“The problem with Our Thing (screenwriting) is that it’s fertile ground for delusion… Most unappreciated writers are unappreciated because they suck.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin
Those who can’t write, teach seminars
John August’s blog post title Oct, 25, 2010
First let me say thank you to all of the readers who helped this blog in October cross the 10,000 views mark in a single month for the first time ever. The first year I did this blog I barely got 10,000 views the entire year. One of the problems that first year is I wrote 1,000 & 2,000 word essays. Way too long for most blog readers. But as a throw back to 2008 here’s my longest —and most controversial post that I’ve ever written.
And really this post is way too long, so feel free to come back tomorrow when I’ll be back to shorter posts. But right now I’m kind of ticked off.
(11/5/10 Note: Because Mazin himself believed this post was “disguised mostly as a personal attack on me”—which was not my intent—I have removed a couple paragraphs that make reference to where he is from, where he went to school, and any mention of reviews of his produced films. And for the record, I have shot video on the campus of Princeton and think it’s one of the most beautiful in the county, and I have nothing but respect for the place. In fact, one of my favorite professors was a graduate from there back in the day when Einstein could be seen walking around . (Though, overall I think Harvard has produced much better writers.)
The past week has turned into anger week as I pulled several quotes from The Angry Filmmaker (who I happened to met last Monday) and I then dealt with the anger following an auditor’s report of abuses in the Iowa Film Commission who apparently misapproved 25 million dollars in taxpayers’ funds. So why not keep this thing rolling and talk about the angry screenwriters?
Who are the angry screenwriters and what are they angry about? What screenwriter isn’t angry? It could be said that being angry is a prerequisite for being a writer. Something must drive you to write whatever you write and anger has to be one of the top things that motivates most writers. Want a short list of examples?
1) Network (Paddy Cheyfesky), #8 on WGA 101 Greatest Screenplays
2) High Noon (Carl Foreman), #75
3) Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee), #93
But today I want to address what’s bothering screenwriters Craig Mazin and John August. It’s mostly screenwriting consultants and those who give screenwriting seminars. The ones who aren’t successful screenwriters and who charge fees for seminars and script consulting.
Mazin started the thing a few days ago when he came back from Austin Film Festival and wrote a post called Screenwriting is Free on his blog The Artful Writer. Keep in mind that these are his unedited words, not mine:
“You go to screenwriting conferences because you want to be a professional. You want to sell a script. You’re a student. You want to learn.
Good for you. Listening to and questioning the people who do the job you want is a smart move.
What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re ‘script consultants.’ And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues!
Horseshit. Let me say it loudly and clearly: IF THEY WERE ANY GOOD, THEY WOULD BE DOING WHAT I DO, NOT DOING WHAT THEY DO.”
I actually can take either side of this argument. But what’s the fun in simply agreeing with Mazin? Perhaps Mazin’s heart is in the right place—he wants to save aspiring screenwriters from wasting a boatload of money. Good for him.
But his passion (Anger? Look at all those capital letters) leads him down the wrong path as a sweeping generalization against anyone who teaches screenwriting. John August adds fuel to the fire with just the title of his post “Those who can’t write, teach seminars.” Though August is more generous in his response.
Mazin believes if you are going to buy a book or take a seminar on screenwriting that there should be this criteria;
Don’t spend a dime unless the seller has worked, is working and is gonna BE working. Multiple credits. A hit or two would be nice. Or recent critical acclaim, like a script on the Black List. A recent spec sale, or a spate of new gigs. Awards and nominations never hurt….”
That’s the major flaw in Mazin’s thinking. That just because you can do something means you can teach it. I once took a screenwriting workshop from Alfred Urhy who not only won an Oscar for writing the screenplay Driving Miss Daisy, but his play of the same title earned him a Pulitzer Prize. For his play The Last Night of Ballyhoo he won his first of two Tony Awards. (I believe he is still the only writer to ever win an Oscar, a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.) Can you get anymore solid writing credentials than that?
Even Mazin whose credits include Scary Movie 3 and Superhero Movie I think would say that Uhry is a well-respected writer. I think Uhry is a brilliant writer. But as a teacher Uhry was weak and even admitted that he didn’t know what to say about writing. Now the workshop was worth it just to hear Uhry’s anecdotes about Hollywood. (In fact, just his story of how he was taken off the project The Bridges of Madison County was worth the fee I paid.)
By the time I took the Uhry workshop at least ten years ago, I had already been through film school, taken extension classes in screenwriting at UCLA and workshops at AFI (including one with Linda Seger, who Mazin takes to task in his post), had taken Robert McKee’s seminar and had read hundreds of screenplays and quite a few books on screenwriting, and had watched thousands of movies, and written three or four unproduced scripts. (Yes, Craig Mazin, I know that that, and even the short films I’ve written and directed, technically only qualifies me as a failed screenwriter.)
Perhaps the best example of a successful screenwriter who wrote a weak book on screenwriting is Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!* Eszterhas was once the poster child for angry screenwriters. How many screenwriters have punched a star actor? (Or was it a big name producer?) Don’t look for an Oscar or a Pulitzer on Eszterhas’ shelf, but according to Box Office Mojo 14 movies from his scripts have a total domestic earning of almost $400 million.
He’s a successful screenwriter with a long career and I think Mazin would agree. But Eszterhas’ book on screenwriting, along with his book Hollywood Animal, will not help you much to become a better writer. Because his screenwriting book is really about Joe Eszterhas and his experiences in Hollywood. It’s full of interesting quotes by producers, directors, and writers that serves as kind of a disjointed history of the film business. If you like Hollywood anecdotes then Eszterhas’ book is a goldmine. But understanding the screenwriting process? You’ll get better insights from McKee (who Eszterhas hates along with a long list of people in Hollywood).
For a while I was confused why Uhry & Eszterhas couldn’t unpack the mysteries of screenwriting as well as McKee and Seger. Then I came across this passage by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs in their book Screenplay—Writing the Picture:
“It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”
That’s not saying that writers can’t be good screenwriting teachers, or that screenwriting teachers can’t be good writer’s—but I think it’s rare to find one person who can do both well. There tends to usually be a dichotomy between the two. William Goldman comes closest with his Oscar-winning screenplays and his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. And though playwright & Oscar winning screenwriter David Mamet doesn’t think writing can be taught, he’s a pretty good teacher. (Ever read Mamet’s famous memo?) And based on his screenplay Big Fish and his blog, I would put John August in that category.
But keep in mind that a good deal of writers are introverts and public speaking is not at the top of their skill set. So even those few writers who can write great movies and can also proficiently write about the screenwriting process doesn’t mean that they could hold a room for a day (or even an hour) speaking about screenwriting. And now that we’ve whittled the number down to maybe a couple dozen people in the world (who are too much in demand as high paid screenwriters to even care about giving a seminar in the first place) there isn’t enough people to fill the demand to give screenwriting advice.
(Now the question of why there is so much of a demand for screenwriting advice is a whole separate can of worms for a post of its own.)
Of all the screenwriting books I have read over the years (way too many that I’d like to admit) most of them are written by writers who don’t have a single feature credit to their name. And those few that do usually have films that were either were poorly reviewed and/or box office failures. It would even be fair to say that almost every single screenwriting book is written by a failed or not very successful screenwriter. And if having a produced feature was the only criteria to teach in film schools then colleges and universities everywhere would have to clean house and who would fill those slots?
For what it’s worth, I doubt Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen would be very good teaching a class on songwriting. And I’m not sure how coherent a screenwriting workshop by Quentin Tarantino or Charlie Kaufman would be. The best way to write like those guys would be to extract some of their DNA and somehow infuse it into yours. If you can’t do that than you’re best off reading a lot of Elmore Leonard.
Sanford Meisner, was a frustrated and failed actor who went on to become one the greatest acting teachers in American history. His students included actors Robert Duvall, Gregory Peck, and Sandra Bullock, directors Syndey Pollack and Sydney Lumet, and writers Arthur Miller and David Mamet. (I’m guessing that at one time those wannabe actors, directors, and writers paid money to learn the Meisner Technique.)
I think that top screenwriters are gifted and talented people who simply tap into the magic in a way that works for them but is not easy to convey to others. Uhry was at least honest when asked by students why he did certain things in his script and he replied, “I don’t know.” I’ve read where the great Horton Foote gave basically the same answer. That’s the mystery of writing.
The best screenwriting teachers & seminar leaders (and I imagine the top screenwriting consultants) are really cheerleaders who help point the way based on their unique mix of education, & life and work experiences. Does charging $5,000. for script coverage seem high? Absolutely, especially when people are making feature films for under $5,000.
Are there scam artists? Sure, as there is in every profession from politics to religion. (You can insert punchline.) But I believe that teaching is an honorable profession and if you do it well you may be honored to some degree. You may gather a following. And sometimes when you gather a following you are well paid. Either accidentally, by good word-of-mouth, or via good marketing some of these screenwriting teachers have in fact become well-paid screenwriting gurus. But like A-list screenwriters, well-paid screenwriting gurus are pretty rare.
Mazin is correct that screenwriting is free. Mazin is correct that the best way to learn is reading screenplays, watching movies, and writing screenplays. (And thanks to computers and the Internet all of those are easier to do today than when Syd Field published Screenplay in 1979 and started the modern day screenwriting teaching cottage industry.) But to think that you can’t learn a kernel of truth and get a little inspiration from someone unless they are a successful screenwriter is just plain arrogant. (Whether any book, teaching DVD, workshop, expo, conference—or even college—is worth the price, is perhaps the big question. Remember the old maxim, “Make every purchase a wise investment.”
The only real criteria for any writer or teacher/consultant/guru should be “Are they any good at what they do?” In Seger’s defense, two -time Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) is on record saying, “I’ve used Linda’s concepts from Making a Good Script Great on all my films starting with Apollo 13.” In McKee’s defense, Oscar-winning Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind) credits McKee with helping him make the transition from a failed novelist to a screenwriter.
Honestly, these days there is way more than enough free info out there for anyone who wants to learn screenwriting. And if August and Mazin—along with Go Into the Story. Jeff Goldsmith’s podcast, Wordplayer— and other free screenwriting blogs were around in the 80s perhaps McKee, Seger, and the like wouldn’t have risen in popularity. But even if there is more than enough free info out there, what there will never be enough of is teachers who take an interest in their students and invest time to inspire, correct, and encourage them to be the best they can be in a given field.
My guess is Mazin’s not going to be impressed with a yahoo in a small city in Iowa who has a blog on screenwriting, a stack of unproduced feature scripts, or a couple dozen awards producing videos, TV programs, and short films. But then again my goal with Screenwriting from Iowa is not to mimic everything being done in Hollywood, but to come at things from a different angle and to encourage writers to write solid original stories in that vast, often overlooked, and despised area known as flyover county. (Or some other unusual place around the world.) And to echo the words of The Angry Filmmaker who said to me this week about a script I just finished, “Don’t wait for LA or NY, do it yourself.”
Now, if you want to read where I agree in part with Mazin check out the post I wrote a couple of years ago called, Screenwriting, Infomercials & Gurus. It’s a post that has a photo I took of Yoda when I visited ILM and a great quote from Tootsie screenwriter Larry Gilbart, “So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Another related post (and one of my favorites) is Can Screenwriting Be Taught? And finally let me say it’s not about screenwriting blogs, books or gurus but about putting in your 10,000 hours writing.
*Eszterhas’ memoir Hollywood Animal also won’t give you much practical advice on screenwriting because it’s really a book about Joe Eszterhas (it is a memoir after all) but it’s an engaging read if you want to will learn the details about Eszterhas’ affair with Sharon Stone, about his battles with alcoholism, and about how much he hates the business. Perhaps the real takeaway from Eszterhas is if you want to write like Joe Eszerthas you have to live the crazy life the Joe Esterhas has lived.
Update 3/28/11: This may be as close to a Charlie Kaufman seminar you’re going to find: