Screenwriting Wisdom from Oscar Winner Charles Randolph

Eddy Perez
Courtesy of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference – Photographer: Eddy Perez

by Erin Cardiff (@EC1979)

“People love to touch it!”

There is a loud laugh in the audience at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference as Charles Randolph recounts one of the stranger moments of his career. He was approached by Taylor Swift at a post-Oscar party. She wanted to hold his Oscar.

Randolph was awarded the best adapted screenplay Oscar in 2015, alongside director Adam McKay, for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short.  Still, Randolph admitted that, though an Oscar may get you something as potentially coveted as an audience with Taylor Swift, it means little to the process of writing. He said, in all seriousness, “The page is not any less white with an Oscar across the room.”

Here are five key takeaways for writers, filmmakers and actors from the wide-ranging conversation about his work and career:

1. “I love research. It’s essentially a form of procrastination.”

Research is a huge part of Randolph’s process, no matter the project. He explained matter-of-factly that he works every day of the year without ever taking a full day off. But some of his days are fully devoted to research or brainstorming new ideas, depending on the project.

2. “What you find along the way will be better than what you were looking for.”

His writing process starts with an outline, which he works up from a page to between 10 and 15 pages, establishing tone, and knowing the end of the story before he agrees to take on new projects. He also stressed that none of those steps mean being closed off to new ideas as they come up during the writing process.

3. “Good notes are not prescriptive.”

Though he described working with Adam McKay as “like chocolate and peanut butter,” he acknowledged that not all notes — whether from execs, directors, or stars — are as smooth or helpful as the process on The Big Short. Whether on the giving or receiving end, he encouraged using the notes process as a way to learn more about your story.

4. “If you hire good actors, they can either reach your dialogue or your dialogue needs to change.”

Randolph stressed how crucial it is for good actors to interpret a screenplay. Actors have to bring the life and the depth to characters on the page. Without the input of the actor, there is no depth to explore between page and screen.

5. “Every smart actor has a lot of writer friends.”

According to Randolph, Ryan Gosling came up with many of his lines on The Big Short, but it didn’t hurt that he had a “writer buddy” on set with him to help hash out alts and improvised scenes.


Erin Cardiff has been a writer for longer than you’ve been alive. With the recent addition of producing and directing to the workload, her first film is set to arrive in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @EC1979

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