“Character is Story.” Richard Walter on Screenwriting.
Richard Walter discusses teaching, the importance of new media platforms, and explains why we should rejoice in the collaborative process of film-making.
By Holly Grigg-Spall.
Richard Walter is the chairman of UCLA’s prestigious graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter himself and novelist, he has produced some of the most popular screenwriting texts around, including Essentials of Screenwriting. He has given master classes all over the world and produced a series of DVDs. His students have gone on to write ten projects for Steven Spielberg alone, plus winning three Oscar winners for Best Screenplay: The Descendents, Milk and Sideways.
What inspired you to go into teaching screenwriting?
It was purely an accident. I graduated from film school eight years earlier and I was working in the industry. I went somewhat reluctantly to a party, I say reluctantly because my wife and I weren’t all that social, we were sort of hermits. We tend to avoid big showbiz parties here in Hollywood. But I did go to this party in Malibu as the host had been very supportive of my career.
As I walked in the door he greeted me and told his friend stood next to him, someone I did not know, who was the head of the program of UCLA; that I was the guy he’d been talking about. This was in 1977 so sometime ago. Suddenly I was on the faculty at UCLA. I wasn’t looking for work. I didn’t need work. I had been supporting a family exclusively as a writer doing assignment after assignment for the major studios. I had sold my first novel to a prominent New York publisher and I had sold the film rights to a major Hollywood studio and I was busy working on the adaptation, so the last thing I was looking for was a job.
I think there’s a lesson in that, which is if you look for things you just won’t find them. I think that is true in a life narrative, but also in a dramatic narrative with a screenplay.
It was guilt that brought me to the party and it was guilt that brought me to UCLA. I was full of anxiety about the time commitment involved. I figured I had to try it out. I did immediately love working with the writers on campus here, they keep us fresh, they butt heads with us, they compete with us, and they keep us from getting into the kinds of grooves and routines that can limit artists in a freelance community like the Hollywood community. It’s a very wonderful experience and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I’m happy to say that the University of California is also a research institute, so for faculty like myself teaching is my second obligation, and my creative activity is my priority. I found myself busier as a writer after coming to the university than before.
So it was kind of an accident. A pleasant kind of accident.
Were you hoping to emulate any teachers that you had enjoyed in your own experience as a student at university?
My mentor and my hero is the legendary writing instructor at USC, Irwin R. Blacker. His students included George Lucas and a lot of famous people. I modeled my teaching on his example. In many ways the program is ironically modeled on his program. Ironically because there’s this rivalry between the schools UCLA and USC, although we all get on very well because it’s a seller’s market and we’re both very popular with long waiting lists of people wanting to get in.
Now USC is remodeling its program after our own, because UCLA does get singled out by objective journals as a great American film school, along with NYU. USC wanted to compete with us more aggressively and changed their program to be more like ours and the irony is that it came from them anyway! We are very writing intensive. It’s really fast paced here. Writers have to turn out a full-length screenplay in nine or ten weeks.
We only take 8 writers in a class. That’s partly the secret to our success. It’s important that the writers have close consideration and attention from an instructor who can be very concrete with them about every aspect of their script. We have a safe place where writers can feel secure about reaching and stretching and taking risks and will get a lot of support from their peers. We don’t do a lot of propagandizing or theorizing on film, although in the first weeks everyone has to endure a series of lectures from me that go back to Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. After that it’s really a very intensive program of rolling up your sleeves and writing, writing, writing.
I also offer a summer session that’s open to UCLA and non-UCLA students. They get 8 academic credits for that. It’s a rare chance for someone who isn’t enrolled at UCLA to take a class that’s a real writing class. We extrapolate from the issues we encounter in scripts the principles of screenwriting. We find the principles in progress and discuss them that way. So for example I oppose parentheticals, the commentary that goes under a character’s name before the dialogue starts, that says “angry” or “quietly” or something like that. Shakespeare got through his plays without a single parenthetical. You never see “Hamlet: melancholy.” It’s in the context.
We will look at a page in a script where a parenthetical arises. I talk about my sister Jessica Walter, she’s an actress and best known now as the legendary Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development. When she was in the movie Play Misty For Me there was one line where she was directed parenthetically to speak a line “(livid with rage).” The actors will cross all that stuff out. The line she was supposed to deliver with rage, instead she delivered all up and peppy and perky and very good girl. It’s a much more effective line that way.
Don’t be a totalitarian, I tell writers, don’t direct the movie, just write it. The actors might do something with a line that is better than you have in mind. We look at that in the context of a screenplay with a parenthetical. The lesson binds more easily that way rather than if it were presented as an abstraction.
What would you say is the most similar other art form to screenwriting?
That’s a wonderful question as I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between parenting and teaching recently. We are the proud grandparents for the first time of an 8 month old. Watching my daughter and her husband and their son resurrects the whole experience for you as a parent.
I’m an obsessive compulsive addicted swimmer. I swim every day. In 1984 UCLA let the Olympic women’s swim team practice at the pool here. For a couple of weeks all those years ago I was swimming with these Olympic swimmers. I remember the coach told me something of what it was like to be teaching, which I think relates to all educators across all disciplines, “Half the job is showing the way, the other half is getting out of the way.” We have to get out the way of our artists and let them discover themselves and find themselves and that’s how we will find them.
I was talking to an educator from another institution at an academic conference and she asked me what to do with a writer who is given notes and their new draft does not incorporate those notes. I said, “You are too invested in this. Your student has the right to write as badly as she wants.” You have to be open to the surprises, to changing your mind. Every artist has to be the authority for her own art. The first part of the word authority is author. Just because your professor gave you an A+ on a script it doesn’t mean Paramount has to buy it and make it. It just doesn’t work like that.
You’ve been working in the industry for sometime, do you feel anything has changed about the kinds of scripts that the big studios are looking for? Also how do you think new platforms like Netflix and HBO Now and Hulu have changed the landscape for writers and the process of screenwriting?
Let me say unequivocally and with no ambiguity, yes and no. Everything has changed in terms of movie making and filmed entertainment. The studios are done. They’re not doing original material, they’re doing prequels and sequels and franchises and adaptations of material from other media. It’s a terrible pity, but they’re not doing really any original material. But it’s a very exciting time and there’s more work than ever for writers and that’s because of the new platforms, particularly premium cable channels.
We just had a visit from Mike Lombardo at HBO. HBO is the MGM of today. Mike Lombardo and his co-captain there are the Louis B. Mayer of the current times. Hundreds of years from now when they’re talking about comedy they’ll be talking about Arrested Development on Netflix. They’ve reinvented the book, of all things. You can pick up a series and watch them all in one sitting as you can pick up a book and read the whole thing in one sitting. You can go back and forward, the observer has so much more control over how she processes, accepts, observes the media, the way she acts as an audience. I’ve not seen anything in a movie theatre that’s not as good as an episode of the Sopranos and Breaking Bad. Those, just as two examples, are among the greatest achievements of narrative expression.
I went to school with George Lucas, I wrote the first drafts of American Graffiti and you couldn’t pay me to go see the new Star Wars movie. I just can’t imagine anything less interesting than that. Scores of millions are interested in it, but I’d rather see an episode of The Wire or one of the better episodes of Mad Men or an early episode of House of Cards or Homeland. The best episodes are timeless and eternal. There’s material over the years as good as that, but not better than that. There’s never been more work for writers and there’s never been better work.
The one thing that has stayed the same and will always stay the same – that’s story. It’s all about story. The motion picture camera was invented and the first recorded motion picture image is a trolley car going down the street in Orange, New Jersey. That’s where Thomas Edison’s studio was where he invented the camera and projector. Once it was ready they just took it out into the street. They weren’t going to shoot an image of a parked car, so they waited for the trolley to come down the street. For a while people would go crazy to see this image that moved.
People would pay to go into a chamber to watch images of pictures that moved. People got tired of that pretty quickly. Then what they’d have were called travelogues. Images of great wonders from all around the world. You no longer needed to travel, you could go to the movie theatre on Main St and see the world. Then that became, after a time, quite tedious. Then came Trip To The Moon. Films became like stories and that has never changed. People want narratives, they want stories. They want good stories.
Character is story. Who’s the richest, most layered, complex, studied, analyzed character in English language literature? Hamlet would be a good candidate for that. Do you remember the playwright’s description of Hamlet? It’s three words – Prince of Denmark. Story is what we do and what we say, character is what we do and what we say. It is action that defines character. It’s a mistake to make up a character before writing action. They do have such things as character bio workshops about what kind of candy bar a character would eat if they ate a candy bar even if they don’t eat a candy bar in the script and what kind of candy bar they would be if they were a candy bar. What kind of a tree…people go on about what a character is like. I think it’s nonsense, it’s anti-creative. The story will tell you who the characters are. Watch what they do, listen to what they say, they will tell you what they are. It’s a mistake to have an image of a character beforehand.
I’m a very experienced writer who’s worked with a lot of other writers. I don’t know a single writer in 40 years who has not been surprised by the twists and turns in a story that they have created, by actions the characters suddenly take, by lines of dialogue…they seem to invent themselves. I was talking to Neil Simon, the comedy playwright, and I asked him if he laughs at his own jokes. He said, “Sure I do, the first time I hear them.” He’s making it up alone in a room, but it’s as if someone else spoke the joke to him. Writing seems to take on a life of its own. That’s the joy in writing, if there is joy in it. Amateurs talk about the fun of writing, but serious professional writers will tell you what work it is, how hard it is. Someone asked W. Somerset Maugham if he only wrote when he felt inspired and he said that he only wrote when he’s inspired, but fortunately he’s inspired at 9 am every morning, in other words when he dragged his butt up to the office every day. Real writers hate writing; they love having written. So write a great story. Audiences want that and they’re entitled to it.
Many, many screenplays that get written will not be made into movies. Is there any value or merit in writing a screenplay that doesn’t become a movie?
I can’t believe anyone writes a screenplay who doesn’t hope it will become an actual movie. People who cannot live with disappointment need to stay a million miles away from the creative arts. I think there’s precious value in screenplays all by themselves. However, a movie is not the only thing that a screenplay can become.
I have done this a few times – I’ve written the screenplay and used it as an elaborate outline for a novel. Most of the heavy lifting has been done. I don’t market the screenplay; I market the novel. I get it published as a novel. It has a new credibility, viability and value in the business. It’s no longer an original – imagine “original” here being a deficit. That used to be a compliment, original. They don’t want originals anymore, they want to play it safe. In art playing it safe can be the most hazardous course you can find.
The fiction market is narrow and difficult, and my ignorance about this with my first novel was my friend. If I’d known it could be hard I might not have done it, but I did and it got sold very quickly. It was picked up by Warner Bros even though they’d previously declined it as a screen project. Suddenly it had new legitimacy.
I find working in the novel form is much easier. Screenplays are so demanding of efficiency and economy. It’s grinding and cranking at 24 frames for everyone. People with books can pick it up, set it down, go back and read again, devour certain portions, skim others, peruse the deep passages. A movie is going at the same rate for everyone so it must move story freight every second. With a screenplay you’re stuck with sight and sound. I just read a screenplay in which the characters go to a restaurant, they order wine and the writer described how the wine tastes. It is fruity but flinty…so on…wait a minute, this is a screenplay, someone in the audience is not going to know what the wine tastes like! In a novel you can say that. Novels are longer and that makes them easier. Try to ride a bicycle very, very slowly. Much easier to ride it quickly.
As Hemingway said in a long letter to his agent, nine pages long, at the very end, “Please forgive me for writing such a long letter, I did not have the time to write a short one.” There’s a story about Abraham Lincoln. He was asked to fill in as a public speaker at the last minute at an event. He said if they wanted him to do ten minutes he’d need time to prepare, but if they wanted him to do an hour he could be ready right away.
I’ve just written a new screenplay and I’m turning it into a novel. I will show it to New York book agents. And if God is good and the book is any good and if I’m wonderfully lucky, I will get a contract for the book and at that point I will immediately go out with the screenplay. I might not sell the book and I might not sell the screenplay, but that’s my strategy.
They don’t want to make something that they don’t have an excuse for its anticipated failure. By having it published as a novel by a big publisher that’s the executives’ excuse for its anticipated failure. I have a friend who produced one of the biggest failures of all time, Bonfire of the Vanities. He would say it wasn’t his fault, it was a best seller by Tom Wolfe, it had Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks in it, it was directed and written by great experienced writers – every aspect is trying to explain away the anticipated failure. If you have a novel and it’s been published by St Martin’s Press and is a Times bestseller, then there’s an answer available for the executive that buys the rights to it. The executive thinks – they thought it was good so I’m not crazy to think that it’s pretty good.
How does a writer know when they’re ready to show their script to someone for notes?
There’s no such thing as being ready. A colleague of mine ran into the late Julius Epstein and amongst his credits is Casablanca. He told him how wonderful the film is, how all writers aspire to his timeless classic. Julius didn’t just respond with thanks, no, he’s a writer, his response was that they fucked Casablanca up, and starts talking about the parts that they ruined. He was carping and complaining. All I can think is I wish someone would ruin my movie like they ruined Casablanca. People are rewriting even after the thing is on the screen.
When I’m doing readings of my novel at events. I will pick out the best, or the least awful passages to my mind, and I find myself editing as I go. I will cut out sentences and even paragraphs. I will think how I will go home and fix parts, but there’s no fixing now.
You have to just bite the bullet and show someone your script, but you should never be confident that it is ready.
It seems to me that a person can write a great screenplay, but if it gets picked up by a producer to be a film it’s very likely that it will be changed, regardless, by any number of people in the process for any number of reasons, and by some who’ve had no screenwriting training at all. How do you advise your writers in handling this?
If you get precious about what you’ve done you are your own worst enemy. Many will tell you the downside of writing for the screen is that so many people come between you and the final work, the movie, you are creating. I say, that’s not the downside, that’s the upside, that’s the special nature of writing for the screen. You are part of a family of creative artists and craftspeople, collaborating and working together on a common and seamless enterprise, if it’s any good. You should rejoice. Don’t merely tolerate changes they make.
When writers have had their work adapted for the screen and announce publicly that they’re upset with how it came out, it’s very difficult for me not to say – go fuck yourself. Did you take the money for this? Be a good soldier and keep your mouth shut. It’s a privilege to be mistreated in Hollywood. Wouldn’t you rather have your book messed up than ignored?
No way is more valid than another way. Don’t be a control freak. If you want to have total control, you can have it – work as a novelist. You should see a meeting with a book editor in comparison to a meeting with a story editor at a studio story conference. You can avoid writing for the screen altogether and write literature and have 99.9% control over it. If you do write for the screen, embrace the collaborative nature of it. That’s the fun, that’s what makes it special.
Or why not watch a video interview of Richard Walter by our friends at Film Courage?