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How “Prison Break” Helped Wentworth Miller Break Into Screenwriting

The actor is most recognizable from starring in “Prison Break,” which just returned to TV, but he also happens to have a major creative side hustle.

How “Prison Break” Helped Wentworth Miller Break Into Screenwriting
Wentworth Miller

While the character he played on TV was trying to break out from behind bars, Wentworth Miller was conducting an escape of his own: from being known as “just” an actor.

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“I didn’t get around to writing, and I mean working up the nerve to even try it, until the third season of Prison Break,” the hyphenate says.

Up until then, Miller, who had bounced around in bit parts until finding his, um, breakout role, had done very little writing. His first stabs at it involved composing overenthusiastic email correspondence and the occasional poem. (One recipient of these emails eventually had to tell him she couldn’t keep up and that he had to rein it in.) Seemingly, just as sudden as the urge to write struck him, though, he quickly found himself selling scripts like 2013’s eerie family saga, Stoker, and last year’s housebound thriller, The Disappointments Room.

Now, having established himself, Miller is open to all possibilities, writing when he’s inspired and also taking acting parts. As the new season of the revived Prison Break lands this month, the double-threat offers some wisdom about how he set upon the uncharted waters of a screenwriting career and hasn’t looked back.

Re-Writing Someone Else’s Movie as Practice

We were on location, in Dallas, and I was looking for things to do on my days off, and I had a copy of a script for a Miramax movie I’d auditioned for a couple years back: A romantic comedy set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Really cute. But I had some ideas. Things I’d change. So I thought, “Why don’t I rewrite it? I can fill the hours, teach myself something about writing screenplays . . . It’ll be like taking a car apart and putting it back together.” That was the first thing I wrote. Or rewrote. I think, obviously, that some part of me was trying to express itself through writing. Had been for some time. That’s how it felt when I finally gave myself permission to write Stoker.

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A Screenplay Requires a Big Idea and a Bigger Work Ethic

I didn’t do much outlining for Stoker and it was kind of a scary-slash-thrilling experience, writing by the seat of your pants, never knowing when or if the train was going to jump the tracks. It required a real leap of faith. On a daily basis. The whole thing just flowed out of me. Like it was waiting to manifest. I wrote eight to ten hours a day for four weeks and when it was finished, it felt like I did and didn’t write it, you know? Like I channeled it. Someone close to me, who has some really singular gifts, she always says, “I’m just the straw.” Like it passes through her from somewhere else. It was like that for me too. [After it was done,] I knew it was ready. Ready to be put out there to the world. And that’s what we sold to Fox Searchlight. That first draft.

Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller in Prison Break [Photo: courtesy of Fox]

Being a Pro Screenwriter Sometimes Works Like a Dream

[The sale of Stoker] happened really quickly. And organically. I was a working actor and I had representation and I had access, and that helped enormously. No question. I wrote the script, we found a producer and then we sold it within . . . I think it was six months? And it got made within a year or so. I don’t remember exactly. But everyone kept telling me, “It doesn’t usually happen like this.” And I believed them. But I didn’t have anything else to compare it to.

And Sometimes It Works . . . Less Like a Dream

I had no involvement with [Stoker] beyond that first draft. When they were looking for directors they brought me in to meet Chan-wook Park and he spent three hours pitching a very different version of the film. And somewhere in that meeting, I realized that yes, Fox was excited to produce my script but they were also excited to work with Park. And if he wanted to take the movie in a different direction they were going to support him. So I made what I thought was a very practical decision. Bottom line, I wanted the movie to get made. So I signed off on his involvement and absented myself from the process. I didn’t want to be that guy on set advocating for some version of the movie that was no longer relevant. And it was a hard call. Because it was my first script. And I was very attached to it. But in the end, it was like, “Here. Take the baby. I’ll see you at graduation.”

Once You Started Writing, It Can Be Hard to Stop

The next thing I wrote was Uncle Charlie, the prequel to Stoker. Actually, I started writing it while we were still in the middle of selling Stoker to Fox. And I finished it before we closed the deal. Then we had to call Fox and say, “Oh by the way, you’re actually negotiating for two pieces of material.” They didn’t end up buying the prequel but when they bought Stoker they bought the “creative.” The characters and the universe and so on. So they’re the only ones who can make Uncle Charlie. Which they won’t, I don’t think. It was never going to get made unless Stoker earned a gazillion dollars.

I’ve now written four original scripts total, and with the exception of The Disappointments Room, maybe, I didn’t write them with an eye to sell. I used to like to wait and write when I could feel it–the script and the story–itching beneath my skin. When I couldn’t not write. And I wrote for selfish reasons. Reasons that went far above and beyond professional ambitions and getting somewhere in this business . . . I wrote because it made me happy. Because I didn’t need other people’s participation or blessing or say so. Because it was therapeutic. Self-expression–through writing or whatever–can be life-saving. Transformative. And it was. I never worried about whether or not a script would sell. I just wrote it. Which I recognize is an extremely privileged position to take.

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Putting Passion Over Business

I love writing but I don’t love the business of writing. Like the actual business around the writing. I’ve sat in those rooms, with those people, the ones in charge of hiring you for rewrites and remakes and adaptations. Hollywood’s “creative class.” And I didn’t speak their language. I didn’t want to learn either. Not my vibe, not my tribe. So the for-hire gigs… that’s not my focus anymore. These days when I write–if I have the time, if I have the motivation–it’s usually for personal reasons. Like an essay, I’ll post on social media. I enjoy being able to reach an audience directly and immediately without some kind of middleman. That’s where it’s at for me. For now.

About the author

Joe Berkowitz is a writer and staff editor at Fast Company. His next book, Away with Words, is available June 13th from Harper Perennial.

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