Interview with screenwriter Desmond Ngai

  • What is the first story you ever wrote?

I can’t recall exactly, but I was always interested in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece and the emperors. I remember trying to memorize the list of Roman emperors, so my first story was probably about that era. I wish I was born in the 1990s, so that I could find the story saved on an old laptop but laptops when I was a child were well over $2,000, so it is forever lost.

  • Growing up, what movies or stories inspired your creative passion?

Besides Ancient history, I loved Sesame Street, biographies of famous people and also loved different Chinese gambling movies like the ones with Steve Chow and Chow Yun Fat. I know they are not related or have a common theme, but that is what I think makes my creativity interesting because I take from different places.

  • For an unknown writer, what is the best way to get their screenplay seen?

Most people try to write a TV script or a feature length screenplay as their first screenplay because in the mainstream American market, that is the only way to get noticed. However, aspiring that high is a certain road to failure. Write a short script so you can learn the mechanics of writing and then submit them to various contests and film festivals. This is a litmus test to see how good your initial writing is and can potentially provide a very good boost of confidence. Do that and then you can tackle the larger, more difficult scripts. The good results from your short script help you get your future work seen.

  • What experiences from your life influence your characters?

I was raised in a strict Chinese household where academics were stressed above all else. This type of thinking never worked with me. Even though I did not rebel, as I got older, I started to doubt the validity of this way of thinking. Being a philosophy major in university only solidified this. It all comes down to the fact that people take life way too seriously. We just need to chill. Life is short. We do not know why we are here. We have no idea if there is an afterlife. This is all just random, so just chill. Enjoy life and laugh at its absurdity. The work of philosopher Albert Camus is important in this area. Therefore, I write about different ways people act when they take life WAY TOO SERIOUSLY. This vegan script is a reflection of my belief.

  • Can you explain your character development process?

I don’t do that much deep diving with my characters pre-writing. I actually should, it’s the next step in my writing development. Basically, I follow the sketch comedy format that is taught by places like Second City: establish the initial reality, inciting incident, heightening, climax, change, and resolution. The characters naturally develop themselves as long as I stay on this format. However, this is just my personal preference and different ways work with different people.

  • Do you write bios before you start writing?

No I do not. The characters develop themselves as long as I am authentic and organically try to picture their reality in the sketch comedy format. The format is great and allows the characters to take natural turns and changes and this, I find is very helpful. I get too much in my head if I write bios for the characters because I get worried about how to implement every detail of their bio, which leads to certain writer’s block. Again, this is my personal method.

  • How emotionally involved are you with the characters you create?

I’m pretty detached. I’ve tried to write about characters from my past and I don’t do well in this area. I think being emotionally involve clouds your judgment and makes you less impartial to your material. Once you are finished the first draft, because you are so involved in the character, it is hard to see which areas need revision. Also, what if you have to delete large parts or even take a character out of the story? Being emotionally involved makes this much harder. The best writing is done in the editing process.

  • What are your thoughts on structure?

Structure is EVERYTHING. It gives you a way to organically develop the story and characters. The great writers of yesterday have come up with structure that works, so why go on this journey by yourself in a forest that you’ve never been in? Structure has been accepted for a reason. Most movies follow certain structures. Some people say that rules are meant to be broken. That is wrong. Those people who make brilliant stories and movies and broken structure have been doing it for years, if not decades. You must master the rules before you can break them. This is how those who have transcended rules have done it. They’ve become masters first. Sorry if I am rambling, but I am very firm in this belief.

  • Do you outline before you start writing?

Outlining is like making the cake and the writing is like putting on the icing and garnishes. Writing is a very small part of the process. All the thought about how the story evolves and moves is done in the outlining phase. This is my personal way of doing things. I know of other writers who write without an outline and are very good writers. Different methods work for different people.

  • What is the most important aspect of building a great character?

Keep it in reality.  Ground your characters in circumstances that are natural to people that remind you of this character. See how they develop as you go through the sketch comedy structure. This is intuitive and the characters will develop naturally based on their surroundings. The best characters are realistic ones. If you ground it in reality, then you can some funny quirks and they can really shine because the base is firmly built already.