Thursday, September 11, 2014

The International Screenwriting Teaching Conspiracy: Whaddaya Know? And When Did’ja Know It?

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.


FADE IN:

INT. AUDITORIUM - LATER

McKee scribbles a diagram onto a transparency in 
an overhead projector. It's some kind of compli-
cated time-line with act-breaks and corresponding 
page numbers indicated. The audience members take 
copious notes. Kaufman sweats.

              KAUFMAN (V.O.)
     It is my weakness, my ultimate lack
     of conviction that brings me here.
     Easy answers. Rules to short-cut
     yourself to success. And here I am,
     because my jaunt into the abyss
     brought me nothing. Well, isn't
     that the risk one takes for
     attempting something new. I should
     leave here right now. I'll start
     over --
         (starts to rise)
     I need to face this project head on
     and --

              MCKEE
     ... and God help you if you use voice-
     over in your work, my friends.

Kaufman looks up, startled. McKee seems to be
watching him.

              MCKEE (CONT'D)
     God help you! It's flaccid, sloppy
     writing. Any idiot can write voice-
     over  narration to explain the
     thoughts of a  character. You must
     present the internal conflicts of
     your character in action.

Kaufman looks around at people scribbling in note-
books."Flaccid..." writes the guy on one side of 
him."Any idiot..." writes the guy on the other side.

                            DISSOLVE TO:

INT. AUDITORIUM - MORNING

Kaufman, bleary-eyed, sits in the back. McKee paces.

               MCKEE
     Anyone else?

Kaufman timidly raises his hand.

               MCKEE (cont'd)
     Yes?

               KAUFMAN
     What if a writer is attempting
     to create a story where nothing
     much happens, where people don't
     change, they don't have any
     epiphanies. They struggle and
     are frustrated and nothing is
     resolved. More a reflection of
     the real world --

               MCKEE
     The real world? The real fucking
     world? First of all, if you write
     a screenplay without conflict or
     crisis, you'll bore your audience
     to tears. Secondly: Nothing happens
     in the world? Are you out of your
     fucking mind? People are murdered
     every day! There's genocide and
     war and corruption! Every fucking
     day somewhere in the world somebody
     sacrifices his life to save someone
     else! Every fucking day someone
     somewhere makes a conscious deci-
     sion to destroy someone else!
     People find love! People lose it,
     for Christ's sake! A child watches
     her mother beaten to death on the
     steps of a church! Someone goes
     hungry! Somebody else betrays his
     best friend for a woman! If you
     can't find that stuff in life,
     then you, my friend, don't know
     much about life! And why the fuck
     are you taking up my precious two
     hours with your movie? I don't
     have any use for it! I don't have
     any bloody use for it!

              KAUFMAN
     Okay, thanks.

EXT. NYC STREET - NIGHT

The last of the students are filing out. Kaufman 
waits, leaning against the building. McKee emer-
ges, carrying his brown leather bag. A shaky, 
tired Kaufman approaches him.

              KAUFMAN
     Mr. McKee?

              MCKEE
     Yes?

              KAUFMAN
     I'm the guy you yelled at this
     morning.

              MCKEE
         (trying to recall)
     I need more.

              KAUFMAN
     I was the one who thought things
     didn't happen in life.

              MCKEE
     Oh, right, okay. Nice to see you.

              KAUFMAN
     I need to talk.

              MCKEE
     I'm sorry. I can't talk to
     writers about material I haven't
     read.

              KAUFMAN
     Mr. McKee, my even standing here
     is very scary. I don't meet people
     well. But what you said this morning
     shook me to the bone. What you said
     was bigger than my screenwriting
     choices. It's about my choices as a
     human being. Please.

McKee hesitates for a moment, then reaches out 
and puts his arm around Kaufman.

              MCKEE
     I could use a drink, my friend.

                            DISSOLVE TO:

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Kaufman and McKee sit at a table with beers. 
Kaufman reads from his copy of The Orchid Thief.

              KAUFMAN
     ... all the way to the road.

Kaufman closes the book. There's a pause.

              MCKEE
     Then what happens?

              KAUFMAN
     That's the end of the book. I
     wanted to present it simply,
     without big character arcs or
     sensationalizing the story. I
     wanted to show flowers as God's
     miracles. I wanted to show that
     Orlean never saw the blooming
     ghost orchid. It's about disap-
     pointment.

              MCKEE
         (disappointed)
     I see.
         (beat)
     That's not a movie. Maybe you've
     got two acts.

              KAUFMAN
         (pause)
     I've got pages of false starts
     and wrong approaches. I'm way past
     my deadline. I can't go back.

McKee sips his beer, eyes Kaufman.

              MCKEE (cont'd)
     Tell you a secret. The last act
     makes the film. You can have an
     uninvolving, tedious movie, but
     wow them at the end, and you've
     got a hit. Find an ending. But
     don't cheat! Don't you dare bring
     in a deus ex machina. Your char-
     acters must change and the change
     must must come from them. Do that
     and you'll be fine.

Tears form in Kaufman's eyes.

              KAUFMAN
     You promise?

McKee smiles. Kaufman hugs him. McKee recog-
nizes his bulk.

              MCKEE
     You've taken my course before?

              KAUFMAN
     My brother did. My twin brother
     Donald. He's the one who got me
     to come.

              MCKEE
     Twin screenwriters. Julius and
     Philip Epstein, who wrote Casablanca
     were twins.

              KAUFMAN
     You mentioned that in class.

              MCKEE
     One of the finest screenplays ever
     written.

---From Adaptation by Charlie Kaufman

Woulda... Coulda... Shoulda...

Can... how... and, should... someone teach writing, and, specifically for this article, screenwriting? There are no shortages, neither of interested and willing students, nor of interested and willing “teachers.” Colleges and Universities make six-figure money selling the promise that six-figure money (and more!) can be made writing for the movies. Gurus do the same, traveling the world with stacks of what some say are bottles of snake oil disguised as books, and proceed to recite their tomes to their salivating proto-scribes in vast auditoriums before selling them the very same information in those very same books. Eminent professionals such as John Cleese and William Goldman endorse them. And, yes, other professionals deride them. Ah, the Yin and Yang of uncertainty stokes the conflict providing the drama paralleling the writer’s stock-in-trade.

So, it is clear, someone can, at least, try to teach writing. And, judging by the testimonials out there, many believe they have, indeed, been taught. It’s certainly true that many, many graduates of the major University programs have gone on to the highest ranks of Hollywood screenwriting, garnering both recognition and awards, not to mention careers, in the process. That, by itself, may be an answer to that third question of whether screenwriting should be taught. But critics will remind us that the legions of students so outnumber the dozens of successes that it really amounts to an exploitation by those institutions of higher learning of an unrealistic and ultimately damaging fantasy. The truth, they might argue, is that those dozens of successful writers’ own innate talent was responsible for their successes.

I think that the “truth” is somewhere in between, somewhere in the middle. I think those successful, “trained,” screenwriters benefited from both their education and their talent. Both were essential to their successes. Their education put them in the right places, at the right times, with the right stuff to offer. And their talent made their stuff “right” and saw to it that, once they were through those studio gates, they could continue to earn enough to pay off those student loans and maybe put something down on one of those homes in the hills “above all the lights.”

Elsewhere I have written:

The popular view of books on writing, and in particular, screenwriting, is that they’re bad for writers as they are seen to erect walls and impose rules:

"They are good for getting started but have limited value. But you have to learn the rules before you can start to break them. The danger of these books…is that studios and writers end up making the same movie over and over again, which is [one] reason why Hollywood movies are predictable and boring."
---Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (CATS & DOGS, BAD SANTA, BAD NEWS BEARS); interviewed at mypdfscripts.com 

While one might choose to view such books that way, I don’t. If one is offered something, one is not obligated to accept. Who among us has never learned something from a book or a class? The danger of such views (closing off to new ideas) is that studios and writers might end up making the same movie over and over again. Books are not the reason movies fail to work, studios and writers are.

So, books on writing are better viewed as voices in a conversation. The ideas offered may not help in one case. But they may in another. Better still, they may in yours.

I love movies. No, scratch that. I love good movies. The problem is, every time I walk among the video racks, or scan the online titles, they’re almost as scarce as that proverbial “honest man.” There are a lot of reasons for this, and many of them have nothing to do with the ideas from which they started. When a story-premise has gone through 37 drafts, 22 different writers, 5 directors, 3 studios, the setting changed from ancient Egypt to an Eskimo village on Tahiti during nuclear winter in a globally-warmed future, and the hero was supposed to be Will Smith but has now become the 3rd studio head’s special friend. What can one expect? Good movies aren’t made overnight, after all. But all this only serves to fire me up all the more when a good one comes along. And it all starts with the script. So, to paraphrase Woody Allen’s observation about life, movies are full of misery, loneliness, and suffering. And they’re all over much too soon... some of them, anyway.

Books about screenwriting cover virtually all aspects of the art. They run the gamut from how to format your writing to fit industry standards to how to make it saleable; from how to write independent films to how to write for Hollywood; from how to overcome writer’s block to how to negotiate your first contract; from how to live as a screenwriter to how to survive as a screenwriter. They tell you how to get an agent, how to get a manager, and then how to get a lawyer. It seems every aspect of the working screenwriting life is examined, dissected, challenged, revised, overturned, and definitively established... finally... for once and for all.

But are they? There are a lot of screenwriters out there. Comedians used to joke about having dinner in L.A. served by a waiter with a script under his arm. Now there are “waiters” bearing scripts in every city and town of the developed world! I can remember the great screenwriter, William Goldman, writing in his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, that when he had to find out in a hurry how to write a script—he already had a deal to write one!—he ran all over Manhattan one afternoon looking for a book and found only one, written years earlier! When I first went looking, there were still only, perhaps, three.

There are a lot of folks that say you can’t really teach writing. Oh, you can teach the mechanics of writing, how it works and where to put what. But how to teach how to write words people will pay to read, pay to produce for a market? “Aye, there’s the rub.” So, at first glance, I tend to go with the naysayers. Books that profess to teach anyone how to write for sale are probably misguided. “You can’t teach talent,” the old saw goes. At best, they say, you can only help the talent already there improve itself.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s question those naysayers. What does “teaching writing” mean? Certainly it doesn’t argue that we can’t teach someone how to codify their thoughts through language into written text. Schools have an excellent record of doing just that. Nearly anyone who can read is capable of writing. So, maybe what these critics of ours are saying is that we can’t teach people how to create content. But, no, even grade-schoolers are able to create enough content in their essays to get to the next grade. So, then maybe our curmudgeons are complaining that we can’t teach how to generate content worthy of a market for it, i.e., good content. While I will admit that we probably can’t teach someone which choices to make within a pre-existing assembly of potential content, I will also argue that we can get darn close. Education and life start us off, and writers we admire and emulate carry us forward. Development of a viewpoint takes us further still. So, what’s missing? Maybe the most elusive element of all: our creativity. And note, I say “our,” creativity. It’s within every last one of us. All we have to do is to learn how to access it, how to use it.

It’s the position of this article that teachers of writing can offer many pathways upon which to find good material, worthy content for those portfolios. Creativity, however, is a beast. Amorphous and unreliable, it comes and goes, seemingly on its own schedule, offering us a mixed bag even on good days. Why is that? I submit it’s because we don’t understand how to access it. If we could tap into it regularly and consistently we could be more assured of results. And with more results, odds are there will be more “good” results.

The observant reader has, by now, noticed that I’ve written a book on how to do this, and it’s offered over on the right. I’m no guru, and any success readers here may eventually have will be due solely to them: what, how, and when they do whatever it is that achieves it. I believe that talent alone won’t be responsible; nor, will, by itself, education: not teachers, not books. Success will come, if and when it does, from the whole package: being in “the right places, at the right times, with the right stuff.” That book just offers some new pieces to a solution. 

Anyone still reading this already has the necessary pieces of the creative part: first and foremost: interest; but then, a point of view, a facility with words, a belief they can write, and desire to make it into a life. That makes improving their inborn writing talent possible. This article isn’t about teaching someone how to become creative. As I’ve said, we’re all creative. Some just use it better (or more often) than others. The answer is to find and apply one’s own innate storytelling creativity. It’s about getting more consistent in using one’s creative muscles every time they’re needed, rather than casting about anew each time, unsure even of how to find the muse.

I’ll make no excuses for my position on all this. I believe that while creativity can’t exactly be taught, it can be mined. And the motherlode is close, just around the corner... in the... bathroom... where the mirror is. #

FADE OUT.

Lee A. Matthias

Quotes of the Post:

"Colleges and Universities make six-figure money selling the promise that six-figure money (and more!) can be made writing for the movies. Gurus do the same, traveling the world with stacks of what some say are bottles of snake oil disguised as books, and proceed to recite their tomes to their salivating proto-scribes in vast auditoriums before selling them the very same information in those very same books."

"While I will admit that we probably can’t teach someone which choices to make within a pre-existing assembly of potential content, I will also argue that we can get darn close. Education and life start us off, and writers we admire and emulate carry us forward. Development of a viewpoint takes us further still. So, what’s missing? Maybe the most elusive element of all: our creativity. And note, I say “our,” creativity. It’s within every last one of us. All we have to do is to learn how to access it, how to use it."