According to screenwriter Jim Uhls, reading screenplays—”as many as you can”—is the best way to analytically as well as intuitively learn screenwriting structure. And while he did his undergraduate theater work at Drake University and his graduate work in dramatic writing at UCLA, he doesn’t believe that a formal education in film school is imperative to working in the business.
“What [college] gave me was a workshop where I did have plays fully produced, I had scenes that I’d written in screenplay structure shot on video tape so I was able to get immediate gratification, and immediate feedback from other artists. So that kind of environment is valuable, no matter where it is or what circumstances—it doesn’t have to be college.”
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca
Keep in mind that Uhls went to college over 30 years ago and the environment has changed considerably since then. College was not only cheaper, but it was one of the few places you could get your hands on quality production equipment. Nor was there the internet to gain free access to screenwriting and production advice as well as screenplays themselves.
Today Drake University in Des Moines is $16,050 per semester for tuition alone meaning a 4 year degree without scholarships, grants, or aid could cost you in the range of $200,000 once you factor in tuition, room, food, and books. Tuition for UCLA grad school runs $15,582.09 per year. Read the article Leaving Los Angeles and consider what it would mean for a writer/filmmaker to have $100,000+ of student loan debt heading into a career in the arts.
Considering today that for under $4,000 you can buy a decent camera, lens, SD cards, tripod, a computer, a microphone, a couple of lights, and editing software and still have enough left over for a couple months subscription to lynda.com— you can get that “immediate gratification” of seeing your work produced by shooting and editing it yourself. Of seeing actors say your lines. And you can do that wherever you live in the world. And if $4,000 is too much buy used gear for $2,000—or find a buddy who already has the gear.
Also, consider starting in your area a writer/actor workshop/lab. Uhls is a founding member of Safehouse in L.A. which consists of working screenwriters, playwrights, and actors presenting material for feature films, TV pilots, shorts films, plays and free standing scenes.
“[Safehouse] is a safe space for writers to workshop their work without any judgment. It’s a place where you can feel free to fall flat on your face and no one’s going to laugh at you or think less of you. We’re going to give you constructive criticism, and whatever you do with that criticism is your business.”
Screenwriter (and producer of The Dialogue series) Aleks Horvat
LATimes article by Jay A. Fernandez on Safehouse
“That’s why we call it Safehouse. What’s wholesome about the group is that we all know that [the writer’s looking for input] and we’re all helping with that. Everybody’s got something to work out in the material they’re bringing.”
Jim Uhls from the same article
“The idea is that writers bring in about 15-minutes of material from a screenplay, or a play, and they direct the actors in the scenes—in rehearsals—the lines aren’t memorized, the actors are working off a script but it’s blocked and acted out and afterwards the other writers and actors present that evening will give comments”
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca
Feel free to comment or email me (email@example.com) about your workshop experiences, or where there are other similar groups are meeting—especially ones in unlikely places.
P.S. Speaking of unlikely places and learning about film on the internet, believe it or not, the first place you should go is Cinephilia and Beyond (@LAFamiliaFilm) which comes from Zagreb, Croatia. This is what director Peter Webber (Girl with a Peral Earring) says about that site, “I’ve learned more from Cinephilia & Beyond than I ever did from film school.” Since I’m on a run of posts on Jim Uhls, check out Cinephilia & Beyond’s Fight Club section where there’s a link to Uhls’ Fight Club screenplay and audio commentary.