Matthew Kalil is currently working on the David Lynch Masters in Fine Arts [MFA] programme in screenwriting as a professor. Author of The Three Wells of Screenwriting, having amassed years of experience in the film industry, he’s a valuable asset and core member of the reviewmyscript.com team.
Film is a very real part of his life, having documented every week of his year so far with artful one minute videos and made a movie-worthy journey back to South Africa recently. He’s an inspiration, our screenwriting guru… and the subject of this interview.
How did you get into film-making, more specifically screenwriting?
I always wanted to be a film director. From a very young age. At some point I thought film directors were these giant geniuses and so when I went to study at a film school in the UK I applied for screenwriting as opposed to directing. And then screenwriting became my thing. I have read books constantly for most of my life. So it seemed like a natural progression.
What do you think it takes to be a screenwriter?
Persistence, precision, empathy and imagination.
You wrote The Three Wells of Screenwriting… Can you tell us what it’s about?
It’s about where we get our ideas from when we write. I slow down the moment of creation and identify three “wells” we draw from. Firstly, Other Sources (other movies we have seen), secondly Imagination (we make it up) and thirdly our Memories (we remember events from our own lives). The book has exercises to draw from these wells and dig them deeper to make us more authentic writers. The process applies to almost any creative endeavor.
How does one best prepare to become a screenwriter?
Read scripts. I can’t emphasise this enough. Read read read. As many scripts as you can. It’s the only way. People think that they can write scripts because they have watched movies but it’s like someone thinking they can design a building just because they like buildings. You have to read and understand blueprints before you can design. It’s the same with screenwriting.
Which screenwriting resources have you found most valuable over the years?
Good question. I have found teaching writing the best resource I think. Also, there are certain books on screenwriting that are useful. Just to engage with the process of writing. Not because anyone has the answer to how to write a good script. But just to start engaging with the nuts and bolts of a story. I think also just reading stories. Novels. Shorts. Anything. You start to feel the DNA of a story inside you.
What’s been the best advice you’ve ever received about scriptwriting?
Writing is rewriting.
What do you recommend people do to overcome writer’s block?
Do you have any advice for screenwriters and how best to work with directors?
It depends on the director. But whatever happens you have to hand over when you write. Once you sell a script, it’s sold. They can do with it what they like. What I suggest is that you write your script in such a way that you mind-control the director through the words you use, the white of the page and the way you structure your sentences.
You have to activate their internal camera. And control it. So that when they shoot it, you have already implied what the tone of the movie is. The trick is to do this without using any camera directions or overt directing terms. It’s possible but it’s high art.
You moved from South Africa to take up a position at the David Lynch Film School in the United States, how did that come about?
That’s a long story. In short I have always loved Lynch’s work. I went to a conference in the USA to promote my book and met the people from the film school. Their motto is “meditate and create” and there were a lot of parallels between what my book is about and their core values. The next thing I knew they offered me a job.
Your journey during the pandemic has played out like a movie… do you think there’s a screenplay in that?
Haha. I don’t think so. However, the guy sitting next to me was released from prison after 9 months directly onto the plane. He had an interesting story to tell. For him lockdown is freedom. There are stories everywhere.
Who do you regard as the best screenwriters working today?
Oh wow. Great question. I admire Charlie Kaufman for his fiercely independent spirit. The Coen Brothers come up with some gems almost every time they write. But a lot of great writing is happening for TV these days. That’s where I find the best work.
Are you working on any writing projects you’d like to share at the moment?
Haha. I have a story that persistently doesn’t want to go away. Teaching full time at the MFA program is taking up most of my time though.