Screenwriter Interview: Sean Paul Murphy

(Photo: Sean Paul Murphy, Fred Willard, Timothy Ratajczak)

Sean Paul Murphy is a writer, editor, and producer of films. Hidden Secrets (2006), Sarah’s Choice (2009) and Holyman Undercover (2010) are some of the movies he has written, edited and/or produced. He recently finished co-writing the screenplay for The Encounter, which is currently in production.

How did you get involved with screenwriting?

I always wanted to be a writer so I became a journalism major in college until a persuasion course made mincemeat of journalism’s claims of being unbiased.  Then I turned my attention to filmmaking.  After college, I got a job at an advertising agency as a broadcast producer.   I loved the advertising business, but I found it somewhat unstable.  Every time the company lost an account, I got laid off.  Ultimately, I was fired six times but only hired back five times.  During one of those breaks, I wrote my first feature screenplay — a rather routine police thriller.  It wasn’t very good, but it taught me that I had the ability to write screenplays.  I kept writing and eventually signed with the late Stu Robinson of Robinson, Weintraub and Gross, later Paradigm.  My scripts got a lot of good reviews, and I had a few near sales, but nothing I wrote was produced until I began writing independent films.

Describe your writing process?

That’s a difficult question because I have different processes depending on the script.  Sometimes I work alone, sometimes I collaborate with others, and sometimes I work on assignment.  Each situation is different.  Nowadays, I am so busy with assignment work that I do not even consider writing a solo, spec script unless the idea is fully formed in my head.  In those circumstances, I can usually pound out a rough draft in a week or two.  On an assignment, we are usually given a story idea.  We come up with a treatment.  If everyone is in agreement, we write the script.  The collaborative process is different with every writer I work with.  Usually, I am the person who does the bulk of the typing — if only because I am (currently) a freelancer and most of the people I work with have full time jobs.

How do you develop characters, dialogue, environment and structure?

I agree with the Academy Award winning writer William Goldman that screenplays are structure.  When you watch a movie that doesn’t quite work, you’ll usually find a problem with the structure of the script.  I’ve been blessed with a strong sense of structure.  Nowadays there are many books about screenwriting, but when I started there were very few.  I had to wing it.  Still, when I look back at my early screenplays, I find that my structure was usually very strong.  (It was definitely stronger than my spelling or grammar!)  The stories had all three well-defined acts.  In some of my scripts, the character came first.  In other scripts, the story came first.  And, in some cases, the environment came first!  Sometimes you are asked to build a movie around available locations!  Each film is different.

Is there a particular place where the creative juices flow better for you?

No.  Most of my writing is done sitting in front of the computer in my dining room.  Sometimes on a laptop in a motel in a strange city.  Sometimes I sketch out scenes and dialogue in a notebook while driving somewhere.  Usually, I’m a passenger when I do that.

Who or what influences your writing?

Everything influences me.  Anything you write reflects, to some degree, your own beliefs and experiences.

What role does your faith play in your writing?

Here’s the funny thing.  In some ways, I was a faith-based writer before there was a faith-based genre.  Some of my early scripts reflected clear Christian themes, and, strangely, the people who read them had no problem with it.  That’s because the themes grew naturally out of the characters and situations.  Frankly, I’d have a harder time promoting that script with mainstream producers today because now they have a small box, the faith-based genre, to put it in. That isn’t to say that all of my scripts deal with Christian themes.  I have written in many genres and the dialogue and action of those scripts fit those genres, but you will usually find a theme of redemption.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I don’t believe in writer’s block.  If you take assignment work, you don’t have that luxury.  You have to write.  You have to solve the problems, and that’s usually done by simply sitting down and writing.

Who are your favorite authors and why?

Nowadays, I read mainly history, apologetics and film criticism.  I read very little fiction anymore.  I get frustrated when I read a novel.  I always find myself trying to figure out how to convert it into a screenplay.  I have been reading ancient Roman and Greek historians.  They reveal that, aside from our technology, human beings haven’t changed much over the centuries.  My vote for the great American novel is Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”  I must confess I was bored by it in high school, but as an adult I learned to appreciate it.  I was also quite fond of Cormac McCarthy before he became so popular.  I haven’t read all of his most recent books, but there was something quite magnificent about “Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West.”  I adapted his novel “Outer Dark” as a screenplay as a writing exercise.  A critic once said that McCarthy made the supernatural nature and the nature supernatural.  That’s what I like about him.  I also went through prolonged Stephen King and Dean Koontz phases.

What screenplay do you most admire and why?

That’s a tough question.  I can’t pick just one.  From the golden age of Hollywood, I admire “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “The Thin Man,” and “The Maltese Falcon.”  I think the screenwriters of the ‘thirties and ‘forties were extremely efficient.  Those movies really moved.  You find very little waste or self-indulgence in those scripts.  They were able to establish the characters with just a few notes.  Some of my favorite scripts of more recent vintage include “Tender Mercies,” “Groundhog Day,” “Metropolitan,” and “Conspiracy.”  They all exemplify great writing.

What film genres are you most interested in writing?

I am interested in all genres.  I will follow my stories and my characters anywhere they want to go.

You have written screenplays with Timothy Ratajczak. What is your writing process when you are collaborating with someone else?

Tim and I became friends in college.  We’ve read and critiqued each other’s scripts since then.  When David A.R. White called me and asked me to write “Hidden Secrets,” which was intended to be more of a comedy than it ended up being, I knew I had to get Tim involved.  He’s a very funny writer.  At first, he thought I was kidding when I told him we had a genuine Hollywood writing assignment, but he soon said yes.  We have subsequently worked on a number of faith-based scripts.  Our process has been determined by our work schedules.  We usually work up a short treatment together, then, since Tim has a full time job, I sketch out the scenes during the week and we get together on weekends and flesh it out.

Why did you choose to write the screenplay for Sarah’s Choice?

I always wanted to write something about abortion.  I’ve had a couple of ideas, but I never bothered writing them because I didn’t think the mainstream market would be interested in them.  As for “Sarah’s Choice,” we didn’t choose it, we were chosen for it.  David A.R. White approached us with a short treatment by one of the executive producers that dealt with a female reporter investigating the subject of abortion.  We liked it, but we were afraid it wouldn’t involve the audience deeply enough on an emotional level.  We thought it would be better to deal with one woman making a decision than to deal with issue of abortion more abstractly.  It’s always better to write about people than issues.  Obviously, we borrowed the concept of the three visions from Charles Dickens.  The visions were very important because women who can “see” their unborn children as actual human beings rarely abort them.  We also wanted to deal with the problem of women who were spiritually or psychologically damaged by their decision to have an abortion.  Tim and I both knew women dealing with that problem, and, since the release of the film, we have been approached by many more.  We are quite happy with the film and we are grateful for the effect it is having in the lives of many people.  It’s actually quite humbling.

How does a great screenplay make a film unforgettable?

The key is creating characters that the audience can identify with.  If you can see yourself in that situation, the movie is working.

You are not only a Writer but a Producer and an Editor, as well. How does having experience in those related fields impact your work in each one?

Editing has helped me as a writer because it taught me to keep things moving.  On every film I’ve edited, we have always struggled with introducing the characters and getting the story started as quickly as possible.  An audience will only give you so much time before it loses interest.  You can’t let that happen.  Writing has helped my editing because it has taught me to examine the inherent purpose and goal of each scene in a film, and ultimately whether it is necessary.  Producing has taught me that sometimes you must make sacrifices.  A budget will only go so far.  There’s no point writing something you can’t afford to execute on your budget.

Your latest work was for the movie The Encounter, currently being directed by David A. R. White and starring Bruce Marchiano and Jaci Velasquez. They recently started production. What can you tell us about the story?

It’s a Twilight Zone-ish tale about a disparate group of travelers who find themselves stranded in a lonely roadside diner with someone who claims to be Jesus Christ. It was a challenging screenplay on a number of levels.  Although Tim and I are both Christians and we have written a number of faith-based films, it is always intimidating to put words in Jesus’ mouth.  It was also challenging on a technical level.  Eighty-percent of the film consists of six people interacting in a single location.  It’s hard to keep something like that moving.  It should be very interesting.

What advice do you have for new writers and screenwriters, in particular?

Someone once said that characters are defined by their actions.  That’s true of people too.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  All the time.  And you better love it, because chances are you are going to have to do it for a long, long time before you are ever recognized or rewarded for it.  You must have a passion for it.

In what area(s) do you think Christian screenwriting/filmmaking needs to improve in?

Almost all Christian films suffer from the conflict between two incompatible goals.  On one hand, Christian films are supposed to proclaim the gospel to an unbelieving world.  But, on the other hand, Christian films have to be pure enough to play in the sanctuaries of churches without offending the sensibilities of the righteous.  As a result, we often end up with films that are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.  Every church I go to I ask people, particularly young people, if they watch Christian films.  They say no.  I ask why.  They usually answer is:  “Because they’re phony.”  This is coming from kids who happily listen to Christian music.  Why?  Because contemporary Christian musicians successfully battled those within the church who objected to it solely on the basis that it sounded worldly — as if a backbeat and a distorted electric guitar are inherently evil.  Contemporary Christian music learned to speak the language of its audience and to address its needs and as a result is proving to be a blessing to many people.  Christian films haven’t done that yet.  Issues of sin and temptation can’t be conveyed and dealt with in a way that seems authentic and honest to nonbelievers in Christian films because the gatekeepers don’t want to bring “the world” into their churches and ministries.  But if the problems feel fake in the film to the unbeliever so will the solution we offer.  Real problems need real solutions.  Sadly, however, we end up making films to suit the needs of the church rather than the needs of the unsaved.  I think that’s a huge mistake.  Jesus went into the world and ate and drank with the sinner to the consternation of the religious authorities.  He went out and spoke their language and addressed their needs.  He didn’t wait in the church for them to come to him.  We should be doing the same thing.

I would also remind Christian filmmakers that you don’t have to work only on Christian films.  Bring your talent to every kind of movie and television show.    Work to bring your values and sensibilities to mainstream entertainment community.  One of the reasons why Hollywood seems so hostile to our worldview is because Christians have abandoned it.  Engage it instead.

What project(s) are you currently working on?

Tim and I just finished the rough draft of a screenplay about a college professor who must defend one of his students who was failed by an atheist professor after making a reference to intelligent design in a term paper.  We are also working on a comedy/drama about some couples who go on a Bible-based marriage retreat.

How can people learn about your work?

The best way to learn about my work is to watch the films.  They are all readily available on Amazon.com.

Additionally, you can also read my blog where I try to give practical advice to writers and independent filmmakers.

The address is:  http://seanpaulmurphyville.blogspot.com/

Additional Thoughts:

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to pontificate!   And, remember, if you want more Christian films, you have to go out and support them.

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3 thoughts on “Screenwriter Interview: Sean Paul Murphy

  1. merwyn says:

    Another great interview A Writer’s Inkhorn! Being a musician and Christian, I can relate in so many ways musically with this screenwriter. I enjoyed the questions and the indepth answers. Especially about writer’s block. When I think about it, his answer is so true. I would say at times that I have writer’s block while working on a song, but it’s really just problem solving, not a block, and especially if it is something that has to be done by a certain time frame. I definitely want to see this film now! This insight into the mind of the screenwriter will make watching “Sarah’s Choice” more interesting.
    Thanks!

  2. Great interview!! I love all of the movies mentioned!! And, I am in full agreement that faith-based movies need more edge to them. I really don’t like Christian films being classified as a genre. That implies that they are all basically alike. I really believe more people need to speak out and let their voices be heard. Christianity should not be presented as a pretty little gift all tied up in ribbons and sparkles. Real life happens to Christians too, and we should not be afraid to share our stories and our struggles.

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