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Interview with Richard Walter - Chair of the UCLA Screenwriting Program

By Dan Bronzite

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Questions by Dan Bronzite, CEO of Nuvotech and Editor of ScriptTips

Dan: What are your thoughts on writers who get an early break in their career and those that have to put in years of work before they get their first screenwriting pay check?

Richard: Given my perch at the helm of the leading screenwriting program, I see plenty of writers launch and sustain considerable careers. Alas, however, I also see no small number of writers flare brightly and burn out. As I argue in lectures and workshops in Westwood and around the world and also in my new book "Essentials of Screenwriting", the key to maintaining a career over time is for writers to develop relationships based on their writing with someone who can develop further relationships for them. Isn't that a job description for an agent? The flash in the pan is just that: a flash in the pan. Sustained careers more often than not are launched quietly and built slowly over the years as a writer's writing and reputation are nurtured and nourished and developed over time.

Dan: Can anyone be taught how to write a good screenplay or do you think that a good writer can learn the technicalities but ultimately must have some natural flair for the medium of cinematic storytelling?

Richard: A little talent and a lot of discipline will take a writer much further than the converse combo. I see precious few writers without talent, but many who do not have the patience and the stamina to stay with it for the long haul. Writers don't fail; rather, they abandon their endeavours. The proof is in the tasting. Our screenwriting students at UCLA have won three Oscar nominations and two Oscars in the past three years. For the third nominee, it was his third nomination and would have been his second Oscar. UCLA-trained writers have written ten projects for Steven Spielberg: JURASSIC PARK I, III, INDIANA JONES II, III, THE TERMINAL, WAR OF THE WORLDS, MUNICH, AMAZING STORIES, EAGLE EYE. Can't we at least agree that we haven't done these writers any harm?

Dan: How important is it for a screenwriter to understand the “business” of the industry or does this knowledge sometimes cloud the creative process?

Richard: Screenwriting is not about the business; it's the other way around. Even Hollywood understands that regardless of stars, of highly reputed directors, of glitzy glamorous musical scores, of gorgeous cinematography, you can't create a decent movie from a lousy script. Writers should just pay attention to their writing. The other stuff will sort itself out. Ultimately they'll hire professionals—managers, agents—who'll handle that end of it for them.

Dan: What are your favorite genres to watch and write?

Richard: I preach in my books and at UCLA that there are only two genres: good movies and bad ones. The good ones engage, seduce, and merit the time and attention and consideration—not to mention the price of the ticket—of an audience; the others are boring. The only rule we have at UCLA: Don't. Be. Boring. Really great movies—Kubrick's and Hitchcock's for example—mix genres. There's a lot of humour in some of Shakespeare's darkest plays. My advice to writers: Forget genre and follow your heart.

Dan: How important is it for a new screenwriter to be based in Los Angeles or New York?

Richard: It's actually an advantage to be from some other place besides New York or Los Angeles. The exception is, of course, series TV, where you have to be available to pitch, and where, if you succeed, you'll end up on the staff of a show where you're required to come to the writers' room daily. For features, there's a cachet that applies to someone from the nation's midsection. I know one L.A.-based writer who launders his scripts through a mail drop in Tennessee, because it causes agents and producers to regard him as more special than just one more writer from the San Fernando Valley or the Upper Westside.

Dan: How important is “networking” and what advice would you give to someone with a great script but no contacts in the industry?

Richard: All a writer needs to make connections is to write smart query letters. In my new book I describe a method that involves writing to writers in order to catch a break. Reaching an agent or a producer is easy; what's hard is having something worthy to offer them once you have made that contact.

Dan: What are your thoughts on the many storytelling paradigms that novice screenwriters are faced with when learning the craft?

Richard: No one has touched Aristotle's POETICS, a fragment of a pamphlet written millennia ago, that describes beginnings, middles, and ends. The key for success is remembering that the model is that of an idealized, romanticized human life with a short beginning, big middle, and quick end. Another essential principle is to understand that beginnings, middles and ends apply not only to whole scripts but also to parts of scripts. Individual scenes have beginnings, middles, and ends. Even parts of parts--a line of dialogue for example--have proper beginnings, middles, and ends. With a line of dialogue the beginning, middle, and end may be but a single word.

Dan: How important is “theme” to writing a good script?

Richard: Theme is important, to be sure, but among the biggest mistakes writers make is try to figure out the theme in advance. Theme emerges from story, not the other way around. If you start with a theme, no matter how noble, you will end up writing in a heavy-handed, self-conscious, self-important way, and that is the enemy of all creative expression.

Dan: What was the major turning point in your own career that you feel helped you most as a screenwriter?

Richard: The first class I took at the USC film school when I was a student there during the Lucas era (I'm sure George calls it the Walter era) and wrote, in the legendary Irwin R. Blacker's writing class, my first feature. I was amazed to discover I could last for a hundred pages. I never sold the script, but it won me representation and employment, assignments at the major studios and networks.

Dan: Have you grown as a writer/person since penning your last book and if so, in what way and how has this change influenced your new book?

Richard: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING has forced me to think about my own writing and to subject it to the kinds of tests I set up for other writers, including readers of my books and students in my classes. Every writer grows and develops and evolves as she gains experience in her art and craft.

Dan: Do you still learn things about writing from your students and/or the process of teaching?

Richard: I've taught screenwriting for more than thirty years, but in doing so I've learned much more than I've taught. My students are my teachers. We don't have any fancy paradigms or methods at UCLA. What we have is a safe place where a cosy contingent of scribes can feel safe in stretching and reaching and taking risks, knowing that if they fall on their face that they can pick themselves up and continue to move forward. We rejoice in having a cohort of writers who are hugely, vastly, generous supportive to one another in their evolution as artists.

Dan: If you were to pitch your new book as a movie, what would the logline be?

Richard: I've written some novels, including a Times bestseller, but my new book is non-fiction, a book about screenwriting, and I should think it would make a dreadful movie. That said, I would describe it as a guaranteed, fool proof, shock proof description of the essential principles that will surely make you a ridiculously successful writer, if you'll only give it the costliest, most precious, most elusive elements of all: time.

About Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA's legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is now available in stores or from www.richardwalter.com.

Richard has written numerous feature assignments for the major studios and has sold material to all three networks. He has also written many informational, educational and corporate films. Richard lectures on screenwriting and storytelling throughout North America and the world. He has conducted master classes in London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing and Hong Kong.

Students from Richard's screenwriting program at UCLA have written more than ten projects for Steven Spielberg alone, plus dozens of other Hollywood blockbusters and prestigious indie productions, including two recent Oscar winners for best screenplay: Milk and Sideways.

Richard is a widely viewed pop culture critic and media pundit who has appeared multiple times on The Today Show, The O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country, CBS News Nightwatch, NPR, KABC-Talk Radio and numerous independent television and radio stations. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have described his work and the program he directs at UCLA.

Richard can be reached at [email protected].

About Dan Bronzite

Dan is a produced screenwriter, CEO of Nuvotech and creator of Movie Outline 3 screenwriting software. He has written numerous specs and commissioned feature scripts including screenplay adaptations of Andrea Badenoch's Driven and Irvine Welsh's gritty and darkly comic novel Filth. Dan is a contributor to Script Magazine and has also directed two award-winning short films Finders, Keepers... (1995) and Absolution (2001) which have played the international festival circuit. His most notable feature to date is Long Time Dead, a supernatural horror for Working Title Films starring Lukas Haas, Marsha Thomason, Lara Belmont, Alec Newman and Joe Absolom. His spec horror Do or Die was recently sold to Qwerty Films and he is in the process of developing his directorial feature debut and various US and UK projects.

Screenwriting Article by Dan Bronzite

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