CHAIRMAN OF THE UCLA SCREENWRITING PROGRAM

MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #26

 

In This Issue

MY SHOWER WITH THE SUPERVISOR

BEHIND THE SCREEN: GETTING TO KNOW SUSAN HURWITZ ARNESON

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I’m with Gordon Gecko: “Lunch is for wimps." Writing, on the other hand, is not for wimps. Read on to understand why writing is not for those who can’t take a joke.

- Richard Walter



MY SHOWER WITH THE SUPERVISOR

I am a compulsive, obsessive swimmer.

I swim 1700 meters (just over a mile) seven days a week at UCLA’s incomparable Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. Since joining the film faculty in the ‘70s I have swum (literally) eleven thousands miles in the Donald K. Park Pool. That’s like swimming to New York and back, and back again, and yet again, plus another several hundred miles, more or less, placing me at the time of this writing approximately thirty-four miles outside Tulsa, stroking east.

So what?

So this: actors, singers, and especially dancers recognize that their body is their instrument. Writers have a harder time engaging this notion. Many of us think we write with our minds, but we do not. Writing is not about the head but the heart; it is not about thinking but feeling.

That’s why I am not a lunch-eating sort of guy. I cannot eat lunch and A) maintain my boyish good looks and B) swim and C) write. For me, lunch is a modest tray of sushi, which I eat in my car in the parking lot of Gelson’s in West Hollywood. Count me among those who agree with Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street when he asserts, “Lunch is for wimps."

BIKER BAR BOUNCER
swimming laps
 

Ten minutes is five minutes more than I need to consume my smoked-eel-and-avocado roll.

For a substantial number of years, among the UCLA lap-swimming family was Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman. Media pundits regularly challenge audiences to identify even merely one elected official who is not corrupt, who faithfully serves his constituents. They opine, of course, that there is no such thing.

If anyone fits the bill, however, it is Edelman. Until about ten years ago, prior to its incorporation as an incorporated independent city within the county, his district included West Hollywood.

West Hollywood is known for, among other characteristics, its large gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender population. While Edelman is himself straight, he was acutely attuned to his constituency’s concerns, and therefore a strong supporter of LGBT issues. For this he was much loved by West Hollywood voters, which is why the sexually-transmitted diseases clinic at the North Highland Community Center is named for him.

The facility’s services are free and, not surprisingly, there is a long wait before patients can see its volunteer doctors. One day the STD clinic’s administration realized that in the waiting room at any moment was a captive audience of patients who, by virtue of their being there, were not likely practicing safe sex. The decision was made to produce a safe-sex video that would loop endlessly while patients awaited diagnosis and therapy. For this purpose, they sought a writer to create the script.

I do not doubt that I encountered then-Supervisor Edelman scores—even hundreds--of times at the pool, though we had never spoken to one another. On one occasion, just by chance, we happened to arrive at the pool at the same moment, finished our swims, and then showered. I can’t tell you where the supervisor went upon departing the Rec Center, but I reported to my office on UCLA’s north campus.

As I unlocked the door the phone rang. A man introduced himself as director of the Ed Edelman Sexually Transmitted Diseases Clinic at the West Hollywood North Highland Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. He hoped I could refer him to a writer for the safe sex video.

showers

BIKER BAR BOUNCER
 

How could I have responded other than I did? “I just now showered with Supervisor Edelman!”

There was a long silence. Can a silence be angry? This one dripped with disapproval. Clearly, also understandably, I had been taken for a homophobe mocking the clinic and its patients and staff. I stuttered and stammered, struggling to explain the circumstances, but my listener’s ears had closed.

Do I regret having said what I said? I do not. In the movie My Favorite Year, set in the writing room of an TV comedy series in the early TV era, a writer says, “In this business you don’t cut funny.”




Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Susan Hurwitz Arneson

Susan Hurwitz Arneson

Susan Hurwitz Arneson is a California based television and screenwriter who received her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA. She has developed shows for several networks and producers and recently sold a pilot to Fox Television Animation. Susan has also pitched, written and developed feature scripts with numerous production companies and studios. Best known for her work as a writer on seven seasons of South Park, Susan is currently a writer for the new ABC sitcom “Malibu Country” starring Reba McEntire, Lily Tomlin and Sarah Rue.

In this Q&A, Susan discusses how her most passionate projects were the ones that launched her career and why she recommends writing about the things that matter most to you:

Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?  
 
I moved to California with my husband, then boyfriend, for him to pursue a career as a screenwriter. I had been a journalist and copywriter back east and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when we moved out here. I knew I loved writing, but I didn’t want to do corporate stuff anymore. I was a bit lost. I actually took a year and went to culinary school full time to see if my other passion might be the right career for me. But I missed writing. I became fascinated by the screenwriting my husband was doing and started pitching him ideas. None of them were right for him, but he saw what I didn’t, that they would be right for me. So he encouraged me to start writing again and to find my own voice through screenwriting. I owe much of my past and present success to his incredible support and guidance.
 
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
 
I have always made my living as a writer -- first as a journalist then as a copywriter in Washington, DC. On the side I’d write short stories and children’s stories to get away from my boredom with corporate writing. When we moved out to California I began taking classes at UCLA to see if screenwriting was the right medium for my voice. I started small with a couple of courses in Extension to learn the basic structure of screenplays then stepped up to the Professional Program and finally the MFA. Along the way I realized that both journalism and copywriting were great training grounds for screen and TV writing. The cool part of my story happened my final year in the MFA when I entered a screenplay into the yearly UCLA Screenwriters Showcase screenplay competition…and lost. One of my judges was an independent producer who loved my script and contacted me. In return for being attached to produce he helped me get my first agent. My feature went out, and didn’t sell. But I went to tons of great meetings and it was at one of those meetings that I met a woman who used to be the Executive Producer of South Park. I mentioned a spec South Park I wrote while at UCLA and she read it, loved it and sent it over to them. After an interview I was offered a two-week trial on the show and was lucky enough to stay for almost six years. Choosing to leave South Park was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done!
 
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why? 

 
I have a ton of “favorite movies,” but the one that always rises to the top is HIS GIRL FRIDAY. First of all I adore Cary Grant. But what I love even more is a fast talking dame. And in HIS GIRL FRIDAY Rosalind Russell is the quintessential fast talking dame. She’s smart, strong, funny and she gives it as good as she gets. The way the dialog flies and snaps between Grant and Russell is truly stunning to listen to. Although the movie is a comedy it still has some great dark moments and the romance aspect is never cloying. The movie was filmed in 1940, but it absolutely still holds up today.
 
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood ?
 
The best advice I can give is to learn your craft and write the things that matter to you. Do NOT waste your time chasing the market place. The scripts that have helped me build my career are the ones that I wrote because I felt passionately about them, not because of any trend that was zooming its way through Hollywood. Well-written scripts in your own distinct voice are what will help launch your career. Also, remember you do what no one else in this business does. You create something out of nothing. And that has tremendous value! Do not forget that without your words no one else in this town would have a job. Believe in the worth of your product!
 
Q5: What new projects are you working on?

I’m currently working on a new TV show called “Malibu Country” with Reba McEntire, Sara Rue and Lily Tomlin. It’s been a crazy few months! Besides the fact that I’ve never been on a show that’s launching (nuttiness!) I’ve also never been on a multi-camera that shoots in front of a live audience. It’s so incredibly different from my experience on South Park, but I absolutely love the new challenge. Talk about a huge learning curve!! I think the greatest part of my new job is working with the actors. It never ceases to amaze me how they can take your written words and make them shine even brighter. I’m also focusing on my own writing as well. It’s important to me to continue to write pilot and feature specs that highlight my own comedic voice and style.


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