Peter Desberg, Author: So when do the interesting questions start?
Film Courage: Right now, actually. But this [question] is a little bit leading…why are so many screenwriters opposed to structure?
Jeffrey Davis, Author: I didn’t know they were? My experience is that there are two groups of screenwriters now. There used to be…I mean you probably remember in the 90’s and early 2000’s, there was the Chris Vogler book (which is pretty good actually) and the [John] Truby book and who is the guy who charges almost as much as the EST seminars? And it used to be like this is how you write a screenplay.
And I think that particularly in TV screenplays and teleplays, that’s changing. I would like it…again to me…structure is the easiest thing to learn that the craft of it…that’s not even to me the craft of it. I could basically teach anybody how to structure a screenplay. And I’m lucky to have Peter because (I’m not joking around) he’s really good at structure.
But I believe structure comes out of character and conflict, so I have not heard a lot of writers who are opposed to that. I just think what some teachers do is they will teach structure before they teach character or conflict which is a big mistake because I’ve read things that are beautifully structured and empty.
Peter Desberg: There is software now that you can get to structure your screenplay. Mariner makes a whole bunch of software products.
Jeffrey Davis: That’s easy. I could teach you all of that, formatting and structuring and all that. But I hadn’t heard what you’re hearing. Are you hearing that a lot of people are opposed to structure?
Film Courage: It was a question to see what your answer would be.
Jeffrey Davis: Well for God’s sake Karen. I’m so disappointed.
Film Courage: Maybe it’s a rumor. But I’m just throwing it out there.
Jeffrey Davis: It’s funny because I hear the opposite. I hear people fall back on structure. Not so much TV, I guess?
Peter Desberg: There are a bunch of really funny videos on Youtube of fake pitches. They are hysterical. There is a wonderful on…
Peter Desberg: I’m trying to think about the one I really like here…PULP FICTION? “These pages are all out of order. So don’t worry. We made the story flow in a logical sequence now.”
So again (I think like many other areas) the concept of structure is evolving also. But that started a long time ago. That probably started in the 60’s with the new French Novel and stuff where all of the sudden you don’t know if you’re seeing a sequence, whether you are seeing a composite or which part is fantasy in someone’s head and which part is real.
So the whole notion of structure is evolving a lot. So things aren’t necessarily as linear as they were. People are taking bigger liberties that way (which is a good thing).
Jeffrey Davis: I think you have to write the way that…now I’m not talking about being in a [TV writer’s] room…then you’ve got to observe the rules that the Showrunner lays out. But if you’re writing something of your own and if for example I always tell students and I tell myself that if you are awakened at 3 o’clock in the morning and a scene comes to you, get up and write it down. And don’t worry about where it goes in the structure.
But if you wait, you might still be able to write the scene but it won’t have the same power and the passion that you felt. It woke you up for a reason.
And a lot of writer’s (mainly students) are afraid to do that because they’ve had pounded into your head that you must write everything in order and that’s the part that makes me crazy. That’s the part that makes me crazy. How can you write everything in order? There’s a famous quote…I forget who said it? You know, I am blanking on everything today. But I do know Franchise now. I am not going to forget that. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
Film Courage: Oh wow! That’s deep.
Jeffrey Davis: Isn’t that powerful?
Film Courage: Is this what Adam has hanging over his desk? [Referring to this video on Pitching a TV Series]
Jeffrey Davis: Yes…see you’ve got a new quality for him. I mean, I think a lot of people are afraid to dive into…I am…to just dive into that darkness and let it be bad and find the structure. But make sure that you find it from the characters because otherwise it will be empty.
Film Courage: Do you find certain students and some of the people you’ve worked with are okay with going to those [dark] places and others are really (whether it’s their upbringing) they’re scared?
Jeffrey Davis: Nobody is okay with it. You get them to be okay with it. And what I’m doing, I’m teaching. I co-created a course a couple years ago (a remade course for freshman). And it was the first day of class (it will be a week tomorrow). And I said to everybody in the room “Get ready to embrace sh*t!” Uh oh…are you going to have to erase that?
Film Courage: No…
Jeffrey Davis: So it’s the Anne Lamott dictum from [her bestselling book] Bird By Bird. You have an obligation to be sh**ty. Which you can almost see the weight come off their shoulders. It’s the closest I’ve feel to being like a therapist. I’m releasing them from the need to be good. Because you’re going to be anyway! You’re 18-years-old! How good are you going to be? And I don’t give you a good grade for being good. And then they go “Wait a minute? If we try to be good you’re not going to grade us better than people who try to be bad?” Exactly! Because I don’t care, I’m interested in the process, not the product. You’re 18. It doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s still going to s*ck.
Film Courage: That word we can’t use.
Jeffrey Davis: I’m sorry.
Peter Desberg: 18?
Film Courage: Yes.
Jeffrey Davis: This is a very big thing with me, this need people have…and I think this is because I’m a recovering perfectionist…and it’s another thing this partnership has given me. He forces me to put it down. And if I had my druthers (not so much now, but it used to be) I would just take forever because I didn’t want to be bad.
Peter Desberg: Yeah…the P word is a synonym for scared.
Film Courage: Oh…right…right.
Jeffrey Davis: I’m afraid it will s*ck and if you tell students at the beginning “It’s okay to s*ck. It’s okay to be bad.” It’s like Peter said earlier, than you have something that’s on paper you can play with it forever. But if you don’t put it down, you’ve got nothing.
Peter Desberg: We were talking about a guy this morning who has been working for 5 years on a screenplay.
Jeffrey Davis: 5? 10 [years]. 5 I could accept. You know it’s not like he’s writing the great American novel, he’s writing a screenplay. C’mon? Really?
Film Courage: Well, unless he’s so lost in the process…
Jeffrey Davis: Then he should be writing 3 screenplays, not 1.
Peter Desberg: Double-spaced, 12 pages a year. I think he needs a little more output than that.
Jeffrey Davis: I think that it is just fear and older people have fear, too.
Film Courage: Sure…yeah. I think it’s okay to be young and to fail. But older people, you have to…
Jeffrey Davis: One of the worst days of my life is the day when I finish a play or I finish something and my first reader is my wife because she’s an actress. She’ll say nice things and then she’ll say “So basically what you’re asking me to do is put marbles in my mouth to say these lines?” And after I get over being hurt and thinking about divorce court and all of those things and I realize, you know she’s right?
Again, we are writing for actors. We’re not writing…yes producers have to read it. Executives have to read it, but you’re going to be replaced really fast if you can’t write dialogue.
Question for the Viewers: Are you opposed to screenplay structure?
At the Writers’ Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers
by Authors Jeffrey Davis and Peter Desberg
CONNECT WITH JEFFREY DAVIS
CONNECT WITH PETER DESBERG
CHECK OUT PETER AND JEFFREY’S BOOK ON AMAZON here.
Now That’s Funny!: The Art and Craft of Writing Comedy