REAL VS. REEL – Richard Walter Commentary in The Script Lab

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece Mark Oppenheimer writes (appropriately enough on July 4th) of symbolism run amok: he complains specifically about flag-waving replacing true and thoughtful patriotism. [Full disclosure: At my house on national holidays and—displaced New Yorkers that we are—also on September 11th we proudly fly stars and stripes.]

In the late ‘80s when the Supreme Court declared flag-burning to be expression protected under the First Amendment, self-described patriots went ballistic. 

I heard a veteran’s son remark, “My father died for that flag.”

God bless the soldier for his service and sacrifice. That said, however, it was not a symbol– the flag– for which he died but that for which the symbol stands: the nation.

There’s the problem right there: We’re so inundated with media that people can no longer tell the difference between symbols and what the symbols represent.

Continue reading in The Script Lab

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Screenwriting: One Big Experiment of Trial & Error, Repeat

In this exclusive video interview, screenwriting professor Richard Walter weighs in on how he considers screenwriting to be “One Big Experiment of Trial & Error, Repeat”. Join Richard Walter for an online class held with only 15 students per session – reserve your spot: http://richardwalter.com/workshop

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Screenwriting: Not a Visual Kind of Writing

In this exclusive video interview, screenwriting professor Richard Walter talks about how screenwriting is actually not a visual kind of writing at all. Join Richard Walter for an online class held with only 15 students per session – reserve your spot: http://richardwalter.com/workshop/

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Want to Succeed as a Writer: Spend More Time Writing

In this exclusive video interview, screenwriting professor Richard Walter gives writers the most useful advice they could ever truly hear + follow: “If you want to succeed as a writer – spend more time writing!” Join Richard Walter for an online class held with only 15 students per session – reserve your spot: http://richardwalter.com/workshop/

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Why Writers Should Write the Personal Movie

In this exclusive video interview, screenwriting professor Richard Walter gives advice on why writers should write what he calls “The Personal Movie”. Join Richard Walter for an online class held with only 15 students per session – reserve your spot: http://richardwalter.com/workshop/

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Predicting the Unpredictable

A letter arrived recently from Screenwriting Newsletter subscriber Ronald M. Sandgrund, a prominent Colorado attorney, law professor, and writer. (Full disclosure: Ron is also my wife’s brother.)

We had both read Erik Larson’s masterful bestseller Dead Wake, which recounts the history of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine during World War I.

Ron wrote: “Having read all your screenwriting books, I’ve come away with the impression that at the heart of all great stories lies conflict. Conflict creates tension. Tension engages the reader until resolution. Before we even start Dead Wake, however, we know the ending. What, then, makes it so riveting?”

I responded that we all know for certain how our lives are going to end: a banquet for maggots, worms, and bacteria, with us as the main course. All the same, we go about our day-to-day activities, both mundane and profound.

Ron continues: “What about seeing a movie for the second, third or fourth time? We know the story; we know what happens to the characters. Why do we still care? Why do we watch? Is it merely to experience once again the cinematography?”

It’s not the cinematography.

I’m reminded of an expression heard in the Broadway musical theater world: “Audiences don’t emerge from the auditorium into the street at the end of the play whistling the scenery.”

More from Ron: “If we know exactly what is to occur, must that not tamp down the stress? Must that not mean there is a fundamental difference between viewing a movie for the first time and the second?”

I say that if a movie is truly great, watching it a second time (and a third and fourth time ad infinitum) is not as engaging as the first time but even more so.

Consider music. Once you’ve heard a song, you know everything about it. Why would you want to hear it again? In fact, however, once you’ve heard a truly arresting tune you want to hear it again and again and again.

Will it sound as strong the second time as the first? It will not. It will sound stronger.

That’s the nature of classics across all platforms: music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama. A true classic, instead of exhausting itself via repetition, sounds new every time.

From time to time I’ve mentioned that my late dad was a musician whose early career was in the radio era: twenty years with the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. As a boy I was privileged to attend many of the symphony’s rehearsals. I recall one time hearing the maestro remark on a piece by Bach. “Hundreds of times I perform this score, and every time Johann teaches me something new.

I’ve argued in my books that dramatic narrative structure, first described 2500 years ago by Aristotle in his ragged little pamphlet called ‘Poetics,’ cites the three basic components that constitute narrative: beginning, middle, and end. These parts are not, however, equal to one another. The beginning is short; the end even shorter. The biggest part by far is the middle.

Is that not the model of an idealized, romanticized human life consisting of childhood, adulthood, and then a quick demise?

It’s natural to consider movies to be a voyeuristic experience in which audiences, seated in the dark, peer through the window of the screen into the lives of strangers.

Over the years, however, my view has evolved. I’ve come to consider the movie screen to be not a window but a mirror in which we see reflections not of others but ourselves.

Tony Soprano, for example, is as different from me as it is possible to imagine. Yet in Tony I see a guy who has conflicts from time to time with his kids, with his spouse, with his co-workers. I see him struggling with issues that befuddle not only him but also me. I feel not separate from Tony but connected to him.

Doesn’t everyone from time to time have a dream that seems absolutely real until we waken? The question arises: how do we know that this very moment is not a dream? How do we know we will not soon wake up? If that’s the case, why stop at the red lights? Why be responsible regarding what we eat? Why act morally, decently, and conscionably?

The earliest movie theaters, it seems to me, are the caves at Lascaux and Altamira, where ancient peoples painted on the walls images of antelopes and other prey featuring multiple sets of legs, as if to suggest the creatures are running.

These people’s very survival depended upon slaying such creatures. Success in the hunt was essential to providing themselves and their families with food, clothing, and shelter.

But wouldn’t a hunter, however, confronting a charging antelope, its head down, prongs homing in on his soft underbelly, turn and flee? Wouldn’t that be the normal, natural reaction?

Replicating in a secure environment a facsimile of the hunt, the huntsmen could experience their fear in a safe place. They could rehearse their terror. They could train themselves to stand their ground. Having survived the dread they experienced repeatedly in the cave, in collaboration with their brothers they could now bag their prey.

What are the dangers that confront us today? Not antelopes. The greatest dangers we face are: crime, war, disease. Probably our single most dangerous activity in which we engage is riding in an automobile. When a friend of mine recently expressed to me his worries about an upcoming surgical procedure, I pointed out to him that the most dangerous aspect of the operation was the ride to the hospital.

Is not the most perilous aspect of air travel the taxi to the airport?

What subjects do movies treat? Crime, disease, war. It is significant that so many movies contain spectacular car wrecks. YouTube has thousands upon thousands of real-life (and death) car crashes available for viewing on demand, many of which–the goriest–have been viewed millions upon millions of times.

The movie theater is a safe place to experience without risk those perilous – indeed lethal – aspects of our nature, so that eventually we’ll become inured to the emotions and be able to carry on in life when they occur not for reel but for real.

When I’m defending movie violence in the media, pundits complain that video games, movies, and TV render us numb us, desensitize us to violence in the real world.

Isn’t that its purpose?

We watch the best movies over and over again, even though after the first viewing we know their beginning, middle, and end. We need to experience and re-experience the emotions they provoke. We need to rehearse, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable tragedies that are a central and unavoidable aspect of the human condition.

Our lives depend upon it.

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Going Behind the Screen with Steve Cuden

Steve Cuden Headshot

Steve Cuden, author of Beating Hollywood: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Screenplays (December, 2015), has written teleplays for many familiar TV series, such as X-Men, The Batman, Iron Man, Xiaolin Showdown, Loonatics Unleashed, The Mask, Goof Troop, Bonkers, Quack Pack, Gargoyles, Beetlejuice, Pink Panther, RoboCop, Extreme Ghostbusters, Stargate Infinity, ExoSquad, and Mummies Alive.

Steve directed and co-produced the cult-favorite horror-comedy feature Lucky, winning the award for Best Director at the Nodance Film Festival. Lucky also won awards for Best Feature at the New York City Horror Film Festival, Shriekfest in Los Angeles, MicroCineFest in Baltimore, and The Weekend of Fear in Nuremberg, Germany.

Steve also authored the popular book, Beating Broadway: How to Create Stories for Musicals That Get Standing Ovations.

Steve is perhaps best known for co-creating the hit Broadway and international musical Jekyll & Hyde, writing the show’s original book and lyrics with noted composer Frank Wildhorn. Steve and Frank also co-conceived the internationally produced hit musical Rudolf, Affaire Mayerling, which has been staged throughout Europe and Asia.

Steve is proud to have earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Screenwriting from UCLA, where he learned from the master’s master, Richard Walter. He currently teaches a wide variety of screenwriting classes to the many talented Cinema Arts students attending the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

beat hollywood

Steve talks and signs his latest book Beating Hollywood, in a free event open to the public at The Writers Store in Burbank on Saturday, May 21, 2016 from 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm. For more about Steve, please visit stevecuden.com and beatinghollywood.com.

In this Q&A Steve shares what led him to pursue professional writing and his advice for aspiring writers.

Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?  

Steve: Show business has been in my veins for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a storyteller. I love to hear stories and tell them. I began acting in plays at my summer camp when I was a small boy. In high school I participated for two years in a children’s theatre group in my hometown of Pittsburgh. So, I guess you could say that the theatre bug got into my system at a tender age, and I have been permanently infected ever since. I have been mesmerized by flickering images on silvery screens for just as long. Movies, TV, and theatre have always been my main passions. I set a goal while still a teenager to work in Hollywood, and of course I managed to achieve that for a reasonably long time.

Q2: How did you start your writing career?

Steve: When I first arrived in L.A., I was sure I would be an actor. That all changed with my first real taste of writing as I was earning my B.A. in Theatre from USC (sorry Bruins, I straddle both camps, and have fond memories of both). I was extremely fortunate to have been able to take two semesters of playwriting from the extraordinary Norman Corwin, who was a phenomenal writer in the theatre, as well as a screenwriter, poet, essayist, and perhaps the greatest radio playwright who ever lived. Those two semesters changed me, setting me on a trajectory toward my life’s work.

When I left USC, I was convinced that I would be an instant success, and that Hollywood would come calling. Flash forward nearly thirteen years to when I actually began earning a living as a writer. During those long years I pounded away writing many scripts, none of which caught fire at that time. It was during that period that I met the composer, Frank Wildhorn, and began a collaboration writing shows for the musical theatre that would last for close to ten years. In those years we wrote a number of different things together, including two entirely different versions of Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical, which we worked on for eight years. Our second version of the show came close to being on Broadway, but after the stock market took a tumble the backers backed away. Nine years later Jekyll & Hyde would appear on Broadway for the first of its two productions there so far. If you do the math you’ll realize it took seventeen years from when I first dreamed up the idea of adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s great work to a production that actually reached Broadway – just another overnight sensation.

A couple of years later, I was asked by a friend if I was interested in writing a script for TV animation, and I accepted the offer. Since then I’ve written ninety or so TV animation scripts, including for such series as The Batman, X-Men, Goof Troop, Iron Man, The Pink Panther, Extreme Ghostbusters, Quack Pack, Xiaolin Showdown, The Mask, RoboCop, Biker Mice from Mars, Godzilla, and many others. I’m proud to have put words in the mouths of some of the most beloved, iconic characters the world has ever known, including: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Tweety Bird, Sylvester, Batman, Superman, Goofy, Donald Duck, Wolverine, and lots more. It’s been a lot of fun. And a lot of hard work, too.

Starting a career can be challenging to do. Maintaining a career can be a far more difficult trick to pull off.

Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why? 

Steve: It’s a tossup between Chinatown and The French Connection. In my book, Beating Hollywood, I break down forty of the greatest movies of all time into their narrative beats, three acts (which I call “Movements”), seven plot points, and eight sequences (which I call “Chapters”). Frankly I really love all forty of those movies plus a whole bunch more that I just couldn’t fit into the book.  But Chinatown written by Robert Towne and French Connection, screenplay by Ernest Tidyman, are two of the smartest scripts ever written, executed as wonderfully well as any films Hollywood has produced. Chinatown in particular is a rich, multilayered tapestry, with some of the most complex characters ever created. Evelyn Mulwray’s troubled story with some of the finest dialogue ever written (“She’s my sister AND my daughter”) is definitely one of a kind. I admire that movie more each time I see it. And everything about The French Connection, from its sheer grittiness, to Hackman’s Popeye and Scheider’s Cloudy relentlessly hunting Charnier, the smuggler, to perhaps the best car chase ever filmed. Always worth a watch.

Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?

Steve: I get asked this question a lot, and it ignited my writing Beating Hollywood. It always boils down to a few important things: 1) A writer writes. You cannot get to where you want to go as a screenwriter unless you write. A lot. Endlessly. I don’t know how many thousands of pages I churned out before I felt like I knew what I was doing and others (producers and story editors) felt the same. I believe the secret to writing success can be found by following this regimen: Butt liberally applied to chair. 2) Make a lot of friends. Hollywood is as much a social business as it is one of talent. Talent is the easy part.  Everyone in Hollywood has talent of some kind; those who don’t probably aren’t going to stick around for long (unfortunately, there are some real exceptions to this). When you take a meeting, the people in the room will assume you have some kind of talent or you would never have gotten in the door. What they want to know is if you’re someone they can stand to work with. It’s social. It’s a who-you-know business. So, make friends. Join groups. Donate your time to causes near and dear to your heart.  3) Read everything including all books on screenwriting. Know the business and the world. The more you know the more likely it is that you will “discover” stories that others will want to see.  4) Be patient. It takes time to develop a career.  Most careers do not happen overnight.  Set a few goals and pursue those. Then set more goals and pursue those. 5) Be persistent. The unwritten rule at UCLA is that only those who give up fail. This last one can be really tough to swallow if you’ve been grinding for a long time with nothing to show for it. The business is not for the faint of heart, but if you keep writing, writing, writing, make friends, keep abreast of everything going on in the world, have a lot of patience and persistence, you stand a real chance at beating Hollywood.

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WalletHub Interviews Richard Walter for “2016 Oscars By The Numbers”

In a new story published by WalletHub, writer John S Kiernan shares: “The film industry has come a long way from the days of black and white, yet as the outcry over the 2016 Academy Award nominations illustrate, equality remains a work in progress in the minds of many. But between the amazing films that were snubbed and the great ones still vying for a coveted gold statue, it’s certainly been a wonderful year of movies.”

Richard Walter was part of a panel discussion hosted by Wallet Hub with a group of leading movie business experts to get additional insights into a range of matters related to Hollywood’s biggest night. Read his commentary on this year’s line up here.

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ESCAPE FROM FILM SCHOOL

Approximately thirty-five years ago I got an idea for a screenplay called Film School. I like to consider the script an ‘homage’ to Billy Wilder and his Oscar winning Sunset Boulevard.

Another way to put it is: I stole the idea from Billy Wilder.

If you’re going to steal, steal from Wilder.

Sunset Boulevard opens with an oppressed, impoverished Hollywood writer (Oscar performance by William Holden) driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. He has fallen behind on his car payments. When repo men attempt to seize the vehicle, he makes a run for it. Eventually he steers into a random driveway fronting the mansion of a long forgotten silent movie star.

Film School opens not in 1950 but ’66, in downtown L.A., not on Sunset but Figueroa Boulevard. A Vietnam-war era youth is chased by federal marshals seeking to apprehend him for draft evasion. He steers at random into a side street, which happens to be the location of the U.S.C. film school. In order to qualify for a student draft deferment, he enrolls.

I had so much encouragement for Film School.

But as Dorothy Parker famously said, Hollywood is the one place on Earth where you could die of encouragement.

I enjoyed tons of praise but earned not a nickel. Eventually, however, a film production company optioned it and commissioned a handful of rewrites in which, among other changes, the title became Escape From Film School.

Options were dropped; options were picked up.

Dropped again; picked up again.

Then dropped again.

While I’d earned a little money for my efforts, what I’d mainly reaped was frustration, heartache, and disappointment.

Also grief.

I abandoned the project.

Years earlier I had achieved modest success adapting into a novel another of my unsold scripts, a Noo-Yawk doo-wop adolescent coming-of-age story Barry and the Persuasions, published in 1976 by Warner Books. The sale to a major publisher suddenly legitimized the script. It was followed by a studio deal, which included compensation for the film rights and a fee also for writing the screenplay. (I declined to tell the studio that I already had the screen adaptation ready for them in a drawer.)

Mid-assignment, the studio changed hands and was sold to a conglomerate. My producer was fired. Barry… was abandoned. Even at the time of this writing, however, scores of years later, there is action surrounding the project. I’ve adapted it into a stage musical and, now more than forty years after its earliest inception, I’m submitting it to theatrical production companies.

Years ago, during a writers strike, when no one could submit material to the studios or networks, I decided to go the Barry… route yet again, this time withEscape From Film School. That is, I adapted the script into a novel.

Various agents represented and abandoned it over the years. No publisher ever expressed any interest. Eventually I consigned it to the personal slush pile every writer has somewhere in an actual or metaphorical closet.

I largely forgot about it.

Then, in 1998, at the Rolls Royce of writing retreats, the legendary (and now long defunct) Maui Writers Conference, I pitched Escape From Film School to the prestigious New York book agent Jane Dystel.

A few weeks later Jane called me. She wanted to represent the book. She said she was willing to submit the typescript exactly as it was. That said, however, she urged me to let an editor in her office read it and give me notes. Jane told me, “If you don’t like the notes, just say so. I’ll go out with the typescript in its present form. I have to tell you, however, that when my authors work with Miriam, I sell their stuff right away.”

To work still further on Escape From Film School appealed to me about as much as a colonoscopy. The last thing I wanted to do was yet another rewrite. Hadn’t it already been shot down at lit agencies, publishing houses, and film studios across the media landscape? And who was this Miriam? Some twenty-two year old English major fresh from Swarthmore or Skidmore or Bryn Mawr? Hadn’t they already volunteered that, should I decline to do any rewriting, they would still market the script?

After all the disappointment I’d experienced regarding Escape…,I was hardly optimistic. I was at that time generally depressed, hardly in the mood to take on yet again a project that had thus far brought me only grief.

I resolved not to tell Jane how much I hated Miriam’s notes until I actually read them.

The notes arrived.

They were so smart, so insightful, I sank into despair. I knew I was in for months of toil if I failed to exploit – that is, to make the most of – Miriam’s great notes. Wearily, I reloaded Escape From Film School into the computer. The moment I wrote the first new sentence, the fog lifted, my depression evaporated. Here’s saluting the power of creativity. It’s no mere metaphor: art heals.

The editor: Miriam Goderich. What can you say about Miriam except that the agency is now called Dystel/Goderich.

In six weeks I had a new draft.

Jane sold it immediately to a major NY house.

It made the Times best seller list, even if only for a week, even if only at number thirteen.

Still, there I was, on the list in the company of Kurt Vonnegut, Isabel Allende, JK Rowling, Michael Cunningham, John Rechy, Kent Haruf, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Frayn, Dick Francis, Erik Larson, Mitch Albom, Dominick Dunne, Edmund Morris, Tom Brokaw, Neil Simon, Esther Williams, George Bush, and believe it or not, even Stendahl.

The lesson?

Nobody said it better than Yogi: it ain’t over till it’s over.

In Hollywood it’s never over.

 

 

 

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Featured Q&A – Behind the Screen with Writer Ben Kopit

Ben-Kopit

Ben Kopit recently sold his first screenplay, THE LIBERTINE, to Warner Bros and is working on another original project with them. Prior to that, he received an M.F.A. in screenwriting from UCLA and garnered a number of writing awards. (2015 Reddit Screenwriting Contest winner, 2014 Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Finalist, 2013 Sloan Screenwriting Fellowship, 2013 David C. Baumgarten Endowed Award in Comedy Writing, 2012 UCLA Showcase Honoree, 2012 National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada Fellowship in Film, 13th Annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest 2nd Place). He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia, where he studied music and playwriting. In between Columbia and UCLA, he spent a few years working in opera: the one industry where a degree in classical music and theater is deemed “impressive.”

He lives in North Hollywood with his partner, actress Christa Cannon, and their two cats. In his free time, he enjoys eating poorly and not going to the gym. He also played in a darts league for six years while mysteriously managing to never become any good at darts. He likes to think he has a laugh that most would consider non-grating.

In this Q&A Ben shares what led him to pursue professional writing and his advice for aspiring writers.

Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?

Ben: I realized fairly young that I wasn’t as good at anything as I was at B.S.ing and making shit up. I considered trying to start a cult, but that seemed like a lot of responsibility. Maybe when I grow into a more mature work ethic.

Q2: How did you start your writing career?

Ben: I started doing student theater in high school and college, which I think is a great place to begin because it’s low stakes, high volume, and encourages playfulness and risk taking. For a while in my 20s, my writing slowed down as I worked in opera in what was essentially a producer capacity. I think opera helped move me from stage to screen, because opera is really the film of the stage; it’s a big budget, interdisciplinary medium where a wide array of art forms have to be represented in their highest form in order for the final product to succeed. I realized I liked that level of collaboration. So, when I was looking to focus more intensely on my writing, I went to film school for a screenwriting MFA. Then, in my last year at UCLA, I decided to write a micro-budget screenplay one could shoot with other film students on a two-week schedule in one location. Ironically, I sold that script to Warner Bros.

Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?

Ben: This question is impossible to answer, but there are a small number of films that have been huge creative influences on me. Woody Allen’s SLEEPER is one. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE is another. Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK is the screenplay I most often use for aspirational influence. I think the screenplay disproves a number of “universal truths” about screenwriting structure. I like how the humor serves a purpose. It’s not funny just to be funny; it’s funny because the humor makes it more insightful than a more earnest version. It’s also a great study in how to present monologues and ideas without becoming ponderous. The scenes and story are constructed in such a way as to always make the audience doubt the veracity of what they are hearing, and in this way the script avoids having the monologues become on the nose or pedantic.

Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?

Ben: Don’t be in a rush to share your material with people in the industry. Those people will still be there when your writing is ready. It’s actually fairly easy to get a script read. What’s difficult is improving a bad first impression. The industry is also incredibly small, so word travels quickly. I was in LA for years before I went after a manager or agent. The strategy I set for myself was that I wouldn’t try to go out with a script until I had 2 scripts with which I was really happy. I also said that neither of those could be the most recent thing I’d written. The reason for this is that you always think the last thing you wrote is better than it actually is. Also, for your first few scripts, the difference between each script and the next is night and day. As long as you are still in that exponential growth phase, you are not producing your best work. The reason why I made the 2 script rule was not that people often ask for a second sample (even though they often do) but that I wanted to be able to handle a best case scenario. If you are lucky enough to sell a script, you will then have a lot of pressure put on you to write another. If you’ve only written one good script, how do you know you can repeat it? It’s much easier to get lucky with one script than it is to arrive at a place where you can consistently write quality material. The two script rule was so I wouldn’t be terrified that my one script was a fluke.

 

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