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Want to be a screenwriter? Ditch it all and jump in, Keenen Ivory Wayans says

Charles Ealy

Parents of kids who want to go into show business probably won’t like what Keenen Ivory Wayans has to say. And Wayans, who was honored Saturday with the Extraordinary Contribution to Television Award at the Austin Film Festival and Conference, said his father didn’t think much of it, either.

When Wayans decided to drop out of college and jump headfirst into a stand-up comedy career, he said his dad told him he needed to have a fallback plan. But Wayans told his dad that would be like “having a plan for failure.” And he told the audience that “everybody I know who had something to fall back on did.”

Wayans, who created the seminal 1990 TV show “In Living Color,” appeared Saturday on a panel discussion with two other AFF honorees: Walter Hill, who received the Extraordinary Contribution to Film Award and who wrote the screenplays for “The Getaway” and “The Drowning Pool,” and Kenneth Lonergan, who received the Distinguished Screenwriter Award and won an Oscar for the original screenplay of “Manchester by the Sea.”

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Wayans said his first and biggest goal as a young comedian was to get a gig on the late-night TV show hosted by Johnny Carson. And once that happened, he moved on to his TV series, then tried to host a late-night show himself, before turning to directing with 2000’s “Scary Movie.”

He said Hollywood’s lack of diversity helped him, in a sort of weird way. “There wasn’t anyone who understood what I was trying to do, so they couldn’t give me notes” telling him to do something different, he said.

All three honorees expressed doubts that studios and networks will ever be easy to work with. But they said directing at least gave them a chance to protect their scripts from meddling.

Lonergan, in fact, said he turned to directing because he wanted his screenplays “to be better realized.”

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Hill agreed, saying that Hollywood was a tough business to crack. “They’re doing fine without you. They don’t need you,” he said, “so you better bring something to the table.”

Hill, who’s been in the business for 50 years, said he usually tries to start a screenplay by coming up with character and putting them into different situations to see how he or she will respond.

Wayans said he just starts writing, not worrying too much about whether it’s great. “The art of writing is rewriting,” he said. “You have to let go in order for it to grow.”

And Lonergan said he likes to think through a script, especially the ending, before beginning to write. He doesn’t have it all plotted out in his mind, he said, but he works toward an ending that he has already conceived.

Audience members asked whether technological change was hurting the movie and TV industries, and the honorees didn’t think so. They just said that technology is changing “the delivery systems” for telling stories.

“Human beings need stories,” Hill said, “and they always will.”