Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Interview With Author & UCLA Screenwriting Chair, Richard Walter, Part 1

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



Through the open entryway, SNOW swirls over a rocky promontory. The HIMALAYAS spike the sky in the distance.

The SOUND of struggling IS HEARD (O.S.). Then a gloved hand holding an ICE HAMMER punches up from below. A PITON is thrust up and to the edge where the hammer pounds it in. A CARABINER with ROPE LINE is snapped in place.

Then, a FIGURE, A MAN, pulls himself up and onto the flat surface and stands.

The heaving, exhausted climber reaches up and removes his GOGGLES.

With effort, he staggers into the monastery.

A MONK sits in meditation before him. After a moment, he opens his eyes, a look of questioning in them.

             I seek... enlightenment.

The monk beckons him forward as a DOOR in the wall behind him magically OPENS.

Inside is a SCREENING ROOM, filled to capacity with laughing MONKS. Everyone watches Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? with TIBETAN SUB-TITLES.

At the front, bathed in ethereal LIGHT, is the monastery’s HIGH LAMA, the GURU, RICHARD WALTER. He turns, smiles.

                  GURU RICHARD WALTER
             Just... entertain me.

---Richard Walter, Plume, 2010.

From the author’s website:

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA's legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores July, 2010.

While he may not remember it, Mr. Walter and I were on a screenwriting conference panel in Madison, WI back in the ‘90s. I recall that he was a great guy, an engaging and illuminating panelist, and he even signed and personalized my copy of his first book.

Richard Walter is also a preeminent proponent of screenwriting and screenwriters. While some screenwriting experts aspire to be seen as authorities on the craft, oftentimes limiting and controlling what it is, Mr. Walter facilitates screenwriting, striving to help screenwriters and screenplays become what each can be. The darker side of screenwriting gurus, a group along with its disciples, of whom I have referred to in this space as “the Screenwriting Priesthood,” are all about their own power and control. Richard Walter (and others like him) is only about his student’s potential, and their scripts’ power to affect and move audiences. The Yiddish word, mensch, comes to mind: a man of integrity and honor. He is a screenwriter’s champion.
What makes Richard Walter’s book so good is that he spends lots of space talking about the WHY and the HOW of things screenwriting. He also fills his book with great examples and Hollywood tales garnered from his decades at the epicenter of the industry. While there are exceptions, many of the so-called screenwriting gurus, spend most of their time and pages establishing hard rules, hard DON’TS, for screenwriters. They brook no disagreement. And they have succeeded, more often than not, because they can make valid arguments for such rules. The only problem is that we can all point to prominent and several exceptions to every rule. That means, of course, that their reasons aren’t the whole story. These folks are, effectively, closed, propounding a zero-sum sort of exercise where one side’s victory in any argument is its opposite’s defeat.

Mr. Walter, on the other hand, acknowledges the exceptions. He maintains an openness that can only stem from his direct experience as a screenwriter, novelist, and educator, rather than as a lecturer and writer about writing. Mr. Walter is, in essence, what is known in journalism as a primary source. He is a screenwriter. And Richard Walter is open to possibility. He sees rules as “of” the “thumb” variety only. Such openness and yet such expertise borne of a professional lifetime in writing and education are the reasons we should pay attention to him. He’s even been an expert witness on screenwriting in headline-grabbing court cases. So he’s not exclusively “guru-ing” to paying audiences on weekends, teaching at so-called “screenwriting boot-camps,” and picking up a few extra bucks judging for regional screenwriting contests. He’s a professional, and, as we’ve said, the long-time Chair of the UCLA Graduate Screenwriting Program, THE gold-standard for any screenwriting student’s career track.

Richard Walter has graciously consented to sit down and answer some of our questions. We will run the interview in 2 parts, with Part 1 posing questions generated directly by his book. Part 2 will expand out to the larger subject of screenwriting and the Hollywood film industry.

LM - Back in 1972, comedian George Carlin appeared at Milwaukee’s annual music festival, Summerfest, and uttered his famous “7 words you can never say on television.”  He was promptly arrested and hauled off to jail. Thereafter, he called those words “The Milwaukee Seven.” So, in this era of political correctness, I find your opening chapter on the 7 naughty screenwriting words particularly important, if not exactly notorious. I have a candidate, though, for number 8: manipulative. Does “manipulative” rate inclusion in your list of naughty screenwriting words? If so, please elaborate.

RW - Yes, in many ways 'manipulation' belongs on the list. I discuss this very subject in the new book. The fact is that when audiences complain, often rightfully so, that a movie is manipulative, they mean it appears to be manipulative. Art is nothing if not manipulation. It's just not supposed to look that way. It's supposed to look like the opposite of what it is: natural, seamless, effortless. Film is the most manipulative art of all. What jockeys and shuffles and juggles and reshuffles time and space and fact and fancy more recklessly and shamelessly than movies?

LM - When you argue (in chapter 3) that all screen stories should be the writer’s personal story, such that their personal knowledge, biases, and experiences directly impact the writing, are you limiting that to writer-generated stories, “spec” scripts, or do you include even written-for-hire projects such as the next James Bond adventure? If so, how might the writer’s personal concerns, interests, and experience manifest in that work-for-hire given that the hiring producer may have specific goals and limitations to what is written? Does this even extend, perhaps, to re-writing another writer’s work?

RW - Yes, even an adaptation of another writer's work is in many, many ways a portrait of the adaptor. An adaptor is not a robot or an automaton or a translation machine. She is an artist with a unique voice and point of view, and therefore the adaptation of the other writer's work will be filtered through her sensibilities, focused and refocused by her utilizing her particular judgment and taste. Naturally it's not as pure a portrait as is the original screenplay, but there is nonetheless a portrait there of the adaptor reflected in what is included, what is left out, how it is all spun. A James Bond movie is among other things a portrait of the writer-for-hire who wrote the draft. The adaptor is always part of the mix.
LM - Also in chapter 3, in “A Jail Tale,” you describe reading the script from the prison inmate, even though it was 174 pages long, because, you explain, it caught and held you. In Chapter 11, you describe Alex Cox’s 179 page script as ultimately, in your judgment, justified.

Both John Milius and Walter Hill (Hill claims he got it from Alex Jacobs’ script for Point Blank) have gone on record as more-or-less “fathering” the current screenplay stylistic of ultra-lean writing with tech jargon held to almost zero, short action descriptions often held to as little as 1 or 2 words, scenes usually held to under a page (never more than 3 pages), dialogue speeches of only a few words (never longer than 3 sentences), etc. We’ve seen page counts move, prior to around 1970, from, in some cases, well above 120 pages—The Third Man (released running time of 104 minutes) is, while not in Master Scenes, 218 pages—filled with jargon and directions. Then, after 1970, they’re running, on average 120-pages. Today they’re averaging 95-110 pages. Many so-called “contained thrillers” (i.e., ultra-limited location productions such as Buried and the recent spec sale, 127 Hours) and many comedies are now running 80 – 90 pages. But, then we have William Goldman once commenting that writers should turn in drafts over 120 pages to “allow everyone to be creative” (i.e., cut them). Okay, that’s for established pros. But who, more than newbies, need to let “everyone be creative”?

Resolved, then: 100 pages is the new 120. Attention newbie screenwriters: if you think that makes it easier, think again—it recalls the famous line, “I would have written a shorter letter but I didn’t have time.” Producers and studios (not to mention audiences) expect 2 hours of story content squeezed into that 95-110 minute screenplay.

So, is there ever any room today for scripts from non-established screenwriters, running above 120 pages, above even 130—a length Lew Hunter calls “obscene”— even if they otherwise exhibit good lean writing? (If you haven’t guessed by now, I have a 137-page epic horror script, The Jupe. I feel it’s still quite lean, most-definitely mean, and certainly NOT obscene.)

RW - I'm with Lew [Hunter, author of Screenwriting 434]. Sight unseen, I plead with you to lose 30 pages from your horror script. I may be wrong. As you point out, I myself provide in my book examples of exceptions. But exceptions are just that: exceptions. If you mistake the exception for the rule you will fall on your face almost every time.

Goldman is Goldman. He comes out of literature, best-selling novels, and is naturally bent on more description, which is appropriate in novels but not in screenplays. Because he's Goldman, a lot more is tolerated. His Butch and Sundance script, which is provided in the appendix of his first screenwriting book Adventures in the Screen Trade, is an example of what not to do. It is way, way, WAY over-descriptive, a chore to read. The fine story and brilliant characters are lost in the firestorm of language.

Also, Goldman's not “spec-ing” but working on commissioned deals. Those drafts are always read through from start to finish; not so with an overlong “spec” script [speculatively-written, not assigned and paid-for in advance by a producer or studio] written by a new writer. Less is more. Yes, 100 is the new 120, and 90 to 100 is even better. Here's a multiple choice question: how long should a screenplay be? A) Too long? B) Too short? C) Exactly the right length?  Answer:  B) Too short. Exactly the right length is: Too short. Audiences should leave the theater wanting more. They should be not glad, but sorry, that the movie ended.

I've argued repeatedly that the single biggest mistake writers make is: we write too much. Too much description, too much dialogue, too many words, too many pages. Movies seem consistently and woefully overlong these days, movie after movie after movie.

John Milius was my classmate at USC film school in the middle and late sixties and we've discussed this years ago. I agree with John completely. There should be nothing in the script--not a bit of action; not a snippet of dialogue--that fails palpably and identifiably to advance the story.  This is the way to engage readers and audiences.
LM - (Note – this question is dependent on your having seen the new film, Inception.) I found your observations (in chapter 7) about positive and negative space in screenplays interesting: positive space is essentially the text, the story action; and negative space is the story’s world prior to and after the events of the tale; and your position that the writer must keep negative space out of the script. Christopher Nolan’s just-released film, Inception, is being explained—SPOILER AHEAD--in some places as entirely a dream by the DiCaprio character. Other places say other things. But, if this is so, and there’s some compelling circumstantial evidence for it, then either the film encompasses less than all the positive space, or DiCaprio falling asleep before the movie, and waking afterward, amounts to events from negative space.

Not to get too “spacey” here, but, if this is so, could it not imply that there are two or three other forms of space: what might be called “hyper-space,” the space of story meaning; then, “below” that, “sub-space,” the sub-textual meaning; and, finally, “null-space,” the space of non-meaning? Hyper-space and even sub-space might extend backwards and forwards, sometimes coexisting with negative space (allowing for the rare and appropriate use of flash-backs, for example). Null-space might arise in pockets and, when identified as such, be excised. And with the addition of these, is it not then the task of the screenwriter to produce a screenplay with only positive space (the story’s plot), and hyper-space along with sub-space (the story’s meaning and sub-text)? Thoughts? (Okay, I know, too spacey.)

RW - I have not seen Inception. Spacey's not the problem; it's thought. There's too much thought in this consideration, too much thinking. This goes on a lot at universities, the one that employs me, for example. Too much over-thought and over-thinking. Too intellectual. Intellect has its important place in our lives to be sure, but art ain't it. Art's not about the head but the heart. And about the belly and the balls. Not about thinking but feeling. I fear that this kind of analysis leads to self consciousness, heavy handedness, and intellectualizing, all of which are mortal enemies of creative expression.  What practical use can this provide writers? In those places in my screenwriting books where I provide theory, I hope and pray that ultimately it leads to successful confrontation of creative issues in a hands-on, practical way, because screenwriting is not a theoretical but a hands-on, practical enterprise.

LM - I particularly liked your comments in chapter 13 on writer’s block—“Writer’s block is a hoax.” Principle 41 – “Writer’s block is the natural state of writing.”And deadlines: Principle 42 - “The deadline is the writer’s friend.” And, “Scramble and stumble and sprint. Pressure makes diamonds.” I have never fought dry stretches as a writer. I, too, have always seen it as normal. Just that simple realization takes LOTS of stress away. I’ve even written a book (any publishers out there?) about how screenwriters can increase their creative results through applied lateral thinking techniques. And, just as your advice says (“The only remedy for writer’s block is writing.”), rather than sharpening pencils (including your neighbor’s), or finding the slowest way to clean your refrigerator (use a toothbrush), the book involves techniques to approach the writing itself. Did you arrive at your position on blockage after bitter experience, or simply after nailing “butt to chair”?

RW - Thanks for your kind remarks about the chapter. It always seemed natural to me from the very beginning, from the first time I sat down and wrote FADE IN: and then wondered precisely how detailed should my descriptions be, what should go into the script and what should be left out. I realized that first day writing never comes easy. It's my privilege to have met many of our era's greatest screenwriters, and I don't know one of them who says it's easy. Too many writers spend too much time waiting around for their muse to arrive when in fact it is not the muse but the writer who is unavailable.
LM - You advocate that writers, intent on selling their work, retain within their marketing tool-kit the tried and much-denigrated query letter (chapter 17). Some screenwriting books and websites I’ve seen lately claim that queries should invariably pitch the complete story, in 3-5 sentences, including the ending. I’ve seen Writers Guild-Signatory literary agents state that they won’t even consider requesting a script unless the letter’s pitch reveals the ending. But there is an argument that pre-knowledge of the ending undercuts the eventual reading of the script, and that the “submit-ee” never acquires that vaunted “turn-the-page” impulse writers strive so hard to achieve. When I’ve worked with writers, I’d tell them to pitch no more than the first 2 acts, and to do it in no more than a couple short paragraphs. The idea is to get the premise across and then take them to the darkest moment in the story before the run-up to the climax. You suggest writers tell what amounts to “a mini-preview” of their story, something less than one of those trailers run before the feature, sort of a fat log-line. While keeping the query letter to a single page, would you allow for more information, a pitch in 2 acts? What about the whole magilla?

RW - A single page is too, too long. It should be a small part of a single page. A handful of killer sentences. The idea is to tease and seduce and get the reader to want to know more. This is achieved by telling less. Think of it as previews of coming attractions, a trailer for the completed film. For every agent who insists on knowing the ending in the query letter, there are oodles more who will be put off by the length of the letter and the spoiler. My book contains the example of an actual query written by a writer that won 'submit' invitations from every agent who received it, and launched a hugely successful movie franchise.

The second part of the interview will appear in a couple days. Don’t miss it!


Lee A. Matthias

Quotes of the Post:

Writer’s block is a hoax. Writer’s block is the natural state of writing.
The deadline is the writer’s friend. Scramble and stumble and sprint. Pressure makes diamonds.


  1. Great post Lee,
    this is close to sublime and one the best interview ever, better than some of those negative forums out there
    i wish more forums coordinators would learn from this interview and stop being so schiznorphrenic or pretending to be
    This interview posted by you is proof that we can work together and get rid of Toxic gossiping and gutter nonsense found in forums like Done Deal and Moviebytes etc.
    Thanks for being 100% positive on your blog, you are the best.

  2. Hey, thanks! BTW - Part 2 will have even more questions--Richard said, good-naturedly, "Each of your questions is six questions!" But that's how you pull stuff out.