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Posts Tagged ‘Go Into The Story’

“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

“It’s very hard to describe how one ‘writes,’ the actual process.”
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest)
Creative Screenwriting interview

“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
WGA/Angle On

“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 StoryJeff Goldsmith’s podcast,  ScriptshadowWordplayer— 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.

Related Posts:
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.

Related Link:
Script Consultants: A Waste?

Update 3/28/11: This may be as close to a Charlie Kaufman seminar you’re going to find:

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“When you read a good screenplay, you know it—it’s evident from page one.”
Syd Field

“Shakespeare knew his audience; the groundlings standing in the pit, the poor and oppressed, drinking freely, talking boisterously to the performers if they didn’t like the action on stage. He had to ‘grab’ their attention and focus it on the action.”
Syd Field

Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting came out in 1979 putting him at the center of a new wave of interest in screenwriting that continues to this day. Sure there were books on screenwriting before Field’s released his “Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script” but he had a flair of looking at then contemporary films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy as well as more mainstream movies;  Star Wars, Rocky and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

By the mid-70s, the party was over for many baby boomers born between 1946-1964 and they were looking for a new guru to lead them into actually finding an income stream. Field’s, who died last month at age 77, filled that void. (And it certainly did provide an income stream for at least one person.)

I bought the “New Expanded Edition” of his book Screenplay when I was in college. To show how times have changed, I bought that book when I was in film school in the early ’80s. I think it was the first book on screenwriting I ever bought. This was long before the Internet became a great free resource for people wanting to learn about screenwriting. Before DVD commentaries featuring screenwriters. In fact, if you go back to 1979 I bet the average American couldn’t have named one screenwriter.

These days I’m often amazed at the way film savvy high school students can talk about movie structure and their favorite filmmakers (including screenwriters). These days the book Screenplay doesn’t exactly take your breath away, but you have to remember that the gems Field’s tossed out—”The first ten pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial”—were not common knowledge back then.

Field wrote from the perspective of the script reader. He had spent several years as the head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems and began to wonder why so few good scripts were recommended for possible development and why other films succeeded.

“My reading experience gave me the opportunity to make a judgment and evaluation, to formulate an opinion. This is a good screenplay, this is not a good screenplay.”
Syd Field

And just as he was formulating his experiences, he was asked to teach a screenwriting class at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. His book flowed from the years of teaching that class. Of course, not all of his students became working screenwriters. And one could even argue that the ratio of scripts recommended verses rejected today has basically remained unchange—despite the wealth of screenwriting info out there today.

Field addressed that reason in the introduction to his first book—talent. It’s the same reason sometimes that even gifted college athletes (even Heisman Trophy winners) don’t have sustainable pro careers.

Field ended up giving screenwriting workshops all over the world, and took a lot of blame over the years for basically starting a cottage industry that has made a lot of money over the years out of the pockets of dreaming screenwriters, but after his death there were some accomplished screenwriters that had some positive things to say about him.

“What I learned in Syd Field’s class was here’s how Annie Hall works, and here’s how Witness works, and then I begin to think, ‘OK now how would I do it differently than that?’ That concept of ‘Always being in learning mode’ has stuck with me to this day” 
Producer/director/writer Judd Apatow 

“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

“RIP Syd Field. We can argue about formula and dogma, but Field introduced countless screenwriters to the craft. He was an inciting incident.”
Screenwriter John August

“I’m not surprised to have seen the many acknowledgements from screenwriters, professional and non-pros, about Field today. I know I never would have broken into the business without the insights into the basics of screenwriting his book gave me.”
Screenwriter/Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers

 “I’ve gone from reading [Field's] books, to being taught by him in courses! I think one of us must have done something right! I thank him all the time for inspiring me.”
The Shawshank Redemption writer/director Frank Darabont

Field went on to write several books which reportedly sold over a million copies. Just this past September he delivered the Keynote address at STORY EXPO on Why We Are Storytellers. (I’ll try to track that talk down for a future post. ) You can find several videos of Field teaching online, but here’s a short clip of him interviewing screenwriter Micahel Ardnt. (It’s worth pointing out that Ardnt was a co-screenwriter of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which has been at the top of the box office the last two weeks and pulled in over $500 million worldwide.)

According to the Syd Field website, they list three places charitable donations can be made in Syd’s name:

P.S.  An interesting sidenote: Field was said to have written nine screenplays, none of which were produced. I have also written nine feature scripts, but have only had my short film scripts produced. I like to point out on this blog that there are several Oscar-winning & nominated screenwriters who have mentioned having no scripts made (or even sold in some cases)  after writing nine scripts including Oliver Stone (Platoon), Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air), and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). So I think persistence is the bookend to talent. Arndt said well before his success that he made a commitment to be “a screenwriter for life.” (In his case, he wrote ten scripts before selling one.)

Related posts:

How To Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Screenwriting Quote #144 (Syd Field)
Screenwriting Via Index Cards
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
‘Up in the Air’—Take 2 “I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody.”—Sheldon Turner
Screenwriting from Pixar (Part 2) One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog. Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3 with the Pixar team, breaks down what he found in studying previous Pixar movies.

Scott W. Smith

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“Storytelling can be found in every culture.”
Daniel Milnor

In the wee hours of this morning I caught part of a free rebroadcast on creativeLIVE of a seminar by Daniel Milnor. He began his career as a photojournalist and is now a Photographer at Large for Blurb.  In this era of content creators being content distributors, Blurb is a solid option to tell your story to a wider audience. Think of it as an outlet to reach a global audience.   It could be a book of photos, a PDF, a magazine, or a digital version that combines text, audio, video and/or still photography.

And the great thing is you can self publish via Blurb for under $10. (As in under ten one dollar bills.) I know everyone in the screenwriting world gets excited when a spec script sells, but according to Scott Myers at Go Into The Story spec script sales peaked in 1995 at 173 sales in a year. And I think it would be safe to say that the majority of those scripts never got made. But they’re seen as the grand slam or lottery winner of Hollywood screenwriting and have launched many careers.

Though for the last decade spec scripts sales have averaged under 100 sales a year.That’s not a huge number considering that it’s estimated that between 30,000-50,000 scripts are written every year. So think of Blurb as a creative option to develop your stories. Watch the below video by Milnor on the American West and see how Blurb could help you tell your story. Especially if you’re writing stories in unusual places or telling smaller stories.

And if you have an indie bone in your body you’ll appreciate that Milnor in 2013 is often going against the technology stream by shooting black and white film using Leica and Hasselblad cameras.

P.S. Anyone out there have a self-publishing success story (small or large)? I could see how filmmakers could self-publish a magazine via Blurb and hand it to prospective investors to get them excited about various projects. I spent the last seven months on the outer edges of the surf culture on the east coast of Florida and am personally thinking how I can use Blurb to further develop that project.

Related Post:
Content Creators=Content Distributors (Words of wisdom from Chase Jarvis, one of the founders of creativeLIVE.)
Ira Glass on Storytelling

Scott W. Smith

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“After graduating in 2007 [University of Miami], I knew I wasn’t ready to move to LA. My chops as a writer weren’t sharp enough to survive the Hollywood meat grinder. I needed time to hone my craft, so I moved back to Boston and worked at an Italian restaurant delivering pizzas. The best part about living at home was that my expenses were minimal, so every cent I earned went toward my wagons-west-fund. I wanted to make the most of this interim period, so I dove headfirst into writing feature specs. I wrote nonstop. Most of the scripts never saw the light of day, but my skills evolved with each completed draft. I was finding my voice.

During this time, I also made five short films. It was startling how much my directorial endeavors informed my writing. Listening to actors breathe life into your dialogue is a humbling and instructional experience. You start to understand how conversations translate from the page to the set, and how to craft dialogue with a naturalistic ear, while still retaining the narrative thrust essential to story progression.”
Screenwriter Will Simmons (His script Murder City made The Black List in 2012)
Go Into the Story interview with Scott Myers

P.S. Often we only read interviews of writers after they’ve received a measure of success in the films they’ve made or after their first film has been a box office hit. What’s great about the six-part interview Will Simmons did with Scott Myers is it shows us a screenwriter in mid-step. Though none of Simmon’s feature scripts have been produced, he does have deals in the works at Warner Bros.  and is repped by UTA and Energy Entertainment. It’s important to point out that Simmons made a couple short films in college, and five short films after graduating. And his early writing in school led him to an independent study in screenwriting during his senior year of high school. So while he’s a hot young writer now, keep in mind that his writing journey so far has taken 10+ years. As screenwriter Bob DeRosa wrote, “There are no shortcuts. There is only hard work. Perseverance. Luck. Craft. Failure. Success. Mistakes. And yes, dreams that come true.”

In his Go Into The Story interview Simmons said, “I have sort of an old-school, blue-collar mentality when it comes to work ethic, so instead of making excuses I just write nonstop.”

Will Simmons on Twitter @willsimmons_

Related Posts:

The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70) “99% of your effort should go to writing a good script. “—Michael Arndt
Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Don’t Quit You Day Job
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Writing “Good Will Hunting”
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)

Scott W. Smith

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“Write something unique that showcases your voice. Readers read so much – at times four or five scripts a day. So many of those scripts become one blob in your head – a singular voice. It’s the scripts that really strive to do something unique, whether it works or whether it doesn’t, that stick with you. As long as you’re writing something that is representative of your voice and your experience, I think you can’t go wrong.”
Justin Kremer (Whose script McCarthy in 2012 made The Black List)
Go Into The Story interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts:
Meet Your First Audience (Tip #36)
Finding Your Voice
Four Year Anniversary (features Diablo Cody quote: “Here’s my unsolicited advice to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”)

Scott W. Smith

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As this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places enters into its sixth year this week here’s a fitting thought from the always informative blog Go Into the Story:

“Assuming you’re not a native Californian or a long-time transplant to L.A., you developed your writing voice elsewhere. Iowa, New Jersey, England, Norway, wherever. The sum of your life experiences and the very place in which you live now has helped to make you the writer you are, giving you your distinctive take on the world….Let me end with the question that is always on the mind of aspiring writers who live well outside Los Angeles: Do I have to move there to break into the business?

The answer is no. You can write a spec script anywhere. If it’s great, that will be your passport into the business. In fact, I have recently interviewed two 2012 Nicholl Fellow winners, one from Louisiana [Allan Durand], one from South Africa [Sean Robert Daniels]. They and many other writers I know live and work outside Los Angeles.

But if you do sell a spec, and even in anticipation of that chance, at least you should be envisioning the possibility of relocating. Because on the whole, the positives of living and writing in L.A. outweigh the negatives.”
Scott Myers
The Business of Screenwriting: Living and writing in L.A.

Check out the whole article, and if somehow Myers’ screenwriting blog is off your radar check it out—it’s a great one.

Related Posts:

Do You Have To Live In L.A. To Be A Screenwriter?
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“It always comes down to the script. Write a great one, you can be a zillion years old living in Antarctica and Hollywood will want you.”
Scott Myers
Go Into the Story

Scott & Scripts 1725

Thank you.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I’d like to thank you for reading this blog. My original goals were modest; give it a year and see what happens. I kept writing and people kept reading. And the results are today’s post is number 1,447.  It’s definitely a “bird by bird” thing— to borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase (that she borrowed from her father).

And a special thanks to those readers who were there from the start in 2008. Back when it was common for me to write those 1,500-2,000 word posts. (I usually try to land between 250—500 words these days.) And special thanks to those who subscribe via email as they really make me consider whether something is worth posting or not.

The big surprise in 2012 was when I pulled a couple of quotes from the not-so-young writer/director Garry Marshall  (Pretty Woman, Happy Days) and the response was so positive that I kept pulling quotes from him for an entire month. That’s the first and only time that’s happened and that month of Garry Marshallwas the single most viewed month I’ve had in the five years of blogging. (Garry Marshall’s “Gentle Hilarity”  was posted on October 1, 2012 and the entire month was insights from him on writing and directing.)

Just to give you a glimpse of how organic and intuitive this blog is and the part you play as readers let me just say that last year when I was in the Dallas/Irving area to do a video shoot at Deion Sanders’ house, I stopped in a used bookstore and purchased Marshall’s book Wake Me When It’s Funny for a couple bucks and pulled a few quotes I though would be of interest to readers. I thought it might be a gamble because I knew a lot of readers of this blog weren’t even born when Marshall had some of his biggest Tv hits in the 70s. But good insights are good insights and I was just being conduit for those insights.

“It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Garry Marshall
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall)

In the past year I did notice that the quotes I was finding from screenwriters was starting to fall into categories I had already covered. Not really redundant, but I felt it reinforced and shaded in areas I had already covered in the pervious four years. Sometimes a newer writer will turn a new phrase on an old concept and  jazz it up a bit.

But after five years of blogging I finally want to hit my goal to condense these insights into a book. Really three books.  Sort of beginning, middle, and end. Each book will be approximately 60,000 words and really give a streamlined structure to what this blog is all about. My goal is to get these books into an ebook format by the end of June. (If that’s your field of expertise, I welcome any insights you have. You can always email me at info@scottwsmith.com)

I know there’s always a lot of talk about reading books only by produced feature screenwriters. But the truth is there just aren’t that many out there. And if the criteria is raised to having written a high quality award-winning screenplay that did great at the box office, I think you’re left with just one or two books.

In fact, I just read a book over the weekend over that was written by a produced and well-respected screenwriter of some wonderful films, but the book just did nothing for me. In fact, it’s the first book in my life that I’ve ever taken back to a book store and asked for my money back. (Thanks to Barnes & Noble for refunding my $28.44.)  If you’re going to sell a book for almost thirty bucks that promises to condense a thirty year career you really got to bring it. About 25 pages into the book I was waiting for the meat, by page 50 I realized it was running on fumes.

My point is not really to call out that screenwriting book I returned or the screenwriter who wrote it, just to say that it’s a myth that gifted and produced screenwriters make the best teachers, or that they can really explain what they do in a book. (Or that they can inspire you to do the same.)

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Lining Playbook, Winter’s Bone) on acting
The New York Times
article that mentions she’s never had an acting class or acting teacher

To paraphrase Tim Ferriss, despite Michael Phelps having won 18 Olympic gold medals in swimming—he may not be the best person to teach a 35-year-old how to swim.  (Especially true during the peak of Phelps’ career.) But just watching Phelps swim might inspire a 35-year-old to seek out a swimming teacher at their local rec center who despite falling short of Olympic glory has taught hundreds of people how to swim over the years.

Save your $28.44 and just read one of the most read posts on this blog Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) where Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt unpacks the Pixar methods that’s produced hit after hit. I pulled insights off the Toy Story 3 DVD special features the week it was released. Then read one of my favorite all-time posts from last year called The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) where the Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Rango) discusses the secrets of his success in BAFTA interview. And a third post that’s proven popular is last year’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle.—from the creator of the TV program Community.

But ultimately, what separates someone like Michael Arndt from the screenwriting pack is the same thing that separated Michael Phelps from the swimming pack—talent, drive, and determination. All I’m really doing on this blog is helping point the way—the hard part is up to you.

I have said it before and say it again, I’m a much more successful blogger than screenwriter. (As I joke with my production friends, “Did I ever tell you my blog won an Emmy?”) Though I’ve written nine (unproduced) screenplays and have written and directed nine produced short films (on top of producing well over 100 video projects), I think my unique skill is to aggregate the best insights from some of the most talented writers and filmmakers throughout film history, including the up and comers. (I should have learned something from all those books and screenplays I’ve read in the above photo.) Concepts and insights that I hope will inspire you in whatever unlikely place you live in the world.

At last count I have quoted and/or told the story of more than 400 writers and filmmakers over the last five years. The problem with the blog now is there are five years of posts—more than 650,000 words—with very little overall structure for someone who stumbles upon this blog today. It’s almost impossible to wade through 1,447 posts.  So phase two—which I’m about 90% done writing—is to whittle down the essentials of this blog—the greatest hits–into user-friendly and inspirational ebooks.

Wish me well with that process, and I wish you well in your writing.

And thanks again for checking out this blog, because without a growing readership there’s no way I would have had the energy or desire to keep this up for five years.

Related Post: Life Beyond Hollywood (the very first post on January 22, 2008)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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I just started a book on CD this week that you HAVE TO GET. It’s called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. I’m sure I’ll be pulling quotes from it for weeks to come.

Lehrer gives a glimpse into the inner workings of how creativity works at Pixar.

“Everyday at the Pixar studio begins the same way. A few dozen animators and computer scientists gather in a small screening room filled with comfy velour couches. They eat Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch and drink organic coffee. Then the team begins analyzing the few seconds of film produced the day before, ruthlessly shredding each frame. (There are 24 frames per second.) No detail is too small to tear apart. I sat in on a meeting in which the Toy Story 3 team spent thirty minutes discussing the reflect properties of the plastic lights underneath the wings of Buzz Lightyear. After that, an editor criticized the precise starting point of a Randy Newman song. The music began when Woody entered the scene, but he argued that it should start a few seconds later, when Woody began running. Someone else disagreed, and a lively debate ensued. Both alternatives were tested. (It’s not uncommon for a Pixar scene to go through more than three iterations.) The team discussed the motivations of the character and the emotional connotations of the clarinet solo. By the time the meeting was over, it was almost lunch.”
Jonah Lehrer

And playing off that nicely is a quote found at the Go Into the Story blog:

“I get calls from producers down in Hollywood asking for the secret [Pixar] recipe. And I always say it’s really hard work, and committing to slog through the bad times. Trusting that if we stick with it and support each other we’ll get there. There’s no short cut for getting it right. We’re willing to keep going back to the drawing board, put it up, look at it, throw it all away and start over. We’re willing to do that over and over and over again. It’s not always fun—despite the images of us all riding around on scooters.

On every project, there’s a point where we think we’ll never crack it. We really despair. We think the story sucks. And that’s when everybody does the hand-holding and commits to making it better.”
Mary Colemon
Senior Development Executive at Pixar
Interview with Scott Myers at Go Into The Story

And allow me to go back to the Lehrer’s book one more time:

“Everybody at Pixar knows that there will be many failures along the way. The long days be filled with difficult conversations and disorienting surprises, and late-night arguments. But no one ever said making a good movie was easy. “If it feels easy than you’re wrong,” [Toy Story 3 director Lee] Unkrich says, ‘We know that screw-ups are an essential part of what we do here. That’s why our goal is simple, we just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it—together.’”
Jonah Lehrer
Imagine: How Creativity Works  

P.S. Interested in working at Pixar? Check out their link for jobs and interships.

 Related posts:

Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 4)

Scott W. Smith

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“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

Update 11/5/10: 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 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.

Update 12/24/13 In the Christmas spirit I’ve decided to re-work this post. Make it a little more upbeat. Tried to make it a little shorter, but failed. And since it’s a little on the long side let me start by adding that I really think all a new writer needs to read is these handful (and free posts)—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
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)

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 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 our attention. 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 a screenplay in Juno. (A better example of the 10,000 rule than getting lucky.)

Cody did it the old-fashioned way of just writing. No film school, no podcasts, no screenwriting workshops, no screenwriting books. Others have taken those more common routes. Everyone seems to take their own path. Find what works for you—guard for 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.”

******

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 misappropriated  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 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 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 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 $800 million when adjusted for inflation.)

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 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 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.) are full of great coaches who either didn’t play professional ball or didn’t excel at the highest level. (And actually there are few star atheles who went on to become great coaches or executives. In the NBA Isiah Thomas, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan come to mind. )

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 on your screenplay 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 tiem to help you will take some finagling. You’re more than likley 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 outways the supply.

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 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 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 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. 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 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.

Keep in mind that all of the advice of August and Mazin come as Hollywood insiders. They definitely have valuable and helpful information.

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?”

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.

Related Link:

Script Consultants: A Waste?

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. My post 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.

Update 3/28/11: This may be as close to a Charlie Kaufman seminar you’re going to find:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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