Taylor Sheridan Has Two Tips for Becoming an Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter

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Taylor Sheridan (left) on the set of Wind River. Photo: Fred Hayes/Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

The story of Taylor Sheridan’s career is the kind of uplifting tale you won’t find in any of his own gritty movies. After working as an actor for more than 20 years — most prominently on FX’s Sons of Anarchy — the 47-year-old Texas native suspected he could write more interesting scripts than the ones he’d routinely been given to read. He was right. Sheridan’s first three produced screenplays resulted in 2015’s acclaimed drug-war drama Sicario; 2016’s neo-Western heist movie Hell or High Water (for which he received an Academy Award nomination); and the forthcoming Wind River, which examines the aftermath of a murder on a Wyoming Native American reservation and which he also directed. Here, he talks about his unlikely success and making up the rules as you go.

You never studied screenwriting in any serious fashion and didn’t even try it until your 40s. What clues did you have that you’d be any good?
I’m an actor, and the screenplays I read were the screenplays that were sent to me. But I wasn’t Brad Pitt, so I wasn’t getting sent Se7en. Instead, I was reading episodes of Aaron Spelling soap operas. After 20 years of that, I remember saying to myself, “I have no idea how to do this, but by God, I know how not to.”

What were some of the common mistakes you were noticing?
I just realized that nobody knows what they’re doing. Our business says, “Give me the script that checks all the boxes,” but the films that resonate usually don’t do that. Think about GoodFellas: It could be a textbook on how not to write a screenplay. It leans on voice-over at the beginning, then abandons it for a while, then the character just talks right into the camera at the end. That structure is so unusual that you don’t have any sense of what’s going to happen next. And to me, that’s the goal of a screenwriter: to allow audiences into a world where they can’t predict what’s going to happen.

Your own scripts veer pretty far from any traditional screenplay structures, and I know you don’t do advance outlining or plotting. Are there any screenwriting principles that you’ve found helpful? Or is your process totally instinctual?
I’ve made up little mantras for myself, catchphrases from a screenwriting book that doesn’t exist. One is “Write the movie you’d pay to go see.” Another is “Never let a character tell me something that the camera can show me.” Then there’s “You always want the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, never what’s happening.” Maybe if I’d graduated college or read a book on screenwriting, I’d do things differently. But this is how I do ’em.

Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River were written within six months of one another. Aside from the fact that they take place in the contemporary West, what connections do you see between them?
They’re a thematic trilogy. Each is exploring the modern American frontier and how it’s changed since being settled — how much do the consequences of actions taken 130 years ago reverberate today? So that’s the landscape of the films, but you can’t make a movie about a landscape. The true theme of the trilogy is failed fathers — how they failed and how they overcame that failure. Then I wrap that into a suspense-thriller package.

The structures of your screenplays are complicated, but the plots are simple. Is the latter meant to counterbalance the former?
Plot is just not my gift. I’m fascinated with complex characters, and that doesn’t mix well with complex plots. And by the way, when the plot is simple, you can move one piece around and make it feel fresh. Hell or High Water’s a good example: I don’t tell you why the brothers are robbing the bank. By my not telling you, the audience feels conflicted — you root for the brothers in spite of what they’re doing rather than because of it. I also like to play with the way information about the plot is revealed. In Wind River, I reveal the “mystery” to the audience in a flashback, and for that brief moment, I let the audience be smarter than everyone in the film, which you’re never supposed to do. There are really two ways to mess with the audience’s expectations about what’s going to happen: visually, which is expensive, and structurally, which is free. I choose free.

Speaking of cost: Film studios aren’t producing a lot of suspense thrillers for adults. How do your movies get made?
It’s not easy. On Wind River, I ran out of money in postproduction, so I had to submit it to festivals to try to get a distribution deal to get more money to finish it. Sicario nobody wanted to touch, but it wound up getting sent to a producer who was doing Prisoners with [director] Denis Villeneuve, who read it and said, “I have to do this next.” So we very luckily stumbled into a desirable director, which put us in a position to get actors, which allowed us to get a good budget. Hell or High Water was fortunately in a really competitive situation in terms of selling it, so we were able to get a commitment for a budget of $12 million. That was enough to get an actor [Chris Pine] that garners you good foreign-sale projections, which helps move things forward. Getting a movie made is a fascinating, complicated process. You could write a movie about it.

*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Taylor Sheridan’s Tips for Oscar-Nominated Screenwriting