As will come as no surprise to those who know me even a little bit, in my youth I was never more inwardly arrogant than when sitting in a playwriting or screenwriting class. In theatre and film school I had several, and my attitude was always one of “Show me!” and “What have I got to learn from you, ya hack?” And then there’s always “If you’re so brilliant, how come you’re teaching this course, huh?”.
The truth is, I’m not real interested in the opinions of people who don’t impress me (why would I be?). The schmoes who typically resort to teaching (or cranking out “how to” books) seem scarcely a length ahead of me in this horse race, and I’m way in the back! And anyway I don’t want to be just “a playwright”. What’s the point of that? I am in pursuit of the highest reaches of excellence, and that requires inspiration. I don’t want to be taught screenwriting by the guy who wrote the TV movie about alcoholism. I want to be taught by Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or Ben Hecht. (Or the modern equivalents: the Coen Brothers? Charlie Kaufman?) Instead, screenwriting class was always a lot of embarrassing anecdotes from sad sacks, e.g., “Always keep your pot of hot coffee real close to the typewriter!”
“Coffee pot? Typewriter??? Sheeeuuut.”
It’s been a while since I’ve sat in a classroom, so over the past several years I’ve reserved my sullen expressions and my eye-rolling for screenwriting books. Believe me, I’ve gone through them all, and they have all been pretty terrible. Unreadable, in fact. One skims them for information since they are written so poorly, but since they are written so poorly, why trust the information? If you can’t write a good book, I doubt you can write a good screenplay, and if you can’t write a good screenplay, what precisely do you have to teach me? And clearly the person has written this book because he or she has not sold scripts. (The exception would be William Goldman who published his wisdom on the subject, but he never clicked for me either).
And I need it to click for me. Thus far, it hasn’t quite. Many are the stabs I have taken at professional screen and television writing, and to date I have not found myself crossing the line I want to cross, the line where I cease to be a playwright thinking first in dialogue and then trying to dream up pictures as an afterthought…..and become a screenwriter who can think and write in pictures. I am no stranger to pictures. I have taken art classes, can draw, love museums, and watch silent movies all the time. STILL, the pictures always end up taking a back seat for me. Can’t get my head around it. Thus, this quest for the key.
Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless (pub date today) is the first book I have ever read that actually feels like it may do it for me.
First of all, the guy automatically has my respect. Among (many) other things, he wrote a terrific biography of John Ford which I had (coincidentally) read a year or two ago, as well as great books on Capra and Welles, and the seminal Hawks on Hawks. While his own artistic fame doesn’t stretch much beyond the screenplay for Rock and Roll High School and the short story that became Prom Night, he has that Bogdanovich-like insider knowledge of Hollywood cinema. He knows Hollywood movies inside and out, has sat at the feet of masters (and even acted in Orson Welles ill-fated The Other Side of the Wind).
More than this, this is the first book on screenwriting I’ve encountered that is genuinely pleasurable to read. You know what that means? It means that one is induced to actually read it, thereby profiting from the wisdom of his experience, as well as that of the successful colleagues he interviews, and the past masters he has researched. He has a brain in his head and respects the cinema as an art form. He is not shy about citing (for example) Jean Renoir, but he is also very on top of what the industry is seeking right now, so the book has some very useful tips on mechanics.
And as rich and rewarding as it is to read, it’s above all a practical manual, taking you step-by-step through an assignment. McBride recommends making your first screenplay an adaptation of an existing work of literature so that you grapple with the difficult demands of screenplay form — which are hard enough — without getting too distracted by also having to invent your own plot and characters from scratch on top of it. Along the way, you watch him do his own adaptation of a very disturbing Jack London story about a guy who freezes to death.
In short, the book’s got me fired up, and I am going to try out his prescriptions, once I’m done with the book and the play that are next in the pipeline. I already have my work of literature to adapt all picked out! Anyone want to join me? Writing in Pictures is available here.