McBride talks to Script about 'Writing in Pictures', how he learned screenwriting himself, and how he’s distilled his knowledge into his book and courses.
Finally, somebody who has sold some scripts wrote a book on screenwriting that’s full of good, practical advice that an up-and-coming screenwriter can really learn from. Go figure, right?
There’s so many screenwriting books out there by people who’ve never gotten a script sold or made, and everyone loves to complain there’s too many “principles” and rules to follow. In fact, with so many screenwriting books on the shelves, it’s easy to wonder if the world really needs another one. In the case of Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless, published by Vintage, the answer is absolutely.
With Writing In Pictures, McBride brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table, breaking down the process where you can follow everything clearly and apply it to your own work. McBride currently teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State University, and he’s written acclaimed biographies of Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra John Ford, and Steven Spielberg. He’s also written for the big screen (Rock N Roll High School, Blood and Guts), and television (AFI’s Life Acheivement Awards for James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra, John Huston, and Lillian Gish.)
Now McBride talks to Script about Writing in Pictures, how he learned screenwriting himself, and how he’s distilled his knowledge into his book and screenwriting course at San Francisco State.
SCRIPT: Now that you’ve written a book about screenwriting, how does it feel after you’ve finished, and what did you learn about the craft in the process of writing the book, considering we never stop learning the craft?
JOSEPH McBRIDE: The first script I attempted then was an adaptation of Jack London’s great short story about a man attempting to survive in the Yukon, To Build a Fire. I took it upon myself to write a new adaptation of the London story for Writing In Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless. Along the way, I walk the reader through the process of breaking down the story into its elements, researching its background and details, and developing the script from outlines and treatment to the final version.
That is what makes this book unusual. I use the process of adaptation to actually teach the reader the craft of how to write a screenplay. And the way I teach is to remember how I learned and replicate the process for the reader. I had to teach myself how to write screenplays back in the sixties, because there weren’t any screenwriting classes at the University of Wisconsin, and I didn’t have a book to teach me.
One key point that struck me was how important research is in writing a script. When I made my first attempt at adapting Jack London when I was nineteen, I didn’t bother doing any research, and it showed. This time, I did a lot of research, and it was fascinating and helpful. Of course, in my professional career as a film and television writer I have always benefited from doing research and have found it perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of screenwriting. But writing this book brought the point home to me in a powerful way.
When I started teaching screenwriting, I naturally said, “Bring in an original story you want to write.” But I quickly found that most of the students didn’t know how to write a good story, or the stories were cribbed from TV sitcoms they had seen. And when one student was talking about her story, every other student’s eyes glazed over with indifference.
I had all the students adapt the same Ernest Hemingway short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” Later I added a Flannery O’Connor short story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” as an alternative. This way the aspiring screenwriters are working with a master collaborator, they don’t have the burden of coming up with an original story right out of the gate, and they can concentrate on learning the craft. All the students share the same interest in these stories as we discuss and analyze them in detail, and they are given a certain amount of latitude in adapting one of the stories, as long as they keep the “spine” of the original intact. I have found that this method works beautifully in helping almost every student to learn the craft of screenwriting in only a few weeks, and it’s the method I follow in Writing in Pictures by using “To Build a Fire” as an example.
SCRIPT: What do you feel people can learn from it, or what do you feel your book can teach that you can’t learn from other books and courses?
McBRIDE: When I started teaching screenwriting after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000, after living in Los Angeles for twenty-seven years, I naturally looked for a screenwriting manual I could use in my courses. To my surprise, I couldn’t find one that I thought was much good. I looked through a lot of them and found that most are devoted to telling you how you can strike it rich if you write formulaic scripts that Hollywood supposedly wants to buy. That’s foolish, because, first of all, few people strike it rich writing screenplays, and it’s the worst motive for writing them. Second, no one knows what will sell; if anyone did, he’d be richer than Bill Gates. And finally, setting out to write formulaic material is the surest recipe for mediocrity. Granted that Hollywood makes a lot of formulaic films, mostly remakes or sequels, but those are written by experienced pros who know how to package the garbage much more expertly than a newcomer could hope to do. The only way to succeed as an aspiring screenwriter is to have faith in your own quirky personality and write what appeals to you and hope that it will appeal to other people as well. As Frank Capra said, “Don’t follow trends. Start trends. Believe in yourself.”
SCRIPT: How did writing this book differ from writing a biography? Was it less difficult? More difficult?
McBRIDE: Biographies are heavy lifting. Literally. There’s a lot of schlepping of boxes and traveling from state to state and digging through old papers. Actually, the research involved in writing a biography is the most fascinating part, because you get to investigate in files and archives, and you get to interview people. The hardest part is putting it all together and doing what’s known in Hollywood as “the actual writing.” Writing in Pictures was comparatively easier to write because I had been researching this book, in effect, for more than forty years, ever since I started writing screenplays. I did some additional research, but much of it drew from what I already knew about the subject. Teaching the craft for more than a decade also helped hone my approach and kept me on track. And I quickly adopted a conversational tone, like the one I use when I teach, which made it fun to write the book. I just had to remember to keep it tight and condensed, like a screenplay. I could go on and on about the subject if I weren’t careful but had to keep on point. I thoroughly enjoyed the ten hours a day I spent writing the book for several months.
SCRIPT:Story and Adventures in the Screen Trade were both successful books. Do you feel there is still room for a screenwriting book to be successful in this day and age, especially if it provides good advice?
McBRIDE: Robert McKee, like any other author of a screenwriting manual, has his points. You can learn something from any book on the subject. But books such as his popular Story are the kind I was rebelling against in Writing in Pictures. I don’t believe in being prescriptive and laying down laws as McKee tends to do. it, See the movie Adaptation if you want a seriocomic demonstration of how that process works and what’s wrong with. Syd Field’s books seem more sensible to me, though I find them overly obvious and still too prescriptive. William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, which I’ve used as a textbook, is delightful to read and full of a savvy pro’s wit and wisdom. But I found that as a guide to learning the craft, it’s too scattered.
If you’re going to read a book about how to write screenplays, it should be methodical. So in Writing in Pictures, I take the reader from step to step to step in a logical, progressive way that follows the professional screenplay development process, but hopefully without the kind of intrusive, idiotic notes that studio executives often give to hapless professional writers. Even though I had the schizoid experience of giving myself “notes” in my own book, I try to make them helpful to myself, and by extension to the reader looking over my shoulder, as I demonstrate how to write a script.
SCRIPT: What do you feel are the most important tools and fundamentals that screenwriters in training need to succeed as storytellers?
McBRIDE: Number one, read extensively. Read books all the time, read newspapers and magazines, and read professional screenplays. If you like a film, whether it’s contemporary or a classic, search out the screenplay (you can find a lot of them for free online), and read what the original writer wrote, not just a transcription of the dialogue. Beyond that, a budding screenwriter needs to learn the language of cinema by studying great films, past and present. He or she needs to learn structure. That’s vital. As Goldman sagely puts it, in all caps, “SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE.” That’s one reason outlining, and more outlining, and even more outlining, is essential to the process of writing a good screenplay. When I write a script, or write a book, I always have a series of outlines -- a one-page outline of the whole thing to glance at while I am writing so I don’t lose my thread, and then more detailed outlines of the whole script or book, scene by scene or chapter by chapter.
SCRIPT: How important do you feel it is to learn the fundamentals and rules of storytelling? Yes, rules are meant to be broken, but do you feel it’s important to know the rules before you can break them?
McBRIDE: Thank you for recalling perhaps the best advice I ever received as a writer, from my favorite high school English teacher, Tom Book, who said in those exact words, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” I never forgot that, and I tell that to students all the time. Even though, in an important sense, creative writing doesn’t have “rules,” writing without any knowledge of the rules of good English prose, the rules of grammar and sentence structure, is a guarantee of muddled, messy writing. There’s a frequent misconception among students that it’s not “creative” to learn the rules of good writing. Those students’ writing is often merely free-form indulgence. Discipline is essential to any genuinely creative writing. You have to know what you are doing and where you are going. Otherwise it’s just scattershot, and the story falls apart on the page. If you can’t write grammatically correct prose, your writing will lack clarity, and the reader will become exasperated in trying to follow or figure out what you might be trying to say. My screenwriter friend Sam Hamm says the first job of a screenwriter is “to keep the reader’s eye moving down the page.”
Once you learn to write well, and once you learn the craft of screenwriting, you can start customizing your format in any way that makes sense to you. But you have to be skillful and experienced to know how to do that well. After a long time writing screenplays in the standard professional format, I started writing in a more novelistic format I learned from Paul Schrader, who probably influenced the Coen Bros., who write in some similar ways. But I knew what I was doing by that point in my career as a screenwriter. I don’t recommend that method to newcomers, and I was hesitant about discussing it in Writing in Pictures, lest the reader be tempted to jump to that method before learning the basics, but it’s in the book if you want to find and follow it.
SCRIPT: Many love to debate that if someone hasn’t sold a script or gotten one made they shouldn't be teaching screenwriting, and there are many teachers out there who indeed have not gotten movies or TV shows made or sold. What’s your point of view on this, and do you feel that even if someone hasn’t sold a script, they can still teach something of value? Bob Gale (Back to the Future) made the analogy of some of the best baseball coaches were the worst players.
McBRIDE: I see Bob Gale’s point, and he may be talking about managers as well as coaches, but I would note that even the most humble major-league ballplayer has to be pretty damn good to get into the big leagues. Some of the superstars may be too full of themselves to be great managers, but, as the Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra put it when he was asked how he learned to manage, “You observe a lot watching.” Seriously, I do believe that one of the major problems of many screenwriting manuals is that their authors somehow have never managed to sell a script. That’s a hurdle comparable to getting into the big leagues. If you haven’t managed to do that, and haven’t spent a lot of time in the trenches, you haven’t learned some of the most important practical lessons about screenwriting, so how can you teach those lessons with precision and a hard basis in reality?
My eighteen-plus years as a film and television writer were invaluable in not only helping me learn the craft but also in helping me learn how to teach it. I don’t see how I could share the same realistic lessons without having had all that experience of working in Hollywood. I hope that is one of the aspects of Writing in Pictures that makes it stand out from many books in the field that seem rather nebulous because the authors have not sold any scripts or taken the hard knocks that go with being a working writer in the business. William Goldman’s books, on the other hand, are full of wisdom because he actually has been there where films get made and knows whereof he speaks. The same could be said of Joe Eszterhas’s uproariously funny, profane, and often sagacious The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter As God! I love that title.
SCRIPT: What did you learn about the craft of screenwriting from the great filmmakers you’ve known like Welles, Ford, and Hawks, and do you recommend to your students to contact the writers they admire and ask for advice?
McBRIDE: I spent seven years talking with Howard Hawks because he was a great storyteller, and I wanted to learn about telling stories. It was the equivalent of an ongoing master seminar, and I turned it into my interview book Hawks on Hawks. I hadn’t planned it as a book when I started talking with Hawks but eventually realized it was becoming one and that others could benefit from his lessons. One of the things he told me was, when I asked why his movies look so fresh and modern today, “Most of them were well written. That’s why they last. I’ve always been blessed with great writers. As a matter of fact, I’m such a coward that unless I get a great writer, I don’t want to make a picture.” The book is chock-full of his brilliant advice on screenwriting and screen storytelling, including how to write offbeat dialogue that is fun to hear, “Different ways of saying things.” I followed Hawks’s advice all the time when I was working on screenplays such as Rock ‘N’ Roll High School and Blood and Guts and on the five American Film Institute Life Achievement Award specials I wrote with producer George Stevens Jr. for CBS-TV.
SCRIPT: We can always learn new things from people younger than us. What have you learned from your students?
McBRIDE: Students’ unbridled creativity is a constant delight, even if it often benefits from guidance into a better sense of direction. The biggest surprise, and the happiest, I found when I started teaching full-time is that you learn more from your students than they do from you. It is a pleasure working with younger people who are eager to learn the craft of screenwriting or to learn about film history. The questions they ask are challenging and keep you on your toes. Writing is a lonely profession, so it is good to have a place to go to talk with students and colleagues and share ideas. I am most delighted when students question my views on a subject and make me reexamine and redefine what I have long thought. Writing in Pictures owes a lot to my students at San Francisco State University, especially in that respect. That’s what the interaction of the teaching process is all about. It’s exciting to see students come up with stories, whether adaptations or originals, and develop them imaginatively. I don’t tell them what to write but follow the principle of seeing what they are trying to say and helping them learn how to say it more clearly and creatively.
SCRIPT: There are many who feel screenwriting is a craft, and like carpentry it can be learned. Can anyone become a screenwriter, or do you feel anyone who’s telling you that is wrong?
McBRIDE: Not just anyone can become a screenwriter, since it is an art as well as a craft, and not everyone has artistic talent. But, on the other hand, it’s not rocket science. If you want to study rocket science, you can do so. The fundamentals of screenwriting in some ways are not terribly hard to master, although it’s a highly specialized craft -- you can learn it if you have some help, or are able to teach yourself by studying professional screenwriters’ work -- but in other ways screenwriting can be fiendishly difficult. Robert Towne, who writes of “the pervasive tendency to underestimate the true difficulty of the screenplay form,” said the hardest job he ever had to do was to work out the plot of Chinatown -- while writing at least twenty different long step outlines. That’s the model original screenplay of the modern era. He initially thought a detective story would be easy to write but found it is a great challenge to do so.
I think the lesson here is first-rate writing of any kind is awfully hard to do. The better the writing, the tougher the challenge. That’s why writing is like golf. You are playing against yourself, trying to top yourself. You never reach “perfection,” but do the best you can with the talents you have in the time you have to write the piece of work. Joe Kennedy used to tell his children, “Do your best, and then to hell with it,” which I think is excellent advice. I used to be more of a perfectionist before I realize that is a chimerical goal. Just do the best you can with what you have. Write every day. In some ways it gets easier over time, since you know the craft better, but in some ways the challenges keep getting steeper. That’s what’s exciting about it.
SCRIPT: What screenplays do you recommend your students should read, and why they’re important for their development?
McBRIDE:Chinatown and The Last Detail by Robert Towne, two masterful screenplays published together in a book with an insightful introduction by Towne that, surprisingly and gratifyingly, is mostly about how to write good parts for actors, a neglected subject in many screenwriting guides (though not in Writing in Pictures). Also essential is Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, which is as rich as a first-rate modern novel, as, indeed, is Chinatown. Any script by the Coen Bros. is a must-read; fortunately, most of their colorful and beautifully structured scripts get published. Screenplays tend to go out of print quickly, so grab the ones that are important to you while you can and hold onto them with care and reverence.
SCRIPT: What’s your favorite screenplay of all time and why?
McBRIDE:Citizen Kane by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, without a doubt. This is a masterwork of screenwriting in every way -- rich characters, a strong social viewpoint, a breathtakingly complex structure, and maybe the best dialogue of any film. It was my Bible when I was teaching myself how to write scripts in the late 1960s. I found an original mimeographed copy of the then-unpublished Kane screenplay in the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, in the collection of Welles’s lawyer L. Arnold Weissberger, and since I couldn’t afford to Xerox it. I hauled my portable typewriter up there every day for a month to type an exact copy of the script. I then studied it thoroughly and used it as my guide on how to write a screenplay. I recommend this method to anyone who wants to learn about a script inside and out. I later found that when David Mamet was learning how to write plays, he typed a copy of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a great way to imbibe a piece of work.
SCRIPT: The odds of breaking in are so ridiculous, why do you feel people are still willing to give screenwriting a shot?
McBRIDE: The New Yorker ran a cartoon a few years ago showing the screenwriting books section of a bookstore (remember bookstores?), with a big sign over it reading, “WIN THE LOTTERY.” Unfortunately, that seems to be one of the main reasons people want to be screenwriters. But the average salary for a working screenwriter is about $62,000 a year, a middle-class wage, and even at that, about half of the members of the Writers Guild of America don’t work in a given year. So if you want to get rich, there are better ways to do so, though offhand I can’t think of many these days. If you want to be a screenwriter, you should want to do so because you love the craft and hope to write movies that you want to see. You shouldn’t do it for all the perks and frills, because the truth is that it is not one of the glamorous areas of the filmmaking world anyway. It can be fun being on the set, if they let you, and seeing your ideas come to life, as I was pleased to experience when, for example, I saw the joyous anarchy I had imagined erupt all around me in Rock ‘N’ Roll High School. Or when I was able to work with an actor as great as Henry Fonda as the host of one of my AFI Life Achievement Award specials, our tribute to his old friend Jimmy Stewart, and hear Fonda read my words exactly as I wrote them (and once, when he went up on his lines, improvise a better phrase, sheer poetry).
By and large, though, your love of the craft is what will sustain you through all the trials and ups and downs you will face as a would-be screenwriter. And if you succeed, which I define as getting a film produced that more or less resembles what you wrote, that is a reward in itself. Whether or not the film is a hit and makes you zillions of dollars (or usually not) is a crapshoot too. The real reward is in the writing, as it is with any form of writing. You should only become a writer if you can’t do anything else and don’t want to do anything else. My father described me as a “compulsive writer,” and that’s what you need to be if you want to try to do it for a living.
Among the advice I give to aspiring screenwriters, and would-be directors, who may or may not be the same people, is to make your own break through bypassing the system. By that I mean, Go out and make your own no-budget movie. Fortunately, all that you need to make a movie today is a halfway decent camera -- or a friend who has a camera. Writing a script doesn’t cost you anything but a few months of your time. Tailor your script to fit whatever limited production resources you have, get your actors and crew members to work for nothing, give them contracts providing a percentage of the profits if there happen to be any, and don’t worry about competing with Hollywood in terms of slickness. When you have your completed no-budget film, distribute it yourself through the Internet, on your own website or via Amazon. Use it as a calling card to show people what you can do. It will save you years of waiting by the phone. I am happy to report that both Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee give students the same advice, so I must be right.
SCRIPT: How do you personally feel about the current state of screenwriting? Even with the Dumb and Dumber blockbusters Hollywood thrives on, do you feel storytelling has a good future?
McBRIDE: There will always be stories. When we’re all gone, and the cockroaches have finally inherited the Earth, they’ll still be acting out stories to amuse each other. That brings me to the subject of Michael Bay movies. Even the hideous Transformers movies, which epitomize just about everything that’s wrong with contemporary American cinema, could benefit from more story, character, and structure. The first one actually had some of that for about half an hour before the robot toys took over. I tell my students that if you want to go to Hollywood and write for Michael Bay, at least after taking my class, or reading Writing In Pictures, you can help him a lot by convincing him that some story, character, and structure will make for better Transformers movies. Who knows, they might even make more money, because people would care more about what happens in them and maybe understand which robot is fighting which, and why.