Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Uhry’

“I wasn’t a character in the play, but that was my childhood.”
Alfred Uhry 
Speaking at a Master Workshop on his play Driving Miss Daisy 

Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter is not the latest MMA match-up. Just my way of showing how two well-respected screenwriting teachers can disagree on a fundamental point.

In light of several posts on emotional autobiography I think it’s a good time to address two different schools of thought. What Tennessee Williams called ’emotional autobiography’, I believe Richard Walter, chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program,  calls “identity” and “self-revelation.”

Walter believes strongly that writers “should tell their own personal story.” On the other hand, screenwriting instructor Robert McKee in his book STORY says that’s exactly what writers shouldn’t do. Screenwriting wars!

Mckee writes, “The ‘personal story’ is unstructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t.”

This is how Walter, in his book Essentials of Screenwriting, explains his view:

“Decades spent writing and teaching have taught me that writers’ own personal stories are the only story they should write.

Even if a writer attempts vigorously to do otherwise, even if he works on an assignment writing a script for hire based on someone else’s idea, even an idea totally alien to his own experience, he will nonetheless end up telling nothing other that his own personal tale. Whatever the original concept, however specific, however narrow, in all instances is filtered through the peculiar sensibilities of the specific writer. In the end, despite himself, the writer will create a tale that is personal.
Why fight it?
My advice: Surrender.
It is one battle in which defeat actually amounts to victory.
Self-revelation lies, after all, at the center of not screenwriting alone but all creative expression.”

Interesting. Two well-respected teachers, and two totally different views. One calling the personal story where every writer should start and the other saying it’s the first typical mistake of the failed screenplay.

So who’s right? If you got the two instructors together, you could probably have a three-day conference discussing the topic. Is there any way, they could both be right?

I have seen many films (usually shorts) and read quite a few scripts that I would call small personal stories. Little or nothing happens in these stories and to use the words of  director/film teacher Alexander Mackendrick they tend to fall under the description, “Long, too long, much too long.” They’re personal, but they’re boring.

I think McKee is talking about literal personal stories. We cook, we iron, we type and so on. Personal everyday stuff. Perhaps all McKee means by “personal story” is what Hitchcock meant when he said,  “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”

Walter in using “personal story” to address the big picture. We are writing about ourselves in terms of our deepest fears and desires. We are tapping into the core of our existence. It has nothing to do with ironing and typing,  but of a hunger for significance.

Rocky is a personal film, not because Stallone was once a club boxer whose day job was collecting money for loan sharks. But Rocky is a personal story because Stallone was once a struggling actor/writer who knew if he got a shot he could do something special.

If you read the backstories of screenwriters and directors time after time you will find that in the movies they’ve made they were telling an aspect of their own personal story. Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Scorsese are all personal storytellers.

The script I just finished is about a young, inexperienced cop in a small town in Iowa who is faced with solving the first murder in the town’s history. I’ve never been a cop in a small town in Iowa, but I am aware that the theme of the story deals with my own personal story. The power of theme in movies is what’s on screen interacts with the personal stories of those in the audiences.

McKee understands universal themes, so maybe at the end of the day maybe he and Walter can shake hands just say it’s a matter of semantics over what is meant by “personal story.”

Perhaps that’s why I  like about the phrase ’emotional autobiography.’ It’s less ambiguous. The King’s Speech and Toy Story 3 are recent examples that I’d consider emotional autobiography. In fact, I think the definition of Pixar is emotional autobiography.

The great thing about this film (Up) and any film we work on is that it contains truths taken from our lives. Pixar lets the directors create an ‘autobiography.’ In other words, things that are important to us make it into the film.
Director Bob Peterson (Up)

I’ve learned a lot from both McKee and Walter over the years. And, in screenwriting, like most creative disciplines you will find many different ways to approach your writing.  Find what works for you. And the best way to do that is keep cranking out the pages.

At the end of last year I was fortunate to interview Walter and over the next several days I will be posting several of his comments from that interview as well as pulling quotes from his various books. If you are unfamiliar with his work check out his website RichardWalter.com.

This is what one of his former students had to say about him;

“Richard Walter is the best screenwriting teacher in the business.”
Screenwriter  David Koepp
Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Spider-Man

Scott W. Smith

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What do the plays Ruined and Driving Miss Daisy have in common? They both won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and both happened to have been written by graduates of Brown University (Lynn Nottage ’86 and Alfred Uhry ’59). I’ve been thinking a lot about Ruined after seeing it last Saturday and for some reason it made me think of Driving Miss Daisy today and then I stumbled on this interesting connection between them. (And just for good measure I should point out that another Brown graduate, Nilo Cruz, also won the Pulitzer in 2003 for his play Anna in the Tropics.)  

In 2008 Nottage was asked by Alexis Green “Are you combining Activism and playwriting?”

“They are two passions. I feel it’s my social responsibility to shine a light on areas that don’t get seen. My personal feeling is that it’s an artist’s responsibility to be engaged with the culture. And when the culture is going through turmoil, I think an artist can’t ignore that. I don’t feel that every artist has to be politically engaged, but I can’t imagine that you can be an active participant of this culture and not in some way reflect that in the work you are creating.”
                                                           Lynn Nottage 
                                                           League of Professional Theatre Women


To learn more about Nottage visit her website at www.lynnnottage.net.

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Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small (Sunset Boulevard). “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict.

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump



The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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