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Lousy Ideas; Great Movies

UCLA Professor Richard Walter explores how great movies often are born from lousy ideas.

I wear a zillion hats—professor, consultant, public speaker—but first and last I am a writer.

My job as longtime professor and chair and co-chair of the (some say legendary) graduate screenwriting program at UCLA fell into my lap at a celebrity-crammed party in Malibu, late August of 1977. As I entered the glorious beach house, the host pointed at me and said to the guy standing beside him, “This is the fellow I was telling you about."

While to him I was a stranger, I immediately recognized him as the then-chair of the UCLA screenwriting program. He stepped up to me and said, “We need a screenwriting instructor, like, yesterday.”

The Kings Speech

The Kings Speech

I was not looking for a job. I was busy writing feature assignments for the major studios and even if most of the movies weren’t getting made, I was earning more money than I needed. My first novel had just been published; Warner Brothers bought the film rights and hired me to write the adaptation.

There’s a Hollywood principle here: if you need it, you can’t have it. If you don’t need it, it’s yours.

I met on campus with the dean. I worried that teaching would leave me no time to write.

“Teaching,” he said, “is your second obligation.”

The University of California is not so much a teaching as a research institution. Screenwriting faculty are hired and advanced to tenure not on the basis of teaching but their writing. We do not give up writing for teaching; we integrate one into the other and the other into the one.

The University does not merely tolerate fulltime faculty having off-campus careers; it requires it. While my title colors me as an academic, I attend precious few academic conferences. I do, however, attend oodles of writers’ conferences.

When my first screenwriting book was released in 1988, the publisher gave me a hundred free copies to give away to educators in the hopes that they would recommend the book to their students. That’s why I drove to a scholarly screenwriter-education conference in Montana.

There, on a panel with screenwriting instructors from across the country, a particular educator pointed at me and said, “The problem with your program at UCLA is that you encourage writers to write screenplays that are...”-- I’ve actually memorized it—“… too deeply encoded into the dominant narrative mode.”

I pleaded guilty.

I told him that it was true, that at UCLA we’re story hardliners; we believe it’s all about story.

He suggested not at all politely that what we should be doing is “… inculcating into writers the value of ideas.”

The problem is, however, ideas are useless and worthless.

The lone downside to my privileged life is that people always want to tell me their idea for a movie. I have to fight my way down the street fending off people trying to tell me their idea for a movie.

What use to a mere idea?

Here’s perhaps the dumbest, stupidest idea for a movie I’ve ever heard. A man has to give a speech. But he’s a stutterer. So he hires a speech therapist and they work together on his speech.

If someone suggested that collection of words would evolve into a worthy film, much less win Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Movie, people would say, “Crank up the lithium on the dude’s drip!”

One of my all time favorite movies is Stand and Deliver. It is based on a true story in which impoverished Latino high school students from the East L.A. barrio encounter a devoted, dedicated teacher who succeeds in teaching them calculus. When the Educational Testing Service, which designs the authorized exams, saw that these kids had all passed the national calculus test, they thought the only explanation was that they had cheated. They made the kids take the test again, this time supervised by a special team of proctors.

The kids passed the test again, proving that they had truly learned calculus.

I recall the producer and co-writer, former UCLA film school student Tom Musca, saying, “Imagine me pitching this picture to the town. The climax is some kids take a math test. Twice.”

Idea: preposterous. Story: brilliant.

To describe an idea takes but a handful of seconds; a story requires an hour or two.

Today, with the collapse of originality and the studios making only tent pole and theme park movies, the interesting action for writers (and audiences) is in cable and the Internet. On the longtime urging of friends, I finally tried out Breaking Bad. Is it as good as pals told me? No; it’s better. I’m hooked.

The pilot is as powerful a piece of film art as I have ever seen. Its creator Vince Gilligan is a genius. We’re talking David Chase genius. Breaking Bad is Sopranos brilliant.

The idea? A high school chemistry teacher, dying of cancer, partners with a former incorrigible student in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of methamphetamines. What idea could be stupider than that? The reason for its success is because it is a great story.

Regarding the aforementioned timeless, eternal, incomparable Sopranos--its underlying idea is that in order to treat his panic attacks a mafia boss retains the services of a psychiatrist.

The idea is hopeless, even moronic. Yet through the magic (and hard labor) of story, it evolves into one of the greatest, most riveting, compelling, funniest, saddest, insightful, profound dramatic narratives ever created.

Richard Walter Copyright © 2013

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