First Step In Writing A Screenplay by UCLA Professor Richard Walter
Film Courage: What is the first step in writing a screenplay?
Richard Walter: Getting your butt in the chair and hands on the keys and seeing where it goes. I believe you have to have an outline, but then you have to throw away that outline. It will take paths that are surprises to the artist that created it. I’ve never known anyone who wasn’t surprised by lines of dialogue that characters seem to invent by themselves, twists and turns in the story.
I remember asking Neil Simon “Do you laugh at your own jokes?” And he said “Sure I do, the first time I hear them.” And I think that’s fantastic that he actually hears them. It’s as if someone else is telling them…telling these jokes to him. And that’s the experience of a lot of artists.
I wrote…I sold a TWILIGHT ZONE episode years and years go about a muse, some sort of composer of commercial jingles and his muse that proposes…I’ll spare you the story. If I told you the story you’d think “Hey, what a good story!” But the thesis underneath it was the notion that muses don’t desert their artists. It’s really the other way around. You have to be available. It’s never easy to get into. And you have to own that. And you have to know that.
Not sure that answers What is the First Thing You Do? Usually something occurs to you that seems kind of odd. Imagined if this happened or that happened? I remember when our first child was going to be born we went to birth preparation classes which were held at Cedars Sinai. And everybody was supposed to bring a pillow. So suddenly outside you know, Beverly Blvd. near San Vincent [in Los Angeles] all of these couples, all of the women are quite pregnant and everybody is carrying pillows “What’s that about?” Imagine you drive past the bus stop and there are like 60 people at the bus stop and they all have accordions. I don’t know they all have accordions for some reason. “What could that be?” You start to think about that and also you don’t think about it you just sort of let it simmer and cook and the notion will come to you. And you start to play with it and see how it unfolds. I know there are other people, including people you are talking to I’m sure, who have much more precise steps. Well I reject that in my own work and in the writers that I know. Again, I think that it’s a function of surprise, a lot of art is. And the important thing for the artist is to stay open to those surprises rather than trying to drag the narrative back to some previous intellectual perception that you had.
The very first script I ever wrote and I never did sell it (I wrote it in class) like my own class, except it was cross-town it was Irwin R. Blacker, legendary teacher of screenwriting, now long deceased, but he taught George and Milius and all these people. And I wrote a story based loosely on a when I worked on the project, the pilot HEAD START program, the war on poverty Lyndon B. Johnson program having to do with support for pre-schoolers in the schools. And there was one social worker (a white guy) advantaged, privileged guy, but he would kind of speak with kind of a fake black accent, this street-ey kind of black jive “Hey Bro…wuz goin’ on?” and he thought that really impressed the black kids he was working with. He was not working with preschoolers. He had started working with adolescents in another program. And the establishment, the people who ran that program thought “Boy this guy really goes the extra mile!” I thought he was an idiot! That he’s just patronizing and condescending. You know, I’m a jew. Imagine someone trying to make points with me in a Yiddish Accent “Richard….” [imitates a heavy Yiddish accent]. “What a cool guy this is. He talks the talk!”
Well, this guy got killed. He was murdered and I thought well that is something to write a script about. When I wrote the script, I thought it was the social worker’s story (the white guy’s story). But when I was done, it was really the black kids story and I didn’t realize this until I was done with the first draft. And the smartest thing I did was to leave it alone in that regard. That is to say I rewrote it several times but I let it become the black kids story, which is a much more interesting story. The white guy was a subsidiary character now, not the protagonist of the piece. I never sold that script but I did get top representation. I got assignments. I got on staff at Universal [Pictures]. A lot of writers don’t get it that when a script doesn’t sell that’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. There are all kinds of rewards that can flow from a script that doesn’t sell. Also a script that doesn’t sell now might sell you know, down the line.
Clint Eastwood made UNFORGIVEN which won the Oscar for best screenplay, best movie 20 years after he acquired that script. So you never really know. Again, if all the work you put into the first draft and you end up realizing that the guy you thought was the protagonist was not the protagonist (it’s not his story at all), that’s not a waste. That shouldn’t be frustrating. That’s a really good use of that draft. You’ll salvage some of the stuff in the draft but also you’ll have used it to point you in the direction that you need to go. You can’t figure it out in advance, you just can’t.
Kushner at the LINCOLN screening…have you seen it? Maybe you won’t like it at all but it’s impossible not to be astonished at how important it is and engaging it is in the best sense of important. And it is a stupendous screenplay by Kushner. And Tony (Kushner) was saying “A lot of people think you think the thing up and you write it down but the writing down of it is sort of the thinking of it. There is a nexus between the pen or the keyboard, or the hands on the keyboard that you just never know and you have to live with that uncertainty. You have to sort of rejoice and celebrate and face that uncertainty instead of trying to eliminate the uncertainty.
You look at the studios today and what is less interesting than what they are doing now? They are doing prequels and sequels, items of franchises. What they are trying to do is minimize risk. And they are trying to make it so when an audience goes to see a movie they get what they expect. Well when I go see a movie, I don’t want to see what I expected. My expectations should be exceeded. I want to be turned upside down. I want to be frightened. I want life to be changed forever.
It’s funny, I lectured in September a year ago to an evangelical Christian conference in Chicago, 500 passengers all across the nation on narrative and scripture. I was never more warmly greeted or generously received. They also payed me very well. But I never had a better time, you know. I’ve given hundreds of speeches all around the world and I never had a better time than I had with all these sweet Christians. And one of the things I told him was if you wanted to keep people in the Church even after they leave the Church on Sunday morning…that is to say…thinking about the sermon just like after when they leave your movie…I’m still thinking about LINCOLN and I saw it over a week ago and it’s still playing in my head. And the more time that passes, the more I’m into it. It’s not fading, it’s getting stronger. Maybe I’ll go see it again? If you want people to stay in the movie, just like if you want them to stay in the Church, what I told them was you don’t need to make people feel good, you just have to make people feel. Scare them half to death. Make them cry, you know? I remember walking out of the theater and the doors in Westwood…I was walking down the street past the theater and the doors and people started to steam out and it [the movie] had just broken and I saw somebody I knew but there were a lot of people between us and I sort of indicated…we waived hello and then I pointed to the marquee and shrugged meaning “So what did you think?” and at this point he was able to get up to me and said “….it’s….a….yeah…a worthy…movie I think you should see.” And I said like I said to you earlier (and this does not make me very popular with people when I tell them what THEY thought of a movie. Or they tell me what they thought of a movie and I tell them “No, that’s not what you thought. What you thought was such and such.” I understand that this is pretty arrogant but what can I tell you? I’m just reporting honestly, my own reaction. I said to this guy “I hear you saying it’s a worthy movie but in my impression it seems like you didn’t like this movie.” Now I want you to imagine that instead of the picture breaking and people streaming out, they are all crying, everybody is sobbing with tears streaming down their faces. Well you wouldn’t want to see that movie would you? The hell you wouldn’t! You’d immediately go to see that movie. You’d stop. You’d stand up your date or your next appointment and you’d get in line to see that movie if it could affect people so strongly.
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Richard Walter is an author, educator, screenwriter, commentator, consultant and chairman of the University of California, Los Angeles graduate program in screenwriting.
Students from Walter’s screenwriting program at UCLA have written projects for Steven Spielberg, and many successful Hollywood productions, including three Academy Awards for best screenplay: Dustin Lance Black for Milk and Alexander Payne for Sideways and The Descendants. Other past students of the UCLA program under Walter’s direction include these television and film screenwriters: Sacha Gervasi – The Terminal; Dan Mazeau – Wrath of the Titans; Felicia Henderson – Fringe, Gossip Girl, Soul Food (television series), Everybody Hates Chris, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Caroline Williams – The Office, Modern Family; Don Payne — The Simpsons; Paul Castro – August Rush; Tom Shadyac – I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Bruce Almighty, Dragonfly, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar; David Koepp – Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Carlito’s Way, War of the Worlds, Angels & Demons; Gregory Widen – The Highlander, Backdraft; Scott Rosenberg – Beautiful Girls, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, High Fidelity; Scott Kosar – Amityville Horror, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Crazies, The Machinist; Audrey Wells – The Game Plan, Shall We Dance, Under the Tuscan Sun, The Kid, George of the Jungle, The Truth About Cats & Dogs.
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