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UCLA screenwriting professor Judy Burns

(This was one of our first interviews we posted)

Interview with Judy Burns

by Christopher Wehner


Judy Burns, M.A., C.Phil., Writer/Producer/Story Consultant. Her extensive credits include "Star Trek", "MacGyver","T. J. Hooker", "Magnum P.I.", "Cagney& Lacey", and "Stingray", among others. She has written three pilots, including ABC's "San Francisco Blues", and she is currently working on a pilot with Christi Productions.

For more information on UCLA's faculty [ click here ]
For more information on UCLA's curriculum [ click here ]

I spoke with Judy several times over the phone and we both agreed that it would be best if we meet after her Thursday evening class. Judy offers a great opportunity for writers not able to participate on campus. To take a class from Judy all you need is a computer and access to the internet. Writers from across the country can participate in one of the most prestigious screenwriting programs in the world.

Judy allowed me to sit in on her class. It's a private chat room on the internet that can only be accessed by its students and teacher. When class was over we started the interview.

Online host (Christopher Wehner)- Online

Online guest (Judy Burns)- Online

Wehner- Judy give us a little on your background?

Burns- I have been a writer, story editor, staff writer, producer, and executive producer in Hollywood.

Wehner- How long?

Burns- I began in 1968.

Wehner-That's great!

Burns- I stopped actively working in studios in 1988...after 20 years. I broke in when I was 20. I went back to the University, and now I'm working on my Ph.D. And I only write on spec.

Wehner- OK, first question. Character driven and Plot driven scripts, what's the best vehicle for story telling?

Burns- Ah, Aristotle says Plot is most critical. Lajos Egri works at convincing us it is character. I think it's impossible to do a really good film without a balance of both. But if we don't understand character, plot will be kind of dry.

Wehner- A well known producer told me in an interview that a writer's "voice" is critical, is he right?

Burns- A writer without a voice might as well be without a pen

Wehner- Ah yes, he said something very similar.

Burns- Voice is what conveys a sense of purpose and individuality. It puts the slant, if you will, on the piece that we can't get if the voice is missing.

Wehner- Should writers concern themselves with what an audience might want, or with what the writer far as following our voice?

Burns- A good writer must think of both...if he /she wants to make a living. Or if he or she wants to make an impact on the world. If we want to scream at the top of our lungs to empty spaces, then that's okay too.

Wehner- What's the most important element to be addressed in the first act?

Burns- To establish the problem and then to establish the stakes to the hero if he or she doesn't tackle the problem.

Wehner- Should the solution be apparent?

Burns- If the solution is obvious, then it must not be obvious to the hero. We can have an open story where the audience can see what the hero must do, but if the hero understands all the steps, we have very little chance of the hero mis-stepping, and our tension goes out the window.

Wehner- The successful merger of the two is what makes great story telling. Like the movie THE USUAL SUSPECTS, it combines great characters with a plot that drives the story!

Burns- What makes story telling really great is having a great character with a dilemma so strong that we are locked into his or her struggle. We must IDENTIFY with that character and with the problem. If we can identify, and if the story strikes enough emotional chords as well as tantalizes us intellectually, then it might be considered great!

Wehner- Yes, the connection, writers must make it.

Burns- Indeed.

Wehner-One character on the big screen lately that I really liked was Ed Harris' character in THE ROCK General Hummel.

Burns- Yes, it's not a typical situation.

Wehner-It's too easy for writers today to dismiss the villain as being simply "crazy", and not taking the time to explain the motive for what he/she does!

Burns- In THE ROCK we are clearly presented with a man who has a good reason for demanding justice from the government, but the method he uses to make his demands puts him over into the category of not just a worthy opponent...but deadly opponent. Still, when faced with the problem of whether to kill the whole populace of San Francisco or not? He opts for not. He was a hero made of clay...or a villain made of clay.

Wehner- I love stories that take a little time telling us who this villain is...make us feel repugnance towards the antagonist, it helps the story.

Burns- You must know what makes your people tick. You might not totally understand why...but you must know elements.

Wehner- Mistakes writers often make in presenting these characters?

Burns- Clues are sometimes left out of bad films, that is one of the mistakes. They make a bad guy without giving us the driving needs and motivations that we take for granted in our hero. Usually new writers cannot control the plot. They haven't learned to tie the sequences into longer structures... like acts. Often the problem is even more basic. The new writer can't control the scene...and doesn't know how to make the most of the scene that is being written.

Wehner- That's very important. Are too many "high concept" searches by studios wrecking how screenwriters approach their work?

Burns- No. What wrecks good screenwriting is bad story editing. The people who buy don't understand film that well themselves often.

Wehner- How about a word on one major problem with beginner screenwriters, and that's bad grammar.

Burns- Grammar is extremely important. The folks who read the scripts are smart. They're sometimes smarter than the guys who have the power to buy. But if you read a script that is badly punctuated... filled with "their" for "there" and other problems, you begin to doubt the credibility of the writer. If the writer doesn't know good format, then the writer hasn't done the homework and they doubt the writer further.

Wehner- At the very least if the story is good, but the writing is technically poor that writer has no chance of being around for any rewrites after the script is purchased. You worked on "Mission Impossible"?

Burns- Yes, I was on staff on Mission Impossible for about nine months.

Wehner- Those stories were some of the most complicated ones!

Burns- Yes, but they are very plot oriented...and must be built backwards.

Wehner- Backwards?

Burns- You must know the result you want before you begin to build the steps to get there. If we want a man to believe he has lived before World War II Germany in order to get him to do something, then we need to know that then figure out how to get him to this point.

Wehner- Give us the answer, and then figure the how?

Burns- Yes you got it. It is what made me the story editor I became. I learned from Bruce Geller (the creator of Mission Impossible) how to plot backwards.

Wehner- What genre of writing to you most like?

Burns- Well, I've written action/adventure most of my life. So I guess that is one of my loves. Now I'm more into fantasy and into biography and historical.

Wehner- Why only spec writing now?

Burns- I haven't much desire to go out into the market as a freelance TV person these days. It's a hard life...and there are so many stories that I wanted to tell when I was on staff that I had no time for. Now I write those. If I sell great...if not great. There is no market for freelance.

Wehner- You're doing what you love?

Burns- Yes, I'm finally doing what I want for love of the craft. Not for the money.

Wehner- What advice would you give the struggling writer?

Burns- Don't give up!

Wehner- Easier said than done!

Burns- Success comes to those who fight for it. I know, but it doesn't come to those who quit. you must be in the game to be able to be recognized.

Wehner- Have you ever had to tell a student that they just don't have what it takes to be a screenwriter?

Burns- I have told students that they need to learn more before they'll really be able to succeed. I've sent them back for grammar, for lessons in life.

Wehner- But not everyone can make it, if our goal is to sell, sell, sell!

Burns- It takes a love of story telling and the ability to see those stories in visual and internal terms. You need to be able to see the drama. You need to be able to write the conflict. All these things must be learned or understood somehow.

Wehner- Only great stories sell, not just good, true statement?

Burns- Well, there are a lot of questionable material out how can I say that only great stories sell. There's a lot of Nepotism in the world. And friends have friends.

Wehner- Is luck or timing involved with selling?

Burns- Ah, yes. You don't know my story do you?

Wehner- No, please tell.

Burns- I wanted to go to dig bones. I put a note on Lewis Leakey's pocket..."take me to Africa." Lewis met me and told me he'd take care of me...if I could get to Nairobi. He was looking for Diane Fossey (The Gorilla Girl) and thought I could do the job. I didn't want that job, but I wanted to go. I was poor I couldn't find the $2500.00 needed to go, so I began to look for a way to make it. I thought, well perhaps I can write something for the show I like Star Trek. I called and asked how much I could earn. They said $2500.00. Well, a voice from heaven...So I began to study the show and then I happened to be in LA dating some bones...I was from UC Irvine at the time...about sixty miles away from LA. It rained, I decided to go to Paramount just to kill time. I called in and said I needed some samples. The Secretary took pity and gave me two and a bible. I happened to be teaching Buddy Ebson's kids Algebra. I asked Buddy if he knew an agent. He didn't but he knew a writer. The writer had written Davy Crockett. He read material (nice guy) and called his agent and said you're a fool if you don't take this girl on. I got an agent. Then I sent in the script and it disappeared...never to surface again. So I took a money so the teacher let me in for free. This teacher happened to work for Freddy Freiburger long ago. When Star Trek changed staffs, he called to find out if Freddy happened to see my script. Freddy looked at it, and it was bought the next day...luck...then I wrote a Mission Impossible it was called "Resurrection". It was sent in and the story editor read it because he had just finished a show called "Doomsday". That read got me the staff job.

Wehner- Fate.

Burns- ...some kind of fate. Yes, I think it's pretty inspirational, others can get in..I did.

Wehner- Well, it's getting late but one last question, Agents? Is a bigger company like William & Morris always better?

Burns- No, big pond...little fish. A smaller company, or single agent, will work harder for you. Love your agent and make her love you...and write well!

Wehner- Thanks Judy.

Burns- Thank you.

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