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WRITING THE PICTURE: An interview with Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs

WRITING THE PICTURE: An interview with Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs

by: Kenna McHugh

"One of the first books on screenwriting was THE PHOTOPLAY HANDBOOK OF SCENARIO CONSTRUCTION. It was published in 1923, in the time of silent films, a time before the word "screenwriter" had even been invented. The advice given in this early screenwriting book still applies today:

'Our ultimate purpose, as a photoplaywright, is to arouse the emotions of the audience--to make them weep, to grip their hearts with pity, to thrill them, to make them laugh, and fear; and shed tears of joy. We strive to do these things by means of the actions of the people we create. We make our characters struggle and suffer and win and lose in their fight for happiness. Every act of every character may be regarded as an effect.' This was true in 1923 and it is still true today." Excerpt from SCREENWRITING: WRITING THE PICTURE

SCREENWRITING: WRITING THE PICTURE by Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs is a virtual screenwriting class and should be read by any fledging screenwriter who would love to enroll in a college screenwriting program but can't for whatever reasons. A college textbook starts with an insiders' look at how screenplays are read and regarded in the industry, and moves onto comprehensive chapters dealing with the character, theme and story environment, and then devotes six full chapters to story structure, from historic approaches to how genre effects structure.

The book also devotes chapters to pitching, rewriting and creating a career, as well as television and playwriting as viable alternatives or adjuncts to writing for movies.

Russin and Downs both received their MFA's in screenwriting from UCLA, the top program in the country with such notable alumni as Michael Werb, Michael Colleary, Jonathan Hensleigh and Ed Solomon, and both won the Jack Nicholson award for excellence in the field.

Russin co-wrote the No. 1 box office feature ON DEADLY GROUND (starring Steven Segal and Michael Caine) and he has written, produced and directed for television, theater and movies. Downs, an award winning playwright, has sold feature screenplays and written both as a freelance and staff writer in television.

I ran into Robin and Bill while surfing the Internet on screenwriting. They were in cyber-space promoting their book, WRITING THE PICTURE. After brief introductions, they offered to buy me a drink. So, we had a couple of cyber-drinks and discussed the screenwriting business. I looked at their book and was immediately drawn to interviewing them on their vast knowledge of screenwriting. I took copious notes while we kept ourselves pumped with drinks.

Kenna: Give us an idea as to why you wrote Screenplay: Writing The Picture?
Robin: As working writers who are also teachers, Bill and I were frustrated by the many books out there that approached the process of writing from an "after the fact" standpoint. That is, they attempt to show how a script should be written by taking something finished and assuming that by critically dissecting it a writer can then figure out how to create something new. While this approach can be helpful--and we certainly use it to some extent--it doesn't really get at the core problems encountered by someone who is approaching the blank page, trying to get a handle on what and why and how he or she should be writing, particularly with an eye to how a screenplay is viewed in a real-world context by readers, producers, etc. There's far too much "if you write it, they will come" pie in the sky cheerleading, and far too little hardcore advice on how to make sure your script will not only be artistically successful, but survive in the marketplace.
Bill: We wrote SCREENPLAY: WRITING THE PICTURE because there are so many inadequate books on screenwriting out there. We wanted a book that concentrated on all techniques, not just one method of writing a screenplay. Our book covers just about anything you want to know about screenwriting.

Kenna: "Writing The Picture" covers the whole spectrum of screenwriting. What do you feel is the most valuable aspect in the book?
Robin: Probably the most valuable aspect of the book is that we go into much more specific detail than most in terms of how to create characters, dialogue, environment, and especially structure. The heart of our book is a six-chapter section devoted to how structure really works on a deep level, not a rather superficial, put-a-plot-point-on-this-page approach. Most books out there push a specific formula to be imposed on the screenplay, and after years of both writing and teaching, Bill and I came to realize that in fact no formula--even the hallowed three act structure--applies to every screenplay, or even to most of them. These are straitjacketed approaches to a fluid, organic process, and so we wanted to come up with something that would free the writer to create in new and inventive ways. But we also included a very detailed description of the various familiar formulas, both because it's important to know the terminology and expectations of producers who are familiar with those formulas, and because our philosophy is that whatever gets the job done is the right approach.
Bill: I think your question is the answer. SCREENPLAY: WRITING THE PICTURE is a graduate level college textbook on screenwriting. It covers the whole spectrum. That is the book's most valuable aspect.

Kenna: In your book, you say architects, writers, advertising graphic artists have been done to death. What about cops, doctors, lawyers -- haven't they been beaten to death, too. If not, why do they stand the test of time? Robin: The distinction is that movies about cops, doctors or lawyers are actually about cops, doctors or lawyers--that is to say, the story specifically depends, both in terms of plot and theme, upon the character having that profession. When you see an architect, writer or graphic artist in a movie, that character's profession is usually unrelated to the story on either level; it's simply a convenient and cliched way to indicate that the character is intelligent and creative, and to give them a visually lively workplace. But the character could equally be a chef, a bond trader, a merchant, or anything else without it having any material effect on the theme or the story. This is just lazy writing. The character's profession should be thematically essential to his or her role, and should have some impact on what the story is about.

Kenna: In your book, you mention "Don't do any work for anyone else for free." What are the dangers of writing for free?
Robin: There are several dangers. First and foremost, you risk wasting months of your life on projects that aren't going to happen. Hollywood is full of hustlers, people trying to be producers, and very few of them will succeed. But all of them are happy to waste your time if there's no downside, no cost to them. It's generally true that if someone is for real in this business, and if they value your work, they will both have the money and be willing to spend it to acquire your work or services. If they're not willing to pay you, then you know that either they're not really in a position to get something made, or they don't really consider your work worth the money, in which case they're not going to put much of their time or capital into seeing it made into a film. Every would-be producer wants to have a stockpile of possible projects on hand in case an opportunity arises, but it's almost always a waste of your time as a writer to simply give yours to them for nothing.
The second danger is that if you write something for someone else based on their story idea, they and not you control the rights, so you can't do anything with the project once they've run out of contacts unless you keep them attached, which usually dooms a project--real producers don't want to have to pay for "extra baggage."
The third and most insidious danger is that, after working for months for nothing and being let down a time or two, you can lose your confidence or become cynical, and simply give up. Value your own work, and value your time, or eventually you'll end up feeling both are worthless.

Kenna: What is it you like about Hollywood?
Robin: It's an incredibly exciting place. Some of the best and most creative minds of our time are working in movies--as well as some of the worst and most predatory--but it's always a pressure-cooker of new ideas and continually evolving possibilities. Besides which, it's a very social environment, which can be a relief from the lonely life of the writer.
Bill: Energy. Noise. Too many people. I spend most of my time in quiet Wyoming now, so when Im in L.A. I love every moment of it. I can take just so much clean air, open spaces and courteous people. Once in a while, I need to be in a place where I have to remember to lock my door.

Kenna: Do you feel that anyone can write a great script and sell it if he/she has a complete commitment to do so -- bar none?
Robin: No. In spite of the fact that it sometimes seems like everyone is trying to be a screenwriter, some people just aren't good at it, and frankly can't be taught, any more than anyone can be taught to be a great painter or athlete or doctor. There's a big difference, to use another example, between being able to understand a joke and being able, not only to tell one entertainingly, but also to invent one that no one's told before. It takes a certain blend of intelligence, talent and story sense, as well as complete commitment. A very successful professional who had decided he wanted to change careers once approached me and asked my advice on a script he'd written, on which he'd spent a great deal of time, energy and research. Unfortunately, it failed on almost every level: character, conflict, theme, and story. I spent a fair amount of time trying to point out the problems and possible solutions, but he didn't get it. His writerly instincts just weren't there.
Bill: No. It takes more than commitment. Its takes a great story, wonderful characters and talent. This book helps you create the great story and wonderful characters; the talent is up to you.

Kenna: Do you believe that there are very few really great scripts just waiting to be purchased by a production company? If so, how does one find a great script?
Robin: Well, no one knows what scripts are out there that haven't yet gotten representation or have not found their way into the system. But I would not say there are very few; there are probably lots of them. It's one of the myths of this business that if a script is terrific, eventually it will be bought and made. In fact, there are quite a few wonderful scripts that are well-known in the industry that have been floating around and never been bought or made, and in fact movie and script magazines sometimes do articles about the greatest scripts never made into movies. It takes more than just a great script--the time has to be right, the right actor or director or producer has to be interested, and so forth, before any script has a chance of being bought or becoming a movie. That said, you have a much better chance of selling a terrific script than a so-so one. As to how to find a great script, that's just doing legwork: contacting agents and professors at screenwriting programs, looking at who has won screenplay competitions and generally just asking around.

Kenna: What is your writing day like?
Robin: Generally I procrastinate for an hour or so after breakfast, reading the paper or catching up on correspondence. Then I take a long walk, get my thoughts together and come back to my desk. Then I write for about an hour before lunch, then eat, do a workout, then come back and write for about another three hours before my wife and kids come home. Then I'll usually put in another hour or so before bed, if I'm not teaching that night. But to be honest, it doesn't matter. Every writer has a different routine. As long as they spend some time each day writing, that's the right routine for them.
Bill: I start early. I get up between 3:30 AM and 5:00 AM and I write until around 8:30 or so. Then I take my ugly dog for a walk in a big field near my house and think about what Im going to write tomorrow. Sometimes I have afternoon writing sessions but nothing tops my creativity at 4 in the morning.

Kenna: How has being a writer helped you produce such an independent feature as Shark in the Bottle?
Robin: I was deeply involved in refining the screenplay--working with the writer, not excluding him--in order to bring it in line with the budget and schedule we had available. Being a writer, I could suggest options on how to condense or cut or modify certain scenes or sequences without sacrificing story or theme, so that what was potential could be become actual. And because I'm a writer, and didn't try to take the project away from the original screenwriter, he knew he could trust my judgements or at least that we could figure out a way to solve any problems to our mutual satisfaction.

Kenna: You write for all media, which one do you prefer?
Robin: Movies, without question. They're the big canvases, the cave of dreams where the audience is completely and totally immersed in your story, not distracted by commercials or anything else.

Kenna: Do you think it is wise for a screenwriter to branch off into other fields of writing?
Robin: It depends on the writer. It's not really a matter of wisdom, but of inclination, perhaps sometimes of psychic survival. If a writer is feeling beaten up by the pressure of trying to make it as a screenwriter, or has a great idea that really isn't suited to the screen, sometimes taking a break to write a novel or play--something over which they have more artistic control from beginning to end--can be a wonderful thing.

Kenna: What is your batting average on pitching scripts?
Robin: It depends on what you consider a hit or a strike. I've sold one feature script directly based on a pitch, and one TV movie was put into development, but has yet to be made. But pitching is about more than just the particular project you're in there to sell. For instance, I had a pitch meeting with a certain producer who liked a script of mine, but we didn't connect on anything in particular at the time. More than a year later, he learned that another producer he knew was looking for a screenwriter to adapt a novel and recommended me, and I was hired for that job. So there's not a one to one correlation. But I'd say that I probably do about thirty pitches for every one that amounts to my getting or selling some work. That may sound low by baseball standards, but in the film world it's actually not a bad average.
Bill: I worked in television far more than screenwriting. In television, pitching is just about the only way to get a job. So my batting average was pretty good. I mean it worked. Movie pitching is one tough nut to crack. Far more is at stake.

Kenna: How has your education influenced your writing career?
Robin: Of course, Every writer needs to read, to learn and have experiences upon which to draw. I've studied art history, the classics, English and world literature and art. I've studied in England, Italy and other places around the world. The world and the course of human experience is so much richer than just what's happening in America today, and my education has helped me to find or think up stories that otherwise would never have occurred to me. And education isn't just what you get in college. I've worked as a sculptor, a cook in a homeless shelter and a furniture mover. It sounds obvious, but with the film-school-straight-into-the-industry mentality, it's often forgotten that the best writers have something to write about.
Bill: I learned a lot of technique in school. I agree with Robin, having something to write about is far more important. UCLA film school accepts people with life experience because nothing is more boring than a 23-year-old who is a hell of a writer but has no interesting stories to tell.

Kenna: Why is having an agent important if the screenwriter is doing all the hustling herself?
Robin: A good agent hustles for you, too, but you've got to have the goods for him or her to sell. But an agent also gives you legitimacy within the industry--it's assumed that if you don't have one, you're not ready for prime time--and an agent protects and advises you by looking out for your interests. They know who's looking for what at the studios, they have contacts you don't, and they know the business aspects, which so few writers bother to learn. Also, it can be excruciatingly uncomfortable to negotiate the selling of your scripts or your services. The agent is there to do that dirty work, to be the "bad cop" if necessary, and they deserve some respect for doing it.
Bill: The screenwriter does all the networking, leg work and writing, but an agent is still the key. 99% of studios will not read your work without an agent. And a good, prestigious agent is even better. It's hard to be taken seriously in Hollywood without an agent.

Kenna: How can a fledging screenwriter know when his script is ready to be submitted to an agent or producer?
Robin: There's no one surefire way, which is why we've devoted an entire chapter to giving the writer an array of methods to help make the script as good as possible before it's sent out. The one thing to remember is that a first draft is almost never ready to be submitted. Too many beginning writers ruin their chances with a script because it's burning their hands and they send it out prematurely. It's always better to wait, get some perspective and informed advice, and rewrite it, often more than once, and then give it a shot.
Bill: Have a reading. Get friends together and read the script out loud to each other. That will often tell if it works or not. If people get bored, even for one page, it's not ready.

Kenna: How do you think the Internet will influence film, screenwriting and the future of film distribution?
Robin: It's already doing so. Just look at "The Blair Witch Project," which largely by-passed traditional promotion methods by appealing directly to the online community. In my humble opinion, when I went to see it, I thought it was one of the better student-level films I'd seen certainly nothing to justify the phenomenon it became. But I think a big part of its appeal, which may happen again, is that people sitting at home at their computers felt they were part of the release, that somehow the film was more genuine, that it more intimately belonged to them. The big, impersonal studios weren't foisting it on them. As for screenwriting, I'm afraid that the net will encourage too many writers desperate to have their work seen to broadcast it out there, risking having it stolen or prematurely exposed. Putting a movie together is a daunting and delicate operation. Throwing your script at the world, so to speak, I think, is probably a mistake, because there's no way to build buzz, momentum or craft a package of director and actors around it with any discretion or skill.
Bill: As Robin pointed out, the Internet is already affecting film distribution. When it comes to screenwriting, I cant say its had much of an effect. There are several sites where you can post your screenplays, but I wouldnt do it. You never know who is looking at, or stealing your work. When it comes to selling a screenplay the Internet is no help. It can provide you with agent and production company names and addresses but that's about it. Hollywood still operates the old-fashioned way agents messengering scripts to producers.

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