Course Review

Gaining Perspective

There are two major categories of research I believe that writers need to spend time on.

First, the most obvious, is research relating to the story being written.  A lack of understanding and knowledge about the selected era, location, subject matter and characters of a story will quickly show.  For this category, I will dedicate a future post.

The second category is where I want to share insights that I’ve recently gained. The script is merely one of several critical pieces to putting together a great film.  As a writer, you have probably consulted dozens of books, articles and seminars on how to write a great script.  You’ve probably been told that the script is the foundation of film.  The importance of character, conflict and story has been drilled home.  Perhaps you take this at face value and work to make a great script.   But imagine you also explore the other pieces and roles in film making to gain perspective.

This is something I have been doing recently.  I have found it very valuable.

The first thing I did was take an introductory acting course at a local acting studio.  I was fortunate enough to have a Living Social deal come across my Inbox for “Acting for Non-Actors.”  It was a four week course, one 90-minute class each Tuesday night, at the Bay Area Acting Studio in San Jose.  Not really sure what to expect, I was still surprised at the great turn out as well as the diversity of students (age, background, nationality).  Most students were just out to try something new, and a handful were people with previous or current interest in filmmaking roles.  I was the only person self identifying as a hobbyist/aspiring screenwriter.  I soon learned that at least one other student had also shared the interest.  About 2/3 of the class time was spent on games/drills that were pretty fun and effective at bringing up the energy and drawing out the more introverted people of the group.  The other 1/3 of the class was spent on very basic Meisner technique and scene work. I have signed up for the next section called “Acting for Fun” to continue gaining the actor’s perspective.

So far, from just a few classes, the main lessons from this experience, as a writer, were:

1) A speaking character must know who/how/where she or he is focusing their attention and energy. Be clear in your writing.

2) The character really must be unique enough that an actor can channel and use the particular relatable parts of themselves.

3) The dialogue must not get in the way.  Keep it simple.  An actor can do a lot with a few words.  Trust them to communicate the ‘real story.’ Do not write out dialogue that really should come from subtext.

4) If you are doing a good job with the characters and story, you will also reduce or eliminate the need to direct from the page.  That is, fewer movement action lines and parentheticals will feel necessary.

5) Make your characters such that actors *want* to play them.  Boring (e.g. no personality, no voice) or vague characters (e.g. no real conflict or struggle) will not be educational, pivotal, defining or motivating – they won’t be exciting to study and portray.

I would love to hear from any readers that also took acting class and what you found helpful from the experience…

The second step I have taken, is to enroll in the Intro to Film class at local DeAnza Community College.  DeAnza is especially recognized in California for its Film/TV program.  The tuition is affordable, and the schedule provided several options, including the evening section that I selected.   While only a couple of weeks into the class, I have already developed greater appreciation of a great foundational script. Casting, location selection, props, scene framing, camera work, actor positioning – all of this can help tell the story.  But the characters and story have to be strong enough and clear enough to allow these important pieces to do so.

If you haven’t already educated yourself about these aspects of filmmaking, I encourage you to do so.  There are a couple of books on my shelf that are great references, and also, one of my course references is the publicly available Yale site on Film Analysis. The textbook for my class is Looking at Movies.

I assure you will watch your favorite (and despised) films with a new perspective in what makes them great or miss the mark.  It will challenge you to look at your writing with a critical eye for what is needed to turn your story into reality.

What other steps have you taken to gain perspective about the other roles in filmmaking and the importance of the script outside of the writer’s view?

Course Review: Kaplan Comedy Intensive

Last month, in a rare rainy weekend in Burbank, California, I attended the Steve Kaplan comedy intensive. The course was on a Saturday and Sunday from ~9-5. The website is

Comedy TragedyI thoroughly enjoyed the class and recommend it. Steve is a happy and warm instructor, which lends to the domain and also makes spending the weekend in a hotel conference room chair tolerable. I appreciated that he seems to keep the content relatively current while also using more classic material where appropriate. He provides handouts which is great because you can stress less about capturing all of the right notes. He kept it fairly interactive, with a few audience-participation bits and a group activity, which helped keep the room from feeling stuffy. He also tries to answer as many questions from students as possible.

As with the McKee class, I won’t give away all the key material, but lucky for you, even if you can’t make it to a class, you can pick up his book which comes out this summer. The class is well structured – going over the tools and concepts on Day 1, then looking at these things applied in material, on Day 2.

I actually wish I had this class before I ever wrote my first script. That’s because I had a romantic-comedy premise but didn’t have the tools to apply the genre constructs without feeling like it was cliché or overly-predictable. A future post will explain that I actually plan to tackle the premise from scratch again with the tools in mind, and see where it goes. The script that I wrote from the first, trying to work around what I conceived to be problems, will undergo a change to something new.

There are two nuggets I think I can safely share. First, Where McKee and Kaplan don’t see comedy in the same light, Kaplan did say that comedy tells the truth about people, and McKee says – write the truth. This really is what brings people to the theaters. We want to see people, like us, trying to make their days better, and dealing with what Life throws at them. Second, that all art is based upon death; as far as we know, man is the only animal with the working knowledge of our own eventual demise. This fact alone allows comedy and tragedy to have any meaning whatsoever.

Early in the course he helps clarify the difference between “funny” and “comedy” – he also provides a simple exercise to help explain how these relate to one another, and the differences between the types of comedies (comedy of manners, comedy of tragedy, satire, black comedy, sitcom, slapstick, etc.)

Kaplan spends a decent amount of time over the two days providing great tips about how to write and think about comedic characters, non-heros. Again, he provides lots of great examples, in both written and video form. And not just of things done well – he points out missed opportunities in material, as well.

One cool feature for students (which, I still need to take advantage of), is the opportunity to submit a small ‘homework’ exercise and get (*eventually*) feedback directly from Steve.

Steve also makes sure to cover the keys to a good joke, and when to use jokes, in general.

Early feedback on my first and second drafts of my romantic comedy were that it wasn’t “funny enough.” I’m confident that I now have the right tools to fix that and to write comedies much more effectively in the future.

On Robert McKee Story Seminar

I can’t believe it’s already been two full weeks since I completed the Story Seminar.  After an extra day off in L.A., and flying home, it was right back into the daily grind of work and home duties.  I knew I should have just written a post while I was still there!  Still, the time has given me time to reflect and decide which thoughts to share, from the four days.

As an amateur, I wasn’t sure I should be spending this much on a set of talks on screenwriting.  I had investigated less expensive options, through local community school and Seattle Film school offerings, and investigated other traveling pro-workshops that might be passing through the Pacific Northwest.  But then, as I was trying to at least read books I hadn’t read yet, and re-read books I knew were valuable, to focus my rewriting efforts, I found, in one book, the mention of McKee’s seminar as a must-do.  Honestly, even then, if it were anywhere but my favorite place in the world – L.A., specifically near Manhattan Beach – I might have still waited.  But I’m so glad I didn’t.

The McKee Story Seminar isn’t just a seminar on screenwriting, or even ‘just’ writing – it’s a seminar on life.  Now, one key lesson was that movies are Not life, and this fact is what brings people to see movies.  But by learning about how events change the charges of our personal values, how we make adjustments to gaps between expectations and reality, that we realize in our maturity the difference between character and characterization, and then, in the ultimate lesson, learned by analyzing Casablanca (sorry, I won’t give away that one, as the journey of learning it is more important than the final lesson), through the course of four days, it is hard to just consider the characters on your pages and in your minds. You also find yourself considering, well, yourself, in your own life movie.  One evening Mr. McKee passed me while I was eating dinner, and I wanted to stop him and ask – “Does the tuition include the cost of therapy?”

It is rare in my life that looking under the hood, or behind the curtain, of something I truly love does not ruin or degrade that love.  Such as my brief student internship at NASA in the late 80s.  I expected everything to be modern and advanced, to be space-age-like.  Instead, it seemed to be an organization stuck in the 50s, in personnel and their wardrobes, office technology and practices.  The workers that had been around seemed beaten down by bureaucracy. But, unlike that experience, learning about what makes movies work, made me love movies even more.  I will not watch another movie or television program without seeing them in a whole new way, and I am happy about that – not sad.  In fact, by the end of the third day, I no longer felt bad for liking commercial movies, and I found a new appreciation for genres that I haven’t really liked up until now.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to summarize here all of the key lessons, as you should buy the book or attend the seminar if that’s what you want.  It’s not that I don’t have details – I took 60 single-sided pages of notes.  But, I do think I can share what I liked and didn’t care for.

The days are indeed long, with 8 hours of talks worked into a 10 hour daily schedule.  It’s a grind, for sure, but for me that was a good thing.  Total immersion was effective.  And managing a few days together was logistically easier than, say, 16 2-hour sessions over as many weeks.  Part of what made the seminar wonderful was that the full seminar – all 32 hours – is, itself, scripted.  And, after thirty years of doing this seminar, it was certainly well rehearsed.  While at times you felt like your class was unique, with McKee going off on little tangents about current events, society or a particular scene in a recent film, most of the time you could see the class progressing through the curriculum as designed, complete with deliberate mannerisms and delivery of punch lines.  On the down side, movements you thought were natural and charming day one were a bit annoyingly predictable by day four. (For me this was also true of the tangents, which students were fairly warned of in the handout at start of class, which usually consisted of extreme opinions, and often not politically correct ways.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, and some I simply wrote off to generational gap.) Ultimately, the scripted nature assured that you covered all of the material. And, with clear, if rigid, rules about participating in the seminar, you know your time and investment is respected and that b.s. on the part of your cohort won’t be tolerated.

This was true of even the final day, mostly spent bonding with 230 other people, through an analysis of Casablanca and a champagne toast in its honor.  This was a great finale – a bittersweet one.  On one hand you are done being in that classroom, on the other, you feel like you could listen four more, even eight more days, trying to sponge more knowledge from McKee. You scoop up various books  and media for sale (which I will review here in the future), hoping to take a piece of McKee home with you (I don’t, by the way, recommend the topic DVDs; was surprised at the age and brevity of the content on the one I purchased). You can see why Storylogue was created and if you didn’t think you would subscribe before class, you are probably convinced you must by class end.

In the end you leave feeling like you witnessed your own little piece of history and that you graduated into a very special part of the film industry – you are a McKee student.

– April