“I can’t think of a better way to spend a life than pursuing the imagination.”
Writer & screenwriting professor
(Richard Walter Interview Part 1)
Today begins a several part series taken from an interview I did with Richard Walter, Chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program. Early in his screenwriting career he wrote the first draft of American Graffiti for George Lucas. He’s taught at UCLA since 1977, where his students have included David Koepp (Spiderman) Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun), and Alexander Payne (Sideways). He’s also the author of Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing.
SS: In the last 30 years there has been an explosion of screenwriting training in books, schools, CDs/DVDs, blogs, and seminars, yet you say that you’ve seen that many writers are merely writing scripts that are “shiny, superficial and soulless.” So what’s the problem that writers today are technically better, but that hasn’t translated into better scripts?
Richard Walter: “They’ve gotten intellectual. I think the downside to some of the books on screenwriting is they do tend to make people become self-conscious and intellectual—’Uh, let’s see is this the inciting incident? Or is it a plot point? On page 17 this is supposed to happen, and that’s supposed to happen.’ How can that do anything other than straight-jacket people?
I do believe in outlining, but at some point you have to let go of that outline and stay open to surprises and live with the uncertainty.
I’ve seen people who have shaped the script correctly, yet it just doesn’t move me. It just doesn’t reach audiences in the solar plexus. It’s too complete in the old spelling of the word C-O-M-P-L-E-T. It’s a little too well made.
One of my favorite movies ever, but certainly my favorite of those that came out of UCLA, was a real UCLA film school Mafia film called Stand and Deliver, the story of Jaime Escalante. He was a dedicated teacher and decided to teach calculus to these Latino kids who live in the barrio in East LA and go to Garfield High. And he succeeded in doing that.
The first thing a teacher has to have is high expectations. And indeed Escalante succeeded in teaching these kids calculus. And indeed they take the Educational Testing Services national test in calculus and they all pass it. Well, back in New Jersey where the ETS is located they get back these results and say, ‘This can’t be true. These Latino kids in East LA could not have passed this calculus exam, they must of cheated,’ and so they make them take the test again. This is the true story upon which the movie is based. So the kids take the test again and pass and demonstrate they indeed were capable of learning calculus.
Now I want you to imagine Tom Musca, who was the producer and co-writer of that movie, saying to me, ‘Now , Richie, imagine me pitching this picture to the town. The climax is these kids take a math test—twice.’ It sounds idiotic, it sounds very stupid. But it works so well. So I would say that the worst mistake that writers make is we outsmart ourselves, and that’s sometimes what happens with these (screenwriting) books, they make us a little too self-observing and that is the enemy of all creative expression. “
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