Friday, August 6, 2010

Interview With Author & UCLA Screenwriting Chair, Richard Walter, Part 2

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.



Holding a SHEAF of pages, the climber knocks at a DOOR.

It opens, and GURU RICHARD WALTER waves him in.

A roaring FIRE blazes in a HEARTH.


Each take seats, Richard in lotus position, on the floor.

                  GURU RICHARD WALTER
             What have you got for me, my son?

He hands over the thick wad of paper.

             My script, it’s finished at last.

Guru Richard holds it up to his forehead for several long moments.

                  GURU RICHARD WALTER
             Bring it back when it has become
             a first draft. And lose 30 pages!

He tosses it into the fire.

             That was the only copy.

Guru Richard stares at him.

                  GURU RICHARD WALTER
             Didn’t you have the monks make
             a back-up?

I recently interviewed screenwriter, author, and longtime Chair of the UCLA Graduate Screenwriting Program, Richard Walter. The first installment, Part 1 of our conversation, ran two days ago, and dealt with specifics from his new book, Essentials of Screenwriting: the Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing.

Today, in Part 2 of our interview, my questions are multi-faceted, seeking to establish a subject-area within and about-which Mr. Walter can express his thoughts, observations, disagreements, and arguments.

LM - Decades ago, to work in television was seen as undesirable, a step down, by screenwriters. Today, because of the nature of the way television shows are developed and run, because of cable television and its freedom from FCC-imposed network broadcast standards, and because movies have chosen to aim for an ever-smaller demographic (the ones who go out), television is where screenwriters can do their best work. Aging baby-boomers now prefer to stay home. Today’s younger audiences must be lured away from their Xboxes and Nintendos. Given the rise of television, the internet, and other forms of entertainment, do you see movies remaining an entertainment destination, or just becoming another option on mobile electronics or at home? Will Hollywood’s obsession with super-heroes, over-the-top action films, and outrageous comedies continue to dominate, or increase, to the exclusion of almost anything else?

RW - Big studio movies are going to be—are already—like gambling in Vegas. Gambling used to be the central item; now it's just part of the franchise.

I've always preached, long before cable, that writers are fools to be snobs about tv. Tv is where the most interesting work is being done. In tv, writers often are also producers, and it's the directors, therefore, who are 'for hire.'  Writers are treated better and paid better, far better, in tv than in theatrical features. The last two episodes of Mad Men's previous season were as brilliant as any movie I've seen in the past quarter century. In the past substantial number of years I haven't seen anything in theaters that could touch The Sopranos.

LM - With the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, some people have complained (in print and in screenwriting website blog comments) about the inordinately large amount of exposition in the film. Some of these same people have also complained, paradoxically, that the film was confusing, implying that the exposition was incomplete or inadequate. I have noticed that films in the last 15 years or so are simpler (notable exceptions: Twelve Monkeys, Lost Highway, Eyes Wide Shut, Memento, Fight Club) than many from the late ‘60s and into the early 1980s—films like Five Easy Pieces, Catch 22, Chinatown, Eraserhead, The Parallax View, Slaughterhouse 5,  Dangerous Liaisons, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, to name a few. Most new Hollywood films seem to challenge today’s viewers (which includes the video game generation) much less than they did 30 years ago. Can you comment (or disagree with me) on this declining complexity and any changes you see in films and audiences today versus in the past?

RW - As I said earlier, I haven't seen Inception. From your description here it sounds like a chore. People I know and love and respect seem lukewarm about it. I haven't heard any true--ya-gotta-see-this!!!!--enthusiasm for it.

Inception aside, I don't agree that there is any such trend. You're extrapolating from no kind of random, scientific sample but from a handful of pictures you've seen, the tiniest fraction of a single percentage point. You can draw no principles nor trends from this. I discuss trends in the book and will expand on this soon in an article for my own free monthly online newsletter. Stephen J. Gould, the late Harvard biologist, argues in a brilliant book, Full House, that there are no trends anywhere on earth. I believe there are no trends in movies. Even if there were a trend, it would be too late to exploit that trend as a new writer, since that trend would have had to be in the works a year or two ago at the very least.
LM - And, as a follow-up, over the years we’ve seen mainstream filmmakers experiment with narrative approach and technique: Robert Montgomery’s use of first-person camera in The Lady in the Lake, Hitchcock’s single shot technique in Rope, the cinema vérité of The Blair Witch Project. Do you see films like Inception (and Memento) as crossing a line into territory where the level of exposition (or the narrative approach, in the case of Memento) has, in effect, hit a kind of “light-speed barrier” beyond which films always lose the majority audience? Or, can the right screenplay and/or the right filmmakers overcome such a limit?

RW - Rope is fascinating, Lady in the Lake gets weary in a hurry, never seen Blair Witch, but none of these films engendered any kind of trend. Occasionally you'll see mockumentaries ala Blair Witch, but Spinal Tap was way ahead of that, and there are others.

Again, haven't seen Inception, but liked Memento. For all its confusion there seemed to be a central spine, a core structure that engaged and paid off stuff that had been set up earlier, perhaps the most daunting facet of screenwriting.  Crossing the line, to me, means just making it up as you go along. Abandoning even any pretense of story. That's what the French New Wave filmmakers did much of the time, the so-called auteurs, likewise more often than not also [Italian director, Michelangelo] Antonioni. They and their adoring critics said they had broken loose from the chains of narrative. I say they didn't have the discipline and the talent and the stamina that it takes to sit alone in a room and work out a truly compelling narrative.

LM - How have your student’s film ideas and concepts evolved or changed over your tenure at UCLA? Have they become more or less derivative, more or less original? Have they moved from issue-oriented to simple “entertainments” (in the Graham Greene sense)? Are they savvier about screenwriting, even at the outset of the student’s university career? Do you notice any trends in stylistics or subject-areas?

RW - Each of your questions is six questions! I've already said there are no trends. Our students have not changed at all since the late '70s when I arrived in Westwood [the location of UCLA]. They were good then and they're even better now. Why even better now? Because the preposterous, ridiculous success of our graduates has caused our applications to soar. Last year alone we saw a 35% increase in applications. This means that the people admitted are even more highly selected, even that much more competitive, that much more special, talented, disciplined.

Regarding originality, we do not tolerate adaptations or remakes or prequels or sequels in our classes. Every script must be an original screenplay. We're a film school! Shouldn't artists be encouraged to create their own characters and stories rather than utilize material written by other writers? We train our writers not to learn how to fit into the business but to bend the business to fit them.
[Apologies for the barrage;  As I indicated at the start, I’m trying to open an arena within which Mr. Walter can say whatever he wants; no single question need be answered. But from the ideas tossed out, he may find some interesting purchase.]

LM - Do you find that the screenplays you consider great mainly spring from fresh, original, or highly-compelling concepts? Or, instead, do you find great scripts often spring from average, even mundane, yet serviceable ideas, and it is in the handling, the execution of the idea, the writer’s and/or director’s “take” on the idea, where they ascend to greatness? Have you seen many cases where mundane ideas have, nonetheless, resulted in great screenplays/films?

RW - I've argued repeatedly that ideas and concepts are useless. Lame ideas make great movies. Look at Star Wars. Citizen Kane. The idea is the single most overrated component in the equation. When you have a really great idea for a movie, that's all you have. What remains? Everything! Incident, anecdote, action, setting, character, dialogue. Great movies are not about ideas but stories.

LM - The western has been described as America mythologizing its past, and the science fiction film as doing the same for the future. Musicals, in a way, might be seen to be mythologizing the present. Westerns seem to have fallen away of late. When I saw Unforgiven, for example, while I was favorably impressed, I couldn’t escape a feeling of mourning because the myth embodied by westerns had been, through the treatment of Clint Eastwood’s character, effectively destroyed. Do you see “the pendulum” swinging back for genres like the western, war films, or films noir? If so, how might they be different or the same? If not, what might replace them? Might there be fewer genres? Or, perhaps, will the lines separating them blur or disappear altogether?

RW - There are only two genres: good movies and bad movies. Lots of good movies mix so-called genres. In my book I tell a true story about a class in which I encouraged writers to write westerns, as nobody was making, and therefore writing, westerns. A new western script would stand alone. One student took me up on it, wrote a comedy western. I referred it to Andy Bergman who originated Blazing Saddles. His company optioned the piece, then dropped it. But in the interim the writer became very well known, won representation, a rewrite assignment from a major studio, and launched a substantial career. Writers should focus not on the sale but the career, not the short run but the long. All kinds of benefits can unfold from a script that doesn't sell. When a script fails at first to sell it is not the end but the beginning.

LM - Story structure is seen as ranging from irrelevant (Alex Epstein), to important (Syd Field), to critical (William Goldman, Dara Marks, and myself [8 consecutive posts beginning here, and a 9th here], among others). Epstein seems to see it as useless because it appears to vary widely, and is, therefore, essentially non-quantifiable. Field seems to see it as an important method of describing/planning a film’s story toward writing it well. I regard it as the feature that explains to writers whether they have a film-worthy idea in the first place—the potential for protagonist transformation/growth, and then, how best to write it. I see it as critical to a lean and coherently-told story; critical to a sufficient understanding of the story toward its development, in fact. How important is story structure, in your view?

RW - Story is everything. At UCLA we are story hard-liners. Everything else in a movie derives from story. What the characters do and say make up the story. A wonderful and little known screenwriting book by Millard Kaufman, Plots and Characters, proclaims that it is story that defines character and not the other way around.  This is true, I argue, not only in movies but also in our lives. Texture, tone, camera moves, effects, slick music tracks, brilliant performances and expensive equipment are useless and worthless without a compelling story.

[To digress, for a moment, concerning the answer above about Mr. Kaufman’s idea that story defines character, rather than the reverse, I have gone on record in this space saying that unlike most writers—Barry Levinson, from the previous link, for one—who say their stories arise out of a character or characters, I find that mine arise out of a situation or dilemma or idea, from which I then generate the best characters to dramatize or illustrate it, and that, then becomes the story. So, I agree with Richard and Millard Kaufman. And writer, Richard Matheson says something similar. Moving on, then…]

LM - Where do you stand on the old French New Wave’s auteurist (authorship) argument that a film’s authorship is solely the director’s. Can (and should) a non-directing screenwriter be considered any sort of auteur for a produced film of his/her script? Or does the collaboration of many artists, including writer(s), director, actors, editor, cinematographer, composer, production designer, etc. simply render absurd any director-based or writer-based claim of authorship? If the latter is so, are John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles, among many others, true auteurs? And if they are, how could someone like Billy Wilder be relegated to the lesser category of metteur en scéne, merely a “scene-setter”?

RW - I've already argued above that the French New Wave and the auteur theory is hateful, lame horse hockey. Film is collaboration. That is not its misfortune but its joy. I argue in the book that I'm weary of writers as crybabies complaining about how this director or that producer or that actor ruined their movie. Other artists may mess it up, but, far more likely, they'll make it even better than the writer imagined it could be. The trick is not merely to tolerate this but to encourage them to do so.  There are many influences in a movie, but the most important one is the writer. Not the director, but the writer, is the first artist in film if for no other reason than that she is first. There's no reason for the other collaborators and the equipment if the writer hasn't done her job.

LM - Plays are a valid form of literature. Owned by their writers, plays are often and repeatedly re-staged, re-produced. Screenplays, owned (if purchased) by studios, or (if not) by screenwriters, never generate later productions from their original texts. Films are re-made, but invariably from new scripts. Even the recent version of Psycho, while very close, was a subtly updated version. Yet there are unsold and/or unproduced screenplays that are highly-regarded, even legendary (Walter Brown Newman’s Harrow Alley, Paul Schrader’s own Quebecois (a copy of which I own; about the French-Canadian mafia, it was written prior to The Godfather; interesting screenwriting trivia: it’s written in the past tense!) and Lem DobbsEdward Ford, to name three). Indeed, one might call for the Writers Guild to look into promoting or sponsoring publication of suitable un-produced screenplays from within its membership, if nowhere else due to cost, as e-books.

Beyond the aforesaid ownership reason, however, the reason may stem from the fact that screenplays emerged out of the chaotic scenarios and title cards written in the silent era, whose films were often destroyed after initial release. They “got no respect,” in essence. Another reason may be that screenplays are often based on prior literature: poems, articles, short stories, novels and, ironically, plays. Still another factor may simply be that screenplays weren’t written in ancient Greece, so they don’t have a sufficiently old and noble pedigree. As the movies seem, now, to be maturing into what might be seen as middle or late-middle age, the pedigree factor may finally be emerging.  So…

Can screenplays become—should they become—have they become—literature? If so, can you name some, including unproduced screenplays, which you might class as literature? And what about that e-book idea?

RW - Those unproduced scripts you mention have cult followings but remain largely unread and unknown. Knowing them makes for great cocktail party chatter at a Hollywood schmooze-fest, perhaps, but otherwise as unproduced screenplays they are frail in terms of substance.

This is not to say that screenwriters should not own the copyrights to their scripts. Giving away copyright is the single biggest mistake ever made by screenwriters, a tragedy of unspeakable, unthinkable proportion. We gave away our own respect when we surrendered copyright. If you enjoy even merely the modest success I have had in publishing, you have seen how superior is the treatment of writers who happen to own the copyright of what they write.

LM - Many people in the film business who are involved in development caution writers not to bother writing screenplays about the business, itself. They rationalize that the subject is of little interest to mainstream audiences, having a kind of “inside baseball” inability to appeal to a wide audience. I wonder if it might actually be that, like Louis B. Mayer’s rebuke to Billy Wilder at the premiere of Sunset Boulevard, they see it as potentially biting the hand that feeds it. If audiences can relate to a soldier becoming an avatar on a strange planet, they ought to be able to relate to the tinsel and glamour world and political power-plays of Hollywood. Having just written a spec script on the business, myself (working title - Darkness Calls Me; thumbnail description: a black comedy, The Player meets The Sting), I plead guilty. Doubly-so, in fact, as one of the characters in the script (under an altered but recognizable name) is you. Where do you come down on the question of whether novice or previously un-produced screenwriters should write scripts set in or about the film business? Can such a script find any significant degree of manager, agent, or development interest?

RW - Writers should not be smart about what they write. They should write about what they care about. Entourage is about the biz and it's a huge success. The Player reached a lot of people and was vastly praised. What better movie is there than Singin' in the Rain? I, myself, wrote a Hollywood-background novel [Escape From Film School] that was based on (so far) [an] unproduced screenplay that was optioned and re-optioned over the years. Eventually I used it as the outline to a novel, sold the novel to a major NY publisher. It briefly showed up on the [New York] Times Best Seller list. I had a similar experience years ago with another entertainment business-based story, that started as a movie, was turned into a novel, then sold as a novel, and then was bought by a movie studio. This was set not in the movie business but the music business. Was that a smart idea? I don't think so. It's not the mere idea but the finished work that is smart.

My key principles: the smartest sales strategy is good writing.

LM - I thank you for consenting to this interview, and, if I could make one small request: in the next edition, please include an index. Writers like to go back and look things up, and your book is one that promises to be well-thumbed.

RW - Good point, Lee. I regret that there's no index. I'm really, really impressed by how carefully you've read the book. Even as I complain (good naturedly!) About how many questions you ask, they are smart questions and really got me to think and rethink my book. Even merely in the way you frame your questions I can see that you're a powerful writer, though I still think you gotta lose thirty pages of that epic horror script!

Next up, Richard’s guest post: Hail Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll—Screenwriting and the End of Adversity!


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

I've argued repeatedly that ideas and concepts are useless. Lame ideas make great movies. Look at Star Wars. Citizen Kane. The idea is the single most overrated component in the equation. When you have a really great idea for a movie, that's all you have. What remains? Everything! Incident, anecdote, action, setting, character, dialogue. Great movies are not about ideas but stories.
---Richard Walter

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