7 Screenwriting Tips From The Writer-Director of New Sci-Fi Thriller “Listening” (iDigital Times)

Listening, a new science fiction thriller about the creation of telepathy and its inevitable terrifying Big Government consequences, comes out in theaters tomorrow, Sept. 11Our review is right here , but it’s sufficient to say that Listening “succeeds as a chilling look into a future where the walls between minds are forcefully knocked down and our very souls are put under surveillance.” iDigitalTimes spoke with the writer and director of Listening, Khalil Sullins, about his process and found that his experiences offer some great advice for aspiring screenwriters.

Brainstorming: Quantity Counts

“Writing is my favorite part of the process actually, when you’re creating something from nothing. For me it’s the most creative part of the whole process. 

Before I write any script I generally spend a few weeks just coming up with every movie idea I can, and just trying to flex that muscle. And coming up with 50-100 movie plots and then choose the best of the best of those. Because sometime your “best” idea for a movie is your first one, but often it’s not, you know, something that comes out later if you try and come up with multiple ideas.”

Do Your Research

For Sullins research is a combination of hard, scientific data and taking an analytical look at the movies that are in the same wheelhouse as your idea. 

“The original idea was ‘what if someone invented telepathy?’ And then I did a bunch of research into hard sci-fi films. I tried to get the science right and see how you would invent telepathy in the real world. All the science in the film is based on either real science or stuff that’s still theoretically possible.

First in the writing process you have early versions of script that read like medical journals. And some people refer to the dialogue as technobabble and I’d be like ‘No, this is actual, real stuff, it’s not babble! This makes sense.’”

Understand Your Genre

“Good sci-fi can be fun and entertaining and intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying but also say something about the world around us and explore the human condition and society through allegory if you will.”

The Listening director also modeled the movie’s visual style off of his understanding of science fiction movies like THE MATRIX and GATTACA .

“I come from a visual arts background. So color is interesting to me in general. But it’s not that I was trying to put my stamp on this film. It’s not like all of my films will have these crazy color palettes. 

Really, how I was trained as a director was that you sort of study the genre story you’re trying to tell and then you use the conventions, the tools that are common to that genre, to try and tell that story well. If you think back to your favorite sci-fi film they probably use extreme color palettes as a way to transport the audience to a new world.”

Know Your Questions, But Not Your Answers

“For me the movie is about social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and being plugged into your phone all the time. All this technology that lets you communicate faster than ever before, but are we actually better communicators on a human level?”

That Sullins ended on a question in describing the themes of Listening is key to his writing process:

“The scripts where I’ve known exactly what I wanted to say about the world, those are the scripts I never finish. I have to in some way feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew in order to keep myself interested in the 3 to 9 months in takes to write a script and the 3 to 5 years it actually takes to make a movie. So I don’t have all the answers like some do.”

The Writing Isn’t Done When The Movie Starts Shooting

“Once you have these physical props and you actually see them on each other’s heads and wires connecting them you inherently know what’s going on and you can cut out a couple pages of dialogue explaining it. So yeah, we were able to get much more efficient once we were able to tell the story and see the story visually up on screen. So that also applies to the relationships and the characters as well.

Getting into the editing room is when I felt like I most learned about writing. And I tried to make thing so efficient. The main thing is that when it’s your first film you’re trying to get as many ideas in there as possible. There are some fears that this might be your last film as well. If this is going to be the last film you make you try and cram everything in there.”

Don’t Let Budget Prevent Bold Choices

“I was originally writing it low-budget because I didn’t think studios were going to buy a $100 million script from an unknown writer. So I was trying to write a sci-fi script that didn’t have a ton of CGI and could be relatively low-budget, but I wasn’t trying to write a micro-budget film that I was going execute myself.

It was sort of an out-of-body experience because I was just writing in my tiny little office in Hollywood, my upstairs office at home, but sitting there on my computer, my laptop saying ‘David is in the jungle, he turns, he sees a tiger,’ and a few years later suddenly here we are and we’re in Cambodia and we’re filming the tiger and we’re booking these incredible jungles and ancient temples in Cambodia… I can’t even describe how amazing that feels. So I wasn’t writing it as a low-budget script, but it is a low-budget script in that it doesn’t have a ton of CGI and stuff like that and the sci-fi concept doesn’t require a lot of special effects. The locations are what add a lot of production value. And some people tried to get us to rewrite too. ‘Oh, just make a yoga studio in Hollywood, why do you need to go all the way to Cambodia?’ And I really stood on my ground on that.”

Don’t Leave Script Problems For Later

“I think I learned a lot just in terms of some of our bigger production days, we had a lot of crew and a lot of extras and they’re not even in the film or barely in the film because it wasn’t efficient storytelling. There were a couple scenes where I was like ‘we should have solved this at the script level.’ I think most things are like that. The script is where things tend to succeed or fail, so spending as much time as you can at that stage of the process is usually wise.”

To see how Khalil Sullins’ screenwriting process plays out on screen, give Listening a watch. If you’re a science fiction fan you won’t be disappointed. 

Listening has a limited release in theaters across the United States and Canada. You can find a listing of theaters screening Listening here .