Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two Questions That Drive Me Crazy

First some backstory:

When I was a kid there were no VCRs. Only rich people had them; they were still rare for the rest of us. I desperately wanted to see my favorite television shows over and over again, but there was no way to do it. So I used a cassette recorder to record the shows’ audio. I would listen to them in bed when I was supposed to be asleep. This was during the ages of ten, eleven and twelve.

I was a kid obsessed with movies and television and how stories were put together. I needed to know what made a story work. After listening to my recordings of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and reruns of The Twilight Zone and others, I began to see patterns. I didn’t yet know the terms for three-act structure and had never heard of Aristotle, but I knew that the first part of a story was a set-up for what was going to come later. And that there needed to be some kind of conclusion where it all paid off.

When I was a little older I found out where I could get screenplays. I got them and read them until I could see the patterns there as well. By the time I started to read books on screenwriting they were just confirming, and putting labels on, things I had already observed on my own.

Later, when there were VCRs, I watched movies and studied them over and over again so that I would understand the visual language of film. I checked out a 16mm projector from the public library along with old silent movies, and projected them from my room onto the side of a white house next door.

I made my first film when I was ten; I met a kid who had a Super 8 camera. All I remember thinking at the time was, “Finally, I’m getting to make a film!” This was something I had wanted to do since I was five, and found out you could do such a thing.

When I was thirteen I saw that there was a listing for motion pictures in my local phone book so I started calling people and asking questions. That got me my first after-school job as an assistant animation camera operator for a man named Bruce Walters, who taught me things I use to this day.

Why this trip down memory lane? Because I have two pet peeves.

I am often asked by beginners which screenwriting software I use. All I can think is that this is the last thing they need to worry about. They never ask if they have the skill or talent to write a screenplay. Writing screenplays is a lot of work and the more you understand how to do it the harder it gets.

But software is always the first question people ask nowadays. They will not put in the time and effort to hone their craft, but they will plop down a couple hundred bucks on a program that makes their jumble of ideas look like a screenplay.

Sure, every now and then an ex-stripper decides to write a movie and hits the big time. But more often then not I’m guessing that someone starts off wanting to be a screenwriter and ends up a stripper–not the other way around. This is a tough business and it helps to study the craft.

The other question has to do with passion.

I often find myself speaking or teaching a class where I tell people that if they want to write screenplays they should read screenplays. I am surprised how few people bother to read things written in the form they profess they want to work in. So I say, “Read screenplays.” The response that always comes back, “Where do you get screenplays?”

I got my hands screenplays in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when they were much harder, not to say impossible, to find. Back then not everyone wanted to write movies, so not many people sold screenplays. Now you can get them everywhere.

“Where do we get screenplays?” may sound like an innocent question, but what it really says that the person is unwilling to put any effort into learning their craft. Not even the effort it takes to type “screenplay” into a search engine. C’mon, people.

I once asked a group if they would like to sell a script for a million dollars. They did. “Well,” I told them, “if you want to sell something for a million dollars you have to do a million dollars worth of work.”

No program will help you write better and a “good idea” is not just proper formatting away from being a hit screenplay. If you want to write screenplays you have to read screenplays. If you feel you have nothing to learn, then you have no idea how much you really don’t know. (If you feel you just have a few things to learn, you also have no idea how much you need to learn.)

But when you sit down to write a screenplay and are gripped with fear and insecurity, when you feel you know nothing, when you know what you don’t know, and you can see there is a mountain you must climb ahead of you—then you are on your way to becoming a screenwriter.

There is only one way to scale this mountain — study your craft. Be a ravenous consumer of information. You can start right now by typing “screenplays” into Google.

And please never ask me those questions again.