One of the hardest things to figure in film is when you are on the receiving end of a large amount of bullshit. Which can be tough as the industry as a whole is powered by bullshit, collusion and treachery. For the most part that’s fine, you know where you stand.
Which makes it strange to be working with my current Producer, because he’s a really stand up guy. Which is rare. This point was brought home to me by another film maker friend of mine last week. Apparently my producer advised him against taking a certain distribution deal because to his mind the numbers didn’t crunch in his favor. (My friends, not my producers), which my friend found sort of shocking as he’s been in the industry for a really long time and it’s not usually that civil.
Which brings me to screenwriting courses.
There’s nothing wrong with going to school to learn how to write screenplays. How they’re put together, their structure and elements, how to create believable characters and the mechanics of story and genre are all important concepts and tools to have in your arsenal. I get much more nervous around the one’s who promise you, “The Blockbuster.” etc.
I’ll say one thing for Robert McKee, his course is called, “Story,” and you get two full days of discourse on story. He promises nothing, the work is up to you. He’s garrulous, cranky and opinionated and he’s also great theater. Worth the price of admission just for that fact alone. He may be a lot of things but Mr. McKee is not bullshit. Nor is Chris Vogler, or even Michael Hauge (though I’ll admit I went into his panel with a jaded eye and was pleasantly surprised). They have a decent enough track record to bear listening to.
Where I worry is the fly by nighters who have the, “Secret,” which will bust your script out of its current malaise and skyrocket it to the next level. These are the ones who talk big but have few credits to their name. When I was first looking at getting into this game, I took a class from a guy called Gordon Roback. He wrote a terrible film called, “Money,” staring Eric Stoltz. His class was called, “An introduction to screenwriting.” It should have been called, “How to destroy your film career and alienate yourself in four easy steps.” He was a pretty bitter guy (and this is coming from a pretty bitter guy) . He had no right teaching a class because he had no concept (produced film or not) of how to give us the tools to get the job done. Granted, he didn’t offer any secret either, though he did seem to have a complete hate on for Paul Ruebens (Pee Wee Herman), related to either a film deal gone bad or something that happened in the back row of a darkened movie theater.
This is why I kind of feel that taking classes at an honest to God film school are probably your best bet. The teachers tend to be working writers who are affiliated with the school. They’re either coming in to share insight into the process or are between gigs and are working towards getting back on a show or between specs. The guy who beat me into shape was Alan Di Fiore. He was Chris Haddock’s main writer on DaVinci’s inquest and he didn’t pull his punches (thanks for that) He’s still working away, though he’s doing it south of the border these days. In other words he had integrity and he wasn’t slinging a line of bullshit and most of everything he said has stood me in good stead throughout my career.
The bottom line is you need to be able to trust in your own ability or at least try to see the holes in your arsenal (so you can patch them up). It’s a pretty packed field so if you’re going to get noticed, you need to be better than almost everybody else out there. Gimmicks won’t do this for you. A good story and a solid grasp of what you’re doing will.
And that’s no bullshit.