“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
“I don’t know anything about the writing process.”
Pulitzer-prize winning playwright & Oscar-nom screenwriter David Mamet
Back on Halloween of 2010 I wrote the post The Angry Screenwriters. What I learned from that post is to never write a post while I’m ticked off. A few days after the post I edited it and stated “Because [Craig] Mazin himself believed this post was ‘disguised mostly as a personal attack on me’—which was not my intent—I have removed a couple of paragraphs that make reference to where he is from, where he went to school, and any mention of reviews of his produced films.” Mea culpa.
Though just because Mazin has a couple of hit movies to his name, counts Lawrence Kasden as a friend, and drives a Tesla doesn’t mean I still can’t disagree with him, right? But since I enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks last weekend and Vanity Fair quoted the movie’s screenwriter Kelley Marcel calling Mazin her “amazing mentor” I think it’s finally time to revisit this post.
And in the Christmas spirit I’ve decided to make it a little more upbeat. Tried to make it a little shorter, but failed. If you have some downtime here at the end of the year jump in, but since it’s a little (okay, a lot) on the long side try to read at least the next four paragraphs. Maybe someday I can get the time to condense these thoughts down to 500 words.
Let me start by adding that I really think all a new writer needs to read is the following links (all free)—and a couple of screenplays— to jump into screenwriting and to keep plugging away at the dream:
1) David Mamet’s Memo
2) Terry Rossio’s 23 Steps to A Feature Film Sale (Track it down at wordplayer.com)
3) Christopher Lockhart’s post The “A” List on his The Inside Pitch blog
4) Mystery Man on Film’s The Raiders Story Conference (Spielberg, Lucas, Kasdan)
5) The 99% Focus Rule (Yeah, it’s a post from me, but I’m just a conduit for Michael Arndt’s words)
6) Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting is an illusive business. If you combine all the spec script sales and scripts on The Black List any given year you come up with a total under 200. Sure there are studio assignments, indies, and television, but the number of screenwriters making a steady income is— like I pointed out in How Much Do Screenwriters Make?—like being a professional football player. It’s a relatively small and talented group. And the odds of writing a good script, that gets produced, that gets both good reviews and does well at the box office, and which brings you a major award is on par with becoming a Payton Manning or a Tom Brady.
So when a young unknown writer in the suburbs of Minneapolis wins an Oscar for her first script it catches a little attention. It makes the impossible seem possible. But as I point out in Screenwriter’s Work Ethic, Diablo Cody mentioned in one interview that she’d been writing everyday since she was 12. That’s 15 years of poems, short stories, etc. before she captured the magic in the screenplay Juno. (A better example of the 10,000 rule and The Outsider Advantage than getting lucky.)
Cody did it the old-fashioned way of just writing. No film school, no podcasts, no screenwriting workshops, no screenwriting books. Many have taken those more common routes. Everyone seems to take their own path.
“The scriptwriting field is unpredictable and potentially hazardous to your sanity, chockablock with all the paraphernalia of warfare–booby traps, blast craters, land mines, poison gas and agents. Your best hope of survival is to begin the journey with as much information as possible about the landscape and the strange people who live hereabouts.”
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski
The Complete Book of Screenwriting
Find what works for you—guard your time and pocketbook closely—and best wishes on your journey.
And since I’m updating this post on Christmas eve let me say that I’m all for: “Peace on earth, good will to men.”
Who are the angry screenwriters and what are they angry about? What screenwriter isn’t angry? Certainly the 2013 WGA, West report that there are 17% fewer screenwriters working than just three years ago angered a few. (Despite the bump in TV writers.) It could be said that anger 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 Chayfesky), #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 years ago when he came back from the Austin Film Festival and wrote a post called Screenwriting is Free on his now defunct 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 explain it—or teach it.
“I don’t really have any [screenwriting] advice because I feel like the circumstance that I find myself in I think is attributable to luck to a large extent. I wrote for a lot of years in obscurity…”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman
“I’m not really qualified to give any advice at all.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody
WGA article Cody in Chaos
“I just feel my way through. If I had to give an acting class, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman (The Hours)
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 The Hangover Part II and Identity Thief 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.)
This year I read three screenwriting books by produced screenwriters, one is credited on one of the top films of its genre and another actually has an Academy Award—but all three books I would put in the bottom ten percent of screenwriting books I’ve read. (And for better or worse, I’ve read far too many.)
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. (Or more than $850 million when adjusted for inflation.)
He’s a successful screenwriter with a long career. But Eszterhas’ book on screenwriting, along with his book Hollywood Animal, will not help you much in 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 Story by Robert McKee (who Eszterhas hates along with a long list of people in Hollywood).
To carry my football analogy a little further, pro football (and actually baseball, basketball, etc.) is full of great coaches who either didn’t play professional ball or didn’t excel at the highest level. (There are few star athletes who went on to become great coaches or executives, but I actually think that number is relatively low. In the NBA Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan come to mind as superstar players who haven’t carried their winning traditions as coaches or executives.) Major league baseball greats Ted Williams and Jim Rice were frustrated trying to teach less talented players than they were.
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 writers—but I think it’s rare to find one person who can do both well. 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.
And both August and Mazin do a super job expounding screenwriting concepts on their podcast Scriptnotes. (I even did a post on it, Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast.) Listening to their podcast for a couple of years, I don’t know how angry they really are—I think it’s just part of their persona. They have a give and take on their podcast that keeps the show interesting and entertaining. If you can get August or Mazin to be your mentor or give you notes for free then by all means go for it.
But keep in mind that working screenwriters are working. So even if a working screenwriter was the best to give you notes on your script getting them to carve time to help you will take some finagling. You’re more than likely to get a very direct Josh Olson-like response, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script. (You know, Olson does have A History of Violence.) And given that there are tens of thousands of people writing scripts the demand out weighs the supply.
Plus 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. But a desire to tell stories and Cody’s success pretty much cover most of the bases.)
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure how beneficial a Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino screenwriting seminar would be. Likewise I doubt Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen would be very good teaching a class on songwriting. But it’s important to learn that Dylan was influenced by his Minnesota Jewish-roots (and Buddy Holly’s songs) and Springteeen was influenced by his New Jersey/Catholic-roots (and Dylan’s songs). If you want to write like Tarantino watch the movies that he watched and read authors that influenced him like Elmore Leonard. Then read the writers that influenced Elmore Leonard. Tapping into your roots and influences will make you a much better writer than being told what page plot points should be on.
Sorry to go on about this but the analogies are deep. 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 Sydney 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 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. 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 wrong. (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. The fact that the majority of Seger’s and Goldman’s students don’t become a Ron Howard or a Akiva Goldman doesn’t negate what those instructors bring to the table.
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, Scriptshadow, 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’s more than enough free info out there, what there will never be enough of is teachers who take a personal interest in their students and invest time to inspire, correct, and encourage them to be the best they can be in a given field.
Keep in mind that most of the advice of August and Mazin come from Hollywood insiders. They definitely have valuable and helpful information. I come from the angle of an outsider. At least the folks at TomCruise.com and a few others appreciate that perspective. My goal with Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places is not to mimic everything being done in Hollywood, but to learn from the best storytellers on record and encourage writers in that vast, often overlooked, and despised area known as flyover county. That could be east of Burbank or west of Hoboken….or some other unlikely place around the world.
And to echo the words of writer/director Edward Burns— “Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.” (Though with the success of The Black List I do think there are some newer avenues a screenwriter in Kosovo can take to see the doors of Hollywood open wide.)
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?”
Which was the thinking behind the post Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
*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 Eszterhas you have to live the crazy rock-n-roll life the Joe Eszterhas has lived.
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)—John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)— Michael Arndt
Script Consultant Adam Levenberg After I originally wrote this post Levenberg contacted me and said he’d read a script of mine and give me notes to show what he does. The result was not only a three hour phone call but the most detailed notes I’d ever recieved. Actually, changed my focus on what kinds of scripts I should be writing. On that line read Concept, Concept, Concept and Lockhart’s 2006 post Hallewood and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s quote in The Idea is King. (And for what it’s worth, Levenberg thinks 90% of script consultants are quacks.)
Syd Field (1935-2013) When screenwriting guru Field died the writers that sang his praise were Frank Darabont, Tina Fey, and Judd Apatow.
Script Consultants: A Waste?
Update 3/28/11: This may be as close to a Charlie Kaufman seminar you’re going to find: