Writing by Degrees

The Unfolding Now

Robert Foshko is passionately trying to make a point, but just what it is is quite lost to both of us. To one of us, anyway: Foshko may well know where he's going, but the path is sometimes hard to discern in a thicket of undiluted observations about the screenwriter's art. What started as a point about the structure of a screenplay has wandered into a conversation about technology, self-expression, generation gaps, population expansion, and the narrative intricacies of Chinatown. And, of course, the unfolding now.

As a screenwriter, producer, professor, and amateur entertainment philosopher, Bob Foshko has what might charitably be termed a catholic mind. Less favorably, a tendency to ramble. It's a compulsion he freely admits, even relishes. Forty-five minutes into our interview he stops and looks up. "Now I'll give you a chance to ask a second question," he says. Thanks, Bob.

But however far he rambles, Foshko has a knack for bringing it all back together, for tying it up (almost) neatly with a summary remark, prefaced by a telltale pause and the words "this is my point."

And he does have one. As head of screenwriting for the University of Texas at Austin's Radio-Television-Film (RTF) department, he is intimately concerned with what makes movies work. He is further concerned with how to teach that indefinable what to his students, including the 10 or so enrolled in the RTF department's graduate screenwriting program as they write, revise, and workshop their way to a master of arts degree in screenwriting. (That and two dollars will get you a cup of coffee on Sunset Boulevard.)

Although they are often confused, there are in fact two graduate screenwriting programs at UT. The Radio-Television-Film department has offered an M.A. in screenwriting since the early Eighties; students in the two-year program take courses in screenwriting, criticism, film theory, and film history, and write a feature screenplay as part of their thesis project.

The newer kid on the block is the Michener Center for Writers (formerly known as the Texas Center for Writers), which has offered its three-year interdisciplinary Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree since 1993. Funded by an endowment from James and Mari Sabusawa Michener, the Center allows students to study in two of four genres: fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting. It's also one of the most generous programs on campus: Each M.F.A. candidate is given a $12,000 stipend for each year of their enrollment, plus remission of required tuition and fees.

But the Michener Center is more of a fellowship collective than an independent program. Like other interdisciplinary programs at UT, the Michener Center utilizes the permanent teaching faculty of its affiliate departments (English, Theatre & Dance, and RTF). Hence, screenwriting students in the RTF's M.A. program and the Michener Center's M.F.A. program take classes and attend events together, and the two departments work hand-in-hand to bring in visiting scholars and fund adjunct teaching posts. Despite differences in degree, program length, and stipend money (RTF graduate students typically get no financial support), the classroom experience in the two programs is often identical.

The RTF department accepts between five and seven graduate screenwriters a year, and the Michener Center between one and four; add in the continuing students and there are about 15 graduate screenwriting students at UT at any one time.

All of them working on the next Titanic? Hardly, says television critic and RTF professor Horace Newcomb, who feels that most of his students have realistic expectations: "I don't see many people in our program that come in with stars in their eyes about writing the next big Arnold Schwarzenegger movie." By the time they get to graduate school, in other words, the stars are out of their eyes, Arnold and Uma but dim figures on a distant horizon, and they're not exactly counting on taking Hollywood by storm. Instead, they plot a more deliberate course along goals less glamorous, hoping to maybe get in with cable TV, option a script to an indie producer, or get a rewrite credit on an ABC movie of the week -- all potential building blocks for what may come far, far down the road. But before that, a more immediate goal: to get the writing tight.


Clear, Cold Advice: The Screenwriters' Workshop

It's 10:15 on a Wednesday morning in Room 3.130 of UT's Communications Building A: Nine students (and five cups of coffee) are sitting around a conference table trying to decide if corporate evil is a tired theme. It's Stephen Harrigan's Advanced Screenwriting Class, 380N in the course catalog: Up for discussion this week is the first draft of Colin Swanson's screenplay of romance, idealism, disillusionment, and, possibly, corporate malfeasance. The students have been pecking at the script for better than an hour, spot-checking for coherence, plumbing for motivation, searching for "unexploited richness" in the script. It's a good screenplay, the class agrees, but every screenplay could be better: There is talk of building conflict, adding "ticking clocks," trying to avoid the trite and tired for the fresh and startling. It's to-the-bone critique leavened with sincere praise, not unlike the standard fiction writers' workshop but with a different set of values attending: structure, economy, mass appeal.

It's also a lot of voices; more advice, perhaps, than any poor screenwriter can be expected to take. It can be daunting. "The writing workshop too often collapses into an arena of individual preferences," says third-year M.F.A. student Kerry Glamsch, and indeed this class has something of a too-many-cooks feel to it. Whether the cooks' instructions will be taken or sloughed off as so much chatter remains to be seen, but Swanson remains upbeat during the inspection, eager for advice on troublesome spots in her script.



Coffeehouse teaching -- Stephen Harrigan instructing an independent study at Texas French Bread
.
photograph by Jan Birchum

Throughout the discussion, Harrigan acts as ringmaster, guiding the conversation and trying to prevent the class from becoming a big game of whatif?, wherein possible plots and solutions are tossed around with the same spirit and efficacy as a graduate game of Clue. Again and again he returns to twin themes of structure and motivation, which Harrigan considers essential to any successful screenplay. (He ought to know: Although he's known most widely as a novelist and journalist, Harrigan has written screenplays for HBO, CBS, ABC, Fox, and a number of Hollywood studios. HBO's The Last of His Tribe is probably his most respected credit, Fox's The O.J. Simpson Story his most notorious.)

What Harrigan wants to avoid, he says, is a movie that doesn't move. Before class, he reveals a distaste for listless characters. "We'll probably talk about 'What is up with this character? Why is this character in the movie? What does he want? What is he trying to accomplish? What is his goal? What are the obstacles to that goal?'" People who are listless, he says, aren't the people we write movies about.

As class progresses, it becomes evident he doesn't care much for narrative lassitude either. "What does this scene accomplish?" he asks, more than once. "A screenplay is a relentless thing," notes Harrigan, with a storyline that develops faster than in other forms of writing. "It demands complete and utter narrative power." Considering the necessary economy of a screenplay -- with the whole gang reliably riding off into the sunset in two hours or less -- every page in a script must have a purpose, every scene a function, every character a motivation. And they all must come together tightly: This is the screenwriter's craft.

The appeal of graduate school in screenwriting is the chance to hone that craft, to learn to work from inspiration to treatment to outline to writing to revision and beyond in a structured and intentional way. The value of the screenwriters' workshop is threefold: First, it forces students to put pen to paper and write; second, it provides for an almost instant and generally knowledgeable critique of that writing; third, and sometimes most important, it allows students to watch other writers struggle with the same problems they face. Defining what's wrong in someone else's writing is often the best route to discovering the flaws in your own work; ideally, workshop sniping leads to a greater capacity for self-criticism.

Enter Foshko with another of his far-reaching metaphors. "Painters spend a lot of time in museums looking at other works -- how did they get that fold in the cloak, how did they get that look in the eye, and so forth -- well, it's somewhat analogous. You learn from reading the work of other writers as well as looking more critically at movies, and then looking at your own work with somewhat less of the excessive sensitivity that we all have about our pride of authorship."

It's a sensitivity best checked at the door. "The most valuable thing I learned was that a room full of intelligent people can very quickly and accurately assess the strengths and weaknesses of a script, at least up to a basic point," says J.B. Bird (M.A.'95). "If several intelligent people agree on something about your script, you need to listen. Screenwriters cannot afford to be like the tragic kings in Shakespeare. They need to weed out flatterers and seek clear, cold advice."

After all, says Foshko, a successful script will eventually face the most demanding audience of all: the public. "The public is densely educated in storytelling," Foshko argues. "They are experts in appreciating and perceiving stories." It is particularly true with stories for the screen: "If a farmer in Iowa were to study insects as closely as he studies television, four hours a day, then he'd have a chair at Harvard in entomology." The craft of writing screenplays may be artful and deliberate, but the craft of watching them is accessible to all. Screenwriting, by its nature, is based on mass appeal, and if the story on the table of Communications Building A: Room 3.130 at 10:15 on a given Wednesday morning won't make sense to Foshko's Iowa farmer, then it's back to the drawing board, another cup of coffee, keep at it, better luck next time, consider these changes, and see ya' next Wednesday.

And with enough Wednesday mornings under their belts -- enough workshops, enough revisions, a great enough capacity for self-critique -- screenwriters will work together solid scripts, smart little chunks of the unfolding now, built from their hearts, heads, and soul; with high hopes and a racing pulse they will take these tender scripts and stick them in envelopes and send them off to some ZIP code in L.A., and await the coming darkness.


The Coming Darkness: Life After Graduate School

There is a way in which graduate school is a false start on the screenwriting career path: It gives an illusion of progress, a sense of motion, but when the screen door slams on the way out, most graduates are still at square one. "A person with an M.A. in screenwriting is not that different than a person without an M.A. in screenwriting," Harrigan notes. "That's probably one of the biggest misconceptions. People think that getting an M.A. in screenwriting is like getting a C.P.A., and it's not. Your degree is, to some degree, irrelevant." Harrigan is not disparaging his own program: He is simply making the point that, degree or no, quality is what sells a script. The training a graduate program offers might help you produce a quality script, but other than that it's only so much sheepskin.

Sheepskin or no, wannabe screenwriters can expect a tough road. "There's no particular way to do it. It's a completely idiosyncratic path, it's completely unmarked, it's filled with dead ends and chasms. The process of becoming a successful screenwriter is a process of wandering blindly for some time," Harrigan says, caution evident in his voice. "It's very difficult to advise people about [their careers] because it's difficult to know the level of their own ambition. So to some people, I might say the basic advice: 'Don't give up.' To other people, the better advice might be: 'Give up.' It depends upon how passionate that person wants to be, and frankly, how talented they are. ... If somebody is not totally consumed with doing this, then it's probably not gonna happen."

And even if it does happen, it might take a while: It is generally agreed that even the most talented writers can count on five to seven years of toil and trouble to break into the business. Instant success is rare; more likely, would-be screenwriters will spend years taking on two-bit rewrites, cranking out scripts-for-hire, querying the cartoon shows, and fetching coffee for second-string producers.

"I fully expect every one of [our graduates] to be a successful screenwriter," Jim Magnuson claims with a sincere optimism. In the meantime, he admits, "there certainly is some struggling going on."

"You must love the struggle," says Stephen Blackburn (M.A. '82, M.F.A. '97), a UT alumnus who has kicked around L.A. since graduation, pitching screenplays, writing a novel, and working as a film extra and production assistant, among other things. "Embrace the struggle."

"I thought it would be hard to break into the business," echoes recent graduate Charles Burmeister (M.F.A. '98), currently doing rewrite work after having a script optioned while still at UT. "And now that I struggled through all those hardships and had a little bit of success, I realize that it's 10 times harder than that. ... Unfortunately, screenwriting has become the intellectuals' equivalent of the lottery. Everyone thinks they can do it and that they'll be the one to win. It's also like playing the lottery in the sense that the odds are incredible and people think that if they win, it will make them happy. The first is true. The second is false. Like all lottery players, you just have to be happy buying a ticket -- and that's writing."

There have been some success stories. The name you'll most often hear in that connection is Laeta Kalogridis, a former UT screenwriter who hit the Burmeistrian jackpot: After transferring to UCLA to get closer to the action, she sold a script to a major production company for $650,000. (Based loosely on the life of Joan of Arc, the script earned Kalogridis $350K up front; the other $300K will come on the first day of principal photography, if the film gets made).

More recently, Tasca Shadix (M.F.A. '98) sold her script, The Book of Stars, to Shadowcatcher Entertainment (of Smoke Signals fame); it was produced last summer in Seattle with Mary Stuart Masterson in the lead and is slated to debut at this year's SXSW Film Festival. J.B. Bird (M.A. '95) has written three scripts-for-hire for legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick, as well as working for Texas Entertainment News; Kathleen Orillion (M.A. '91, M.F.A. '95) has had three of her original screenplays optioned, and makes her living at the trade, "writing both movie-of-the-week and feature film scripts for hire." Current M.F.A. students Raymond Wright and Susan Busa both have script sales under their belts, and Kerry Glamsch is heading to Telluride's Indiefest with his script King of the Road. Other stories -- some apocryphal, some confirmed -- have UT screenwriting graduates holding a variety of Hollywood jobs, ranging from sitcom work to Saturday morning cartoon development to semi-rarefied network brass.

Qualified success, perhaps, but success nevertheless -- a taste of the business. And most screenwriting grads have found the business to be a reasonable racket, not nearly so filled with sharks as the business itself might lead you to believe.

The business side of things -- the nuts and bolts of script sales, residual rights, and entertainment lawyers -- is not generally approached at UT, where the concentration is on the craft. That is as it should be, says Charles Burmeister. "You don't need to mess with lawyers and contracts and how producers work until you have a script that will interest them. The writing has to come first. You don't even need to think about that stuff until you have a great script."

Ah, yes, a great script. Why we came in the first place. Always in demand, but not so easy to come by, not even for a state-certified master of the arts. Selling a script or two is nice, good for the old ego and all, but then there's the next one, and the next, a long way to go yet, a long, lonely road to be traveled on an unsure path, a lot of mornings of putting on a pot of coffee, firing up that word processor, and staring at a blinking cursor in the search for story, structure, motivation, and the secret of the unfolding now, with visions -- just maybe, just maybe a little, just a bit, every once in a while -- of Arnold and Uma dancing in their heads. Who can blame 'em?

Fade to black.

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