It’s a Richard Walter World
Leslie Dallas looks at the life of legendary screenwriting teacher Richard Walter.
By Leslie Dallas.
It’s the self-referential moment to beat all self-referential moments in a town that thrives on them, in an industry built on them: Richard Walter watches Richard Walter doing Richard Walter. There he is standing in front of Creative Screenwriting Magazine’s booth at the UCLA Festival of Books, joined by the writers of The Wedding Crashers, who have stopped to chat with him. On a monitor is another Richard Walter, “The Jewish Mother of Screenwriting,” an aging hipster in wire-rimmed glasses, his signature black t-shirt stretched across a taut swimmer’s body. The digital Richard Walter leans out of the DVD to tell us all how we see movies and professes upon the second act gloom. The real Richard Walter laughs and comments on the DVD shoot. It’s a sunny Westside day, the track team has just beat USC, beautiful girls in tank tops and gauze skirts glide across Bruin Walk. It’s a Richard Walter world.
If the man on the DVD seems to be performing himself, maybe it’s because Richard Walter’s first ambition was acting (his sister is Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter), and maybe because he has the act down cold, having spent every Monday night for nearly forty years, steering, cajoling and nudging students in the screenwriting workshop that will decide their future in the film industry. For nearly that long Walter has also headed the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA where the odds for acceptance are tougher than securing a slot at Harvard Medical School.
Walter presides over his kingdom in Westwood by giving his audience the Richard Walter treatment. With animated gestures and an accepting smile, he tells stories and sets-up jokes (“Stand and Deliver, one of those movies where the kids get to take the test twice.”) He gives safe direction: “Who is your main character? What is your story really about?” And he offers advice: “When asked the most important piece of advice for writers, writer Tommy Thompson responded after a long, thoughtful pause: Every day, no matter what else you do, get dressed.” It’s a generous mix of stand up, live theater and your kindest distant relative making sure you take a sweater. The Richard Walter treatment works.
When a character laments, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” it‘s likely source is Walter. The second act gloom, about 75 minutes into a movie, is when things can not get worse and then they do. Emphasized by Walter, this sense of impending disaster is saturated in cultural media ranging from references in business and tech articles in Vanity Fair and The L.A. Times, to a Star Wars Triology drinking game.
The Descendants, Milk, The Manchurian Candidate, Fight Club,The Sum of All Fears, Any Given Sunday, The Wedding Crashers, Sideways, Charlie’s Angels, Spider Man, Men In Black, Fight Club, Election, Road to Perdition, Stand and Deliver, Bill and Ted I and II, Mission Impossible, Meet The Parents, Highlander, Armageddon, Face/Off, Robocop, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Repo Man, Backdraft, River’s Edge, Cheers, Northern Exposure, Melrose Place, Doogie Howser, M.D., Everybody Loves Raymond, Beverly Hills 90210, Southpark, Awkward, literally thousands of films and television shows pour from the feverish minds of UCLA writers and Walter workshop graduates. No fewer than eleven projects produced and/or directed by Steven Spielberg have solo or shared on-screen credit for UCLA-trained writers: Jurassic Park I,I, and III, Indiana Jones I,II, War of the Worlds, The Terminal, Munich, Eagle Eye, Lincoln, Amazing Stories.
In a kind of cultural replicating virus (oh yeah, and Outbreak, too), Walter has touched the brains of the development executives who hear the pitches, of the producers, of the students who went on to become screenwriting teachers, and even of those guys working security at Sony and still trying to push their script. In some way, Walter has touched what we’ll see at the multiplex and what we’ll stream or pirate. You see, it is a Richard Walter world.
In 1966 Walter was weeks away from beginning a Ph.D. program in Instructional Media at Syracuse University when he and a friend drove to Los Angles where he had also been accepted into film school at both USC and UCLA. He arrived on the USC campus with no appointment, and, it being August, no staff to talk to. By luck he found the Cinema Department Chair Bernard Kantor picking up his mail (in those days, the USC Ph.D. was a degree from the Communications Department with an emphasis in Cinema) and explained that he’d been accepted into the doctoral program at Syracuse in Instructional Communications, but thought he might consider the spot USC had offered him. Kantor admonished him to return to New York immediately, assuring Walter that USC’s program could in no way compete with the prestigious opportunity awaiting him at Syracuse. But Walter wasn’t shaken by Kantor’s reverse approach. As he and his friend drove across town to the beach, they hit the strand and took in a perfect California day. He felt young and unencumbered, and was suddenly aware that had never taken many risks in life. Walter drove back to New York and then back out to Los Angeles where his three-week trip is now in its forty-ninth year.
Strangely, as a writer, Walter’s most celebrated script is one for which he received no on-screen credit. United Artist invested $10,000 in George Lucas’s first draft screenplay of American Graffiti, his own coming-of-age-in-1962 Modesto story. Lucas hired his USC film-school friend Walter to re-write the screenplay, but as a Jewish boy from New York, Walter had no connection to California’s dusty yahupetzville. Walter’s first draft steered the story in the direction of his first novel about his own coming-of-age-story. After the first draft was written, Lucas went to see Walter at his house and Walter said “He looked really grim…and I can tell he didn’t like the draft.” Lucas said the script was not his Modesto. “What do I know from Modesto? Growing up in Queens, we didn’t have cars. We rode the subway, or bicycles.”
The sexuality in Walter’s screenplay was also part of Lucas’s problem with the script. “The main character…goes over to his girlfriend’s house to break it off. She seduces him, and there’s a very sexual scene — which I know from things I was told subsequently, really offended George. But hey, it’s adolescence! Though not, I gather, George’s adolescence.” There was another draft, but Lucas also wrote several drafts himself. The studio, United Artists, never saw Walter’s script and passed on Lucas’s. Eventually the project was resurrected at Universal, written by Lucas and two other USC film school pals, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, and the rest is history. The film launched Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul LeMat, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Sommers, and Luke Skywalker.
Walter, based on the publication of his own adolescent coming-of-age story, his novel, Barry and the Persuasions, in combination with his early Graffiti drafts, felt like he’d become the go-to guy for lost innocence projects, writing scripts for Warner Brothers, Columbia, Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and others.
In August of 1977, Walter was invited to a party at the home of his former USC mentor, Arthur Knight, for whom he’d served as a teaching assistant. Knight was a well-regarded film historian and critic who penned, The Liveliest Art, wrote “Sex and the Cinema” for Playboy and served as the critic for The Saturday Review. It was a beautiful home on a beautiful Malibu beach, and Walter was in the midst of non-stop years of lucrative assignments. At the time, a major studio had acquired the rights to Barry and the Persuasions and he was writing the screen adaptation, and had just finished assignments with Columbia and Universal. He was flush and there was no need to write industrial films or work as a dialogue coach or engage any of the other means he’d developed for securing income for his growing family.
As Walter entered the party, Knight pointed at him, turned to William Froug, then Chair of the Screenwriting Program at UCLA, and said, “This is the guy I’ve been talking about.” Froug assured Walter that he was just what his UCLA program needed. Although Walter didn’t realize the job was a full-time assignment, he accepted. “It seemed less awful than not taking it. When I was offered the gig I certainly didn’t need it, but as I used to tell my kids about an exotic food, ‘You don’t have to eat the whole thing, but at least taste it.’ I thought I had to taste it. What turned my head around was the students: they keep us fresh and young, they compete with us, butt heads with us, and keep us from getting into the ruts and grooves that are too often the lot of the freelance artist, especially in Hollywood.”
Walter put his mark on the program by teaching from the basic Aristotelian three-act structure. His devotees grew and the program grew in course offerings, expert instructors and in status and student success. With that success also came the idea that there was a formula to Hollywood storytelling and UCLA taught the formula.
If Hollywood is high school with money, then film school may be Hollywood with student loans. Like any other microcosm of the working world, consciously or unconsciously the program parallels the industry it feeds. Just as Walter experienced his break with Lucas, some students began to feel a resentment towards him and the program. Some felt they couldn’t write to the formula while others felt a fear of losing their individual voices in the workshop environment. And some students were keenly aware that in a feeder program where the ultimate prize is a high stakes career in a high stakes industry, it really wasn’t what they knew but who knew them. The sense, whether realistic or not, that talent was superceded by popularity turned some students away from Walter and the program, as others consistently received awards and opportunities to have their work read by agents and development executives. Privately around the vending machines or publicly on social media, the rejecting students expressed their rejection. Like any good performer, Walter would of course want everyone’s experience to be positive. But his nearly forty-year career has also developed in him a healthy mode of self-defense. Many former students are amazed at his ability to quote pieces of screenplays they’d written ten or twelve years earlier. But Walter can also attend a student led function and smile and encourage then stealthily exit before anyone notices he has left the building.
It is not Walter’s way to teach his class, run his department and ride his success into the sunset, rather he is doing what every ambitious enterprise dreams of doing, he’s franchising. The CNN truck pulls up between the rehearsal stages outside UCLA’s film department. The news channel is here to set-up a live feed from Walter’s office to the studio so as not to disrupt his scheduled tutorials with students. On another day, the franchise finds Walter appearing live on the Today show in the morning and flying back to Burbank for a spot on The O’Reilly Factor the same evening. With his stage-trained voice and cultural media reputation, he is also a popular, nationwide radio talk show guest. He can be heard on the airwaves defending artistic expression as a First Amendment right or listening to pitches from the public on a Nepal earthquake script. ( “I love your idea but wonder about capitalizing on this horrible tragedy.”) He has taken his writing instruction to China and is a Continuing Education magnet with his Screenwriting for Attorneys workshop.
In marketing himself, Richard also markets his department. Despite its pre-eminence, the film school doesn’t generate the same type of financial respect as the law and medical schools. Ironically, it’s these professional school buildings that are passed off as the Ivy League-like campuses of countless film and television projects, while the film department hides away in concrete bunkers that haven’t been re-modeled since they were built in the 1960’s. It says something about the nature of Hollywood gratitude that it gives so little back to its wellspring–even just one UCLA alum, David Koepp, has singlehandedly kept the studios in the black (Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, The Shadow, Mission Impossible, Trigger Effect, Stir of Echoes, Panic Room, Spiderman, Secret Window, War of the Worlds, Angels and Demons, Men in Black 3). Walter certainly can’t be faulted for franchising himself and marketing his program because, to date, there are no industry-financed stipends to support students or gifts to gussy-up the old concrete bunker.
It could be the years he has spent in the water that help Walter steer through the shark-infested waters of Hollywood and academia. Each day begins in the pool at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center on the North Campus of UCLA. For 330 days a year, he swims a nonstop crawl of thirty-four lengths of the fifty meter pool, that’s 1700 meters a day, or a mile and a sixteenth. Since starting in the late ‘70’s, he has swum more than nine thousand miles. Of his daily regime Walter has said: “I’ve swum to New York and back three times. I touched the wall again last winter, turned, and am now swimming east again; approximately nine miles west of Albuquerque.”
One of his longtime friends and swimmer partners, Professor Michael S. Goldstein of the UCLA School of Public Policy says of Walter’s swimming: “Richard is a very determined swimmer and not adverse to banging into people, but when the dust settles, he has a good heart and a good sense of humor about all the mayhem he’s caused.”” This determination speaks to the determination that keeps Walter out there as a media pundit, talk radio guest and workshop presenter. It also speaks to his performer’s belief that the body is an instrument. And when the orchestra is Hollywood, Walter knows he needs to stay competitive and contemporary.
After his time in the pool, Walter does his phone work. He may consult on a script, speak to a publicist about a TV appearance or answer any student’s question or concern—any student, present, past or potential. Walter connects with the self-doubt and uphill struggle of the writer. The author of bestseliing fiction and non-fiction, he relishes his role as mentor and supporter. Walter may spend part of the afternoon meeting with workshop students in tutorials in which he gives notes on the first drafts of their screenplays. In his crowded office with a view of the department’s gravel roof, Walter goes over the notes he has made on the drafts and refers to some of his other “essential elements:” in dialogue, “less is more”; exploitation is encouraged because it means to employ to the greatest possible advantage, and there are only three things every screenplay needs: “conflict, conflict, conflict.” After a dinner with colleagues or at his desk answering emails, if it’s a Monday night, he’ll had downstairs to oversee his Screenwriting 434 workshop.
Students take their seats at the long writer’s table in a classroom overlooking UCLA’s Murphy Sculpture Garden. From the downstairs courtyard, the sound of theater student’s rehearsing can be heard. Walter enters, the swimmer’s stance of shoulder’s pulled squarely back and leading with his hips he takes his place at the head of the table. On the first night of every quarter the room overflows with potential workshop students who have come to give their two-minute pitch for the screenplay they’d like to write. Walter welcomes all and takes notes on a yellow pad, nodding and smiling as he reacts to each writer’s story triangle. The students pitch the big story point first: “Katmandude, high-powered, female corporate attorney falls in love with her Sherpa.” Then they move down the triangle to add character and plot details. Once all have pitched, a list of the eight chosen for the workshop is posted on the department listserv and outside Walter’s office.
At the next meeting, Walter gives his one authoritarian speech of the quarter: all of the eight participants were chosen over several other students who wanted their spot. Students are expected to show up; students are expected to turn in assignments with enough copies for all participants; students are expected to participate by giving constructive notes on each other’s scripts. Any UCLA alum knows Walter’s syllabus has not changed. Week two, a step-outline (2 pgs. of structural bullets on the script) is due. Then students may bring in 10 pages a week to share with the group for notes. At mid-quarter, a first act is due. Walter reads each and returns them to the students with notes. By week eight, a full script is due in his office on the third floor. After a week to read each one, Walter schedules a private hour to meet with each student. How To Write A First Draft Screenplay in Just Nine Weeks, the Richard Walter way. Students balk under the pressure; other workshops allow the full 10 weeks of the quarter for a first draft and some will even add a week or two extension. Walter’s class is boot camp for Hollywood where a writer on assignment may have only six weeks to produce a draft and writer’s block is cured by the magical intervention of gluing one’s seat to the chair.
But Walter’s workshop students get Richard Walter. A student’s ten pages are read just like a table read in the industry, then the deathly silence as the hits or misses begin to register. Walter breaks the silence, looks the writer directly in the eye and booms “You know what’s wrong with this script?” (A pregnant beat as the whole room fixes on his response.) Walter: “Nothing!” He listens politely as students praise an outline that is so well-structured it could write itself. Then he shares the story of the producer that wanted to get some work from him cheaply by saying, “This story is so worked out, (big booming voice for the punch line here) it’ll write itself!” Then Walter holds a pencil upright on the long conference table and lets it go and watches it fall down. The class explodes in laughter and realizes they’ve just been initiated as writers.
Richard takes the outside steps from his office in the late afternoon sun as around him the festival crowd thins out. He sprints past the vending machines and theater department rehearsal spaces. An aria is practiced and a lilting mezzo-soprano wafts out of an opened stage door. “Beautiful,” he says as he stops a moment and takes in the sound. “No doubt about it, I am a lucky man,” he adds as he regains his purposeful gait towards the street. He passes a trio of student actors in make-up who smoke and share gossip. The Eucalyptus leaves shimmer in the breeze and Richard tugs on his Department of Film and TV hat and resumes his pace. As he fades out into the lingering crowd, he looks like a man who has made peace and a very satisfying life, out of telling the stories that Hollywood tells. It really is a Richard Walter world, we just live in it.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to take a look at our range of DVD lectures by Richard Walter, available on this very website!
Or why not check out our interview with Richard, Character is Story?