Posts Tagged ‘Richard Walter’

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles


Read Full Post »

“At a writing workshop, purely as a courtesy, I attended the poetry workshop presented by a friend, University of Hawaii professor Steven Goldsberry…Perhaps the most useful advice Goldsberry gave was to encourage writers to consider every sentence to be a joke, and to remember that jokes end on the punch line.

“This is useful to screenwriters struggling with issues regarding both dialogue and description. Don Corleone in The Godfather does not say: ‘He won’t be able to refuse the offer I’m going to make.’ The punch line in this sentence has to be ‘refuse.’ That’s where the drama resides. That’s the most powerful word, the one carrying the greatest stress. With the sentence ending on the punch line it becomes among the most timeless lines ever uttered in any movie: ‘I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.'”
UCLA Screenwriting Chairman Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

P.S. After I wrote this post I found out that Professor Goldsberry earned his PhD from the University of Iowa—all roads may not lead back to Iowa, but a whole bunch of them do. Goldsberry also wrote The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #16 (Richard Walter)
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Keeping Solvent & Sane

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life. I try to work every day, because you have no refuge but writing. When you’re going through a period of unhappiness, a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing.”
Tennessee Williams

I found the above quote this week and knew it was the missing piece to a post I wrote a few years ago on emotional autobiography;

“Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland
Art & Fear

“Principle  1: Whenever writers sit down before blank paper or glowing green (or amber) phosphor, their personal story is all they can write.”
Richard Walter
The Whole Picture

In Richard Walter’s book The Whole Picture he has a section called “Identity: The Only Choice” where he makes this profound statement:

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul—call it identity—as we struggle to figure out just what and who it is we genuinely are. The reason we go to the movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.  It’s the same reason we go to church, temple, mosque, ashram or meetinghouse: we seek to answers to the wonderful and dreadful puzzle of our existence.”

Look at the movies that you and your friends watch over and over again and ask how much identity plays a part of liking the movie. Beloved movies that I find fit this category well are The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Pretty Women, Erin Brockovich, Braveheart, Rocky, Titanic, Dead Poets Society, The Matrix,  An Officer and a Gentleman. On the Waterfront, Good Will Hunting, Thema and LouiseToy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles (Pixar, Pixar, Pixar) and, of course, Field of Dreams. (Just to name a few.)

“If we look at some of the Academy Award winners of the 80s and 90s, we can see an identity theme shimmering through many philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.
Linda Seger
Advanced Screenwriting

And certainly the more recent Academy winning best film, The King’s Speech, is heavy on identity. On one level you could identify if you were a stutter, but other levels of identity for audiences are if you have any physical trait that is holding you back from performing your best in life. Some could identify being the parent of a child with a handicap. Others could identify with being a gifted teacher whose teaching may be effective, but rather unorthodox and not respected by those in power.

There is no doubt that the screenwriter of The King’s Speech identified first hand with the material he was writing. And as we learn from now Oscar-winner David Siedler, sometimes writers aren’t always aware at first the themes which they evoke.

“I wanted to write something about my hero George VI who had given me hope as a kid, because my parents had said, ‘listen to him, he stuttered far worse than you and yet he can give these stirring, magnificent wartime speeches that rally the world.’ I didn’t see it, the fact that I was actually writing about myself. Now, with a bit more maturity, now I can see it very clearly that I was writing my story through the King.”
David Siedler
BBC interview

Siedler wrote an emotional autobiography.  So when in The King’s Speech when King George VI says, “I have a right to be heard. I have a voice,” you know this is the former stutter Sielder’s speaking as well. And how many in the audience connect with that emotionally as well?

Richard Walter’s adds, “More than a quarter of a century of professional writing and decades spent teaching have convinced me that writers’ own personal stories are all they should write.” Walter’s former student and graduate in the MFA program at UCLA, Alexander Payne, did okay writing an emotional autobiography called Sideways for which he won an Oscar (with Jim Taylor) in 2005.

I like the phrase “Emotional Autobiography” because it describes what writers do when they tap into identity themes.

“Emotional autobiography is what is going to bring your story to life, and what will make your reader connect with your characters. I bring this idea back to Tim O’Brien’s brilliant The Things They Carried. I’ve never been a soldier, but I intrinsically identify with all of the emotions those characters are feeling. The author’s emotional autobiography replaces factual accuracy and becomes my own emotional history. And that is what we should all strive for when we take the seeds of our own experiences and transfer the spirit of what is meaningful from our lives to the page.”
Eric Wasserman
Writer and Assistant Professor at The University of Akron
Embracing Emotional Autobiography Over Factual Representation in Fiction

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Can You Identify?
Emotional Autobiography (“On the Waterfront”)
E.T. & Emotional Autobiography
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

On this repost Saturday I’m going to actually do a mash-up of two posts I wrote years ago. This was inspired after I visited the first boyhood home of Tennessee Williams in Columbus, Mississippi earlier this week and learned that when he was in his early 20s his shoe salesman father had Tennessee drop out of college and work a 9 to 5 job at the International Shoe Company factory in St. Louis. (The city used to be known for its “shoes, booze, and blues.”)

Tennessee hated the routine so much that it pushed him to write one story a week, writing at night and on weekends.

“Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.”
Edwina Williams (mother of Tennessee Williams who she called by his given name Tom)

Of course, I should mention that while working at the shoe factory drove him to write it was also said to drive him toward a nervous breakdown. But I doubt you can really blame his day job for his depression—or the drug and alcohol addiction that he battled for decades until he died—because those things for whatever reason seem to be pretty common traits in writers (and many artists in general) through the ages. One could even argue the greater the demons, the greater the writing. (Link to Top 15 Great Alcoholic Writers.)

But that’s another post for another day. It is worth pointing out that that day job Williams hated helped not only inspire him to write, but helped give him writing material.

Here’s my mash-up for the day. The first part is from the post Keeping Sane and Solvent (Part 3—Interview with Richard Walter, author of Essentials of Screenwriting);

SS: A while back I discovered that the Stanley Kowalski character from A Streetcar Named Desire was based on a person that Tennessee Williams had worked with in a factory.  Over and over again I seem to discover more proof, that as you say, “the day job is the writer’s friend.”

Richard Walter: That’s a perfect example. Your day job keeps you in touch with the source of your writing which is the humanity around you.  The writer’s dream is that you’re so self-sufficient you can just be in a cabin in the woods or a cottage at the beach—well,  when I have too much time on my hand I’ll call for a ski report, even in August,  just to avoid what I’m supposed to be working on.

Your day job is your friend. The writer’s day job is the friend of the writer. It keeps him solvent  and sane, which are two closely related enterprises.

Screenwriter Nick Schenk based characters in his script Gran Torino on people he had worked with in various places in the Minneapolis area and had met in bars. Anyone else happen to notice that the Clint Eastwood character is also named Kowalski? Perhaps influenced by Tennessee Williams in more than one way.

And part two of the mash-up is from a 2010 post title Don’t Quit Your Day Job;

“I was a city health inspector in Boston. Do the necessary work to pay your bills and take care of your family, and you’ll get there. Talent has a way of workin’ itself out. Hollywood will find you. Eventually.”
Screenwriter James L. White (Ray)

Workin 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’

9 to 5
Grammy-winning, number one song written by Dolly Parton

Before screenwriter Colin Higgins bought a house in Beverly Hills, he once had a job cleaning pools there. Higgins had a great run in the 70s & 80s writing Silver Streak, Foul Play, Nine to Five, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

But in the book Tales from the Script, UCLA professor Richard Walter tells the story of how Higgins once hoped to win a Goldwyn screenwriting competition so he could quit his day job and write full-time for a year. He ended up getting second in the competition so he had to keep his day job which in turned launched his career. Here’s how Walter’s tell the story;

“(Colin Higgins) went to work for a swimming pool cleaning company. And the very first pool that he’s cleaning is in the flats in Beverly Hills–great big, fancy house. As he’s vacuuming the pool, sitting under a beach umbrella at the pool is a guy who clearly owns the house and he’s reading a screenplay. They get to chatting , and Colin tells him about this script that won the Goldwyn prize. And this producer agrees to read it, and ends up producing it. It’s Harold and Maude. So you just have to stay open to the surprises.”

Now keep in mind that when Higgins was cleaning pools he had already served in the United States Merchant Marines, had an English degree from Stanford and an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. In fact, he wrote Harold and Maude as his thesis. So don’t think he was just a pool guy who BS’ed his way into a screenwriting career. But once again, another story to add to my “bump-in factor” file.

And, now back to November 9, 2013,  here’s a related bonus video from The Ellen Show a couple of days ago :
“Go work until you can get the kind of job you want to have.”
Ashton Kutcher

Update 11/10/13: Found this Paris Review interview where Williams talks about life before the success of The Glass Menagerie:

“Before the success of Menagerie I’d reached the very, very bottom. I would have died without the money. I couldn’t have gone on any further, baby, without money, when suddenly, providentially, The Glass Menagerie made it when I was thirty-four. I couldn’t have gone on with these hand-to-mouth jobs, these jobs for which I had no aptitude, like waiting on tables, running elevators, and even being a teletype operator. None of this stuff was anything I could have held for long. I started writing at twelve, as I said. By the time I was in my late teens I was writing every day, I guess, even after I was in the shoe business for three years. I wrecked my health, what there was of it. I drank black coffee so much, so I could stay up nearly all night and write, that it exhausted me physically and nervously. So if I suddenly hadn’t had this dispensation from Providence with Menagerie, I couldn’t have made it for another year, I don’t think.”
Tennessee Williams

Related post:
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk)
Emotional Autobiography Includes the quote from Art & Fear, “Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical.”
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Writers: Don’t Skip Jury Duty
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
What’s it Like Being a Struggling Writer in L.A.?

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future,and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, ‘Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’ And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘Make me care’ — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.  We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I just realized if you took Stanton’s Make me care” and added UCLA professor Richard Walter’s one unbreakable rule “Don’t be boring” you’d have a total of just six words that may be all you really need to focus on. If you need more toss in Limitless screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s one-sentence screenwriting manual, “Do they want to turn the page?” and David Mamet’s “INVIOLABLE RULE:THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”  All the screenwriting books, blogs, magazines, podcasts, seminars, workshops, and college classes piggyback on these four simple concepts:

1) Don’t be boring (conflict-conflict-conflict)
2) Make me care
3) Do they want to turn the page?

Still want one more helpful tip to make it a handful? On the road to being a better writer? Okay, here it is;

5) “Writing and reading. That’s all that there is. There’s nothing else.”
David Mamet (The Verdict, Glengarry Glen Ross)

Related Posts:
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Everything I Learn in Film School (Tip #1)
 The single best way to address numbers 1-4.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained…I like it when people come up to me the next day or a week later and they say, ‘I saw your play—what happened?'”
Bill Murray as the playwright Jeff in Tootsie

“You can’t have a theater based upon anything other than a mass audience if it’s going to succeed. The larger the better. It’s the law of the theater. In the Greek audience fourteen thousand people sat down at the same time, to see a play. Fourteen thousand people! And nobody can tell me that those people were all readers of The New York Review of Books! Even Shakespeare was smashed around in his time by university people….because he was reaching for those parts of man’s makeup which respond to melodrama, broad comedy, violence, dirty words, and blood. Plenty of blood, murder, and not very well motivated at that.”
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman)
Playwrights at Work, Page 171

Related Posts:

Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Arthur Miller Do?
“Tootsie” at 30
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “The reason that I am a writer today is Shakespeare.”—John Logan
There’s Something About Jerry“No artist—notably no film or television writer—need apologize for entertaining an assembled mass of people.” Richard Walter (UCLA screenwriting professor)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Note: On this re-post Saturday I’m going to post one of my favorite screenwriting quotes by one of my favorite teachers of screenwriting—Richard Walter. The original post back in 2011 (which had a different title) was the end of seven days of posts revolving around an interview I did with Walter. (The informative links to the interviews can be found at the end of the post.)

Also, yesterday I mentioned I was going to post some quotes from screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3) next week. Black went to UCLA where Walter is now the Chairman of the MFA Program in screenwriting.

Here’s the original post called “Don’t bore the audience!”:

“Screenwriting’s one unbreakable rule: Don’t be boring.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting 

The above quote was how I ended yesterday’s post after seven straight days of posts taken from an interview I did with UCLA’s Richard Walter. And as a perfect segue for today’s post I picked up the book The Paris Review’s Playwrights at Work and stumbled upon this quote under the heading ADVICE TO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHT:

“What shouldn’t you do if you’re a playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing onstage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going anyway you can.”
Tennessee Williams

I’ll always regret not meeting Williams when he visited a small theater in the Orlando area shortly before he died. A few years after he died in 1983 I remember doing an actor’s workshop in LA where I spent six weeks just working on the opening monologue of Tom’s in The Glass Menagerie. (“I have tricks up my sleeves…”) It was in that workshop taught by Arthur Mendoza that I really began to appreciate the power of words. Names like Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg were revealed to me.

And as I mentioned yesterday, the best way not to bore the audience is through conflict. There’s always talk about writing from theme and plot, and having interesting characters in the stories you tell, but somewhere above your writing desk (or taped to your computer) you won’t go wrong if you—Write from Conflict. (Ideally, meaningful conflict.)

“Airplanes that land safely do not make the news. And nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.
Richard Walter

P.S. If you’d like a free copy of Walter’s book Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com and tell me a couple ways I could spin this blog in a new direction that would make it a better blog. (Podcast, videos, interviews. Anybody with info on publishing ebooks or gumroad would be a bonus.) I’ll pick the three most helpful ones and send the book to those three for no charge. Thanks for your help.

Related posts:
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
The Enemy of Creativity
Screenwriting’s Great Divider
Keeping Solvant and Sane
The Death of Originality
The Advantage of Being from ________
Filmmaker as Artist/Entrepreneur
Finding Your Voice

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Art is not only a vehicle for self-expression or exclusively for the pursuit of the spiritual. From the very beginning, drawing an animal on the wall of a cave—you would be able to control the animal and this magic would help the tribe.”
Milton Glaser
Art is Work
(Popularly known as the artist who designed the I “Heart” New York logo.)

“Creative expression is not logical, circumspect, intelligent, or responsible; it’s illogical, unreasonable, manic, and irresponsible, especially as an activity preoccupying grown women and men. Is screenwriting any different from the other arts? Yes. It’s crazier.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

This is part 6 of an interview I did with Richard Walter, Chairman of the UCLA Screenwriting program.

SS: The is no question that Hollywood is the major leagues. But now that digital cameras have gotten better and cheaper, I see a new crop of filmmakers popping up all over the county (and the world) who are starting to make their own films outside the Hollywood system. Then you have traditional Hollywood-types such as Edward Burns making smaller films (Nice Guy Johnny; 10 day shoot/$25,000. deferred budget) and self-distributing them on iTunes and finding an audience. Do you see a new league rising up? The entrepreneurial filmmaker who writes, produces, and distributes his or her own films outside mainstream Hollywood.

Richard Walter: I think the least interesting films being made are major Hollywood movies. They are not really movies that stand alone, but they are parts of franchises. George Lucas —it’s not his fault, I wouldn’t have done it any differently—started it all with Star Wars in 1977. That was an important year.

As big as Star Wars was, and it was the biggest thing ever in terms of ticket sales , still that was pretty small when compared to the ancillary considerations  with the toys.

So suddenly the actual movie became only one component in a package—in a cluster of other considerations.  And that has to have a suffocating influence on the imagination.

I see much more interesting stuff on cable TV than I see in theaters. I haven’t seen a movie recently in theaters as good as the last episode of Mad Men from the third season, or some of the best stuff on the Sopranos.

And as you said, now that it’s become cheaper and cheaper to make a movie, and because of the internet, distribution is now available to anybody— The question is how do you get people’s attention and so on. You have to be clever about that.

But it doesn’t need to be a blockbuster success—nothing wrong with a blockbuster success like Avatar—but it’s not all there is.  To me it’s not as interesting as what you just decribed that Burns is doing. Absolutely, that’s a much more interesting way to go.

You don’t need to be a trillionaire. If you can get by and be sort of comfortable I think you can have a much more satisfactory life artistically and every other way if you don’t focus on this very narrow arena called mainstream Hollywood.

SS: When I was in college, I remember a photography instructor in Florida telling me that he felt fortunate to just be able to make a living in the arts.  And as I’ve gotten to know working artists in Iowa I find that they’re not encumbered like many screenwriters in that they are not trying to get rich and famous—that rarely happens for most artists— but they’re simply working on their craft and content to earn a living. Do you think it would be healthier for most screenwriters and filmmakers if they had a more artist-like mentality?

Richard Walter: If you can modestly survive and work with your imagination and create narrative what can be better than that? What’s there not to like about that?

Related posts: A New Kind of Filmmaker

Sputnik. Sundance & Kevin Smith

How to Shoot a Feature in Ten Days

The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

(Richard Walter, UCLA Screenwriting professor, Interview Part 5)

SS: The title and subtitle of this blog is “Screenwriting from Iowa….and Other Unlikely Places,” and it was in part inspired by learning that Diablo Cody went to college in Iowa, just about an hour where I live, and wrote the distinctly Midwestern screenplay Juno in a Starbucks in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I think that part of her wild Oscar-winning success is that she tapped into not trying to do what everybody was doing?

Richard Walter: I totally agree with you about Diablo Cody. It was my privilege to be at the Academy Awards the year she won the Oscar and I got to hang out with her a couple of years ago at the Cinequest Festival in San Jose. But you’re absolutely right. One question I get all the time is “Don’t I have to be in L.A. if I want to be a serious screenwriter?” And first all if you want to be in series television, yes.  You have to be available to make pitches. And especially in sitcoms if you succeed in selling a few freelance episodes you will ultimately end up on staff and you have to come in everyday.

But most people want to work in features, theatrically distributed films, and to them I actually say it’s actually an advantage to be from Iowa, to be from anyplace other than L.A. or New York.

There’s a certain kind of cache that applies to being from the midsection. I know one writer, believe it or not, who launders his scripts through a phony address he has in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,  outside of Nashville, because it’s just more exciting than one more writer from the San Fernando Valley.

So there’s much merit in what you say. Unfortunately, a lot of the writers that ask me ,“Do I have to come to L.A.?” really want to come to L.A.  They want a reason or an excuse to come to L.A. and I appreciate that—this is a beautiful town. It’s a diverse culture. It is a world-class international city that has everything that you’d ever want including awfully good weather. With that said, you do not need to be here. You’re actually better off if you want to succeed as a screenwriter being in an other section of the county.  That’s the way it seems to me—very, very clearly I have to say.

Related Posst:

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Screenwriting Quote #1 (Diablo Cody)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“To reach audiences, writers have to take chances. They must confront the awesome challenge inherent in peddling their fantasies. All writers, in particular new writers, face the overwhelming likihood that what they write will come to no fruitful conclusion.”
Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

“There’s always that existential question: If you write a script and no one reads it or no one makes a movie from it, are you really a writer? It’s very complicated.”
Screenwriter Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids)

(Richard Walter Interview Part 2)

The Screenwriting MFA at UCLA has trained so many talented screenwriters that it is continually listed among the best places to study.  But for every graduate like Oscar-winner Alexander Payneg (Sideways) there is a group of graduates who have yet to earn a living as screenwriters. Some are working in various jobs on films and TV programs, some are teaching, and some are working regular jobs and writing spec scripts at night. That led me to today’s question for the Chairman of the Department, Richard Walter.

SS: You’ve obviously seen some incredible talent come through UCLA, they’ve won Academy Awards and written blockbuster Steven Spielberg films,  but not every graduate from the program goes on to have a successful screenwriting career. What do you think separates those who succeed and those that don’t?

Richard Walter: “Well, in a word I would say stamina. Another word is patience.  Life’s all about time. Time is really the great divider. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul.  You’ve got to give your life to this.  That’s not a cynical, brooding, or pessimistic view. I can’t imagine what would be more glorious to give a life to besides creative expression.

I mean, we literally traffic in our imaginations—we swap out our daydreams for money.  Writers when we get paid at all, we get paid a lot of money what other people get scolded for, which is daydreaming.  It’s worth giving it the time, because to succeed is such a phenomenal blessing.

It’s also so human, it really distinguishes us from the rest of creation.  Beavers don’t do this, termites and plankton don’t write —And if you’re not creative in some aspect of your life you’re not really fulfilling your destiny and your nature.  So you just have to stick with it.”

Though screenwriter David Seidler (The King’s Speech) didn’t go to UCLA he is the poster child for sticking with screenwriting. You can view the 73-year-old’s Oscar acceptance speech on You Tube.

And speaking of UCLA grad and Omaha-native Alexander Payne, he was one of the producer’s of the movie Cedar Rapids currently in theaters. (The movie is the first produced script by Phil Johnston who was born in Minneapolis, raised in Wisconsin, and worked as a weatherman in Iowa. He had sold some scripts but was having trouble getting produced and is quoted as saying, “Someone told me, you’ll make a great living as a failure.”)

Related Post: Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David Seilder—Style)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: