Tag Archives: teaching


When I lived in Los Angeles, my father went duck hunting in Louisiana. At the end of his trip, he FedExed me a cooler with eight ducks in it. Those ducks are why I have CHINATOWN #1.

I was in grad school at USC, taking a class in production design. Richard Sylbert, probably the best living production designer, gave, as I recall, three lectures. The first thing he said, and I remember distinctly, was, “what I do, and how I think, are monumentally different from everyone else.” That got my attention.

I learned a lot from his lectures. The trickle down through my career from just those three classroom visits has been profound. Sadly, those notes have been lost to the mists of time. In one of his lectures, he mentioned that the best way to prepare duck is to pour Château Margaux into a syringe and inject it into the meat before you cook it. That got my attention too.

When Daddy sent me the ducks, I cooked four of them and had a nice dinner with friends. They were wild ducks, not pen-raised. The taste is distinctive and some people don’t like it. Wild ducks are basically impossible to get and people who love the taste, prize them as a rarity.

As I had no one to give the leftover ducks to, I called Mr. Sylbert and explained the situation. “You’re the only person in the city of Los Angeles I think might want these ducks. Would you?”

“I’m at home. Bring them right over.”

Giving someone something they desperately want and asking nothing in return is a superb way to make someone’s acquaintance. At some point, he gave me the early draft of CHINATOWN. We were buddies until he died.

For your learning pleasure, here are the old script and the rewritten version. Comparing the two, and comparing them to the final film, is one hell of a class in rewriting.



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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

What do YOU want to know?

I am giving a five hour seminar on writing in about a month and I want to change up what I normally do… and wanted to know what you think I should talk about… what is it you want to know about, in the world of writing…?

These are mostly beginning writers. What do you wish someone had told you early in the game? What do you wish you understood better? Heck, I can write about what you want in my blog, and you won’t have to wait for the seminar!

What is missing from seminars, lectures, screenwriting books or your brain? I would love to hear what you would like me to tell you, assuming I can…

That’s my thought for the moment. I’d like to hear from you!


Filed under Screenwriting, Writing Process

Keep Your Audience In Mind

I asked my class last week, while I was teaching them about motion picture film formats… 65mm, 35mm, 16mm, 8mm… and I thought, “Hey, I’ll teach them about 8mm by discussing the most famous 8mm film of them all! This’ll be swell! I’m such a terrific teacher!”

That’s what I thought… in the tiny pea brain that rolls around in my head…

So I started blathering on at ninety miles an hour about the Zapruder film, and how when it went to the lab in Dallas to be processed, (the most important piece of motion picture film in American history!) they gave it to some intern, and he loaded it wrong and RIPPED THE ORIGINAL…

At this dramatic moment, I looked around and the students were sorta sitting there… blinking… a theater chock-a-block with blank stares… I, with mounting horror, sucked in my breath and willed myself to ask my twenty students, “How many of you know what the Zapruder film is?” Twenty students. Twenty.

Two raised their hands.

I nearly fainted. [BTW, the Zapruder film is of the Kennedy assassination…]

These students, as interns, will be the producer’s first line of defense when you submit a screenplay someplace. These are extremely bright kids… but some things, they don’t get taught. Just because something is common knowledge to you, may not mean they’ve ever, ever heard of it. Keep in mind when you’re writing.

[Sound effect of Akers’ feet going down a long hallway… and you hear muttering.]

(crotchety old man voice)
The Zapruder film? Where have they been…? It must be video games that does it… Oh, what a world, what a world…

[Muttering fades down to nothing… Akers slips and falls on his ass.]


Filed under Screenwriting, Writing Process

Can Screenwriting Be Taught?

Aw, hell yeah!  It better be; I’ve been teaching it at Vanderbilt for fifteen years.  If I say it can’t be taught, they’re gonna stop paying me. 

However, I actually do believe it can be taught.  You can’t teach someone to be talented, of course, but you can show them a lot about screenwriting.  If they listen.  If they do what you say.  Amazingly enough, a lot of baby writers already think they know all there is to know, and consequently learn very little.  Listening, I daresay, can’t be taught.

“There is no one more arrogant than a beginner.”
Elizabeth Ashley


What can be taught in screenwriting?

Format can be taught.  How to separate character’s voices.  Words to avoid that will shout “I’m a bad writer!”.  How to construct a character.  Stupid mistakes that will sink your script for the reader.  How to use outlines.  Structure, to a degree.  Why cutting dialogue is a good thing.  Not to give up.  How to deal with the frustration you feel when you just stare at the computer screen and the words don’t leap out of your little pea brain and onto the screen.  Tricks to get you to generate ideas.  How to avoid / deal with writer’s block.  How the business works (not that that’s writing, but it is fully half of the success equation.)  Methods in rewriting: ways to approach a script, a scene, and a piece of dialogue.  Handling fear.  Being professional. 

A lot can be taught.  What can NOT be taught in screenwriting?

How to think up a great idea!  An ear for dialogue!  How to construct a character an actor will be dying to play!  How to have a voice!  The correct structure for your story!  What genre you’re good at!  How to be lucky!! 

The difference between what can be learned and innate talent is the tough thing.  You can do a lot in a classroom, but the alchemy is up to talent, luck, and sweat. 

After I’m done pounding them for a while, my students’s scripts look like scripts, sound like scripts and are not embarrassing.  Some are good.  A few, over the years, have been great.  When they come to me, they know nothing about writing screenplays.  I can’t teach someone how to write, but I can teach how to write a screenplay that will pass muster. 

A good teacher can get a student to the starting line.  That is a lot, by the way.  Getting someone to the door, and opening it for them, is a good beginning.  What they do in the race is up to their talent and perseverance. 

I share these six items from a talk I give called “Fatal Errors Beginning Writers Make.”  Will Aldis (STEALING CARS, KEEP COMING BACK) is a staggeringly talented writer and I love his list.

Number One:  trying to write what you think the biz wants you to write.
Number Two: writing for the cash only.
Number Three: writing to get laid.
Number Four: writing a screenplay because you think it sounds like a cool, hip thing to do.  It isn’t.
Number Five:  writing about something, anything, other than yourself.
Number Six:  taking a screenwriting class from someone who doesn’t fully grasp the horror. 

Keep Number Six firmly in mind when selecting a teacher, because the very last thing you want is a teacher who gives you any hint that this foolishness is easy. 

It isn’t.


Filed under Screenwriting, Writing Process