DIY FILM SCHOOL
LA Confidential. Shawshank Redemption. The Shining. For aspiring writers, these titles might as well constitute the first page of the filmmaking Bible. Well-written stories are rare, and rarer still are the stories that are somehow able to remain timeless. That resonate through generations. For Hollywood hopefuls, nothing can be more inspiring than witnessing those masterpieces that blend plot, character and dialogue in such a way as to leave us speechless. It can also be daunting. But instead of staring fearfully up at the Goliath armed only with a sling, let Goliath be a stepping-stone. Study these masterpieces. Build a classroom around them. Watch your favorites three times. Once for plot. Once for character. Once for dialogue. And you will begin to unlock the puzzles, the formula of this art.
Movies are cheap to watch. But the screenplays of those movies? They’re even cheaper. Often public and free. So read. Read, read, read. Read every script you can get your hands on, from Taxi Driver to Psycho to the Breaking Bad pilot from 2008. Watch the film play out on the page. From the cadence of dialogue, to how jokes are delivered, or the exact moment that Act One breaks into Two. And not just screenplays. Many of our favorite films were birthed from novels. Even short stories. (Ahem, Shawshank Redemption). Intellectual property is the name of the game, and book adaptations have the potential to be highly valuable and successful onscreen. What about poetry? Stage plays? From Whitman to Sam Shepard, the written word may take on a different form, but it is cut from the same cloth. Mamet and McDonagh both play in the spheres of stage and film.
The problem with Hollywood is that no one reads anymore. That’s how bad movies are made, and how good ones slip through the cracks. That’s why I have a job, reading for producers and movie studios who want to know: “is this good?” before they dare turn the first page. If you choose the path of a writer, it is your duty to read. To understand the mechanics of the written word, not just the way lines are delivered onscreen. Watch an episode of Friends and then read the transcript, and watch how the written word and the performance interact with each other. Like a precise tango. As a writer, the story lives and dies by what is on the page. No matter how good the actors may be, bad dialogue is bad dialogue. And when your calling card is those 120 pages of white sheet paper with various words on it, you’d better be proud of them.
Stephen King says it best: “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” So become dedicated to the art form. Do yourself a service by not only watching film, but reading it, turning it around in your mind and exploring it in a way that only you—with your individual experiences and individual perspective—can. Embarrassing riches have been made by people purporting to “teach” writers how to write. No one can teach you to write. But you can learn to write. Don’t pay someone to stand in front of you and tell you how it should be done. Your classroom is all around you: in the films you watch, the books and poems you read. And you know what? It’s nearly free. So watch. And read. And watch. And read. And then, of course, write.
Written by Amanda Glassman