A Conversation with Virgil Williams
This week on On Story, Virgil Williams, writer on 24, Criminal Minds, and Mudbound, discusses adapting work for the screen, being nominated for an Academy Award, and the power of routine.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
Mudbound screenwriter, Virgil Williams.
- Mudbound's you,
Mudbou-- like, Mudbound's everybody.
Because it's a piece of America.
And with the six voices that are represented in the story,
there's an entry point for anybody.
[Narrator] In this episode,
Virgil Williams, screenwriter on TV hits
24 and Criminal Minds,
and the critically acclaimed Mudbound
discusses adapting work for the screen
from the novel by Hillary Jordan.
- Virgil, on Twitter a couple of weeks ago,
you posted this.
- Oh, oh.
- No, no, no, it's not even vaguely obscene.
"Sometimes you got to close your eyes so you can see.
Everything you need is already inside you."
I thought maybe it was a kind of beginning point.
Is this something that you could talk about to tell us
who you are and where you are as a story teller?
- It's so cool at this point of my career,
to be able to look back
and to see sort of where I was,
and what I was, or who I was.
I'm also super blessed,
because if you're a writer, I mean, you kinda
get to work your [bleep] out and get paid for it.
I'm at this point in my career and in my life
where I'm trusting
and I'm sort of really listening really clearly
when I'm doing it well, when I'm doing it su--
when I'm on my game,
I'm not doing it.
I feel like I've tuned the radio in
to the right station.
The thing that getting nominated for an Academy award,
the biggest, most valuable takeaway
from that whole experience,
besides people submitting stuff to me,
besides that kind of stuff,
was that the only thing that matters--
You guys, and this is the truth-truth,
in feast or famine, is the work.
I mean, that's the only thing that matters.
You got to ask yourself, "Would I write this [bleep]
if no one would read it?"
Now, you turn pro, the game changes because you
got to pay the bills.
I wasn't up at Criminal Minds like going, "This is an Opus."
You know what I mean?
I was feeding my kids.
But Mudbound came from Criminal Minds .
I mean, I wrote Mudbound while I was my first season
on Criminal Minds because I needed one for them,
two for them, three for them,
one for me,
four for them, one for me.
So I'm in that place, I'm in this sort of trusting place.
- What were you doing before you got the 24 gig?
What did you do to prep professionally, personally,
that sort of sent you in the direction of doing that work?
Coming out of college, I was lucky enough to get a job
as a writer's PA on a television show called
Lewis and Clark, The New Adventures of Superman .
And I was working on the Warner Brothers lot,
and I'm 25 years old, 26 years old-
[Greg] Oh, that's magic.
- 350 bucks a week.
And, you know, like, pow, I mean,
Sylvester Stallone, "Oh, hey Clint, what's up man."
That's where I got, driving on that lot every day.
- Thinking back on 24 ,
it was this incredibly suspenseful adventurous,
kind of Zeitgeisty post 9/11 show.
What were some things that you learned from writing for 24 ?
And is there anything that you carried forward
into the other TV work that you've done
or to other things you've read?
- Yeah, there's stuff I've carried forward
through my whole career.
The biggest thing would be just terse,
I just keep seeing word, terse.
That it's always better leaner,
no matter what you think
or how good that felt coming off your fingers, a little moment,
you're like, "That's pretty dope right there."
Because it's better shorter,
dialogue is better shorter,
prose is better shorter,
everything is better shorter.
That document that you're creating
serves many, many masters.
So it's a blueprint for 150 people to go do their jobs
off of, it's a sales tool, a hand-holding tool for
the executive who is not... doesn't want to read.
You're a novelist, so you write stuff for people
who want to read.
They buy the book; that's the intent is to read it.
Most of the people who are reading your scripts don't
want to read, and they're not readers most.
So a lot of stuff is gonna go zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom.
So I'm not saying don't put it in there, but
get to it.
- So is there a scene or two that you wrote for 24 that
you're particularly proud of that maybe exhibits those?
- My first interrogation scene, I remember Dennis Hopper
was in the first season of 24 ,
and my mind was blown,
and they didn't... and I was just a staff writer.
I mean, I cut on that show was me and a bunch of dudes
who had their own shows,
and they didn't change anything in that scene,
they didn't rewrite me.
So there was a scene where Dennis Hopper is getting
- You have already lost your wife and your daughter.
You don't mean to lose your sons too.
- My sons are soldiers.
- And they will die for nothing.
We know about the rescue plan that was scheduled for 7:20.
We stopped it.
We've called in for backup
if they try again, so they will die.
- Then you have nothing to worry about.
- Call it off, Victor.
- How can I?
Same way you've been communicating with them this
Call it off or your sons will die.
- That was something I remember sort of getting right,
because I left it alone and I was like,
"God, Dennis Hopper is like [bleep]."
And that was cool.
- Let's move on and think a little bit about
ER and Criminal Minds .
And I know they're not in any way identical shows,
how were those different for you as a storytelling experience?
And what did you learn in the process of working on those?
- The most obvious difference was the
emotional palette from which to draw on ER was endless.
I could create a story where I'm making you laugh in one scene
and then I switch stories,
and someone's going to die and you're crying.
I could affect pace in a particular way
by having five stories,
or four and a runner.
It was a lot of freedom,
anybody could walk through the doors of that hospital.
That hospital was located in Chicago.
So I could also bring some home to it,
and also be like,
"No, that wouldn't happen in Chicago," that kind of stuff.
I remember somebody tried to write,
"He got injured in a snowmobiling accident."
I was like, "Well, did he get choppered in?"
- From Wisconsin?
- Yeah, maybe, possibly, exactly.
Maybe it was, he wasn't in the city, right?
Because I don't know why they're doing that.
And Criminal Minds ,
the emotional... there's...
everything is overwrought.
There's the emotional palette is like three.
There's, "Oh my God, I can't believe he's dead,
I can't believe he's missing."
Or, "Thank you for saving him."
You can find these little pockets of personal stuff
with the team, but those are straight up pockets.
Like, they're really--
there's not a lot of territory there because it's all story,
it's all moves.
So character and story, I think were probably
the biggest differences.
There's way more character in ER
and Criminal Minds is story driven.
- You were saying about Mudbound that you were given
three, four, five things to Criminal Minds ,
and you had to take back one thing for yourself.
What was the piece of your soul in Mudbound ?
- Mudbound , that's pretty easy.
So my grandpa fought in a segregated unit in World War II.
He was a Buffalo soldier,
was in 92nd infantry, if I'm not mistaken,
but his brother fought in a white unit because
he could pass.
And my grandfather, he wasn't like,
He was like, "They're not going to send me into combat."
He's wrong about that.
So for me,
Jamie and Ronsel, I mean, that was me,
that was absolutely me.
And the cool thing about Mudbound , I remember saying
this thing in New York at the...
it was at New York Film Festival or so-
I forget which one it was, the Gotham Awards,
something we went to, and it was like, Mudbound 's you,
Mudbound 's you,
Mudbound 's you, Mudbound 's everybody.
Because it's a piece of America.
And with the six voices that are represented in the story,
there's an entry point for anybody.
One of the skills that I find absolutely essential
to writing is...
and it's also, I'm blessed because I'm racially ambiguous,
so I can slip in anywhere.
I call it banking.
Whenever you're out in the world, living your life,
which is probably the most important part of learning
how to write and learning to...
how do you manifest something on a page is live it.
I'm watching mannerism, I'm listening to cadence,
I'm just looking at clothing,
it's all sort of getting registered.
When you're minority, you're the one that has to assimilate.
So what you do is you acquire these assimilation skills
and you're like... in my experience,
this is not a generalization,
it's just in my experience.
I have seen that Caucasian writers have a harder time
writing black people than black people have
writing Caucasian people.
Because, black people and brown people
have been forced to assimilate.
- In my writing classes, we often kind of talk about this.
It's like, everybody should understand the white male
middle-class experience because that's what gets represented
more than anything else.
Okay, so one of the things that I often talk with my students
about is how a great screenplay, and Mudbound , I think
is a great screenplay.
- Thank you.
- We'll often announce its intention early on.
And there are a lot of writing resources that say the same
thing, but I mean, that's been my observation.
So when I was watching it again this week,
I was focused in on the early line,
"Why would I do that?"
[Jamie] That was my brother, Henry.
Absolutely certain whatever he wanted to happen would.
And his little brother...
[Jamie] ...would never betray him.
[Henry] Come here.
What's the matter with you?
[Jamie] I thought you were
gonna leave me down there.
[Henry] Come on, why would I do that?
Why would I do that?
- Funny, whenever I get,
and I get questions about Mudbound a lot,
I feel embarrassed because the book is so brilliant.
The book is-- and Hillary is my friend,
we stay in touch.
I think that that whole opening scene is brilliant.
And that's in the book, I mean, that's the way the book opens.
I mean, it has everything.
[Jamie] We would get this hole dug before the storm hit.
[shovel hits something]
[Henry] Jesus Christ.
- What is it?
[Henry] It's a slave's grave.
[Jamie] How do you know that?
[Henry] Shot in the head.
It must've been a runaway.
That settles it.
- Settles what?
- I ain't burying my father in a slaves grave.
Nothing, he would have hated more.
Help me up.
- We ain't got a choice.
[Henry breathing hard]
- You get this really quick [snap]
sort of a Tableau introduction,
then yes, I mean, "Why would I do that?"
Why would I do-- it's all--
I think it's all part of the stew that really sets that up.
I mean, I remember reading the book, but first seeing the book,
I was like, "Whoa, this is big."
[Henry] Come on, come on, let's go.
Just hold on.
Lift it, Jamie, lift it.
Just give a little more force.
Let's just to stop, okay?
Let's just set it down.
- Why don't we just run the ropes lengthwise,
we stand at either end?
- No, the coffin's too narrow, if it falls again,
it might break.
- Well, we can try it. [Henry] No.
[Henry] Help. - Henry.
- It was like a big piece of cake, it was just rich.
I mean, I guess the long answer is yes,
that was a statement of intention.
Set the tone, I think for the entire piece.
Because you go back to that in the end, it's also book-ended.
I mean, you return to that point.
Like any story, any good story usually does,
you come home.
[Henry] Hap. [wife] Henry, don't.
- It ain't my fault what happened.
I warned that boy, I warned both of them.
[wife] Just let them go.
[Henry] Hap, Hap.
Can you hold on?
Need to get the coffin in the ground.
- Could you talk with us a little bit about adaptation?
Because, I mean, clearly you've got a lot of respect and
admiration for this novel,
and there's a ton of the stuff from the film,
which is in the book.
But what were some of the challenges?
What did you have to wrestle with?
What did you have to take out?
- That was a long process.
I think we took a swipe at first.
We tried five voices, and I think we tried it without Hap.
I just wanted the first pass, because I was like,
"It's too much, too much, too much."
And that didn't work.
That was all wrong.
I knew if we could do this with these voices and find--
and I tried to lean into that really hard.
So I tried to write to that as best as possible.
So for instance, when we read Henry's voice,
I might start piece of prose with high and wide
because I wanted him to look small against the land.
If it was Ronsel, it was usually
interior, hot, sweaty claustrophobic,
because this is a man who's being oppressed.
If it was Jamie, it was usually exterior night rain,
If it was Laura, I tried to sort of
soft hand, sort of romanticize.
I tried to write to different things to sort of capture
and at least create space
so that other people could sort of stay on that path.
And I think it worked.
But the book, the book, I had the book,
Hillary did all the heavy lifting.
- One of the things that I really admire about the
book and the film is just, I mean,
this is so painfully paradoxical,
the brokenness of the characters.
And I remember Amy Tan, the great Asian-American writer
was at Baylor a couple of years ago and she said,
"I love the more broken the person is,
the more fun they are."
And of course, this is not true of life.
So I loved all of these characters.
I wonder if you could talk about,
did you have a favorite as you worked on this?
- For me, it was Jamie and Ronsel.
If this is the Brady bunch those two are the ones
that got married, so to speak, and brought everybody together.
The original script, everything was about that friendship.
In my version of the script, I didn't have--
Hap didn't break his leg, didn't have that.
Dee came on board and she put that back.
So in the film, Hap does break his leg, and it's brilliant.
I mean, that's one of the best, most visceral moments
in the film is when Rob Morgan gets up,
because he's trying to-- his leg's broken,
it snaps, and the whole theater cringes.
- So I mean, it really is just about
making those choices and taking those,
I don't know,
But for me, it was Jamie, Ronsel.
That's how I sort of cut through.
- So Sergeant, how do you like being back here in the Delta?
Yeah, me too.
Heard you and my Pappy had some words.
- I apologized for that.
- But he's a disagreeable [bleep].
I'm sure he had to comin'.
Here's to you.
- I'm fine, thank you.
- Well, you always just stubborn
or just around a white people trying to be nice?
- Once I understood the whole thing structurally,
and which was already for the most part done,
then everybody revealed themselves pretty readily.
- Tell us a little bit about this process of
working with another really good storyteller
who happens to be the director on the film.
- Well, she's brilliant.
I mean, Dee Rees is flat out,
she's a cinematic savant.
She's just one of those people that just sees [bleep].
But as to process, there wasn't one,
Dee and I never worked together.
We never discussed a line of dialogue,
we never discussed a--
she was doing her thing, and that was what--
I mean, 80% of me is still in the final product
because it was right,
and I did the work.
- Let's talk a little bit about PTSD.
I mean, there are a lot of reasons that this is
a crazy current film.
And of course, we are in these situations around the world
where we have been sending people out to fight for us
five, six, seven, eight times,
and they're coming back broken.
That is the really powerful,
painful brokenness for me in the story.
But could you talk a little bit about writing this
and how you took it on?
Research that I had done actually occurred
on previous shows.
We had a character on ER that was an Iraq war veteran.
So I already had sort of a foundation of knowledge
about what that was, and that was a big deal.
And that's all in the book.
I mean, everything, those dreams, the handshaking,
that's all in the book.
And that's the thing that binds them.
That's the thing that pushes those two men together.
[man] Look at that.
[man 2] What was that all about?
[woman] What's wrong with him?
[man] Jamie's just come back from the war.
[car rumbles by]
- It's all right.
It's just a car must have backfired.
Stuck intake valve.
[cans rattle and bag rustling]
They say it stops eventually.
- If you've walked through the same fire,
you're like, "I get it, dude.
I totally get it."
And then you don't feel alone.
Because each of those guys, when they get home,
they get home, and I suspect that these soldiers,
now, any soldier, when they come home,
they feel incredibly alone,
which is why they go back a lot of times.
- As you think back on Mudbound ,
what are the scenes that you're proudest of?
Where do you feel like you hit the mark
and wrote the things you absolutely
wanted to get out there?
- There's two that jump to mind,
and they're scenes that are not in the book.
There's a scene where Jamie and Ronsel were hanging out,
and Ronsel was like, "Why are you being so nice to me?"
Jamie is like...
- You look like you could use it.
- And in the book, Hillary didn't explain,
and I needed a movie reason.
I needed a movie, a cinematic movie reason,
which is where that Tuskegee airmen scene came from.
[Jamie] They deal with God right there.
Swore if He saved me, I was going to do some good.
I don't know what that was, but
I promised anyway.
Before you know, whole bunch of P-51 show up,
just like [bleep] cavalry.
They cleared those Germans right out of the sky.
And I swear they were angels sent by the Lord Himself.
and their tail's painted red.
One buzzed me right after the flight.
I looked over, I thought I was seeing things.
The fighter pilot...
he was colored.
- Dee, she stripped all the sound out of it,
so it's super intimate.
When you flash into the bomber, it's just a voiceover,
so it's super naked.
And that was massive home run that really worked.
And the ending, I changed the ending of the book.
In the novel, Hilary just sort of alludes to what could
maybe happen to Ronsel one day.
And I was like, "Yeah, nah.
"I'm a black father,
"and there's too many black fathers.
"There's too many kids, there's too many fathers,
"black kids out there.
"That's not right.
He can't be a hero if he doesn't go get his son."
So those two things are really--
and they worked too.
I mean, that's always a great feeling,
especially for a TV writer.
Because I'm used to seeing little screen and you've seen it
like 87 times.
It's like, "Yeah, there's my name and whatever,
"there's a scene.
But the first time I saw Mudbound was at Sundance,
and that was like, "Whoa."
That was really powerful.
[Ronsel] And so, I ended with that,
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation with
Virgil Williams on On Story.
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