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Rising Star Max Adams: “If audience members aren’t feeling an emotion, the emotion doesn’t exist in the film”

My favorite writing writing/directing quote is,“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” For me, that’s one of the truest statements ever made about writing and filmmaking. It doesn’t matter what emotions an actor portrays on a screen if an audience isn’t feeling an […]

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My favorite writing writing/directing quote is,“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” For me, that’s one of the truest statements ever made about writing and filmmaking. It doesn’t matter what emotions an actor portrays on a screen if an audience isn’t feeling an emotion. The main character in a film, for an audience, is not the character on screen. The main character, for an audience, is the audience member. Audience members experience the story as a character within the story themselves living vicariously through the characters in the story. And if audience members aren’t feeling an emotion? The emotion doesn’t exist in the film.


As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Max Adams. Max is an author and award winning screenwriter. She has written professionally for Columbia Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Tri-Star Pictures. Her produced feature films include Excess Baggage, The Ladykillers, and One For the Money. She is the author of The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, is a former WGA online mentor and University of Utah and New York Film Academy lecturer and instructor, and is the founder of the international online screenwriting workshop 5150 and of the online international screenwriting academy The Academy of Film Writing.


Thank you so much for joining us Max! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Twenty years living the philosophy “Never say die?” I have a friend, Jeff Lowell, who in the early days used to say “safety nets are plans to fail.” We were in an online screenwriting group together back in the early days when we were both working to break in and I thought, Jeff is so right. So while friends and family members were saying, But Max, what are you going to do if the writing doesn’t work out? I just figured, like Jeff, if you build safety nets and back up plans that literally is making plans to fail, and you will invariably fall back on those plans to fail. So I didn’t make back up plans and I didn’t build safety nets. I studied writing, I went to university for writing, I wrote, I wrote more, I kept writing, and when the writing wasn’t working out, I wrote more still. And that was the only plan. The writing. And when it got hard? Well there was no other plan and there was not safety net so I just worked harder on the plan I had.

I do not know whether that was incredibly brave or incredibly foolish. I am incredibly lucky things did work out because this business isn’t all about hard work. Some of it is about sticking it out and never saying die. And some of it is the stars aligning and being on your side at the right moment and the right time. But I still figure, if you’re busy building safety nets when those stars show up at the right moment and right time? Well then you might not be ready or willing or able to step up when the stars do align. So, “Never say die.” That’s what put me on the path and that’s what kept me on the path when things got hard and that’s what got me to where I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

Probably not. “Interesting” is a euphemism for many things and I sort of hope to work in this town again. Which sometimes means, don’t tell stories in print. (wry smile)

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Probably my worst early mistake was wardrobe. I came from a dance and modeling and acting background. I had French tips and long curly hair and wore flowing dresses and heels. I was studying film at University of Utah in Salt Lake and busting my ass writing and sending material out to Hollywood and this Hollywood agent loved my screenplays and wanted to meet. So I put a plane ticket I couldn’t afford on a credit card and flew to Los Angeles to meet her.

The second she saw me me, her expression sort of changed. And she said to me, We don’t represent playwrights, you know that right? We only represent screenwriters.

(I was writing short plays too and she had read those but the plays had not been an issue or even part of the conversation before we met in person. Now, having seen me, the agency only represented screenwriters and apparently, that was not me. Uh oh.)

Then I went to a meeting with a producer on a studio lot and this guy on the lot sort of corralled me as I was going by and said, The casting calls are over here. And I said, No, I’m here to meet this producer. And the guy’s face froze in this sort of “does not compute” expression, and then cleared and he smiled and said, Sure, right, in the casting call, the casting call is over here — and tried again to shuffle me into a casting call.

This is when I knew something was really wrong with the way I looked. I mean, agents who want to sign you don’t tell you after one look at you they only represent “screenwriters” and strangers on studio lots don’t try abduct you and hurl you into a casting calls unless something about your appearance is shouting something really obviously not “writer.” Something about the way I looked was wrong. So I started asking working screenwriters I was interviewing for a screenwriting magazine, What do you wear? And I learned, screenwriters do not wear dresses and heels to meetings. Screenwriters wear jeans and T-shirts and flats.

That’s when I put away my heels and pretty flowing dresses and learned how to LOOK like a writer.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now I’m working on an online writing webinar crash course series. It is pretty exciting to me — and a little horrifying because it means being in front of a camera again (erm, looking like a writer). I am way more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. It’s working in a new medium and online filmed environment teaching in a new way and I get to bring some of the craft I teach in online classes to a more people online. Going in, the first segments will be primarily focused on craft skills, using momentum, dramatic impact, visuals, screen space, and more. As the project evolves I hope to also bring in some presentation studies and sessions that address pitching and building lookbooks and clips. It is a big project that has been a little overwhelming at times but has been a great learning experience for me and I hope will be for other people when it launches in the coming month.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Well, the most entertaining (and mildly tragic) story for me is not a work related story. It’s a living in Los Angeles story. I was driving through Beverly Hills with my dog Dolph in the passenger seat. Dolph was this incredibly cute and adorable and gregarious Norwegian Elkhound with a dog smile that could put movie stars to shame. And Adrian Paul, this incredibly handsome actor who starred in The Highlander series, dodges out in front of the car. I slam on the breaks. Dolph and I rock in our seats. The car rocks on its wheels. Adrian Paul freezes and looks toward the car. Adrian Paul and Dolph make eye contact –

And Adrian Paul and my dog Dolph have a bonding moment.

It’s like a movie moment when time stands still and the two leads lock eyes for the first time and it is love at first sight you can practically hear an orchestra playing and music soaring –

I am completely invisible.

Here I almost run down a handsome actor I have a roaring crush on (shut up, everyone did) and does he see me? No. He and my dog have a moment. Ahhh!

(Doph was incredibly adorable, anybody in their right mind WOULD have had a moment with Dolph. But still. Invisible? Jeez!)

Another moment that is funny in hindsight to me happened at Disney with Geena Davis. I had a meeting with development execs and producers and Geena Davis. At the time Geena and I both had short bobbed red hair and the execs were way behind me in the hall heading to the same meeting room and when they came through the door they all startled and said, Oh, Max! It’s you. We thought you were Geena! At which point I thanked God for every second I ever suffered at Pilates that gave me a butt that even remotely momentarily from a distance was mistaken for Geena’s — and also began to have serious doubts about the guys’ educations and math skills because Geena is about a mile taller than I am.

(Geena Davis by the way is one of the smartest actresses I have ever talked story and plot with. Story is not a common skill set among actors. Actors train to study a role, not story. Geena knows both and is seriously story smart.)

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Well, for me, burn out is usually a side effect of wanting to force cooperation from the world. If you are thinking, Everything rides on this one outcome, I must force it to happen, and you’re trying to force this one thing to happen and it doesn’t happen? It can feel like running slam into a brick wall — hard. Over and over again.

If you do that too many times, well at least if I do that too many times, I start to feel devastated and angry. That also can spiral into a sort of “writing out of desperation” syndrome that damages the writing because if you get into that spiral, you start trying to please some internal “every voice” editor that has the voices of too many other people in your head that starts cutting all the edges and inspiration out of the writing and pushes the writing into a generic “please everyone and so no one” zone that is not good for a writer or the writing.

Writing doesn’t really work like that. Sure, you must work hard, writing and getting material out there. Really hard. This is not an easy craft or industry. But you can’t desperately ride single outcomes or force the universe to hand you a specific outcome — and slamming your head into a metaphoric wall over and over again trying to force events and outcomes won’t change that. You have to remember to love the work and why you loved the work and writing in the first place and you have to gag the internal editors and sort of sit back and be sanguine about outcome and let the writing flow without curbing its inspiration or edges.

The universe doesn’t reward desperation and demands and outcome cannot be forced. And that mindset “I did this now I demand this outcome and will slam my head into walls until I get it” is, at least for me, the road to mental and emotional despair and ruin and burn out.

Do what matters. Do the writing. Creators can control the creation. Then send it out and let it do what it is going to do and go for a run or mow the lawn or hug your dog or binge watch Netflix or whatever it is you do to blow off steam and stay sane. You must stay emotionally aloof on some level and disengaged from outcome. You have done your side of the work. The world at large is now in control and you can’t control the world at large or change outcomes by making demands and bargains with it that it did not enter into with you in the first place. Stay aloof. Stay sane. Do the work. Put it out there. Then let go.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This sounds like a beauty pageant question. I know this answer on the pageant circuit: World Peace.

On the writing circuit? I’m not sure it will change the world for all people, but it would change the world for screenwriters, especially newer screenwriters, if studios would get off the almost decade old kick hammering sites that host screenplays online with cease and desist orders.

There was crazy backlash in 2010 after someone leaked the pre-production Deadpool script online and 20th Century Fox went on a litigious rampage hunting sites that hosted screenplays online. That spread through the studios and decimated online sites that hosted screenplay and series PDFs online and available for download and reading and study.

US studios and production entities could establish online libraries associated with their film and serie libraries where screenplays of produced projects are available in PDF form for download and study. There’s no money in it, but it would sure be a nice switch up in politics and it would be good for the writing community and a solid way of giving back and supporting writers coming up through the trenches instead of stomping all available resources for them. The BBC Writer’s Room has something like that online. It’s very cool.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

•Dress like a writer.
•Never share an unfinished project with a non-creative (‘non-creative” includes studio execs, development execs, producers, financiers, agents, and managers).
•In the world of features, it’s better to turn great material in late than it is to turn material that isn’t great or ready yet in on time.
•The strongest word in a writer’s negotiating vocabulary is “no.”
•Having no agent is better than having a bad agent.

*Again, I kind of plan to work in this town again which means I’m just not going to bust people in print here. But those are some pretty solid bullet point guidelines I have learned the hard way.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I don’t know about life lesson quotes. Except maybe Jeff Lowell’s “Safety nets are plans for failure.”

My favorite writing writing/directing quote is,“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” ~ Frank Capra

For me, that’s one of the truest statements ever made about writing and filmmaking. It doesn’t matter what emotions an actor portrays on a screen if an audience isn’t feeling an emotion. The main character in a film, for an audience, is not the character on screen. The main character, for an audience, is the audience member. Audience members experience the story as a character within the story themselves living vicariously through the characters in the story. And if audience members aren’t feeling an emotion? The emotion doesn’t exist in the film.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I will always be grateful for Mrs. Gee Nicholl. Gee Nicholl founded the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting in memoriam after her husband, Don Nicholl, a professional Hollywood writer himself, passed away.

It is Gee Nicholl’s generosity, founding the Nicholl Fellowships, that gave me a hand up when I won the Nicholl Fellowship.

I am also eternally grateful for Greg Beal, who was always generous with his time and made my move to Los Angeles less frightening and scary, for Gale Anne Hurd, who reached out to make me feel less alone and on my own when I first arrived in Los Angeles after winning the fellowship, and to Eva Marie Saint, who stood on stage holding my hand tight while I was shaking in front of a podium at the Nicholl Awards Ceremony.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Well sure but it’s probably inappropriate for me to use this interview as a dating springboard. Let’s just keep that side of my fantasy life private, hmm?

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Max: www.seemaxrun.com
The AFW: www.theafw.com
Max on Twitter: @celluloidblonde
Max on Instagram: @celluloidblonde

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

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