MATTHEW KALIL is a writer, director and script editor who has written and co-written over forty produced episodes of TV. His productions have been screened and broadcast in Canada, Denmark, Morocco, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Kenya, South Africa, Thailand, the United States and the United Kingdom. Since receiving his M.A. in Screenwriting, he has been teaching, writing and mentoring students for close to 20 years. His new book, THE THREE WELLS OF SCREENWRITING: DISCOVER YOUR DEEP SOURCES OF INSPIRATION, helps beginners as well as established screenwriters get in touch with their creative cores. His workshops have touched and inspired thousands of participants. We spoke recently about accessing creativity, the power of memory, and colliding worlds.
Matthew and other Michael Wiese Productions authors will be speaking in Minneapolis this July 31st at The Future of Story conference!
You can order Matthew's book from Michael Wiese Productions here.
Dave Watson: How did this book come about?
Matthew Kalil: I created content for an online course using most of the existing books on screenwriting and the whole time I was asking myself, what am I missing? I saw what my students were writing, when tapping into their three wells and knew they were onto something. I was at a conference two years ago and met Chris Vogler and he said, "You have to write this book!" Well, if he says it, then you've got to. I later went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat where my mind, instead of speeding up, slowed down and I noticed for sure that when I was having creative thoughts I would draw from three distinct wells.
Everyone always talks about structure when it comes to screenwriting and I wondered, well, where do ideas come from in the first place? At the heart of this retreat I realized that creativity comes from a place of authenticity, which comes from calmness and this taught me a way of how to write and how to live. Next was the fine art of applying the seat of my pants to the seat of a chair in order to actually write the book. That was really hard to do but I stuck to a schedule and the book just flowed out of me.
DW: Why three wells?
MK: In the beginning when I was teaching I used to use two wells. I would try to get my students to be more original by consciously stopping to draw from other movies (External Sources Well) and draw from their memories (Memory Well). The resulting scripts were amazing. Then I developed the 3rd well, Imagination, because that is such a huge factor in creativity. It encapsulates all the other potential origins of our ideas. And to be honest, I like the number three. It’s very powerful. Like the trinity.
DW: One section deals with colliding ideas. The films of Peter Weir come to mind, films such as Witness. Any particular filmmakers deal with this notion?
MK: Good question. In Witness the writer is colliding ideas, which is a lot to do with the Imagination Well. It’s taking an idea like The Amish and colliding it with an idea like the detective genre and then you have the basis for the movie. Of course, when you add in some spice from the writers’ personal Memory Wells, you have a movie that resonates. With The Truman Show you blend genres like sci-fi and an idea like Big Brother and you get the basis for the movie. Ideas are everywhere.
DW: Black Panther does that.
MK: I think that Black Panther, like all superhero movies, draws from the External Sources Well , with other superhero movies, and the Imagination Well with cool kickass scenes, but it also draws from the Memory Well. There is a lot of “personal” stuff behind the creation of superheroes. Batman and Superman, all these heroes come from the original creator’s Memory Well. With Black Panther it is now also tapping into the collective memory of oppression and emancipation of Africa. It’s doing super well here in South Africa as you can imagine!
DW: Do The Three Wells apply to all genres?
MK: Yes. In Chinatown we have a film noir. Traditionally film noir draws from the External Sources Well. In that when they churned out the genre there are tropes and ideas that are repeated in all other film noir. However, with Chinatown the writer and director were drawing heavily from their personal Memory Wells. So the film resonates deeply. Interestingly a film like Blade Runner is colliding ideas again. It is colliding genres of film noir and sci-fi. Have you ever seen Brick?
DW: I have not, heard it's great.
MK: It's film noir set in high school. So again, it’s colliding ideas. Film Noir in a High School is the whole idea. It’s just one aspect of The Three Wells but it’s a powerful way of finding ideas.
DW: Are there any other filmmakers that deal specifically with this notion?
MK: The Wachowski siblings, Christopher Nolan, and Stanley Kubrick, who's one of my favorites but he is very cerebral. He stimulates his Imagination Well not by simply colliding ideas but by reading deeply and becoming fascinated, if not obsessed, with nonfiction ideas.
DW: With Nolan, Inception was all about worlds colliding, and sometimes the personal story is sacrificed. That happened a little with Interstellar, which started on a personal note. You also talk about the subtlety of emotions, and I would agree that this is important, even paramount in the film medium. Coco, which just won Best Animated Feature, pulls emotions in various ways. Why is this so hard for some films to do?
MK: It deals with the notion of resonance. Animation can be very primal and youthful. It taps into memories of childhood in a very primal way. Something is put up on the screen and we're moved and we feel something, a vibration, an emotion. It could be with something as simple as a shot of the ocean. Often these things come from the Memory Well, which is difficult to access. The filmmaker has to be vulnerable in a way. There were these movies in the eighties that were expressive and sometimes it looks like the filmmakers didn’t really know what they were doing. But they were expressing themselves, they were putting their emotions on the screen. In a very raw way.
DW: The first half of the eighties were great, I agree, while the last part I’m not sure I agree as many appeared more as a series of studio dreck. Directors still shined through in that time, though.
MK: Yes, and the filmmakers were vulnerable. Directors and writers are such a combination of sensitivity while being headstrong.
DW: That's what makes them fascinating human beings. They have to create and they are at times thin-skinned. You also discuss memory exercises. Why does film have such an impact on our memory? Many, many people can recall memories from movies years even decades after seeing them.
MK: Yes. So this is very fascinating. The Three Wells all mix and swirl into one another. When we write a scene we might “steal” some elements from a film we have seen. In this way we are tapping into the External Sources Well. However, we are remembering the scene. Which, strictly speaking, means we are tapping into our memory. The amazing thing is that different people remember movies in slightly different ways. Just like we remember all events in different ways. So we all store movies in our External Sources Well in ways that are unique to us. Something resonated with us specifically when we watched the film.
There is a perfect example from this, that links to the film makers of the 80s. Well, just before the 80s. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese was inspired by a cowboy film he saw and the way the light flashed off guns being drawn. It works it’s way into the scene of Travis Bickle in front of the mirror drawing his gun. For some reason the light flicking off the guns resonated with Scorsese, so it finds it’s way into his film. His Memory Well is mixing with his External Sources Well and we have a memorable scene. Well, of course with De Niro’s amazing improvisations thrown in.
DW: You also urge people to watch broadly. Why?
MK: This has to do with filling your External Sources Well with movies that are unique to you. Many of my students watch only what they see in the mainstream cinemas. As a result, when they draw from their External Sources Wells, the movies can be very generic. However, when they have watched more and more films, their External Sources Wells become more unique to them. Just like Scorsese and the “film brats” of the 80s; they watched broadly, hence their films were unique.
DW: What's next for you?
MK: I'm focusing on this book right now. But I am especially interested in exploring The Three Wells of Acting at some stage. The Three Wells can apply to almost any creative pursuit.
DW: What is your favorite cinematic moment?
MK: This will be so left field (laughs). It's a surfing buddy movie called Big Wednesday, made by John Milius. Right at the end three buddies come together to surf these massive waves and this scene has everything: nostalgia, memory, triumph, and friendship. It is a climax of the entire emotional journey of all the characters. But it looks just like a series of shots of surfers set to great orchestral music. We had a VHS copy of the film when I was younger and it really left an impression on me.
Clip: Big Wednesday
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.