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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