Monday, August 25, 2014

My Answers To Questions About Writing

Can I blog or what? Don’t answer that. When I am not working on screenplays, preparing a lecture, grading student screenplays, making a film or fielding requests from colleagues or sometimes even strangers asking me read their work, blogging is not the first that comes to mind if I have some idle time.

That said, I occasionally find myself writing really long answers to questions from students who e-mail me. Sometimes I think to myself, “Hey, that’s decent advice, maybe I should share it.” I have published questions from students along with my answers in the past and it looks like it is high time for another round:

Do You Have Major In Screenwriting to Become A Screenwriter?:
E.C.: I am currently a journalism major. I want to write stories that impact others. Do you think a person needs to major in screenwriting in order to write movies? You mentioned a few unconventional writers in class.

I love to read, and would really like to write fiction someday. How much do you have to love movies to write them? Isn't it more important to simply love great stories?

D.G.: Good writing is good writing. Knowing what makes a good story a good story is crucial and the standards are pretty much the same whether you are writing a news story, a novel or a film. Where it changes is when you apply your storytelling skills to writing a movie, you really need to be aware of the conventional structure that 95% of all mainstream movies have and, as mentioned in class several times, even if you are going to be part of the 5% that does not use Syd Field's paradigm, you still have to know it inside out.

You can make the point that Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation" screenplay was really about three act structure and his own struggles to break free of it. I mentioned my own film in almost every class, a screenplay that does not have a conventional inciting incident (it happens before the movie begins and, at the risk of giving too much away, it is not exactly "not of the character's own volition", not something that happens to him), there are no conventional act breaks, nobody really grows or changes in the conventional sense and, in my opinion, it is still a compelling, moving story.

A number of novelists and writers from other styles ("Showtime" starring Eddie Murphy and Robert DeNiro around 10 years ago, was written by a newspaper editor who dreamed of being a screenwriter but never sold another script) have successfully written screenplays while others have struggled -- and vice-versa. National Public Radio personality Peter Sagal dabbled in playwriting and wrote a screenplay about the Cuban revolution that was purchased by a studio, radically re-written and eventually produced as "Dirty Dancing 2." Woody Allen, one of the most revered screenwriters, playwrights, TV writers, essayist and short story writer out there, shelved his recent first attempt at a novel because, after sending it to some of his high-profile friends in the literary world, the consensus was that, even though he could publish it and make a lot of money based on his name alone, it was merely an "okay" book.

So, the short answer is "No, you do not have to be a screenwriting major to learn how to write screenplays but you really do need to know the form." The movie "Where The Wild Things Are" was written by two guys who had no screenwriting credits. Dave Eggers is a novelist, essayist, editor and non-fiction writer. Spike Jonze was a music video director who made some great films -- "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." I thought the screenplay for "Where..." was terrible. Of course, Jonze just won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for "Her", which was not such a great screenplay.

Screenwriting Competitions

J.M.: What do you think of screenplay competitions?

D.G:There is a whole sub-industry based on milking money out of would-be screenwriters by offering contests etc. Getting a screenplay produced is close to impossible. I seriously believe that it would be easier to climb Mt. Everest.  Every year, 15,000 screenplays by hopeful writers are sent into various Hollywood studios and production companies. Last year, only 99 of those screenplays were actually purchased.

As a screenwriter, a screenwriting teacher and a frequent judge of screenplay competitions, I can be pretty skeptical of them. It depends on the balance of the pros and cons, costs and benefits.

Someone once suggested that I enter a competition (run by a friend of mine no less) and I joked that the entry fee was probably $85 and first prize was $100 but soon found out that it was no joke, I was actually right!

Short Wars, the competition that I just judged had no entry fee and the winning short will be produced. I think that winning a screenplay competition means very little unless the end result is getting that script produced. Bottom-line, if there is no entry fee and the winner gets money and a chance at seeing their work produced, I think the contest sounds really good.

About a student treatment and whether he can miss my class in order to attend a lecture by a figure in the arts he admires:

DG: The purpose of writing a treatment is to map out the story clearly enough so that, when you go to write the screenplay, you have a clear road map for where you want to go.

Your teleplay is very good, very well-written ---- almost too well-written. Remember, a screenplay is an instruction manual for a film so, while we want the prose to be elegant and evocative, we want it to be economical and efficient.

In other words, you are a good writer but, when writing a screenplay, that can be a liability because good writers often write too much. I can't really tell if this is an actual script or the outline so I want make sure that we are on the same page. Ultimately, what you will turn in as your final project will be two 12-14 page acts that end on dramatic high notes. I think that you are in excellent position to do a good job on the assignment. For now, focus on writing the script, work on trimming down your language and be very conscious of making sure that your protagonist's goal is clear as well as the obstacles she encounters on her quest. Also, be conscious of you act breaks.

Second, I always tell students that they should not wait until graduation to start their career. If there is any kind of opportunity that could benefit you creatively or professionally when you are supposed to be in my class, I encourage you to take advantage of it.

On whether or not to pursue writing and if I still enjoy writing:

E.M.: All I've wanted to do professionally is to tell stories visually. But I haven't made much progress on the visual part, despite all this time, school, and money. I still want to tell stories but now I don't really know how to accomplish that. One part of me really wants to be a writer, but I've heard so many dissenting voices about writing, and I have my own doubts as to whether or not I could make a living from writing.

I don't want to be a total dweeb and ask you something too personal, so don't hesitate to tell me it's none of my business, but do you still find writing fulfilling? If you had to do everything over again, knowing everything you know now, would you still be writing?

I hope I'm not being too much of a pain, but if I am, let me know! And thanks again for all the advice and feedback you've given me so far, it's a lot more then most teachers would have given me.

D.G.: First, not to diminish your feelings, the struggle you are going through but you are young. It is a lot to ask of yourself to know exactly what you want to do at this point. If telling stories is in your blood, they will come out in some form, at some point. Of course, we all have to eat and pay bills so a job, at some point comes in handy. If anyone is lucky, they earn a living by doing something they love. Of course, if everyone's dreams came true, there would be nobody to take out the trash; everyone would be a professional athlete, a rock star or a movie star.

I would say that you should take stock of what you enjoy most and do best but don't limit yourself.
So, about your question: I do love writing and still get a lot of satisfaction from it but, like all art, it is a job at times. Not all writers are like this but I actually enjoy the pain, really like beating myself up to do what I need to do. There is a great quote from the writer Dorothy Parker, "I hate writing, I love haven written."

For me, writing is really one of the only things that I do well and, even then, like many artists, I doubt myself, think I suck and that I am fooling myself. Also, I barely make a living at it but I have not given up on it.

I just saw an animation by a guy I know. He is 25, my ex-wife's cousin and, as far as I know, he didn't go to film school or have any formal training. This film blew me away because it was so well done and had a lot of content, was "about" a lot. On top of all that, he is a great musician.

Take a breath and just create something, anything. Take your time and think about what you want to say to the world, what's on your mind and then decide on the way you want express it. Of course, human beings relate to stories  -- family stories that our parents tell us about relatives, funny stories that our friends tell us about something crazy that happened to them. The Bible is just a bunch of stories that are grouped together to deliver a message. Of course, a song can be a story, a symphony can be a story, a painting can tell a story and on and on...

Don't put pressure on yourself. I know that it is your last year of college and that it cost a lot of money but I think you should just let it happen. I always say that too many people go to college to get a job, not an education. Going to college should be about expanding your mind, doing lots of different projects, meeting lots of people, having discussions, arguments, failures and successes that, maybe a few years down the line, will feed into whoever or whatever you become.

Stories and writing; can someone be taught to be a good writer?

D.G.  It's a good question and I will do my best to answer. There are stories and there is writing. Coming up with stories is really hard for me. Writing has always come pretty easily to me. I think that, to tell stories, you have to be an observer and an interpreter of the world around you. Writers have a burning need to express their worldview through fiction. I sense that you can do that.

I am not sure if people can be taught to write. They can be taught to write better. I think that, in order to write, you have to read and find out what styles appeal to you. I don't know if emulating the style of a favorite writer is good advice or not. I would think that people have a natural, organic style.

It's sort of like music. You might like a particular musician, learn how to play the same instrument but sound completely different -- or you can study that style, learn it inside out and then create your own work based on that foundation.

As I write to you, I think about my own path, reading the writers who influenced me and analyzing what it is that I like about them and how it manifests in my own writing. There are any number of books about writing. In terms of screenwriting, I like "Save The Cat" by Blake Snyder but I also hear that Stephen King's book on writing is really good.

Of course, as I said many times in class, it doesn't matter what form you are working in, if you do not have a compelling story to tell, it is almost pointless to make the film or animation.

From a correspondence with my Father, a writer:

D.G.: I agree with you about talent creativity. You are born with it but sometimes it takes awhile to nurture. I often use Michael Jordan, the basketball player as an example. He has been called "God's gift to basketball" and yet he still spent countless hours practicing in the gym.
In my classes, I show a very realistic painting by Picasso, ask the students if they can identify the artist and they can't. Then I show one of his more recognizable cubist pieces and everyone knows who did it.

My point is that he mastered the basics, knew the rules inside out, upside down, backwards and forwards before he revolutionized the form.

I say the same thing about The Beatles, who played cover versions of two minute long American rock and roll songs for 8 hours a night, six or seven days a week for two years. It's safe to say that they were pretty comfortable with the form before creating their own material.

I always say that the day I call myself "a good writer" is the day that I should stop writing. At this point, I really know a lot about screenwriting but, for me, every time I sit down to write, it is a journey into the unknown. I know that I have the tools but I never know how I am going to use them, what combinations of techniques and styles will be right for a particular story. I feel like I am at my best when I am working hardest to make a story work, figuring out the best way to craft a moment. It's a puzzle and it's different every time, every screenplay, every scene but it keeps me going --- the discipline.

Years ago, when we were preparing for Lena's bat mitzvah, we were in a group of adults with the rabbi. She asked us to describe prayer. I said that that I don't think prayer is something you do, it is a state that you achieve. She really liked that. To me, it's similar to athletes --- sometimes a pitcher is totally in the zone, totally at the top of his game and other times, he can't find the plate to save his life.

For me, writing is something I can just sit down and do but I do it so much better when I get into that state, the zone and I ready to create.