A Three Act Journey in the Land of the Screenwriting Gurus




A Three Act Journey in the Land of the Screenwriting Gurus by Jonathan Zimmerman

The education of a screenwriter

November 21st, 2012 reset - +

Russell Pool for "House Beautiful" 1951

 
If, while watching the sun set on a used-car lot in Los Angeles, you are struck by the parallels between the image and the inevitable fate of humanity, do not, under any circumstance, write it down.

                        — Fran Lebowitz

LONG AGO, IN A TIME OF PEACE and relative innocence, I decided that I would like, very much, to be a writer. At that time, I was just a person who wrote stuff; a swell hobby and a fine way to pass the time while everyone else worked, but what I really wanted was to get paid to write stuff. Besides the obvious fiduciary benefits of such an arrangement, I was most interested in the title it confers. “Writer” would provide identity and security. “Person who writes stuff” provided only stomach pains.

My first step was to figure out what type of writer I wanted to be. I briefly considered poetry, my original passion. The few working poets I had met all seemed to live in the same neighborhood of modest row homes in Providence, RI. I did not know much at that point in life, but I knew I did not want to live in a modest row home in Providence, RI. Then I also realized, with an admirable sobriety brought on by age and actual sobriety, that my poems read like a privileged suburbanite take on Langston Hughes, and as such might never become the meal ticket I was hoping for.

Poetry dreams deferred, I moved on to another passion: screenwriting. It began as a lark, quickly grew into a hobby, and then an obsession. When I met a professional screenwriter, whose spacious two-story apartment in idyllic Culver City was nowhere near Providence, I knew I had finally found my calling.

So then how would I transition from wannabe Writer to adequately compensated Screenwriter? I, of course, hadn’t the faintest. But luckily, some people possessed the knowledge I sought, and would graciously share it with me, and with anyone else willing to pay. They were the gurus. And they were there to help…

This is the story of my journey into the land of the gurus.

Among qualified experts, the screenwriting guru stands alone in his level of exaltation and influence. To obtain his title, the guru must have mastered the elusive craft of screenwriting, which sometimes, though not always, entails the actual selling of a screenplay. Always, though, it involves writing a book.

The tremendous unlikelihood of actually succeeding serves as one major theme of the screenwriting book sub-genre. The guru typically lays this message out in the introduction, justifying the book’s existence and establishing his own bona fides, which need be no greater than, “I am screenwriter, and if you are reading this preface, then probably you are not.”

Like most wannabes, I found this argument wildly persuasive. Often stated and always implied, screenwriting is a craft and not an art, its values commercial and not aesthetic, its target the audience and not some loftier notion such as truth or beauty. This is one of many ways that screenwriting differs from guides to writing, for instance, plays. Another is that playwriting guides don’t suggest that with years of hard work and dogged determinedness, you may eventually be able to afford a swimming pool.

From the gurus I acquired an entire workbench of tools. More importantly, I gained the very notion that screenwriting required tools, or a bench, or even work. Instead of pretending to be an “artist,” that vacuous elevation, I learned to emulate the artisan. For the artisan, as for the screenwriter, success is easily quantifiable. The trained eye has no trouble separating the professional work from the amateur.

¤

The gurus of screenwriting tend to employ many blunt maxims and strictures. The guru-godfather himself, Syd Field, set the template with his all-encompassing approach to screenwriting, known as “the three act structure.” Learning to write, speak and eventually think in the three-act structure was, in the language of Field and his many acolytes, my inciting event. Field offered a way to achieve my needs and wants to become a screenwriter. Although I originally resisted the call of Field’s rigid template, I finally acquiesced and set out on my second act journey to master the three-act structure.

What initially drew me to Field’s method, and the craft of screenwriting as a whole, was its elegance. Compared to the messy platitudes and artistic minefields of my other creative endeavors, screenwriting fit neatly and firmly into an easily verifiable pattern. Pulling back the face of the clock, I found a wondrous mechanical world to explore just underneath the surface of my favorite movies.

After my first sputtering screenwriting attempt, a dog-eared copy of Screenplay ever at my side, I found myself searching for new and more nuanced advice. New to Los Angeles, I strolled over to the nearest mega-chain bookstore, where I discovered something I’d never seen back home: An entire bookcase filled with screenwriting books, books of all flavor and fashion, with provocative titles and enticing promises, each one offering a crucial puzzle piece from another worthy guru. I mopped the drool off my chin and carted my new prizes to the register.

Thus began, in earnest, my foray into the deep ocean of screenwriting books. I took up Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey while revising a script about a rabbi involved in the pre-WWII eugenics movement. I was having trouble identifying with my protagonist, and Vogler promised to help me to understand the primal archetypes within. “Stories built on the model of the Hero’s Journey have an appeal that can be felt by everyone,” he promises, “because they well up from a universal source in the shared unconscious and reflect universal concerns.”

While I found Vogler’s belief in the unconscious connectivity of storytelling deeply convincing, it was his neo-classical approach — Aristotle by way of Campbell as filtered through a Disney executive — that really won me over. With him as my mentor, I felt I was finally prepared for the many shape-shifting characters I would encounter during my hero’s journey: The duplicitous Hollywood tricksters, the demanding threshold guardians reading my scripts, and the ever-present shadow antagonist of my fears and insecurities.

Years later, I see as much Vogler in the script as myself. It is stilted and feels foreign, like an awkward paint-by-numbers attempt at classical storytelling. Rather than writing, I’d been regurgitating undigested bits of Vogler onto the page, and the results were as unappetizing as they sound.

In the meantime I had found a lithe and sexy little book called Save the Cat. At the time, Blake Snyder’s release was so hot that it even won a spot on the bookshelf at my hometown bookstore, where I snatched it up during a trip back to suburbia. Snyder makes impassioned pleas for unfussy commercial simplicity: “Advice like, ‘Follow your heart!’” he writes, “and ‘Be true to your vision!’ is fine if you’re in therapy. Me? I really want to improve my odds.” His admonitions to remain focused, at all times, on the ticket-buying audience held a blue-collar humility that I found irresistible. “Put yourself in the shoes of the customer, the person who’s paying good money, including parking and a babysitter, to come see your film.”

I found myself readily adopting the no-nonsense, Hollywood-insider vocabulary espoused by Blake. Instead of some classic archetypal protagonist or structural pinion, I was simply a dude with a problem. Though the bad guys were closing in, and the whiff of death permeated all around, I would soon awaken from my dark night as a frustrated wannabe and write the script that would change the world forever. Despite his almost condescendingly convivial tone, I found in Snyder’s breezy book more substance than all the bloated ur-texts of the field. Through his prodding, I began to reconnect with the exoteric, crowd-pleasing Hollywood films I loved growing up. Even more than Field, Snyder made me love the ingenious mechanical elegance in such storytelling.

¤

Over the next three years, I built my collection at an accelerating pace, getting no closer to the swimming pool, but consuming each with the increased need and diminished satisfaction of the true addict. A few notable titles affected me for at least a brief moment. Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make it Great offered a quick, masochistic thrill with its drill-sergeant-esque admonitions. Writing In Pictures proposed a more fluid and artistic understanding of the formulas, but its stuffily professorial lectures were soon forgotten. Screenwriting for Dummies was a supposedly ironic return to the elementary level of screenwriting theory, but actually helped far more than I would have admitted at the time.

Soon I was finding texts about specific aspects of screenwriting: The Third Act: Writing a Great Ending to Your Screenplay; The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success; Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath; and other such titillatingly colon-filled titles. Naturally the gurus began to expand into other media, and so I found myself bookmarking their blogs, downloading their podcasts and following, sometimes even interacting with, their Twitter feeds. In this fractional progression, I’d somehow evolved from aspiring writer to screenwriting guru groupie.

I now own about 25 screenwriting books, a drop in the bucket of the over 1,500 Amazon claims to carry, but a substantial part of my modest library. While their titles line my bookcase, I wouldn’t be caught dead reading any of these books in public. Perhaps if it were a digital copy, and maybe if I lived in another city, like Seattle or better yet, Sheboygan, and then only if I could sit facing the door with my back to a corner like a mafia don. But here, in Hollywood: no chance. Something about my relationship with the gurus shames me enough that I dare not let them outside the discreet confines of my apartment.

Yet another new screenwriting book revealed to me why I’d developed this secret shame. Ben Garant’s and Thomas Lennon’s Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! is a screenwriting book buried within a parody of screenwriting books delivered as a boozily shouted infomercial. Despite touching on, or more accurately glossing over, much of the standard screenwriting how-to’s, Garant and Lennon are decidedly not gurus in the traditional sense. Instead, they vacillate wildly between hilarious anecdotes, irreverent inside-baseball advice and whatever you’d call a whole section on the In-N-Out Burger secret menu.

It’s all very tongue-in-cheek and good fun, though I found myself wondering whether the joke was more on me, and others like me, than the gurus. Entire chapters on credit arbitration, studio parking status rankings, and the benefits of alcoholism are all delivered with the exaggerated straight-faced gusto of Snyder, Vogler, and Field. For example, this helpful bit of advice comes during an extended story about a pitch-from-hell: “Note: if the person you’re pitching to falls asleep, DO NOT WAKE THEM. They may wake up confused and angry and as a result hire Ganz and Mandel instead of you.”

At its ballsy best, the books reads like an all-night dish session in some secret VIP bar at the Writers Guild of America building. The rest of us outsiders — namely, all the people who purchased the book — are standing on each other’s shoulders, desperately trying to get a peek inside, and Lennon and Garant have been kind enough to leave the curtains pulled back a crack. It mostly reminded of another type of show businessman, the magician, for whom the world divides neatly into two classes of people: the ones who know how the tricks work, and the ones who spend their money trying to figure out how the tricks work. The magicians have a special name for the latter group. They call them the “Howdy Doodats?” It is not an endearment.

¤

It is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over.

— David Mamet

As I reflect on my hero’s journey, I realize I am still somewhere deep in the murky swamplands of the second act. I’ve gained many a skill, overcome perilous obstacles, but how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps the final battle is just ahead. Far more troublingly is the possibility that this story has no third act; that I am doomed to remain in the sullen purgatory of Act II forever, unable to write myself out of it. In the end, I realize that, as in any good story, in order to succeed I will have to journey forward without the aid of my mentors. Since the gurus lack the decency to die before the third act, as all the best mentors do, I realize I will have to kill them myself.

As I begin work on a new feature length “spec” script, my third, I look forward to the months-long project with excitement and even something bordering on serenity. Bereft of the gurus and their ilk, the craft of screenwriting begins to feel more like something I am intrinsically comfortable with, something I have been doing ever since I possessed the motor skills to maneuver a crayon — namely, writing.

Yes, I am still a wannabe, one of the masses of laughable dreamers keeping the coffee shops full, the film schools in business, and the gurus in ever-higher demand. But I remember some lines from the poem “Movies,” by an early mentor, the inimitable Langston Hughes:

Hollywood
laughs at me,
black —
so I laugh
back.

Today Hollywood laughs at all us wannabes, filling their coffee shops with our dreams deferred and absurd. The trick for us is learning how to laugh back.

¤

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