What makes a great writer? Who knows. But I’m working on finding out, or finding that in me.
When I applied to film schools in the USA I decided where to apply based on the following three criteria, in this order of important. 1. were they still accepting applications for fall 2010 2. were they considered to be one of the top 10 film schools offering a film-making MFA? 3. Were they anywhere near LA? 1. ruled out NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA and a number of other top 10 schools. And that’s how I wound up at Chapman: the new kid on the film school block.
Writers are the nerdiest in an industry of nerds. Okay, some of the stars are "cool" kids. A few directors scrub up okay. But the rest of us are kinda nerdy. It was a massive relief when the well-lubricated post-event mixer was held in the library, because it's the one place where you can legitimately stare at the bookshelves at a party instead of "networking". Although I am proud to say I was networked by two guys, one of whom might actually be a real writer.
I spend less time in LA than I imagined I would. My school is really good, and with professors like Anna Waterhouse, Toni Spiridakis, James Dutcher, Jeff Phillips and Paul Wolansky, I’m learning a lot, fast. But I did make it out there Saturday 25th for a Writer’s Guild Foundation day-workshop comprising masterclasses and panels and featuring a bunch of great working screenwriters/directors/producers, in order of appearance: Nicholas Meyer (Elegy, Star Trek VI), John August (Big Fish, The Nines, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s Angels), Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Carribean and a crapload of other stuff), Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted and others), John Lee Hancock (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the Blind Side), Leslie Dixon (Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Pay it Forward, Limitless and many more) and Elizabeth Hunter (Charmed, The L-Word, E.R.). Talent managers and producers JP Evans, Lawrence Mark, and Marc Platt joined the final panel.
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of any of them except John August. That’s normal. “Famous Screenwriter” is a contradiction in terms. And since so much was said and I am short of time, I’m just going to collect my favorite and funniest quotes of the day. If you want to learn more, read the book. What book? Whatever book.
On Drama and Audiences: “It’s a question and answer between you and the audience.” In the book, the ending can be sad and subtle. “In the movie, you have to blow up the bridge”. “Audiences may be stupid, but they’re never wrong.” – Meyer. “If you give the audience a sense of trust in the structure, they’ll work with you to tease out the story – they will look for the cause and effect, they’ll stay interested [as a result of their expectations].” – Ted Elliott.
On Mel Gibson: His movies are all ‘Hamlet without the doubts’ When watching Braveheart: “Nobody making this movie is taking this story seriously.” They’re just “remaking Sparticus with all the elements put through a blender, meaning reduced to bumper stickers.” – Meyer.
On the power of movies: “A movie can make you care passionately about something you never knew existed before.” Like sheep drovers in Australia (The Sundowners).- Meyer.
On the power of movies: "A movie can make you care passionately about something you never knew existed before." Like sheep drovers in Australia (The Sundowners).- Meyer. Of course, you probably couldn't get this made now. "Sales departments have taken over deciding what movies to make. Stories have become slashed up into demographic pie wedges."
On using Narrators: As Billy Wilder pointed out, Narrators allow you to avoid ‘overstructuring’ and also they make room for satire. – Meyer
“Structure is when stuff happens.” – August
On Adaptating books for screen: Nicholas Meyer memorises / rewrites the book by typing up a long summary and thus making the story his own.
Two things people write that nobody should be allowed to write: “He has a smile that doesn’t quite meet his eyes.” “She’s pretty, but doesn’t know it.” – A sort of chaotic agreement between the Elliott, Haas, Hancock panelists.
On Screen directions: “They take me out of a script. I’m enjoying it and then suddenly I’m thinking ‘It’s 98 degrees and where’s craft services.’” – Hancock.
Writing is… “developing ideas you’re not going to use. Writers block is not ‘not enough ideas’, it’s ‘too many ideas that you can’t decide between’.”
Biggest Mistakes: “Avoiding conflict by failing to speak up when I saw things going wrong on set.” – Meyer
On “Predictability: It’s good for boyfriends. It’s bad for action heroes.” – August
When it comes to writing action and description “Specify the minimum” – Meyer.
What a producer wants is “Something that’s the best version of what it ‘wants’ to be. – Dixon
On the fast pace of today’s films: “In the old days it happened like this. Character says: ‘I’m gonna go to Paris.’ They buy a ticket. They get on the plane. They fly. They arrive. They go to their hotel. They have a shower. Then they go to Paris. Now they say ‘I’m gonna go to Pa–’ and the next thing they’re in Paris being chased by somebody.” – August.
Getting it made depends on passing the Saturday Night Test. Do you want to go watch “A dying Animal” or “Elegy”? Elegy, right. Same story, different emphasis. “Maybe you can convince them to take a flier, but there are only x number of Friday nights, only a certain number of movies that are going to get made.” – Meyer
“Whenever I’ve violated the ‘would I buy a ticket’ rule, it’s been a disaster.” – Leslie Dixon
On getting your Passion Project made: “Wait for someone to become a star. Hang onto it. There will be new names, next year.” – Leslie Dixon
What about film school‘s screenwriting rules? “They’ll tell you ‘don’t write the stuff a director can’t film’. I say screw that. I might write a whole paragraph about what the character’s feeling.” – Haas
The game is played like so: “A story is a con-game and a writer is a con-man. And not because I have enormous confidence, but because I can instill it in you, and make you listen to what I say. You’re the only expert on your own story.” – Elliot
Creative methods vary: “There are two basic creative methods.” Mozart, who just played billiards and wrote in his head and ‘copied it out’ and Beethoven, who edited a lot. – Meyer
On overcoming ‘writer’s block’. “You start off with nothing but every possibility.” Fey space in math’s. “Each time you make a decision you eliminate every other possible decision. Make the decision you consciously think will NEVER get you to the next point in the story. How do I get from B to C? I’m doing 7.pi.” – Elliott
On rejecting the Hollywood Formula: “It’s like trying to fake a hard-on. It just doesn’t work.” – Meyer.
On writing, pure and simple: “You have to believe in what you do. I’m not writing to satisfy the expectations of 60 million people i’ve never met.” – Meyer.
On why ‘pure and simple’ is a pipe dream. “The idea of writing for yourself is a statement of fear. I don’t know about the rest of you but I love the Monty Python scetch that is about a joke that is so funny that everybody who reads it, dies. I want people to understand what I write in exactly the way I intend. I am writing for everybody. The danger in Hollywood is when someone says ‘write something you don’t believe will be good’.” – Elliott
On Actors: “50% of your dialogue won’t make it. An actor will say: “You know that big speech I have about the labor unions in America? I can do that with a look.” – Meyer “Every Actor has one question they want to know the answer to about your film. ‘The director… is s/he crazy. Are we going to have to pull the boat over the mountain?’” – Meyer.
And ya, so…
A South African filmmaker wrote an article (for some reason, filmcontact failed to award him a byline, so I have no idea who he is!) assessing the state of the South African film industry, and saying we need better writers and directors in South Africa. I guess this is good news for me. Presuming I’m “better”, that is. I suspect I’m learning to be. *update: Story by Ronnie Apteker, a South African producer. Thanks Nadia for that info.