Get Reel with Richard Walter: Sign up on Substack for the New Podcast!

Get Reel with Richard Walter

Musings about film and life from Professor Richard Walter, Former Head of UCLA’s prestigious screenwriting programs

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“Richard Walter is the best screenwriting teacher in the business.” –David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, Secret Window

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Final Draft Video Interview: Lee Jessup Q&A with Literary Manager and Tastemaker Jewerl Ross

In this timely interview, literary Manager and founder of Silent R Management Jewerl Ross and screenwriting career consultant Lee Jessup discuss Ross’ career journey, what makes him a tastemaker, and ends with surprise guest award-winning writer-director power couple Lulu Wang and Barry Jenkins. Click here to see the video or watch below:

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To suggest that movies are voyeuristic is like calling Ronald Reagan a Republican.

I’m no fan of film-student idol David Lynch. He creates quirky, dazzling images well enough, but  he’s a lazy writer. He lacks the discipline required to sit alone in a room for weeks and months at a time, facing a computer screen and inventing a coherent story, populated by characters worth caring about, that sustains an audience’s attention for a hundred minutes, which I regard to be the proper length for a movie (most pictures—including Lynch’s–are too freakin’ long).

I judge artists, however, not by their worst or even their average but their best work. Alfred Hitchcock directed some timeless, eternal pictures, but also no small collection of turkeys. A train wreck like, say, Topaz or a Frenzy in no way diminishes the genius of a North by Northwest or Rear Window.

My favorite (or least loathed) Lynch movie is Blue Velvet. I’m particularly fond of the scene where Dennis Hopper hides in a closet that has a slatted, louvered door, which allows him to peer out at the party underway without himself being seen. Here we are, the voyeurs in the audience movie theater, seated in the dark and peering through the window of the screen at Hopper’s character, himself in the dark, peering into the lives of the film’s characters.

There’s some sort of sweet parallelism there.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to view the movie screen quite differently.

David Thompson, a movie analyst and critic, writes that the movie screen “… is a window, and the trick of the medium is to let us feel we can pass through it.”

I see it still as glass, but not as a window. Instead of a window through which audiences peer at other people’s lives, the screen is a mirror in which we view reflections of our own.

Aristotle in his Poetics tells us that a dramatic narrative contains three parts: the beginning, middle, and end.

Their parts are not equal in size. The first is quick and short. The big part is the middle. The end is the shortest part of all.

I’ve said it before: this is an idealized, romanticized model of a human life, with its relatively brief beginning in childhood, then the big middle which represents full-tilt adulthood, and then, again ideally, the quickest part of all: the end. When the time comes, do you want your life to end quickly, or would you like to spend years on resuscitators while connected to a Gordian’s knot of tangled intravenous tubes?

That is why I argue that every well-constructed dramatic narrative is a model of a human life. Whose life? The life of the writer who created it.

That is why I hold that art is autobiography.

That’s why writers, instead of trying to figure out the so-called market, simply tell their own personal stories.



Having a fancy title at an elite film school, and also a reputation for providing nifty sound bites, during my decades as a professor in Westwood I was often approached by the press, especially on slow news days, for commentary regarding or another aspect of the media.

A question I’ve been asked multiple times is: What is the greatest movie of all time?

What could be more boring than a film professor citing Citizen Kane?

Yet …Kane it is.

The film’s genius does not lie in particular principles that it established; it does not reside in its ‘importance,’ whatever that may mean.

Given my choice between seeing a good movie or an important film, I’ll go with the former every time.

Citizen Kane is just that, a really, really good movie. It does what good movies do: it tells a compelling, engaging story. Its characters are deep and rich, fleshy and real; they are splendidly, wretchedly human.

Kane is what happens when great writing smashes into great directing and great acting.

The way the story is told, the techniques utilized in its revelations and discoveries—camera work, special effects, sound, editing, scenic design, hair, makeup, wardrobe, and all else that goes into film art and craft — are uniquely appropriate to the medium.

I first saw Citizen Kane perhaps sixty years ago. Since then I’ve seen it dozens of times. On subsequent viewings, is it as magnificent as the first time?

It is not.

It is even more so.

Like truly timeless artistic achievement regardless of format—whether it’s Bach or the Beatles–further exposure is not merely as good as but even better than the first time.

In the fall of 1985 Orson Welles was scheduled to teach a course in directing at UCLA’s film school.

Just prior to the start of classes, Welles died.

A week or two after the funeral, Dean Robert Gray of what was then called The College of Fine Arts showed me a handwritten letter from Welles in which he had expressed his excitement contemplating the launch of his class. Welles volunteered that the notion of working with students also filled him with anxiety and dread. He worried that he would not be a capable educator.

“This little note,” Bob told me, “turns out to be the last words Orson ever wrote.”

I marveled over the scrap of paper, regarding it as it were a religious relic, say, a splinter from the cross at Calvary.

I asked the Dean Gray, “But why would he be so anxious about teaching?”

“I asked him that,” Bob said. “Surely over your substantial career,” I said to him, “you’ve lectured, or led a seminar or workshop, or master class here or there.”

“No,” Welles said. “This is the very first time.”

The dean was surprised. “You never wanted to teach?”

Welles looked at the floor and then up again at the dean. “That’s not it,” he said. Shamefacedly he muttered, “Until now, no one ever invited me.”

I thought of the prettiest girl at the sock hop ball whom no one will ask to dance because he knows he’s just not cool enough for a creature so stunning.




My sister and her husband are actors.

A couple of decades ago, while living in Los Angeles, they went to New York for an extended stay in order to star together on Broadway in Neil Simon’s then-new play: Rumors.

Upon their arrival in Gotham a huge party was held in their honor, welcoming them to the city. Everybody who was anybody in the NYC arts/entertainment/culture scene was there.

Also present was my late mother Esther, whom I miss every day.

At the party mom ended up crammed into the penthouse’s alcove, sharing a love seat with Juliet Taylor, the legendary casting director best known for casting Woody Allen’s movies.

Mom was an engaging story teller, capable all at once of evoking pathos and hilarity, always delighted to provide Talmudic insights into the nature of man, woman, and that thing we call the Human Condition.

After perhaps a half hour, Juliet said, “It just so happens, Esther, that Mr. Allen is casting a picture right now and he’s looking for someone to play the role of a Jewish mother. He’s reviewed all the candidates in the local SAG jurisdiction and has not found anyone who fits the bill. He’s now looking at non-pros.”

Dear reader, you may not have realized it, but if you don’t belong to (now) SAG-AFTRA, in the eyes of the union you are a non-pro. Union rules permit production companies to cast non-pros only after they’ve exhausted auditioning players in the local jurisdictions.

The movie must have been New York Stories, an anthology containing three short tales, one directed by Woody, another by Marty (Scorsese), and another by Francis (Ford Coppola). Woody’s, Oedipus Wrecks, features at one point the image of a Jewish motheroccupying the entire sky, hectoring her beleaguered son regarding one disappointment or another.

“Would you be willing to come downtown next week and meet?” Juliet inquired of mom. “Some people will want to chat with you, and they’ll also want to shoot a handful of Polaroids.”

Remember Polaroids?

Mom said she’d be delighted.

My sister and I sat mom down for a brief heart-to-heart. “Ma,” we said, “when you meet with them, don’t try to wow them with all your showbiz savvy. Don’t drop names. Don’t cite weekend film grosses, tiered releases, and stuff like that.”

“Oh, no,” she told us. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m just meeting some new friends and chatting, maybe having a cup of tea, and finding out a little bit about each other.”

“That’s exactly right,” we purred.

“I’ve actually given this some thought. If I get the part,” our Esther said, narrowing her gaze, nodding with determination, “I’m willing to lose weight.”

My sister and I were speechless.

Now mom added, “But I will not have a face lift.”

Jess and I responded in unison, “Tell them that! Tell them that!”



He was a short, nerdy, geeky, scratchy-voiced little guy, and the most powerful genius I have ever known.

The last time I saw him was forty years ago at a party at Randal Kleiser’s house up Laurel Canyon on a street appropriately named Wonderland. Randal, a consummately sweet, decent fellow after all these years, is a well established Hollywood director of such blockbuster successes as Grease and the sensuous, seductive Blue Lagoon, among others.

It was April 1978, a year after the release of the first Star Wars movie (or was it the fourth?). Randall had invited all his old USC film school pals to his house to honor George on the unparalleled success of the movie. I ended up in the corner of the crowded living room beside Marcia Lucas, George’s first wife. She described Skywalker Ranch, ‘the Empire,’ as ‘Fortress Lucas.’ “He never wants to go out,” she told me. “All he wants to do is to watch TV and eat TV dinners,” by which she meant quite literally Swanson’s TV Dinners.

Notwithstanding his creative movie making genius, she said, his true genius was finance. He had bamboozled Star Wars’ releasing studio, 20th Century Fox, into letting him own the sequel rights and all ancillary considerations—toys like light sabers, coffee mugs, comic books, capes, costumes, and u-name-it. That’s the equivalent of the United States Bureau of Printing and Engraving sending you not merely the money they print but the plates they use to print it.

Indeed, over scores of years hasn’t George printed fresh Star Wars currency multiple times?

I would meet an attorney who told me she was one of perhaps forty people who worked in George’s ‘overnight office,’ that is, a division of Lucas Film supporting short term international loans to nations and corporations covering, for example, a Bahraini five-hundred million dollar note for, say, three days during the following week, for a commission of, say, one and a half percent.

That may not sound like a lot, but for three days it is the equivalent a.p.r. of perhaps 100%, effectively doubling one’s money in just a year. Charging one and a half percent interest over three days for a credit card debit could get you arrested for usury.

It was apparent to all of us at USC film school that George Lucas was surely a graphics genius. His student films, most notably THX 11384 EB, were stunners for their look. In collaboration with our classmate Paul Golding, for example, he made the short film Herbie, which consisted entirely of reflections in the fenders of an old Packard, and yet managed all the same to fascinate and engage observers.

Even merely the proposals for his student films are works of art that will surely land, if they have not already done so, in his Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to arise in Los Angeles over the next several years. He used transparent overlays and press-on letters purchased from office supply stores. He trimmed and sculpted the card-stock folders with surgically sharp Exacto blades.

I’m probably the only person on the planet who has seen the early, short version of THX more times than George himself. This is because during my student days at USC I helped pay my tuition by working as a tour guide at what was then called the Department of Cinema. The tours ended with a screening of USC student films, THX among them. I could have walked out of the room while it screened but always stayed to watch.

One day there was a joint screening cross-town at UCLA of student films from that institution and also USC. When THX ran, there was virtual consternation among the UCLA students. In those days UCLA stood for artsy-craftsy cinematic tone poems and USC was considered the industry school, producing crypto- and quasi- wanna-be Hollywood fare. UCLA students were outraged that so much money—apparently tens of thousands of dollars—must have been spent in producing THX.

In truth, however, George made the movie for approximately two hundred dollars.

There was at USC film school during that time a contingent of U.S. Navy film makers in training. They had tons of government production equipment, which George purloined. He also pressed the Navy guys into crewing for him on THX.

The funny thing about the Navy fellows was that both they and the rest of us, wretched, rancid hippies like me, were all avoiding service in Vietnam. We hippies were exploiting our college draft deferments. The Navy men, already in the service, were similarly avoiding shipment to the Far East by joining the film education alliance with USC. That placed them in Los Angeles instead of, say, Long Binh province.

The UCLA crowd dinged George for his technical prowess, accusing him of being a slave to technology.

In the discussion following the screening I pointed out to the crowd that just because a film is blurry and out of focus, and just because there are clumsy, herky-jerky jump cuts, and just because nobody had bothered to set the f-stop, does not mean that a film is a work of art.

Some years later, under the guidance of George’s mentor, UCLA alum Francis Ford Coppola, THX was produced as a feature length film at Warner Brothers. Upon its release it sank like a stone. It looked like exactly what it was: a brilliant ten-minute film extruded into a shapeless, lackluster, two hours of who-knows-what.

Clearly, George’s career was pretty much over.

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A Final Solution to the Agent Problem

Writers love to gripe and kvetch about the army of deplorables in the movie business who discount, dismay, and disrespect us.

No parties catch more heat than agents.

I’ve argued in my books and lectures that it’s easy to find an agent. What’s hard is having material worthy of showing to an agent.

So many writers have horror stories regarding mistreatment by their representatives.

Here’s mine.

When my former USC film school classmate George Lucas approached me in April of 1970 asking me to write the first draft of American Graffiti, I tried to talk him out of that project and into my own, a ten- or twelve-page treatment, that is to say an elaborate outline, of my own coming-of-age story, Barry and the Persuasions. I have mentioned elsewhere that he stuck to his guns insisting the project be his …Graffiti. I take a sort of dark pride in having attempted to talk a master like George out of what has been now for decades a classic of world cinema.

Some years later during a lengthy Writers Guild strike, a period during which time one could not market screenplays to studios, networks, or production companies, I used the Barry… treatment as an elaborate outline for a novel.

>> Continue reading on The Script Lab

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Last class

After more than forty years teaching in UCLA’s screenwriting program, I have retired.

At a research institution like the University of California, however, not teaching but ‘research’ or, in the arts, ‘creative activity’ is a professor’s first obligation.

Before anything else, therefore, I am a writer.

Writers never retire.

The last meeting of my (some say legendary) Film/TV 434 section occurred on a Monday night in March, the day after the Oscars awards show. 434 is UCLA’s course catalogue number for Advanced Screenwriting Seminar, a workshop meeting three hours weekly over the ten week academic quarter, with eight writers and their instructor around the table, each student writing an original feature length screenplay.

During that last session there was substantial discussion regarding the previous night’s Oscars.

Full disclosure: I am notorious for hating all movies. I do not, however, hate all movies. I hate merely most movies.

Isn’t art generally rotten?

As I have written and lectured in Westwood and across the globe, to many people it seems otherwise. Consider, for example, that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City every painting and every work of sculpture is timeless and eternal.

People get the impression that paintings and sculpture are always worthy and that film (and television and new media) are not. They forget that for every painting at the Met there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of useless, worthless, aimless, pointless, lame, stupid paintings.

They do not hang in museums but lean against the walls of attics, basements, and garages.

All the same, here’s saluting the amateurs who created them.

However limited their talent, women and men and children reached, stretched, took risks, and attempted to make creativity a part of their lives. Even if their work does not merit sharing with others, through their efforts, however halting, making art expanded and affirmed their humanity.

Classic works in museums have stood the test of time. Since their creation centuries and even millennia in the past, the lousy stuff has faded into obscurity, which is consistent with the nature of expression that is inept.

Film and TV, on the other hand, are contemporary; they are in our face right now. There has no time for the culling, the drifting away of work that lacks merit.

Film, therefore, is no worse than, say, painting and sculpture; it is merely equally bad.

At the time of the final class meeting I had seen seven of the year’s Best Picture nominees: The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Minnesota, Phantom Thread, and Get Out.

Except for Get Out, I hated them all.

Shape of Water? Between my naps I could make out something about a woman who has a romance with a fish. And that fish costume? My three-and-a-half-year old grandson would have flunked arts-and-crafts at his pre-school for work so shabby.

Lady Bird? A yak fest. Wonderful players to be sure, but aren’t they called ‘actors’ and not ‘talkers?’ When the director is ready to roll film, she calls out, “Lights, camera, talk?”

Actors can’t fare better than the script that is handed to them.

The Post? The writers never figured out whose picture this is. Precisely who is the protagonist? It’s clearly not the Daniel Ellsberg character, but is it publisher Katharine Graham or editor Ben Bradlee? And do we need scene after scene at one restaurant and then another with actors around the table running their mouths, when they’re not otherwise gabbing on their phones?

As with too many films this year, indeed every year, the actors did not act so much as narrate the story.

It’s called screenwriting, not screen talking.

Consider the end of Lady Bird. The protagonist walks out in front of her house, yanks out a cell phone, dials her mom, and recites a speech about forgiveness. But the word ‘drama’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘to do.’ Can’t the writers invent something for their lead character to do?

Call Me By Your Name, ditto. More than two hours of blabbing.  At the end, yet another phone call, this time without the speaker even present in the scene, his voice merely heard over the phone.

And immediately prior, we have the father and son sit down in the living room to—what else?–talk. Their chat lasts longer than the Bronze Age. At one point In the middle the scene, the father says, “And I want to say one more thing…,” after which he says eight hundred more things.

In a rising-and-falling singsong parody of a wise Jewish voice, the cartoon father reports how pleased he is to learn that his son is gay. This enlightened acceptance might work wonderfully in life, but this isn’t life; it’s a movie. Instead of agreement and consensus, audiences seek conflict, controversy, and confrontation. Wouldn’t it play better if, instead of delight, the father expressed outrage, shame, dread, and humiliation? Wouldn’t it  be better drama if he became forever estranged from his son? Isn’t that the way it plays out in the incomparable Fiddler on the Roof when one of the daughters marries outside the faith? Does that heartbreak not make for sharper drama?

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri? After the second billboard I walked outside of the theater in Los Angeles, California.

Phantom Thread? An orgy of posturing and face-making by Daniel Day Lewis. He wins the Oscar for this amateurish performance in which he appears to have looked up ‘thoughtful’ in Acting for Dummies.

Get Out, on the other hand, tells a story. It is about something. More to the point, it’s about someone.

That someone is me, a privileged, advantaged white guy who all too often, along with his family and friends, fancies himself above racism, unable to recognize the Missionary Complex residing inside him at his core. Does not his desire to bring ‘uplift’ to his downtrodden, oppressed, darker sisters and brothers testify only to his invisible (to himself) sense of superiority?

I am one of those liberated white dudes who stops African Americans in the street to tell them I attended the 1963 March on Washington and heard fist-hand Dr. King’s “I have a dream!” speech.

Get Out also underscores a long held notion regarding genre that is dear to me. Simply stated, genre is bullshit. There are only two genres: 1) good movies; 2) bad movies.

With me trashing the lot of Best Picture nominees and also the winner, the eight students attending my final class yanked out their otherwise prohibited ‘devices’ and loaded the AFI’s and IMDB’s Best Ten Movies lists. The titles include among others Casablanca, Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Annie Hall,and others.

Did I like any of them?

I love them all.

I asked the students, what are the two key differences between these films and (for the most part) the Best Picture nominees for 2017?

First, as already mentioned, the Best Ten-list pictures have all stood the test of time. The vast majority of movies made at the same time have drifted away; yet these few gems remain.

The other difference? Each one of them tells a compelling, arresting, engaging story.


Right Place, Right Time

I first came to California in August of 1966 for what I thought would be a three week visit.

Instead of returning to New York, however, on a whim I fell into film school at USC and never looked back. Sometimes I think I ought to give it another half century and if it still hasn’t worked out for me move back to The Apple.

In the heady, zany, freaked-out ‘60s it was easy to be admitted to film school. There was no tradition of moving from the academic into the professional community. At that time the best movie job you could hope for after film school was to work as an usher in a theater.

You had to knock people down in the street to get them to apply to film school.

It’s a wholly different scene today. Graduation from film school, in particular one of the majors, is now the Number One way into The Biz. During the ‘60s, the main qualification for admission to film school was an applicant’s ability to sign the tuition check.

Three years after my arrival in the West, my bride and I went on holiday, motoring all the way to the Oregon border to the Umpqua Dunes.

The first day we drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco where we stayed overnight with friends from back east who, like so many others during that era, had migrated west.

During our previous visit to the Bay Area weeks earlier we had attended a party at ‘SC film school alumnus Walter Murch’s houseboat, which bobbed among a squadron of other such craft in the shallows off Sausalito. I phoned Walter who invited us to attend a brunch the next morning, Sunday, at a Sausalito eatery then called The Trident.

There were nine of us. Besides myself and my wife was, of course, Walter and his wife Aggie. Also John Milius (writer of Apocalypse Now, writer/director of Conan the BarbarianBig WednesdayRed Dawn, and oodles of others). Additionally, Caleb Deschanel, the legendary cinematographer who is probably best known today for having fathered two stars of stage and screen: daughters Zoe and Emily.

Accompanying Caleb was David Lester, who would go on to produce several of Ron Shelton’s films such as Bull Durham. Caleb and Dave were in the Bay Area that weekend scouting locations for a short film to be written and directed by another of our USC film school co-conspirators, Matthew Robbins, who was not present at the brunch.

Rounding out the nine were George Lucas and his first wife, Marcia.

Marcia would move on to win acclaim on her own for, among other achievements, copping an Oscar (shared with Richard Chu) for editing the film written by Robert Getchell and directed by Martin Scorsese, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Caleb tipped us to places we should visit in Northern California; Marcia invited us to stay overnight with her and George on our way back to Los Angeles at their rented tract home in Mill Valley on a street called Vernal.

It didn’t seem like all that big a deal to me at the time, but looking back, with the crystal-clear vantage of hindsight I realize my good and great fortune to have found myself in the right place at the right time.

I mention this not to brag of rubbing elbows with artistic, influential people (though it’s surely cause to brag) but to demonstrate instead a fundamental principle that applies to both film narratives and life narratives alike: You never know where you are when you’re there. You appreciate it only later, only upon reflection, only when you look back.

It’s not unlike the greatest dramatic writing text of them all, Aristotle’s Poetics. In it, Aristotle identifies the traits, qualities, and characteristics shared by the most successful, longest-lasting plays of a then-earlier era, approximately two to three centuries previous.

This is what independent screenwriting educator Robert McKee’s does in his book Story. McKee, like Aristotle, looks back at what worked for other writers in other screenplays.

Surely there is great value in that, especially for film critics, theoreticians, and historians. It is not, however, the way writers work. Writers write not backward but forward. Our Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program at UCLA is designed not to look back at what has worked for other writers at other times but forward to what will work for you now.

At that Sausalito brunch now eons in the past, I spent time with three of the most brilliant thinkers and artists I have ever known: George Lucas, John Milius, and Walter Murch. In separate chapters, I share my impressions of those three, plus several other USC film school alumni who were not at the brunch.

Remember, it can be fun to look back, but what really counts for writers is writing forward.

>> This article also appeared in The Script Lab

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Six-Week Online Screenwriting Workshop Limited to 10 Students


Enrollment is limited to ten students for the 6-week online screenwriting program I’ve designed to serve a small cohort of writers who believe in themselves. The first session will take place on Tuesday, 2/6.

Now is the time to act.

Click here now to learn more and register.

UCLA-trained screenwriters have won five best-screenplay Oscar nominations and three Oscars in only the past seven years. They have written eleven movies for Steven Spielberg.

You supply the talent; I’ll provide the training. I will also read your screenplay if you finish it within one month of the class.

Go here now to sign up.

Hope to see you in class next month!

– Richard Walter


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