Years ago I was invited to lecture at a screenwriting craft conference sponsored by the Writers Guild at the UCLA Conference Center at beautiful Lake Arrowhead in the mountains high above Los Angeles. There were several practitioners and educators offering presentations. The guy preceding me, an under-loved, overfed, burned out and embittered used-to-be successful TV writer told the audience that screenwriting cannot be taught.
Writers can learn screenwriting solely on their own, he asserted. They can only teach themselves. Beware of the screenwriting gurus, he cautioned, traipsing up and back across the country and around the world holding seminars. Avoid also the ever increasing library of books on screenwriting.
Forget, finally, about the academic programs purporting to train writers. Higher learning in America, the speaker averred, has devolved into nothing more than a retail operation. Institutions of learning increasingly embrace a business model these days wherein they refer to students as customers. They offer whatever happens at the moment to be selling. Right now film education is hot; hence the surge of screenwriting courses and programs on college campuses.
Screenwriting education, he insisted, is a shell game, a fraud, a hoax, a hustle, a con, a scam.
When my turn came to speak I reported that I do from time to time hear this view expressed. When I do, it reminds me of something my grandmother used to say. She was a deeply religious woman, a highly spiritual Eastern European immigrant.
Upon hearing such statements she would say, “Why don’t you go f*** yourself?”
I mean to be neither profane nor disrespectful. Am I not, however, entitled also to at least a modicum of respect? I do, after all, teach the subject at an honorable, venerated academic institution. I also hop around the States and the globe offering lectures, seminars, and workshops. Additionally, I’ve published three books on the subject, the latest of which, Essentials of Screenwriting, was released in the summer of 2010.
I’ll raise only two points regarding this argument, and then move on to the purpose of this article, the single most important principle that in my view explains the success of UCLA’s screenwriting program. By ‘success’ I mean the ability of our graduates to make the transition from the academic to the professional arena.
Point Number One: Nobody expects a kid to grab a fiddle, take it into a closet, and emerge as a violin virtuoso. Everyone acknowledges that among musicians there are protégées and mentors. This is true also for painters and sculptors. Why would it be that screenwriters alone must learn their art and craft all alone without the support of coaches and educators?
Number two: The sweet success of our own screenwriting students at UCLA. In three years three UCLA-trained writers won for best-screenplay Oscar nominations (Benjamin Button, Sideways, and Milk). Two took home Oscars. For the one who did not win the Oscar, it was his third nomination and would have been his second Oscar (the first being for Forrest Gump). Not to belabor the point, but ten projects produced and/or directed by Steven Spielberg were written by screenwriters who learned the trade at UCLA: Jurassic Park I, Jurassic Park II, Jurassic Park III, Indiana Jones II, Indiana Jones III, The Terminal, Munich, War of the Worlds, Eagle Eye, and Amazing Stories.
Can we not agree at the very least that these artists were not in any way harmed by our program?
What is the secret of our success? It’s no secret at all. At UCLA we’ve created a safe, secure environment where writers can reach and stretch and take risks and not fear falling on their faces, since they can always pick themselves up and try again.
More to the point, however, we embrace an attitude that is not derogatory but affirmative. My own model for arts education is Pablo Casals, the master cellist of the last century.
My own late father was a musician who had some substantial conversancy with pop and jazz during his career but plied his trade primarily in the classical repertoire. There is virtually no world renowned virtuoso of the Twentieth Century with whom he did not perform and record, including among so many others also Casals.
It was my privilege as a high school student to travel several times with my dad to Puerto Rico to attend The Casals Festival. The master cellist no longer performed on his instrument, but he conducted the international orchestra assembled for the festival. I was afforded the opportunity not only of hearing the concerts but also, on a handful of occasions, to observe Casals teach.
A new student would take her position before the old man, settling nervously into her chair, desperately clutching her instrument. Then, she would play. I grew up in the world of virtuoso classical music, and to me the performance sounded brilliant. Students of Casals didn’t simply walk from the street into his studio, having seen a shingle outside reading ‘Music Lessons.’ They already had to be highly accomplished artists with substantial promise of establishing remarkable careers.
Casals, his chin in his hand, would listen solemnly, a severe expression on his face, nodding slowly, rocking up and back in his chair in time to the music. Upon finishing the particular piece, the performer would settle back and anxiously await the master’s judgment.
The first time I saw this I thought it was wholly spontaneous, but soon I learned that Casals reacted the same way every time. After a lengthy pause during which he seemed to weigh what he had just heard, he would finally exclaim, “Beautiful! Oh, so very, very beautiful!”
Upon hearing this, of course, the student would relax. You could see her shoulders descend as the tension evaporated. Out of the corner of one eye, Casals would watch the performer and when he could see that her shoulders had relaxed, his eyes would suddenly light up, as if a random thought had just occurred to him. It was plain to me, however, after observing this several times, that this supposedly random notion was not at all random. It was clearly the first thing that was on Casals’ mind.
He would say, “Perhaps still more beautiful,” he would say, “if attention were paid to the phrasing, the intonation, the tempo.” He would now ramble on, identifying areas of the performance that fell short of virtuosity and therefore required attention. He was able to deliver this guidance now to an artist who was able to receive it and use it, as he had won the musician’s safety.
She knew that her teacher was on her side.
At UCLA we are on our writers’ side. Our teachers start from the positive. In reviewing a student script the place to begin is a point of strength. No matter how shabby, no matter how amateurish, there is no script that is totally devoid of at least one praiseworthy item. In a worst case scenario I feel a little bit like a plastic surgeon working with a burn victim, trying to find a few healthy cells from which I can start a skin graft. Still, in a hundred-plus page screenplay one can always find something deserving commendation.
This is an essential aspect of training artists, because until the safety of the artist is won there can be no effective instruction.
Too much of arts education appears to be about tearing down, denigrating, even ridiculing new artists. This is precisely the opposite of our approach in Westwood. It goes a long way to explaining the success of our writers.
The lesson: be not negative but positive. Embrace this attitude not only regarding the scripts of others you’ve read, but also with your own.