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