that’s funny about old-fashioned sitcoms is that they frequently name their main characters after the stars who play them — take Roseanne, or Two and a Half Men, or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or Everybody Loves Raymond. I wanted to work that into George! somehow, so I gave the main character the least usual name I could think of for a TV show lead — Marvin — and then I had everybody in the sitcom world call him by the name of the actor I was picturing. A fading comedian would probably have been more on-point, but what I thought was, “Which actor’s presence would look the most jarring in a sitcom set?” So if this script ever gets made into a movie and for some tragic reason someone other than George Clooney is cast, I guess that pseudonym’s gonna have to change or it won’t really make sense. Either way, Mr. Clooney, if you ever read this interview, you should know that I have a good part for you!
This is frankly a little embarrassing.
At 16 years old, you are currently the youngest Joplin Award winner. How long have you been writing screenplays and what is it about screenwriting that drew you in?
First of all, allow me to express how happy I am about that fact. I’ve always dreamed of being the youngest person to do something! I guess I can cross that off my Before I Turn 18 list now. Really, I can’t thank BlueCat enough times. Because God has a sly sense of humor, next year will probably see an 11-year-old win the Joplin in an unprecedented outburst of precociousness, and I offer my sincere congratulations to that 11-year-old of the future, but, even then, this has been one of the greatest honors of my life so thank you again.
As for the actual question, I’ve loved writing since I was in elementary school and my dream for almost a decade now has been to make movies, but I didn’t get around to trying my hand at screenwriting until I was a teenager. My first serious attempt was, fittingly enough, a sitcom pilot. I was 12, I think, when I wrote something like two or three episodes of this very derivative show about middle school students. You have to write what you know, right? But then I got bored of that project, and eventually I moved on to some of the movie concepts that I had. I think what fascinated me about screenwriting was the idea that you could tell a complete, detailed, even deep story with nothing but very basic action cues and direct speech. When I started searching for real shooting scripts to read, each one felt like a lesson in film anatomy, like I was dissecting everything I’d seen on screen. It was revelatory. And extremely challenging, as I would eventually learn; there’s this very delicate balance of dialogue, structure, flow and subtext that needs to be maintained through and through in screenwriting. I completed two other scripts before George!, but that was the first one in which I think I really got that balance right. Seeing how difficult it was, to say nothing of things like character or plot, made me feel very sympathetic towards movies whose scripts I’m otherwise inclined to dislike.
What’s your writing schedule like – do you write everyday at a set time, for example?
I’m a high school student, which means I don’t have a lot of spare time. In the past, when I got started on a project, I was able to put some of my school duties aside in order to be able to work on it every day, but this is the Brazilian equivalent of my senior year so it’s been a lot harder to find time to write. Unlike homework, writing is a responsibility that I’m more than happy to attend to, which pretty much forgoes the need to set a proper schedule — I’ll spend almost all of my free time writing if given the opportunity. Lately, that free time has basically amounted to the breaks between classes, so a lot of my creative process has been confined to the pages of my notebook. I might be well into my fourth or fifth script by now if it wasn’t for this darned education system.
Do you have a certain page count you like to hit every day?
Because page counts are extremely volatile, I find it more productive to aim for the completion of certain scenes or sequences. If there’s some kind of deadline to meet, I’ll sit down and think, “Okay, I have to write these two scenes, and I can’t call it a day before this thing has happened in the story.” Most of the time, I don’t even pay much attention to the page numbers until it’s time to rewrite.
Who are some writers and filmmakers that inspire you?
This is a hard question! I obviously have favorite movies, but I think inspiration is a uniform process. Every movie will have something to tell you, because every movie, good or bad, is inevitably a work of art. I guess there are some directors, like the Coen Brothers and Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, whom I particularly admire and look up to for their ability to bring out the best in their screenplays and weave them into the fabric of their vision, but generally I’d say there’s equal inspiration to be found in broad action movies and Best Picture Oscar nominees. There are a few exceptions, of course: Asghar Farhadi, whose character dramas are so astoundingly complex that I measure my every attempt at naturalism against them, Charlie Kaufman, who is just unbelievably awesome and inspiring even though his movies are impossible to imitate, and Pixar, the only studio capable of making a masterpiece out of a story about a cooking rat.
Do you outline before you write? Describe your pre-writing process.
Oh, yes, I outline before I write. In fact, I’d say my outlining process takes at least twice as long as the proper scriptwriting. Right now, the piece of writing that’s dearest to me, other than George!, is a list of loglines for the movies that I intend to make; sometimes I go for months, even years with an idea just developing in my head and getting gradually structured before I sit down to turn it into a screenplay. If you were to hack into my computer, you’d find dozens of Word documents with notes, beat sheets, theme descriptions and attempted synopses, and maybe five or six actual Final Draft projects. For George!, it was a little different, because the action takes place nearly in real time so the scenes followed each other naturally, but even then I had to basically write a whole treatise on the nature of Marvin as a character in order to figure out the third act.
What’s the hardest part of writing for you and what do you do to stay motivated?
I think the hardest part is starting the screenplay. When you have a story in your head, it feels like it’s going to be the greatest story of all time, so it’s very sobering to begin translating it into something concrete and fallible. You’ll almost certainly be a little disappointed with what you actually manage to put out, no matter how good it is, because that’s how a writer’s mind works, but we have to go through that if we want our brilliant ideas to be known by anybody other than ourselves. I stay motivated by reminding myself that every great film began as an arduous struggle with deadlines, contradictory perspectives, undefined characters and narcissistic instincts, and that writing really is supposed to be more difficult for writers than it is for other people.
Do you have any interest in directing your own screenplays in the future?
One day, yes, absolutely. The language of film fascinates me tremendously, and I have more than a few story ideas that won’t work completely unless I’m the one to tell them. I still have no clue how I’m going to acquire the formal knowledge I’ll need for that, though.
Why did you enter BlueCat?
This is actually the third time I’ve entered it, but I had never placed before. To the best of my knowledge, screenwriting contests are the wisest route overall for aspiring screenwriters. BlueCat is special because it offers truly insightful feedback regardless of your placement, in addition to having wonderful opportunities like an award for the best international script. Most screenwriting competitions are primarily concerned with giving a handful of writers a little bit of industry access, but BlueCat is all about developing new voices and giving everybody a chance, which is what drew me in. It’s also one of the few contests open to people under the age of 18, so take that, Nicholl; it’s not like I ever needed you anyway.
What advice can you give to other young aspiring screenwriters?
Honestly, the most grating part of being a young writer, or any kind of young artist, I guess, is that people will always tell you all about how you’re not ready, and how you still have a lot to learn and live before you can make something worthwhile, and how everything you produce now is going to be an embarrassment in five years. I’m not going to come out and say that none of that is true, because some of it is — I can barely get through five pages of my first script without cringing — but my advice to anyone who has to hear that on a daily basis is this: don’t let any of that keep you from doing what you love. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist, and your art will be valid regardless of your age. A few more years of experience may give you a firmer grasp on technique, or a better understanding of people, or even an entirely new outlook on the world, but none of that negates the importance of the work you’re doing now. So if you’re a young person trying to find your voice as a screenwriter, take yourself seriously. Keep writing however much you feel like writing, about whatever it is you want to write about. Eventually, it’s all going to come around and you’ll create something that will make you proud for the rest of your life.
For professional inquiries, please contact Leonardo at [email protected]
Watch an interview with Leonardo on Brazilian talk show, Manhattan Connection, here!