John Adams writer talks storytelling, creative leaps, and breakfast

by Beacon Staff • October 13, 2011

strongSofya Levina, Beacon Correspondent/strong

Kirk Ellis stands in front of a large projection screen, completely unaware that psychedelic colors, zigzagging from one end to the other are broadcast behind him. Ellis slowly turns around and smiles, exclaiming, “Groovy, baby!”

With his comfortable stage presence, playful jokes, and easy-going attitude, the award-winning screenwriter quickly turned his lecture last Tuesday from a standard oration to an intimate conversation with the audience. Ellis has seen his stock as a screenwriter explode since he won two Emmys for HBO’s 2008 miniseries emJohn Adams/em, which was based on the Pulitzer-winning book of the same name by David McCullough.

What does it takes to produce such a successful screenplay? Ellis begins with the basics.

“I wake up at 7 a.m. and maybe work out,” said the faux-serious Ellis. “Then I make myself breakfast. I’ll tell you all what I eat because it may help some of you. I make myself fruit salad, eggs fried over hard, cereal, and a cappuccino.”

Of course, there was plenty of straightforward advice. Ellis said he spends around eight hours each day researching and working on screenplays. For him, writing is a “glorious disease.” He said that he seeks out historical figures whose lives pulse with action.

“For me, [adapting McCullough’s book] was a chance to explain how he was a really popular rocker,” Ellis said in an interview the week before the lecture. “He was somebody people did not have preconceptions about, the way they would have preconceptions about, say, Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson for that matter.”

After outlining a project, Ellis said that his priority is to build an exciting narrative. He aims for emotional accuracy —  not historical accuracy. Although he writes about famous historical icons, he is not afraid of taking artistic liberties with his work.

If history was objective, he said, “then libraries would be very small, containing one book on every president, one book on every war.”

He emphasized the importance of great storytelling at any cost, encouraging the writers in the room to make stuff up to make narratives more compelling.

He said that any anxiety he has about taking these creative leaps is alleviated because he believes that history belongs to everyone, and those who claim the rights to certain parts are, well, pretentious. He ended his speech with a plea: “So for God’s sake, whatever you decide to write, tell good stories.”

The crowd responded warmly to his blunt charm and advice.

“For me, as someone who wants to get into screenwriting, listening to the lecture was like cheating,” said Tori Carriuolo, a freshman visual and media arts major. “I got the inside about writing from the guy that wrote an award-winning mini-series. How many other people can say that?”

emLevina can be reached at sofya_levina@emerson.edu. Ryan Mazie, Beacon Correspondent, contributed reporting and can be reached at ryan_mazie@emerson.edu. /em

a href=http://berkeleybeacon.com/2011/10/john-adams-screenwriter-talks-adaptation-objectivity-and-differing-conclusions/Read the Beacon's full interview with Kirk Ellis./a