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Posts Tagged ‘The Dialogue’

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.”
Jim Uhls
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”
Jim Uhls 
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Feel free to comment or email me (info@scottwsmith.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.

Scott W. Smith

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“I started writing ever since I could pick up a pencil, but I had been orientated to novels and short stories because that’s what we studied in school. I really didn’t know movies were written until I was probably about 20-years-old.
Screenwriter Robin Swicord

Chances are good that even if you live in a small town in North America you have quite a bit of access to learning about the screenwriting and filmmaking processes. But if you were in a small town in the United States back in the 1970s—and even if you attended a college like Florida State University in Tallahassee—you didn’t have access to cable TV, DVDs with writer and director commentaries, movies streamed online, screenwriting blogs, or even that many books on the screenwriting/filmmaking process. (Syd Field’s classic book on screenwriting didn’t even come put until 1979.)

Yet that’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) came from on her way to writing Little Women and Memoirs of a Geisha. She worked as a photographer to pay her way through college and then started to think she could write screenplays.

“I was intimidated. I didn’t have a teacher and I didn’t know how to get started. And it was that thing of being in a small town and knowing that there’s a big world out there, and not knowing quite how to get out of that small town and go to the big world knowing that I wanted to write for film but I’d never met a filmmaker. So there was a period of self invention were I was trying to figure stuff out. Then there weren’t things that are so available now; all the books on structure, interview series like this where you hear writers talking about their work—just being able to go in an rent a DVD and study one filmmaker’s work.”
Robin Swicord
The Dialogue interview with Jay Fernandez (Part 1)

But the road to Hollywood began for Swicord in Northwest Florida where her photography skills led to some corporate production work in Atlanta for IBM, which led to IBM asking their ad agency in New York if they’d hire Swicord as a copywriter and they did. That got her to New York City where she began to met people in the film business. She was told the best chance a female has to work in the film industry was to be a script supervisor, but her goal was screenwriting.

“I got in touch with some people who had gone to Florida State a little bit after me who were in New York City and hoping to start a theater. And I said, ‘I’ll write a play for you.’ I wrote this play called Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe, and we had like $500 between us and we rented the theater and we put an ad in Backstage magazine. And actors showed up and auditioned and then we were in business….I was lucky in that the director of that is a good dramaturge—her name was Lynn Thomson*. She was teaching directing at  playwriting at Hunter College and she taught me a lot about writing plays. And a lot of it gets taught to you by actors in the rehearsal process.

“It had a nice opening and moved to off-Broadway and investors found it and so forth and through that an agent saw it and got in touch with me and said, ‘Did you ever consider writing for film?’ And I gave her my first screenplay Stock Cars for Christ. 

“I was completely mid-twenties just trying to figure out my own path to get there. I sold a screenplay and stepped into the most remarkable situation that I call ‘learn while you earn.’ I was paid by MGM to rewrite my screenplay endlessly under the tutelage of a wonderful development executive who patiently let me find my way to decent structure. It was an uncommon experience for a beginning screenwriter and I know how lucky I was.”
Robin Swicord

Swicord is a great example of embracing your limitations and just starting somewhere. Her photography skills were good enough to get her a job that helped pay her way through school where she was an English and Drama major—but also had access to watching films while waiting for her film to develop back in the darkroom. Those skills led to doing corporate films for IMB in Atlanta and that led her to New York City where she connected with people from her college who were starting a theater. She wrote a play for them that got her expose to learning from the director and the actors. The play got noticed, got her an agent, which led to her selling a screenplay and launching her career.

*Lynn M. Thomson went on to work as a dramaturge on Rent (Broadway), and she’s currently the Professor of Dramaturgy and American Theater at Brooklyn College.

P.S. “An agent read the play [Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe] and asked me if I would like to write for film. I gave her my first screenplay, Stock Cars For Christ, and she sold it to MGM. MGM sent me a plane ticket and moved me into the Del Capri Hotel in L.A. and rented me a pink typewriter so I could rewrite the screenplay (a total of nine drafts!)—which of course was never made into a film.” Robin Swicord, From Book to Screen Interview

Related posts:
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Screenwriting Quote #139 (Robin Swicord)
Screenwriting Quote #155 (Robin Swicord)

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“One of the things I’d like to pass on to any aspiring writers out there— very simple litmus test about what you should be writing or what you shouldn’t be writing; Never ever write a movie that you yourself wouldn’t pay to see.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

“We’re all really lucky if we can make a living in this business, and we’re all overpaid. And it’s really hard to get paid as a screenwriter and to do well. But I’ve never once sat down at the computer because I was being paid. Never. It’s just not enough reason to write. Writing’s just too hard. You gotta have something that inspires you more than the money. Something has to speak to your spirit.”
Billy Ray

P.S. Here we are on day four of the Screenwriting Summer School and one interesting thing I learned from The Dialogue interviews is that both Billy Ray and Susannah Grant, before they became working screenwriters, had early connections with Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia). Grant’s aunt was married to Alvin’s brother (Herb Sargent) who was a six-time Emmy-winning writer with Saturday Night Live.  Ray’s father was actually Sargent’s agent. I’m not saying that connection helped their careers—but I’d bet it sure didn’t hurt either career. (Sargent’s first credit was in 1957 and his last one was in 2012 —The Amazing Spider-Man.

Summer School homework: If you can meet a living screenwriter whose career has spanned 50+ years—do it.

Related post: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

 Scott W. Smith

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“When I was 18 I said, ‘Dad I think I want to be a screenwriter.’ He said OK and took me in his office…and pulled out the screenplay for Ordinary People and he said, ‘OK, do this.’ He was saying to me that’s where we’re going to set the bar.”
Billy Ray

“I think UCLA [film school] was helpful. I think there’s no actual substitute for actually writing. And UCLA was helpful in that it encouraged me to start. I was not one of those kids in college who was going out and getting wasted with my fraternity buddies. That always seemed kind of boring to me. I was just in a hurry to hit that mountain top. To write something like Ordinary People, or All the Presidents Men—something that great. And I knew that I was not going to write a screenplay like that sitting at the bar face down in my own vomit.”
Oscar-nominated Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting Summer School homework assignment: Read Alvin Sargent’s screenplay for Ordinary People. For extra credit go back and read the book by Judith Guest.

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

 

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Two days ago I saw Jason Reitman’s film Up in the Air for a second time.  That’s just a well crafted film and obviously I’m not the only one who thinks so. On top of being named best screenplay by the National Board of Review & it picked up Best Screenplay from the Los Angles Film Critics Association Award and also Best Screenplay, Adapted from the Austin Film Critics Award as well as several other nominations including the Golden Globes.

An Academy Award nomination appears a sure thing, with many calling it a front-runner to win for best adapted script.

I’ve already  mentioned director/co-writer Jason Reitman in the post Up in the Air Over Iowa, but I thought I find out a little more about the co-writer of the script,  Sheldon Turner.

Turner went to NYU but in an interesting twist was not a film major, but graduated with a law degree. Then he had a passion to write screenplays.

“I never took a (screenwriting) course, what I did was read every screenplay I could get my hands on. And I tell people go find the crappy screenplays because they are abundant man. And that was what my inspiration was to a degree. So I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody. Literally I was writing a like script a month–editing was not a huge priority at that point, and I just put them on the shelf. And then the 12th one–actually the 13th one I finally felt like I hit it. I felt good enough about it to give it out to people and that was, of course, the one I went out and sold. But I knew I had to get that training.”
Sheldon Turner
The Dialogue interview with Mike de Luca

Up in the Air is only his third produced screenplay credit with the first two being The Longest Yard and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. But he’s a hot ticket now with at least ten films in development. But don’t forget the 12 screenplays he wrote in order to become a writer in demand.

Scott W. Smith

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In 2006 the first person in more than 50 years to win back to back Oscar Awards in screenwriting was Paul Haggis. He then followed his award-winning scripts Million Dollar Baby and Crash with another Academy Award nomination in 2007 for his screenplay Letters from Iwo Jima.

Haggis had a background in theater and construction before moving to Los Angeles in his early twenties from London, Ontario—which makes him almost a Midwesterner as London is less than an hour from the Michigan state line. Soon after arriving in L.A. he landed his first TV credit on Love Boat in 1985 which lead to more opportunities in television, some more memorable than others; Heathcliff, One Day at a Time, Who’s the Boss, L.A. Law, Different Strokes, The Facts of Life, thirtysomething, Walker, Texas Ranger, EZ Streets, Due South, Michael Hayes. Family Law.

He worked on hundreds of TV episodes which is a staggering amount of writing which he credits for teaching him how to write, paid the bills rather well, but also created in him a to write the kind of scripts that feed his soul. That process took a few years.  By the time he won his first Oscar he was in his early 50s with three decades of writing credits behind him.

According to Haggis the impetus for writing Crash was being car jacked in 1991 followed by wondering ten years later who were these young guys who stuck a gun in his face. Where did they come from? He explored that creatively.

“I like asking myself  difficult questions—I don’t think writers should write about answers, I think they should write about questions.”
Paul Haggis
The Dialogue

Below is a ten minute version of the interview from The Dialogue.

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I Hate Valentine’s Day!

That’s a movie now in post-production and was written by the female screenwriter who actually wrote the most successful romantic comedy in box office history. Any guesses on the title of that movie?

Here’s a hint, the screenwriter was born in Canada.  Another hint? The writer’s name is Nia Vardalos and she starred in the film. 

According to Box Office Mojo, My Big Fat Greek Wedding pulled in $241,238,208. Not bad since it only cost $5 million to make. One thing that wasn’t fat was the script as the movie came in at only 95 minutes. And I should add that it was Nia Vardalos’ first script and she received an Academy Award nomination.

She wanted to write it as a one act play but a friend told her to write it as a script first so she could register her story. So she wrote the script first then she wrote the story as a one-person play and began performing it in Canada and in the US. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson loved the play and thought it would make a good movie and the rest is history.  

Now that the actress is now also a writer/director I figured I could find a quote from her for those of you who love screenwriting. 

“I think the lesson in everything that happened to me, for people, is don’t listen to the odds, not to listen to the naysayers, to listen to the odds of you getting hit by lighting and getting kidnapped by terrorist are greater than your screenplay being done–if you have a story to tell just write it.”
                                                                                Nia Vardalos 

And while Vardalos was born in Canada and found fortune and fame in LA, I should add that she honed her comedic chops here in the Midwest at Second City in Chicago. She worked in the ticket office for two years until she got a break one night by getting on stage when a performer was sick.

If you recall, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding is set Chicago (though it was filmed in Toronto). Years ago while on a production in Chicago I made a point to eat in Greektown. (If you’ve ever had a gyros, that’s where the tradition reportedly started in America.) It’s a great area to visit to get a different slice of America beyond the suburbs and strip malls.  

I didn’t realize this until I wrote this post that there are similarities with Nia Vardalos and Diablo Cody. First time writers that found box office success, comedy writers, Chicago connection, recognition from the Academy Awards, films focused on families dealing with issues.  (Didn’t I just write about Orson Welles and his Chicago-area connection? There’s something going on over there.)

By the way, I pulled the Vardalos quote from an interview she did that is part of a video series called The Dialogue, Learning from the Masters that looks great. Here is a sample found on You Tube.

 

Related post: Screenwriting da Chicago Way  (Which for the record is the #4 most read post on Screenwriting from Iowa.)

Scott W. Smith

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