Editorial Special Feature: An Interview with Student Writers and Filmmakers
When we were working on The Velvet Light Trap issue exploring authorship (Issue 57, Spring 2006, published by The University of Texas Press), we imagined a variety of ways in which such a topic might be construed. After compiling and editing submissions that covered a wide range of perspectives, many of which have been published in the Spring issue, we found that we had little that addressed how “authorship” is learned and how it is taught. Becoming an “author” of any sort usually demands intensive training as well as years of practice. How do film schools and similar programs contribute to the development of authors? And how might scholars critically approach this question?
We asked three graduate students from the production areas of the department of radio, television, and film at the University of Texas to meet with us to discuss teaching authorship. As both authors-in-training and teachers of authors, the interviewees offer distinctive perspectives on how authorship is learned, what qualities contribute to the development of authors, and what students need to become authors in their own right.
Jeremy Brown, Alison Eakle, and Jenn Garrison met with us on a sunny April morning (2005) and shared their thoughts over coffee and muffins. In the forthcoming interview, we share with our readers their ideas and insights into teaching authorship. The following is part one of the interview. Look for part two in the May 26th issue (Vol. 4 Issue 6).
Jean Lauer: Thank you so much for coming and being a part of this interview. We mostly just want to get some of your thoughts on creative process and learning and teaching. So if you could each introduce yourself and tell us where you are at academically, where you're at teaching, just a brief introduction.
AE: I'm Alison Eakle. I'm a second year MA screenwriter, hopefully soon to be an MFA Screenwriting candidate. And I'm in my first year of teaching, of TAing and I TA for RTF 333, which is Intro to Screenwriting, Writing for Film and Media.
JG: I'm Jenn Garrison and I have a Masters in media studies and I have already taught for two years in the RTF department, primarily sound theory and radio production courses and other documentary classes. Now I'm back in school getting my MFA to get that terminal degree so I can go tenure track instead of being a hired monkey every semester. So I'm in my second year of the MFA program and we TA every semester so I've got a lot of different experience with different kinds of classes.
JB: Jeremy Brown. Like Alison I'm in my second year of the screenwriting program and the second semester of teaching an intro screenwriting course.
JL: Let's just start with what you're working on right now creatively and where you see that going professionally.
AE: I know I was just thinking about “Hmm…professionally…”. I'm working on two screenplays, both feature length, right now for the first time two simultaneously. One from scratch that's an original work. It's a horror film and the other is a re-write of a broad comedy that I started in a class a year ago. So I really am on the track to actually trying to make a career writing for TV and film which probably means going to L.A. at some point, but hopefully setting up home base in New York one day. I'd love to teach in the future, but within the next ten years I see myself more working in the industry.
JG: I am working on post [production] on my fifth film. I have one feature length documentary, two short documentaries and this is my second short narrative. I'm also in a grant writing stage and production on my second feature length documentary as well as hunting down my second short narrative project, so I've got two projects I'm trying to get started for this next year, year and a half.
JB: I'm working on a script that is sort of a western slash comedy slash buddy movie that is, I guess, trying to be kind of a revisionist take on history and chiefly about camels in the West. They were brought by the U.S. Army. It's a long story. I won't bore you all with the details, but that's my thesis project and I don't really expect to try to make a living writing although…
AE: Jeremy, ever the realist…
JB: Although I think it might be fun, just for dilettante-type reasons to try to flesh this out into a novel.
JG: I didn't say what I want to do in the future.
AE: And you didn't say who wrote that fabulous short narrative.
JG: Yeah, the fabulous short narrative that I'm in post-production on right now was my first experience working with a writer, the very capable Alison Eakle [who was] also script supervisor and that was really helpful. (To Alison) Do I need to tell them anything else? Any more props?
AE: No. Where are you going in your life, Jenn?
JG: I'm hoping to do more directing, but along that path there is assistant directing, there is sound work, just kind of working in movies. But, trying to find out how I can do it without working fourteen or sixteen hour days for sixth months in a row. That's not so appealing.
JL: I want to get back to where you would like to see your work. What types of windows are you looking at? Indie tier? Television? I know Alison you're working on that as well. So where do you see [your work] actually meeting a public?
AE: The horror film I'm writing right now is actually something I plan on submitting to Burnt Orange [Productions]. I think it's primarily low-budget, more of a ghost story than any slasher effects. It's written for Austin, so I'm definitely going to try that avenue. I mean, if it's there I might as well give it a shot, but mostly I really would like to produce pieces for studios and larger production companies. I think I'm more of a commercial writer, potentially.
JG: I think the industry is changing. Every year, every five years there's a big shift that goes on in the industry. So I don't know that I can say, this is specifically where I want to be. In the immediate future, I'd love it if this film I'm in post on right now, JoFM, which is a short, I would love, and you can put this in writing, I would love to get that to Christine Vachon or an independent producer of that nature and develop it into a feature length screenplay and possible production. I mean, there's so many variables involved in where the money comes from and especially when you're attaching yourself as a director to a project. Just like any other industry, it's about right time, right place and egos and insecurities.
AE: Off of that too, it's like, yeah, you have these ideas of where you'd like to see your work, but in reality, the idea of getting your work produced by someone you trust is always the primary thing. It's never going to be “Oh well, this studio's an independent one that has only had one movie that's made it into a festival.” You just think, yes, please let's get as much of my work made as possible, if you like the people you're working with.
JB: I think it's hard to say with too much certainty where you want to end up because it is such a crapshoot. The overwhelming majority of work that gets created doesn't really go anywhere, whether it's a script or a film or what. So, I think to sort of presume that something will end up in a particular place depends on a lot of confidence and an assumption about beating the odds, which maybe makes me sound more pessimistic than I'd like, but…
JG: Yeah, I don't think you can say, “Okay, I want only indie release. Or I want Hollywood. Or I want TV or HBO or cable.” If you want to show my film I'm all for that. I'm not going to be a snob and say “Oh no, I think cinemax is too low to show my film I want it to be HBO.”
AE: If you want to show it on a screen at Spider House, yes! To increase your viewership. [Spider House is an Austin coffee house that has film screenings]
JG: As a filmmaker you've got this balance of making the film that you want to make, but also wanting people to see it. It's great if just my friends see the film, but ultimately I'm trying to say something and communicate some kind of idea or message and so as many people as can see that as possible, you know, I'm all for that.
JL: Let's move into this idea of learning these types of things. And I want to start with how teaching influences or changes the ways that you approach your own work. Incorporating teaching into your life, but also how that affects your process.
JG: For me it definitely affects it. I don't think you ever master your craft, you're always learning. And as you teach, for myself, as I teach I learn from my students. So it's this really great symbiotic relationship there. Techniques they use, ideas they come up with. Definitely you're there to help guide them through the process, but there's definitely an exchange that occurs, especially when you're in the academic setting and even in a workshop setting. You know, you get new ideas, and so it's interesting to sit there and go, “I'm teaching you this.” Most cases you're teaching people how to use the tools, but I think the best thing I can do for students is say, “It's not about the tools. The tools are just a means to get to your message. I'm more interested in what's happening up here [in your head] in that process before you get to the tangible tools.”
JB: Screenwriting, I think, as it's evolved as a subject really has a concrete set of rules that instructors try to pass along and that students try to learn. The more I've taught the more respect I think that I've gotten for those rules. Before they maybe seemed sort of a little arbitrary to me, honestly. And I think what's happened too, kind of paralleling that is that these things that I once understood strictly on an intellectual level I've started to internalize and to just kind of act on automatically in my own writing.
AE: So much of teaching screenwriting is really less teaching, more coaching and, you know, just encouraging people to work past those really difficult first couple of years of writing screenplays. It's a new format. It's a new style. It's so many rules and it's constantly challenging you in different ways than other writing you've done before. So, so much of it is just, you know, “Please keep writing.” And encouraging, especially the ones with talent to keep at it. But a lot of it's learning, like what Jeremy said, learning to take your own advice. You find yourself saying these things that you don't always do. Like, “Of course, you can show. Don't tell.” And then you realize I've just told in my entire first opening scene. All my exposition is spoken. And things like telling them to get models for their movies, when you don't have a specific model yet and it encourages you to go find what your model is. And it's just a good reminder when you're doing that.
JB: I was in an odd position last semester when I first started teaching. Not to get too much biography out here, but I came here on a whim and had zero experience with screenwriting before and I think that maybe my expectations may have been misplaced. And so I came and I was just like, “What am I doing? Why am I here?” All of those kinds of doubts. And last semester I didn't believe in screenwriting at all, and so I was like a lapsed Catholic trying to be a priest. Some of my students would come to my office hours and I would have to be honest with them and sooner or later I would spill and say, “Yeah, I think I'm going to go to law school and I kind of hate screenwriting.” And I would just watch my credibility disappear. So this semester I think I'm a little more in synch with what I'm teaching, but it was sort of a weird position going along with what Alison said about you say one thing and then you sort of catch yourself and realize what you are guilty of.
AE: Yeah, and you realize, I don't think it was until last semester, the second semester I was here, that I really became the level of a graduate screenwriter. When I first came here I had so much to learn. It's so funny to see some students naturally have the knack. Their first time ever doing this they're better than you were your first semester. So it's really encouraging in some senses and it makes you realize how much left there is for you to know and while you're teaching to kind of admit there's so much you don't know yet and that you're working on yourself.
JG: There's also this green naivety that for me working with a first-time filmmaker and whether you're doing documentary or narrative you're writing a script in some form or fashion. And so taking myself back to my first film was a feature length documentary, which I look back now and knowing what I know now I never would have even attempted that. And so it reminds me when I see “Oh I'm going to go out and do this and this” and then you see all these mistakes they make and then you watch them go, “Yeah, I should have done this differently.” And you can't hit people over the head. You're just like, “Here's the guide. Here's the tools. I know you're going to mess up a few times along the way. That's part of it, so don't beat yourself up.” And then you watch them make that connection and then you remember when you were doing that yourself and tapping into that green naivety I think is probably one of the best parts for me.
JB: The way our program is structured, the screenwriting program, we write one feature length script every semester, and so just the volume of scripts, the absolute number of scripts that we read in our workshops is less than in the ones we teach. There we do short scripts and so I don't know how many we read, maybe five from each student. There's like the short script and the long script and the adaptation and [a couple others]. And then we have twenty-five students so that's 125 scripts that we read and I'm starting to realize that there are certain things that are really cliché, which I probably should have known before. But there's the student film cliche list.
AE: Set in college. Every movie is set at the University of Texas. It's amazing.
JG: It's like My Big Fat Student Short Film.
AE: And there's an awkward guy who has great sex miraculously all the time.
JG: The student dude film.
JB: I have one student this semester who's one of my brightest and he says to me, “I can't believe that I'm writing a cocaine movie, but I can't think of any other subject so I'm just going to have to do it.” And I'm sitting there and saying “It's going to be alright” and then I'm thinking “Wait a minute. The first script I wrote here was a cocaine movie. What's he talking about?” So you realize you've been called out. But, you realize too reading all these different scripts from all these different people, I think it can be really exciting and inspiring, but also very discouraging because we have twenty-five students who all want to make it. And the odds are against it and the more people you see out there striving earnestly, the more it's like, “Oh my god this is so impossible.” But then you also see too how some people are really good at some things and other people are really good at other things. I have some students who just write really funny dialogue and they can't put together a story with a basic causal unity to it for their lives. But they have some snappy lines.
JG: Right and that's when you try to encourage them to get together in a group. And it's at this point in time where they're not going to because their ego is so big and it's like “No, I'm writing my own screenplay. No, I'm making my own film.” And it's like, for me in my work and I've been doing it for awhile and especially with this last project that I just did, I had always done everything myself. “I'm going to write it. I'm going to direct it. I'm going to edit it. Everything.” And this project working with Alison as a writer, that was just such a great experience for me and I hope for you…
AE: Well…[laughs]. Yes, of course.
JG: But its kind of like “Here's the idea. Here's what's going on.” And then seeing what Alison brought to it and how she developed these characters. And then at some point, then I was able to put on my director hat and say okay this script is now ready for me to work on and visualize and move through. And some things in it that weren't going to work, so I had to do some minor reworking of it. And then, working now with an editor and how he's going to work on this film. So I finally embraced that part where I was like okay, I am directing this film. I have to spearhead it, but ultimately it takes my ability to find people that I trust and I know are going to bring something to this project. So, I'm in the middle of that, well towards the last third of that process right now and I'm so glad I did it. I mean, it's scary and it's not happening as fast as it would on my own, but I think it's going to be a better project because of it. But I've been making films now five years and I'm just now ready to do that. That's the amazing part.
AE: Yeah and I try to keep reminding [students] that you rarely have a film that's made by one person, it's nearly impossible. And so, eighty percent of why you go to film school is to meet people that you want to work with so that down the road you have other professionals. You have a writing partner suddenly. You have a director or two that you trust. You know editing now because your friend was an editor. And I keep trying to remind them, “Keep in touch with these people in this workshop.”
JG: I love the disconnect between the screenwriters and the filmmakers in our program.
AE: Which I think is getting better.
JG: It is getting better, but again it's that point where you get to a certain place and go, “I'm writing all this stuff but I'm never going to see it made. Hmm, maybe I should befriend some filmmakers.” And vice versa. “Hmm, I'm not that strong of a writer, maybe I should get to know some screenwriters.” Again, I really think it's about insecurity and finding this new mode. Because you're creating, but you're not just there with a palette and a canvas by yourself. There's all these interesting facets, even if you're at your computer writing your screenplay, you're thinking, “Who do I give this to? Do I have an agent?” And that's a whole different level of thinking that I don't think we're always that ready to look at right now. And I think that's something too is to really help students realize the full process and that there is this opportunity for your work that if it doesn't get seen on HBO or something then at least you go through that process. And the more people involved then it opens more doors. And perhaps that idea that you initially thought of, will somehow seep out into the message and the medium, you know.
JB: I think that certain mythologies have arisen around the film industry and in a lot ways they have misled our students. There's just “That big break!” Everybody thinks they're going to be an auteur. I have twenty-five students who all think they're the next Wes Anderson. And you want to tell them, “For every one Wes Anderson, there's fifty support and craft and specialty people.” These Wes Anderson types, these auteurs, these are just the famous directors who work with hundreds of other people, their name is so pronounced and so bold-faced that all these students interpret as being, “Okay, that's who does it and I'm going to do it that way.” So it's almost this mythology that's projected through the media and these students interpret it in a very selective way that reinforces these tendencies they have. And so all of a sudden they're just these one-man creative machines for good or generally I think for bad.
AE: A Hollywood professional, a great young guy who's working in a production company, really successful, just came to visit and speak to our students and it's so funny how quickly the questions went from “What's your process as part of a production team?” to “How much money does a spec script earn?” “How do I get an agent?” The things that they're concerned with right now, and it's natural, this is how I always thought in some respects, it's totally cart before the horse with them. They're not thinking, “I've got to spend two years making the best script ever before anyone's going to ever want to even take me to lunch.” They're thinking, “When do I get to go to lunch? So then I write the script.” So, I think that's part of the mythology that's a little dangerous for them, and we keep trying to disavow them of those notions, that it's all lunches and red carpets and stuff like that.
JB: Yeah, I have students who say to me, “I can't write this because I really want to speak to certain themes.” Or “I don't want the climax to be some big physical thing. I really want it to be about this guy's internal struggle.” It's like they think that they have these ideas that are too profound to be fit into the context of all these rules they're being taught.
AE: Yeah, when you want to be like, “Dude, if [Ingmar] Bergman could do it, I think you're going to find your way.” You'll figure it out.
JB: But it is that cart before the horse thing. Someone told me once that Picasso, before he started doing cubist stuff, could paint the most lifelike portraits you've ever seen, so why don't you just learn your technique and then you can go be wild.
JG: And I guess then on the flip side for me, when you're having these dialogues with students, I'll go home and I'll think about it and it just reinforces the amount of patience that I need to have as a media maker and remind myself, this is a craft and it is a skill and I can't rush it, but at the same time I've got to dig in and just start fleshing it out, you know, I've got to just go and make it. Because I think there's something that happens for a screenwriter you just sit there and maybe you bullet point, you don't actually get in to writing, you bullet point or you outline or whatever. And as a filmmaker with my shot list, I'm not really ready to commit to it. Or I'm editing and I'm finding busy work with technical syncing issues and I'm not really ready to jump in there because you're afraid. You're afraid that what's up here is not going to get down here or then on the screen. That connection from what's in your head, you know once you take it out of here and you put it on paper or something and then it becomes tangible, and then you're held accountable for it.
And I think that's the scariest part of this is that the moment that you put typing, or pen, or whatever to paper or canvas or celluloid, then there's more at stake. Then it's like, “Oh my god, am I not going to be as good as I've been flapping my mouth that I am?” So that's something that I'm always learning. You talk to a student and I'm like “No, your documentary cannot be forty-five minutes long. Nobody's going to watch it.” “But it has to. That's just the way it's going to be.” “Alright. Go for it. Make it forty-five minutes long. And then I want to sit in that theater with you and watch you squirm as you feel the audience [stretching and acting bored and uncomfortable]. That, to me is the best learning experience, when just you believe that this is how you have to make it and you're not willing to take any other advice, and I've done that, and then you're there at the screening and you're like, “Yeah, I could have tightened that up.” And it's really an amazing, humbling experience. Or when you write your screenplay and you're there at class and you think it's really brilliant and then you hear the read through and you're like, “Oh my god, nobody's laughing and this is not playing right.” So, I guess humility and patience is just a continual learning experience for me every class I teach.
AE: Yes, especially when students come to you wanting to make the kind of screenplay that everyone tells you, every book, every teacher, not to make as your first script: ensemble pieces.
JG: “Mine's going be different, though.”
AE: Yeah, and I had a student who wanted to do one very badly and he kind of put together a proposal that I finally was like, “Okay you've obviously done your homework.” It's was kind of a translation of a Woody Allen movie…to college…
JG: Three hot chicks and one lonely guy…
AE: Yeah, but it's got something to it. And, who am I to say? My worst fear is that someone's going to bring me Pi or Requiem for a Dream and I'm going to be like, “Oh boy. First time writer” and kind of toss it aside. You know, Lost in Translation. You're always taught to turn those away and steer them clear of them, but who knows? What if one of them can pull it off? And you've got to let go sometimes.
JG: There's a lot of shit that gets funded and made, you know? And I'm like, “Okay, fund me to make that shit so I can have the money to go make this other thing.” But it's like what do you do? Do I shop at the Gap or at the thrift store? I don't know.
JB: I think it is kind of a tough balancing act between trying to steer them in a direction that you think is viable and the kind of thing that you're being told to steer them toward by your advisors and your department and just trying to encourage them and be a cheerleader, which is what they need a lot of times. (To Alison) Because you were saying that this is the first year you really feel like a grad student and I'm the same way and so I'm like, “What do I tell these students who've had maybe three years of film classes already, who already know all kinds of shot angles that I couldn't even describe.
AE: They've seen more movies than I have. They're way more educated on that end than I am.
JB: I've got a student who told me yesterday, “Yeah, I've been writing screenplays since I was thirteen.”
JG: To that I say, “Then why are you here?”
JB: Yeah, and even at AISD [Austin Independent School District]–I was looking for jobs once, when I was thinking about dropping out of the program, and they have media people, they have film people at the high schools just around here. These students are learning it real young and so what position of authority do I have
JG: But see it's not about authority. That's the thing.
JB: Expertise maybe?
JG: It's not even about that. I think you set a precedent with your students saying, “Look, what I'm here to do is help be a guide for you. I'm here to be some extra eyes. I'm here to bring something to the table.” There's going to be a student who walks into that class and from day one you know they're going to say, “I already know everything I need to know. I'm just here to get this credit.” And so you've got to kind of assess where they are. And sometimes they change. They go through and they have these great experiences and I think they more learn it from each other than you. I think figuring out a way to kind of pair students up and [think about] who's going to bring what to the table really reinforces this notion of this community of filmmaking. Even if it's script writing. You see a lot of scripts that are written by two or three writers. And then it goes through a draft and the whole rewrite process.
And at the college level, there's a big difference between freshmen and sophomores and juniors and seniors. A big difference. I've taught the [introduction to production] class and those students are so different from the juniors and seniors who are in production. [The younger students] are really coming in like, “I know everything. You're not going to teach me so I'm just going to make the film I want to make.” Versus “Okay, I went through trying to make that film that I thought I could make and I realize the mistakes I made.” They too go through that weird humbling experience. Maybe just because I've had a few years of teaching and I'm still learning how to do it better. Every semester I try something different as far as technique and how to work with students. Some students will just be very insecure and not know, and those for me I have to say, “You'll figure it out,” and I don't want to baby them because some students want their hand held. They don't want to figure it out and that's not really helping them. And other students that really think they know everything, sometimes you need to pay more attention to them.
So it's psychology in a lot of ways. And thinking about myself, if I'm presenting myself in this manner like I know everything, that means that I'm really insecure and I don't know everything in that area. So it's also being in touch with yourself and recognizing how you present things. And also sometimes telling them, “You know what? I don't know the answer to this question.” Every project there's going to be things that come up that you're going to have to figure out. And those weak dialogue writers, [maybe suggest, “Go] sit in the cafe and tune your ears in and just start listening.” Visually, can you just sit there and watch in a crowd or are you really too absorbed? Are you that person that's walking through the airport and you've got your bags and you stop in the middle and look up to see when the next flight's arriving? Or do you venture over to the side, look around, and then stop? There's two different kinds of people in this world and those people who are just stopping in the middle and creating a traffic slam into their back, those are not people who should be making films.
JB: Well said.
JL: Well on that note, you have all done a great job of addressing the questions that we have. But, what is it, and you can address this from a personal sense of what you bring to the table or what you want your students to bring to the table, but what do you think is the bare minimum that a student needs to bring to the table to learn something like this that can be molded? Like you said the type of person that stops in the middle is not the type of person that's going to do well. What are the types of people? Or what is it that you have to offer that you think is good for your field?
JG: I think it's almost like a weird Zen-like approach. It really is. It's sitting there and just going, “How can you observe what is around you?” There's that old thing, “Write what you know.” And it sounds cliche, but I really think it's true. I really think that we all come to the table with different experiences. Sometimes we take those experiences and we want to mold them into little cliches that we see work as formulas out there. I'm still struggling with that. I've got these stories I want to tell and I'm like, nobody would buy that, nobody would care. And I think of films that are just really out there, like Napoleon Dynamite or something, which is so ridiculous, but also was so successful. And people love it or hate it, but somebody took the risk and went out there to do that. And that's the thing, taking the risk and being…
AE: Along the line of taking the risk…I don't think it helps to be either honest or clever, like just one or the other. I think you need to come to the table being a little bit of both, a lot of honest and a little bit of clever is a way more powerful combination. So if you are approaching the field that way, you're better off than the person who's like, “I just want to tell my story the way it really happened” with no regard for any kind of narrative structure. You know, who's so dedicated to the story, they're not going to budge. Or someone who thinks they're so funny and witty, and it's nothing but witty banter, and it's no heart, and it's all jokes. You know what I mean? So, I think that's really important. Those are the students who I always spot and go, “Wow, this person's telling it like it is, but it's clever enough to make it entertaining.”
JG: And do you notice this–that when you sit down to start, like okay I'm going to focus on writing, I'm going to get this idea out–do you notice that you kind of become this other person? Like you're taking yourself way too seriously. You're like, “Okay, I'm ready for this opus. It's going to pour out of me.” And then I'm like, “Who am I? What is going on? This isn't me.”
AE: That might be more of a director thing, too.
JG: No. You know, like trying to write a script. I struggle with that. I'm like okay here's this idea for a story and I'm like, “Okay, I'm going to be writer Jenn now.” Like I'm throwing on some cape and all of a sudden… And then you're presenting for the class, “Alright, teachers, this is…” And it's like, “Oh my god, who am I?” You know you become this poseur and you feel like you've got to go to this other language. And I think that's part of what you're saying, this mythology, that if you're going to be this auteur, or filmmaker, you've got to be this crazy weird person. Who's that guy that wrote Kids and that directed Gummo?
AE: Harmony Korine.
JG: That guy is a freak, man, you know, I was watching an interview with him and I'm like, I do not want to hang out with that man. I love his films, but is that how he really is, or is this his director persona? I don't know, and then, what will be my director persona? You know, when I'm on the interview show.
AE: Yeah, I sometimes worry, am I too socially well adjusted to ever be a writer? Like a smart, wonderful, Charlie Kaufman-esque writer? Do I not sweat enough and stumble awkwardly through…
JG: What was your original question? I think we're getting off the mark. What do we try to help them with?
JL: That's okay. What is it that you think needs to be brought to the table. What are the types of people that can be authors? Or characteristics…
JG: I don't think that's a fair question. Not that I'm attacking you, I'm just saying that I don't think there is this type of…. I think follow-through. For me, anyway, follow-through is the big deal. There are so many ideas out there. I see so many creative people, and there are a couple people in the program right now, and I think, “God, they're brilliant, how they think about this stuff.” But they're never going to make it because they can't articulate their ideas.
And I think there's a progression there. I don't think you automatically come to the table, because communication is just in every facet of life, any kind of job, communication is really difficult. But if you can't explain what you're trying to do, or what your film's about, you can't get people involved. But I really think follow-through. If you say you're going to do something, do it. Or at least revisit why you're not at that place you thought you were going to be. You know, that communication with yourself and communication with others. For me anyways, that's a pretty big skill that you ought to be working towards.
JB: I'm going to kind of argue with Jenn for a second here. I think there is one thing that people should have and if they don't that's bad news, and that's curiosity. You guys talk a lot about writing what you know and so people sometimes can take that too literally–they'll be like, okay, I know growing up in the suburbs of Houston and breaking up with my high school sweetheart, first year of college, and having a real awful roommate. Okay, you need to have this capacity for sympathy and this curiosity about people beyond yourself. So what if your real awful roommate is actually your real awful bunkmate? You know, your first year with the army. I mean, there's all kinds of ways you can project that.
JG: So, adapting life experiences.
JB: Yeah. Since I've been here, I've divided people into two camps, and this is maybe too categorical and unfair, but there are the people who understand film through life and life through film. And I think the first camp is sort of the better one. People who use film as a form for getting at these ideas and understanding things and grappling with these notions and representing people. And then the other–I have a lot of these students who are so drenched in media and maybe haven't been out that long, haven't been alive that long, I don't know. But everything they write is so based on what they've seen. I have one student that is trying to write a mobster movie, and he says, “Yeah, I need to go do some research. I need to watch Godfather again.” How do you respond to that without breaking his heart?
JG: I wouldn't think you're arguing with me. I agree with that. I think that's definitely true, and that's a good point, and I have this come up in our MFA seminar classes where we're up there critiquing and giving feedback–and I get along with all my peers really well, we have a really great class. And then sometimes, you know they'll say, “Okay, well, what movie would you say that you're going for in this?” And I don't want to say I'm going for any movie, you know. I find that interesting, and sometimes you go, okay, this movie is like so-and-so meets so-and-so. I have that problem with my most recent film because the tone of it…I really was paying homage to the tone of Martin Scorsese's film The King of Comedy from around 1981 [released in 1983], but I also felt real hesitant to say that because then you put yourself into this box. I felt I could better embrace tone, than say, “Well, it's going to look like this.” Because I definitely want to create a different kind of look.
It's a very masculine and testosterone-driven approach to filmmaking these days. You know, “I'm going to create this City of God tone,” and I'm like, if that fits the film, yes! But taking these techniques and putting them in any film? I think that's a real danger, so that kind of mimicking notion I think you [Jeremy] were touching upon, I think that's very dangerous. And maybe curiosity or the interest in something new…which adds a big pressure, you know, how is something different? And I think that's what everybody tells you, “If you can come up with something creative and new and different, then you'll make it.” Oh my god, don't tell me that, that just makes me feel worthless.
AE: And it's not always true, sadly. I mean Hitch was one of the biggest movies of the year so far. And that's nothing really new, and it's all been done. Trying to be original is probably the worst way you can start out as a writer. You know, because don't try and be original, just tell a story that you care about. Where I sometimes, the opposite of Jeremy, will tell my students to go watch these films for research. But I think in the same…
JB: Structurally, it's great to study…
AE: Structurally, they need models, of like how dark comedies will work, how romantic comedies work. What kind of rhythm is there in a scene. We've learned that from our professors. But I think also you know, if you're writing a movie about drag racing, you've got to watch The Fast and the Furious, because you have to know what not to do. And not that that's a bad movie, but you know it's such a seen movie. So many people have seen that. You don't want to be repeating the ground that's been covered. I mean, if one film has a gang of Asian racers, what if your gang is all women?
JG: And then put them in tight leather…
AE: Make them rocker lesbian chicks and they pull knives out…. There is something to be said for watching movies that you laugh at. And seeing what everyone's seen, to know what not to do.
JB: What I mean by that, I think models are so important. And I tend to have the problem in my writing where I can't even decide upon a model.
JB: I'll study one and say, “This is perfect!” And then the next week I'll see another one and it'll just hit home. Like I spent two weeks–I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the first time and I couldn't watch anything else, I just had to let it marinate, just let it simmer. So if you watch The Fast and the Furious to get a model–I always make jokes about The Fast and the Furious is sort of the Point Break model.
AE: It is. It's Point Break with cars.
JB: Point Break with cars, yeah. But if you watch The Fast and the Furious because you want to write a car movie, you want to know about drag racing, and that's your source material, your research, your actual information about the subject, that's really bad.
AE: Like to learn about how mobsters really are, from watching that, yeah.
JG: You're talking about The Fast and the Furious, why don't we bring back Bullitt? A movie like that, Steve McQueen, a chase movie? You know, people don't go back and look at these really classic films. The notion that they're building character development as this chase is happening…I mean, it's brilliant.
JB: I just want my students sometimes–I realize they're writing short scripts and they don't have much time…. But last semester I had a couple who were writing these murder mystery type things, these criminal movies.
AE: Whodunit kind of things?
JB: It was kind of gorier than that. And I think that they were watching Silence of the Lambs and Se7en and using those as models for the police procedure. And I said, “No! Here's the number to the police department PIO [Public Information Office], go call them.” Go call the FBI. Go call real people who legitimately do this.
JG: You're hitting on the fact that people don't do research anymore these days.
JB: Yeah, I mean the WGA [Writers Guild of America] has research resources.
JG: They're like, “I'll Google it, read this paragraph, boom! I've done my research.”
JG: I mean, it's not like going and talking to a real person who's really there, you know, and that to me is the big red flag. If you're not willing–and maybe this answers your question, Jean–to do the work, to do the homework on it…?
AE: And maybe that is our fault in the way some of these classes are structured, is that something's due every week. And I'm not talking a handout, this is major. Our undergraduate students are writing major pieces every single week. And that's really hard, and I think half of surviving this class is just being able to do it on such a regular basis, but yes, your quality is going to suffer. And that's what we try to stress with them: so much of writing is rewriting. You then go back, you approach it from a new angle, having done your homework. But at least you've started; at least you have a starting point.
JG: It's like basic training, I think, any path you're going to take. I think there's something to the fact that that first semester, throw it at them and see how they swim. And then maybe that next semester you can give them more time. It's like with us in grad school, you know your first year it's like holy shit, each semester I'm making a film, and it's this hard core experience. And then as we get into pre-thesis and qualifying projects, okay, we've got a year, maybe a year and a half to make a film. And then you take more time. But I really do think you have to kind of jump right in there and get moving. There's a class that I'm TAing right now, and I feel that the professor just lets the students move a little too slow. I'm like, give them that one project, do the personal portrait of each other, the audio thing, or whatever it is. [Learn] the tools really well so that when you get to your [final] project you're not going to make those same mistakes. Because really some of it is adapting to the tools, the rules of the structure. So I do think it's a good thing to throw them in there, but then after they've gone through that basic training, give them that breathing room to really absorb what they're doing.
To be continued May 26th (Vol. 4 Issue 6)….
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Since this piece focuses on University of Texas graduate students, it would be interesting to hear how other universities approach teaching screenwriting and filmmaking.
This article really speaks to the developmental aspects of a college education, especially learning how to collaborate. The social and life skills students gained in college always seem incedental. However, they are in many ways as important as the technical skills. These students/teachers do a good job of addressing this topic.
It was really interesting when the three talked about authorship in terms of teamwork and working with others to create your film or screenplay. I think that is something that is not really emphasized at all. Making films is completely about teamwork. I think sometimes people become so absorbed in their work they refuse to let others in and contribute their own talents to make it a better piece. That’s just not how films work, and matter of fact, that isn’t how most industries work. I wonder why teamwork is not emphasized at the academic level? Most of the film classes I have been in (both undergrad and graduate) have been completely on your own. You produce, write, film and edit, with a friend helping crew on the shoot. When you get out in the ‘real’ world it is no longer like that.
I also think it is really interesting there is a disconnect between the screenwriting and MFA program. I also think it is interesting, and they don’t mention it above, that there is such a disconnect from the MFA and the MA media studies program. I think the theory people should know production and the production people should know some theory. It just makes for a well-rounded person!