Screenwriter Joe Stinson “Makes Her Day”

by Nancy Russell-Forsythe

I’m standing by the coffee bar, not knowing how I’d identify Joe Stinson.  A well-known screenwriter, drama producer and educator, he’s recently moved to Asheville and  somehow managed to keep his face off the Internet.  The door opens and in walks an interesting looking man – shaved head, dark glasses shading his eyes.  He stops, glances at me and gestures with his right-hand . . . sort of like pointing a gun, I think. The move is right out of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, "Gran Torino," which I saw a couple of nights earlier.  I wonder, “Did Eastwood get that bit of action from Joe?”

That’s not such a far-fetched question since Joe Stinson got his first screen-writing assignment from the famed Hollywood star.  Over cups of coffee, Joe tells me about his journey from being a Philadelphia-based stage actor/writer/producer/director to writing Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster, "Sudden Impact." In the 1980s, the Stinsons moved west to Los Angeles.  Through an acquaintance, he learned about making trailers (what you see as previews at the movies and on the Internet).  His first attempt, for the film, "Bronco Billy," was selected by Eastwood.

As Joe describes it, he picked up the phone one night to hear a graveled voice that sounded like the legendary star.  Thinking it a practical joke, Joe uttered some “unmentionable” words.  Fortunately he stayed on the line long enough to accept Eastwood’s proposal to write a screenplay for him.  Stinson’s line, “Go ahead, make my day,” from "Sudden Impact," is included in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and is number six on the American Film Institute’s list of one hundred most memorable film quotes.  His second collaboration with Eastwood was writing "Heartbreak Ridge."

Although Joe’s entry into screenwriting may have been unorthodox, it helped to have had a background in both acting and playwriting.  As in any environment, the importance of developing contacts is something he stresses, whether they are agents, producers, other screenwriters, or actors.  Stinson sums it up this way: “Luck is the residue of preparation.”

“It’s tough to get into the ball park; make sure you can hit,” he says.  That means being prepared with a “show draft” of an entire screenplay that you’ve written.  Joe calls this your spec script.  “It may never actually be bought or produced, but it could get you a job.”

I ask him to share what he’s known for in the film industry and how he goes about crafting a screenplay.  Joe replies that his focus has been on action, crime detection, and war movies, reflecting his personal interests.  He describes himself as a “working writer,” which means that he takes a variety of assignments that include polishing dialogue, taking over from another writer and doing production rewrites.

Where does he get his concepts?  Joe describes a number of ways. “You may be asked to write for a specific actor, a producer may ask for a ‘pitch,’ or you might option a novel to write a screenplay.”   Currently he’s adapting a James Ellroy novel for the screen.  As for day-to-writing, Stinson says, “Stick to what you know and like.”  He uses an outline to some extent but says it’s essential to know the ending of your play first.  “It may change along the way, but having the end in mind keeps you moving through the process.”  Joe emphasizes that writing for film is unique and has stayed that way in spite of many other screenwriting mediums born over the last twenty years: “industrial and Internet films, documentaries, films for non-profits and corporations, advertising.”

Another passion for Joe Stinson is sharing his expertise.   He’s lectured and conducted workshops at The American Film Institute, Drexel University, Stockton College of New Jersey and a Cape May, New Jersey, high school.  His experience provides Stinson with a wealth of information useful to anyone who may aspire to be a screenwriter.   As he describes it, writing for the movies is not like writing novels and short stories, but you can learn to write a screenplay by enrolling in a degree program, taking a day-long course or a three-hour workshop.    More than anything, according to Joe, you need to “think like you’re in the movies, writing in a way that’s technically correct, in a Spartan fashion.” He adds,  “In some ways, it’s like channeling the actors’ feelings and motives.”

There’s a great deal of relearning involved in writing for film. Screenwriting requires a knowledge of correct formatting and understanding a unique set of terms—I now know, but certainly didn’t before this conversation, what “slug lines” are.  Education about the craft can be found in workshops and courses, but there are also computer programs that automate the correct formatting.  He stresses that “even though there are tons of books on the subject, the best way to learn is to get into a class that has an experienced teacher and a workshop format.”

More than learning the craft, underneath it all, Joe says, you need to love movies.    “That means watching movies, talking about them with other writers, analyzing what makes movies good, even reading the published screenplay as you’re watching the film.”

We end our conversation with what I now know to be typical generosity from Joe. He offers to pass along valuable personal advice for any budding film writer:

  • Keep rewriting.  It may take you ten pages to get one good one.
  • Read your words out loud.
  • Keep practicing the fundamentals of the craft.
  • More than anything, make sure you have fun.

Nancy Russell-Forsythe has been a member of the Great Smokies Writing Program since 2002. She has published fiction and non-fiction pieces in The Rambler, Verve Magazine and WNC Woman. Currently Nancy is writing a novel based on the early Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina. She is the President of Leadership Bridge, consulting for organizations and individuals about career and leadership issues. She’s lived in Asheville with her husband, Greg, and their two German Shepherd Dogs since 1998.