When I left teaching at the NYU Film School, I set up my own workshops in NY and LA. The semester commitment was becoming too difficult to negotiate because of my own writing projects. In my workshops I was doing the same basic screenwriting workshop that I did at NYU in a full semester but in ten sessions, over a four week period. Since LA is a company town and everyone you meet has a screenplay in the car or on its way to an agent, I had enough students to do two sessions a day. I had a congenial work space in an entertainment building owned by a boyhood friend. Good location, ample parking, a comfortable conference room at a fair rental. When my friends heard of my LA plan, they advised me against it. “Everybody does a screenwriting workshop in LA. The competition is fierce.” I had no edge. No built in fan base. I placed small ads in the Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. “You’re waisting your time.” I was determined to give it a try. ”What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nobody will come. No Workshop.”
People called. Some wanted references. I provided them. They did a check. Others challenged, ”I’ve made my living for ten years writing for TV… what can you teach me?” Others were aggressive …if not rude. “You called me. Don’t come” I said. “I just want …a refresher”. The class started, the participants drifted in, some grudgingly. Heads down, no eye contact, “Show me.” Been there before … didn’t throw me. I did what I always do, explain as clearly and logically as I can and as interestingly as I can, if you don’t get them to listen … what’s the point? I lay out the logic and theory of the screenwriting craft as I have understood it. The sessions rolled over. The group warmed up. They did the small exercises attached to the end of each session so that the writers would practice the theory in a real way on their own time and be ready with it for the next session. We would then do them out loud and share what was right about them and what had to be adjusted. They seemed to be having a good time. Everyone was now participating fully. They laughed at my jokes …keeping them involved, paid attention to my stories, absorbed, and the logic of the steps I was taking them through towards screenwriting. I could tell by their exercises that they were getting it. Even when they got it wrong they understood the simple adjustments that would make it right. In the next exercise they got it right. The screen stories were developing before our eyes. They were short screenplays based on the limited material generated in the exercises.
Then a familiar moment occurred. It had happened often enough so I found myself waiting for it. After a session, usually in the middle of the four weeks, one of the former grumpy writers would hang back, shuffling papers that were already gathered, looking over notes, while the other writers packed up and left. When everyone was gone and I was about to leave, the lagging writer would say, Irv can I talk to you …?” ”Of course.” ”I’m sorry I gave you a hard time… all I can say is …I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” No harm done. I was helping. That’s what it was all about. And I did appreciate the acknowledgement.
There are certain aspects of screenwriting that can be taught to improve a writers already existing understanding. How to approach character. How you can look at location with a deeper sense of what it means. The importance of the visual component so your script isn’t all dialogue. That’s a big one. How you put that on the page in film form. You don’t get the logic, the How To of it, under the pillow as a gift. It is not about trial and error or the use of common sense. And understanding the emotional logic and visual logic of visual storytelling is something I find a great number of experienced screenwriters have not thought through clearly. On the other hand the kind of writing required when part of a pool on a sit-com often works against the understanding of a full independent screenplay. I have had several novelists and journalists in my classes and there again, a different skill set. Just as being an actor or a camera person helps with writing a screenplay but the essential part of screenwriting is still the distinct purview of the screenwriting craft and must be learned as a a new skill.
Over a number years of both writing my own plays and screenplays and also teaching screenwriting I have developed a comprehensive approach that gives writers an understanding of screenplay logic that provides a solid basis for the confidence needed to write good screenplays. I am comfortable with my way of working and know that the writers that I work with go away with a process that they can use in writing their screenplays. Worth doing. Worth spending time on. I also enjoy telling my stories it’s almost like writing a screenplay.